Sunday, August 31, 2008

God is on our side!

So, with Hurricane Gustav surging toward the Gulf Coast and Mayor Ray "Chocolate City" Nagin calling for an evacuation of New Orleans, Republicans have decided to tamp down the festivities at their convention. What else can they do? Imagine the alternative: a split screen of the hurricane blowing down houses, with people on the rooftops and dogs drowning while Republicans party. And millions of Americans thinking: Katrina, Katrina, Katrina.

My husband thinks that Republicans will get credit for "being responsible." Mebbe. But any credit they get will be outweighed by the loss of momentum they would have gained from a blowout convention with all the stops pulled out. These extravaganzas shouldn't have any effect on voters, but they do. The crowd scenes, color schemes and branding the Democrats displayed in Denver shouldn't influence voters but they did and so will downsizing the Republican convention. So the Republicans are damned if they do and would have been doubly damned if they didn't. Instead of upstaging the Democrats, the Republican convention will be an anti-climax because God has rained on their parade, and instead of following the convention, Americans will be following Hurricane Gustav and thinking: Katrina, Katrina, Katrina.

Republicans timed the announcement of McCain's pick for VP wonderfully, but God's timing was even better. Gustav is due to touch down tomorrow. Let the congregation respond: Katrina, Katrina, Katrina.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Sarah Palin

Unity Deferred - Can You Cross Out ‘Hillary’ and Write ‘Sarah’? -

The Palin nomination complicates the gender question in many ways. [W]hat will happen if the misogyny extends to Ms. Palin? There were hints of that on Friday, with Web sites showing photographs of her bare-shouldered in the days when she was runner-up for Miss Alaska, or as one caption read, “showing off her legs.” “Sarah Palin — Alaska Gov., McCain’s V.P. Pick, Kind of a Babe,” read one Internet headline.

Sarah Palin is not going to impress feminists, not because of her views on abortion, but because McCain's selection of her as his running mate is, ironically, is sexism in it's starkest form. What does a woman have to do to achieve success? Be young, be beautiful, be available, and play second-banana to a powerful male.

That is what being a "sex object" is all about--not being "objectified," not being an object rather than the subject, not being a consumer product. We're all of us consumer products--goods that are "consumed" in the neutral economic sense for our conversation, for the jobs we do or simply as warm bodies, and there's nothing wrong with that. Women are "sex objects" to the extent that women are consumed primarily for characteristics that make them sexually attractive--not because consumers want to have sex with them, but because women are deemed valuable for other purposes to the extent that they are sexually attractive. Receptionists in high-gloss firms aren't hired to have sex with customers: they're hired to serve as posh furnishings in the outer office, to symbolize the firm's prestige. And what makes a woman prestige-producing is sexual attractiveness.

Some Republicans may imagine that that by featuring a woman on the ticket they're upstaging Democrats: Democrats rejected Hillary but Republicans have done better by women, putting a woman on the ticket. But I don't think that that's the message most women will get. The message it sends is rather that the political system, reflecting the perceived will of the American public, is that women are not wanted for the sort of qualifications that are valued in men but only for the characteristics that make them sexually attractive: youth, beauty, availability and willingness to support and serve powerful males. That's hardly a crack in the glass ceiling: it's just the same old story.

McCain has in effect married a second trophy wife. The bipartisan political system has dumped Hillary, after trashing and humiliating her, and taken up with a pretty young chickie. Even Clinton supporters who are still angry at Democrats for dumping Hillary are not going to be grateful to Republicans for taking on Sarah Palin as her replacement.

There's nothing misogynistic about featuring featuring Palin "showing off her legs." There's nothing wrong with valuing women for their appearance any more than there is in valuing women, or men, for anything else: singing voice, sense of humor, athletic ability, scholarship or whatever. What is sexist is taking those qualities that contribute to sexual attractiveness as a necessary condition for valuing women at all and dumping on those who fail to meet that standard.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Obama, we hardly knew ye

[W]ith Barack Hussein Obama officially becoming the Democratic presidential nominee on Wednesday night, some of the same qualities that have brought him just one election away from the White House — his virtuosity, his seriousness, his ability to inspire, his seeming immunity from the strains that afflict others — may be among his biggest obstacles to getting there. There is little about him that feels spontaneous or unpolished, and even after two books, thousands of campaign events and countless hours on television, many Americans say they do not feel they know him. The charges of elusiveness puzzle those closest to the candidate. Far more than most politicians, they say, he is the same in public as he is in private.

I prepared for California, where I had gotten a tenure-track position and so would likely spend the rest of my life, by re-reading Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One. A tale of the Hollywood funeral industry, an enterprise devoted to denial, it features Miss Thanatopolos, a junior embalmer whose toilette Waugh describes in excruciating detail. Every morning, Miss Thanatopolos depilatates and deoderizes herself. She showers, emulsifies, shaves, tweezes, colognes, brushes, polishes and makes up until she is the perfectly standardized, sanitized American virgin.

Americans must want this since firms spend millions training staff to be polished, pleasant and bland--from uniformed convention-hotel clerks and flight attendants to salesmen, trainers and facilitators in business casual. I've been to innumerable workshops and training sessions run by these facilitators on topics ranging from cultural sensitivity to alcohol awareness. "Training" is supposed to be the efficient, scientific alternative to education. Trainers organize topics into modular skill-sets which they inculcate by means of recipes, relating games and drill in an atmosphere of cheerful boosterism.

Everyone knows it's crap. Last spring, at a workshop on student advising, faculty who taught Friday classes were advised to dismiss their students with the formula, "Have a safe and sober weekend." None of us will. The functionary who offered this piece of advice knew that none of us would and all of us knew that even if we did it would have no effect whatsoever on student behavior. Academics are untrainable.

But even when training is successful we don't always like the results. Last night at the convention, Americans were charmed again by Bill Clinton. Bubba could never even be trained to keep his pants up but Americans forgave him seventy time seventy. Everyone loved Bill. But most cannot connect with Obama--perfectly trained, perfectly polished and flawless.

It isn't that we think he's an empty suit: we know he's smart--probably a lot smarter than we are. And it isn't the perception of elitism. All presidents and presidential aspirants are moneyed and educated. But even Poppy Bush, the uber-WASP and most overtly patrician president in office during my lifetime, didn't make Americans uneasy in the same way. I always warmed to Poppy in the way I, and everyone else, warmed to Bubba.

But I don't think anyone really warms to Obama. I'd love a beer with Bubba or a martini with Poppy Bush but I would not want to sip white wine with Obama. Bush Sr. and Bill have private lives and characters behind their public personae that occasionally extrude through their political facades, and inform their public personae. Obama is perfectly trained, completely disciplined and, we sense, the same in private as he is in public, his entire personality subsumed into his political persona. I imagine that a social conversation with Obama would be like drill at a training session.

But even if they would not want to have a glass of wine with him, Obama has a wildly enthusiastic following and he will be elected. Training works. We deplore the homogenization of the American landscape, the shopping malls, franchise restaurants and McMansions, and see the superficial slickness of trained personnel for exactly what it is. But we buy it anyway. We want airports to be antiseptic and glitzy, with mildly interesting displays of semi-art, Tie-Rack and Wilson's Leather, and flight attendants to be bland and polite. Above all, we want presidents to look presidential.

I confess that I'm actually not one of the "we" who wants this. I find shopping malls unpleasant and avoid them. I hate it when employees at my local supermarket interfere with me to ask whether I'm "finding everything ok." All that cleanliness, slickness and glitz is not only wasted on me--it makes me uncomfortable because it sets standards that I don't want to make the effort to meet. All the stylized little interactions that employees in stores, banks and public facilities have been trained to perform--"how are you today?", "have a nice day," and the like--are 1000 little paper-cuts to me. I want either real conversation or no contact at all. Contact is stressful: it has a cost. But one is willing to pay the price if it leads to interesting conversation. These little contacts are, for me, pure cost with no benefit because I am shy.

But most people it seems aren't. Walmart, which cuts costs to the bone wherever it can to maximize profits, hires greeters, presumably because they've determined that most people want to be greeted and my local Vons, which just upgraded its establishment, has trained personnel to ask shoppers whether they're finding everything ok because someone in management has ascertained that most like it. Shy people, like me, put up with it because we have no choice and usually play along politely because we're ashamed of being shy. But most people, it seems, want little interactions as they go about their daily lives and want to conduct their business in settings that are clean, bland, unobtrusive and predictable, so firms train employees to play the part consumers want them to play in casual contact and maintain the bland, sanitized facilities that make them comfortable--muzak for the soul.

But even if most people want slick blandness in casual contacts, all want something more. Beyond those staged interactions and business dealings, they want real conversation, real individuality, real emotion, oomph, unpredictability, soul and heart. And that is what Obama has not got, because he is trained to the core.

Looking every inch the ideal flight attendant in his perfectly tailored blazer, Obama steps off the plane. We want flight attendants to be well-trained but we're not so sure we want that in a president.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Hillary's Speech

Can someone please shut up these Hillary-haters who just can't let go before they do serious damage to Obama's candidacy? There probably aren't any more of them than there are Hillary-diehards who intend to stay home or vote for McCain, but it's they, and their friends in the media--not Obama, or the Clintons, or anyone seriously involved in the political process--who are driving away Clinton's supporters and jeopardizing a Democratic win in November.

Hillary gave a fine speech and most recognized that. It was the best she could do for Obama given the circumstances and given the followers she needed to impress. If she were fawning or exhibited the contrition and self-agnegation her critics wanted she would have been less likely to win their hearts and minds and that speech wouldn't have done the job it was supposed to do.

The subtexts in the hostile comments I've read are infuriating:

"Hillary should have made this speech in February--and dropped out." Women shouldn't apply for jobs when there are men around who can do them. Back in February we saw that Obama was a viable candidate so Hillary should have dropped out. Women are a reserve army: we want them doing what would otherwise be men's jobs in wartime or in other circumstances when there aren't men around to do these jobs, but when there are men who can do the job women should bow out gracefully.

"Hillary was egotistical and self-referential: her speech was all me, me, me." One "me" from a woman in one "me" too many. Women should be altruistic, supportive and always put others ahead of themselves. Competing with Obama was in and of itself a violation of the code. It doesn't matter why Hillary ran: she should have apologized for trying to get the nomination for herself instead of supporting Obama--or some other viable male candidate.

"Hillary's still scheming: her speech in fact subtlely undermined Obama." Women are always scheming. They're manipuplative and you can never take what they say at face value. They're always looking to entrap or undermine men."

"I'm sick of the Clintons' psychodrama. We want pretty, plastic Barbie and Ken dolls--not people who've seen life and have the scars to prove it. We want a perfect, smiling, updated Ozzie and Harriet family.

"Hillary is really a conservative, on board with the Republican agenda, who wants McCain to win." Conservative = Old; Progressive = Young, pretty and cool. We want the old people out and the young people in.

I don't think it's much of a stretch to find these subtexts and, more importantly, I think these are the subtexts that Clinton supporters are reading. If Obama's groupies don't shut up, he's going to lose support in what is, incredibly, looking like a tight race. The media are continually reproducing the meme of angry Hillary supporters throwing a monkey wrench into the works--which is itself starting to look like a self-fulfilling prophecy--but haven't paid any attention to the damage these disruptive Obama groupies are doing.

And there's yet another offensive subtext in that: "Boys will be boys, and the young can be indulged. It's those hysterical old harridans that are being obstructive, disruptive and spoiling everyone's fun. Shut up, get back to the kitchen and bake cookies--and stop bothering us."

Monday, August 25, 2008

Shove Over, Sam

# 16. August 25th, 2008, 3:48 pm

The way Hillary acted in the primary was and is inexcusable. She and Bill obviously can’t handle the fact they are has-beens. It’s now time for them to get out of the way and let younger politicians have their day.

— Posted by Sam

So, you want to know why more than half of Clinton backers are still not sold on Obama? I suspect it's at least in part because of Sam, and other Obama supporters in the media, in the blogosphere and on the ground who manifestly share his views, even if most have been too polite to say so in such stark terms.

Sam's comments remind me of a sermon I heard while I was in college. The Rev. Martin Turner, a curate who was keen to be in all things relevant, told a moral tale about a feeble old lady who insisted on shuffling down the middle of the center aisle going for Communion, blocking everyone else's way. "Isn't life like that," said Fr. Turner, a Brit hired for his accent back in those days when every Episcopal Church worth it's salt had to have a priest with real or phony RP on staff. Old people, he said, needed to step aside and let the Younger Generation have their day in the sun.

I was 19 I think and as far as I could see there wasn't anyone else in that church under 50. I wondered what they made of it. I didn't like it one bit. I hoped to be an old lady one day, and didn't look forward to being told, "Shove over, granny, you're getting in the way."

I sometimes wonder whether Obama supporters who obsess about Hillary and whine endlessly about the obstructive shuffling of her supporters, those "low-information voters," old ladies and angry feminists, are as interested in getting Obama elected as they are in playing She's Fat. Most women remember the game of She's Fat from Middle School days. The idea was that calling someone else fat proved that you were not fat: if you were fat, you wouldn't dare to call anyone else fat for fear of being called fat yourself.

By the same token, there is no better way to prove that you are not a has-been or whiner, a redneck, old lady, angry feminist or other species of loser, and establishing your cool, than calling others uncool. Cool and uncool, like fat, are are states of mind. All 14-year-old girls, from the morbidly obese to the anorexic, believe that they are fat so the only way to establish that they are not fat is by bluffing. Even a plump adolescent girl can establish herself as non-fat if no one calls her bluff and so it is with cool. Support Obama and, even more importantly, trash Hillary and her supporters: if no one calls your bluff you establish yourself as cool. Middle-aged women and even elderly gents like Teddy Kennedy can become honorary members of the Younger Generation by supporting Obama, without surgical intervention.

Maybe that is what was in the heads of the 50- to 90-somethings who heard Fr. Turner's sermon--as background noise while reading the announcements in the bulletin, exploring the liturgy for the Churching of Women or mulling over the 39 Articles: if we agree with his remarks about obstructive old ladies blocking the aisle, then we can't be obstructive old ladies. He certainly didn't make much headway with the students at the college whom he was at pains to impress: I was the only one who ever went to church and I detested him. I don't think the townies were impressed either since Turner soon left for a job somewhere in an especially soggy part of East Anglia which couldn't have paid nearly as well.

Shove over, Sam, and give the Democrats a chance on this round.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


The Newer Deal: The path to a Democratic supermajority | Salon

What happened beginning in 1968 was that one two-party system -- let us call it the Roosevelt Party versus the Hoover Party -- gave way to the present two-party system, which pits the Nixon Party versus the McGovern Party...The Roosevelt Party ran on economic issues, and didn't care whether voters were in favor of sex or against it on principle as long as they supported the New Deal. The McGovern Party, by contrast, has made social issues its litmus test. Economic conservatives have had a home in the McGovern Party, as long as they support abortion rights and affirmative action, but social democrats and populists who are pro-life or anti-affirmative action are not made nearly as welcome...

Unfortunately the upper-middle-class left, with its unerring instinct for political suicide, is probably incapable of seizing the moment and bringing more Baptists and Catholics into the Democratic Party, because it has developed an almost superstitious distaste for religious conservatives. This might make sense if the religious right were still a menace, as it was a generation ago. But with the exception of state referenda and constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, religious conservatives have lost one battle after another, from failed attempts to promote creationism on school boards to the doomed effort to repeal Roe v. Wade...

Social conservatives, having lost the culture war, should be offered not only a truce but also an opportunity to join a broad economic campaign for a middle-class America, as many of them did between 1932 and 1968. When pro-choicers and pro-lifers unite in cheering the public investment and living wage planks at the convention of the neo-Roosevelt party, we will know that the political era that began in 1968 is truly and finally over.

Exactly so. Or rather almost exactly so. The Roosevelt Party's issues were money and work, the issues that have the most bearing on quality of life. However affirmative action is precisely about money and work. Without affirmative action I might be scanning groceries or, more likely, doing boring, routine clerical work that would drive me nuts.

Still, with that qualification, this article is dead on. Money and work are important and organizing things to that people can avoid poverty and drudgery is difficult, costly and a hard political sell. "Lifestyle issues" are issues are trivial and tractable, or maybe to give neo-liberal McGovernites credit, they occupy a more elevated position on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. If you're financially secure and have a decent job, then you can worry about relationships and lifestyles.

It should be obvious to Democrats why the old base, the white working class, has deserted. Since the McGovernites have come to dominate the party, the message has been "Let them eat cake." Let them eat whole foods, solar panels and relationships.

Adding insult to injury, elite neo-liberals, who can afford to eat whole foods, solar panels and relationships, construe working class resentment as a manifestation of ignorance and bigotry. They worry about the stability of families and clamor for "family values"--we know what that means: fathers brutalizing their children and women barefoot and pregnant. They worry about the crime--of course that's just plain racism. They want their kids to get a "back to basics" education, with lots of discipline and drill--obviously because they don't understand the importance of critical thinking and creativity.

It's appalling that the latte-drinking elite are so provincial and have so little imagination that they don't get it. Working class people have to worry about family stability because their families are less stable. They have to be concerned about discipline because they've seen kids run amok, and because if their kids don't perform they haven't got the means to bail them out. They worry about crime because they live in or near bad neighborhoods, or because they've fled to remote exurbs but remember what the alternative was like. We don't see crime, social disintegration or failure as real and present dangers for ourselves or our families. We don't press for discipline and drill in the 3 Rs because we take it as a given that our kids will of course learn them, go to good colleges and get good jobs; they don't. We can afford what they see as frills and distractions; they can't.

Would accommodating social conservatives be selling out? Most people I know think it would. 1984 was our parents' nightmare--the nightmare vision of an authoritarian Stalinist super-state. The Handmaid's Tale is ours. They imagine that any compromise on "wedge issues" will enable Fundamentalists to take over and establish a puritanical theocracy. The first Cold War is over (though another may be brewing) but the Cold War template is still firmly in place: we've just substituted religious fundamentalism for Communism. The worry is the same: fanatic ideologues out to establish a puritanical, authoritarian regime. In the old days anti-communist books sold and there was a whole genre describing the activities of spies and double-agents. Now New Atheist books are best sellers and the media pumps out scare stories about a Fundamentalist fifth column pushing Creationism and Abstinence-only sex education, collaborating with right-wing politicians to take away our freedom, undermine our way of life and ruin our fun.

I'm not worried. Social conservatives have in fact lost the culture war, as the article notes. But even more importantly, calling a truce and working with social conservatives to promote paleo-liberal policies seems to me the most effective way to insure that what's left of social conservativism will wither away. Strong religion and social conservatism are bi-products of poverty, insecurity and social disorder because they serve the interests of the poor. If you're a working class striver and want to improve your life the best you can do for yourself is to join a conservative church or join the military. If you're on the edge, hanging on by your fingernails, you need puritanism and iron discipline to keep from falling off.

If you live in a social democratic welfare state where you're financially secure, have access to decent public education and other social services, and can avoid poverty and drudgery, you don't need puritanism and iron discipline, you won't sign on with the Fundamentalist agenda and you will be able to afford the finer things higher up on Maslow's scale. This seems to be borne out by empirical facts: Euro-socialism secularized Old Europe and established the lifestyle McGovernites want.

Progressives by and large don't seem to have figured this out, but Conservatives have. Want to promote God, guns and guts, and keep the masses scared so that they'll keep voting for you? Keep them financially insecure, keep them in debt, perpetuate the existence of a criminal underclass to threaten them, and make sure that they're brain-dead by locking them into boring, mind-numbing work so that they will keep voting for you.