Friday, August 10, 2007

Sick and tired of racism?

Two studies, both concerning Asian Americans, found evidence of a causal connection between discrimination and depreciated health. The first study examined experiences with discrimination amongst Korean immigrants to the United States and measured those findings against the mental health quality of the subjects. "Researchers found that both overt and subtle discrimination seemed to influence participants' mental health. Overt discrimination was associated with the erosion of positive mood, while subtle racism was associated with symptoms of depression, possibly because more subtle forms of discrimination create 'ambiguities in terms of social identity.'" A second study looked at the impact of discrimination on chronic illness. They observed associations between discrimination and various respiratory, cardiovascular and pain-causing conditions, concluding:"that the everyday perceived discrimination minorities experience could cause stress that can lead to chronic illnesses."

Studies like these have a lot of interesting implications. They illustrate the extent to which cumulative disadvantages still track to characteristics like race not simply because of class conditions, as some materially inclined post-racists may conjuncture. but as a tangible result of discrimination that is currently happening. They also raise a tough moral dilemma for proponents of a health system like the one in the status quo (though I will admit now they do not go far enough to establish the moral necessity of a completely socialized health system).

If we take up the meritocratic position held by many (though certainly not all) opponents of socialized medicine which states that people's capacity to afford health care should, and more or less does, track to decisions about work, education and life-path that people have freely made themselves the status quo would be easier to accept. As one anonymous interlocutor put it in an online forum, claims that the 40 million or so uninsured Americans represent a failure of distributive justice suffer from "
a lack of true knowledge as to why those "40 million" are uninsured (here's a hint - a significant number choose to be that way for a variety of reasons beyond "I can't afford insurance") and we start getting down to the real issues at hand." Following this argument to it's conclusion, the quality and cost of a person's health care, and indeed whether a person has any at all, is just if it indexes to that persons choice. So if I choose to remain unemployed or to become obese then I deserve whatever hardships come my way in the market-based health system. Bracketing the (numerous) complications that employment, obesity and the like raise in terms of cumulative disadvantage, we will take that idealized, rationalist approach and put to it the question of race.

A Korean American who either (1) suffered from a mental health disorder as a result of discrimination or (2) suffered from a chronic illness as a result of stress caused by discrimination would face considerable difficulty in paying for health care. At best, our hypothetical Korean would pay much higher premiums and/or deductible and face still higher expenses in treatment. At worst, she or he might be totally unable to find a provider, as many people with chronic and mental illnesses are.

Now, in this person's case there is absolutely no sense in which she or he could be said to have "earned" discrimination, even indirectly by putting oneself in a risky position. Yet she or he may well be priced out of insurance simply as a result of a prejudiced society. Why should our Korean have to face inordinately high costs of health care - or worse, go without any - simply because living as a Korean in a racist white society is difficult?

The moral dilemma illustrated by these studies, put simply, is that there are systematic inequalities in the allocation of health burdens in our society, which impose costs on the people burdened with them that are, as Rawls would have said, arbitrary from a moral point of view. Yet we ask that those people face the costs with whatever resources they can cobble together (forgetting for now that their capacity to do so will be inhibited by their health conditions ). Why shouldn't all members of a society marked by inequality that is arbitrary (morally) and systematic (distributively) have some obligation to contribute to offset those disadvantages?

Giving Good Face: What Jeremy Bentham and Facebook Have in Common

All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy.
--Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishment, 1977

A message popped up in September 9 last year for those lucky enough to see it. It was scripted by a self-made millionaire (or billionaire?), one of those flip-flop wearing college drop-outs Marc Zuckerman:

When I made Facebook two years ago my goal was to help people understand what was going on in their world a little better. I wanted to create an environment where people could share whatever information they wanted, but also have control over whom they shared that information with. I think a lot of the success we've seen is because of these basic principles.

It was also an apology. He had failed to explain the new features of his networking system to subscribers. He was merely ‘trying to provide [them] with a stream of information about your social world.’ What were these features? The ‘Media-Feed’; the ‘News-Feed’. We could effectively chart the everyday lives of fellow human beings on the network. One could see, in chronological fashion, instant updates across the entire network one was a member of. You could see when a new ‘friend’ was added, what time it took place, which date it occurred on.

Then there is the ‘poke’ facility. It is one Zuckerman has been kind enough to offer his users. In most cultures, it is an affront. There is a sexual sting in the statement. My personal space is violated; my dignity is affronted by the conceit of familiarity: do you really think you know me? My virtual space, however, is another matter. My comfort zone is global (at least across networks). Anyone who is part of this system can see me; can ‘poke’ me.

The Facebook facility keeps company with other public forums where information about individuals is shared. Myspace and Xanga – programs which espionage agencies would have saved millions had they pioneered them during the 19th and 20th centuries – jostle on the cyberspace platform for paramountcy. Users of the facility have complained (some did even before the Zuckerman statement): Facebook displays too little, cordoning off access to certain members; or, Facebook has become too informative.

This year, Facebook became saviour – survivors of the Virginia Tech massacre ‘facebooked’ (a now common and obscene verb) fellow students telling them they were ‘OK’. ‘Facebook saved me’ became a catch-cry. It is a matter of time before Facebook messages appear in lieu of flowers at a funeral.

Three decades ago, Big Brother was the enemy. Now, with the proclaimed defeat of ‘totalitarian’ communism, the surveillance culture has moved into private life with our consent. The spawn of Solzhenitsyn’s Grand Strategist or Orwell’s Big Brother are dead; we have nothing to fear. Our quibble is which surveillance feature we want. Big Brother is an invitee – and not merely in the capsule of human drudgery and slime called ‘the Big Brother house’. On the contrary, we like surveillance – take the British as an example. We like accountability, so we like people watched. We are watched to protect us from our more sinister motives.

So, employers now look at Facebook. They even issue advertisements on it. They hire and in some cases fire on the basis of a Facebook profile. Universities scan the profiles of their students.
Facebook, Zuckerman assures us, issues its own privacy controls. We have choices as to what to put on our profile. Apparently, the democratic preserve is maintained: we can choose, so we are free. It is the classic American exposition of the human condition of freedom: ‘As long as you can vote, we are free’. ‘As long as you can decide what to disclose, you are free.’ ‘I am free because I can adopt the Fifth Amendment.’ ‘I am free to profile myself on Facebook.’ We do not have to let our political views be known; we do not have to disclose our political interests, but it is advisable to do so. We do not need to know if we like men or women, but of course, we want to.

Facebook has ushered in a revolution, and a failed one at that. It is much like the panopticon – ‘all-seeing’, that surveillance device the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham pioneered in the nineteenth century for penal reform. Zuckerman shares more with Bentham than he realises: a desire to improve the quotient of pleasure in society; a desire to maximise the network for the common good. As Bentham commences his study on penal reform, he calls his device the panopticon ‘or the inspection house’.

In 1975, Michel Foucault added his gloss to Bentham’s Panopticon Notes. For Foucault, the major effect of the Panopticon is: ‘to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.’ The prison inmate ‘is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.’

There are subtle differences. Members of the networks have become inspectors, just as they have become prisoners. People do ‘communicate’ with each other. It is a brilliant seduction: to give the means of surveillance to everybody in order to legitimise it. We see but we are also seen (at stages). We relinquish ourselves to others, but have the luxury of indulging in everyone else’s surrender of secrecy.

Perhaps it is time to return to personals that do not reek of voyeuristic profiling and ‘pokes’. Consult the London Review of Books instead: ‘I celebrated by fortieth birthday last week by cataloguing my collection of bird feeders. Next year, I’m hoping for sexual intercourse. And a cake.’

This article first appeared on Counterpunch, August 7, 2007.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Visible Vote

I'm going to live-blog the Visible Vote forum that LOGO and HRC are hosting. All of the Democratic candidates - excepting Biden and Dodd - will be appearing to discuss issues of concern to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies. I've also submitted some questions, mainly at the intersection of health policy and LGBT rights. But my guess is they're a bit on the wonkish side for a general debate.

The hosts: Journalist Jonathan Capehart, singer Melissa Etheridge, and HRC President Joe Solmonese. You can stream the debate live here.

Obama is up first.

9:06 PM - Obama draws an analogy between the outsider status he has often confronted due to his racial and ethnic heritage and the marginality faced by LGBT people. He argues strongly from anti-discrimination/civil rights framework for civil unions that are legally equivalent to marriage. He wants to leave marriage up to individual religious denominations. One of the panelists presses this - what about civil marriage?

9:08 PM - Obama just concern trolled the gays. He said they should choose their battles, and maybe the lack of access to civil marriage isn't the one they should focus on. He also said that whether or not civil marriage was available to same-sex couples was mostly a semantic issue. That does not sit well here. He actually comes of as dismissive and patronizing.

9:15 PM- One of the hosts, Mr. Capehart, raises the issue of homophobia in the black community. Barack responds that he has previously addressed to black audiences the impediment that homophobia has raised in adequately responding to the crisis of AIDS amongst black Americans. He also laments the use of homophobia to fragment progressive alliances between blacks and LGBT people. He is very good on this issue. His answer is very thoughtful and considered. I believe him when he says he will advocate for LGBT people not solely when he's on the burner before America's wealthiest gay rights group.

9:22 PM - Edwards steps up to the plate. I've previously blogged (quite unfavorably) on his discursive representation of LGBT people in public debates. Let's see how he does tonight.

9:24 PM - Melissa Etheridge has a great moment where she touches on the solidarity she feels with Elizabeth Edwards in their mutual struggle with cancer. She pivots from there to the incredible privilege she and Edwards share in being able to afford their expensive treatments. She asks if Edwards understands that the health care crisis hits LGBT people especially hard given that they cannot depend on employers and spouses to provide health care for them like most Americans.

Edwards answer is okay, but not impressive. He plugs his universal health care plan. Then he discusses his empathy for the large portion of LGBT people who are homeless as a result of discrimination. He does touch on an actual answer - between his stances on civil unions and his universal health care plan he'd see the problem addressed. He doesn't seem to have much to say about LGBT health at all, and is instead trying to soundbite on as many issues as possible.

9:29 PM - Edwards states, albeit equivocally, that he would support education about sexuality in public schools that emphasizes the naturalness of homosexuality and the need for tolerance. He comes across as empathetic, but admits he hasn't thought through the specific policy issues involved. It shows.

9:31 PM - Why, oh why, has Edwards spent the past three minutes talking about Anne Coulter?

9:33 PM - Edwards takes the first transgender specific question of the night - how would he react to the knowledge that one of his staffer was trans-identified and planning to transition? Edwards replies that he would be tolerant and as supportive as he could be (fair enough), and expresses his support for a transgender inclusive federal ENDA. This is his strongest answer yet.

9:35 PM - Edwards is finally taking on the marraige question. He says that he cannot impose religious views, that he believes in equality to his core and that he can understand why anything short of full equality before the law will be seen as a sleight to the LGBT community. But he doesn't give a direct justification for his policy. So he is asked for one, in a question that strongly indicts his "I'm on a journey" crap. His answer... is that Don't Ask Don't Tell ought to be repealed. Very disappointing.

9:41 PM - Kucinich takes the stage to the warmest welcome of the night. Right away Capehart points out that Kucinich seems to stand with the LGBT community on every issue. He then asks Kucinich why he stands in such a minority amongst candidates in his support for same-sex marriage. His response, simply, is that he stands for true equality. Capehart takes this and runs - is Kucinich saying that Obama and Edwards, who speak for equality as well, have jettisonned the LGBT community for political reasons. Kucinich takes the high-road and doesn't endorse Capehart's theory, but he gives a great answer on the role the federal government can play as an agent for social change.

9:47 PM - Kucinich is still getting a lot of flattery. The moderator calls him "evolved." Kucinich accepts the compliment. He says his role is to help all Americans "evolve" with him. He also emphasizes that his path is easy - he just has to listen to LGBT people and then act. They are the ones who have to struggle courageously with discrimination. How can he not help them? Kucinich understands solidarity, I'll say that.

9:49 PM - Are you serious? I guess this can't be a cakewalk the whole time, so Etheridge (after endorsing Kucinich's candidacy to his face) throws him a question on medicinal marijuana, citing the pain caused by AIDS and cancer in the gay and lesbian communities. Kucinich says - yes. He does not waffle. Just, yes - as a matter of compassion our approach to marijuana should be informed primarily by health policy not criminal justice. He also plugs his health care plan: the only universal single payer health care plan proposed by a candidate, the only one that is not-for -profit. Nice, but he sure swallowed a heck of a soundbite on the pot question.

9:52 PM - The panelists seem to concede that Kucinich can't win this as much as they'd like him to. They ask if he is electable. Kucinich is giving a terrific answer. He replies that middle America does believe in tolerance and equality. He'd like to lead that America, but at the same time his candidacy is not just about representation - it's also about transformation. He is trying to transform and persuade even as he positions himself for the White House.

9:54 PM - Now Kucinich gets the wonkiest question of the night: will he make HIV/AIDS prevention funding part of Ryan White? For those not in the know, Ryan White Care Act is the source of most federal funding to care for people living with HIV/AIDS but does not cover preventative care. Kucinich says he would advocate for that. Succinct, but he doesn't seem prepared to talk in detail about Ryan White, so he just talks about health care generally for awhile. Not a stellar answer.

9:59 PM - Kucinich's closing remarks are very eloquent. He talks about love and his wife, transformation and equality. I'd like to point out that Kucinich is the candidate who has talked least about "tolerance." He never uses the word. He talks about equality a lot, love almost as much and occasionally uses the word justice. But he is not talking about tolerance. It does not seem rehearsed, he just seems to be past that point. I'm consistently impressed by this man, and tonight is no exception.

10:05 PM - Now Gravel is on. He gets a question about how, as a member of his generation, he talks about his support for LGBT rights generally and same-sex marriage specifically. He answers that most of his generation is wrong, and in time the issue will not be one.
Gravel blames demagogues for dividing America on marriage equality. He thinks most Americans, if they followed their sense of fairness, would support marriage.

10:08 PM - Interesting and ballsy: Gravel calls out LGBT voters for supporting people like Clinton and Obama when candidates like himself and Kucinich are doing the hard work on LGBT issues. Point taken, sir.

10:10 PM - Capehart turns the blade at Gravel: Why aren't you as popular as Clinton and Obama with LGBT voters? Gravel seems to backtrack and acknowledge that there is a political liability that he does take on by supporting LGBT equality. And he says he does not want the support of Democrats who are not willing to take on that liability as a show of solidarity.

10:13 PM - Gravel has talked a lot about politics and public opinion. This is working against him because he isn't getting to talk much about the range of issues that Edwards and Obama did. He comes off as committed, but not particularly informed.

10:14 PM - Gravel is talking about nuclear testing in the Pacific? He's also kind of being a dick to Joe Solmonese, but that's probably okay since no LGBT activist worth their rainbow stripes actually likes the HRC.

10:17 PM - So now Gravel is giving a great schpeel on the prison system, the war on drugs and de-criminalization. It's decent enough... but unfortunately the question was about HIV/AIDS in the inner cities. Not particularly convincing.

10:19 PM - Now it's Richardson's turn.

10:22 PM - Richardson's "concern troll" is a lot more convincing than Obama's. He talks about using winnable battles against hate crimes, against No Child Left Behind (which he points out hurts good sexuality education and anti-bullying work). But he emphasizes using these battles to build the community of allies concerned with LGBT support and to transform public consciousness. He sounds like a realist, where Obama and Edwards just sounded evasive.

10:25 PM - Richardson apologizes the "miracon" gaffe, and minimizes. He wants to talk about his record, which is impressive (pioneering support for transgender rights, working against hate crimes, and moving aggressively for domestic partnerships and against DOMA). He is tremendously focused on talking about (1) what political goals are achievable for LGBT issues, (2) what his political record is and (3) how the community can move forward.

10:28 PM - Now Richardson takes a hypothetical: if you could sign a marriage act into law, would you? This is a great question because it challenges Richardson's position, which is the "achievable" bit keeping his own stances out of the picture. He dodges a lot, before finally saying that he isn't "there yet." Saw that coming. I think Richardson still comes off great. He admits that he isn't there, but neither are most Americans. And he seems to have really thought about how he will transform American politics for LGBT people. He has a plan.

10:31 PM - Interesting. Richardson says at first that homosexuality is a choice. Then he waffles. But his answer, that he continues forward with, is that categories don't matter. LGBT people are people, and whether they have chosen, been acculturated, or been born a certain way then they should not give up their rights. I agree. But I also agree with Etheridge's answer that it is alienating for LGBT people to be told that they have chosen their identity when their personal narrative reads otherwise. When pressed, Richardson makes it clear that he is about politics, not identity. He can't say what homosexuality is like, or what being transgender is like - but he can offer political protection. This is actually where I stand as well. There is no need to define identity to make a political coalition. I respect a man who demures from doing so, especially when he has the humility not to define the identities of others.

10:36 PM - And here comes Clinton, closing out the show.

10:38 PM - Mr. Solmonese asks why Clinton has never introduced legislation against Don't Ask Don't Tell, being a vocal advocate against it for so long and given her place on the Senate committee working on military issues. She basically answers that the political climate is wrong and we need an executive branch that will accommodate the change (or at least not veto the bill).

10:42 PM - Clinton isn't against same-sex marriage, she's just really for civil unions. Ick. She says equality matters, and civil unions can provide full equality. She wants states to make decisions. But she is personally against same-sex marriage. Her position is much like Edwards and Obama's: she doesn't have a plan to provide justice for LGBT people, but she sees the country moving in that direction and will not obstruct that movement. But she is herself unwilling to take the position (and political risk herself).

10:45 PM - Clinton says the states are better battlegrounds for LGBT people than the federal governments. I'd agree if so many states hadn't explicitly repudiated that hypothesis with bblatantly discriminatory statutes last November.

10:47 PM - Next to Kucinich, Hilary is doing the best job of answering the questions she is asked. But her discussions is kind of wonky, she talks a lot about the powers that be - not the powers the she will use and the moves she'd like to make for LGBT people. She also isn't talking much about her record, other than emphasizing her record with HRC (oh boy). She is coming off as a political advisor and something of a political historian even. In apologizing for the conditions facing LGBT people now she gives phenomenally informed answers on why their legal position is the way it is. But she seems lacking on vision, on a gameplan, and on a record. She understands the political waters, but doesn't know where she wants to swim.

10:50 PM - Clinton says she wants to reverse the "mean-spirited assault" political assault on LGBT people. Other than that, she doesn't seem to have much to offer.

Commentary: I loved the format. Very intimate, like a conversation. Questioners could follow-up easily, and answers were lengthier. The answers were even more substantive, where the candidates wanted them to be. I applaud the planners for that. I really feel like I know where each candidate stands.

Kucinich was clearly the star of the evening. Richardson would be my second - he isn't on my page on all the issues, but I know exactly what he'd do for me as a gay citizen were he to sit in the White House. Obama performed well when talking about race, AIDS and progressive coalitions. But his answers on marriage were nearly offensive. Gravel was alternatively solid and way off topic. Clinton just didn't seem to have much to say other than that she wanted to support LGBT people but needed to change the political climate to do that effectively. Edwards was awful.

There's an exit poll on the LOGO site seeing how people felt. I'd expect to see it swing a bit now that the debate has ended. But here's the breakdown:

Question: Who's your candidate?

1. Barack Obama (37%) - My 2nd choice candidate, 3rd best performance tonight
2. Dennis Kucinich (24%) - My 1st choice candidate, 1st best performance tonight
3. Hilary Clinton (19%) - My 4th choice candidate, 5th best performance tonight
4. John Edwards (9%) - My 5th choice candidate, worst performance tonight
5. Bill Richardson (5%) - My 3rd choice candidate, 2nd best performance tonight
6. Mike Gravel (4%) - My 6th choice candidate, 4th best performance tonight

Question: What's your issue:

1. LGBT Rights (40%) - my 2nd choice out of the poll
2. Health Care (31%) - my 1st choice out of the poll (and 1st overall in this election)
3. Gay Marriage (29%) - my 3rd choice out of the poll (and important overall, though I'd be hard pressed to rank it precisely)

Invisible and barely getting by

The rhetorical weight swung hardest in debates over socialized medicine is the ghastly number of Americans - over 40 million - who live without health insurance. Overlooked too frequently are the stories of Americans who can afford health insurance, but not comprehensive health insurance, who spend their entire lives fighting with their providers over plans, omissions, coverage gaps and reimbursements. They often find that themselves uncovered and unable to pay for crucial medical treatment and preventative care. What I found most powerful about Moore's SiCKO was not it's celebration of nationalized systems in Canada and Europe, but the haunting portraits of insured Americans for whom the system does not work.

Take for example, childhood immunizations. New reports indicate that children who are underinsured (as opposed to fully insured or uninsured) are the least likely to get vaccinations on time and at affordable rates. Working class families are left to choose: pay thousands for the injections, or let their kids go without critical preventative medicine. For families with good plans, the costs are covered - but many providers simply don't cover the vaccinations. And for those without any insurance, there's Medicaid and the FQHC system. As with so many other places in the American class system, its those who barely get by who feel the squeeze.

All the same, libertarians like John Stossel lambaste the type of government guidelines for providers that would close these coverage gaps:

Does it never occur to the progressives that the legislature's intrusion into private contracts is one reason health care and health insurance are expensive now? The average annual health-insurance premium for a family in Wisconsin is $4,462 partly because Wisconsin imposes 29 mandates on health insurers: Every policy must cover chiropractors, dentists, genetic testing, etc.

Absent those "intrusions", however, the full cost of health care is passed on to the people who are not able to pay, but who all the same are not the listless hordes of welfare-state-dependents that libertarians like to deride (a blogger at KXMC seems convinced that anyone who can't afford to pay for every health expenditure is a "lay-about").

Free marketeers and fiscal conservatives don't like to discuss the working poor because they defy easy stereotyping: they don't have much money but are demonstrably hard working; they pay taxes but still need state assistance. They make visible the long spectrum between dependency and autonomy that rabid individualists can't seem to grasp as the fundamental quality of social life.

Welfare gets the NCLB treatment

Conservatives are finally learning how to use the welfare state. The first hint of a revelation came from their masterful coup under the guise of "welfare reform," where House Republicans led the charge in delivering work-or-starve ultimatums to thousands. Welfare-to-work programs showed that state assistance does not have to be used solely as a social support system - it can also be a powerful disciplinary apparatus, by which incentives and punishments are leveraged on the poor until they function at the desired level of productivity. The autonomy of the poor may diminish as they are forced to accept the first job they come across - fair compensation and capacity for family care be dammed - but that is the nature of a system that prioritizes economic efficiency over social freedom.

The federal government is still uninterested in the no-win scenarios that the unemployed poor often find themselves in. Where states do not meet strict quotas for welfare roll trims, they get hurt. Take Indiana for example:

The federal government is warning Indiana it faces a $10 million penalty for not moving enough welfare recipients into jobs and off of public rolls in 2005.


That office's director, Sidonie Squier, says Indiana fell short of its target for the rate of welfare households participating in job training. The target was 33.4%, but the rate was only 30.9%.

The penalty would mean the loss of approximately 5% of the state's federal block grant for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. The grant pays for financial aid, job training, child care, child abuse prevention and other programs targeting Indiana's needy.

The last paragraph is definitely the kicker. We've learned that the Bush administration does not mind punishing poor students by removing what funding they do receive. And now Indiana will face a shortage of funds to pay for, among other things, job training because it has not trained enough people for jobs.

Rather than recognizing structural challenges and re-evaluating policies, the Bush administration rules with rigid mandates. And instead of providing services to the neediest parts of the country, they compound existing problems with harsh reprisals. It's a reinvention of the welfare state, not as a human service but as a more powerful tool to force compliance with an agenda that is at least as anti-poor as it is anti-poverty.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Love thy Neighbor

On the front page of Monday’s New York Times was an article on an abomination of a law strengthening the government’s eavesdropping abilities. Whatever your opinion on FISA and secret surveillance, there’s one part of the article that should infuriate everyone reading it. It should, but I’m sure it doesn’t; in fact, it’s even presented (by the very liberal Times) as a justification for the new legislation:
But he stressed that the objective of the new law is to give the government greater flexibility in focusing on foreign suspects overseas, not to go after Americans.
“It’s foreign, that’s the point,” Mr. Fratto said. “What you want to make sure is that you are getting the foreign target.”
Or, in the law’s own words, the National Security Agency no longer needs a warrant to perform electronic “surveillance directed at a person reasonably believed to be located outside of the United States.”

White House spokesman Tony Fratto and the press are reassuring us with the information that it’s not us, it’s them. They’re trying to convince you that you have nothing to worry about, because you’re not the target of the wiretapping. Well I have news for you: if you’re not worried, you should be. Forget that the target only has to be “reasonably believed to be located outside of the United States,” (reasonable belief means many things to many people.) Forget that this is just another step expanding a surveillance net that will inevitably include you if it gets much bigger. Those are both great reasons to be worried – basically, the law does have the potential to hurt you and your fellow Americans. But if that’s why you’re worried, you’re missing my point. Like I said, you should also be very, very worried about the “it’s ok, it’s directed at foreigners” comment.

Or attitude, rather. America has been swept by a wave of patriotic xenophobia. Maybe it started after 9/11, with messages like “you’re either with us or against us” and propaganda like the USA PATRIOT Act. It progressed, and after a time it became acceptable to declare not-Americans enemy combatants and lock them up indefinitely. And now we think it’s ok to eavesdrop on anyone outside our sanctimonious borders.

We’re becoming ever more self-centered, selfish and intolerant. And we justify it by convincing ourselves that the rest of the world is full of evildoers out to get us. We have to look out for ourselves, because we’re in grave danger. (That’s what the terrorism alert level is there to remind us of.) Our fear of foreigners turns into hatred of foreigners, and with that we justify increasingly selfish actions.

The so-called “intelligence” legislation provides us with yet another example of this trend. The offending bill was passed on a Saturday by a house of representatives scrambling to get it signed into law before the August recess. Why? Not because everyone agreed it’s a great law and we need it. As a matter of fact, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had every ability to put off the vote until the fall or just let the bill die, said the legislation “does violence to the Constitution of the United States.” And yet she, and the other democrats opposed to the measure, allowed it to pass anyway. The general (and horribly logical) consensus on why this happened is that the Democrats were afraid of appearing weak on national security. I’ve never seen American fear and selfishness play out more clearly. The representatives are selfish – they want to be re-elected. So they pass this god-awful legislation to appease Americans who are scared and selfish (they want to protect themselves at the expense of the rest of the world.)

In defense of the little people, the behavior of our congressional representatives may be more selfish than the average American’s. That doesn’t mean they’re not serving for the good of their country, though. Allow me to explain: it takes a lot of effort to earn a position of power like a congressional seat. It also takes a lot of self-confidence. You have to convince a lot of people that they should vote for you. You have to convince them you’re the best. Self-centeredness is even embedded in the altruistic goal of serving for the good of the country. Only someone who believes they can do the job best will believe that. So yes, I think our representatives are significantly more self-centered than the average American.

So our representatives are working in their own self-interest and we’re selfishly sacrificing the rest of the world to protect ourselves. But at least we’re communally selfish, worried about our interests as a country, right? Wrong. Even ordinary Americans are individually selfish. For example: a bridge collapsed in Minnesota. It was a horrible tragedy. And now we are all very concerned that the bridges we drive over every day are going to collapse too. Basically, we’re worried it’s going to happen to us. It happened to some other innocent Americans who didn’t do anything wrong. And we all think, it could have been me…

But we’re not so worried about the people dying in flooding in India or famines in Africa, or, to get back on topic, about the Iranian and British civilians being secretly eavesdropped on. Because it isn’t happening to us.

Here’s a news flash, to everyone who thinks it’s ok, because it’s targeted against foreigners: it’s not us and them. It’s one world, to quote the Olympic slogan. And it’s a small world after all, to quote Disney. Technology is shrinking the world even more every day, and it’s becoming ever more dangerous for us to consider all non-Americans enemies. They’re not – they’re our neighbors.

Indulge my idealistic notions for a moment. Forget that America, as the number one superpower, should care about the rest of the world. Forget that our government of the people and for the people should care about those people, rather than its own political future. Even if you forget that, don’t you think you should care about your neighbor?

Give the kids the money

Most Americans realize that our public school system is in miserable health. The debate is over whether and how our schools can be brought back from the precipice of ruin. Some hold out hope that we can jolt the system back to life with some competition from voucher programs -call that the defibrillator: no big rescue attempted, but maybe worth a shot before one shuffles off the ol' mortal coil. In that analogy, a solution involving a more robust income tax would be the equivalent of, I dunno, stem cell research: probably the best chance at reversing the real damage, but the very notion seems to offend conservatives to the core. Basically, convincing Americans that the public school system needs reform is easy. Now get them to admit they might need to cowboy up for the bill, and watch the room clear out.

Stories like this give me some encouragement:

A small group of pupils from the Students for an Equitable Education, a new youth organization working to change Illinois' school funding system, joined the "Riding for Reform" bus tour. Pupils went to the state's capital to rally for change in education funding.


To hear these pupils' cries, Blagojevich sat down with SEE to discuss alternative routes to cover the costs of public school education. SEE members said they would like to see the state look at increasing income taxes instead of relying heavily on property taxes.

If this were to happen, SEE members said school districts wouldn't be defined by the wealth of the communities they serve. Instead, they said, pupils across the state could receive a fair and equal public education.

The call for more money to balance out the rich and poor school districts is a common one. Illinois has a relatively low income tax, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. As a consequence, the state's share of funding kindergarten through 12th-grade public education is 37 percent, ranking it 48th in the nation. Illinois property taxes, on the other hand, are significantly greater than in other states.

Illinois' scheme-as-described is pretty common, and it's too bad. America's poorest communities should not be anchored to it's poorest schools, nor should the least wealthy members of our society be footing high-proportion property taxes just so their kids can get an education that at least approximates what their wealthier counterparts can comfortably afford. And within those parameters there does not seem to be an alternative to redistributive taxation. But as these cool kids point out, an alternative is not needed. We know what will work. So why aren't we doing it?

By the by, I muddled through Illinois' mess of a public school system until I was 8. So, y'know, represent or whatever. I never thought too highly of my schools there, until I moved to Texas, where I learned that the good folks in the Land of Lincoln were amateurs when it came to devastating poor schools.

Barry Bonds hits history

There are many hard-hitting news stories to talk about virtually everyday. I'll offer that there is not one as hard-hitting as Barry Bonds passing Hank Aaron's record for home runs in a career. Bonds is the greatest player of all time and not to sound too much like the Washington Post's Mike Wilbon, but give the guy a break.

I don't know what Bonds used or didn't use during his 20 year career. I know that with the vigilant eye of Major League Baseball cast on him, he has not used in the last three years. Wilbon is correct in pointing out that we are missing a historic season as we bash the greatest basher.

The Bonds story is a story of commercialization, race, and the social science of sport. This is not simply a series of events to be relegated to the annals of baseball. Bud Selig, the Commissioner has insulted Bonds and baseball fans across the country by his unprofessional attitude. He is a disgrace to the game and is doing a dis-service to a sport that has brought many people in this country together.

Bonds should be commended for his success. This is a historic event and we ought not to allow race and petty jealousy dictate the way we support our nation's very best.

There is a symposium at the West Virginia University College of Law (excuse the shameless plug, but I have to give WVU props) discussing just these issues. Reversing Field: Examining COmmercialization, Labor & Race in 21st Centurt Sports Law will take place on October 4-5, 2007 in Morgantown, West Virginia. This event is sponsored by the WVU College of Law, WVU Office of the President, WVU School of Physical Education, and the American Constitution Society. My mentor, Professor andre douglas pond cummings is chairing the symposium which is drawing some of the biggest names from the world of sports management, sports representation, academia, and major leage sports. Please visit Reversing Field for more information.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Sharing the burdens

Child Care Tax Credit programs like the one being expanded by Bloomberg and Spitzer in New York City are just one of many examples of how entrenched the mentality of non-cooperation is in our country's political climate. I would absolutely rather have these programs than not have any public support available for Child Care. But like so much of our social service system, they recognize the need for assistance in fulfilling social roles as a deviation from the 'norm' of functional citizenship. This statement typifies the mentality:

"Access to quality childcare in New York City has become cost prohibitive for
far too many families," said Governor Spitzer. "The Child Care Tax Credit will
support struggling low-income families who are currently forced to trade off
child care costs against other important priorities such as the chance to work,
put food on the table and pay health care costs. At the same time, this law
addresses the needs of young children in these families by helping them gain
access to the quality care and early learning needed to succeed. "

What is objectionable in this is mainfestly not that it offers support to poor families. But I do find it troubling that the program only applies to poor families. Difficult decisions in balancing work and home lives affect all families. Certainly, their stakes are much higher for the poorest people in this country. But recognizing that raising the next generation is a crucially important endeavor to be taken up by asociety rather than by isolated units defined by their position in the housing market, we ought to be willing to extend the structures of social report to all caregivers. The status quo stigamtizes social assistance by associating it with a failure to meet responsibilites. That a caregiver has to turn to child care services is supposed to signify an inability to do the work that a responsible family unit could manage on its own. Programs like these show that we may be willing to forgive these breaches of social obligation when there is a good "excuse" - like poverty - but the general expectation is that most people can and should be doing this work on their own.

In Why Social Justice Matters Brian Barry extends a similar argument to disability payments. These allowances are made in recognition of the difficulties faced by people who must take on the challenges of social life despite mental or physical handicaps. That a person with an extraordinarily high income might still be better off in most ways than an "able" person of a lower class is immaterial. People should not be penalized for morally arbitrary qualities, society should support the offsetting of any hindrances to full participation. Any recognition of the relativele privileges of the upper-class disabled person would, in a just society, be recognized through her or his participation in a progressive tax regime, not by ommitting her or him from an important social service. I think the same should be true of child care credits. Having a child may not be morally arbitrary in the same way that being born with or later acquiring a disability is. But having children does hinder autonomy in career-paths, political participation and other time-intesive arenas of human life. And whether they are partnered or not, women invariably end up doing most of the work of childcare. A great and overlooked source of de facto sex discrimination is the expectation that when a family must make sacrifices in personal freedom and lifestyle to do the work of child raising, those sacrifices tend to be asked of women, who have been socialized to accept those burdens. The more socialized child care becomes, the more it would be possible - whether by taxation or other means - to demand that men carry a proportionate amount of child care's burden.

In any event, the credit should recognize the value and difficulty of the work being done not the relative capacity of the person to perform the task. This frame certainly takes amore cooperative tact to family life than most Americans are willing to recognize, and indeed to morality generally by moving towards a system in which the only obligations which we can confer upon others are those which we are willing toadopt mutually. The family has, in many respects, come to be portrayed as a self-sustaining social atom. There are so many romanticized depictions of families struggling through adversity that we tend to expect that a dedicated and loving family can do just that, regardless of the support structures in place. In the end its a fiction as deceptive and politically specious as the "by-the-bootstraps" blustering of social conservatives. Our policies should not be in the business of reinforcing fiction, rather they should be carefully designed to reflect the day to day struggles of people working hard across the country to provide care where it is needed.