Sunday, August 23, 2015

Messenger

One of the recurring complaints that people have about the American political system is the prevalence of "big money" in the electoral system. Typically, I have little patience for such complaints, after all, money can't buy you love, and no amount of expensive advertising is going to trump the viewpoint of a trusted friend, relation or co-worker in political matters. And in a day and age in which information on any candidate you wish to know something about is no further away than a web page (even complete no-hopers like Jill Stein), I consider the issue to be less about money than it is about a pervasively passive approach to modern American politics that makes it worthwhile (and, to a large degree, necessary) to spend remarkable amounts of money to reach and motivate (or demotivate) potential voters.

And then, along comes Donald Trump. Being a billionaire of some level or another, he can afford to spend his own money on his presidential campaign, which frees him from the need to tailor his message to the Republican big-money donor class. Accordingly, he can direct his message to a segment of the Republican electorate that feels increasingly marginalized in modern American society, and fears that said marginalization will only accelerate as time goes on, and current minorities reduce them to a plurality, and someday, a minority themselves. Early American history being nothing if not a case study of what happens to an entrenched majority when a needy (to the point of hostility) minority takes over the majority status, perhaps what White people fear is having what generation past have done unto others being done unto them.

I don't want to sound racist, and I'm not racist. But I feel if we put Obama in the White House, there will be chaos. I feel a lot of black people are going to feel it's payback time. And I made the statement, I said, "You know, at one time the black man had to step off the sidewalk when a white person came down the sidewalk." And I feel it's going to be somewhat reversed. I really feel it's going to get somewhat nasty. Like I said, I feel it's going to be - they're going to feel it's payback time.
York Voters Express Post-Election Hopes, Fears
While the past seven years have proven that it would take more than the election of an African-American president to gin up the Payback Machine, the fear that a loss of White dominance of the United States is going to lead to Whites holding the bag in a society that openly favors non-Whites has not gone away.

But the United States being what it is, it's considered gauche, if not brazenly racist, to address that fear as a real thing that should be dealt with. And that's where Donald Trump, with his ability to self-finance his own campaign for the White House, may have done us all a favor. When people who feared the coming post-White Hegemony future had no-one willing to speak for them (rather than simply to them), it was easy to see them as a tiny fringe element in an otherwise forward-looking nation. The disconnect between their values, which Republican strategist Mary Matalin terms "Common Sense* America" and those of the wealthy donor base, or the "Conventional Wisdom Establishment" meant that "serious" candidates were unable to directly engage with them and still be considered "electable." The fact that Donald Trump doesn't need to ask them for money to keep his campaign going allows them to rally behind him without effectively needing to pay to have their views displayed.

As people line up behind statements that public piety demand be seen as reprehensible, at best, the rest of us are better able to see just how large a group of people feel that they have been thrown under the bus. And even if Mr. Trump gives up his bid for the Presidency or is forced out of the race by managing to alienate the people who support him, the understanding that this group is out there, and is willing to back someone they understand speaks to their fears and concerns, will embolden other politicians to make direct plays for those votes. Which may finally push the rest of us into addressing their concerns, rather than ignoring them.

* I am always leery of people peddling "common sense." Mainly because the term "common" has morphed away from "shared" and towards "self-evident," and thus invocations of common sense have simply become a way for a speaker to tell their chosen audience that their worldview is an obviously correct one, and that a lack of adherence to it is proof of deficiencies in intellect and/or "character," rather than simply indicating differences in background, upbringing and/or life experience.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Monday, August 17, 2015

Bridge-Building

I can see how it seemed like a stupid question.

"Do you think it’s fair that Hillary’s hair gets a lot more scrutiny than yours does?" interviewer Ana Marie Cox asked.
"Hillary’s hair gets more scrutiny than my hair? Is that what you're asking?" Sanders clarified, before asking Cox whether she had any "serious questions."
Here's Bernie Sanders' Response To A Question About Hillary Clinton's Hair
But it WAS a "serious question," even if somewhat inelegantly asked. It's the serious question of whether or not Hillary Clinton in specific, and female candidates for elective office in general, are given a fair hearing in most media outlets and by the public.
I can defend that as a serious question. There is a gendered reason —
When the media worries about what Hillary’s hair looks like or what my hair looks like, that’s a real problem. We have millions of people who are struggling to keep their heads above water, who want to know what candidates can do to improve their lives, and the media will very often spend more time worrying about hair than the fact that we’re the only major country on earth that doesn’t guarantee health care to all people.

It’s also true that the media pays more attention to what female candidates look like than it does to what male candidates look like.
That may be. That may be, and it’s absolutely wrong.
Bernie Sanders Has Heard About That Hashtag
While Senator Sanders may feel that "it’s absolutely wrong" for media outlets to pay more attention to the appearance of female candidates than male candidates, and his supporters may feel that the line of questioning reveals Ana Marie Cox to be "another tool who has no idea what journalism is" or the media to be "trying everything they can to 'gotcha' him," what stood out for me is what may shape up to be the primary problem for the Sanders campaign - being so wedded to the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats that they miss the fact that some of those boats may not be in the water. The United States joining the club nations that have some form of guaranteed health care is not going to change the fact that women are expected to look after their appearances and lose certain social benefits (known as "the Makeup Tax" for not doing so.

The current disconnect between the Sanders campaign (and Sanders supporters) and the Black Lives Matter movement falls along similar lines. Shifting income and wealth away from the 1%, or the .1%, may pay dividends for the 40% of African-American children that Sanders identifies as being in poverty, but it won't, in and of itself, put an end to the deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement - or the idea that Black America brought this sad state of affairs on themselves due to rampant criminality and an eschewing of "character and values." After all, people are just as capable of judging the wealthy by the color of their skin (or their gender) as they are the poor.

After the first debate between the majority of Republican candidates, Sanders referred to them as "out of touch" because they didn't place issues like Citizens United vs. FEC or student loan debt front and center in the moderated forum. But Sanders himself comes across as only speaking to the issues that are important to certain constituencies after very public confrontations. And his supporters are often critical of those who feel that Senator Sanders doesn't speak to their concerns, holding him up as self-evidently the best chance that those concerns have of being addressed.

If Senator Sanders does become the Democratic nominee for President, it's unlikely that Black and/or women voters would consciously decide to withhold their support. But an enthusiasm gap can be just as damaging. To bridge it, I think that the Senator will have to learn to understand both the issues that various groups find important, and how they talk about them. And he does have time. But he doesn't have forever.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Inside Out

These two quotes do not closely follow one another in the source, but they relate to the same event. I think that the context is important here, and I want to make sure that I capture it as accurately as is feasible, so I'm presenting them together.

A few weeks ago I ended up on a date facilitated by an online dating service with a white guy who disclosed halfway through the date that he has a preference for South-Asian women. I left the date feeling offended.
[...]
I’m 37 and unmarried and I just went on a date with a guy who was essentially telling me, after all my successes in life and my awesome personality, that what he liked most about me was the color of my skin.
Tinder isn’t perfect – but why would it be?
What I found to be interesting about these passages, that more or less bookend Samhita Mukhopadhyay's defense of Tinder/indictment of certain straight White dudes is that (assuming her representation of her date's disclosure is accurate) her assertion "that what he liked most about me was the color of my skin," could easily have simply been an assumption that she was making. After all, there are other ethnic groups in the world who share the same range of skin color as Indians, and cultural stereotypes cover any number of different traits. But, for all of that, I understand precisely where she is coming from.

When I was growing up, the adults in my life taught me, a number of things about getting along in the world. Following are three of them that dealt specifically with dealing with White people:
  1. The first (if not only) thing that they'll see about me is the color of my skin.
  2. Any one of them who says otherwise is almost invariably lying.
  3. These judgments of them are okay (even if we don't own up to them) because they're objectively correct.
The most pernicious effect of prejudice, as I've encountered it, is the constant expectation of prejudice. And once people are taught to be constantly vigilant for it, they start to see it everywhere. Which often eventually metastasizes into prejudice itself.

I understand Ms. Mukhopadhyay's disappointment that her date didn't openly validate her for those traits that she feels the most pride in, her "successes in life and [...] awesome personality." It's often disappointing that people don't seem to see those invisible traits that reside inside of us that are most important to us. But that's different than people, especially people of other races, only seeing the very surface of us. And when we call them out on that, especially when we do so without dialoging with them, it's hard to see how we've done any better.

One of the things that makes discussions of race and ethnicity in the country so contentious is that it's remarkably easy to make judgments of other people based on nothing more than a few superficial traits, and then convince oneself that no more information is needed. The Black Lives Matter activist, Indian writer or any other "person of color" who immediately chalks up a negative encounter with Whites to an inability to see past race tends to miss the irony in their own pronouncements. Yes, there is a difference between saying that Whites aren't as color-blind as they like to think themselves and saying that Blacks bring police violence down on their own heads. But in a society that judges by the content of character - or doesn't judge at all - neither statement has a home.

Validation, I came to understand, is like any other important task - If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself. When I left it up to other people to validate me and my experiences, I often came away not only hurt, but with an inability to understand how so many people could miss what was right in front of their faces - until I remembered my father's admonition that "Obvious is something so crystal-clear that you're the only person who sees it." Mark Twain was exactly right when he noted that "The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself." And given the difficulty of making other people see us as we want to be seen, I think that there is also more wisdom that we credit in the idea that "When you cannot get a compliment any other way pay yourself one." Our accomplishments, our personalities, our wisdom - these are all things that we can place on display - but they are not things that we can expect that everyone will see in the same way that we do, or see at all. And yes, I understand that I'm allowing the willfully blind to escape censure. But if I don't need, and therefore don't ask, someone to do something for me, does it really matter their exact reason for not doing it?

It's true that people's judgments and opinions of others tend to say more about the holder of the opinion, than the subject of the opinion. But that doesn't mean that we can automatically know what someone's judgements say about them. Accordingly, perhaps we should be more aware of what our often self-serving judgments say about us. Because while, I, for instance, have no problem with being called Black, I'd rather it not be because I was caught calling out the Kettle.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Misdirected

When I encountered the headline "How Wall Street’s Bankers Stayed Out of Jail," I was hoping for something that seems to rarely come up in discussions of the culpability of persons and/or companies for the financial industry crash of 2008 - some indication of what laws were supposed to have been broken. Granted, it's not the job of a journalist to bring an indictment against someone, but most of us are generally not versed in the law, and especially in financial law.

For me, the answer to "Why isn't anyone in jail?" is simple; the article itself points it out: "Wall Street bankers make it their daily business to figure out ways to abide by the letter of the law while violating its spirit. And to be sure, much of the behavior that led to the crisis involved recklessness and poor judgment, not fraud." And, whether we like it or not, recklessness, poor judgment and violating the spirit of the law are not crimes. And so when I find a piece that purports to tell me why no-one has been convicted of anything, I expect to have it explained to me which laws had their letter violated. Unfortunately for me, that wasn't the case here - rather there was simply another assertion that some crime just had to have been committed, and this opinion was then taken as proof that some perfidy had taken place within the department of justice. So far, so familiar.

Then, a little later on, I read the following:

Any narrative of how we got to this point has to start with the so-called Holder Doctrine, a June 1999 memorandum written by the then–deputy attorney general warning of the dangers of prosecuting big banks—a variant of the “too big to fail” argument that has since become so familiar. Holder’s memo asserted that “collateral consequences” from prosecutions—including corporate instability or collapse—should be taken into account when deciding whether to prosecute a big financial institution. That sentiment was echoed as late as 2012 by Lanny Breuer, then the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, who said in a speech at the New York City Bar Association that he felt it was his duty to consider the health of the company, the industry, and the markets in deciding whether or not to file charges.
And this caught my attention for a simple reason - there was no link to the memorandum in question. And I've learned to be suspicious of news articles that reference documents without pointing to them. About 30 seconds on Google later, I had tracked down "Federal Prosecution of Corporations." And unsurprisingly, it didn't at read like a "warning of the dangers of prosecuting big banks," any more than the manual that comes with a car constitutes a "warning of the dangers of driving."
Virtually every conviction of a corporation, like virtually every conviction of an individual, will have an impact on innocent third parties, and the mere existence of such an effect is not sufficient to preclude prosecution of the corporation. Therefore, in evaluating the severity of collateral consequences, various factors already discussed, such as the pervasiveness of the criminal conduct and the adequacy of the corporation's compliance programs should also be considered in determining the weight to be given to this factor.
Federal Prosecution of Corporations
Now, it may very well be true that the reason that there haven't been prosecutions of "Wall Street types" is that the Federal Government is protecting people in high places due to cronyism and an insufficient commitment to justice for the majority of citizens. Governments have done far worse. But Eric Holder's 1999 memorandum doesn't support that viewpoint in and of itself. And this strikes me as part of the reason why there wasn't a link to an easily-available document.

As much as we talk about "Media Bias," despite the legal fiction of corporate personhood, media organizations are not people, and they lack a consciousness. People, on the other hand, have biases, disagreements and agendas, and they often seek to enlist other people in these, to make them more effective, to show themselves that people are paying attention, or what-have-you. And it's these personal factors that we should be wary of, and alert to the markers for.