Monday, January 30, 2006

By the time you read this Samuel A. Alito, Jr., will be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, despite his troubling record on ethics (a stubborn refusal to recuse himself in cases involving conflicts of interest that nearly rivals Nino Scalia’s), a disturbing tendency to side with the government and big business against the individual, and, of course, his documented stance on the issue of abortion. Once again, it seemed to come down to Roe v. Wade. And once again Roe’s opponents prevailed.

Has Roe become a liability to Democrats? It seems to hit the headlines every time there’s an election, disappearing from the news when it’s no longer useful as a wedge issue. It is as much an effective tool of the right as the left, but it’s the right that has exploited it masterfully in the last several elections by insisting that abortion is a black-and-white issue, and forcing the left to approach it as an end-game as well. This all-or-nothing approach is great theater, but belies the truth of daily life and the common sense with which most approach living it, and which our politics should reflect.

Although the sentiment is certainly not new, Democrats have recently had some success as “pro-choice/anti-abortion” candidates, and this has pundits asking if it’s possible for a political party, or those who pledge allegiance to it, to be pro-choice and anti-abortion at the same time. And the short answer is yes. Yes transcends the issue itself and brings us face-to-face with the democratic ideal. It’s not only an acknowledgment of the other's private, autonomous existence, and her right to make her own way in the world—an idea ostensibly advocated by conservatives—but also an acknowledgment of a shared reality where private selves intersect in sometimes very significant ways, as equals, in the crucible of lived experience. The polarizing dogma that has defined this debate up to now is indicative of a general trend towards orthodoxy, the goal of which is order through coercion. Democracy strives for something much higher, and harder: order through consensus, which requires compromise.

The game plan on the right is to polarize the populace on deeply personal issues. And they are winning. Their success has driven the left to oppose orthodoxy with orthodoxy. But this is a losing proposition for Democrats, who should not be ashamed to be liberal in the old-fashioned sense: not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas. Unfortunately, Democrats have proven inept at connecting issues like full reproductive- and marriage-rights to the lives of people who don’t see themselves personally impacted, whether negatively in the absence of such rights or positively by their expansion. And the Dems will continue to be played by the GOP until they can articulate, with true conviction, in the vernacular, why anyone but those immediately affected should care. Or at the very least, why they should not be threatened, as the GOP suggests, by the rights of others.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

On my daily schlep from Chinatown to Copley Square I walk past St. Francis House and Arlington Street Church, down Boylston Street, which averages five beggars per block, I’d say, stationed strategically outside overpriced cafes or serving as drugstore doormen. Every society has its beggars, of course. They often serve a religious function. In Judaism, where wealth is on loan from God and the poor have a legitimate claim to it, alms-giving is a means of atonement. Mendicants in China are seen as intermediaries between humans and deities, passing messages back and forth. In India it's dharma you're dealing with, and a class of beggars called sadhus beg only for food, never for money. In Bangladesh beggars are unionized. In San Francisco they take credit cards. Most Americans balk at giving to panhandlers. Though it’s usually just spare change, it’s not a question of spending the money so much as how the money’s spent.

Truth is, while beggars are the most visible and vocal of the poor, the majority aren’t homeless. And the lion’s share of homeless people aren’t beggars. The homeless remain for the most part out of sight and mind, unless you work in one of Boston’s overburdened shelters or in its severely stressed social services sector. According to a 2005 study by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) the number of homeless families and individuals more than doubled between 1990-2000, and continues to rise. Shelters for individuals are, as a matter of course, filled beyond capacity. As for families: 10,000 were homeless at some time last year. Massachusetts has space for 1,800.

The plight of the chronically homeless, for whom serious mental illness often plays a major role, remains the most intractable. But there’s a sensible solution. Dr. Dennis Culhane of the University of Pennsylvania found in his definitive study of nearly 10,000 chronically homeless people that the cost of leaving them to fend for themselves is equal to if not greater than that of housing them. The New York/New York Agreement of 1989, which reduced the single-adult homeless shelter population by nearly forty percent in the early ‘90s, has shown the way.

There’s some recognition at the federal and state levels of the need for long-term solutions to chronic homelessness. In 2003 the feds announced partnerships with local authorities. Acronymous committees were commissioned and staffed, executive orders issued, millions of dollars appropriated to various and sundry well-meaning organizations. Still, according to a 2005 report to Massachusetts legislators by the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association: “Even as study after study, including a recent report by a special commission appointed by the Governor, have continued to affirm that investing in homeless prevention services and housing subsidies is far less expensive both in dollars and human toll than providing emergency shelter, the State has largely failed to act on this knowledge.” The lesson of the NY/NY Agreement is this: it’s not a question of spending the money so much as how the money’s spent.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Happy days are here again, with the Dow topping that heady 11,000 mark for the first time since the 9/11 terror attacks! Woo-hoo! Things are so rosy, Congress has treated itself to raises every year since 2001, $20,800-worth, for a current annual income of $162,100 (and that’s before graft is factored in). The total annual compensation of your average CEO of a major company’s skyrocketed to $10 million. These are, indeed, the best of times. But wait a minute. At $5.15 an hour, the minimum wage hasn’t budged in a decade, and real median household income remains stagnant at just under $45,000 per annum. While the Dow surges, companies rush to freeze or terminate pensions. Like so many things in our gilded economy these days, the benefits of the bottom line look a lot better from the top rung of the corporate ladder. For many, these are (still) the worst of times. But, chin up! Some day we’ll all be millionaires, right?

A recent study by Columbia University Sociologist Thomas A. DiPrete, “Is This a Great Country? Upward Mobility and the Chance for Riches in Contemporary America,” begins to explain why so many Americans voted against their own economic interests in recent elections, and persist in siding with the top 1% of the country in its efforts to bankrupt the rest of us. As DiPrete puts it: “[A]n incorrect understanding of the risks and benefits of different medical procedures can interfere with the sensible choice when it comes to major decisions about health care. Misinformation about American income distribution and one’s chances for becoming rich can make it similarly difficult for Americans to take sensible positions on tax policy.” So DiPrete set out to debunk the Get Rich Myth. He found that while an astonishing 51% of Americans between the ages of 18-29 (including 58% of males in this age range) thought it was likely they’d be rich some day, in reality the figure is closer to 5-6%, and depends on your being well-off to begin with. Across demographics, the story’s the same: most Americans consider themselves “pre-rich.” But the truth is, just like the old adage says, it’s mainly the rich who are getting richer.

So, not only is there an increasingly obscene income gap in America, but also a widening gap between the perception and reality of income mobility. Still, the Wall Street Journal editorial that inspired DiPrete’s study got it right: “Americans vote not on their envy but their aspirations.” Optimism is the greatest of American virtues; blind optimism our greatest vice. Next time out let’s aspire to share the American dream rather than limit it to those already living it. This will require a sober look at the reality of class and class mobility in America today. Don’t stop dreaming, because it’s not the American Dream that’s broken. It’s just that it will take more than idle dreaming to make it a reality for more than a tiny minority of already privileged Americans.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Several recent movies set out to offer insight into the so-called War on Terror, that never-ending struggle that seems to be turning our own nation, by not-so-subtle degrees, into a rogue state. A couple big-budget terror-era thrillers have reached the Cineplex and are worth seeing. Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” has Israel’s Prime Minister, Golda Meir, telling her top-secret Committee X that sometimes it’s necessary to negotiate compromises with core values, before sending Mossad agents to revenge the deaths of the Olympic athletes slaughtered by Black September. The rest of the film deals with the fall-out. The last scene, after revenge has been wrought, frames the Twin Towers in a pre-9/11 Lower Manhattan. In “Syriana” Director Stephen Gaghan provides a serpentine descent into the dark depths of Big Oil. In both movies the protagonists end up not knowing who they’re working for, whose interests they’re serving, or exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing. Not to worry, neither film is quite seditious. “Munich” is too transparent, “Syriana” too opaque to be mistaken for agitprop.

Both deal to a disarming degree with individuals serving as cogs in a political process so vast and complicated it simply cannot be comprehended in toto. The engine of this incredible machine may be oil, Gaghan suggests, but oil stands for greed, and greed is what keeps it humming. This notion is itself seditious to some, but as various characters in “Syriana” never hesitate to tell us, the U.S., with 5% of world population, consumes roughly 50% of the world’s oil. Being reminded that our appetites have consequences, both political and personal, around the world, offends some delicate sensibilities, alas. But acknowledging this universal truth is essential in determining what our true core values are, and assessing which of them we’re willing to compromise, and to what end.

Both movies clearly warn of becoming what we profess to despise, echoing tales as ancient as civilization itself. Take, as a random example, the Hindu tale of the fearsome demon Raktabija, a tough one to vanquish, because every drop of his blood, when it hit the ground, became another demon just like him. The lesser gods, at their wit’s end, called for back-up. Kali, goddess of destruction, came galloping into the fray, and with her formidable tongue, caught every drop of the demon’s blood before it could hit the ground. Seemed like a good idea at the time. But then, drunk on the demon’s blood, Kali, not known for her restraint in the first place, went on her own blind, bloody rampage across the universe. It took the more meditative Shiva, roused from a trance, to bring her back to her senses.

What happened in Munich September 5th, 1972, and in America September 11th, 2001, is not subject to debate. But what these events set in motion must be vigorously, passionately, and publicly debated. These movies bring important issues to the fore. We mustn’t be afraid to “go there”. That’s when the terrorists—whether states or the stateless—have won.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Have you noticed? Un-PC is the new black. I had dinner last week with a friend of mine who’s a member of a popular comedy troupe* in town, known for their bawdy humor, outrageous musical numbers and cross-dressing. He assured me that their new show was set to be their most “un-PC” yet. Which reminded me of movie critic A.O. Scott’s review of Sarah Silverman’s supposedly very un-PC concert movie, “Jesus is Magic”: “mocking political correctness has become a form of political correctness in its own right.” Interestingly, it’s not the whiners on the right (the ones constantly assailing the whiners on the left for their Politically Correct excesses) but the lefties themselves—who supposedly invented PC—who are eager to subvert it. So it seems “un-PC” is indeed the new PC.

But should it surprise anyone that blacks, Jews, gays, immigrants, and uppity women (or any combination thereof)—the supposedly PC crowd, in other words—provide us with our most cutting-edge, taboo-busting, un-PC entertainment? Not really. PC has less to do with political preference, per se, than with an orientation towards ideological orthodoxy. And most Americans, accustomed to the dynamism of democracy, bristle at orthodoxy’s chilling effect. But if you stick to The Script, PC is part of a vast, insidiously encroaching, liberal conspiracy. In the script, "PC" is the McCarthyism of the left, even though it has no Joseph McCarthy and no House Committee on Un-American Activities. I know: pesky details.

Truth is, PC is nowadays largely a bugaboo of the right, whose obsession with it long ago eclipsed the loony left’s actual political correctness. The Great Christmas Tree Controversy of 2005 was only the latest battle in the mostly imaginary PC wars, and showed how strained the efforts to keep ‘em raging have gotten. I mean, what if you threw a Culture War and no one came? Harping on the excesses of Political Correctness, real or imagined, does have its purposes, though. It’s a way of framing issues, first of all. But mostly it’s a way to rail against diversity, affirmative action, sexual harassment suits, gay marriage, even handicap parking, without having to own up to outright bigotry. It’s the triumph of I’m-rubber-you’re-gluism in American politics.

One of the peculiar strengths of our nation, its dynamic culture, and its form of government is that it gives a voice to those who are outnumbered. I would say “minorities,” but consulting a definitive lexicon of PC terms, I see this means “any PC group that can claim it is oppressed,” where “oppression” is PC code for “the state of holding PC status while not receiving enough special benefits and attention.” That’s according to the proudly un-PC authors, who clearly believe that their opponents’ perceived political correctness conveniently discredits all of the latter’s political claims. Now, you may think me PC, but I’m happy to call a spade a spade: scratch the surface of someone obsessed with the vast PC conspiracy and I guarantee you’ll find an old-school bigot.

*the troupe is called Fresh Fruit. They can be found on the web here.