Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Conversation Continues

So, ER continues his discussion of hate-crimes legislation - about which he admits he knows little (I know this sounds snarky, but arguments like this are like knife fights, with the same rules).

I've weighed in a couple times today, and I will only add that I am glad for the opportunity to sharpen my position on this issue in a good, old-fashioned heated discussion with someone I respect, and consider a friend. What use would it be if we all agreed about everything? The internet would cease to exist!

The issue is important, and this only shows that reasonable people can disagree, be disagreeable (on occasion), yet still remain friends. Why we should pretend these issues, and the disagreements they engender, aren't important, is beyond me. Nor should we pretend that the friendships that exist between people who hold the opposite position on such issues is also real, and important, play a factor in how these things move forward. Did I not respect ER, I would simply laugh at him, make fun of him, and dismiss his arguments. Instead, I engage them, never once seeking to attack him personally (well, perhaps once, obliquely).

Maybe we should use this as a template for how people should interact when they disagree.

Anyway, feel free to add your two-cents on this particular issue. Some already have, and I encourage this kind of thing.

Saturday Rock Show

Before Bjork put Iceland on the musical map, she was a member of The Sugarcubes. It was strange, wonderful sounds they made. I think it was a bit too different for most American audiences, and Bjork's personality, larger than life in her solo career, has been a paparazzi favorite, even as she continues to make even more strange, more wonderful music. Part of the oddness, I think, is that accent - English coming out of a mouth used to making Icelandic sounds is just, well, different. This is the first song through which they made their mark, twenty years ago (!) now, "Cold Sweat".

Jonah Goldberg Gets Schooled By A (Great) Dead Historian

All I can say, and I will say it over and over and over and over again, is take the time to go read this by HTML Mencken over at Sadly, No!. If you think I'm wordy, this makes me look quite pithy. But read it. Read it again. And share it with friends.

As much fun as it is to laugh at the absurdity of Jonah Goldberg's attempt to equate fascism with contemporary American liberalism, Williams' little piece, with HM's commentary, is a wonderful, and thorough antidote to the pervasive stupid presented as wonderful insight by the likes of Goldberg. If you care at all about serious intellectual, insightful thought over and against the ridiculous nonsense printed in Goldberg's stupid book, you will read this.

Friday, January 25, 2008

In Defense Of Hate Crime Legislation

ER, in his usual inimitable style, reads this story of a man arrested for dangling nooses at a group of blacks protesting the recent events in Jena, LA, and comes out loudly, and profanely, against hate crimes legislation. I disagree, and would like to advise and extend remarks I made in comments there.

You can read of the case of Matthew Shepard here. A young gay man, Shepard was brutally murdered in 1998 for the horrific act of hitting on one of two friends in a bar. With the introduction of a hate crimes legislation, Shepard's murder lighted a fire under the right who insisted that using such laws to prosecute his murderers would have made little difference, either in fact or in law, because he was still dead, and they were still guilty - convicted by their own statements - and, as is oft repeated, the state would have been in the business of "prosecuting thought", in this case, hatred of gays.

Except of course, it is not thought that is punished under hate crimes. Rather, hate crimes legislation punishes acts that are rooted in bigotry toward a group that has a history of social, cultural, economic, and political exclusion. In other words, hate crimes legislation goes to the question of motive, which is at the very heart of criminal law.

Let me give a completely ridiculous scenario, but one which illustrates my point. One night, the police are called to our house and find me holding a gun, powder burns on my fingers, and my wife dead on the carpet from gunshot wounds. I am arrested for first-degree murder. In the course of the prosecution, the state's attorney office discovers that (a) I had recently taken out life insurance for my wife at work; (b) my wife and I had been having a series of arguments over money problems; (c) I had discovered that afternoon that my wife had been having a multi-year relationship with another man; (d) I had purchased a handgun that afternoon (of course, IL law prohibits that kind of thing, but since all of this is fake, just follow along, please).

The prosecution takes all these facts and fits them in to a narrative in which I, enraged by the discovery of infidelity, take the final step of murdering my wife. This entire narrative is what is known as "motive" in criminal law. It is, in a sense, the outward manifestation of the inward thought and emotions of anger, betrayal, and a desire to murder finally manifest.

My defense attorney, on the other hand, takes these same facts, and argues that I was suffering from acute depression. The gun purchase was done because I had decided to kill myself. My wife, entering the room, tried to stop me. The death was completely accidental. The facts are not in dispute. They do not, however, create a narrative of motive for murder, but a narrative for a suicide interrupted by a tragic accident. I am found not guilty of murder, but guilty of illegal discharge of a weapon and attempted suicide (still a law in IL).

In other words, we prosecute people for thoughts all the time. Indeed, it is thought turned to action that lies behind the issue of motive - it is a non-psychologized rendering of the roots of human activity that we need to return to if we are to be clear about this issue.

Matthew Shepard is dead because he found a young man attractive, and hit on him. That's it, and that's all. His assailants were not after money; they were not looking to make a political statement. They were offended by Matthew Shepard's sexual identity, and insulted by the fact that he would actually make an attempt to sexually solicit one of them. Hatred - not some psychological state, but the act of hatred - was the sole reason for this crime.

In the case to which ER takes exception, a young white man drove by a group of African-Americans involved in protests surrounding events in Jena, LA with a couple nooses hanging from his vehicle. Had he driven by them and shouted a racial epithet, I could see fit to agree with ER - while rude, and prompted no less by racial animus than the display of a noose, this would clearly be protected speech. Even driving by with a hood on his head might be protected speech.

Dangling a noose, however, recalls the role of lynching in race relations. As I wrote on Monday, the lynch rope is the real symbol of much of the history of relations between blacks and whites. It was the epicenter around which swirled an entire system of domestic terrorism, social, economic, cultural, and political exclusion, meant to keep African-Americans from enjoying their rightful place as full participants in American society. Violence was at the heart of this entire system - the violence of "the mob" which was the real law in much of the country (not just the south; Tulsa, OK lost its entire African-American community in a "race riot" - whites burning it down, and chasing off the survivors). To imagine that the display of a rope tied in to a noose could be divorced from this reality, or should be, is to live in cloud-cuckoo land.

Furthermore, to reduce the fear and intimidation to psychological states is to play word games. This isn't about a group of people quaking in terror at the site of a noose. It is about a very real fear - the fear not just of one man but an entire group of people perfectly willing and capable to murder a bunch of uppity blacks who have forgotten their place. The dead dangling from trees, telephone poles, and underneath bridges all cry out against pretending the fear is anything other than a very real, very immediate threat to their very lives.

We are talking, of course, about domestic terrorism, an entire system of domestic terrorism, given the blessing of the powers that be because of the race of those who are the target. Prosecuting this as a hate crime puts this kind of act in the same category of incendiary speech as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' famous "fire in a theater" test - speech that is a direct threat to the peace is not protected speech. We aren't dealing with some yahoo shouting "Go home, nigger!" We have here the symbol of centuries of racial dehumanization being displayed, with the clear intention of telling these men and women what their fate will be if they don't go home and be quiet.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Just One More I Swear Then I Will Quit Forever (UPDATE)

So the markets are reacting to news that a "compromise" has been reached on a "stimulus package". So maybe they were holding their breaths for the past couple days, wondering if the President and Congress would act like adults in the public interest.

Since they haven't the markets are doing the whole scampering chickens routine.

Mission Accomplished Again, George.

UPDATE: A neat feature that I had no idea existed when I linked to the little graph from Bloomberg is that it updated itself as the day went on. So, we now have the result of another wild day, rather than a snapshot of one moment early in the day.

Bill Clinton Is Wearing Out His Welcome

It probably shouldn't come as a surprise that former President Bill Clinton is out there stumping for his wife. After all, he does have many positives, including a strong connection with the African-American community, who embraced him. Yet, I do believe that, in the past couple weeks, he has gone a bit over the top. Before the Nevada caucuses, he made the outrageous claim that some votes would count five times more than others - and those votes, obviously, were assumed to be going for Sen. Obama. Now, he's playing the victim, claiming that Obama put a "hit job" (proverbial, one assumes) on him.


You know, we all know Clinton knows how to play bare-knuckle politics. We also know that he got the crap kicked out of him, and his family, for the entire eight years he was President. He couldn't buy a break from the press and the right, and they didn't let up, even after he left office. In the midst of a heated campaign, in which he might feel a bit invested, for many reasons, but not least because it might be understood to be a referendum on his Presidency (this is a chance for the American people to register their feelings about him via his wife's candidacy), however, I do believe that he needs to take a step back, breathe deeply, and remember this is a primary campaign, and there aren't a whole lot of differences between his wife, Sen. Obama, and former Sen. Edwards.

To be less charitable, I honestly think Hillary needs to put a bit of a shorter leash on the guy. He also needs a big dose of STFU, available anywhere political advice is given away.

Financial Market News - The Crack Cocaine Of The Day

I know I said I wasn't going to write about the markets. But. I. Just. Can't. Help. Myself. . . . Just. A. Little. More. Won't. Hurt. Me.

From comes news that both the Nikkei and European markets managed relatively modest gains (although bigger than the New York exchanges, which tells me they are acting no more rationally today than they were last week when they tried to sell their grandmother's estates for five cents on the dollar). The "panic" phase, I do believe, is over. Besides the federal funds rate cut, there is also the prospect of a real stimulus package coming through Congress (I love the fact that everyone noted, without a single comment, the lack of confidence in Bush's statements about tax cuts; the markets wanted a menu, and he was giving them a diet plan). I do not like the whole "rebate" thing - it smacks of pandering, election-year politics of the worst sort, mailing checks to people. It might be nice to readjust the tax code, reinvigorate the EITC, and perhaps even move to eliminate the payroll (withholding) tax - that would give people money without the unseemliness of mailing checks out.

One story I found just fascinating. The second largest bank in France is reporting a 4.9 billion Euro loss ($7.1 billion), which considering the recent losses in banks around the world that were foolish enough to try and get a piece of the near-criminal, para-fraudulent sub-prime lending market, should come as no surprise. What is a surprise, however, is how they are reporting this loss.
Societe Generale SA said unauthorized bets on stock index futures by an unidentified employee caused a 4.9 billion-euro ($7.2 billion) trading loss, the largest in European banking history.

Now, the story does add in, as an afterthought, the role of the credit crunch, in the losses. But . . .
An offer by Chairman Daniel Bouton to resign after the trades were discovered this past weekend was refused by Societe Generale's board, the bank said.

So, the Chair of the Board offered to fall on his sword in the face of the discovery of the "trades", and was refused. How noble of the chair, and how charitable of the board.

Something tells me this was just, a bit, a tad, a smidge, orchestrated. The story, as fleshed out, makes no more sense, indeed quite a bit less.
Four to five people will be fired as a result of the loss, Mustier told reporters at a press conference in Paris. The trader's manager Luc Francois, the head of equity markets, is among those who will lose his job, said spokesman Hugues Le Bret.

``The transactions that were built on the fraud were simple, positions linked to rising stock markets, but they were hidden through extremely sophisticated and varied techniques,'' Bouton, 67, said in a letter posted on the bank's Web site.

The trader didn't enrich himself from the fraudulent trades, which began in early 2007, and his motivations are unclear, Bouton said at a press conference. The employee cooperated with the bank.

So, they were . . . acting as traders, not enriching themselves, looking for higher-than-average returns for the portfolios they managed, and they are losing their jobs? Can anyone say "scapegoat"?

I think Bank of America, Wachovia, and even Goldman, Sachs should do this same thing - fire a few high-end risk-taking traders, insist they only discovered the "shenanigans" because the trades were hidden behind the complexity of investment bank accounting, and move forward with confidence now that the real criminals and miscreants behind the current losses have been exposed and tossed aside.

A novel strategy.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Pulling A Jonah Goldberg - I Would Like Your Help

Next Monday, I would like to do a music feature on break-up songs. I don't mean just your run-of-the-mill "oh, boo-hoo she's/he's gone" kind of thing. I mean real wrist-slashers. The kind of songs you hate to listen to, yet listen over and over again while you sit there and wonder what, exactly, happened. I have mine picked out (well, I'm still debating a couple, really, but I'm leaning towards one in particular).

What I'm asking for are submissions. You can e-mail me via my profile. Send me the title and artist, and perhaps even a brief description of why this song. I'm not asking you to bare your soul; you can say as much or as little as you like, but if you feel moved, it would certainly help with putting up some gems.

Break-up songs are great things, really. They speak to us because they give voice to what we, in our very real grief, cannot articulate. There is, of course, the humor value, especially as we regain our equilibrium, and look back and find ourselves moving forward. I can both get a bit teary eyed, traveling back in time to the emotions that curdled in my truly broken heart when I heard this or that song. I can also laugh at how bathetic it all is, and was. The grief of a broken relationship - especially those that seemed to have so much promise - is very real, like a death. As someone who quite freely admits he wears his heart on his sleeve, I can tell you my heart got pounded to mush on a couple occasions, and the pain was quite real, a physical ache. Yet, no matter how much it feels like everything is meaningless at the moment, that moment passes, and we find ourselves waking up one day and things really are better.

If I don't get any e-mails, and next Monday's music post sucks, remember, it's your fault.

Trespassing In Church

Through various links, I saw this story in The Wall Street Journal (???) and I have to wonder what, exactly, this minister was thinking.
On a quiet Sunday morning in June, as worshippers settled into the pews at Allen Baptist Church in southwestern Michigan, Pastor Jason Burrick grabbed his cellphone and dialed 911. When a dispatcher answered, the preacher said a former congregant was in the sanctuary. "And we need to, um, have her out A.S.A.P."


The charge was trespassing, but Mrs. Caskey's real offense, in her pastor's view, was spiritual. Several months earlier, when she had questioned his authority, he'd charged her with spreading "a spirit of cancer and discord" and expelled her from the congregation. "I've been shunned," she says.

Her story reflects a growing movement among some conservative Protestant pastors to bring back church discipline, an ancient practice in which suspected sinners are privately confronted and then publicly castigated and excommunicated if they refuse to repent. While many Christians find such practices outdated, pastors in large and small churches across the country are expelling members for offenses ranging from adultery and theft to gossiping, skipping service and criticizing church leaders.

The revival is part of a broader movement to restore churches to their traditional role as moral enforcers, Christian leaders say. Some say that contemporary churches have grown soft on sinners, citing the rise of suburban megachurches where pastors preach self-affirming messages rather than focusing on sin and redemption. Others point to a passage in the gospel of Matthew that says unrepentant sinners must be shunned.

First of all, there's this passage in the Bible that says, "For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." I hold this to be far more important than countervailing verses saying we need to kick people out of Church for "sinning". The pews would be empty if we did that.

Second, there are a variety of ways to deal with "discipline" in the Church - including using the example of Jesus' sacrifice as the beginning for forming an ethic of Christian discipline (OK, so Karl Barth still lingers in the back of my mind; you can't escape the verbose Basel churchman!). Further, to this specific point here, it seems that what Mrs. McCaskey did hardly meets the threshold necessary for even some kind of minimal "discipline". So she didn't like the way the guy did some things! Good Lord, church politics are awful - heinous even - but this kind of thing is almost beyond the pale.

Back to my first point, though, which I think is far more important, we just seem befuddled about sin. It isn't stuff we do, or at least not primarily stuff we do. It is who we are, how we are, a disposition of enmity towards God. It is the human condition sine qua non (with apologies to Hannah Arendt). For this minister to do this only shows he doesn't understand what sin is, or what the message of the Gospel is. Bound up with judgment - discipline, if you will - and prior to it, is always the grace of God that goes before us, before we even know of such a thing (OK, so now I'm combining Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and John Wesley via Albert Outler - too much education is not necessarily a good thing . . .). The word of grace is a judgment upon us; the word of judgment is precisely an expression of the inexpressible love of God for us. If there was no judgment, how would we now how far God's love extends for us, to us? Limiting "discipline" to this kind of thing is unBiblical in the worst way - it distorts what is on the page, taking it out of any kind of underlying theological (and Christological) context, to suit the needs of the present moment.

It's Wild! It's Whacky! It's Wall Street!

From Bloomberg comes this handy little graph of the roller coaster that was today's market.

I do believe that I shall no longer write about the markets. I think these people are simply disconnected from reality. Period. Unalloyed pessimism is as ridiculous as the kind of Dow 36000!! crap we've heard over and over again - it is, indeed the flip side of the same coin - but this is just . . . I don't have words to describe the way I feel. After yesterday, I expected modest losses, again. In fact, I expected them for the next few weeks.

A three hundred point gain? This isn't irrational exuberance. It is the equivalent of Adolf Hitler sitting in his Feurherbunker and playing with his architectural models for a new Linz and new Vienna. As a professor of mine at Alfred University used to say, it is a bit like shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. There are problems in the market, and the economy . . . and the market just simply ignored them.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Obama And Kirbyjohn Caldwell

I read today over at Street Prophets that noted African-American, and United Methodist, minister Kirbyjohn Caldwell has endorsed Barack Obama. When I told my wife, her first reaction was, "Is that smart?" She is very careful not to make any public statement in support of any political candidate, taking the separation of church and state, as well as the threat of IRS action against her and the church, seriously. All I could say was that Caldwell is a pretty savvy operator. Also, this kind of thing is par for the course in the black churches in America, and Caldwell was also careful to insist that this is a personal, not institutional (either United Methodist, or even Windsor United Methodist Church) endorsement.

What seems to be raising people's hackles, especially on the heels of the questions raised by Obama's invocation of the great demon Reagan, is that Caldwell is "conservative". Actually, he is a pretty traditional black churchman - that's why there is an "ex-gay" ministry at his church. Now, Obama has already called out the homophobia of the black community in general (as well as the anti-Semitism of some elements of its leadership), even though this past summer he raised eyebrows by featuring an "ex-gay" preacher on some of his campaign tours.

This tell me a couple things. First, I think there are many reasons Caldwell would come out for Obama, not the least of them being racial solidarity. I find that commendable (also consider that had he, or other prominent African-American church leaders, come out for another candidate, there would be caterwauling about Obama's lack of appeal to certain segments of the African-American community, so one could argue he can't win for losing). Second, I think this does not mean that Obama is some kind of Manchurian candidate from the right, but a transcendent figure - I have had third thoughts, and I honestly believe that Obama was saying what I said he was saying, especially after reading Bob Somerby today.

Finally, and in all honesty I wonder about this, isn't it a good thing that there are people across the political spectrum who are coming forward to support a particular candidate? At one time, Democrats crossed the line (like Phil Gramm) for reasons of ideology, and everyone at least pretended to understand. Shoot, Joe Lieberman has managed to continue caucusing with Democrats, with the progress of the Iraq war/occupation being the only serious issue that separated him from his former party-mates. When conservatives manage to come forward and put their principles where their practice should be, no one seems to mind. Yet, when the same persons come forward and speak out in favor of someone who calls themselves liberal or even progressive, the only possibility is that the person so endorsed and making these claims is lying, a stealth DLC-right-winger.

That kind of thing just bugs the crap out of me. Obama's history, as a local organizer in Chicago, in the state legislature, and in Congress, while not perfect from a progressive point of view, is certainly no indication that he has any sympathies with the right, or even moderately conservative elements in today's political culture. Furthermore, I see no reason not to take Obama at his word. Until I see real evidence otherwise, I continue to believe that he is exactly as advertised, and Caldwell's endorsement does not change that one iota.

Good News, Bad News

So, stocks fell only about 1.1% today - just over 128 points - which, considering the waterfalls in Asia yesterday is at least encouraging. Of course, they initially fell 450 points, but the Fed's rush to cut the federal funds rate three-quarters of a percent helped. Today.

I honestly think that having a holiday yesterday was a good thing for the stock market. Rather than get caught up in the swirl of the Asian tumble, New York managed to keep its head despite the futures predicting doom. All those sellers require buyers, after all, and even though two big banks - Wachovia and Bank of America - reported really bad earnings early this morning (I think I heard B of A reported a 95% loss over the previous year), there is a part of me that wonders if this initial bad news isn't so much the beginning of something horrible as it is getting the worst news out front. Of course, there will be further write-downs as all those defaulted mortgages and credit cards and car loans continue to come in. But, I wonder.

This is not to say that I actually know what I'm talking about; four classes in economics in college do not mean anything. Two real economists, Duncan Black and Paul Krugman, argue over the possibility of recession, its length, etc., with far more understanding of the details than I could even pretend to have. Yet, I wonder if the fears in Asia aren't overblown - if exuberance in the markets, as irrational as it may have been, hasn't been replaced with an equally irrational gloom.

First of all, the unemployment rate is still at historically low levels (5% used to be considered "full employment" until the 1990's when it dipped below that level without any serious inflation). While that number, I am sure, masks underemployment, the number of people who have given up looking, and stagnant wages, it is still something to consider.

While inflation, especially due to the steep rise in oil prices, has been a worry, the price of oil has been declining slowly but steadily as worries over the US economy have grown.

On the other hand, even with the federal funds rate cut today, banks are understandably leery of making substantial loans, or even consumer loans, such as car loans. Who can blame them? Yet, once again, how much of this is irrational gloom following a period of irrational - and poor - business decisions, lending to people with bad credit, no equity or collateral? I honestly wonder how much of what has been happening, while serious (to be sure; please don't think I am discounting the reality of the credit crunch, or the real pain of losing one's house, car, etc.) is as much psychological as it is economic? Considering the fact that the New York market kept its head relative to the very real panic in Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Mumbai, I have to just toss out the observation that we might be in the midst of the wild pendulum swings of the banking version of bi-polar disorder. Perhaps the Fed's action today, combined with serious economic stimulus (something other than making Bush's tax cuts permanent, that is) may be the kind of medicine needed to stave off the worst.

This was just one day. Tomorrow may make me take back everything I wrote here. I think the AA mantra is what is needed here.

Monday, January 21, 2008

By The By

Does anyone want to have a pool on the percentage loss on Wall Street tomorrow? It's too bad Phil Gramm's dream of all those retirees putting their Social Security and health care money in the stock market didn't come true . . .

My long-term prediction - by spring (April-May) the Dow will be between 7,000 and 8,000 points. That, by the way, is what is technically known as a "crash". Fun times ahead, folks.

Music Monday

This one is inspired by ER. What follows are the first three 45-rpm singles I can remember buying. It was the summer of 1978. If my musical tastes evolved quickly over time - and they did - I can at least be excused for being a neophyte. Besides, at least one of these songs is really cool.

McCain And The Age Issue

OK, so it was pointed out to me that I wasn't the only person who mentioned McCain being, well, a tad on the senior side. I honestly am not sure why Norris' comment is such a big deal. It isn't ageism to point out that a person might just be too old for something as strenuous as the Office of President of the United States. I don't think we should allow McCain to shrug off the question of age the way Reagan did with Walter Mondale, with a scripted joke and the patented Reagan smile, head tilted slightly to one side, and a chuckle. This is a serious issue, and needs to be addressed directly. I know our political system is ill-equipped to handle a serious discussion of something as delicate as this, but I also think it is necessary. We have had Presidents in our history who have been seriously incapacitated while in office - the most infamous of whom was Woodrow Wilson, debilitated by a stroke, with his wife and eminence gris Col. House working to insulate Wilson from the stresses and strains of the office - and Presidents who have had various health problems while in office (Grover Cleveland had part of his jaw and palate removed because of cancer; Eisenhower had a heart attack and a stroke; Kennedy suffered from a war injury and was most likely addicted to prescription pain killers; Nixon was an incipient alcoholic; FDR deteriorated before the eyes of an adoring public, finally dying of a burst aneurysm; Reagan was in to the first stages of Alzheimer's Disease before he left office in 1989). These are real issues, to be confronted honestly, and one hopes, with a modicum of decency (thin hopes, to be sure).

Having a physical, and reporting the general conclusions is not a solution, by the way. It is, or should be, the beginning of a discussion. The next President will have a whole host of problems with which to deal. Being able to bear up under the strains of what will in all likelihood be very messy public controversies will be a big part of the job. Of course, many younger than McCain would be ill-equipped to do so. There is also the not unimportant issue that Barack Obama is a chain smoker - and one wonders how his heart and lungs will deal with the twin stresses of the job and the multiple carcinogens he inhales on an hourly basis. This, too, should be part of the discussion (and incidentally would be a nice way to have a broader discussion on questions of health care, public health, and the like; or perhaps I am being a bit too dreamy here).

Anyway, I think it's a legitimate issue, and just because Chuck Norris is the first person to raise it so publicly doesn't mean it is, our should be, out of bounds. On the contrary, I think we need more, not less, discussion. As long as it is done seriously and carefully, and with respect.

Some Thoughts On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Everyone else is doing it, why not me?

When I was in seminary, I took a seminary on liberation theology. Early on, we had a discussion of the theological underpinnings of King's practice of non-violent social change, and its mixed legacy. I made the observation that the radical rejection of King's message and practice, the result of white intransigence in the face of the demands for a more just society from blacks, was understandable. The violence black protest brought out was horrific - no one can see footage of Bull Connor turning hoses on children and setting police dogs loose on innocent marchers and not be enraged - yet it was no different from the systemic violence under which blacks had lived for over two hundred years at that point. From the slave ship through the ripping away of one's identity - a new name, a new language, a whole new set of rules, the entire system of depersonalization involved in chattel slavery in the United States - to the imposition of a reign of terror over blacks at the end of Reconstruction (the lynch rope is the real symbol of Jim Crow, not the ubiquitous signs saying "Whites Only") violence was at the very heart of segregation.

King's demand that blacks reject violence stemmed, I am convinced, from the long experience of observing how an entire system of violence had deformed an entire population - morally, socially, culturally, politically - and he did not wish his people, those who had given his voice a leading role, to become so embittered, so filled with the desire for vengeance, to dehumanize the Other that the goal - a more just society - became lost.

Yet, precisely because of the violence necessary to sustain such a system, King's dream, regardless of its merits, was bound to fail. To get all Marxist, he heightened the tensions and contradictions within American society (initially in the south, but no less so in the north) to the point where simple choices were all that was left. When the first Black Power advocates spoke of "Violence being as American as cherry pie", they were speaking from experience - the experience of a besieged and battered people, bereft of even the tattered remnants of any links to others. The only claim black Americans had was upon the conscience of the vast middle class that was not exposed directly to this violence (it was King's genius that he recognized this and exploited it so well). Other than that, there were few allies - communists, perhaps, and socialists - to whom blacks could look for support as they sought to end, once and for all, the dehumanizing structures of segregation, upheld through the courts and lynch rope.

I was much less wordy than this when I made my statement, by the way.

I ended my comments by saying that King's idea of non-violent social change was misguided in the case of desegregation, because violence was at the very heart of the racial divide. I thought what I said was relatively uncontroversial. The white students in class - good liberals all - erupted. Some said that I had denounced King, his desire for the Christian love ethic to find a place in American social and political practice. Others said I overplayed the role of violence. Still others said that I didn't see the real benefits and gains African-Americans had made.

I think I really upset them when I said that I thought that too few people understood that King was as opposed to the Vietnam War as he was to segregation; that his opposition was rooted in his abhorrence of systemic American violence perpetrated in the name of racial purity, i.e., he saw the destruction of South Vietnamese rural life as no different in kind from the repression of African-American hopes and aspirations. Instead of the court and the rope, though, now the rifle and napalm were being used. In other words, we can get all touchy-feely about the "I Have a Dream" speech and completely ignore King's strident opposition to American imperialism, to the war in Vietnam, and to the continued obfuscations and prevarications of the Johnson Administration. He also thought it horrible that, disproportionately to the rest of the population, children of poor and working class families were being sent to Vietnam to uphold a system that continued to repress them at home (he grieved over the role African-American soldiers, marines, and sailors played in Vietnam). This was no less exploitative than the use of slaves managing slaves on plantations in the ante-bellum south, in his eyes.

I think we do King's legacy and memory an injustice whenever we repeat "the content of one's character". For King, this was one speech on one day, to mark one point in a struggle that continued throughout his life. Our nation is so much poorer today because we have lost the memory of the Martin King who was organizing a mass protest in Washington on behalf of the poor - a protest that might or might not have come off had he lived. We are poorer today because we hear the word of King's dream, without thinking through why he dreamed it.

We are poorer today because King has become tame, a mild-mannered black Baptist preacher of love and peace, rather than a passionate, committed fighter against injustice in whatever form it appeared. Until we reclaim the Martin Luther King, Jr. who fought as hard against the war in Vietnam, who denounced American war crimes in southeast Asia as vehemently as he did American domestic crimes in southeast Alabama, we have not yet begun to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Explain Some More Things To Me

I really would like someone to explain to me - so I can understand it; that is, I want facts referenced, not a bunch of pundit double-talk - how in the world (a) anyone can say Sen. John McCain is a "straight-shooting, straight-talking" moderate. He's a serial liar who is just to the right of Atilla the Hun; (b) anyone can think that a man even older than Ronald Reagan was when he first ran for the Presidency, at which time there were some serious questions about his age, can completely avoid the legitimate question of age, especially as the electorate is getting younger.

Finally, could someone please explain how normal people who should know better find McCain so politically attractive. Is it all that "years in a North Vietnamese POW camp" malarkey? How many hundreds of other POWs are there out there, living quiet, productive lives, not exploiting the experience for personal gain? This is not to take anything away from the tremendous personal resources McCain must have had to make it through that ordeal; it is just to say that I question its relevance.

I still doubt McCain's chances at winning the Republican nomination. It just befuddles me, the whole phenomenon of "John McCain" versus the rather mundane, typical politician that is the actual human being John McCain.

Should He Have Said It?

A couple days ago I gave my take on Obama's comments in praise of Ronald Reagan. I offered the opinion that Obama was talking about Reagan's ability to capture a certain traditional American buoyancy in his rhetoric, tell people they were better and stronger than the times in which they lived, and offered the promise of better days even in the midst of either glum despair or even serious socio-economic dislocation (the "recession of 1982-1983" featured double-digit unemployment, the industrial emasculation of the Great Lakes, and accelerated the shift from manufacturing to a service economy). His was certainly the victory of style over substance, yet it was a style that resonated with voters, even as they voiced disapproval of the substance.

I wonder, however, whether what he said was either clear enough for people to understand or, even if so, was wise. From Hullabaloo, we have this report of comments from Donna Brazile for the Democrats, and Bill Bennett, looking more bloated than usual as he tries to heap faint praise upon Obama, damning him in the process (and sounding a bit overly conscious of Obama's race; kind of odd from a "color-blind" conservative):
On CNN, Donna Brazile says [Clinton] pulled it out because she talked about economics and criticized Obama for saying nice things about Ronald Reagan, because there's no nostalgia for Reagan in the Democratic party

Bill Bennett replied, "a serious black candidate is saying to people, including his own party members 'embrace part of the Reagan memory and the Reagan legacy.' I think this is actually Martin Luther King's dream about color blindness. That he's being punished for it tells you that there are still a lot of people in the Democrat Party who have to grow up."

Of the two comments, its possible that Brazile's is actually more correct, at least in part. Bennett's "serious black candidate" is a slam at Jesse Jackson, who ran quite a serious campaign in 1988, and also just too aware of Obama's racial identity. Somehow, he has to keep slipping in a mention of the fact that Obama's African-American. Perhaps, for Bennett, Obama is like Samuel Johnson's talking dog and woman preacher. As for what Bennett says - please. To believe that a Democrat would insist that we embrace "Reagan's legacy" is hogwash. Obama was speaking about capturing a moment, understanding the zeitgeist and using it to one's electoral advantage. As for colorblindness, I would believe it if Bennett didn't keep mentioning the fact that Obama is a black man every time he spoke about him.

In any event, even with those criticisms, I think that it might be possible that either some just don't want to entertain the possibility that Obama said what I heard him say, or that perhaps he didn't even say it. If so, that's deeply troubling. If the former is the case, however, we have the problem of trying to interpret a somewhat murky statement which also invokes one of the great bogeymen for the Democratic Party, thus alienating many Democratic voters. In that case, while an astute observation, it may not have been the best idea in the world to say what he said the way he said it.

I've gone from thinking it was pretty cagey, even smart politics, to wondering if maybe he shouldn't have let well-enough alone. Of course, Reagan invoked FDR all the time, even as he attempted to overturn the New Deal (and certainly broke the New Deal electoral coalition), and people just ate it up. So there is some precedent for this kind of thing.

All the same, like the week-long tussle over race-versus-gender, we might have the makings of a tempest in a media teapot here, and Obama may have hurt himself in the process. If he has to explain his statement over and over again, and does so without clarifying it for those who don't want to hear what he (might have) said, it is possible this distraction could wound him electorally. Which is too bad. I think it could have been the opening for a good discussion on where the country is right now, and where it might be going; instead, it might turn out to be people calling Obama all sorts of names, and conservatives like Bill Bennett gleefully telling anyone who will listen that a "black man" embraces "Reagan's legacy". That's one thing I do not want to hear.

Virtual Tin Cup

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