aTypical Joe: a gay New Yorker living in the rural South
Thursday, January 31, 2008
Veep speculation. And mine.
On The Chris Matthews Show last weekend, the “Big Question” asked of panelists to close the show was, “Can Hillary and Barack ever burry the hatchet and be on the same ticket.”
The assumption behind the answers put Obama in the second spot. I guess the world knows there’s no way Hillary will be VP. This is her last shot at President. She was good in the Senate; she likes the Senate; she’ll go back to the Senate.
The declarative answer to Matthews’ question from John Heilemann, whose New York Magazine piece on the two Democratic front-runners, The Test, I quoted earlier in the week:
He would say yes. He wants to be president of the United States and the best way to be president is to be the vice president. And it will also reduce all of the race questions. I mean nothing would make him more palatable to white Americans than watching him serve by her side for 8 years in the White House.
I said to a friend this week that I’m expecting Barack is our next president. And John Edwards VP. I dont know why I haven’t seen that said before. I expect now that he’s made his honorable exit we’ll here more of it.
Another way for Obama to reduce the race question is to put a Southern white male on the ticket. (And one who appeals to moderate-to-conservative white men to boot!)
Hillary has been through rough stuff before. She has shown that she can come back from it. If she looses she’ll come back from this. I don’t accept that she’ll stop at nothing and fight dirty. She’s too smart.
Anyway, dirty is in the eye of the beholder. I see misogyny and tired old anti-Clintonism in that assessment. I will be interested to read the analysis looking back a year and more from now. There’s a difference between tough and dirty; the only way to see that difference is from some distance.
For now I’m thinking the bruising South Carolina contest has taught her something. And so, if she doesn’t win a declarative victory on Super Tuesday, I think she gets out. How will be tricky. As a woman, the whole emphasis had to be on demonstrating strength. How to get out but not wimp out? She’s trained long and hard for this. It will be difficult to cool down and get out. She’ll do it if she must.
My support for Hillary is growing stronger. I’ll vote for her next week, knowing that Obamamania is real. And contagious. And I won’t be able to brag that I was one of those who made it real. If I were younger there’s no doubt I’d be on that boat. My support for Hillary is rooted in what I see as my pragmatic realism. Not nearly so glitzy as hope.
I tell the students that it’s a tough world and they’re taking the reigns and will have the opportunity to change it. That from great challenges come great advances. That I have great faith that they will do great things.
I am among those who like the notion of 16 years of Democratic victories; 8 years of a woman president, then 8 of an African American. If Obama comes first, so be it. I and, I have no doubt, Hillary, too, will fervently support him.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Colbert, Murrow and Me
Then last week I trotted out the Murrow comparison again, this time for Stephen Colbert. Swept up in his episode aiming to end the WGA writers strike via a civil rights history lesson, I said he “he is nothing less than the modern embodiment of Edward R. Murrow.”
Over the top?
Maybe. That’s what bloggers do. But I decided to check it out with Robert Thompson, a professor of Television and Popular Culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
He was generous in his reply:
I think there a lot of good comparisons to be made. I certainly think it is a provocative statement to make and one that holds a lot of truth to it. For one thing I think people forget that when Murrow was doing his best work and the work he is most remembered for, he was doing straight-out advocacy journalism. He was making really no effort to be objective. That is, the documentary in which he took on McCarthy was not fair, not balanced. He went after that subject â€“ It wasn’t that he lied, it wasn’t that those clips that he showed or those tapes that he played or newspapers that he held were made up. It was all factual information. But the way that was produced, the way it was narrated, the way it was edited, was in fact a full frontal attack on something that Murrow and many other people then and since felt that needed to be attacked. And he did it. [...]
That’s something that so much of American television journalism has in many ways abandoned. Even Walter Cronkite did his famous editorial against the Viet Nam war back in 1968. It’s very unlikely we would ever see that being done by any of the big anchors today. And in that fear, that change of news culture, we’ve taken that away from so many of the legit news people and the comedy people can move in and do it. And Colbert is doing just that. So in that sense, I agree. There is this comparison with Murrow and Colbert.
However, we have to be careful that we don’t take it too far because Murrow was still working within a set of professional standard that made up broadcast journalism in its heyday. When it was covering the cold war and civil rights, the two great stories of the last half of 20th century. And it was operating according to those journalistic principles. Colbert doesn’t have to do that. It’s a comedy show and while not having to obey those things make him able to do stuff that journalists can’t, we still have to remember that this is in fact a good comedy, a politically relevant one, but still a comedy show. For example, his Januray 22 bit on the hospital strike, you really have to kind of figure it out. It is really difficult to parse what is actually going on here. Unusually, for that date, Colbert himself narrates it. Not the other people who often do that kind of story on The Daily Show, for example. So, Colbert narrates it himself. And we know that Stephen Colbert is narrating in, he’s always on that show in his character “Stephen Colbert” in quotation marks. This O’Reilly-esque type he plays that we clearly know he’s not his own real person. But at the same time, part of the story includes his own personal history. His up-bringing in South Carolina, what his father did, and all of this kind of thing. So he’s really kind of floating around on both side of this line of, Stephen Colbert, the real person. Stephen Colbert, the character he plays. And at the same time he’s commenting on the WGA strike which he currently is in some ways persona non grata about because he put his show back on the air. But in some other eyes he is the hero because he is making that cause, using his pulpit for that cause, and the whole thing is really kind of fuzzy because these lines keep being crossed.
As opposed to Edward R. Murrow who came out and said this is Edward R. Murrow, CBS News, and he spoke in that voice, under that authority, and presented a bunch of documentary evidence. Comedy is not able to speak with that kind of authority. But then, it also doesn’t have to obey its rules, which allows it to play fast and loose. And it allows it, as any comic fool can rush in, where the angels of journalists and historians fear to tread. And as we know if we’ve ever watched any Shakespearean tragedy, fools can often be the wisest people on the stage.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Do you really think they could be conducting on-air seminars?
A reader responds to Robert Thompson’s notion of a missed opportunity to educate on the late night comedy shows:
Clearly this matter concerns you. Let me tell you a little about myself so that you will better understand my point of view.
If I’m preaching to the converted, forgive me, I don’t know what your background is. I’ve worked in the theatre in the UK and the US for more than 40 years. One of my plays was produced on Broadway quite recently and is now being produced around the country and abroad. I am a member of AEA, SAG (no, I didn’t vote, I loathe award shows and find them demeaning - unless, of course, I’m involved), AFTRA and the Dramatists’ Guild. I have been involved in strikes and I do not cross picket lines. Were I invited, I would not appear on a program whose writers are striking. It’s that simple. Without my unions I wouldn’t have health insurance or a pension, I would be working under worse conditions for much less money. I pay Equity 2% of everything I earn under its aegis and it’s worth every penny. I haven’t done much TV here but I did quite a bit in Britain.
Messrs Colbert and Stewart are under contract to Viacom. They must fulfill their contracts or face huge lawsuits. By doing so they are inevitably undermining the position of their staff writers. Since they themselves are members of the Guild it’s a particularly difficult position for them to be in and I’m sympathetic to their plight. I thought they both found graceful ways to re-introduce themselves without their writers: they were both funny and informative. I, however, choose not to watch till the strike is over.
Do you really think that Viacom and the producers of The Daily Show would allow Stewart to be conducting on-air seminars about the virtue of the writers’ strike? And do you think his audience would put up with it? They want to laugh at Dubya or Billary. Viacom wants to sell advertising: that’s why these shows exist.
Anyone can watch if they like. My only point in communicating with you was to suggest that it might not be a good idea to link to this material which has been written by scab labor. Would you stay in a hotel if the maids were on strike? I wouldn’t.
I wouldn’t. And I won’t going forward.
More on THE difference between Hillary Clinton & Barack Obama
This week John Heilemann writing in New York Magazine on The Test says much the same thing, but differently:
Not surprisingly, Hillary believes that her battle-testedness confers on her a clear advantage. “The Republicans aren’t going to give up the White House without a fight,” she says. “And what has worked for them is going after whoever our nominee isâ€”going after, in fact, where the nominee thinks he or she is strong, going after the nominee in a way that sort of turns that person into an alien to big parts of America, right? So is there any doubt in anybody’s mind that will happen to our nominee? And is there any doubt that I have been through this, and much of what they have thrown at me for fifteen, sixteen years has already been discredited?”
Clinton’s argument has real force. But if she’s correct that the brutally polarized partisan dynamics of Washington are ineradicable, isn’t the logical conclusion that a Clinton restoration would mean four (or eight) more years of the Clinton wars-a perpetual 1998? The thought of it produced a dull throbbing in my temples, and I told her so. “I can understand the feeling,” she said with a laugh. “But, in some ways, psychologically and emotionally, that might be less painful and more short-lived than it would be with someone who’s never been through it. Because it’ll happen. I don’t think I’m saying anything negative, I’m just stating a fact: It will happen.”
What, dear reader, is your reaction when you hear talk like that? Do you find yourself vigorously nodding your head-or cradling it in your hands? The battle between Hillary and Barack has produced plenty of heat, with more to come, no doubt. But it has also generated considerable light, clarifying for many of us that the choice we’ll be making on February 5 isn’t mainly between two sets of policies or even two individuals. It’s between two different ways of looking at the world.
If you find yourself drawn to the Clinton candidacy, you likely believe that politics is politics, that partisanship isn’t transmutable, that Republicans are for the most part irredeemable. You suspect that talk of transcendence amounts to humming “Kumbaya” past the graveyard. You believe that progress comes only with a fight, and that Clinton is better equipped than Obama (or maybe anyone) to succeed in the poisonous, fractious environment that Washington is now and ever shall be. You ponder the image of Bill as First Laddie and find yourself smiling, not sighing or shrieking.
If you find yourself swept up in Obamamania, on the other hand, you regard this assessment as sad, defeatist, as a kind of capitulation. You’re perfectly aware that politics is often a dirty business. But you believe it could be a bit cleaner, a bit nobler, a bit more sustaining. You think that paradigm shifts can happen, that the system can be rebooted. Most of all, an attraction to Obama indicates you are, on some level, a romantic. You never had your JFK, your MLK, and you desperately crave one: What you want is to fall in love.
A vote for Clinton, in other words, is a wager rooted in hard-eyed realism. Her upside may be limited, but so is her downside, because although the ceiling on her putative presidency might be low, the floor beneath it is fairly high. A vote for Obama, as the Big Dog said, is indeed a role of the dice. The risks of his hypothetical presidency are higher, but the potential payoff is greater: He could be the next Jack Kennedy-or the next Jimmy Carter. The gamble here entails both the thrill and the terror of letting yourself dream again.
I’ll comment later. SEE ALSO: Veep speculation. And mine.
Thompson on Colbert & the WGA: a missed opportunity to educate
Robert Thompson is a professor of Television and Popular Culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. Last week, after a particularly strong Colbert Report that tackled race, civil rights and the WGA strike, I quoted him in a gushing post I wrote on Colbert.
Thompson says the late night comics, not bound by journalistic standards, are free to play fast and loose with the facts. “Any comic fool can rush in, where the angels of journalists and historians fear to tread,ï¿½? he told me on Friday. “And as we know if we’ve ever watched any Shakespearean tragedy, fools can often be the wisest people on the stage.ï¿½?
I wanted to know if Thompson shared my view that Colbert had approached the writers’ strike “in a stunningly effective way.ï¿½? That the Colbert episode “demands to be seen.ï¿½? Thompson saw it differently.
“In many ways,ï¿½? he said, “instead of becoming more informed about the strike by running late night comedy I think sometimes we can actually become more confused because they themselves make the issue confusing because they seem to be supporting it at the same time they’re back on the air.ï¿½?
Thompson sees a missed opportunity:
The comics, while they’re showing solidarity for the writers while they go on the air â€“ even though by going on the air the solidarity has to some extent been betrayed â€“ I think they are constantly trying to justify why they’re going back on the airâ€¦ Ok, first of all the Leno argument, because other people are put out of work. That’s not such a great argument because that’s what happens in a strike. The second argument, I think, is that if we can keep the writers’ goal in front of the public then we are justifying going back on the air because we’re going to be the voice of the writer. Here’s a place that I think late night comedy is not succeeding. And as interesting and as complex, and even as funny as that Colbert thing was about the hospital strike, it certainly didn’t clarify for me anything about the details of the writers’ strike; where it’s going, how it’s changed, what’s going to happen, what was the deal with the directors and why don’t the writers’ like that kind of deal? And all those kinds of things remained no more clear at the end of that show.
There is a lot of obligatory support being tossed about for the writers. But there isn’t any sense on these shows, I think, that they’re actually educating us any better then the other places that seem to be failing in educating us about it. And they could do that. For example, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert could have, say, every Wednesday a 5-minute conversation about the strike. And they could invite writers to come on and say, “What exactly do you feel? Where is this now? What do you want? What is this all about?ï¿½? And then you could invite the producers. Now, of course, in the first weeks the producers wouldn’t come because, for one thing, they seem to be less on the moral high-ground here. And for another, comedy writers are going to be funnier than they are and they’re going to feel that they are going to be a visitor on the home team’s field and that they’re not going to look good. However, if every week the writers got up and you really ask them specific questions about what was going on and what they thought, eventually the producers would want to get their two cents in and you could actually turn the public education about this strike â€“ as well as the potential ad-hoc negotiations â€“ into the very three-ring circus of a late night comedy segment. I haven’t seen any of that kind of thing done yet.
So are the comics just making excuses?
I think we’re seeing the complexity. They always, I mean, the late night comedians saying how much we need the writers has become like someone who’s questioning the war saying, “We support the troops.ï¿½? I mean there’s almost that obligatory support the troops that you’ve got to say before any conversation can continue. And the same is true in their support of the writers and their necessity and how important they are and all the rest. And that’s being done constantly by either coming right out and saying it, or making these, getting into a situation and then getting all weepy because, you know, “be nice to me I’ve got no writersï¿½? kind of thing. The self-deprecation that comes, that “don’t blame me that this is bad, it’s the writer that are all the brains.ï¿½?
If the Colbert episode failed at educating it’s viewers, how did it fare on emotion?
Well, I think one of the things that segment did best on, strangely enough, there are an awful lot of people who are watching The Colbert Report every night who had never heard the name Ralph Abernathy. Who don’t remember any of those periods of Civil Rights. And if nothing else, it was a little mini documentary about...an important labor/civil rights event in history that I think otherwise most people would have had no idea aboutâ€¦ it’s almost like Trojan Horse education. They sneak these little history lessons into the Trojan Horse of another Stephen Colbert show. You know, a goofy sort of a thing. And I think that’s really useful. A lot of the audience of that show learned something there, accidentally, that had actually nothing to do with the writers strike, very little to do with Steve Colbert and even though he framed it in, it’s all about me, in fact it ended up being about a lot other stuff as well. I mean I think if you can give someone a two minute little glimpse of some of those activities that went on in that period, especially to people who have no idea about, that’s a good thing.
SEE ALSO: Colbert, Murrow, & me.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
More praise for Stephen
I was afraid that maybe I went over the top comparing Stephen Colbert to Edward R. Murrow, but I’m happy to see that I am far from alone in healing praise on last night’s show.
In last night’s episode of the Report, Stephen staged one of the most touching displays of love to the picketing writers that I have seen since the start of the strike.
Before introducing the night’s guest, Ambassador Andrew Young, the last living member of Dr. Martin Luther King’s inner circle, Stephen rolled a video celebrating Young’s efforts in a certain strike in 1969. In Stephen’s hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, hundreds of black hospital workers went on strike, demanding fair pay, equal to their whiter counterparts. Young played a huge role in leading the community to support the workers. However, when he attempted to have some private negotiations with the hospital, the only administrator that was willing to speak with Young was a man named Dr. James Colbert, Stephen’s father.
A good portion of the interview with Young was spent discussing Dr. Colbert’s influence in the strike. I was really touched by the way Stephen was listening to the stories. For anyone that doesn’t know, Stephen lost his father and two of his brothers in a plane crash when he was only ten years old, and I think maybe that’s what made it so touching to me. Young also went on to say that he was Stephen’s destiny and told him that he’s the one that will end the writers’ strike, just the way his father helped to end the hospital workers’ strike. It was really an incredible moment that could have been topped only by a rousing rendition of “Let My People Go”, lead by Stephen and backed by Andrew Young, Malcom Gladwell (the night’s other guest), and the Harlem Gospel Choir.
Stephen Colbert is a great entertainer, but the reason he has resonated so strongly with audiences particularly during this administration is because he has a core of earnestness that deeply reflects a strong moral sense and a desire to educate, illuminate, and do good works. If you think I’m being overblown, all you need to do is watch last night’s episode of The Colbert Report, which was uniquely inspiring, edifying and touching - all while still managing to be completely hilarious. [...]
In a clip that the WGA should blast to every studio, network and media organization across the country (which we have below, of course), Young said the current striking writers weren’t a whole lot different than the striking hospital workers in 1969, fighting to be paid the same wages as their white counterparts - in both cases, said Young, it was about a small amount, fair money for fair work, but more than that it was about respect. He called on Stephen to start the behind-the-scenes work to start settling the strike...just like his father. Even though Colbert is as jovial and joke-cracking as ever during this, it is hard not to respond to all of this - the historical and personal context, the moment of the meeting between Young and Colbert, the fact that Stephen was actually getting a mission from this giant of the civil rights movement and American history. Who turns down Obi Won Kenobe? Probably not Colbert, who has always had a thing for fantasy. Liken Young to Gandalf and it’s pretty much a done deal.
Jim Crow’s Last Stand: racism North & South
Matt Bai had a piece in the NYTimes Magazine Sunday taking issue with what has become the received wisdom on the South:
It has been in vogue throughout the Bush years for Democrats to assert that the South is unredeemable and politically unnecessary. I remember seeing Kerry speak at Dartmouth College in the days before the 2004 New Hampshire primary, when he flatly told the audience that a Democratic nominee could win the presidency without worrying about the South. (He went on to test the formula; it didn’t work out so well.) Two years later, Thomas F. Schaller, a political scientist and liberal blogger, won over a lot of his fellow progressives with an entire book devoted to the premise that Democrats should ignore the South and instead focus their finite resources on the growing and more diverse states in the West and Southwest. In “Whistling Past Dixie,” Schaller marshaled a pile of statistics to argue, essentially, that the region’s long legacy of prejudice left it hopelessly blind to the nobility of the Democratic cause.
Nobility of the Democratic cause. Kind of smug, no? I’ve argued before that they should get down here and do something, not follow Schaller’s advice and tactically write off one of their main constituencies, African Americans.
Another book I’m looking forward to is coming from Thomas J. Sugrue, Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. From the podcast of his lecture, Jim Crow`s Last Stand: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Suburban North, he discusses the book, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Unfinished Struggle for Racial Equality in the North, a history of civil rights in the united States from the Great Depression to the present.
Sugrue says that fifty years after Brown v Board of Ed, forty since the Voting Rights Act, and thirty since metropolitan school desegregation, we have to confront a paradox:
That paradox is that patterns of racial inequality in the United States remain deeply entrenched, especially in housing and education. And those patterns of racial inequality are most deeply entrenched not in the region of the country that has attracted most of our scholarly and media attention, the South, but instead up in the North.
Consider a few factsâ€¦ that point to this pattern of persistent racial inequality in the North. Today 23 of the 25 most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States are in the Northeast and the Midwest. Here are the top 10:
8. New York City
10. St. Louis
The states with the highest degree of educational segregation by race are also disproportionately in the Northeast and the Midwest.
Sugrue argues that our focus on race in the South comes at the great detriment of racial understanding in modern American.
According to Bai, this election isn’t playing out the way Schaller had strategized.
Other Democrats, like Mark Warner, the former Virginia governor, short-lived presidential hopeful and now Senate candidate, have argued that if the party aspires to build a real governing majority like the one it enjoyed for much of the 20th century, it will have to at least compete seriously in the South. (After all, recent history would suggest that while it is “possible” for Democrats to win without making any inroads in the South, it’s possible only in the same way that it’s possible to shoot 10 straight free throws with your eyes closed.) These Democrats insist that the party’s problem isn’t Southern voters but the way Northern and coastal Democrats tend to relate to them or don’t. In other words, if you condescend to Southerners or simply don’t show up, then it’s all but impossible to erase the legacy of mistrust left over from the era of desegregation.
This argument seems especially relevant now. The nationwide dismay over the Bush years may be opening a door for Democrats in Southern states. What’s more, as some of the sharper Democratic strategists have realized, reaching voters down South isn’t only about the South. Culturally and ideologically, there isn’t much that separates most Southern, independent white voters from those who live in exurban Ohio or in rural Missouri. (It was the native Southerner James Carville who famously observed that Pennsylvania was, for all practical purposes, just Alabama sandwiched in between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.) If Democrats want to win those perennial swing states by anything other than the tiniest of margins, then they will probably have to put forth the kind of candidate and argument that will also resonate in much of the South, whether they care about the region or not.
We’ve got real racial problems in America. Schaller-style pointing South does nothing to fix them.
Stephen Colbert to producers: LET MY PEOPLE GO
At around the time of Stephen Colbert’s infamous speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Robert Thompson, a professor of Television and Popular Culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and the director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, dubbed the practitioners of fake news The Fifth Estate:
I think what Colbert has proved is that Comedy has moved in as the Fifth Estate when the Fourth Estate had dropped the ball. The press, of course, as others have said, completely rolled over in the lead-up to the war and the only good commentators out there were all coming from the perspective of the support of the president - the Bill O’Reillys, the Rush Limbaughs and so forth and so on - and comedy moved into that vacuum ... if you continue to watch Comedy Central shows you get a sense that boy, you know, maybe this isn’t a bad place to be getting some of our news information.
Last night Colbert demonstrated how true that is. Proving he is nothing less than the modern embodiment of Edward R. Murrow, Colbert addressed both race and the writers’ strike in a stunningly effective way. The show demands to be seen. This being Comedy Central, it’s likely to be repeated throughout the day today. Watch it.
Colbert begins with an interview of Malcolm Gladwell discussing his important New Yorker article on what race doesn’t tell you about IQ.
In the article Gladwell convincingly refutes the arguments of the “I.Q. fundamentalistï¿½? that blacks have an innately lower IQ than whites. He discusses the article on his blog here, here and here and manages in the difficult format of a Colbert interview to get across the very complex point that IQ is rooted in modernity; we answer those IQ questions in context--a context more favorable to some than to others.
The interview isn’t funny. Colbert’s in character, poking at Gladwell throughout, but - as in the correspondents’ dinner - the laughs are really beside the point.
We come back from commercial to learn that it’s all about Stephen. In a remarkable piece of history tossed in the center of a comic fake news show, we learn about the 1969 hospital strike in Charleston, SC (watch especially for the white policemen beating the black women strikers):
So you see, Stephen’s father ended that strike by brokering a deal with Andrew Young.
Now Andrew Young has been the subject of intense criticism over some frank remarks he made last fall in favor of Hillary Clinton. The whole clip remains online here.
Andrew Young was Colbert’s guest last night. Together they reminisce about Colbert’s dad:
Stephen: Do you remember my father?
Andrew Young: I do. Very, very wellâ€¦ your father apologized. See, he was a southern gentleman from New York. That’s kind of unusual.
And all I aspire to be.
Young is an old man and not the most articulate. He has walked the walk, not just talked the talk. We have much to learn from his experience even if some of us today may disagree with the lessons he’s learned. To trash him as a jealous cranky old man for supporting Hillary is despicable.
(For more on the post-civil rights era fallacy, see Salim Muwakkil in In These Times.)
Back from commercial and it all comes together. In the earlier interview Colbert asked Young, “Were you guys fighting over internet residuals?ï¿½? Young answered, “it’s the same thing:ï¿½?
YOUNG: I am your destiny. See this strike was 100 days. And your father and I settled it. But the key to settling it was neither of us got credit. So you have to settle this strike.
COLBERT: And not get credit.
YOUNG: And not get credit.
COLBERT: I like credit for things.
YOUNG: Being humble is a difficult task.
COLBERT: I have trouble with strikers. If you don’t show up to work, then that’s like not playing in the gameâ€¦ how is striking the right thing to do?
YOUNG: Well, it’s not. You only strike when you can’t talk. And the right thing to do is to talkâ€¦ A Teamster union organizer told me strikes are never about money, they’re always about respect. And when people can sit down and respect one another and work a problem out, it’s settled. And that’s what your father and I didâ€¦
COLBERT: Nowâ€¦ this is the first strike I’ve ever been involved in. And the way that strikes go is that one side makes a proposal and the producers get up and leave and they don’t talk anymore.
Now Colbert closes the show with the power of song. He dedicates it to “everyone involved in the WGA strike, but especially my writers.ï¿½? I choked up as I watched Colbert on stage singing with Andrew Young, Malcolm Gladwell and the Harlem Gospel Choir, carrying on Martin Luther King’s fight for economic justice:
LATER: More praise for Stephen.
LATER STILL: I wanted to know if Dr. Thompson shared my view that Colbert had approached the writers’ strike “in a stunningly effective way” and that the Colbert episode “demands to be seen.” So I called him up. Thompson saw it differently. He called it a missed opportunity to educate.
THE difference between Hillary Clinton & Barack Obama
George Packer, writing in The New Yorker on The Choice, nails it:
The alternatives facing Democratic voters have been characterized variously as a choice between experience and change, between an insider and an outsider, and between two firsts-a woman and a black man. But perhaps the most important difference between these two politicians-whose policy views, after all, are almost indistinguishable-lies in their rival conceptions of the Presidency. Obama offers himself as a catalyst by which disenchanted Americans can overcome two decades of vicious partisanship, energize our democracy, and restore faith in government. Clinton presents politics as the art of the possible, with change coming incrementally through good governance, a skill that she has honed in her career as advocate, First Lady, and senator. This is the real meaning of the remark she made during one of the New Hampshire debates: “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do-the President before had not even tried-but it took a President to get it done.”
In the overheated atmosphere of a closely fought primary, this historically sound statement set off a chain reaction of accusations, declarations of offense, and media hysteria, and for a few days the Democratic Party seemed poised to descend into a self-destructive frenzy of identity politics. The Times editorial page scolded Clinton for playing racial politics and choosing a bizarre role model in Johnson; the columnist Bob Herbert accused her of taking “cheap shots” at King. But Clinton was simply expressing her belief that the Presidency is more about pushing difficult legislation through a fractious Congress than it is about transforming society. In the recent debate before the Nevada caucus, Obama, who confessed to being disorganized, said that the Presidency has little to do with running an efficient office: “It involves having a vision for where the country needs to go . . . and then being able to mobilize and inspire the American people to get behind that agenda for change.” In reply, Clinton likened the job of President to that of a “chief executive officer” who has “to be able to manage and run the bureaucracy.”
It’s also why I favor Hillary.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ll be happy if Obama wins. And to favor Hillary does not require that I oppose Barack.
I prefer that presidential powers be more limited to the bully pulpit and less the kind executive of executive authority Bush has wrangled from the congress, the courts and the country. But the model I will vote for is the Hillary model.
Nor does the fact that I do not oppose Obama mark my support for Hillary as soft. I support her even more because I firmly believe that if she loses she will continue in the Senate to work for and move change incrementally and through good governance.
That’s the kind of strength and commitment I admire.
Sunday, January 13, 2008
Battling hospital-acquired infections. With checklists
Two million patients get bacterial infections from health-care workers each year. Nearly 100,000 of them die as a result.
Dr. Richard Shannon, chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, believes these infections are preventable. He says medicine can learn from industry.
Shannon was interviewed on Fresh Air last week:
I spent time at Alcoa, where I learned the Alcoa business model as to how they went about identifying any unsafe condition that might pose a risk to a worker. And then Paul O’Neill exposed me to the Toyota production system model, where I went to Georgetown, Kentucky, and I watched them make automobiles. And Toyota is the world’s greatest manufacturer of automobiles because their processes are defect free. And I watched how they relentlessly pursued excellence by doing processes the same way every time. And that said to me, if we went back to hospitals and we took the same approach...we might be able to achieve similar sorts of very impressive results. [...]
I think that doctors and nurses are engaging in regular hand hygiene much more commonly. But are they doing it a hundred percent of the time? No. And what my point would be is they must do it a hundred percent of the time. In order to do that, we have to make that process simply a part of their work.
The interview with Shannon reminded me of a an outstanding New Yorker article from last December, THE CHECKLIST, If something so simple can transform intensive care, what else can it do? by Atul Gawande:
In 2001, though, a critical-care specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital named Peter Pronovost decided to give it a try. He didn’t attempt to make the checklist cover everything; he designed it to tackle just one problem, the one that nearly killed Anthony DeFilippo: line infections. On a sheet of plain paper, he plotted out the steps to take in order to avoid infections when putting a line in. Doctors are supposed to (1) wash their hands with soap, (2) clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic, (3) put sterile drapes over the entire patient, (4) wear a sterile mask, hat, gown, and gloves, and (5) put a sterile dressing over the catheter site once the line is in. Check, check, check, check, check. These steps are no-brainers; they have been known and taught for years. So it seemed silly to make a checklist just for them. Still, Pronovost asked the nurses in his I.C.U. to observe the doctors for a month as they put lines into patients, and record how often they completed each step. In more than a third of patients, they skipped at least one.
The next month, he and his team persuaded the hospital administration to authorize nurses to stop doctors if they saw them skipping a step on the checklist; nurses were also to ask them each day whether any lines ought to be removed, so as not to leave them in longer than necessary. This was revolutionaryâ€¦ The new rule made it clear: if doctors didn’t follow every step on the checklist, the nurses would have backup from the administration to intervene.
Pronovost and his colleagues monitored what happened for a year afterward. The results were so dramatic that they weren’t sure whether to believe them: the ten-day line-infection rate went from eleven per cent to zeroâ€¦ They calculated that, in this one hospital, the checklist had prevented forty-three infections and eight deaths, and saved two million dollars in costs. [...]
The checklists provided two main benefits, Pronovost observed. First, they helped with memory recall, especially with mundane matters that are easily overlooked in patients undergoing more drastic eventsâ€¦ A second effect was to make explicit the minimum, expected steps in complex processes. Pronovost was surprised to discover how often even experienced personnel failed to grasp the importance of certain precautionsâ€¦ Checklists established a higher standard of baseline performance.
So if checklists are so good, why haven’t we heard more about them?
Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” tells the story of our first astronauts, and charts the demise of the maverick, Chuck Yeager test-pilot culture of the nineteen-fifties. It was a culture defined by how unbelievably dangerous the job was. Test pilots strapped themselves into machines of barely controlled power and complexity, and a quarter of them were killed on the job. The pilots had to have focus, daring, wits, and an ability to improvise-the right stuff. But as knowledge of how to control the risks of flying accumulated-as checklists and flight simulators became more prevalent and sophisticated-the danger diminished, values of safety and conscientiousness prevailed, and the rock-star status of the test pilots was gone.
Something like this is going on in medicine. We have the means to make some of the most complex and dangerous work we do-in surgery, emergency care, and I.C.U. medicine-more effective than we ever thought possible. But the prospect pushes against the traditional culture of medicine, with its central belief that in situations of high risk and complexity what you want is a kind of expert audacity-the right stuff, again. Checklists and standard operating procedures feel like exactly the opposite, and that’s what rankles many people.
The still limited response to Pronovost’s work may be easy to explain, but it is hard to justify. If someone found a new drug that could wipe out infections with anything remotely like the effectiveness of Pronovost’s lists, there would be television ads with Robert Jarvik extolling its virtues, detail men offering free lunches to get doctors to make it part of their practice, government programs to research it, and competitors jumping in to make a newer, better versionâ€¦ But, with the checklist, what we have is Peter Pronovost trying to see if maybe, in the next year or two, hospitals in Rhode Island and New Jersey will give his idea a try.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Picking on scabs. And authors’ quandry.
Mark Evanier in the New Republic tells us all about scabs:
Jack London once wrote, “Judas was a traitor to his God, Benedict Arnold was a traitor to his country, a scab is a traitor to his God, his country, his family and his class.” That is among the nicer things that some have said about those who opt to work in defiance of a strike. As the Writers Guild strike enters its third month, with no future negotiations between the studios and the guild scheduled, and events like the Golden Globes’ awards show freshly cancelled, these ignoble souls have been given more opportunities to cross picket lines. But who are they? From beneath what rock do they scuttle? And what, if any, impact will they have on the strike? [READ ON]
For authors it’s a question of solidarity or sales. Andrew Sullivan went on to flack an article. Michael Pollan cancelled.
For authors, this week’s return of the Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is a case of good news/bad news. The good news is that authors once again have a shot at appearing on two of the most effective book publicity outlets on TV. The bad news-especially for the kind of left-leaning nonfiction authors likely to find a receptive audience on these shows-is that they’d have to cross a picket line of fellow writers.
Authors are split on whether to go on the shows, which started airing new shows on Monday without their writers after a two-month hiatus because of the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike. The striking writers have been picketing outside the Comedy Central studios in Manhattan since Nov. 5.
Michael Pollan cancelled a long-planned appearance on Colbert Tuesday to discuss In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, “because he didn’t want to cross the picket line,” said Penguin publicist, Sarah Hutson.
And Al Franken? “I would never cross that picket line. Not even for Colbert.”
Poverty in the South
According to new figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau, our country still has a poverty problem: over 38 million U.S. Americans live below the poverty line, 13.3% of the population.
What’s striking is how completely the South dominates the list of states ravaged by poverty. Despite all those banks in Charlotte and all that Coke in Atlanta, eleven of the 15 states with the highest poverty rates are in the South:
STATE & PERCENT LIVING IN POVERTY
1 - Mississippi, 21%
2 - Louisiana, 20.2%
3 - New Mexico, 18.4%
4 - District of Columbia, 18.3%
5 - West Virginia, 18%
6 - Texas, 17.5%
7 - Arkansas, 17.2%
8 - Alabama, 16.9%
8 - Kentucky, 16.9%
10 - Oklahoma, 16.4%
11 - Tennessee, 15.6%
11 - South Carolina, 15.6%
13 - North Carolina, 14.9%
14 - Montana, 14.6%
15 - Georgia, 14.5%
Or another way to look at it: every Southern state except Florida and Virginia fall in the bottom 15.
On Obama fatalism
Speaking of Richard Thompson Ford, Tuesday in Slate he looked at liberals who say Obama can’t win because he’s black. He suspects three reasons for Obama fatalism among liberals of all races: false realism, once-bitten timidity, and investment-in-oppression.
He explains why each in invalid and concludes:
An Obama victory would hardly signal the end of racism in America. But Obama’s recent and dramatic success does suggest that simple color prejudice is not always the decisive factor in the lives of racial minorities that it was 20 or 30 years ago. No doubt some Obama supporters do their unwitting parts to perpetuate such racial inequalities, such as neighborhood segregation, subtle job discrimination, overzealous law enforcement, and punitive criminal sentencing. But it’s unlikely that such an Obama supporter is a “racist” in any meaningful sense of that word. She may simply be living in a world shaped by race, even when her politics are not. If we’re now living in a society where many racial injustices are not caused by racism strictly speaking but by subtler social hierarchies, economic inequalities, and the present-day effects of decades-old racial policies, we may need to rethink approaches to racial justice that inevitably presume that racial injustice is to racism as smoke is to fire.
A boycott or civil demonstration makes sense when the goal is to pressure, shame, or discredit a bigot, but it may well be misplaced when problems of racial injustice involve factual ambiguities, close judgment calls, sins of omission, and problems of inertia. The fracturing of American racism is reason for optimism, but the new opportunities and challenges it creates also may be disconcerting and threatening to many long-suffering racial minorities and racial-justice activists, who are as comfortable with the known enemy of old-school racism as a Cold War general was with the Soviet Union. Learning to navigate a world in which racism is less of an impediment to success that we had once thought is a burden we all should be happy to accept.
I agree with Ford’s conclusion, but I am more cautious of his Investment-in-Oppression argument that “some people are simply too invested in the idea that American racism is monolithic and implacableâ€¦ a lot of professional racial activists will need to hastily revise their speeches.”
Maybe so. But my experience finds it way too easy and facile of liberals, most especially white liberals, to criticize the black Civil Rights establishment.
They’ve done their duty. They’re steeped in the past but they’re putting themselves out there and they continue to speak for those whose stories are too messy for the media and the establishment to fathom.
I am a yankee who now lives in the South. I see that the South has become an easy place to put racism in this country and be done with it. Race is not a Southern problem. It’s a big national problem and pointing South has a not-my-problem ring to it. It does nothing to help solve the problem.
Similarly, blaming the Civil Rights establishment for not coming up with new answers doesn’t solve the problem. Yes, we need something new. No, they’re not likely to find it. But I like to think we can come up with the new we need without belittling the old.
The truth about Jena?
The headline over Amy Waldman’s Atlantic piece promises to explain “why America’s black-and-white narratives about race don’t reflect reality.”
I agree they don’t. But I didn’t see any real analysis or insights that even begin to explain why:
In the fall of 2006, Mychal Bell was a football hero, and his hometown, Jena, Louisiana, loved him for it. As his high-school team posted its best season in six years, Bell scored 21 touchdowns, rushed for 1,006 yards, and was named player of the week three times by The Jena Times. The paper celebrated his triumphs in articles and photographs, including a dramatic one in which Bell, who’s black, stiff-arms a white defender by clutching his face guard. But within weeks after the season’s end, Bell was transformed into a villain, accused of knocking out a white student, Justin Barker, who was then beaten by a group of black students. The parish’s white district attorney charged Bell and five others with attempted second-degree murder. Six months later-after the DA had reduced the charges against Bellâ€”a white jury convicted him, as an adult, of aggravated second-degree battery, a crime that carried a possible 22-year prison sentence. By then, he, along with his co-defendants, had been transformed yet again: together, they’d been dubbed the Jena Six and had become icons of a 21st-century civil-rights movement.
When Bell began to get into trouble, his football hero status apparently helped folks look the other way:
No wonder he didn’t see that punching a white boy at school could change the rules. “This is Jena,” Anlynne Hart says. “You had the judge and DA at those ball games Friday night, clapping them on-you see what I’m saying? And all this is going through the courts while they’re clapping him on, running up and down the football field, and then the minute this happened to the white boy-it’s like, uh-oh-click-click-he going to jail.”
Everything I read about the DA, J. Reed Walters, suggested he was a big problem. That’s affirmed here:
Walters remained convinced that everything he did in the case of the Jena Six was “absolutely 100 percent correct-without question.” Never mind that even some of Walters’s white friends say he charged too severely, not least because the victim was able to attend a school function that night. Walters believed his decision to charge Bell as an adult with attempted murder reflects both the facts of the case, including Bell’s history, and the values that his community holds dearâ€”"conservative," “help-oriented,” and “Christian.” (I spotted a photocopy of the Ten Commandments hanging on the courthouse bulletin board, next to the bail-bondsman and paternity-testing ads.)
Walters says he does not look at race in his prosecutions. But that does not mean the racial boundaries of his community do not influence him. Whites outnumber blacks by 7-to-1 in the parish; beyond one black member apiece on the 10-member school board and on the 10-member police juryâ€”both from a racially gerrymandered ward-no black has a position of power. There are four black teachers on a parish staff of 196. Black-owned businesses? Sammy Franklin could think of two: a car-detailer and a funeral home.
As for Walters himself, his world-like that of many white Americansâ€”is white, as is most of his neighborhood. The restaurants he frequents rarely have black employees or black patrons. The worshippers at his church are white, as are the small-town-elite circles in which he moves. In 17 years, he says, he has never had a black employee, beyond some who helped him “privately.” He offered as evidence of Jena’s “perfect” race relations that the high school’s white quarterback throws to both black and white players. The white kids who hung the nooses were of Walters’s worldâ€”indeed, one of their families attends his church. Mychal Bell was, in essence, a stranger.
Read the entire piece. It’s interesting in that it both confirms and refutes the press narrative prevalent at the time. What it doesn’t do, what I’m looking for, is someone to change the frame.
Yes, it’s clear that we need a new language, a new paradigm, to depict the challenges of contemporary race relations. Yes, white and black and press and activists all place these stories in the old template.
Who’s going to build a new one? Two people I have found so far who might help:
Melissa Harris Lacewell. She calls the traditional civil rights movement a hammer but says, “Contemporary racial inequality is a screw, and if you take a hammer and start pounding on a screw, you just end up with a mess.” We need to build a screwdriver.
Richard Thomspn Ford. He says, “the racial problems facing this town-and many others-are more complex than simple prejudice, and finding solutions will necessarily require more nuance than a mass protest can offer...” I’m wondering if his forthcoming book, The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse, will offer something new.
Wednesday, January 09, 2008
Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin for Barack Obama
Atlanta’s popular African American mayor has come out for Obama:
On an Atlanta morning radio show, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin just declared Barack Obama to be her choice in the Democratic race for president - putting herself opposite John Lewis, her mentor Andrew Young, and members of the Maynard Jackson clan. They’re on the side of Hillary Clinton.
Here’s the two-minute sound clip, courtesy of WVEE-FM. Franklin was on the station’s “Frank and Wanda Morning Show.”
“There’s no question that Hillary is a strong candidate. What I like about Obama is that he is reaching - he is energizing a population that is not typically energized. There’s a lot of talk about whether he’s got enough experience,” the Atlanta mayor said. “It’s as if we’ve forgotten that Dr. [Martin Luther] King was a global leader at 34.”
Gloria on Hillary
I’m supporting Senator Clinton because like Senator Obama she has community organizing experience, but she also has more years in the Senate, an unprecedented eight years of on-the-job training in the White House, no masculinity to prove, the potential to tap a huge reservoir of this country’s talent by her example, and now even the courage to break the no-tears rule. I’m not opposing Mr. Obama; if he’s the nominee, I’ll volunteer. Indeed, if you look at votes during their two-year overlap in the Senate, they were the same more than 90 percent of the time. Besides, to clean up the mess left by President Bush, we may need two terms of President Clinton and two of President Obama.
But what worries me is that he is seen as unifying by his race while she is seen as divisive by her sex.
What worries me is that she is accused of “playing the gender card” when citing the old boys’ club, while he is seen as unifying by citing civil rights confrontations.
What worries me is that male Iowa voters were seen as gender-free when supporting their own, while female voters were seen as biased if they did and disloyal if they didn’t.
What worries me is that reporters ignore Mr. Obama’s dependence on the old â€” for instance, the frequent campaign comparisons to John F. Kennedy - while not challenging the slander that her progressive policies are part of the Washington status quo.
What worries me is that some women, perhaps especially younger ones, hope to deny or escape the sexual caste system; thus Iowa women over 50 and 60, who disproportionately supported Senator Clinton, proved once again that women are the one group that grows more radical with age.
This country can no longer afford to choose our leaders from a talent pool limited by sex, race, money, powerful fathers and paper degrees. It’s time to take equal pride in breaking all the barriers. We have to be able to say: “I’m supporting her because she’ll be a great president and because she’s a woman.”
Professors as YouTube stars
Regular readers know I’m a fan of lectures. When I hear people (typically older people) pooh-poohing lectures online, I think that they just don’t get it. I want my content raw, preferably with the right to remix it as I please.
The Chronicle says “even YouTube was surprised” by the popularity of lectures:
YouTube itself wants to be a venue for academe. In the past few months, several colleges have signed agreements with the site to set up official “channels.” The University of California at Berkeley was the first, and the University of Southern California, the University of New South Wales, in Australia, and Vanderbilt University soon followed.
It remains an open question just how large the audience for talking eggheads is, though. After all, in the early days of television, many academics hoped to use the medium to beam courses to living rooms, with series like CBS’s Sunrise Semester. which began in 1957. Those efforts are now a distant memory.
And a wrong-headed comparison. Lectures are long tail content if ever there was such a thing. YouTube denies being surprised by the popularity:
[S]ome lectures on Berkeley’s channel scored 100,000 viewers each, and people were sitting through the whole talks. “Professors in a sense are rock stars,” Mr. Hochman concludes. “We’re getting as many hits as you would find with some of the big media players.”
YouTube officials insist that they weren’t surprised by the buzz, and they say that more colleges are coming forward. “We expect that education will be a vibrant category on YouTube,” said Obadiah Greenberg, strategic partner manager at YouTube, in an e-mail interview. “Everybody loves to learn.”
Says one professor, “For a teacher, you couldn’t ask for anything better.” I couldn’t agree more.
Losers weepers? I don’t think so.
But I’d like to address, what if she lost?
I firmly believe that whatever the outcome of this presidential race, Hillary will play a significant role in the political future of this country. The reason I support her is that she’s tough and committed, a dedicated pol. She has earned her senate seat and would work to keep it. And so I would expect a defeated Hillary to get back to work in the senate and become an invaluable Obama ally working to get his agenda enacted into law. Senate Majority Leader is no stretch. Hillary on the Supreme Court, my dream come true.
On Bill helping or hurting, at best it’s a wash. I believe she loves her flawed husband and continues to pay a price for that love and his flaws. Had she divorced him she would have had the same or better political career. She would have kept as much of the vaunted Clinton machine team as she has now. She would have kept the support of those who believe he wronged her unforgivably and gained those who believe she only stayed for political expediency.
I want a woman president. I’m disgusted at the level of misogyny out there and appalled that more isn’t said about it. But if Hillary doesn’t win I will wholeheartedly embrace Obama (it’s a two person race - if Edwards endorses Obama, as I would think likely, or winds up on his ticket that would be insurmountable) and I will be very sad for her. I will also bet everything I got that Hillary will soldier on. And we’ll be a better nation for it.
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
It’s All Because (The Gays Are Getting Married)
Michael Pollan on Colbert tonight
I’ll be tuning in at 11:30. In the meantime, a couple recent reviews of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.
Pollan’s vigorous assault on nutritionism is based largely on looking at its dismal record over the last three decades. As the public and media focus more on nutrition, and as health claims proliferate on every supermarket shelf, we’re getting fatter and less healthy as a nation. Pollan spends much of his gripping narrative eviscerating the research methods of nutrition science, describing not only how this research consistently supports the agenda of the food industry but also how its methods of gathering scientific data are deeply flawed. Contradictory nutrition advice abounds. It’s not some “evil” nutrient that’s hurting our health, Pollan says, but the entire Western diet of processed and refined food-like products.
The smart thing to do, he thinks, is stay away from any food that trumpets its nutritional virtues, since “for a food product to make health claims on its package it must first have a package, so right off the bat it’s more likely to be a processed than a whole food.” Meanwhile, “the genuinely heart-healthy whole foods in the produce section, lacking the financial and political clout of the packaged goods a few aisles over, are mute.” (I’m sorry to have to add that he describes this situation as “the silence of the yams.") [...]
Take refined flour-which, like everybody else, I’ve been hearing since my hippie days is bad for you. Pollan lays out the reasons. Wheat was once ground between stone wheels, which successfully removed the bran from the kernel but couldn’t get rid of the germ, or embryo. The resulting yellowish-gray flour was rich in all kinds of nutrients; the downside was that it soon went rancid. The introduction of metal and porcelain rollers circa 1870 allowed millers to finally eliminate the germ and grind the grains down to the snowy powder we know today, extending their shelf life-"precisely because they are less nutritious to the pests that compete with us for their calories.” But not only is the resulting product nutritionally all but worthless; the removal of fiber and the finer milling also hasten the body’s conversion of the starch into sugar, making it “the first fast food.”
CORRECTION: Apparently my info was wrong. No Pollan on Colbert.
LATER: He refused to cross the picket line. Bravo!
Obama, Utopian Hope and Apocalyptic Religion
This morning I suggested that people who are over the top for Obama are subject to faith masquerading as reason. My suggestion was influenced by a fascinating October 18, 2007 talk by London School of Economics and Political Science professor John Gray:
Where does the utopian impulse in politics originate, and does it have a future? John Gray argues that though they often claimed to be rooted in a scientific analysis of history and society the revolutionary political movements of the past were informed by a utopian vision which derives from religion. Is the age of secular utopianism over, and if so how will religion interact with twenty-first century geopolitical conflicts? He discusses these questions in the context of his new book, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (Penguin).
Gray, an ideological provocateur and controversial public intellectual in Britain, is not well known in the United States. His book argues that utopian politics from the French Revolution through America’s project of spreading democracy in the Middle East are “mutant version[s]” of an ancient, apocalyptic Christian belief that God will transform the world and evil will pass away. He says the “very idea of revolution as a transforming event in history is owed to religion.” [LATimes review]
He takes special aim at Francis Fukuyama, who in 1989 famously announced the end of history and the triumph of western, liberal, market-driven democracy. From The Guardian review:
The utopian right, as he calls it, led by America’s neoconservatives, is a modern millenarian movement, and its drive to impose western-style democracy upon the world, a drive towards utopia that came to a juddering halt in Iraq, was as deluded and foolhardy a project as any past scheme to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Likewise, the “war on terror” is a symptom of a mentality that anticipates an unprecedented change in human affairs - the end of history, the passing of the sovereign state, universal acceptance of democracy, and the defeat of evil. This is the central myth of apocalyptic religion framed in political terms, and the common factor underlying the failed utopian projects of the past decade.
Gray questions how secular a state America really is:
[@33:20 minutes] The point of the book is to really sort of uncover this religious inheritance of apocalyptic myth which underlies secular political thought. In one sense I don’t think secularization has occurred at all. Obviously in other commonsensical senses it has. Some countries are more secular than othersâ€¦ but if you look at it slightly more deeply and ask whether the patterns of thought - particularly about human history which were prominent in the Western religious tradition - whether they’ve altered despite the retreat of religious belief I think my answer is...no. In general we still think in ways which are shaped by religious categories. [...]
America, the society which in the world is seen by many people as being the most modern, certainly has a tremendous amount of scientific development going on in it, at least up until now has been rather rich, is also one which is today as religious if not more so than it was when Alexis de Tocqueville traveled there in the first part of the nineteenth century and commented on the intense religiosityâ€¦ Nothing has changed in the interval, some countries have become much less religiousâ€¦ But [religiosity] can be masked by the new types of ideology which emerge claiming to be anti-religious or non-religious. If you look deeper you find the forms of thought are very similar. In other words it’s not that I’m saying that secular movements have religious beliefs. They reject the beliefs of religion but the pattern and background frame of the thought is very similar in many respects and I think dangerously similar when applied in politics.
When Gray’s focus is the neocons, radical Islam and Soviet and Chinese communism, we on the left are likely to go right there with him. But what if that dynamic is at play in the election today?
As I watch Obama’s language of hope turned into a language of “transformation,” especially as espoused by Andrew Sullivan but also as hyped by reporters and pundits swept up in his winning aura, I’m seeing echoes of Gray.
If I reject it on the Right, and I certainly do, it doesn’t make it any more acceptable that it now leans left.
RELATED: James Wolcott on Too Many Loads on the Love Train.
Grady illustrates safety-net crisis
To generations of Georgians, this city is unimaginable without Grady. Yet that has been the prospect facing the region for the last year, the result of a multimillion-dollar shortfall in the cost of providing charity and emergency care that no one - not the counties, the state nor the federal government - has been willing to cover, though Grady provides vital services to the entire region.
Once admired for its skill in treating a population afflicted by both social and physical ills, Grady, a teaching hospital, now faces the prospect of losing its accreditation. Only short-term financial transfusions have kept it from closing its doors, as Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital in Los Angeles County did last year. That scenario would flood the region’s other hospitals with uninsured patients and eliminate the training ground for one of every four Georgia doctors. [...]
Although the hospital is unique in many ways, the code red at Grady is emblematic of the crippling effect America’s health care crisis has had on public hospitals around the nation. Though Grady is among the most distressed of the country’s 1,300 public hospitals, others have faced similar challenges in recent years, including those in Miami, Memphis and Chicago, said Larry S. Gage, president of the National Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems. There are 300 fewer public hospitals today than 15 years ago, with hospitals having closed in Los Angeles, Washington, St. Louis and Milwaukee, Mr. Gage said.
The media and the writers strike
Andrew Sullivan says he supports the writers strike. He was on The Colbert Report last night:
The show didn’t use any written material, and I never do in public speaking. I was asked to go on a national TV show to talk about the election, and promote my recent Atlantic cover-story. And I hope the WGA wins their battle.
I have some serious ambivalence about the late night talk shows coming back. I thought Jon Stewart’s first night was a flop; and Colbert shined. I can’t say I understand all of the nuance of the issue but I know I’m seeing very little reporting of it in the media.
Jack Myers, of the Media Business Report, from On The Media last week:
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I want to ask you for a moment about Sarah Fay, whom we both know, and she is the CEO of the media-buying firm Carat U.S. And she said that the press has not covered the writers’ side of these issues fairly. Do you think she’s right about that?
JACK MYERS: Yes, I think she’s right. I think there’s a real reluctance on the part of the television writers and several of the business writers, whose lifeblood is dependent on the networks and studios, to be critical of them and be critical of their negotiating posture.
There really hasn’t been, in my opinion, fair presentation of the fact that the alliance is simply not coming to the negotiating table. What they’re doing is they’re falling into their traditional pattern of essentially ignoring you and hoping you’ll go away and assuming that the writers will experience more pain than they will, and that the writers won’t have the stomach to last until the summer.
RELATED: The Golden Globes “scale back.” Go WGA!
Over the top for Obama: faith masquerading as reason
Watching Andrew Sullivan on The Colbert Report last night talking about the transformational power of Barack Obama I was reminded of the neocon argument for going into Iraq. We on the left made fun of that naive neocon notion that peace in the Middle East could be achieved lickety-split by toppling Hussein, setting up a quickie democracy and then sitting back and watching it spread.
But now we swallow hook line and sinker the ga-ga cable news anchor suggestion that our race problems are solved by Barack’s electability while John Edwards’ economic populism is judged divisive and dismissed, and Hillary’s inevitability - every bit as much a press narrative as a campaign strategy - is mocked with misogynistic resentment.
Andrew was probably the first and remains the most aggressive champion of the transformational Obama. From his December Atlantic profile of the candidate:
In politics, timing matters. And the most persuasive case for Obama has less to do with him than with the moment he is meeting. The moment has been a long time coming, and it is the result of a confluence of events, from one traumatizing war in Southeast Asia to another in the most fractious country in the Middle East. The legacy is a cultural climate that stultifies our politics and corrupts our discourse.
Obama’s candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America-finally-past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us. So much has happened in America in the past seven years, let alone the past 40, that we can be forgiven for focusing on the present and the immediate future. But it is only when you take several large steps back into the long past that the full logic of an Obama presidency stares directly-and uncomfortablyâ€”at you.
At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war-not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a momentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade-but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war-and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama-and Obama alone-offers the possibility of a truce.
This is a faith that the press is preaching to an adoring national choir. Noting it is not to take away from Obama’s talents and skills - hell, if I were him I’d whip up and ride that wave, too - but I think it should be seen for what it is: faith masquerading as reason.
LATER: see also Obama, Utopian Hope and Apocalyptic Religion.
‘Dykes on Bikes’ trademark OKd
A San Francisco motorcycle club gained long-sought legal approval Monday for its trademark of the name “Dykes on Bikes” when the U.S. Supreme Court turned away a challenge from a lawyer who said the term denigrated men.
Without comment, the justices denied review of an appeal by Michael McDermott of Dublin, who challenged a decision by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to grant the San Francisco Women’s Motorcycle Contingent exclusive rights over the commercial use of Dykes on Bikes.
The motorcycle club applied for a trademark in 2003 after using Dykes on Bikes for three decades as the moniker of the motorized unit that leads San Francisco’s annual Gay Pride Parade. The club’s attorney, Gregory Gilchrist, said the group had no business plans for the phrase but decided to seek legal protection after an offshoot group, now independent, discussed putting the name on T-shirts for sale.
The trademark office initially rejected the application, saying the name was disparaging to lesbians, but approved it in January 2006 after the club submitted evidence that activists were trying to reclaim dykes as a term of pride. Gilchrist said the lawyers pointed out that the office had approved trademarks for other once-derogatory terms - for example, the television show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”
McDermott, a self-described men’s rights advocate, objected to the trademark office and the courts, arguing that the term was disparaging - to men - as well as “scandalous and immoral.” Those categories are grounds for denial of a trademark.
A trademark would put the definition in the hands of a group of “thought police” and contradict the “widespread documented understanding of the term â€˜dyke’ as describing hyper-militant radicals hateful toward men,” McDermott wrote in his Supreme Court appeal.