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Silver Platter

[ 0 ] March 13, 2008 |

In light of the too-late resignation of Clinton campaign Senior Adviser For Race-Baiting Gerry Ferraro, it’s worth highlighting this about New York’s new governor:

With Spitzer announcing his resignation amid a prostitution scandal, Paterson, 53, will become the country’s third African American governor since Reconstruction.

Still, black people just have it too damned easy in this country!

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The Essence of Dick

[ 32 ] March 13, 2008 |

One of my great satisfactions in life occurs once or twice a year when I get to lecture on Richard Nixon; on those days, I remember what Christmas was like before I stopped believing in Santa Claus. For what I’m sure are complicated reasons, I find it immensely cathartic to spend several hours (as I did tonight) reliving the uninterrupted horror of those years. Almost none of my students were alive while he was in office, and few of them even remember when he died in 1994. When I explain that Richard Nixon is at the top of my list of presidents I’d like to engage in a drunken fistfight, they just think it’s weird that I possess such a list. As far as they’re concerned, I might as well throw down with Calvin Coolidge or Franklin Pierce.

By way of distinguishing between Nixon and your garden-variety chief executive, I try to explain that in his moment, Nixon was the closest approximation to a natural disaster that American political history had ever seen. He employed burglars and thugs who spoke casually about murdering journalists and bombing the Brookings Institute. Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney worked for him, for god’s sake, and they were merely shapeless wads of goo compared with mature psychopaths like Liddy and Colson and Hunt and the rest. Toads like Ben Stein conceived speeches for him during those last drunken months. By the time his career ended, it was as if the nation’s brain had been infested by parasites or poisoned by arsenic; and forty years after his election, we’re still cramped up, delirious and vomiting and scratching our skin raw because of what he managed to do in less than six years. And the fact that we got a couple of fucking pandas out of the bargain does not, in my view, set things right.

Every time I teach Nixon, something new stands out as the essence of Dick. Some years, it might his obsession with the film Patton, which he watched over and over, like a teenager with a reel of bootlegged porn, while deciding to invade Cambodia. Last year, I yammered on and on about his efforts to micromanage the planning details for social events at the White House — obsessing for hours over napkin styles and hors d’oeuvres selections, all of which Alexander Butterfield described in jaw-slackening detail during his Watergate testimony. Tonight, it was simple — a brief moment at the beginning of Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech in November 1969. I’ve played this address in class many times, but we’re always drawn the last and most famous section, when he introduces his audience to his Imaginary Friend — the “silent majority” itself — and explains, ever so gently, that dirty hippies are not going to shape his policy. For my money, at least, it represents the most brilliant and insincere five minutes in Nixon’s entire presidency.

As compelling as those moments are, however, I can honestly say I’d never noticed this fantastic declaration that lands mere seconds into the event.

I believe that one of the reasons for the deep division about Vietnam is that many Americans have lost confidence in what their Government has told them about our policy. The American people cannot and should not be asked to support a policy which involves the overriding issues of war and peace unless they know the truth about that policy.

What follows, of course, is a mass of lies — a stream of methane vapor twenty minutes long that has, of late, wafted anew every time Bush, McCain, Lieberman or anyone else reminds us of America’s noble intentions in Iraq or warns the nation against a “precipitate withdrawal” from a war they pretend we can still win.

It’s not quite as theatrical as Nixon’s later claim not to be a crook, and it lacks the rhetorical thrill of a presidential candidate promising to be a uniter rather than a divider, but I think the essence of Nixon is visible in those two sentences.

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Journalistic Restraint

[ 42 ] March 13, 2008 |

The NY Times has unveiled “Kristen.”

I have to say, the decision to reveal her identity publicly makes me somewhat uncomfortable — she will now be branded as the woman who brought down Spitzer, and as a prostitute. She is sure to face stigma (though perhaps she’ll get her 15 minutes too). That said, she’s an adult and chose to talk on the phone with the Times reporter.

Still, something about it sits funny.

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The Case For Decriminalization In Context

[ 23 ] March 12, 2008 |

Matt links to without fully endorsing Kerry Howley’s feminist-libertarian argument for legalizing prostitution. I’m inclined to agree with her bottom line, but I do find the argument in this form a little problematic. The key is this line: “Even decriminalization, which treats Johns as outlaws and sex workers as victims, assumes that all sex workers are damaged, that no woman would ever love sex enough to make a career out of it.” There is a certain power to this argument. But then, there was a certain power to the justly discredited majority opinion in Lochner v. New York striking down maximum hours laws: “There is no contention that bakers as a class are not equal in intelligence and capacity to men in other trades or manual occupations, or that they are able to assert their rights and care for themselves without the protecting arm of the State.” In practice, though, the problem is not that bakers don’t understand their own interests but rather that structural realities put them in a position of much less bargaining power than their employers. Similarly, while I don’t think most feminist critics of prostitution would deny that some women may choose to become prostitutes because they really “love sex,” the reality of a majority of women who are prostitutes and why they end up in the job makes this a rather implausible motivating factor unless poor women, women with drug problems, etc. are especially predisposed to “loving sex.”

The way I would make Howley’s point is to say that the real problem with criminalization is a “compared to what?” issue. Sex work tends to be (although not necessarily in every case) grossly exploitative, but it’s unclear to me that it’s more exploitative than cleaning toilets, working odd hours at Wal-Mart with no benefits, etc. In this sense, outright bans in the practice do tend to smuggle in reactionary assumptions about sex through the back door even if they’re intended to protect the worker; there’s good reason to be wary about the assumption that women need to be uniquely protected from engaging in sexual activity as opposed to other potentially degrading work. So I don’t think bans are generally appropriate, but I do think that sex work can be regulated like other forms of commericial activity, and it’s perfectly reasonable for such regulations to take into account how sex work tends to function in practice, even if the general trends don’t apply in every single case. (An independently wealthy person who wants to serve as a Wal-Mart greeter to kill time doesn’t need the protection of labor regulations, but that’s not a good reason to get rid of them.)

Finally, it should be noted that there is one way in which prostitution is different from many other forms of exploitative labor: the widespread presence of trafficking. This doesn’t clinch the case for me because bans don’t seem to be an especially effective way of stopping it, and by denying sex worked police protection also creates lots of negative externalities (vulnerability to sexual assault and blackmail from police, pimps, etc.) , which to me is crucial. But if evidence emerged that decriminalization led consistently to an increase in trafficking, the issue would become a lot more difficult.

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Oh, Give it Up

[ 0 ] March 12, 2008 |

Geraldine Ferraro refuses to back off her claim that Obama has gotten so far in the presidential primary because he is black. In fact, she’s made things worse, saying:
“Racism works in two different directions. I really think they’re attacking me because I’m white. How’s that?”
How’s that, Geraldine? Well, it’s both (1) blatantly untrue and (2) undermining the history of racism in this country.
So how about you remove your foot from your mouth and apologize, Ms. Ferraro? How’s that?

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A Couple of Brief Thoughts on the Wire Finale

[ 48 ] March 12, 2008 |

Like Scott, I thought that the Wire finale was fantastic. Three of the four great HBO dramas have had great final episodes; Deadwood is the tragic exception. A couple of very random thoughts…

It had occurred to me before I read this interview with David Simon that a film on the Dreyfus Affair might be an interesting project for him, and the fact that he reveres Kubrick’s Paths of Glory only reinforces that impression. On the surface it is kind of odd to think that Simon, whose work is so deeply focused on Baltimore, might participate in the making of a film about an unjustly accused French military officer. But to me the strength of the Wire has, from the very first, been in its portrayal of the internal dynamics of bureaucratic organizations, and in particular of how those dynamics can create serious deficiencies in policymaking. The Dreyfus Affair, of course, is about nothing so much as the unwillingness of the French Army and of those in whose interest it was to protect the French Army to accept that an innocent man had been railroaded. I’m not sure that Dominic West would really be appropriate for the role of Dreyfus, but such a project would represent a further exploration of the themes that Simon dealt with in the Wire.

I’ve seen in a couple of places the complaint that the finale focused too much on McNulty at the expense of the other storylines. There’s a certain fairness to this line of critique, but I think it misses the point of McNulty’s role in the series. The point of this exercise was in part, as Martin Wisse noted, to use the blogosphere as pointlessly as possible, but was also motivated by an interest in placing Wire characters within the larger cinematic universe. Jim McNulty and Han Solo strike me as almost the same character; if Han Solo had grown up in 1970s Baltimore, he might well have ended up living McNulty’s life, and vice versa. They play a similar narrative role, in that both are, in a sense, first moving free agents. Star Wars isn’t “about” Han Solo; it’s about the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker, but the intervention of Han Solo at a critical moment (preventing Anakin from killing Luke) allows destiny to play out. Similarly, McNulty pulls the lever that gets all of the bureaucracies, from the street to the courthouse to the police to City Hall, moving towards the more or less inevitable collisions that play out across the five seasons. And so in that sense I think it was appropriate to end on McNulty, especially as he finally returned to the outsider status after everything had played out.

Also, Marlo may be street, but he looks a lot better in a suit than in a white t-shirt. Kind of interesting following Marlo’s wardrobe since he’s been introduced; pretty much steady improvement until the orange jumpsuit.

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Just Saying

[ 162 ] March 12, 2008 |

I really like Chris Hedges, but if we take this column and replace the phrase “Ralph Nader” with the phrase “some dude I know who reads a lot of Naomi Klein and Greg Palast books,” his argument only becomes marginally less persuasive.

In the piece, Hedges quotes Nader arguing that a vote would be like a vote for the Liberty Party, which ran candidates on an abolitionist platform in 1840 and 1844. Nader’s self-serving analogy is both silly and unintentionally appropriate. Silly because unlike Nader, the leaders of the Liberty Party actually worked to develop a sustainable organization that could survive from one election to the next; by 1848, the Liberty Party had morphed into the Free Soil Party, which by the mid-1850s melded into the coalition that formed the basis of the emergent Republican Party.

As for the unintentionally appropriate comparison, Nader might have forgotten that the Liberty Party quite probably cost Henry Clay (the Buffalo Bills of antebellum American politics) the presidency in 1844, when it drew 16,000 votes in New York, a state that James Polk carried by just over 5000. Polk, to no one’s surprise, went on to provoke a fraudulent, expansionist war with Mexico that reopened the slavery question, led the country toward civil war, and opened the door to professional hockey franchises in southern California and Arizona. Perhaps Nader believes those contradictions were worth heightening, but it’s hard to argue in retrospect that the country wouldn’t have been better served by a Clay presidency.

Even more calamitous, of course, was Polk’s introduction of the mullet into the White House:

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[ 24 ] March 12, 2008 |

24-point win for Obama, netting +6 delegates and nearly 100,000 popular votes. Also note that this was despite GOP voters going for Clinton 3-to-1.

I must also admit finding it grimly amusing in light of these antics that I was supposed to be outraged by Samantha Power.

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Really, No

[ 0 ] March 11, 2008 |

I agree with K-Drum and Atrios about this Orlando Patterson op-ed. I mean, even if there was a potential racial subtext that the ad should have avoided — and Patterson’s case that there is, to put it charitably, strained — to compare it to a film that was not merely pro-Klan and anti-Reconstruction but actually played a major role in mobilizing private terror is really far, far beyond the pale. I think a couple criticisms of Clinton campaign’s use of race have been valid, and many more have not been, but if you’re going to make this kind of analogy your case has to be far stronger than Paterson’s is.

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More, Please

[ 16 ] March 11, 2008 |

The Obama campaign hits back on Clinton’s allegedly extensive foreign policy “experience.” (Admittedly, they don’t seem to be counting the time she went to Albania with Amy Grant and Nipsey Russell in their rundown.) And, of course, the bottom line remains the most important thing:

Barack Obama has a very simple case. On the most important commander in chief test of our generation, he got it right, and Senator Clinton got it wrong…He possesses the personal attributes of a great leader — an even temperament, an open-minded approach to even the most challenging problems, a willingness to listen to all views, clarity of vision, the ability to inspire, conviction and courage.

That’s the way to do it, in both the primary and the general. Even if Clinton had the foreign policy experience she claimed, if she thought that the Iraq War was a good idea it can’t have done her much good. And although Clinton may think McCain would be a bang-up Commander in Chief his own misjudgments make clear that this isn’t true.

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And Yet.

[ 23 ] March 11, 2008 |

Apparently, Dr. Laura Schlesinger just couldn’t resist the chance to woman-bash. When she appeared on the Today Show this morning to discuss the Spitzer Scandal (TM), she had this to say:

“When the wife does not focus in on the needs and the feelings, sexually, personally, to make him feel like a man, to make him feel like a success, to make him feel like her hero, he’s very susceptible to the charm of some other woman making him feel what he needs.”

Right. People are actually still saying this in 2008?! Apparently, yes.

Meredith Viera, who was momentarily flabbergasted, managed to eke out a question:

Finally, Viera managed to speak: “You’re saying the women should feel guilty that they somehow drove the man to cheat?” she asked.

“The cheating was his decision to repair what’s damaged and to feed himself where he’s starving,” Schlessinger explained. “But, yes, I hold women responsible for tossing out perfectly good men by not treating them with the love and kindness and respect and attention they need.”

Right again. Because Spitzer is obviously a prize of a man and has treated his wife with the “love and kindness and respect” that she deserves. I’m just hoping that Jezebel is right: no one takes this hack seriously anymore…if they ever did.

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Spitzer and the Candidates

[ 17 ] March 11, 2008 |

I’m so sick of the Spitzer talk. Yet here I am.

Jon Wiener over at the Nation’s blog the Notion suggests how the Spitzer scandal is going to play out in the Democratic primary: it’ll help Hillary Clinton because she–or any other woman–won’t be a patron of the Emperor’s Club.

Sure, it’s snort-inducing: would be nice if a sex scandal could help Hillary Clinton, for once. And it also goes against what is quickly-becoming the blogosphere conventional wisdom: that the Spitzer scandal will hurt Clinton because it will remind voters of her husband’s indiscretions (which, as far as we know, did not include patronizing a prostitute). But I’m also not convinced it’s so. As Wiener points out, this prediction requires the corollary prediction that McCain and/or Obama is likely to engage in the same stuff Spitzer did. While anything is possible, I just don’t see this one playing out that way.

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