Jan 31, 2011

Fighting Over the Founders - Or Not


We all know that there's been lots of talk about "the founders" recently, especially as the Tea Party and the right wing have been using factually inaccurate references to "the founders" to bolster their political arguments - like Michelle Bachmann claiming that founders like John Quincy Adams* "worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States"** or Glenn Beck arguing that the 3/5 clause in the Constitution was actually written "because if slaves in the South were counted as full human beings, they could never abolish slavery."***

So I was amused to see 

this yesterday in a fellowship description for historians:
 "The project should address the history and/or legacy – broadly defined – of the American Revolution and the nation’s founding ideas....Please note that neither the fellowships nor the Starr Center have any political agenda or orientation. We encourage a broad reading of such terms as ‘founders’ and ‘founding ideas.’” [bold in original]


Clearly the current vogue of using and mis-using the founders has frightened some scholars and funders-of-scholars.


* John Quincy Adams was the 6th President of the United States. He was 9 years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed and 20 when the Constitution was written. He was not, therefore, one of the signers or writers – although his father, John Adams, was.

** No matter how you define the “founders” – as the people who wrote and signed those documents, or who fought in the Revolution, or whatever – many of them owned slaves and many, if not most, defended the institution of slavery. See: 3/5 compromise.

*** The 3/5 compromise had nothing to do with abolishing slavery – unless Beck means that it helped galvanize opposition to slavery 70 years after the Constitution was ratified. The compromise helped save the Constitution, because during the Constitutional Convention both northerners and southerners seemed likely to walk out if they didn’t get their way on the question of how slaves would count for purposes of taxation and of apportionment in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. In large part the southerners worried that, if only free whites were counted, they would be outnumbered in the House of Representatives (because the white population of the north was greater than that of the south) and thus that slavery would be abolished by an act of Congress. The compromise had the effect of giving free white men in the slaveholding states much more relative political power than their counterparts in non-slaveholding states – and, if anything, of protecting slavery for the following seven decades as Congress repeatedly voted to expand slavery (see: Missouri Compromise, Kansas-Nebraska Act…).

Gender is confusing

The NY Times reports this morning on an effort at Wikipedia to increase the number of women who contribute to its entries - because according to a study last year, only 13% of those who contribute to the online encyclopedia are women. I find this frustrating and befuddling, especially because Wikipedia seems to be the ultimate anonymous forum in which asserting your knowledge has few, if any, negative effects. The people at Wikipedia, including the female head of the Wikipedia foundation, would like to reduce the gender disparity, but they're not really sure why men dominate so much. Intriguingly, this statistic mirrors the gender breakdown of contributors to the nation's op-ed pages and other opinion forums, according to the Op-Ed Project, which works to develop strong female voices on the opinion pages.

For a long time I've been curious to get a good explanation of why men dominate Jeopardy. I suspect it has something to do with confidence in one's knowledge, but that's just a hypothesis. In any case, I wonder if it's related to the Wikipedia issue, and the op-ed issue - whether all are representations of women feeling less capable than men of sharing their knowledge assertively with the world.

Jan 26, 2011

The Toxic Mix of Race, Economics, and Education

Yesterday I saw this disturbing headline: “Black Mother Jailed for Sending Kids to White School District.” Then I read the article, which explains that a mother living in Akron, Ohio registered her kids in the nearby suburban school district of Copley Township, using her father’s (the kids’ grandfather’s) address. She was charged and convicted for tampering with court records for lying on school enrollment forms, and her father was charged with grand theft for allegedly “stealing” the $30,500 that the school district spent educating the kids. Both of these charges are felonies. The mom has been sentenced to 10 days in jail and 3 years of probation, and if her conviction stands she won’t be able to complete the teaching degree she’s working towards because she’ll have a felony on her record.

I dug around the internets (sic) a bit and found a few more interesting tidbits of info about this case. First of all, the school district apparently tried to get the charges reduced to misdemeanors and settle out of court but the prosecutor refused to negotiate. Secondly, the judge clearly wanted to make an example out of the mom: she explained that she sentenced the mom to jail “so that others who think they might defraud the school system perhaps will think twice.” County officials say they get fewer than 5 cases each year of students registered for schools outside their home districts. I find it pretty horrifying, then, that since this “criminal case is the only one anyone remembers in Summit County,” prosecutors picked a poor black woman living in housing projects in Akron to target. Thirdly, the school district hired a private investigator to follow the mom (and other parents suspected of similar deceptions) around town and track her kids’ movements to and from school. The investigator testified during the trial “that he conducted what amounted to daily surveillance of Williams-Bolar's activities on school mornings, using a video camera to follow the route she drove with her children,” according to news coverage.

But the most striking thing about this is the racial overtones of the situation, reflected in the fact that the original article I saw, which granted was on a website called BlackEconomicDevelopment.com, had the title “Black Mother Jailed for Sending Kids to White School District.” This speaks to the enormous de facto segregation of our schools today: urban Akron schools are, de facto, black, and suburban Copley Township schools are white. America’s schools are more segregated now than they were in 1968, and successful programs that created economically and racially integrated schools have been systematically dismantled. This is true even though lots of studies have shown that kids – including very poor kids – do better in economically-integrated schools than in economically-segregated ones. Do I even need to say that the same is true of racial integration?

Our system of local control of school districts (and therefore local dollars) has long been connected to segregation, and clearly it continues to be so. Historian Matthew Lassiter, in his book The Silent Majorityshows that beginning in the 1970s, suburban white parents zealously defended the racial segregation of their schools by arguing that such segregation was merely the result of natural economic forces, and was therefore constitutional. What they failed to acknowledge, though, was the massive government intervention that had created the suburbs themselves, especially in a former Rust Belt state like Ohio. Why are suburbs so white? Partially because our government failed for decades to enforce race-neutral housing laws. Why are poor black people living in public housing concentrated in declining urban centers, rather than in the suburbs? Because that’s where the government built public housing! Had that housing been built in Copley Township (the suburbs) instead of in Akron (the urban core), this story might look very different. 

I find it appalling that we care so little about other people that we’re unwilling to help pay for the educations of people outside our own town or city boundaries – but, of course, many of those town boundaries were drawn specifically to exclude people of other races or economic classes. Here’s a solution to the Ohio case to consider: if those two school districts just merged, the county could drop its case and provide a good education to all kids, black and white, rich and poor. Too bad it’s just not that simple. 

Jan 25, 2011

Still Trusting Women, 38 Years Later

Saturday was the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s been some internet chatter about abortion rights over the past few days. I often shy away from writing about this because I generally feel like the debate about abortion is just beating a dead horse – everyone has said everything there is to say about it a thousand times over, and I’m not sure what new ideas I can add to the debate. Plus, I spend many, many hours every week thinking about birth control and abortion (see: dissertation) and it’s hard to distill those thoughts down into a blog post. But in honor of the occasion, I’m going to try.

Plus, abortion is back in the news. Last week we learned that Republicans across the country are introducing a record number of anti-abortion laws in state legislatures, aiming to restrict access to abortion even more than it already is (88% of American counties have no abortion provider); that Congressional Republicans are working to make federal limits on abortion access even more stringent, effectively trying to force health insurance companies not to cover abortion; that even in New York City, the “abortion capital of America”, abortion is “complicated”; and that, as always, poor women are getting the worst treatment – and no one is paying attention. By the by, earlier today I was reading Michelle Goldberg’s book The Means of Reproduction and found that the same guy who’s sponsoring the latest Congressional anti-abortion legislation, New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith, has spent lots of time lobbying Latin American countries to ban abortion – because, apparently, interfering with women’s lives here in the U.S. isn’t enough for him.

For me the most cynical anti-abortion arguments are those tying abortion to racism – especially when these arguments are made by white people with little demonstrated interest in actually fighting racism. Rick Santorum is the latest to get into this game. Remember him? He’s a former Senator from Pennsylvania who lost his 2006 re-election campaign by the largest margin of any sitting Senator since 1980. Last week he said this in an interview about abortion:

"The question is -- and this is what Barack Obama didn't want to answer: Is that human life a person under the Constitution? And Barack Obama says no….I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, 'We are going to decide who are people and who are not people.'"  The implication was clearly that because of the history of slavery, African-Americans must be anti-abortion.

Ta-Nehesi Coates has a brilliant takedown of this statement in which he picks apart, piece by piece, the analogy Santorum was trying to draw between abortion and slavery. As Coates admits, though, his post lacks any analysis of the way gender operates in this statement, so I’m going to add that, with a bit of history thrown in for fun.

For a very long time black women in America have been faced with coercion in reproductive matters. In slavery this included rapes by slaveowners resulting in pregnancy and confiscation of their children to sell; in this century it has included forced and uninformed sterilization, confiscation of children for unproven offenses (ranging from being in an abusive relationship to drug use), lack of access to gynecological care, and inaccessible abortion care resulting in forced childbearing.

In the 1960s, when the use of birth control became more widespread, a myth spread that “the black community” believed that birth control was a government effort to carry out genocide by limiting the number of black babies. This myth has been perpetuated ever since and is often used by anti-abortion activists. Melissa Harris-Perry wrote a fabulous article in The Nation last year about efforts of this kind by Georgia Right to Life, saying that “Georgia Right to Life has revived this racial masquerade by portraying its opposition to reproductive rights as a campaign for racial justice.” As Harris-Perry beautifully points out, Georgia Right to Life (like other pro-lifers) doesn’t seem nearly as concerned about ensuring a good quality of life for actual black children as it is about black fetuses.

Anyway, back to that myth. The truth is more like this: in the 1960s, there was a vocal segment of male leadership in the Black Power movement that argued that blacks needed to increase their numerical presence in order to gain more power in America. They called on black women to have more babies to further the cause. Jesse Jackson said in 1971, for instance, that “Virtually all the security we have is in the number of children we produce.” (Jackson later changed his mind and became a support of reproductive rights, including abortion rights.) Many black women, though, did not like being told how or when to reproduce by black men any more than they liked being told by other people. As Jennifer Nelson demonstrates in her book Women of Color in the Reproductive Rights Movement, black women were among the first to develop a truly robust concept of reproductive rights that included the right to decide when to have children (that is, to not be forcibly sterilized), the right to decide when not have children (access to birth control and abortion), and the right to take care of their children once they were born (child care services, living wages, adequate medical care, etc.). Frances Beal, a SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) activist and founder of its Black Women’s Liberation Committee, wrote in 1969:

“Black women have the right and the responsibility to determine when it is in the interest of the struggle to have children or not to have them. It is also her right and responsibility to determine when it is in her own best interests to have children, how many she will have, and how far apart and this right must not be relinquished to anyone. The lack of the availability of safe birth control, the forced sterilization practices and the inability to obtain legal abortions are all symptoms of a decadent society that jeopardizes the health of black women (and thereby the entire black race)….”

The fallacy that “the black community” has long opposed birth control speaks to a deeper issue: as with many social movements, men in the Black Power movement were seen to speak for the movement as a whole, and indeed for the entire race at times, silencing women’s voices on an issue that was, indeed, hugely important to them.

So back to Rick Santorum and Barack Obama: Santorum tapped into this long history, perhaps more than he knew, when he questioned the right of “a black man” to pronounce a verdict on abortion. But Obama had the best answer of all: when he was asked during the presidential campaign what his position on reproductive rights was, he answered “I trust women. Period.” And to me, at the end of the day, that’s absolutely what it’s all about.  

Jan 21, 2011

Some Thoughts About Sargent Shriver


Earlier this week Sargent Shriver died at the age of 95, prompting P. to say “oh, he’s in your dissertation, and he died, so that means your dissertation is really about history!” Thanks, P. But yes, Sargent Shriver does play a substantial role in my dissertation, which is about a topic people don’t usually associate with him – birth control – so it offers a pretty unique vantage point from which to think about his legacy.

Shriver was John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law and the first director of the Peace Corps. Within months of taking office, Lyndon Johnson appointed him to lead the war on poverty, which would become one of Johnson’s signature initiatives. Shriver helped shape the Economic Opportunity Act and was the first and most important director of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), which carried out a whole range of anti-poverty initiatives during the 1960s, from Head Start to job training to the creation of community health centers.

From within the OEO, Shriver led the distribution of the federal government’s first grants to set up family planning programs in poor communities, which is how I came to him. Although he was devoutly Catholic and initially opposed birth control (and always abortion), he came to recognize that locally-run family planning programs were an important way for poor women to take charge of their own lives.

That was his style: he believed in community control of anti-poverty programs and he was willing to experiment with nearly any strategy that could help ease poverty. Donald Baker, who was the general counsel of the OEO, later recalled of Shriver: “He just delighted having around him people who were able to work on new ideas and find  imaginative ways. The last thing he would ever have wanted to do was administer an agency that was handing out money in a routine way, putting it in an envelope and sending it off year after year after year.” He cared deeply about helping the poor in America and around the world, and he was willing to tempt controversy in order to establish the most effective programs. When controversy came his way as a result of the OEO’s family planning grants, he adamantly defended their importance.

Bono published an op-ed in the Times this week describing his memories of Sargent Shriver’s legacy from the 1960s. “His faith demanded action, from him, from all of us,” Bono wrote. “For the Word to become flesh, we had to become the eyes, the ears, the hands of a just God. Injustice could, in the words of the old spiritual, ‘Be Overcome.’” I'm not usually given to religious thinking, but this seems to me a pretty eloquent statement of all of our responsibilities to help make the world a better place. 

Sargent Shriver’s death this week is particularly striking because it comes at the same time as the Republicans prepare to eviscerate many of today’s poverty assistance programs. The House Republican Study Committee released a report a few days ago outlining a “Spending Reduction Act of 2011” which purports to reduce federal spending by $2.5 billion over the next 10 years. How? By cutting a lot of programs important to the poor, especially women. Proposed eliminations include, incidentally, family planning funding, and also the Legal Services Corporation (which provides lawyers for the poor, most of whom are women seeking help with domestic violence, custody, and eviction cases), the Community Development Fund, and the Hope VI program to renovate and restore public housing. The Committee would also like to eliminate various environmental programs, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, high speed rail grants, and public financing of presidential elections.

So, WWRSSS? What Would R. Sargent Shriver Say? The war on poverty was truly a high point in our nation’s history of anti-poverty efforts. It was a time when everything was on the table: from the highest levels of the federal government came the mandate to experiment with lots of anti-poverty initiatives to see what worked. Contrary to some conservative talking points, this was not just about giving out cash. Lyndon Johnson was fond of saying he wanted to give “a hand up, not a handout,” and he told an aide during the launch of the war on poverty, “Now, you tell Shriver, no doles. We don’t want any doles.” The whole effort was based on a belief that poverty had to be attacked on all fronts, and that the only organization capable of such a “war” was the federal government. And that came from a foundational understanding that the most affluent nation in the world had a responsibility to guarantee a basic standard of living to all of its citizens, including the poorest. It’s up to us to carry on this legacy by fighting as hard as we can against today’s reactionary Republican proposals.

Jan 20, 2011

"The Ballot or The Bullet," Malcolm X and Joyce Kaufman

After Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people were shot on January 8, a lot of (liberal) people argued that the political vitriol of the past few years was to blame. Joyce Kaufman, a conservative radio host, emerged as a prime example of this trend because last summer, she told a Tea Party rally:

“I am convinced that the most important thing the founding fathers did to ensure me my First Amendment rights was they gave me a Second Amendment. And if ballots don’t work, bullets will. I’ve never in my life thought that the day would come where I would tell individual citizens that you are responsible for being the militia that the founding fathers designed – they were very specific. You need to be prepared to fight tyranny.”

When I heard that, my mind went back forty-seven years to Malcolm X’s speech “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Speaking in Cleveland in April 1964, Malcolm X used the conveniently alliterative juxtaposition of “ballot” and “bullet” to argue that African-Americans needed to turn to black nationalism to strengthen their communities politically and economically. Specifically, they had to use their voting power to elect candidates who would represent their needs. His anger that day focused on politicians – especially in the Democratic party – who failed to recognize Black voting power, protect Blacks’ voting rights, and represent the African-Americans who voted for them. As he told his audience, speaking of Lyndon Johnson and Congressional Democrats, “they have got a con game going on, a political con game, and you and I are in the middle.”

Of course, he had more radical demands than for Blacks to exercise their voting power. He also argued that all members of Congress elected “from a state or a district where the voting rights of the people are violated,” who were therefore elected by constituencies that excluded Blacks, “should be expelled from Congress.” Because Blacks made up numerical majorities in many of these districts, he insisted that when free and fair elections were finally held, Black candidates would win these seats.

First and foremost, then, he argued that Blacks should use all available power to attain representation in the government and to strengthen their communities from within. But then he got to the bullets, saying that “if we don’t cast a ballot, it’s going to end up in a situation where we’re going to have to cast a bullet.” If Blacks were not able to gain full political representation appropriate to their numbers, they would have to take more dramatic steps to ensure that representation. 

Probably the most controversial thing he said was: "We will work with anybody, anywhere, at any time, who is genuinely interested in tackling the problem head-on, nonviolently as long as the enemy is nonviolent, but violent when the enemy gets violent….[W]here the government has proven itself either unwilling or unable to defend the lives and the property of Negroes, it's time for Negroes to defend themselves. Article number two of the constitutional amendments provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun. It is constitutionally legal to own a shotgun or a rifle.” 

This recommendation, of course, terrified many whites, both liberal and conservative, and infuriated many black civil rights leaders working in the nonviolent tradition. The FBI’s file documenting its investigation into Malcolm X (not solely related to this speech, of course) amounted to over 4,000 pages. Malcolm X never turned violent himself, although he did die from an assassin’s bullet less thab a year after giving this speech.

I’ve been mulling over the two speeches since the Giffords shooting but still can’t decide what I think about the relationship between political speech and political violence, which is why I haven’t written about this sooner. The first thing that struck me is the similarity in message: both asserted their ultimate Constitutional right, enshrined in the 2nd Amendment, to defend themselves from tyranny when their government failed to provide protection. But we interpret these speeches very differently, based primarily on our own political persuasions and our understandings of the contexts in which Malcolm X and Kaufman spoke.

My strongest feeling is that words have consequences – but they have many consequences, to many people, and their meanings are not always so obvious. A group of scholars called Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” the 7th most important American speech in the 20th century. I’m fairly confident that no one will give a similar honor to Joyce Kaufman, which I think testifies to the fact that we have to interpret political speech not only by the words it contains but also by the context in which it is contained. The words “ballot” and “bullet” meant very different things to Malcolm X and Joyce Kaufman, and they used those words in totally disparate contexts. I don’t think either speech directly caused any violence, but I do think they both reflected and contributed to political climates in which deep tensions in the American political system exploded into violence, both literal and figurative. Let’s just hope that the wave of assassinations of the mid- to late-1960s has no parallels in the next few years. 

Jan 18, 2011

At least they're honest...

I just saw that on Friday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor candidly acknowledged that the upcoming debate over raising the debt ceiling will be "a leverage moment for Republicans," who will use the negotiations to get some of the stuff they want from Obama. He also admitted, though, that the Republicans will eventually have to agree to raise the debt ceiling because the alternative is a U.S. government default. I don't know much about negotiation, but it seems to me that having admitted that he will eventually vote to raise the ceiling, he has already lost some of that leverage. So now we get to wait and see how it will play out.

Also, check out my earlier post about the coming debt ceiling debate.

Fifty Years of Perma-War


Fifty years ago yesterday, three days before he left office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his farewell speech to the American public and coined the term “military-industrial complex.” It was a remarkably prescient speech and since we’re now embroiled in two seemingly-endless wars, I thought this would be an appropriate time to recap what Eisenhower said.

Coming from a president who was elected largely because of his military background (he led the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II) and because he opposed a policy of "non-intervention" in Korea, his speech was a remarkable call to retain “balance” in our government and prevent military interests from dominating the political process. He noted that, for the first time, the United States had created a “permanent arms industry of vast proportions” in the early years of the Cold War. Until World War II war production had been accomplished by pre-existing civilian industries shifting focus, as the auto and airplane industries did to produce vehicles for the army during WWII. But after World War II the factories that had sprung up to create war materials never shut down. Instead, because the Cold War threatened hot war any moment, those production facilities, and the companies running them, became a permanent part of our military – and our economy.

“The total influence [of the military] -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government,” Eisenhower said. “We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications….In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

He warned in particular about the potential for military interests to influence our government so much that they “endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” And indeed this has happened: military contractors like Blackwater (now Xe Services) and Northrup Grummon help determine U.S. government policy through their lobbyists. Our wars get separate budgetary accounting from all other government programs, and those budgets are protected from cuts more than any other kind of government spending. As the Gulf Coast's residents struggled to pay their bills and keep their homes after last summer's oil spill, BP continued to pull in hundreds of millions of dollars in federal military contracts.

Eisenhower further warned that, “as we peer into society's future, we -- you and I, and our government -- must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.” Yet every day our deficit balloons and we refuse to pay today for the services our country needs now. We have, indeed, mortgaged our grandchildren’s future to pay more than one trillion dollars for two needless wars – while at the same time we refuse to pay for our children to get an education that will help them, and our country, prosper.

On an issue that I care about personally – the funding of our nation’s universities – Eisenhower was equally astute. He observed that as government research contracts increased exponentially in the Cold War era to fund scientific and military research, “the prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever presentand is gravely to be regarded.” Even more ominously, he said, “a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.” And today we are seeing a major threat to academic disciplines that cannot bring in government research dollars for their universities – namely, the humanities. Funding for the humanities is dropping precipitously in universities across the country, and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities face constant budget threats to their already miniscule appropriations. In the meantime, when military leaders announce budget cuts, it’s front page news.

It’s not often that I agree with proclamations of American exceptionalism, especially from the mouths of Republicans, but here’s one I can throw my weight behind: “America's leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.” We must always remember that military and economic power can win us submission but not friendship around the world.

And, to conclude with Eisenhower’s words:
“We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”

Jan 14, 2011

Roundup of Historical Commentary on the Arizona Shooting

I do have some of my own thoughts to share about the Arizona shooting, but first I want to point you to some of the best things I've read this week putting those shootings in a longer historical context. I don't agree with everything these people say but I think their writing is thoughtful and genuinely contributes something to our understanding of the shootings.

The New York Times hosted an online discussion about "Assassins and American History," asking "Does political speech lead to political violence?" "We can't know," says presidential biographer Robert Dallek, adding that "only one thing seems certain...the ease with which perpetrators can acquire the means to commit mass murder." Jill Lepore calls the question itself "troubling," and asks instead, "Shouldn't we be demanding more than that our leaders' political speech be, merely, not incendiary? Ought it not, instead, elevate?" Oh, for the days of Thomas Jefferson! Steven Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute argues that political speech has often been incendiary without inciting violence, not least in the 1800 presidential election. What assassins have in common, he insists, is mental illness – not political ideas. True, says historian Steven Mintz, but political violence has spiked during “periods of civil unrest and bitter partisanship” throughout American history. Catherine McNicol Stock adds an economic view to Mintz’s assessment, saying that “times of extreme economic and social dislocation create a landscape ripe for political extremism -- expressed in both words and deeds.”
But I think Julian Zelizer sums up my thoughts in this discussion best when he writes, “even without violent consequences, the kind of political acrimony that we have witnessed feeds a dysfunctional culture where citizens and politicians turn their opponents into enemies and vilify those with whom they disagree. This creates the potential for dangerous actions and, at a minimum, makes political dialogue impossible. The fact that so many people instantly wondered about the connection between political speech and the shootings in Tucson suggests that something has gone wrong in the way that we debate political issues. Too much is at stake, and the risks are too high to continue with this kind of toxic political culture.”
Over at SalonGlenn LaFantasie describes about a long “American tradition of political violence” going back to the 17th century, and argues that this is the legacy of a nation having been born out of a violent revolution. His argument is a bit circular, since as he notes this political violence existed long before the nation of the United States did, but I still think he makes some interesting points.
David Greenberg argues that "of course" the shooting was political, in the same way that many assassination attempts throughout history have been - because there is "an artificial distinction we routinely draw between political and psychological motives."
But the Secret Service disagrees: NPR’s Morning Edition had a piece today about a 1999 Secret Service study of 83 assassination attempts  since 1949, in which researchers interviewed the assassins or would-be assassins. The study reached an interesting conclusion: the common theme among the perpetrators was that they felt invisible and believed that killing a political leader would bring them fame and attention. A psychologist who led the study concluded that “It was very, very rare for the primary motive to be political, though there were a number of attackers who appeared to clothe their motives with some political rhetoric."
And finally, in my head I keep coming back to the words of noted public intellectual Ani DiFranco, who wrote in the wake of the Columbine shootings: “and schoolkids keep trying to teach us / what guns are all about / confuse liberty with weaponry / and watch your kids act it out / and every year now like christmas / some boy gets the milkfed suburban blues / reaches for the available arsenal / and saunters off to make the news / and the women in the middle / are learning what poor women have always known / that the edge is closer than you think / when the men bring the guns home.”


Jan 13, 2011

"Crisis"!

I've been thinking a lot recently about how frequently things are described as "crises" in today's political lexicon. We have a housing crisis, a financial crisis, a foreclosure crisis, a crisis of violence, an urban crisis, a suburban crisis....

A bunch of students and scholars at my fair university have just released a tool using Google Books data that analyzes the frequency with which certain words have been used in print over the past couple of centuries. Using 5.2 million books (the authors claim this is "~ 4% of all books ever published!"), they've set up a tool into which you can put a word or phrase and it shoots out a graph of the frequency of that word's use over time. The data comes out as a percentage of all words published in a given year or decade. You can read their article in Science describing the research here, and check out their website here.

I think the pure utility of this is limited because it takes the words entirely out of context, and to really understand the meaning of words we have to read them surrounded by other words the ways their authors intended, but I do think it can provide some interesting snapshots of cultural trends. As the researchers note: "you'll need to carefully interpret your results. Some effects are due to changes in the language we use to describe things ('The Great War' vs. World War I'). Others are due to actual changes in what interests us (note how 'slavery' peaks during the Civil War and during the Civil Rights movement)."

So, here's the way the graph looks for the word "crisis" in English-language books from 1776 to 2000 (earlier and later data is sketchy).



Click here or on the graph to see a bigger version.

Despite the aforementioned limitations, I think there are some pretty interesting things about this graph. Note how the use of the word rose steadily thoughout the 1840s and 1850s, peaked in the early-mid 1860s, during the Civil War, and then fell sharply after the war. It then peaked again during World War I and the Great Depression, although intriguingly it declined during World War II.

But what I'm really interested in is the steady climb after 1960. I'm struck by the fact that we seem to have been perpetually in "crisis" from 1960 until 2000, and I would think it has continued in the past decade (although we don't have the data). I'm not totally sure what to make of this and would be interested to hear the thoughts of anyone who's reading the blog. It seems to me, though, that there are three basic possibilities:
1. Things have really been terrible for the past fifty years, and the word "crisis" appropriately describes a series of events/situations during that time period.
2. As the media has gotten louder and polarization has increased, it takes dramatic claims like one of "crisis" to get anyone to pay attention to a problem.
3. Or something in between (1) and (2).

Thoughts? I'm definitely inclined to believe it's either (2) or (3), and would like to make a strong push for reducing the drama with which we discuss problems in our society. Not everything is a crisis, and perhaps making everything sound like one just makes the political tension with which we're surrounded even worse. Or maybe I'm making a "crisis" out of nothing.

Jan 11, 2011

Good news!



There's so much terrible news out there, especially with this weekend's assassination attempt, that I've been hungry for some good, happy stuff - and now I found some. After a New Year’s Eve attack on Coptic Christians in Egypt killed 21 people, thousands of Egyptian Muslims came to Coptic Christian churches during their Christmas celebrations last week to provide a "human shield" against more violence. From an article in AhramOnline.com,  an Egyptian English-language news site:

Egypt’s majority Muslim population stuck to its word Thursday night. What had been a promise of solidarity to the weary Coptic community, was honoured, when thousands of Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside.

From the well-known to the unknown, Muslims had offered their bodies as “human shields” for last night’s mass, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife.

“We either live together, or we die together,” was the sloganeering genius of Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim arts tycoon whose cultural centre distributed flyers at churches in Cairo Thursday night, and who has been credited with first floating the “human shield” idea.

Among those shields were movie stars Adel Imam and Yousra, popular Muslim televangelist and preacher Amr Khaled, the two sons of President Hosni Mubarak, and thousands of citizens who have said they consider the attack one on Egypt as a whole.

“This is not about us and them,” said Dalia Mustafa, a student who attended mass at Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly Street. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together.”

Sounds like Americans could learn a little something about solidarity, and support for minorities, from this story. 

Jan 7, 2011

Integrating the University of Georgia, 50 Years Ago

I'm spending the next two days at a conference so things will probably be a little quiet here, but I heard a great interview this morning and wanted to share. Charlene Hunter-Gault, who is now a well-known journalist, was one of the first two black students to attend the University of Georgia after winning a federal lawsuit in 1961. She talked about students rioting on campus, throwing a brick through her window, and offering her a quarter to make their beds for them - but also about a professor inviting her to tea and discussing Dostoevsky with her, and about getting to know Calvin Trillin because he offered to buy her a pastrami sandwich. Check it out at http://www.npr.org/news/U.S./132712913.

Jan 6, 2011

Is this what the Republican Majority Is Going to Look Like?

Now that the Republicans have claimed their majority in the House of Representatives, what do they plan to do with it? On their first day in office, they set about reading the Constitution on the floor of the House. (More on that to come.)  Their next order of business was to start the doomed process of trying to repeal last year's health care reform legislation (I just wrote about this). In a similar vein, some of them are also trying to repeal the 2010 financial overhaul, the Dodd-Frank Act, which enacted much-needed regulation of the banking industry, whose unregulated actions led us into the financial and housing crises. Like the health reform repeal, the Dodd-Frank repeal has no real chance of passing.

The Republicans are doing these things for the same reason they seem to be doing most things these days: to score political points so that the next time they run for re-election they can run ads saying that they "voted for the repeal of Obamacare" or "voted to make government smaller." It's too bad, for them but mostly for us, that there's actual work to be done governing the country in between elections. They seem much more interested in spending their time reading the Constitution aloud, working on legislation that will never pass, and holding hearings about the Obama Administration's actions than actually passing laws that might help their constitutents.

That’s partly because they’re having trouble coming up with real policy proposals. After loudly promising during the Congressional campaigns to immediately cut $100 billion in domestic spending from the budget, now that they’re in office they’re quickly scaling back those expectations. And even some of the loudest supporters of such dramatic spending cuts are unable to say what they would actually cut. As I wrote earlier, the problem is that there isn’t actually $100 billion, or anywhere near that much, of clearly wasted domestic spending in the budget. If anything, many welfare and social programs are desperately underfunded.

If this were a game, it would be sort of fun to sit back and watch the implosion of Republican campaign promises. But it’s not a game. This is real life, and there are real people whose futures depend on whether Congress can get it together to pass legislation that will create jobs, fund good education, invest in health care, provide basic services to the poor, and protect the environment. So I’m chuckling a little on the inside, but I’m also pretty scared about what the next few years are going to bring.

If Health Care Reform is Really "Job-Killing," It's Because Our System is Unsustainable

The Republicans who are newly in charge of the House of Representatives have decided to spend the first week of the 2011 Congress on a big waste of time: an effort to repeal last year's health care reform legislation, will pass the Republican-dominated House but be stopped by the Democratic majority in the Senate, and in any case would be vetoed by President Obama the second it hit his desk. So this effort is destined to fail, but they want to make a point.

They're calling this proposed legislation the "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act." Why is health care reform "job-killing," you might ask? Republican Congressman Peter Roskum will tell you: "the health care bill that's now the law is actually a job-killing health care bill," he said on All Things Considered last night. "And I've experienced that in my district where manufacturers have said, I'm not hiring new people," presumably because they can't afford health care insurance for their employees. This is now the Republican and conservative line on health care reform.

The thing is that this argument highlights the fact that our current health insurance system is totally and completely broken. We have a system of mostly private insurance, provided mostly through employers - but employers can't afford the cost of health insurance. More and more people are losing their employer-provided insurance coverage every year, but buying insurance on the individual market is almost impossibly expensive. As a result, we now have more than 50 million people in America without health insurance, or about 1 in 6 of us. Every one of those 50 million people is going to get sick or hurt eventually, at which point they will either show up at an emergency room or go to a doctor they can't afford. They won't be able to get health insurance then because they'll have a "pre-existing condition," and eventually they could go bankrupt from out-of-pocket health care costs. In 2005, researchers (including Elizabeth Warren, the current advisor to the President in charge of the new consumer protection bureau) estimated that half of all personal bankruptcies in America were tied to health care costs. Those numbers are surely different after the foreclosure crisis, but the numbers are still astonishing.

So what should we do? Well, for starters, let's fully fund the health reform law so that it actually has a chance to work. But most importantly, we have to keep up the national conversation about the corruption of the insurance industry and the need, ultimately, for a strong public option or Medicare-for-all program.

Obama Shows Some Fight

Maybe President Obama just likes being the underdog (as much as someone can be the underdog while President of the United States). His White House and Congressional Democrats are finally taking the offensive when it comes to the debate over the health care reform bill. The Dems are aggressively talking up the fact that the Republicans want to increase the number of uninsured people, allow insurance companies to set premiums in monopolized markets, and re-establish the Medicare donut hole. That is, Republicans are wasting time by trying to repeal the entire health care reform legislation, even though there's no chance that repeal will pass the Senate or get President Obama's signature, and the Dems are amping up their efforts to show the absurdity and danger of this effort.

My favorite move is that the Obama White House has purchased the Google search term "Obamacare," conservatives' appellation of choice for health care reform, so if you search for that word the first hit takes you to the Administration's website that explains the reality behind the health care law.

Finally the Dems are coming out swinging. It only took two years.

Jan 4, 2011

Welfare That Works

Tina Rosenberg has an interesting blog post about welfare programs in Brazil, Mexico, and other countries that make payments to poor mothers if they fulfill certain conditions like making sure their kids go to school and to the doctor. Worth a read, apropos of my post earlier today.

"Welfare queens" and "hard-working white men" in American Myth and History

Once in a while I actually agree with something David Brooks writes, and apparently today's the day. His column this morning argues that the debate pitting "big government" against "small government" is the wrong debate to have. Instead, he says, we should be arguing about what kinds of government programs best serve the public interest, and he points out that there are historical examples of both big and small governments doing both good and bad things. 

I do have a major problem, though, with how he defines the public interest, and - guess what - it has to do with his use of history. Or, to put it another way, his use of historical mythology. He argues that the way to judge government programs should be "the Achievement Test," which asks, "Does a given policy arouse energy, foster skills, spur social mobility and help people transform their lives?" In essence, he defines these qualities as quintessential American values and goes on to use the Homestead Act and the G.I. Bill as positive examples of government programs that passed the Achievement Test. Then he says this about welfare:
        "The welfare policies of the 1960s gave people money without asking for work and personal responsibility in return, and these had to be replaced. The welfare reforms of the 1990s involved big and intrusive government, but they did the job because they were in line with American values, linking effort to reward."

But this argument is entirely race-blind, gender-blind, and sexuality-blind, and I don't mean that in a good way. All of the "good" examples that Brooks cites overwhelmingly benefited straight, white men, or punished poor, black women, and they belie the idea that "effort" and "reward" are directly linked in American history. 

The Homestead Act took land that had been appropriated from Native American tribes and redistributed it to American citizens, nearly all of whom were white. The Act went into effect on January 1, 1863, the same day that Lincoln emancipated Confederate slaves - but since only citizens could claim land under the Act, and most African-Americans weren't citizens until the adoption of the 14th Amendment in 1868, blacks were largely unable to take ownership of the land made available under the Act for its first five years. Then, many states wrote prohibitions on black land settlement and ownership into their constitutions, so even once they were citizens most blacks were prevented from benefiting from the Homestead Act. 

The G.I. Bill provides an even starker example. Enacted in 1944, the Bill provided certain benefits to veterans that enabled them to go to college, buy homes, and start businesses. But many colleges were still segregated, as was nearly all housing stock, especially the new postwar suburbs, so benefits to black veterans had far less value than the corresponding benefits for whites. Since veterans were overwhelmingly male, these benefits accrued mostly to men and to their wives. Moreover, since homosexuals were purged from the military during and after World War II, they too were denied the benefits of the G.I. Bill.

As for the history of welfare, I have a few things to say. The first is that most historians consider the G.I. Bill a form of “welfare,” along with things like Social Security and Medicre, but Americans like to distinguish between welfare programs for the so-called “deserving” poor (the elderly, the widowed) and the “un-deserving” poor (single moms, people of color), and they’re usually referring to the second kind when they just say “welfare.” That’s certainly what Brooks is getting at here, and his brief analysis is totally clouded by his assumptions about welfare recipients.

The 1960s were the greatest period of experimentation in anti-poverty programs in American history, encapsulated by the “war on poverty” and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Most of these programs were, indeed, targeted at single women with children, partly because the roots of the formal government program, Aid to Families With Dependent Children, lay in a 1935 law that only gave financial support to single mothers with kids (then called Aid to Dependent Children). In the 1960s reformers had high hopes of eradicating poverty by providing financial support, social services for education and health, and other programs for the poor. By the 1970s, though, a growing contingent of American politicians and intellectuals had decided that welfare encouraged people to avoid work. These ideas were founded largely on stereotypes about lazy black women, even though black women made up a minority of welfare recipients. The increasing concentration of poverty among people of color in urban areas, largely driven by black migration from the rural south and middle-class “white flight” from the cities, helped perpetuate the innacurate idea that welfare recipients were all single black moms having kids out-of-wedlock - many of whom were just ripping off the government.

When Brooks says that AFDC “had to be replaced” and that the 1996 reform that introduced Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) “did the job,” he gives no suggestion of the metrics by which he’s measuring the relative success of these programs. What is clear from his analysis, though, is that he supports welfare programs that have offered financial support to “deserving” white men (the Homestead Act, the G.I. Bill) but opposes welfare programs that have offered financial support to “undeserving” women, especially women of color.

The problem with this kind of color-, gender-, and sexuality-blind remembrance of history is that it lends false credence to the idea that straight, white men have gotten where they are by embodying the American value that “link[s] effort to reward.” To whatever extent that may be true, we always have to remember that American history is filled with examples of government policies that benefited those straight, white men at everyone else’s expense. And I mean that literally: through their tax payments, all Americans have subsidized welfare programs like the Homestead Act and the G.I. Bill that benefited only a portion of the American population, and yet we have refused to subsidize programs that benefit only “special interests” like poor women. We are not and have never been a color-, gender-, or sexuality-blind polity, and "effort" has never been our only determinant of "reward."

Actually, the U.S. has defaulted on its debt before

Apparently I was wrong that the U.S. has never before defaulted on its debt. Catherine Rampell has the details here.

Jan 3, 2011

Same Sh*t, Different Year: Republican Hostage-Taking

It's only the third day of 2011, the new Congress hasn't even been sworn in yet, and already Republicans are setting the terms of the national political conversation and threatening to hold Americans hostage if they don't get their way. I'm talking about the issue of the debt ceiling, which seemed to be all anyone could talk about today. Maybe that's just because all the pundits are back at work after the holidays but nothing's actually happened in Washington, but in any case what it means is that the newest Republican cause cel├Ębre has already set the tone for the new Congress. Some background: Congress has established a "debt ceiling," which limits the amount of debt the U.S. government can legally take on. We add to the national debt every year that we run a deficit (which is most years recently), so every few years Congress has to vote to raise the debt ceiling to enable the government to continue taking on debt. If we don't raise the debt ceiling, the U.S. government would default on its loans - an event that would be an absolute calamity for the American and world economies and which, quite frankly, will never actually be allowed to happen. But, times being what they are, some Republicans are threatening to block the debt ceiling increase when it comes up this spring. They claim it's because they are opposed to deficits and want to rein in government spending instead of increasing the national debt, but they also love-love-love to cut taxes which, you guessed it, increases the national debt. The issue is all over the news and blogosphere today because yesterday the Chairman of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisors went on This Week With Christine Amanpour and laid out just how absurdly dangerous these Republican threats are: "I don't see why anybody's talking about playing chicken with the debt ceiling....If we get to the point where you've damaged the full faith and credit of the United States, that would be the first default in history caused purely by insanity." Already, though, the Republicans have achieved what they really want, which is to set the terms of the debate for the new session of Congress so they can wrangle all their real desires out of the Democrats and President Obama. By threatening to vote against raising the debt ceiling, they're effectively forcing the Democrats to make major policy concessions in order to get their affirmative votes for the increase. This is just how it went last month: by taking a firm stand and not wavering on the Bush tax cut renewal, they forced the Democrats to negotiate on their terms. So now, two days before the new session of Congress, the political world is abuzz with talk of the coming confrontation over the debt ceiling instead of talking about job creation, education, tax policy, infrastructure investment, or any of the other really crucial issues facing the country. This is just the way the Republicans want it: they've put themselves in a great negotiating position and, yet again, made the issue an abstract question of "big government spending" rather than being forced to actually create policies that would help real people. So here's what I really hope: I hope the Democrats stand firm on this issue and, yes, play chicken with the Republicans. For once I want the Democrats to refuse to give in, just like the Republicans always do. Whatever the Republicans demand in return for their "yes" votes on the debt ceiling increase, Democrats should just say no. Because I'm willing to bet that when the day comes, most Republicans are not going to be willing to actually cause the first government default in the history of the United States over this issue. It's a dangerous bet, but that's the problem - the Democrats are always so scared of the potential consequences that they don't push hard and long enough to see if the Republicans will fold. This time, I think they will - if only the Democrats hold out long enough.

61% of Americans Think We Should Raise Taxes on the Wealthy (60 Minutes/VF Poll)

In a just-released  a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll, 61% of respondents said that the "first thing" we should do to reduce the deficit is "increase taxes on the wealthy." The second place response was "cut defense spending," coming in at 20% of respondents, trailed by "cut Medicare" and "cut Social Security" at 4% and 3%. Two things leap out at me about these numbers. The first is that raising taxes on the rich absolutely tramples all the other responses in popularity. The second is that our political leaders seem to have priorities totally out-of-whack with the priorities expressed in this poll, since raising taxes on the wealthy turns out to be non-negotiable and cutting defense spending only a tiny bit higher on the scale of negotiability.

If you've got a couple of minutes, check out the rest of the 60 Minutes/VF poll, which asked some fun questions like "Which one of these fashion items would you most like to see fall out of style for good?" and "Which one of these fantasy worlds would you most like to visit?" Also on the list: "If you could snap your fingers and magically fix one troubled part of the world, which one of the following would you choose?" The favorite: Washington, DC - which beat out the Middle East, Haiti, Sub-Saharan Africa, and New Orleans for this auspicious prize.

Attacks on public employees, 2011 edition

Here are some headlines from the last few days: "Public Workers Face Outrage as Budget Crises Grow." "Cuomo Plans One-Year Freeze on State Workers' Pay." "Frustration, Outrage, and Neighborly Bonds on an Unplowed Block in Queens."

These headlines, and others like them, encapsulate for me the deep conflict our country has about the value and merit of government services. We want our government to provide for our needs and wants, like plowing our streets, but we don't want to pay for those services, acknowledge their worth, or value the people who provide them. We want well-paved and well-plowed streets, prompt trash collection, good public transportation, reliable mail delivery, and all the rest. Those things cost money, and if we're not willing to pay for them in straight-up taxes, we will either have to forfeit them or pay for them some other way. We could, for example, increase our budget deficits, subway fares, and stamp prices.

Inevitably, those fiscal strategies shift the revenue burden to the young (or the future young) and the poor. They also damage our middle class, not least because public employment is a primary way for people to get to and stay in the middle income levels. Remember, when we talk about cutting government services and laying off public employees, we're talking about laying off people - not some abstract "big government," but actual people who have to pay rent and raise their kids and who, when they lose their jobs, decrease consumer spending and thereby hurt the economy. Why don't we instead ask people with more money - say, millionaires - to chip in more by increasing the actual marginal tax rates? Oh, I know why - it's because Republicans, and many Democrats, adhere to a primary principle that they will never, ever, raise taxes on the wealthy. Matt Yglesisas has some interesting things to say about that here.