Thursday, December 31, 2009

Now I know why Prometheus 6 reads David Brooks columns

A New Year's Eve party-hat tip to Rikyrah in the Dec. 31 JJP Open Thread.

I should know by now that when a new Shelby Steele op-ed appears in the Wall Street Journal, I should treat it as a low-level crime scene, observe the police tape boundaries and just move along (as in "move along, nothing to see here folks") so I don't act suspicious and get myself pulled aside for questioning.

But there are certain writers who project themselves in a way guaranteed to hit a hot button. Steele can do that with me. As a Hoover Institution fellow, he frequents the same parts of California I do, and that means he resides in a comfortable enough universe to write things such as:
America still has a race problem, though not the one that conventional wisdom would suggest: the racism of whites toward blacks. Old fashioned white racism has lost its legitimacy in the world and become an almost universal disgrace.
Oy vey. He was obviously hibernating over the summer and fall of 2009 when birthers, deathers, and other miscreants "just wanted their America back." I refuse to further engage that exculpatory aspect of his writing until he comes up with something new.

What I found hot-buttonish and new in this piece were several references to the President that reminded me more of G. W. Bush than of Barack Obama.

The first of these was a brief retelling of "The Emperor's New Clothes," which metaphor certainly applied early on in W's first term, with press secretary Ari Fleischer's too-frequent use of the word thoughtful to describe Mr. Bush the Younger. No, them clothes won't wear, I thought at the time and still do. Steele says that Obama's emperor-clothes are a sophistication, not in the sense of complexity but in the (archaic) sense of something misleading or corrupting. He argues that this sophistication is about race.

All emphases added in the blockquotes below.
And yet, without self-disclosure on the one hand or cross-examination on the other, Mr. Obama became arguably the least known man ever to step into the American presidency.
Hm. Let's see. We don't even know where W. was for all his National Guard service, while Obama had published an autobiography (that needed no ghostwriter).
Our new race problem—the sophistication of seeing what isn't there rather than what is—has surprised us with a president who hides his lack of economic understanding behind a drama of scale.
Waitaminnit-- which previous President started this stimulus package thing anyway?
Mr. Obama's economic thinking (or lack thereof) adds up to a kind of rudderless cowboyism combined with wishful thinking.
Well, I can give Steele half a mixed metaphor (horse as ship?) here. I'm not sure W.'s cowboyism was rudderless, I just didn't like the direction he was steered in. Overall, though, I am still confused as to which president Steele's describing.
I think that Mr. Obama is not just inexperienced; he is also hampered by a distinct inner emptiness—not an emptiness that comes from stupidity or a lack of ability but an emptiness that has been actually nurtured and developed as an adaptation to the political world.
All right, if you want to go there, I guess that would differentiate Obama from the previous occupier of the Oval Office.

Steele seems more comfortable-- at least more honest-- as he resurrects one of his own metaphors, that of the bargainer's mask:
He always wore the bargainer's mask—winning the loyalty and gratitude of whites by flattering them with his racial trust: I will presume that you are not a racist if you will not hold my race against me. Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and yes, Tiger Woods have all been superb bargainers, eliciting almost reverential support among whites for all that they were not—not angry or militant, not political, not using their moral authority as blacks to exact a wage from white guilt.
At the end, amid a rare instance of seeming to blame white America for the Obama we've got ("white America conditioned Barack Obama to emptiness"), I sense an implicit dare to Obama to drop the mask. To which I would say to Steele: You first.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Shadow of the Torturer

You may be familiar with Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer. The book takes place in a world where torture is not forbidden, not even an exception, but is a fully integrated, normal part of the culture, politics, and society. The story and its sequels follow Severian, an apprentice in the torturers' guild. In the habit of good science fiction, it forces us to rethink our assumptions of good and evil, starting with the Spanish Inquisition and working forward from there.

You may also be familiar with 24, the TV show in which self-flagellating protagonist Jack Bauer must, a few episodes into each season, resort to torture (or the threat of torture) to retrieve information vital to keep the show from grinding to a halt before 24 hours is up. It's something like a video game (after all, he must go through this routine every level, er, season), only with more angst.

I foolishly thought the U.S.-as-torture-supporter question was closed well before this blog even started, but I forgot who I was dealing with. Thanks to the latest idiot terrorist attempt to blow up a plane, the usual attack dogs are back on the job-- crusty old out-of-power Republicans, fading neocons, blowsy over-rouged pundicrats who resemble the real-estate agents you duck around corners to avoid, and all their progeny. They seem determined to ensure that America's global reputation never gets any better, thereby perpetuating the threat and guaranteeing new crops of people who don't like us.

Here's an example:

The setup, the groundwork for resurrecting and justifying the Jack Bauer approach starts at 3:15 in this video from MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. The actual references to torture as acceptable kick in at about 6:15.

[Tech note: You may need to resize/zoom in or out with your browser's View menu, as Blogger and MSNBC videos aren't perfectly interactive. Click here for direct link to video if needed.]

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Monday, December 28, 2009

The Reflection Meme

Ah, it's the end of another calendar year, and the reflection meme permeating the ether contaminates us all. Feel it? Which ideas, which themes to keep and which to discard? What is worth a year-end mention and what is best forgotten?

Many in the MSM are doing a decade-long review thing, 2000-2009. They are technically a bit ahead of themselves, but it may make sense if you are one of those round-number people who start a century at year '00 instead of '01, you know, "just because." (Admit it, there's no logic involved. Quick, what happened in the year 00 A.D.?) Mark my words, this decade-review ritual will repeat at the end of 2010, when they have an irresistible multiple of ten to deal with.

I expect two occasional features from my 2009 blogging at TOTF to carry forward. The first is "Why I hate the Confederacy," which no one north or south of the Mason-Dixon Line has given me any reason to abandon. I only managed a couple of installments, but I imagine that with mid-term elections there will be plenty of fodder coming up.

The other is "Quote of the Week," which was far from weekly here, but it regularly graced my academic e-mail for those lucky enough to be on the receiving end. Herewith is a little cyberpunk from a 1999 book that should get us to the end of 2009:

"That which is overdesigned, too highly specific, anticipates outcome; the anticipation of outcome guarantees, if not failure, the absence of grace."
     --William Gibson


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Smorgasbord, yum yum

So this morning (Christmas Eve) I woke up my computer just before dawn, and the horrible, spectral face of Jacob Marley stared at me from the screen, chains a-clanking. The chains were in the form of half a dozen browser windows and multiple tabs open with various couldas, wouldas, and shouldas to haunt me. With end-of-semester crunch slammed up against holiday crunch, as well as family events, certain posts just didn't happen and it's safe to say they won't. Yes, you're right, "I been there before" to quote from the late Ralph Wiley's favorite American author, but obviously I haven't learned the life lesson yet. Herewith are a few items that have piled up, with hat tips to Prometheus 6, Jack and Jill Politics, DarkStar Spouts Off, and probably a couple of others.

December 23, 2009
Latino Leaders Use Churches in Census Bid

MIAMI — Fearing that millions of illegal immigrants may not be counted in the 2010 census, Latino leaders are mobilizing a nationwide drive to urge Hispanics to participate in the survey, including an intense push this week in evangelical Christian churches.

Latino groups contend that there was an undercount of nearly one million Latinos in the 2000 census, affecting the drawing of Congressional districts and the distribution of federal money. Hispanic organizations are far better organized for next year’s census, but they say that if illegal immigrants — an estimated eight million of whom are Latino — are not included, the undercount could be much greater.

I don't link much to the grumpier, more conservative corners of the blogosphere, but here's an exception from DarkStar Spouts Off (hey, it's the holidays):

Another "Acting White" Data Point

This is more for me than for you. But if you want to read it, enjoy.

A Problem We Can Agree Upon

There is a problem. On that, nearly everyone agrees. But to what forces should one attribute the black-white achievement gap? Sometimes it seems everyone has a confident opinion. Explanations for the persistent gap in education achievement between African-American and white students range from a decline in personal responsibility among black Americans, to unenlightened education policy, to lazy teachers, to entrenched poverty.

A three-click serendipitous follow-through led me to this 2006 article from Yes! Magazine's site by Van Jones, from his days prior to being a sacrificial lamb on the conservative altar, offered up by the Obama White House or at least without strong objection from there. I link here because of the continuing issue, especially visible in the West and Southwest, of Black/Latino solidarity. I mean, if such solidarity was a done deal, we wouldn't need to keep talking about it. The "common enemy" of a system that wasn't really designed for us is not enough to keep us together without effort.

Shout "VIVA!" Anyhow: On Being Black at a Latino March
by Van Jones
posted May 04, 2006

At this week's "Dia Sin Inmigrantes/Day Without Immigrants" march in San Francisco, I saw a beautiful, exciting and hopeful vision of the future of this country.

I also caught a glimpse of a familiar past, fading away. And I shed a few tears for both.

"Are we considered full people yet?" coverage from the sports world reports on the fate of the female ski jumpers. The Supreme Court of Canada has decided that the International Olympic Committee isn't subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights, no matter how much money they bring to the country. Oh, wait, let me reword that.

Female Ski Jumpers Lose Last Chance to Join Vancouver Games
(retitled from: Women Ski Jumpers Lose Last Chance to Join Vancouver Games, and yes I wish I had the screen shot but the URL reflects the original)

...and... from the local Vancouver BC paper:

Female ski jumpers lose final bid to compete at Vancouver 2010 Olympics

Back to good old traditional US-side segregation & diversity issues... especially the class vs. race debate... often framed as "can't we just say there are poor people in need of help, without acknowledging any of that nasty old racism?" Let's check Chicago:

City Schools’ New Criteria for Diversity Raise Fears
Published: December 19, 2009

The Chicago public schools’ response to a recent court desegregation ruling — a plan to use students’ social and economic profiles instead of race to achieve classroom diversity — is raising fears that it will undermine the district’s slow and incremental progress on racial diversity.

But on a positive note, you have surely heard about the Crouch quadruplets of Danbury, Connecticut, all getting admitted to Yale, the four of them, yes indeed. And if you haven't, shame on ya, but that's why you're here:

Boola Boola, Boola Boola: Yale Says Yes, 4 Times

The above-linked NY Times story by Jacques Steinberg is such a breath of fresh air that I won't quibble over the things in such articles that bloggers usually quibble over. He didn't directly go down that credit-to-their-race road, so again, no quibbles this time. NECN did comment on their, ahem, "intelligence and demeanor" in a rather Biden-esque way but their video has plenty of good footage of the quads (the embed isn't Blogger-friendly so it's a link to the page):

Enough smorgasbord for one day. Thanks for visiting!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

New to our TOTF stage: Research Studies of the Obvious

I'm adding a new category, borrowed directly from Prometheus6. (Since I suggested the category to him in the first place I don't expect to hear from his lawyer.) I didn't think I'd be using it over here but... it's a small world, n'est-ce pas?

Oh, and to be fair to the eminent scholars at the Naval Postgraduate School, let's suggest that they weren't really wondering whether there was any connection between dropout rates, unemployment, and gang violence. They were, however, applying different analysis tools to the issue. (Whether it makes sense to apply military modes of analysis to this environment is left to the reader.) They could have had faulty assumptions about crowded housing, though, hence their surprise about that variable.
NPS study of Salinas links dropout rate, unemployment to gang violence
Salinas employment another key factor, NPS study shows

Herald Salinas Bureau
Updated: 12/22/2009 01:27:46 AM PST

In a report to be released next month, researchers at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey find that nearly 30 years of violence in Salinas has been intimately tied to education and employment levels, but not necessarily to crowded housing or police staffing levels.

"Although funding will be a problem for any program recommended to help lower violence, education pursuits should be given priority for funding," the report concludes.

One finding surprised the authors — that Salinas' crowded housing not only did not exacerbate violent crime, but was inexplicably tied to decreases.
Having volunteered in a local library homework program, I think there's a slight breakdown in logic as stated below:

But they ran into obstacles along the way. Prison recidivism numbers, for instance, were available only for the entire state. Also, there wasn't enough information about who actually uses services believed to steer kids away from gangs, such as libraries and after-school programs.

"If these programs are primarily patronized by children and adults who are not involved in violent crimes or gangs, then it is logical that these programs would not significantly impact the level of violent crime," the study said. [emphasis added]

One intent of many library & after-school programs is prevention. If people "who are not involved in violent crimes or gangs" participate in such programs, and they stay out of trouble, you can argue that it's the programs or you can argue that the same people, they or their parents being so inclined, would have found some other activity to stay out of trouble. You can also argue that the same people would contribute to the level of violent crime if there were no programs. There's no way to be sure, based on current methods. (Current methods are fairly random. Ideas, funding, and volunteers come and go with the wind.)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

AXON the wrong question

"The AXON project is unfortunately a positive thing right now because the level of distrust is so high," said Raj Jayadev, director of the community organization Silicon Valley De-Bug. "But it doesn't address the more fundamental problem: What stereotypes police may carry when they see people of color on the street and make assumptions about character."
This head-mounted camera system for the San Jose police is from the Taser folks-- remember them? Actually that doesn't bother me, as someone is going to perfect and sell this as a solution. The issue is that (see below) it's officer-activated, which means it's also officer-deactivated as desired. We should also recall from the Rodney King tapes and so many other incidents that having an event recorded is no guarantee that everyone will agree on "what happened."

San Jose police test head-mounted cameras for officers

By Sharon Noguchi
Posted: 12/18/2009 09:09:12 PM PST
Updated: 12/19/2009 03:50:18 AM PST

San Jose police, under fire for interactions with the public that have turned violent, on Friday launched a pilot project equipping officers with head-mounted cameras to record contacts with civilians.

Officers will activate the cameras, about the size of a Bluetooth device and attached by a headband above the ear, every time they respond or make contact with a person. At the end of the officer's shift, the recording will be downloaded to a central server.

Friday, December 18, 2009

On Native Hawaiians: Somebody point out the down side of this

Proponents say the plan would duplicate the legal scenario set up for Native Americans, but the Akaka bill carves out new territory. Unlike Indian tribes made up of tightly knit populations that have lived together continuously, participation in the new group would be available to nearly anyone able to trace their roots back to a Native Hawaiian ancestor, no matter where they now reside.
Yeah... so? And your point is...? I'm having trouble with the WSJ editorial's premise that ethnic Hawaiians aren't indigenous in a way exceedingly similar to Native Americans on the mainland. Why shouldn't they pursue any remedy available? What is this new rule (moving goal post) saying people have to live together continuously in a tightly-knit population to pursue justice?

I'm having trouble with the editorial citing the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in a skewed way, or rather citing Bush-era appointee Gail Heriot in particular as an authority, without balance. Being an editorial and all, the piece doesn't have to be fair or balanced as it frets about the bill's impact on non-Native residents of Hawaii. Let me get out my violin. Maybe WSJ should have considered the unintended consequences of non-Native presence fifty years ago... oh, sorry, if they thought about it the consequences wouldn't be "unintended."

1959: Hawaii statehood
1990: First U.S. senator with Hawaiian ancestry (bill sponsor Akaka)

Thirty-one years to find a qualified local, no doubt. Affirmative action, no doubt. Oooh! ®

DECEMBER 17, 2009
Aloha, Segregation
The Akaka bill would create a race-based state in Hawaii.

President Obama speaks proudly of his childhood in Hawaii, so we wonder what the state's voters think of his support for a bill that would redistribute its wealth based on race. That's what would happen under the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, which Congress is trying to sneak through in its final days this year.

Sponsored by Senator Daniel Akaka, the bill would transfer a percentage of public-owned lands to a native Hawaiian government within the state of Hawaii. The legislation would collect some 400,000 ethnic Hawaiians scattered across the country into a newly affiliated tribe, eventually endowed with the powers of a sovereign state, including freedom from state taxes and regulations and separate police power.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Why old soldiers hang out at the VFW

There is a point at which it is unseemly to go to a bar and accept drinks from strangers. But when a nation doesn't fully recognize your service, you'll take recognition from anyone who's "been there, done that." You'll for sure take recognition from anyone who is glad you did it so they didn't have to. As a veteran, I've been on the receiving end of the old buy-them-a-round tradition and been grateful. The veterans in this article deserve the same.

Back from combat, women struggle for acceptance

By KIMBERLY HEFLING, Associated Press Writer

Monday, December 14, 2009

(12-14) 15:03 PST WASHINGTON, (AP) --

Nobody wants to buy them a beer.

Even near military bases, female veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan aren't often offered a drink on the house as a welcome home.

More than 230,000 American women have fought in those recent wars and at least 120 have died doing so, yet the public still doesn't completely understand their contributions on the modern battlefield.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Well then, Arnie... Who WOULD you tolerate terrorism against?

"California will not tolerate any type of terrorism against any leaders, including educators," Schwarzenegger said.
I'm torn between feeling reassured that the governor's forces will protect my home against all invaders, and feeling concerned at the re-definition of "terrorism" to include protesting students. In this case the students-- and duly noted, rabble-rousers who weren't students-- acted a lot like the mob storming the castle in any Frankenstein movie (torches? jeez Louise), which is to say well down the road to acting like a lynch mob, if they're not more careful.

I also note that the offenses against persons are well balanced by offenses against property. They should definitely learn not to mess with property. That'll get you locked up.

8 arrested in vandalism of UC chancellor's home
Henry K. Lee, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009

(12-12) 19:15 PST BERKELEY -- Eight people were in custody Saturday after a crowd of angry protesters broke windows and threw burning torches at UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau's campus residence in protest of fee hikes and budget cuts, authorities said.

As many as 75 people - some of them carrying torches - surrounded the mansion, known as University House, on the north side of campus off Hearst Avenue at about 11:15 p.m. Friday, police said.

The crowd, including a man taken into custody in a university protest a day earlier, chanted, "No justice, no peace," and began smashing planters, windows and lights. Several hurled their torches at the building, said campus spokesman Dan Mogulof...

...UC Berkeley police arrested Cal students Zachary Bowin, 21, and Angela Miller, 20, on suspicion of rioting, threatening an education official, attempted burglary, attempted arson of an occupied building, vandalism and assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer, Mogulof said.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Recent Films I Won't Be Seeing: The Precious Push of the Blind Side

I wring my hands. The autumn 2009 releases of two films, Precious and The Blind Side, have brought a new focus to the everyday angst of the Black Community largely writ. My own focus is no more and definitely no less authentic than any other. (Thanks to Quintard Taylor's take on authenticity of the African-American Experience in the West for "permission" to feel this way.) But it's notable that my view has remained remarkably unchanged. I've read, skimmed, listened to, and yes, fled from exegeses great and small in mainstream media, blogosphere, and everyday phone calls but I haven't budged. Add to this the fact that I'm not in the target audience for either film and-- still I wring my hands and fret about both.

A copy of Sapphire's Push (the inspiration for Precious) has been on my "black-oriented fiction goes here, sort of" shelf for several years. I have glanced sidelong at it periodically. I have riffled the pages and read a paragraph here or there. I have, over time, reached left and right for Michel Maxwell Philip's Emmanuel Appadocca (left) and Susan Straight's Blacker than a Thousand Midnights (right).

In a fit of pique a few days ago, I started and finished Percival Everett's Erasure (2001) as a further stopgap against coming to terms with the current releases. (As an aside, its themes were too troubling and close to home to cure my traditional end-of-semester insomnia. Professor Everett of USC is an African-American male in West Coast academia, a role model I've never met, so his words stared accusingly up at me even as I lost sleep reading them.) Erasure, which contains a "novel-within-a-novel" parody of the gritty, urban, street-talk genre, is about as close as I will probably come to reading Push, and you can make a case that it's not very close at all, and in a way is even set up in opposition and response to works such as Sapphire's.

If I probably won't go beyond skimming her book, will I see the movie? After all, I'm never going to read Ben-Hur, but that didn't stop me from finally watching the film version. (All that Biblical retelling for one dang chariot race.) With film, I never say never except for Gone with the Wind, which I've fallen asleep in twice and can safely say I've abandoned. GWTW is infused deeply enough in our collective culture that it rates its own acronym, and I'm more than satisfied with brief clips, famous quotations, and satire. (My current favorite is here paraphrased from its original on a summer 2009 blog I don't normally frequent, seventy years after GWTW's release: "I don't know nothin' 'bout babyin' no birthers!")

Yet, I doubt that I will see Precious in spite of my friends at exhorting all to do so. Eventually I must admit it's for the same reason I have not read the book cover to cover. It's the subject matter and the setting. Not only don't I want to live there, I don't want to visit.

As to The Blind Side, at first glance I cared not a whit that it was "based on a true story." From the poster alone, I was sure it must join the pantheon of movies in the sub-genre known as "ostensibly about black people but really about a white person saving black people." From several media interviews (e.g. with lead Sandra Bullock) and reviews, this early guess at classification was both justified and verified.

The reality check for me was a Thanksgiving Day conversation with an East Coast friend of several decades. When it's my turn to call, I endeavor to catch him in mid-bite during Thanksgiving dinner or in the lobby area of whatever loud restaurant he has gone to with his family to escape the traditional Pilgrim meme. This year, he was in the atrium of an Embassy Suites, plenty of background noise and not a turkey in sight. After the usual amenities, he noted that he'd already been dragged to The Blind Side by someone who'd gotten the wrong impression of what it was about, and they got up and left about three-quarters of the way through. I tut-tutted sympathetically over the phone, but he knows well that I was smirking as only as an escapee of such an excursion can smirk.

With The Blind Side, the decision to skip is much easier than with the former film, as there is no potential for guilt. No request to explain will come from any subset of the African-American community, not even the most bougie, and no external request need be honored. No black woman will give me the side eye over this or wonder if the little feminism I claim is real. No black man or woman will suggest that a Sandra Bullock movie is absolutely a must-see for its own sake. And there are plenty of candidates over the decades if I need two hours of "feel-good" about reaching across the American racial chasm for the betterment of the downtrodden.

I read, skim, and listen to the conversations about both films and wonder what's different this time. This time. Is there an Obama factor? In The Blind Side, I sense a reaffirmation for the conservative-minded that a certain flavor of charity is still needed: they can still fulfill the old roles, and black souls would be lost without their intervention. This is easy to claim from a minority perspective in anything-but-post-racial 2009. But the hype is all in the language of timeless, standard studio fare and it does not need to be filtered through the prism of mainstream (white) reaction to a black president. It may feel different in today's environment with today's expectations, but the film could have been made anytime since 1965 and found a home on the American screen.

In Precious, I am led to believe there is something new in the portrayal of the protagonist's self-awareness (not common in African-Americans in film). I realize that I picked this much up from briefly skimming Push, to Sapphire's credit, as well as from at least one blog discussion of the movie. If this aspect has made it to the screen, good for the filmmakers. The remaining argument, I think, is about the filmmakers' intent. Were they just about the money, as Ishmael Reed (for one) has suggested? If so, is their vision true in spite of this?