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Archive for February, 2012

“I believe the essay you asked me to write is beneath what I have been trained to expect to believe you would have expected from me, and I feel ashamed for you.”

[ 85 ] February 27, 2012 |

(This doesn’t quite rise to the level of the most epic student email ever, and in truth more likely belongs to my series on how to write an academic essay, but as it hovers somewhere between one awful mode and another, I thought I’d leave it up to you to decide. Have—shall we call it fun?)

If I begin my essay with a rhetorical question, I contradict the Great French Thinker Montaigne, who believed I should not, because as he wrote, a “mind could not find a firm footing, [therefore he] should not be making essays, but coming to conclusions.” Those conclusions, which were important, are sadly lost to history, but the fact that Montaigne’s name remains reminds those who remember it that his failure was reason enough to memorialize it. My professor said that we should not write in the style of Montaigne, presumably because the stench of his insufficient success might sour my prose, but I believe the best essays are the ones that I write, and if my Professor thinks differently, he can take it up with Montaigne.

First, my professor told me to write a paragraph like a hamburger. Can you believe that? That is not a rhetorical question: my college professor told me that the best paragraphs are structured like a hamburger. But I must follow my muse, Montaigne, and insist that I am not interested in stabilizing my subject, however slight, in a structure of such déclassé fare, or that if I were, mine would tower above that base alternative in direct proportion to the extent of my genius. My paragraphs will, instead, inform my audience about the manner of their composition, paying special attention not to structure or transitions but to the brilliance that I mustered to tame into interest material others might find trite.

By “others,” I refer explicitly to my Professor, whose ability to mix a metaphor is nearly as impressive as his encyclopedic knowledge of all things which will never make him money. He claims that an essay is like the relationship he’s clearly never had: it begin with a witty conversation, an introduction, if you will, in which impress upon your reader the timeliness and worthiness of your subject. For those who fail to recognize the universal validity of Foucault, this could be an issue, but Montaigne and I know that so long as we only speak engagingly about ourselves and Foucault, the right kind of people will recognize our brilliance and gravitate to the empty table we have saved for them.

My professor then proceeds to argue that the remaining paragraphs in an essay constitute an evolving relationship between the writer and reader not unlike the one initiated in the introduction. “Just as a relationship explodes with initial insight in those first heady weeks,” he says, “so too should a first paragraph make good on the promise of its introduction.” Which is simply wrong — the purpose of an introduction is convince your future reader or paramour that you are to their moon like the heavens above. Moons are wonderful, albeit limited, objects who cannot escape the gravitational conventions of the Earth without an intervention by the likes of myself or Montaigne. Any conversation in which I deign to speak of moon matters is one which is inherently beneath me and an insult Montaigne. An introduction should present a reader with an  incomprehensible possibility that may, in the presence of a sufficient genius, become a comprehensible plausibility that only someone unworthy of their humanity would deny.

As for the rest of my Professor’s foolishness? That the third paragraph should, like any “good” relationship, continue to develop the feelings fostered by having made good on the promise of the introduction? This line of thought strongly suggests that relationships continue to develop after protestations of genius have made and accepted, which clearly falls under the aegis of facts not in evidence. Once proof of inferiority is established, the mendicant mind has no choice but to reel, twirling by half, then again, as if shielding itself from a light so bright it penetrates directly into its tiny brain.

Because knowing what it knows now, it will never know peace. It will only know humiliation. For there are no limits on the number of Grade Change forms I can request, or if there are, I plan to collect them like an ignorant naturalist on a well-trodden shore and submit them in perpetuity.


The Long Arm of Woodrow Wilson

[ 53 ] February 27, 2012 |

Woodrow Wilson’s reputation has been torn to shreds in the last ten years. This can go a bit too far; in the end, regardless of his motives, Wilson did sign a lot of legislation the country really needed. Nevertheless, it’s easy to argue that, outside of JFK, Wilson is the most overrated president in American history. We can argue about the worst thing Wilson did, but I don’t think any of his actions have a more detrimental effect on American society today than the Espionage Act of 1917. Wilson first proposed this law in 1915, but with the entry of the U.S. into World War in April 1917, the Espionage Act, along with a lot of other very bad legislation, became law. The government intended to use the war to crack down on all the radicals threatening it, threats many Americans defined very broadly, mostly to include the “foreign” of various definitions, races, and ideologies. For instance, the 18th Amendment became law during these years after a sixty year temperance movement because alcohol became equated with foreigners in the minds of self-respecting Americans. In my own research, this law comes to bear upon the Industrial Workers of the World and the opening government repression gave to local communities to eliminate radicals once and for all, whether we are talking about the Bisbee Deportation of 1917 or the Centralia Massacre of 1919.

The Espionage Act gave the government broadly defined powers to crack down on any behavior that might be seen as undermining America’s military operations or to promote the success of its enemies. Wilson wanted the ability to censor the press, but at least Congress denied him this. It was followed by the even more terrible Sedition Act of 1918 which prohibited speech seen as detrimental to American interests, of course vaguely defined. The Sedition Act was repealed in 1921 but the Espionage Act remains on the books.

Usually, the Espionage Act is forgotten about but the government has occasionally brought it out to crack down on people it wanted to silence. It was the Espionage Act that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were charged with violating when they gave secrets to the Soviet Union. Nixon used it unsuccessfully to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg and others for leaking the Pentagon Papers.

Today, the Obama Administration has revived the Espionage Act in a broader way than probably any administration since Wilson. David Carr details how aggressively Obama has used the law to crack down on whistleblowers and leakers within the government. This is really unacceptable. The Obama Administration is completely hypocritical in praising freedom of the press overseas while using the Espionage Act to protect its own actions at home. I’m usually fairly unsympathetic to Glenn Greenwald’s argument that Democrats allow Democratic Administrations to get away scot free with actions that they would howl about if Republicans were doing them, but in this case, that line of argument makes sense. Were this the administration of George W. Bush and John Ashcroft, this would be a major story of how the Republicans don’t respect our basic rights. Instead, the use of the Espionage Act against leakers and whistleblowers is a blip on the radar of the Democratic public.

This is wrong. The Espionage Act needs to be repealed immediately and President Obama needs to be called to the carpet on his use of this loathsome law. Moreover, I don’t think historians look back kindly on any situation when the government has used this law. It always reeks of repression and is a black mark on any administration. I don’t want historians to look back on Obama in 50 years and see a president who used an antiquated and repressive law to eliminate low-level leaks in his administration. Alas, that is the road the president presently drives.

How the Prop 8 Case Should Change Equal Protection Law

[ 11 ] February 27, 2012 |

I have a piece for the Prospect that, among other things, argues that making “immutability” a major factor in whether a classification should be subject to heightened scrutiny is anachronistic:

I don’t blame White for applying the existing legal standard, and also agree with him that if forced to choose from what is essentially a false dichotomy I would put sexual orientation into the “immutable” box rather than the “freely chosen” box. (In addition, White does acknowledge that sexual orientation may not be immutable for all individuals.) But, like Graff, I believe both that this is an oversimplification and that gay and lesbian equality does not depend on entirely removing agency from the equation. People who choose same-sex partners from a group of potential partners of both genders deserve the same right to marry as people who rate a “6” on the Kinsey scale.

Fortunately, White’s compelling opinion should make it clear that the question of “immutability” should be considered superfluous. What really matters is the first category—whether people have been subject to “invidious discrimination.” As Judge White notes, there can “no dispute … that lesbians and gay men have experienced along history of discrimination.” Classifications that deny people rights based on sexual orientation act to stigmatize and subordinate, and this should be the crucial inquiry for equal protection law. Whether sexual orientation is entirely “immutable” is beside the point; based on an extensive history of oppression, sexual orientation clearly merits heightened scrutiny.

Another aspect of White’s opinion worth noting, as a commenter here also caught, is footnote 5:

The question of whether DOMA impacts a fundamental right is addressed briefly by the parties but it is not at issue here as it is undisputed that Ms. Golinski is already married under state law. The failure of the federal government to recognize Ms. Golinski’s marriage and to provide benefits does not alter the fact that she is married under state law.

While White doesn’t consider it applicable to this specific set of facts, he seems to be signalling that he would be open to the argument made persuasively by Evan Gerstmann that bans on same-sex marriage are constitutionally defective because marriage is a fundamental right. It’s a compelling argument that would help move us away from the “class based” equal protection models that aren’t really working.

Incidentally, I also agree with Gerstmann that the valiant attempts to claim that bans on same-sex marriage should be subject to strict scrutiny because they constitute gender discrimination won’t really fly. Bans on same-sex marriage treat people of both genders the same, and while this formal equality obviously entails subordination and stigmatization, the invidious discrimination is directed at people based on their sexual orientation, not their gender per se. To argue that  bans on SSM are unconstitutional, you either have to argue that 1)sexual orientation should be subject to heightened scrutiny, or 2)same-sex marriage burdens the fundamental right of marriage and hence should be subject to heightened scrutiny. Fortunately, I think both of these alternatives are good arguments, one of which is likely to prevail eventually (although probably not as a result of this case.)

The War on Women

[ 25 ] February 27, 2012 |

The next battle.

Erland Josephson, RIP

[ 1 ] February 27, 2012 |

One of the last great postwar European actors has passed. Erland Josephson, star of many of Ingmar Bergman’s and Andrei Tarkovsky’s later works, died at the age of 88. While partial to Bergman overall, and especially to Scenes from a Marriage, Josephson’s first lead role for Bergman, I think my favorite work of his is in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. Here is one scene in remembrance:

A New Standard In Brokered Convention Wankery

[ 68 ] February 27, 2012 |

Indeed, I don’t think this one could ever be topped.

I should say, though, that I strongly endorse the idea of Clarence Thomas resigning from the bench to run for president.

Tweety on JFK

[ 34 ] February 27, 2012 |

David Greenberg with a classic take-down of Chris Matthews’ ridiculous new biography of JFK. The whole thing is a must-read, but essentially Greenberg notes that Matthews dreams of an uber-masculine Kennedy who keeps those elite effete liberals at bay. This fits the sexist and misogynist Matthews who we all know from his moronic television show.


Matthews thinks of liberalism in the same crude, blinkered, and gendered way that he thinks about politics in general. His view of liberalism, widely shared among the punditocracy, comes straight from the demonology of Richard Nixon, who equated liberals with effete, Ivy League-educated advocates of subversive 1960s values. To Matthews, similarly, liberals can never be tough, strong, or masculine; they are soft and effeminate, personified by the shrewish Eleanor Roosevelt or the light-in-his-loafers Stevenson. But of course many liberals of the era opposed communism vigorously, took an unsentimental view of politics and human nature, knew how to play politics, and otherwise defied the stereotypes. This ignorance about the nature and complexity of postwar liberalism may account for Matthews’s inability to understand Kennedy, whom he makes out to be much closer to the socially conservative working-class Irish of Boston’s neighborhoods than he actually was.

Matthews accepts at face value, for example, Kennedy’s description of himself in 1946 as a “fighting conservative,” claiming that he was “clearly drawing a line between himself and his party’s liberal wing.” Perhaps. But he doesn’t include JFK’s avowals of his own liberalism, such as his statement that a liberal is someone who “cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties,” and that under that definition, “I’m proud to say I’m a liberal.” Nor, as noted, does Matthews, despite his rote rehearsal of Kennedy’s major achievements as president, delve much into the lesser-known elements of the president’s progressive record, in such areas as economics, education, and women’s rights. Matthews’s portrait of Kennedy is finally incoherent, because he wants to celebrate Kennedy’s liberal achievements without celebrating liberalism.

And, Indeed, Doesn’t This GOP Primary Field Make You Want to Barf?

[ 70 ] February 26, 2012 |

After a nut-related event last night, I would prefer not to think about “throwing up” for a while. But, alas, I saw Little Ricky’s pensees on the subject of religious freedom anyway, so:

Former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) on Sunday defended a statement he made last October in which he said that he “almost threw up” when he read John F. Kennedy’s 1960 Houston address on the role of religion in public life.


In the speech, Kennedy addressed the concerns of Protestant ministers who doubted whether he would make decisions as president independent of his Catholic faith.

So, if I understand in 1960, the GOP was upset because they (erroneously) believed that a Roman Catholic president would not govern for all Americans but would take orders directly from a religious hierarchy. In 2012, Republicans are furious because a president would try to govern for all Americans rather than taking orders directly from a religious hierarchy.

UPDATE: Great point by Digby:

I don’t think Ricky understands his history very well. Evidently, he was unaware that in 1960, conservatives thought of Catholics the same way think of Muslims today. He seems under the impression that America was a wonderful religiously tolerant nation until the horrible secularists came along and ruined everything.

That must’ve been one Hell of a nap…

[ 6 ] February 26, 2012 |

…because when I awoke and finally got a look at the “latest” transcript from the Republican’s 2/22 debate in Arizona, this is what I heard:

KING: Governor Romney, both Senator Santorum and Speaker Gingrich have said during your tenure as governor, you required Catholic hospitals to provide emergency contraception to rape victims. And Mr. Speaker, you compared the president to President Obama, saying he infringed on Catholics’ rights. Governor, did you do that?

ROMNEY: No, absolutely not. Of course not. There was no requirement in Massachusetts for the Catholic Church to provide morning-after pills to rape victims. That was entirely voluntary on their report. There was no such requirement. Likewise, in Massachusetts health care bill, there’s a provision in Massachusetts general laws that says people don’t have to have coverage for contraceptives or other type of medical devices which are contrary to their religious teachings. Churches also don’t have to provide that to entities which are either the church themselves or entities they control. So we have provisions that make sure that something of that nature does not occur.


KING: Both Senator Santorum and Speaker Gingrich accuse you of mistreating rape victims.

ROMNEY: No, absolutely not. Of course not. There was no requirement in Massachusetts for me to do anything, so I took a principled stand and did nothing. Besides we have provisions that make sure that something of that nature does not occur.

You mean like contraceptives? That the four Republican candidates oppose emergency access to contraceptives in the case of rape and are trying to strengthen ties with a similarly biased base makes me feel like I nodded off near King George’s Tavern and slumped awake against President’s.

Giving Away the Show

[ 12 ] February 26, 2012 |

This comment from Wendy Long, a lawyer who apparently the GOP might be using as cannon fodder against Kirsten Gillibrand this November, is very instructive:

If Roe v. Wade were overturned tomorrow, nobody would even notice, because the states are legislating their own laws about abortion, completely independent.

Well, if you’re a wealthy Manhattan attorney who is indifferent to anybody outside of his or her immediate social circles, you won’t notice. If you actually care about the rights of American women more broadly, you sure as hell will notice.

Environmental Funders and the Grassroots

[ 24 ] February 26, 2012 |

David Roberts has an excellent piece up at Grist decrying the disconnect between environmental funders and grassroots organizations.

There is a criticism of funders on the left that is so old and familiar as to have become cliché. It goes like this: The right’s funders have spent the last 30 years building a bottom-up movement. The wealthy conservatives who give money view the heads of movement institutions as trusted peers, so they are content to give without strings attached — their money is “patient.” The right now has institutions and infrastructure that recruit young people, pay them enough to live on, mentor and train them, and send them out into the courts, local politics, and think tanks.

The left’s funders, on the other hand, have pursued high-profile national legislative wins. Their money is impatient and results-based. Institutions receiving the money are treated like untrustworthy employees, forced to submit endless progress reports and beg anew for money every year or two. The result is short-term thinking and number-pumping. Young people are treated like chattel, given unpaid internships and asked to accept poverty. Grassroots organizing and local politics are neglected in favor of D.C.-focused lobbying meant to influence elites.

When it comes to environmental philanthropy, this familiar critique is, at least in broad outlines, correct. What’s more, environmental funding tends to be extremely siloed; there’s little overlap with broader issues of social and economic justice. Basically, a few big D.C.-based green groups get the bulk of the money, to be spent effecting federal legislation and policy, while smaller community-organizing groups go hungry.

When reviewing Douglas Bevington’s book on grassroots activism and the ancient forest campaigns, I particularly highlighted Bevington demonstrating how grassroots organizations had to run an end-around on the big greens, whose commitment to fundraising and having a seat at the table made them adverse to any kind of radical action. Little has changed on that front, although I’d also argue that, unfortunately, the level of environmental radicalism is not as strong as it was two decades ago either.

Roberts makes a convincing case, noting that the top-down big-organization lobbying strategy has not been effective. Not a single major piece of environmental legislation has passed Congress since the Clean Air Act amendments in 1990. That’s 22 years of an ineffective strategy. That’s not to say that the legislative strategy should be ignored, but, like the labor movement, the big greens have had a very difficult time reconciling themselves to the fact that their once brilliant legislative strategy has become completely ineffective. Environmentalism has more residual public popularity than unionism and so there’s more room for immediate payoff by feeding money to grassroots organizations. This seems like an obviously good idea, at least as an experiment, but there’s a multi-decade history by environmental funders of keeping their distance from the hippies and the freaks. I doubt that’s going to change overnight.

Foreign Entanglements: All Iran Bombing, All the Time

[ 61 ] February 26, 2012 |

Duss take on Helle Dale of the Heritage Foundation on the subject of bombing Iran to Freedom:

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