Thursday, June 30, 2011

These Are Our 95 Theses

I recently came across Lupe Fiasco's "Words I Never Said," and the timing is pretty good since I've been feeling quite politically powerless lately and it's reassuring to hear people expressing your concerns, so you know it's not just you.  I'm not actually that wild about the song as a musical endeavor, but the message has a lot of good stuff and/or hard facts. Here are the lyrics:
It’s so loud inside my head
With words that I should have said
As I drown in my regrets
I can’t take back the words I never said
I can’t take back the words I never said

[Lupe Fiasco]
I really think the war on terror is a bunch of bullshit
Just a poor excuse for you to use up all your bullets
How much money does it take to really make a full clip
9/11 building 7 did they really pull it
Uhh, And a bunch of other cover ups
Your childs future was the first to go with budget cuts
If you think that hurts then, wait here comes the uppercut
The school was garbage in the first place, that's on the up and up
Keep you at the bottom but tease you with the uppercrust
You get it then they move it so you never keeping up enough
If you turn on TV all you see’s a bunch of “what the fucks”
Dude is dating so and so blabbering bout such and such
And that ain't Jersey Shore, homie that's the news
And these the same people that supposed to be telling us the truth
Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist
Gaza strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit
That's why I ain't vote for him, next one either
I’ma part of the problem, my problem is I’m peaceful
And I believe in the people.

[Skylar Grey]
It’s so loud inside my head
With words that I should have said!
As I drown in my regrets
I can’t take back the words I never said
I can’t take back the words I never said

[Lupe Fiasco - Verse 2]
Now you can say it ain't our fault if we never heard it
But if we know better than we probably deserve it
Jihad is not a holy war, wheres that in the worship?
Murdering is not Islam!
And you are not observant
And you are not a muslim
Israel don’t take my side cause look how far you’ve pushed them
Walk with me into the ghetto, this where all the Kush went
Complain about the liquor store but what you drinking liquor for?
Complain about the gloom but when’d you pick a broom up?
Just listening to Pac ain't gone make it stop
A rebel in your thoughts, ain't gon make it halt
If you don’t become an actor you’ll never be a factor
Pills with million side effects
Take em when the pains felt
Wash them down with Diet soda!
Killin off your brain cells
Crooked banks around the World
Would gladly give a loan today
So if you ever miss a payment
They can take your home away!

[Skylar Grey]
It’s so loud inside my head
With words that I should have said!
As I drown in my regrets
I can’t take back the words I never said, never said
I can’t take back the words I never said

[Lupe Fiasco - Verse 3]
I think that all the silence is worse than all the violence
Fear is such a weak emotion that's why I despise it
We scared of almost everything, afraid to even tell the truth
So scared of what you think of me, I’m scared of even telling you
Sometimes I’m like the only person I feel safe to tell it to
I’m locked inside a cell in me, I know that there’s a jail in you
Consider this your bailing out, so take a breath, inhale a few
My screams is finally getting free, my thoughts is finally yelling through

[Skylar Grey]
It’s so loud Inside my head
With words that I should have said!
As I drown in my regrets
I can’t take back the words I never said 
Some of it I can't be bothered with (no, the government didn't take out building 7, stop that) but a lot of is is worryingly sound.  Here's the video.

At the end you'll notice a reference to the L.A.S.E.R. Manifesto.  Maybe it's the civil service talking but wow, people need to stop forcing their various manifestos into acronyms.  Take the time to title stuff something substantive.  In any case, here's Lupe Fiasco's:

To Every Man, Woman & Child...

1. We Want An End To The Glamorization Of Negativity In The Media.

2. We Want An End To Status Symbols Dictating Our Worth As Individuals.

3. We Want A Meaningful And Universal Education System.

4. We Want Substance In The Place Of Popularity.

5. We Will Not Compromise Who We Are To Be Accepted By The Crowd.

6. We Want The Invisible Walls That Separate By Wealth, Race & Class To Be Torn Down.

7. We Want To Think Our Own Thoughts.

8. We Will Be Responsible For Our Environment.

9. We Want Clarity & Truth From Our Elected Officials Or They Should Move Aside.

10. We Want Love Not Lies.

11. We Want An End To All Wars. Foreign & Domestic (Violence).

12. We Want An End To The Processed Culture Of Exploitation, Over-Consumption & Waste.

13. We Want Knowledge, Understanding & Peace.


Lasers are the opposite of losers. Lasers are shining beams of light that burn through the darkness of ignorance. Lasers shed light on injustice and inequality. Losers stand by and let things happen. Lasers act and shape their own destinies. Lasers find meaning and direction in the mysteries all around them. Lasers stand for love and compassion. Lasers stand for peace. Lasers stand for progression. Lasers are revolutionary.

Lasers Are The Future.

So okay, there are some problems in here, least of which being the whole losers/lasers play, but how messed up is it that anyone should feel like these are things that need to be demanded?  I, for one, am down, Lupe Fiasco.  Laser or not, these are things worth fighting for.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mayhap the Defense Budget Could Verily Use a Side Eye

The Project On Government Oversight has released the complete, unredacted Department of Defense Office of Inspector General (DoD OIG*) audit, and it is about as stupid as you would expect.

You can read a summary and get a link to the report itself here.

I think the natural reaction is to kind of freak out about this kind of stuff, and I don't really begrudge anyone that reaction.  Some of this is absolutely ridiculous.  My personal sense is that sanity is somewhere in the middle, towards the side of "buy it at Ace Hardware already."  The Department of Defense uses these parts in some pretty extreme environments, and even if not every helicopter is being used in the desert, it makes the most sense to make sure all or at least most helicopters can be used in the desert, in case some supply crisis evolves and they need to go to the desert.  The various pieces of hardware I can pick up at the local hardware store might not be sufficient for this kind of high-impact, high-stress application.  If I knew about fixing a car engine, and someone asked me to take a stab at fixing an airplane engine, I would start with finding a manual or doing some Google-fu to figured out if there were different stressors for parts in an aircraft engine, just to check.  The engines are essentially the same, but I would check.  Same thing for military resources - some of them may need slightly different things.  However, when every available part is marked up between 33 and 177,475 percent, I think we have a problem here.

One of my biggest problems with defense spending right now is that we seem to be very focused on high tech solutions at the expense of getting our troops' basic needs met, both in terms of comfort and in armament. 

* There is a reason one of the things I got when I started working for the government back in DC was an acronym dictionary. People would toss that shit off like it was nothing.  Alphabet soup has more coherent sentences.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Elderly Bigots Say "Haaaaaaaaaay!"

"There is substantial evidence that some of these fires are caused by people who have crossed our border illegally.  They have set fires because they signal others, they have set fires to keep warm, and they have set fires in order to divert law enforcement agents and agencies from them.  The answer to that part of the problem is to get a secure border."
- John McCain, 6/18/11

"Absolutely not, at this level.  There's no evidence that I'm aware, no evidence that's been public, indicating such a thing.”
- Tom Berglund, U.S. Forest Service spokesman, 6/19/11

Dude.  Take your racist, xenophobic douche routine and go home.  Don't THINK I haven't forgotten you're the reason I have to know who Sarah Palin is, either.

Odds Are, You're Getting Screwed

TRUE LIFE: I'm pretty law abiding, and I tend to default to the assumption that authority figures and the rules by which they abide are generally interested in my interests.  Over the past couple years, with recent acceleration, I've been trying hard to question that more often, because I simply don't believe it is the case any more.  This is harder than one might think.  Here in America, that's generally the line we get: when Abraham Lincoln said that our government was one "of the people, by the people and for the people," he was giving voice to something I think most Americans - certainly then, often now - believe.  I still believe that most people who work in government, which is to say, the civil and foreign service, who predate and outlast every Presidential Administration and Congress, are generally good, and generally want to ensure that government of, by and for the people does not perish from this Earth.  The problem is that politics are not government, and the direction of our politics have brought in another threat.  I will not go so far as to say that an encroaching corporatocracy is new - Tocqueville referred to the danger in 1835 - but I feel that it presents a greater danger now than it has before.

There are plenty of problems with corporations being granted political rights properly reserved for citizens via the offensive and ridiculous Citizens United vs. FEC decision, but not all power is political, and it is in the context of this apolitical power that my concerns emerge.  Economic oppression is a longstanding tool of those who would like to consolidate power amongst a select few, and we are in the midst of some of the most flagrant use of this tool in memory.  While Congress whines endlessly about jobs while not bringing any jobs bills to the floor, they ignore the fact that they may not have any ability to create jobs, besides the less-sustainable one-off jobs created under the auspices of government.  Corporations need to hire people, and they're not doing that.  "But they can't!  The economy!  It is bad!"  Yeah, about that:

Click to magnify
These two charts are compliments of Mother Jones' excellent collection of 12 angry-making graphs, and what you see here is a problem.  In the GDP graph, you see everyone's GDP dip in roughly the same way, and then recover roughly the same way.  In the next graph, you see unemployment dip in reaction to the general trend of the GDP drop...and everyone who isn't the United States recover in roughly the same way.  The United States has dropped and stayed dropped.  Your impulse here may be to say "but the US economy was the epicenter of the recession," and while you might be right to point to US financial fuckery as a primary driver of the recession, you would be incorrect to believe that means it is limited to the US in effect.  The three Big Bads of the recession were the housing bubble's burst, the financial sector's collapse (largely contingent on the housing issue), and the auto industry's whatever the hell that was.  These are three extremely internationalist industries; though it was the US housing market that went kablooey, the financial markets related to it were sectioning up bad mortgages to make them into "good" assets that could be poured into all kinds of financial endeavors.  (For a truly excellent summary of the housing crisis and how interwoven with the financial crash it was, I recommend NBC's documentary House of Cards.  It is presented clearly enough for even non-economics-wonks to understand.  I cannot recommend this enough.)  In any case, these were industries whose well-being affects the whole world - this is borne out by the GDP graph above - but only the US has stayed decimated by the effects.

Now, if the GDP is on the rebound [NB: I do not think that the GDP is permanently on the rebound, and I think we are on track for another recession.  No real efforts have been made to reform the systems and industries that caused the crash, and the recovery is not sustainable.  This is why Congress needs to stop fucking around and get to work.], why aren't American employers hiring more people and thus creating more jobs?  Leaving aside accusations about people relying overmuch on the government, there's a simple answer: because shit isn't that bad for people in charge.  Take a look at the increase in CEO pay to the left here.  As you can see, CEO pay has been skyrocketing since the 80s, with some kind of nitrous booster kicking in around 1995 or so.  That's (theoretically) good!  There are people making lots of money!  Prosperity! 

Not quite.

Two important things.  One is a good, hard look at what this graph is actually measuring, which is CEO pay relative to net profit, which is the money made after all the bills get paid, basically.  In 1960, for every $1 of net profit, your average CEO could expect to make about $100.  In 2000, that ratio jumped sharply, so a CEO could expect to make $500 or more per $1 net profit.  This graph also stops around the early 2000s, but the trend has continued, even into 2010, when CEO pay jumped 11%.  The second important thing is more damning, and we can see it clearly in this graph:
This graph shows us that the worker's share is doing the opposite of the CEO's share, and almost as dramatically.  It is also worth noting that recessions (shown here as the grey bands) were not a reliable indicator of workers getting screwed, and in fact were more likely to show the opposite effect...until 2010.  In 2010, we see that workers' decline in percentage of a share in profits continues its decline through the recession, and then drops even more sharply once it ends. Got a job?  Odds are you're getting screwed.

Now, there are a lot of reasons for this kind of movement, but I think most of them are addressed in Mother Jones' excellent "All Work and No Pay: the Great Speedup," which you should take a few minutes to pop over and read.  It is the article that the above-linked charts accompany.  The speedup, as the MJ article explains, is where employers demand ever more of their employees without a corresponding increase in pay.  We have given in to the dialogue that if you're not checking emails 24/7 and multitasking your face off, you are somehow lazy, ceding complete control of our lives to our work.  It is the American Dream's work ethic on every steroid imaginable and stripped of every incentive - from "with hard work and perseverance, you can gain a free life" to "you must work hard and persevere."  Our willingness to accept this has made it possible for employers to simply pile the work of laid off employees on those who survived the cuts, knowing that they will do whatever they must to complete the work shoveled onto their plates.  I saw this first hand when Rich was laid off from his employer of 15 years.  He kept in contact with his team, and they were absolutely wrecked with the sudden influx of work from having their group's population decimated.  However, they figured out some way to do it, because "at least they had jobs."  So say we all.

The "at least you have a job" argument is a compelling one, and a product of the above perversion of the American Dream.  The idea is of course that having a job is better for both soul and pocketbook, and this seems logical.  Unfortunately, our collective inattention to the preservation of a legally mandated living wage means that this is not always the case.  It feels a bit strange to link Cracked here, but they published an excellent article about "Five Things Nobody Tells You About Being Poor," which describes five things that comprise the absolute tippety-top of the iceberg of economic oppression.  It's worth a read (cuss word warning, if you need such a thing).  When you are not paid a living wage, you essentially descend into a vortex of suck that makes it more or less impossible to attain any kind of existence that would give you the luxury of having a political voice. Paper after paper after study after study indicates that the people who are most likely to get out and participate politically are the ones who have the social and economic capital to do so - the ones who can miss a day of work, or make large donations to candidates or organizations.  Poor people simply do not have this luxury; when even a perfect week's work does not represent subsistence to you, you cannot afford time to read about or participate in political life, which generates the government that represents your only hope at changing your situation in a solid and permanent way.  Once you're screwed, odds are, you're staying that way.  With this in mind, is "a job" - as in, any job - really such a guaranteed blessing?

I'm not sure what the solution is - part of it is instituting a living wage requirement - but a big step would be dropping the hyperbole in which we discuss our working conditions.  Demanding that employers pay a living wage is not stealing profit from them; it's paying workers fairly for the work that makes profit possible.  Removing corporate tax loopholes and tax breaks for the richest of our society is not theft, it's investing via our government in workers who will be able to work longer, healthier, and better to - again - make profit possible.  I believe that capitalism holds the most potential for the achievement of human greatness, but that pinnacle of human excellence is not as excellent if it stands amongst the broken bodies of the rest of humanity.  Its risk is that it demands a continual fixation on the short term and a hyper-individualistic focus.  As discussed before, being poor allows money to dominate your life for the sake of a mean existence; one might argue that the rich suffer the same hobbling, continually absorbed in the quest for ever more money.  Democracy, on the other hand, relies on a concern for the common good, and consideration on the society as a whole.  We cannot realistically presume that after spending 364 days and 23.5 hours of every year driven by the economic mindset demanded by capitalism, that for the one half hour it takes to vote every year (or two, or four), we will suddenly find every American imbued with patriotic love for their fellow man, casting a vote for the most benevolent and generous politician on the ballot.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Dance Like No One is Watching (or, Alternatively, a Gigantic Russian Man)

This has been a trying week, vis a vis politics and bullshit.  There have been a lot of weeks like that lately.  It may just be the stuff I've been reading, but the fact that it exists doesn't change in response to my willingness to engage with it.  When a giant ball of bullshit falls on Capitol Hill, it makes a sound whether or not I or anyone else are listening.  If I go to a lake in the woods with nothing but flipflops, a bunch of beer and a chair, turning off my cell phone and not checking my email, the bullshit in which we live our lives will carry on affecting someone - some people I care about, some people I don't know.  That can be crushing.  The thing is, though, you have to still go to the lake by the woods.  You still have to look for the good in people and things.  You can't just ignore it, but you have to surround what stresses you with a belief that for every person intent on fucking up our world, there are a dozen who want to fix it, and who work at that goal in tiny and wonderful ways, and who sometimes change the world.  You have to be that person. It takes less than you might think.  Love your friends, love your family, seek joy, create wonder.

And perhaps most importantly, dance like a goon.

via Russian Machine Never Breaks

Have a great weekend, everyone!  Change the world every moment of it.

Sometimes People Write Stuff and You're Like "Why Didn't I Write That OH RIGHT I'M NOT A GENIUS."

One of my favorite blogs is MightyGodKing, which is written by a super-smart dude and his cohort of also super-smart people.  I like it particularly because this crew is smart about a span of things that encompasses things I really care about (Canadian politics, law), things I sort of care about (comics) and things I don't really care about but am willing to find interesting in the hands of someone smart (specific characters I don't know much about).  Christopher Bird, the titular Mighty God King, recently posted a fascinating article about DC Comics' upcoming overhaul and its incorporation of the Wildstorm Universe, which I didn't know existed until I worked some Google-fu on it.  That's interesting to a comic fan generally, but it's also interesting to me as someone interested in the creative process and the generation of complete worlds.  Bird has a lot of good stuff to say about the logic of comics and by extension long-running series, and frames this out by establishing a bipolarity between Marvel's pseudo-realistic universe (i.e. "Obviously Spiderman freaks out sometimes, he is a superhero and thus suffers great tension") and DC's more fantastical universe (i.e. "One man can clearly shoulder the burden of being Bruce Wayne and Batman while not really arousing suspicion and/or being an asshole").  It's a great take on how to make storytelling work, and it's one of my favorite topics on which to read Bird's work, because he gets it in a more elemental way than most. 
Pictured: Wildstorm universe, Josie's concern that her blog is too text-heavy.
Bird also produced a really excellent and helpful overview on Canadian politics that I think everyone should read: A Primer on Canadian Politics  Americans need to know and care about how Canada works and what's going on up there (usually, awesomeness), because we're inextricably linked, both by virtue of our geography and our economics.  Befriend your Canadian bretheren! 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Your Kid Brother is Watching You

I have a lot of concerns about Big Brother watching us through our ever accelerating technology, into which we pour our entire lives.  Even those who eschew Facebook, Twitter, MySpace (?? I don't know) and other social media must take extreme measures to truly get off the grid and out from under the eyeballs of various watchers - phones bounce off cell towers, credit and debit cards provide a map of our purchases, toll transponders note when we pass through on our way to wherever, surveillance cameras abound, electric bills lead to your home.  This all makes it ever easier for the government - or whoever - to keep tabs on us. 
However, it has also made us more willing to rat each other out, which may be the worst aspect of this rise of technological surveillance.  The Harvard Business Review just posted an article about people in Vancouver gleefully reporting their fellow Vancouverians via social media during the riots that followed Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  The police, not being idiots, and recently having some trouble with not being douchebags up in the True North, seem to be concerned primarily with the volume of reports coming in.  It's a little tough, because on the one hand, you shouldn't get up to criminal mischief and set your city on fire.  That's pretty clear.  It's dangerous and it's jerky.  However, it doesn't sit well with me for the police to be able to go back to a mob scene and pick and choose the people they want to prosecute.  Even if they see criminal activity, it seems like a fishing expedition. 

I think the thing that I find upsetting is the tendency towards wanting to rat each other out, and that this surveillance eliminates our ability to resolve things without the force of law.  David Brin had a nice post the other day about the idiocy of police whining about being videotaped, in which he said he failed to understand why good cops would need privacy to do their public jobs.  I think he only gets half of the problem, because the surveillance knife cuts both ways.  On the one hand, surveillance via cell phone, etc., can protect citizens against what unfortunately is a massive law enforcement population which includes some bad cops and some bad, prejudicial operational policy.  On the other, it leads to the kind of finking that is visible in the Vancouver article, and it also - and this is more important - removes the possibility of good cops stepping in to mediate conflicts and resolve them without arrests, which is what ties police to the community and fosters cooperation and good relationships.  Bad cops remove this option by creating a paranoia within the public that prompts them to film every police interaction, because if a good cop is filmed trying to help someone without following the letter of the law, there's a chance that the good cop's job could wind up at risk because politicians and pearl-clutching citizens are jerkfaces.

We're all in this together.  No matter what, we won't be living in individual bubbles of self-sufficiency any time soon.  To live together well, we need to drop our willingness to rat each other out for every little thing, and work to resolve all we can without the blunt instrument of the law.  Don't worry so much about arresting rioters who are acting foolishly - focus on making sure those who were causing actual damage and injury are prosecuted and on getting the drunken idiot brigade home and off the streets...and then let it go.  Don't get vindictive, don't persecute people for acting the fool, just let it go.  Stop ratting out your neighbors, even if it's as easy as checking your Twitter feed.

Barney Frank and Ron Paul to Harness Both Parties' Awesomeness to Push Bill Legalizing Marijuana, Regain Sanity

Word is that Barney Frank and Ron Paul are set to introduce a bill today that would decriminalize marijuana and defuse a lot of the attendant fuckery that stems from its criminality.  I am not sure how far this bill will go - there was a similar bill brought by the same team in 2009 that fizzled big time - but I will never pass up an opportunity to support the work to decriminalize marijuana.  Marijuana's classification as a Big Bad in the universe of drug use is ludicrous and damaging, and allows the federal government to promulgate the demented and racist War on Drugs that keeps minorities in jails, gives excessive power to all kinds of law enforcement and creates a need (and supply) for private prisons which function for profit and on the bare edge of legality, all for the botanical equivalent of vodka.
Source: Jack E. Henningfield, PhD for the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Reported by Philip J. Hilts, New York Times, Aug. 2, 1994 "Is Nicotine Addictive? It Depends on Whose Criteria You Use."  Source:
I don't advocate for the legalization of all drugs - there is some genuinely horrid shit out there that is a pox on society and should stay illegal and buttressed by rehabilitation programs - but marijuana is such an innocuous, potentially useful drug that it's ridiculous for it to be illegal, much less stigmatized the way it is.  Not only does it give more justification to the War on Drugs, but it also limits the possibilities for pain management and medical treatment and keeps us from the chance to use hemp plants to make safer, non-petroleum-based plastics and fabrics.   There's really no reason for marijuana to remain illegal, and I'm glad that Reps. Frank and Paul are taking this step against idiocy.

Whitey Bulger's Retirement Has Ended

This might not be that interesting for non-Massachusettsians, but Whitey Bulger was finally captured after 16 years on the run.  Bulger's Winter Hill gang absolutely terrorized Boston for years, and his flight has highlighted corruption within the FBI, as he turned his FBI observers into informants. 
We have a strange relationship with crime like Whitey's up here - there's a certain gritty glory attributed to the Winter Hill gang's time in power.  Everyone's response has more or less been "wow, I can't believe they finally got him," not "glad that son-of-a-bitch got what was coming to him" or anything like that.  I think for many in Massachusetts, Whitey Bulger had just ridden off into the sunset.

IUD Update, and Well Played, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

About a month ago, I got an IUD and you all got to learn about my cervix - no more cervix today, I promise - and just to update you, I love it more than ever.  Being off hormonal birth control has been glorious, not least because I'm not so cravey about foods (I've lost about 10 lbs since it was inserted), and I really feel comfortable knowing that my birth control has built in perfect use going for it.  Two thumbs up, and only two because I am limited by my number of hands. 

In other news, which is more official and fancy sounding, IUDs have been formally endorsed for all healthy adult women and adolescents by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.  Hooray!  After a long period of Stateside shunning, IUDs finally have a major college of professionals openly endorsing them.  The one thing that's kind of a bummer about most articles about IUDs is the way they list costs; while the actual procedure and device costs between $400 and $700, this is generally offset by insurance or by low-cost reproductive care providers like Planned Parenthood (if you click there, you can find a location near you quickly and easily).  I mentioned in my earlier article that my IUD cost $20 and saved me over $4300 in monthly birth control, which of course assumes that I will stay insured and the NuvaRing I was on before stayed covered and at the same price.  [NB: This is why preserving Planned Parenthood matters.  They provide low cost care to the people who need it most.  If you want less abortions, make reproductive care more readily available.]  I'm really happy to hear about this endorsement!

Michele Bachmann is a Whackadoodle, but That Doesn't Mean She's Ignorable.

Victor Juhasz's illustration for Rolling Stone
Matt Taibbi has a great article on Michele Bachmann's political arc and why it's horrifying in Rolling Stone this month.  I love Taibbi and recommend everyone read his work; you can catch him on his blog - Taibblog - or regularly in Rolling Stone proper. 

Taibbi pairs his clear disdain for Bachmann's delusions and whackitude with an essential warning: that despite her craziness, she has proven a compelling and dangerous candidate.  During the 2008 campaign, I heard a lot of people on the left confidently assuming that Obama or any other Democrat would sweep to victory easily.  This was the excuse given for not campaigning that hard, for not voting, for not worrying about it.  This cannot happen again.  If Bachmann gets the GOP nomination, Obama will not have the edge on charisma that he did over McCain.  The economy, in lieu of real, robust assistance and reform on Wall Street, is going to fall again, and thanks to Murphy's Law, it will probably do so right before the elections, causing the same panic we saw before the 2008 cycle.  People already frustrated with economics they don't understand and government too busy bickering to foment real change are going to respond to that by voting against everyone in office, starting with a man many of them hate simply for being who he is.  (I'll leave you to decide which slur-tastic category of "being who he is" you'd like to assume the worst of them for.)  This is not the time to relax, and it's not the time to take Bachmann lightly. 

I assume that Taibbi is atheist or has atheist leanings, because he does seem to discount most religion as the stuff of delusion and blindness.  This is one of my least favorite attitudes.  I hope I can give Taibbi the benefit of the doubt here and assume that he knows that not all religion requires lockstep idiocy or inherently evil.  I think I am safe making this assumption because of this piece of the article:
"Snickering readers in New York or Los Angeles might be tempted by all of this to conclude that Bachmann is uniquely crazy. But in fact, such tales by Bachmann work precisely because there are a great many people in America just like Bachmann, people who believe that God tells them what condiments to put on their hamburgers, who can't tell the difference between Soviet Communism and a Stafford loan, but can certainly tell the difference between being mocked and being taken seriously. When you laugh at Michele Bachmann for going on MSNBC and blurting out that the moon is made of red communist cheese, these people don't learn that she is wrong. What they learn is that you're a dick, that they hate you more than ever, and that they're even more determined now to support anyone who promises not to laugh at their own visions and fantasies."
That to me indicates an understanding that it is a certain kind of person - particularly a certain kind of religious person - who creates the problem he's discussing.  He is right to have concerns about this, and I hope that atheists take a moment to consider this.  I am religious and I find myself infuriated at the smugness and presumption of so many otherwise sane and compassionate atheists who simply cannot keep their overbearing attitude at bay.  I freely admit that there are plenty of religions that are damaging and do seek to impress their will on the general public through political actions, but not all do, and it would behoove atheists to bear that in mind, and to be more specific with their criticism lest they find themselves guilt of the same shaming and generalizing behavior they tend to criticize in religious people.  This is particularly resonant in the context of the above passage as pertains to Bachmann. 

No one gains anything from belittling the people whose faith Bachmann exploits for support.  It is Bachmann, playing on their fears in a scary time, who deserves our scorn.  Nor should we assume that those who oppose us politically are stupid.  Instead, we have to work to convince them that the people preying on their fears will lead them not into freedom but oppression.  To solve our problems, we must assume the best of our fellow Americans and work together for a better world.  We have bigger things at stake than petty divisions - and we cannot allow our revulsion at the success of people like Bachmann separate us. 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Styrofoam and Social Context, OR Captain Planet Would Not Be Having This

I went camping a week ago up in Ontario and I forgot to bring a cooler.  I wasn't bringing any food across the border, so I guess I just x-ed cooler considerations off my list of things to remember altogether.  But since there was beer in play, we needed a cooler, which was annoying because my house is like, 50% coolers and I didn't really need another one.  I remembered, though, that you can often get those styrofoam cooler things that you can't take to the beach because they ALWAYS wind up blowing into the water, and then you have to chase them and this always happens when you're at Hampton Beach or whatever and you're kind of pushing the whole "summer has arrived!" business so it's -17 degrees in the water and the second you put a foot in the water you start having cardiac events and then by the time you get over the shock, the cooler is halfway to the Cape, so you swim out and get it, drag it back, fill it with sand and sit on the beach in the glorious sun unable to appreciate a beautiful summerish day because you're trying to stave off hypothermia. 

Styrofoam's a jerk.

Anyway, the reason these things continue to exist is because the human brain can block out trauma, so in Ontario when we headed out to get supplies, I said we could just get one of those things, to which Canadian Friend Ben replied, "we could, but we don't have those up here."  I reacted to this with what I would probably class as glee, because...that's sound policy, right?  Styrofoam is basically a giant punch to the face of nature, and nature doesn't deserve that.  So in Canada, they're like "don't punch nature in the face, guys."  I like that a lot.  Ben thinks this is an overreaction, because he lives in a place where this is rightly accepted as common sense and it's not a point of contention in public discourse, whereas I live in a place where the people elected to run the country recently decided to replace the biodegradeable flat- and silverware in the Congressional cafeteria with styrofoam out of spite, because the point is definitely pissing on your political opponents, because only your political opponents have to live on the planet Earth. 

So whatever we worked it out and I got a new cooler to keep our beer cold and all was well.  This week, the same friend has gotten me hooked on watching old Captain Planet episodes on YouTube, and we've been reflecting on how great it is that someone made these.  The beauty of Captain Planet and the Planeteers is that the power to make a difference is always clearly on the Planeteers.  Captain Planet helps out when shit gets real - and as Ben pointed out, it always does - but it's the Planeteers that do most of the seeking out of polluters and combating them.  Each episode closes with a little PSA about how you can make small differences that add up to big change.  This wasn't seen as filthy pinko-Commie brainwashing, it was just...common sense.  Why wouldn't you teach kids about not littering?  Why wouldn't you tell them that if you are considerate of other people and the Earth, everyone wins?  Why wouldn't you teach that to EVERYONE?
Earth! Water! Fire! Wind! Heart!
It can be hard to quantify and explain social context to people.  Ben thought I was losing my damn mind over the non-existence of styrofoam coolers, but what that represents is a society that accepts and in fact defaults to ideas that I have to argue with people about on the regular.  I've been trying to write for a couple days about the valley I'm in as a feminist right now; I'm in one of those phases where everything just feels very oppressive, like even though I have wonderful people around me who believe in equality, there's just too much to do.  Sometimes the reality that I will probably die without the best hopes of feminism being realized being accomplished weighs very heavily on me, and that can be tough to wade through.  The idea of social context is very present in discussions about feminism, because there is so much of our society tinged with our concepts of gender and sex.  Feminists willing to talk feminism in public often find themselves on the receiving end of charges like "you're taking this too seriously" or "if you weren't so hostile, maybe people would listen to you."  I understand where this is coming from.  We're groomed to privilege "passionless," logical, academic arguments and devalue emotional presentation of arguments.  However, the reason people get upset is a disparity in perspective: for the feminist, this is a discussion of a woman's right to occupy equal space in society as a man, and for her debate opponent, it is a thought experiment that can exist in the abstract without affecting their life*.  In this stance, you often see backlash to attempts to get people to make room in discourse for equality or awareness.  I understand that too.  Changing the status quo is weird and uncomfortable feeling.  The thing is, it only feels that way for a short while.  After the adjustment period, everyone benefits. 

This is why I'm sad that there doesn't seem to be a new Captain Planet, and that our discourse is couched in terms of extreme individuality and reinforces various -ist concepts that divide and injure us all.  There's a sense that without sexism or racism or homophobia, there can't be humor, and we can't enjoy our coexistence.  Not to overwhelm you with the various media I'm watching these days, but I was watching Golden Girls this morning, and the episode was one where Sophia finds a Cuban boxer, who she is going to pay fight fees for.  He seems like a total Hispanic caricature, and the ladies sort of treat him as such.  One night, right before the fight, they find that he is missing.  They locate him in a practice space...playing violin.  It turns out that he is auditioning for Julliard, and needs the fight purse money to attend the school if he gets in.  He gently points out that the ladies assumed he was just some ignorant Hispanic, and lapses into a little monologue about how Cubans are people too - "if you cut us, do we not bleed?" - and then after a brief pause, says he thought about acting, hence the dramatics.  It's funny and makes the point without shaming; you're aware of the stereotype, you have to think about it, but you think twice about it.  That's all it takes - awareness of the dynamics we see and the fact that they intersect with a wealth of dynamics we don't see because we don't live the same life as everyone we encounter. 

We'll always be different, and that's why conversations about how you're "colorblind" or what have you are unconstructive.  It's not as easy as pretending that no one is different.  Reaching the best of social structure means creating a common space where we can explore each other and make room for one another.  That means protecting common resources - the earth, infrastructure, governments, political structures - so that we all have equal access to this space and can achieve our own best lives.  We begin with building context. 

*  This probably sounds like only men oppose feminism, but that's only true if we presume that gender disparity only hurts women, which is not the case.  For every expectation of women in society, there is an opposing pole of expectation for men, locking everyone into certain spaces.  Sexism limits everyone, but our society is influenced it, so that's what we know how to navigate.  This is why women, who may not be anti-feminist in reality, may defend sexist or oppressive concepts, because it's a known quantity. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Weiner to Resign; Democrats Jump Shark

The Hill is reporting that Rep. Anthony Weiner will resign, likely Thursday, in the face of pressure from all sides after tweeting pictures of himself to at least six women. 

I am reporting that this goddamn party has jumped the shark. 

I grew up in Massachusetts and I've voted mostly Democrat ever since I was old enough to do so.  I'm sure lots of people would like to brush that off as "oh, you're just voting that way because of where you lived or how your parents voted," or any of the other tired tropes that people haul out when they want to suggest that people who disagree with them are unthinking automatons because it's easier to dehumanize people than consider their views.  And you know, in a certain way, they're not wrong.  I DO vote Democrat because of my parents and my community, because my parents taught me to care about the welfare of other people, and not just myself.  My community - Worcester goddamn Massachusetts, home of the smiley face, of the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, of the American Antiquarian Society, of the Higgins Armory Museum, of the Galleria - taught me that when a community bands together and cares about each other, they can make a better world for themselves and for others.  My community and my parents taught me that when you make sure everyone's doing all right, everyone can succeed, and everyone can reap the benefits of that success, because we don't live in little bubbles, we live together, and that means it matters how everyone else is doing.  So yes, I vote Democrat, campaign Democrat, write Democrat and live Democrat because of where I grew up and who taught me.

All of that is why I am so angry - infuriated - with the Democrats for pressuring Weiner to resign.  What he did was wrong.  The man is married and he was sending pictures of his genitalia to women, some of whom did not solicit it, which is doubly bad, because consent matters.  However, he did nothing illegal, and he did not run on the kind of Super Morals Man platform that so many on the right bust out every couple of years, so not only did he not break the law, he didn't go against his own public statements.  He's a scumbag, and that's really disappointing, because I like Anthony Weiner, but being a scumbag doesn't carry legal consequences.  Instead of defending their own, the Democrats decided to start whining about what a distraction Weiner was.  Let us be clear: taking this stance made it a distraction.  It is absolutely mindboggling to me that the Democrats did not turn around and slap the GOP as hard as they could with the hypocritical defense of GOP members who committed actual crimes in the course of their scandals.  It is remarkable that they did not have the backbone to say "we will talk about this when David Vitter, who broke the law of his own district and state by hiring prostitutes, resigns."  It is amazing that they failed to say "why should Weiner resign when John Ensign continues to serve after sleeping with a subordinate, paying people to cover it up, hiring his assignee's son and bribing her husband, and lying flagrantly and continually about it all?"  It is spectacular in the actual sense of being a spectacle that not a single soul in the Democrat party managed to say "Weiner will resign when it costs the taxpayers a single penny, like the exploits of Mark Sanford, who flew to Argentina to carry on an affair and then lied about it as you would to a small child with a tiny vocabulary."  This is of course without touching the fact that Vitter, Sanford and Ensign all run on moralizing platforms that one can only really claim a right to when their beatific purity actually renders them unable to wear anything but flowing white robes and a halo in public. 

I want to scratch my eyes out because this business has made me agree with Michael Steele, who has done nothing but irritate me since he was named RNC chair and apparently plans to continue doing so even though he has left the post, because he went on Rachel Maddow's show and said "I heard what [current RNC chairman Reince Priebus] said today and I thought it was a little bit not right.  A pox on both their houses because they violated the public trust." Of course, this demonstrates the classic adage about three fingers pointing back at you when you point one at someone, since Steele was at the helm during the Vitter, Ensign and Sanford scandals, but that doesn't mean he's wrong. 

The thing is, this is about more than the loss of Anthony Weiner.  New York has some redistricting coming and there's a good chance his district could have been eliminated.  He could have failed to be reelected.  He could have vaporized into the Bermuda Triangle.  What is most upsetting about this is not only the loss of Anthony Weiner but the victory of the GOP's weltanschaaung over the Democrat party's political will.  By shaming Weiner out of office, the Democrats have accepted the Republican line that says Democrats are bad for not meeting the GOP's moral "standard" (GOP members' transgressions aside, of course), that Democrats aren't focused, that Democrats are evil sex-beasts of some kind.  Giving in to this allows Speaker John Boehner to call "the Weiner imbroglio a "distraction," saying voters wanted Congress to focus on job creation" when his GOP-lead Congress, which was unquestionably elected on their promises to focus on jobs creation, has brought ZERO jobs bills to the floor in over one hundred days, despite the fact that they apparently had PLENTY of time to almost shut down the government by attaching policy riders to a budget bill (indicating not only a lack of seriousness and professionalism but a general misunderstanding of how the budget process works).  It allows the GOP to continue blowing smoke up the collective asses of Americans who are worried and want real change to overcome the economic and political crises in which we find ourselves. 

This all goes beyond the Weiner scandal itself, of course.  The Democrats have seated themselves permanently on the defensive, trying to satisfy Republican demands so people who are being mean to them will stop.  They've adopted Oliver Twist as a role model, begging for more gruel while the GOP proposes outrageous and damaging policies that will worsen our recession and demolish the political system we love.  The Democrat party has accepted the GOP line that says Democrats hate America, want to steal your money, want to spend it to spend it, don't take defense seriously...all the bullshit claims that are leveled at me, at the people I support, at the ideas I espouse, every time I have a political conversation, which have zero truth to them whatsoever.  Every time the Democrats go on the defensive in this way, they ACCEPT these claims, and I am sick of it.  I'm sick of my party, which I have supported since I was 12, sticking stamps on envelopes in the first of many cramped campaign offices, agreeing on my behalf that we really are just jerks who are given space in governance out of pity and need to be watched carefully. 

I want desperately to see liberals standing up in robust promotion of liberalism, of the idea that caring for the whole brings the best for the individual as well as the whole.  I want Democrats to walk the walk, of course, but right now, I just want to hear them talking the talk.  I want them to carry JFK's words from the 1960 New York Liberal Party acceptance speech in their pockets, next to their hearts: "If by a 'Liberal' they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people - their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties - someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a 'Liberal,' then I', proud to say I'm a 'Liberal.'"  And you know what?  Kennedy didn't always abide by those words - some of his policies were a horrorshow - but that he was willing to stand up and say those words, to muster that defense of liberalism, is noble and entirely lacking in today's political discourse, even though those words - that liberal dogma - are no less true today.

Democrats have failed to embrace this and to bear up the torch of liberalism as the GOP hacks gleefully away at the policies and programs that have made us one of the greatest nations in the world.  That is a shame.  The Weiner resignation is the latest and perhaps clearest admission of defeat, and the Democrat leadership should be ashamed for their part in it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Beyaz Needs to Stop Telling Me What Being a Woman is About

If you are a TV watcher, you probably know more about erectile dysfunction, tampons and birth control options than you would ever have chosen to know left up to your own devices; those ads are everywhere and insist on being either weirdly coy or SRS BZNZ about it, which always throws me.  There was one ad a while back that I found particularly irritating.  It was for Yaz, and the premise of the commercial was that when women get dressed up and go out to a fabulous cocktail party on some kind of rooftop lounge, they immediately start talking about their birth control, not just in the kind of "I use X, it is good/bad" way that does occasionally happen, but in a detailed manner.  It was the least subtle thing in the history of ever and started with Generic Woman #1 saying something like "HEY GENERIC WOMAN #2, LIFE MUST BE BUSY WITH ALL YOUR DOCTORING!  WHAT CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT THE SIDE EFFECTS OF THAT NEW BIRTH CONTROL FROM BAYER?"  The first time I saw it, my eyes nearly rolled out of my face, out the door and down the driveway.  There's something about the way these women are portrayed that just set me on edge - I got the feeling that the ad people were kind of like "a lady doctor!  Heeeeelarious!  It's okay though, it's for lady medicine."

As it turns out, taking Yaz basically turns your blood to one giant clot or something (????), and also can cause something called hyperkalemia that leads to cardiac arrest and kidney failure, so it's been recalled.  [NB: In the process of this recalling, it turns out that even the FDA took issue with the commercials, though not for the annoyingness quotient.  They said that the ads "were overstating the benefits of Yaz while distracting viewers from the risks by playing fast-moving images and music while risks were read out loud or displayed on the screen."  See previous link.]

I recently found myself chasing my eyeballs down the driveway yet again, this time thanks to an ad for something called Beyaz.  I thought to myself "hmm, "60% of 'Beyaz' sounds like that stupid Yaz pill, and the other 40% sounds like its maker's name...mayhap this product verily be similar."

Oh hey, it's totally the same thing with a folate supplement

So Bayer is basically trying to get one over on women, which is like, totally great, because it's not like it isn't a pain in the ass for women to get hormonal birth control in the first place in this country, so why not ALSO lie about its risks?  Nice one, Bayer.

That's offensive, but luckily Bayer was also able to maintain its record of marketing this pill with revolting fuckery swaddled in tokenism and then baby-slinged to its stupid corporate chest with like, a million yards of gender roles.  They also did me a solid here because while the Yaz commercial was offensive in a hard-to-articulate way, the Beyaz model is pretty clear.

Ladies walk into a store, because women be shoppin', amirite?  Needless to say there are two white ladies in the foreground, followed in by a light skinned black woman and a Japanese lady.  The premise of these commercials is that Beyaz leaves you free to do what you want to do, instead of being crippled by PMS or PMDD.  I can get behind that, except Beyaz has a pretty clear and bullshit concept of what we womenfolk want. Let's take a look at what's on the racks at The Lady Store.
  • Grad school.  I am a grad student.  Hooray for grad school!  However, this is the only occupation oriented (and it's definitely oriented, grad school isn't a career) option in the store.  You could probably stretch it to a "women are nuturing educators" stereotype, but I am more inclined to take issue with the suggestion that women supposedly only want to go to grad school, and not for instance, run a company or work in a lab.
  • The Significant Other section.  All of them are male, and all fit Maxim/Cosmo-type tropes: there's a rocker, a prep, an athlete, a crunchy looking guy, etc.  I sometimes have difficulty explaining to men that gender roles are harmful to men as well, but this makes it abundantly clear, which I nice?  Not everyone fits in a box, and the more we try to define masculinity and femininity, the more limits we place upon ourselves.  It bears mentioning that all of the SOs are, again, male, because lesbians or bisexual women don't exist in Beyaz World.   BONUS GROSSNESS: the Japanese woman swipes one of the SOs (who is not Asian) from under the fingers of the white woman, which to me suggests a creepy racist angle centered on Asian women stealing away white men. 
  • A Picnic by a Waterfall/Trip to Paris.  Because women like romantic things, you see. 
  • A Stork.  You know this was coming.  I actually cut them slightly more slack here because it is a birth control ad and they need to demonstrate that taking their pill won't permanently disable your reproductive organs.  However, having a stork as a major part of the store suggests that all women have babies on their list, and that is not the case.
  • A House (with a White Figurine in Front).  Not everyone wants a house, and not everyone wants a picket fence.  This presumes a level of aspirational-Stepfordiana that I just find boring as hell.  Not all women are homebodies and not all homeowners are white.  Shocking, I know.
You might ask here, "what's the big deal? So what if they have girly things in the girly store?  It's a pill for women!"  To a certain extent you might be right - the objective of the ad is to market a pill to women, not to provide career counseling to them.  However, the "what's the big deal" card can cut both ways.  Why NOT include a woman in the significant other section?  Why NOT include a motorcycle?  Why NOT include a corner office?  Why NOT include a lab job?  What would the cost be to Beyaz of including these things?  Surely it would not be any more expensive than the ad already is.   The problem here is that the ad suggests that Beyaz allows women to do anything they want, and that everything a woman could possibly want is found right here in this store.  It reinforces the idea that women only want these things, and when an ad supporting this idea runs on national TV, it entrenches oversimplified ideas that box both men AND women into gender roles. 

It costs nothing to avoid reinforcing gender roles in media and carries a huge social cost to promote them. 

I Want to Be with You When the World Caves In

"...Someone or something will shatter our world again. And wouldn’t it be a shame if we didn’t take this opportunity, and the loss of these incredible people, and the pain that their loved ones are going through right now: wouldn’t it be a shame if we didn’t take that moment to make sure that the world that we are creating now, that will ultimately be shattered again by a moment of lunacy — wouldn’t it be a shame if that world wasn’t better than the one we previously lost?"              Jon Stewart, The Daily Show  
That was Jon Stewart's comment on the Gabrielle Giffords shooting.  This quote has been sitting in my draft file for almost six months now, because I wanted to write about it but also didn't want to write about it, because when I think about these kinds of statements, I can't help but think about September 11th, and even though we're closing in on ten years between that day and now, it is still painful to talk about it in depth.  I've written about my own experience in this space before, but I'm not sure I've ever talked specifically about the people in my life that day in the ways that brought them to mind when I heard Jon Stewart deliver this sentiment. 

I didn't have my family near me on September 11th.  They were in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, and phone connection was spotty.  What I did have, to touch and lean on, were the people in Washington with me.  I had my roommate Beth and the girls on my floor - Jen and Katie and Brandy and the Erins and Ashleys.  I had the hairdresser on campus, to whom I went because I didn't know what else to do but keep my appointment.  I had the security people who walked by the bench I sat on when I had to leave the TV screens.  The next day there was a bomb threat and I found myself in the Nebraska Avenue parking lot with my friend Colin in his hand-colored American flag shirt and Beth, again.  I'd lived in DC for about a month when that day came around, and I didn't really have best friends down there yet, but what I did have was the company of Americans. 

When Jon said "someone or something will shatter our world again," I thought "and wouldn't it be awful if we weren't together when that day came?"  I remember September 11th and the way we clung to each other in the days that followed, and it makes me so indescribably sad that we have become divided so violently by the fear of that day.  It so often seems that we have each taken the char of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and used it to sketch and shade our own private Americas, jealously hoarding our charcoal and drawing thick black lines around the edges of our paper to keep out anyone who might be able to hurt us, even a little bit.  I don't want to draw any more.  I don't want to black out Colin and Beth and the other kids who were in the parking lot who I didn't know.  I don't want to black out the women on my floor and the people I worked with.  Hokey as it sounds, what I want is to wrap my arms around each person and hold them until they're not afraid anymore, so we can move forward as Americans together, so we can use our charcoal together to continue our work on the great, fearless portrait of America we left behind that day.  It used to be worked in steel and leaves, berries and wood, in cloth and in paint and it can be again if we can only let go of our little pieces of black. 

Someone or something will shatter our world again.  And I want to be able to turn to my fellow Americans, to cry with them, and to take up their hands and walk forward out of the dark. 

The Challenges of Social Justice

I have a tumblr, which is not very exciting since I mostly use it as a reader with a minimum of posting, but it does provide me with a lot of great opinion and thought, interspersed with some really wonderful art.  One of the people I follow is a guy named Michael Wood, whose tumblr is called "Capitalism Kills," and he posted a thoughtful article about being a male feminist recently, and I think he raises some essential points.  You can read the article here.  His closing paragraph reads thus:
"The battles haven’t been picked wisely by feminists. It still astonishes me that I have been attacked the way I have in previous discussions. You shouldn’t berate, belittle, label and slander one of your own just because they occasionally have a mild disagreement with something you have said. It’s not positive, it takes focus off of the real issues at hand, and it doesn’t promote the cause. I hope this will one day change. I am still and always will be all about equality for women and I hope that one day there is no judgment passed or oppression dealt based on gender. But now I have no choice but to take a step back from the feminist movement. This has to be done solely by women, because men—especially if they are white or appear to be a “white male” as I do—aren’t allowed to have opinions because they are, in fact, men."
There are a couple problematic things here, not least the impulse to tell people how to conduct their fight for rights, but I think it's understandable here and highlights one of the great challenges of social justice movements.  I try very hard - and am sure that many other people do as well - to not let people who don't represent the core of a movement or group dissuade me from the movement's principles.  However, there is a real question of how often one can encounter the same viewpoints before assuming that the fringe represents the whole.  The fringe is often louder than the center, because the center attempts to quietly incorporate their concerns for social justice into their lives, whereas the fringe's efforts tend to take more active and extroverted approach.  This should be a call to the center, to voice our feelings about the issues we hold dear, and not to assume that the rightness of our position will speak for itself and somehow drown out those who contort the centrist message to something we do not support and cannot be sold to the general public.

However, at the same time we must understand that if we are to fight for freedom, we must accept that freedom may mean that people do things we don't like.  In feminism's case, it may mean accepting that some people want to cook dinner for their husbands in pearls and heels, that some women want to stay home with their children, that some women want to swaddle their lives in pink.  Feminism is about the ability to make that choice, and to suggest otherwise is to do violence to the most essential part of the movement.  It is a reluctance to understand this that leads to the loss of men like Michael Wood, who otherwise would serve as articulate, active, and enthusiastic allies in the progress towards feminism's goal of equality for women.  Feminism fights the patriarchal social structure all day, every day, and this means that men's voices are privileged above women's all day, every day.  Would that it be otherwise, but that's what we're dealing with right now.  With that in mind, what better weapon in the fight for female equality could there be than a loud, male voice unafraid to declare "I am a feminist, and the patriarchy is wrong"?

Diplomacy Matters, and We Are Bad at It

I recently attended a Worcester Committee on Foreign Relations meeting* that featured Ambassador John Maisto, who was a fantastic and engaging speaker.  He had plenty of stories and points to discuss about his time in the foreign service as the US Ambassador to the Organization of American States, Venezuela and Nicaragua.  He closed his remarks by noting that the US diplomatic corps' budget is only 1% of the national budget, while most people think it should be between 5% and 10% and think it is 25%.  He also noted that for every $1 spent on that corps, the military saves $5.  Despite all this, the State Department is continually assailed by attempts to cut its already meager budget.  Dan Kubiske writes about some of the attacks and about the value of diplomacy in this blog post.

Diplomacy is the art of managing international relationships, full stop.  These relationships can involve all kinds of issues, from conflicts to trade agreements.  Just as saying hi to your neighbor in the driveway in the morning can make you more likely to spare a couple eggs or some sugar when they need it, maintaining these relationships allows the United States to address problems appropriately when they arise and to work with other nations to capitalize on their partnerships when things are going well. Whenever you bring guns to the table, it makes the parties involved think a solution must be military; leaving the guns at home allows parties a graceful out and to feel that their sovereignty is secure and safe from later incursions.  Investing in diplomacy is essential to healthy foreign policy, reducing military overextension and reducing the debt by using less militarized force.  We cannot afford to let it slip out of effectiveness.

* Worcester's Committee is one of 28 committees associated under the American Committee on Foreign Relations.  It is a forum for public citizens to discuss important matters of foreign policy, and a seriously cool organization.  It actually formed from the bottom up in 1938, with the separate committees eventually putting together the ACFR in 1995 to better connect the various local groups and share resources.  In Worcester, the committee is run by the inestimable Hank and Donna Rose, and meets monthly at the beautiful Worcester Club for a lovely dinner and good company before hearing excellent speakers.  If you are interested in becoming a member or just checking out a meeting, please feel free to email me and I will bring you along!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

TRUE LIFE: I Am Actually BAD at Being a Neighbor

New England is currently doing the thing where it goes to glory and produces some truly beautiful nature.  I woke up this morning to a spectacular green day and decide that despite its being a bit hot, it would be a great day to get out on the Rail Trail, which is about four minutes from my house and is maintained by the excellent Wachusett Greenways people.  It's a lovely wide trail meticulously graveled and groomed, and there are some nice little bridges and benches and what have you.

On my way out, I noticed some trails that seemed to go down towards the river.  I kept walking, crossed my favorite bridge, and went a little way past it.  I'd set a timer because I had to be home by a certain time, and it went off by a big rock that seemed like a good place to mark my turnaround.  When I got the bridge, I saw that another trail went down to the river, and turned off onto that trail, figuring I could follow the river a short distance and turn around.  It kept going, and as I walked, I remembered the turnoff I'd seen earlier in my walk and figured I could just go up there and meet up with the trail.  The path was full of slanting sunlight and soft green moss, and when I got to a place where I could see the main trail across the river, I was so enamored of nature that my decision making abilities might have been a leeeeetle impaired and I decided to just ford the river.  I tied my shoes around my bra strap and put my keys and phone in my bra, and set off into the river.  I made it just fine and clambered up the hill to return to the trail.

Here's where the failure starts.

I got off the trail and since no one else was in the parking lot, I just took my jeans off to drive home.  I just cleaned my car, including scrubbing all the seats down with saddle soap, last week, so I didn't want to put my wet butt on them if I didn't have to.  I figured I would be able to scoot in the house no problem, what with it being the middle of the day on a Tuesday. 

Our favorite neighbors are moving, one of them having taken a new job in Philly, and thus have been working to sell their house.  I pulled into my driveway to see our current neighbors, our potential new neighbors, and their home inspector all standing in their driveway.  I made an elaborate pantomime of "damn! I can't believe I forgot that...thing!" and drove three streets over to wriggle back into my jeans and reassess my life choices. 

This is why when " Your Life!" shows up they'd better have a laugh track on standby.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Flying the Friendly Skies

A while back, I was turned on to a great tumblr called Of Another Fashion, which chronicles the fashion of American women of color.  Today, because they apparently love me and want me to be happy, they posted this stunning shot:
How awesome is that?  I am such a sucker for all those old school aviation shots - I'm nearly driven to weeping by the badass Virgin Air ads that have been running - and this one is so lovely and fun.  The Of Another Fashion folks explain that this is from an upcoming book, which I will definitely be buying.  You can get more information and a link to purchase the book by clicking through to the tumblr.

I love the idea of Of Another Fashion, because as much as I love fashion, I can't, as someone concerned with equality, ignore the blinding whiteness of it all, paired with some of the more blatant tokenism available in pop culture.  The only upside to this is that while white, mainstream fashion has toodled along, so too has the vibrant fashion of women of color, under the radar far enough to preserve some of the ethnic and cultural influences that white fashion with its voracious appetite for change and innovation has cast aside.  This tumblr does a beautiful job at finding that undercurrent and holding it up to the light, and it is spectacular. 

When I talk with male friends of mine about feminism, I often note that misogyny hurts men as well as women.  The reinforcement of gender roles binds men into the "manly" role just as tightly as women are tied to their "feminine" role, whereas feminism in its end stage would release both genders from these ties and allow people to live as they are.  I think there's a correlative property in racism, and it is particularly evident here.  Racism's overwhelming nature puts race above ethnic and cultural qualities; there is no monolithic "white" except in terms of political and social understanding, but fashion, as well as other cultural fora, have been made to pretend that that political monolith exists in those contexts as well.  There are designers and models from every ancestry, yet more often than not, those varied shades of "white" have been bound up in what we consider the mainstream.  In a way, the excision of people of color from mainstream fashion has allowed them a diversity in fashion that the mainstream does not permit.  This to me is yet another sad aspect of racism - it prohibits all of us from being simply as we are.  Hopefully, blogs like Of Another Fashion will highlight the diversity in fashion and culture to the benefit of us all. 

Grandma and Grandad in Seville, Spain
I also have a soft spot for everyday fashion because of my grandmother, Elizabeth Schmeck Brown, who besides being an awesome lady, is a remarkable woman who has made a life of studying fashion and textiles.  There is a gallery named after her at Cornell, where she went to school.  She just recently sold her WILD historical clothing collection to one of her colleagues, but previously, it took up about half of the second floor of her house, absolutely packed in.  Her cataloging skills are worth a special mention.  When I got married, she sent me her blue wedding garters, which were boxed with a note that read:
"Elizabeth Logan Schmeck's Blue Wedding Garters - July 29, 1944 - made by her mother, Pansy Logan Schmeck at her marriage that day to Walter Daniel Brown at Sage Chapel, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York"
These were accompanied by the world's cutest letter, explaining that the garters were to go to my sister when the appropriate time came, and talking a little bit about meeting and falling in love with Grandad.  They met in January and got married in July, and her letter closed with "When your grandfather died, we had been married 47 years. It lasted."  Doesn't that just slay you?  "It lasted." 

Being able to talk about fashion and its role in society and everyday life with Grandma was hugely formative for me, and some of those conversations have pointed me down my academic path, where hopefully I will be writing my dissertation on the role of clothing and the body in political development.  How we present ourselves and clothe ourselves is rife with meaning, and it's important that we preserve these meanings across all boundaries.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Books Yay!: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

After I finished and loved Dracula, I decided to give some more classic horror a whirl, and downloaded Frankenstein.  (Next up: something about mummies.  Just kidding.  Maybe.)  It did not have a cover of note but I do want to mention that this one, from the Penguin Classics line, is both gorgeous and fitting.  Cool.

Frankenstein is written in a similar style to Stoker's book, as a sort of conversational journal referred to as "epistolary form."  The story is a lot more thoughtful and philosophical than what you tend to get in modernizations of the tale - the few villagers-with-pitchforks scenes are almost throwaways, and pale before the larger project of asking what makes a human.  I was really impressed with the beautiful treatment of some really complicated questions in this book.

The Frankenstein monster is no lurching green guy here, but a man simply constructed from parts by a man who realized the tragedy of this half-human's existence.  This is relayed by Frankenstein to Captain Walton, who has found him half dead, chasing the monster over an icy ocean.  Frankenstein explains that he pursued knowledge with such abandon that he was driven to create this monster, which he immediately realized was an affront to nature.  The creature, however, is driven by a desire to be human and to pursue wisdom in his own right.  After Frankenstein abandons him, the monster travels the countryside, learning to read and speak in the process.  Unfortunately, people cannot get beyond his horrible appearance, and he is eventually shot at after rescuing a small girl from drowning by a man who sees the two of them; after this incident, he swears vengeance on mankind.  Once he has figured out the problems of his creation, he returns to kill several of Frankenstein's family members out of vengeance.  He demands that Frankenstein build him a companion, so that he can live out his life in social exile in companionship.  Frankenstein begins the project, but ultimately destroys it, unable to face having brought TWO such beings into the world.  The monster vows revenge, and kills Frankenstein's fiancee right before their wedding, touching off a pursuit which both vow can only end with one or the other dead.  It is in the middle of this pursuit that Walton finds Frankenstein. 

There is yet more to the story, but I think it would be best for you to read it yourself.  The whole book is a consideration of what it means to be human: is it the human body? Language? Speech?  Social interaction?  Through Frankenstein's tale, we are able to consider each, on our own and through the reactions of the characters in the book.  It's really an exceptional story, and the writing is beautiful.  I highly recommend this one, to be read when you have plenty of time to consider it.  Mary Shelley is an interesting story in and of herself, too - she published this in 1816, when suffice to say, not too many women were publishing.  She came up with the idea during a vacation with Lord freaking Byron and her husband, when they were stuck indoors by rainy weather brought on by volcanic eruptions.  Yes really.  They spent the time discussing things including galvanism or animation, and reading German ghost stories.  I don't know about you, but that seems like a guarantee that the product of such a vacation will be awesome!