Friday, September 30, 2005

Apology to Obama

Yesterday I wrote out of bitter disappointment that Illinois Senator Barack Obama, one of the politicians I have most admired (Lindsey Graham being the other), had voted against John Roberts' confirmation as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I thought that Senator Obama, who had shown himself to be temperate but never mushy, capable of force and clarity while honoring complexity, had stooped to "playing to the base" and voting based on career calculation as a Democrat.

I was way wrong.

I was unaware that Senator Obama had already published a statement, one week before the full Senate confirmation vote, detailing his struggle to decide how to vote and his ultimate decision to vote No despite being "sorely tempted" in the other direction. (Props to Meg at CelebrateVida for clueing me in.) The statement is vintage Obama. It is direct, intelligent, honorable, and transparent, and it does not set off my spin detector. I now respect his decision and regret that I so mischaracterized it. To the extent that there is a Democratic "pack," he's not running with it. He's the cat who walks by himself. To set the record straight, I'm just going to quote a whole lot of his statement. But read the whole thing.

I have not only argued cases before appellate courts but for 10 years was a member of the University of Chicago Law School faculty and taught courses in constitutional law. Part of the culture of the University of Chicago Law School faculty is to maintain a sense of collegiality between those people who hold different views. What engenders respect is not the particular outcome that a legal scholar arrives at but, rather, the intellectual rigor and honesty with which he or she arrives at a decision.

Given that background, I am sorely tempted to vote for Judge Roberts based on my study of his resume, his conduct during the hearings, and a conversation I had with him yesterday afternoon.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind Judge Roberts is qualified to sit on the highest court in the land. Moreover, he seems to have the comportment and the temperament that makes for a good judge. He is humble, he is personally decent, and he appears to be respectful of different points of view. It is absolutely clear to me that Judge Roberts truly loves the law. He couldn't have achieved his excellent record as an advocate before the Supreme Court without that passion for the law, and it became apparent to me in our conversation that he does, in fact, deeply respect the basic precepts that go into deciding 95 percent of the cases that come before the Federal court -- adherence to precedence, a certain modesty in reading statutes and constitutional text, a respect for procedural regularity, and an impartiality in presiding over the adversarial system. All of these characteristics make me want to vote for Judge Roberts.

The problem I face -- a problem that has been voiced by some of my other colleagues, both those who are voting for Mr. Roberts and those who are voting against Mr. Roberts -- is that while adherence to legal precedent and rules of statutory or constitutional construction will dispose of 95 percent of the cases that come before a court, so that both a Scalia and a Ginsburg will arrive at the same place most of the time on those 95 percent of the cases -- what matters on the Supreme Court is those 5 percent of cases that are truly difficult. In those cases, adherence to precedent and rules of construction and interpretation will only get you through the 25th mile of the marathon. That last mile can only be determined on the basis of one's deepest values, one's core concerns, one's broader perspectives on how the world works, and the depth and breadth of one's empathy.

In those 5 percent of hard cases, the constitutional text will not be directly on point. The language of the statute will not be perfectly clear. Legal process alone will not lead you to a rule of decision. In those circumstances, your decisions about whether affirmative action is an appropriate response to the history of discrimination in this country or whether a general right of privacy encompasses a more specific right of women to control their reproductive decisions or whether the commerce clause empowers Congress to speak on those issues of broad national concern that may be only tangentially related to what is easily defined as interstate commerce, whether a person who is disabled has the right to be accommodated so they can work alongside those who are nondisabled -- in those difficult cases, the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge's heart.

I talked to Judge Roberts about this. Judge Roberts confessed that, unlike maybe professional politicians, it is not easy for him to talk about his values and his deeper feelings. That is not how he is trained. He did say he doesn't like bullies and has always viewed the law as a way of evening out the playing field between the strong and the weak.

I was impressed with that statement because I view the law in much the same way. The problem I had is that when I examined Judge Roberts' record and history of public service, it is my personal estimation that he has far more often used his formidable skills on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak.

I want to take Judge Roberts at his word that he doesn't like bullies and he sees the law and the Court as a means of evening the playing field between the strong and the weak. But given the gravity of the position to which he will undoubtedly ascend and the gravity of the decisions in which he will undoubtedly participate during his tenure on the Court, I ultimately have to give more weight to his deeds and the overarching political philosophy that he appears to have shared with those in power than to the assuring words that he provided me in our meeting.

The bottom line is this: I will be voting against John Roberts' nomination. I do so with considerable reticence. I hope that I am wrong. I hope that this reticence on my part proves unjustified and that Judge Roberts will show himself to not only be an outstanding legal thinker but also someone who upholds the Court's historic role as a check on the majoritarian impulses of the executive branch and the legislative branch. I hope that he will recognize who the weak are and who the strong are in our society. I hope that his jurisprudence is one that stands up to the bullies of all ideological stripes. . . . [Emphases added]

Senator Obama then goes on to talk about partisan rancor, ideological dumbing-down, and its toxic effect on the confirmation process:

I was deeply disturbed by some statements that were made by largely Democratic advocacy groups when ranking member Senator Leahy announced that he would support Judge Roberts. Although the scales have tipped in a different direction for me, I am deeply admiring of the work and the thought that Senator Leahy has put into making his decision. The knee-jerk unbending and what I consider to be unfair attacks on Senator Leahy's motives were unjustified. Unfortunately, both parties have fallen victim to this kind of pressure. . . .

The issues facing the Court are rarely black and white, and all advocacy groups who have a legitimate and profound interest in the decisions that are made by the Court should try to make certain that their advocacy reflects that complexity. These groups on the right and left should not resort to the sort of broad-brush dogmatic attacks that have hampered the process in the past and constrained each and every Senator in this Chamber from making sure that they are voting on the basis of their conscience.

Read it all here.

Shit. Now I'm back to worrying that he's going to get assassinated.

Another Stab at "What's a Centrist?"

My regular commenter (almost collaborator!) Adam over at AmbivaBlog has what I consider a marvelous definition of a centrist:
If a person cannot find something deeply worthy of admiration on both sides of the political spectrum, that person is not a centrist.
At first that sounds at once self-evident and empty -- kind of like "You know you're middle-aged when old people think you're young and young people think you're old." What, centrists have no views of their own, just patchworks of everyone else's ideas?

But then you look again, and you realize that what so-called "centrism" is all about is rejecting the conventional polarization of views. Remember the story about the two women who come before King Solomon both claiming to be the mother of a baby? Solomon suggests cutting the baby in half, and the woman who protests that she would rather give the baby up is revealed as the true mother. The Right and the Left have cut the truth in half. The Center wants the baby to be whole, no matter who cares for it. It's not about creating some sort of hybrid of opposing views. It's about restoring what should never have been cut apart in the first place.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Roberts Roll Call: How did Hillary and Obama Vote??

Good old C-Span. No surprise in John Roberts' confirmation; what I urgently wanted to know is which Democrats voted against, and which for him. C-Span has it, God bless 'em. I can't help thinking this vote shows where certain Dems' hearts really are. I am hoping, in particular, that Obama voted YES. My heart's in my throat. I haven't gotten there yet. Let's see:

Mike DeWine voted YES. Robert Byrd voted YES. Russ Feingold voted YES, as did fellow Wisconsin Senator Kohl. Hillary Clinton voted NO!! Aha, a jog and curtsey toward the base, the obsequious little dance of the presidential candidate -- also performed by Joe Biden and Evan Bayh. Chris Dodd voted YES. North and South Dakotans, Dorgan and Johnson voted YES. Landrieu, Leahy, Levin, all YES. Joe Lieberman, Lincoln and Pryor (both Arkansas), Patty Murray, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Bill Nelson of Florida, YES.

Obama, NO.

Oh, I am bitterly disappointed.

Jay Rockefeller, Ken Salazar, Wyden of Oregon, YES. I think that's everybody, but go see. I'm depressed.

(For those positioning themselves for a future beyond the Senate, these votes are carefully weighed political moves, don't you think? I had hoped that Obama would throw his weight to the center. Guess not. Who loses, the center or Obama?)

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Education: Fix It in the Mix [LONG]

[Cross-posted on AmbivaBlog]

The infamous standardized-test score gap between white and minority students has narrowed dramatically in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the reason is -- an aggressive campaign of economic integration.

Since 2000, school officials have used income as a prime factor in assigning students to schools, with the goal of limiting the proportion of low-income students in any school to no more than 40 percent.

The effort is the most ambitious in the country to create economically diverse public schools, and it is the most successful, according to several independent experts. La Crosse, Wis.; St. Lucie County, Fla.; San Francisco; Cambridge, Mass.; and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., have adopted economic integration plans.

In Wake County, only 40 percent of black students in grades three through eight scored at grade level on state tests a decade ago. Last spring, 80 percent did. Hispanic students have made similar strides. Overall, 91 percent of students in those grades scored at grade level in the spring, up from 79 percent 10 years ago. . . .

Some experts said the academic results in Wake County were particularly significant because they bolstered research that showed low-income students did best when they attended middle-class schools.

"Low-income students who have an opportunity to go to middle-class schools are surrounded by peers who have bigger dreams and who are more academically engaged," said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who has written about economic integration in schools. "They are surrounded by parents who are more likely to be active in the school. And they are taught by teachers who more likely are highly qualified than the teachers in low-income schools."

To achieve a balance of low- and middle-income children in every school, the Wake County school district encourages and sometimes requires students to attend schools far from home. Suburban students are drawn to magnet schools in the city. Low-income children from the city are bused to middle-class schools in the suburbs.

Some parents chafe at the length of their children's bus rides or at what they see as social engineering. But the test results are hard to dispute . . .

I note this because economic integration of housing, communities and schools is the cause to which two generations of men in my family have professionally dedicated themselves. In the early 1970s, my dad left his job as a mortgage banker in the for-profit real-estate business and took a lower-paying one with Chicago's nonprofit Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities. From their website:

Where you live determines your ability to access meaningful life opportunities for yourself and your family, including educational and employment opportunities, but also access to quality health care, transportation, and safe neighborhoods. In much of our region, opportunities vary widely based on race and economics, with access to housing opportunity the primary factor in determining where a person can live. The effect of gross disparities in access to housing leave some able to access a multitude of opportunities and others with much more limited options. (See The Segregation of Opportunities, a Leadership Council report released May 9, 2005.

The Leadership Council works to ensure that every person has the opportunity to make meaningful choices about where to live and to have the chance to live in communities that are rich in opportunities. We do this by promoting fair housing and equitable community development and by providing one-on-one counseling for people seeking homes.

My brother Alan is a foundation officer and edits the newsletter of The Piton Foundation, a private Denver foundation focusing on public education whose "mission is to provide opportunities for children and their families to move from poverty and dependence to self-reliance." Ally devoted two issues of the newsletter, The Term Paper, May and November 2002 [.pdf files], to "Denver's growing interest in school improvement through creating a better economic mix in schools." UPDATE: Ally puts this in the comments, which I hope will encourage you to read his newsletters:

Thanks for plugging today's Times article. I have long been a fan of the Raleigh schools. The newsletter you mention includes a long article about Raleigh. I have led delegations from Denver to Raleigh over the past few years to show off the wonderful job Raleigh has done with economic integration. I have an enormous amount of respect for the people there. It's a homegrown bunch that has kept its collective shoulder to the wheel for a long, long time. Raleigh is proof that you don't have to import hotshots from elsewhere if you create the right mix locally.

My brother David is the cofounder and executive director of Full Circle Communities, a nonprofit that acquires, improves, and manages affordable housing properties and provides an innovative array of services for their residents:

Full Circle Communities, Inc.'s mission is to become a leading provider and manager of decent, safe affordable housing and an array of supportive services. Our goal is to enable low- and moderate-income individuals and families who live at our properties to move themselves and help others move toward increasing health, independence and success. . . .

Full Circle has preserved a desperately needed supply of affordable senior housing in Naples, the largest and wealthiest community in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation. . . .

Through nutritional counseling, a local Senior Companions program, exercise and safety classes, social events, and improvements to the property to improve access, Full Circle hopes to demonstrate that affordable housing can and should provide a high-quality living experience.

A third generation now seems to be entering this "family business," or crusade. It was my nephew Matt, a second-grade teacher in a virtually all-Hispanic school in Chicago, who alerted us all to the story about Raleigh, and whose post on New Orleans reveals him to share his grandfather's and uncles' quiet obsession with American apartheid -- one that seemed anachronistic in the Age of Bush until Hurricane Katrina resurrected its relevance. New Orleans gave ironic new urgency to the Leadership Council's statement, "Where you live determines your ability to access meaningful life opportunities for yourself and your family" -- meaningful life opportunities like, not drowning.


I should add that I was a beneficiary, and I hope a reciprocal benefactor, of economically-integrated schooling in Chicago in the 1950s. Of course, it didn't have a fancy name then. It was just the reality of going to public school in one very unique neighborhood.

We grew up in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, sandwiched between the upscale, liberal Hyde Park neighborhood that surrounded the University of Chicago just to our south and "the single largest black neighborhood in America," the "black belt," just to our north. We lived on 50th Street. 47th Street was the "nerve center" of the ghetto, and originally one of the great arteries of blues music in the North. Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Black Muslims, lived a few blocks away in a Kenwood mansion under heavy guard.

Kenwood probably would eventually have become part of the ghetto, in a typical pattern of black entry, slumlord opportunism, and white flight, except that a multiracial group of its residents banded together to resist. They opposed the neighborhood's becoming homogeneous either racially or economically. This fascinating history of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference tells how they organized to do it:

Members of all minority groups should be welcomed, not primarily as such, but as persons in their own right, with their own living interests, relationships, responsibilities, and distinctive abilities in the fields of common life and welfare. This Community Conference has included them as full participating members from its first beginning, and shall continue to be open to them on an equal basis with all community residents of all races and creeds.

The result was that Kenwood became a solidly middle-class, racially and ethnically mixed neighborhood -- one of the first in the country -- that overlapped at its edges with poorer (but then still working-class) black and Hispanic neighborhoods, full of immigrants (some of them illegal) from the South, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. This was the neighborhood that shaped my family, and the vision that perhaps continues to propel my father, brothers, and nephew.

From K-8 I attended Kenwood Public School, a hideous yellow-brick building with brown linoleum halls that looked like a Dickens orphanage and was staffed by a Dickensian cast of teachers. From the very beginning my classmates were Japanese, Chinese, black, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Irish Catholic, Protestant, and middle-class Jewish like me. Diversity got under our skins before we were old enough to have any real concept of class and ethnic differences; we just subsumed them into individual differences. Kids were who they were, and any family other than our own seemed exotic and weird, regardless of its circumstances. Only around the 6th grade did we begin to be aware of the economic gulf that separated those of us who were privileged and secure from those who weren't, and as soon as we noticed that gulf we began deliberately crossing it.

Some of the teachers, in retrospect, were extremely racist, and they were in a hostile standoff with some of the minority and poor kids, especially boys, whom they made little effort to reach and who, in turn, made little effort to conform or achieve. The result was that by the 7th and 8th grades, the middle-class kids were 12 and 13, while there were some big 15-year-old boys sitting sullenly among us and towering over us who'd been held back year after year. (No such thing as social promotion then.) Most of them were black, Puerto Rican and Mexican, though there was the odd white hillbilly in the mix.

This was in 1958-59, before the "consciousness-raising" of the '60s, and these kids did not yet treat their privileged peers with resentment or aggression. Several years later on, my sisters and brothers would get robbed of their lunch money at knifepoint and get moved by our parents to private school. But in my day, those older boys just kept quietly to themselves -- until one of my friends reached out to them.

Her name was Paula and her mother was a liberal social worker, and maybe her initial interest in the "big boys" had some of that do-gooderism in it, or maybe it was a rebellion. But she was a leader of our little gang of five or six midde-class Jewish girls, and so when she began making friends with them, we all did. I will never forget the "big boys" -- James Fair, John Leiva, Radames Martinez -- because in response to our friendly overtures, they were kind and protective and gallant to us. Most of the boys our own age were still pudgy and larval. The "big boys" were post-pubescent, tall and strong, and they sometimes fought among themselves, but to us they were chivalrous. They made us feel good, and I think we made them feel good.

Paula had a kind of innocent romance with Radames, whose nickname was Chato. This fascinated me, a still childlike late bloomer and tag-along, and I shyly became friends, real friends, with Chato. He came from a family of six kids who lived in an apartment building on 51st Street; I remember that one of his sisters had Down's syndrome. My diary from those years records that we sometimes talked on the phone for an hour. Once a group of us talked him out of having a fight with another boy who'd jostled him on the stairs. He agreed to forego the fight for our sake, and we felt like we'd accomplished something serious and real.

We went to different high schools, but I kept in touch with Chato till I went away to college. The last time I saw him, if I recall right, he was considering becoming a priest. The sullen and silent "big boy" whose name the shrivelled-up witch Mrs. Brown had scornfully mispronounced "Raddamy" had "come out" as the intense, thoughtful, compassionate man he was. Then -- nothing, for almost four decades. In the '80s, my mother tells me she heard he was a youth worker and was shot and killed somewhere in a gang-ridden neighborhood of Chicago. For some reason, I refuse to accept this. I see Paula, now living on a farm in northern California, and ask her if she knows anything about him. She doesn't. I have to wait until the Internet is invented to send a postcard to all twelve Radames Martinezes listed by Yahoo! People Search, even though most of them are pretty obviously Miami Cubans.

I get an answer, from Oregon. Chato -- Rad, now -- has a master's in social work and is married to a hospital administrator. His daughter is in the Merchant Marine. He has worked with troubled teens, substance abusers and mental patients, and is about to retire to piece of land he owns near the coast. When I ask him about the rumor that he was shot and killed, he says laconically, "When I was a cop in San Diego, somebody shot at me, but they missed."

One of the first things he says to me is, "We were wetbacks, you know."

When Jacques and I fly to Portland for Jacques to speak about his book in a Springfield middle school, Rad and his wife meet us in the airport. We continue to correspond occasionally, and he is sending me, one by one, the painful, funny short stories he is slowly writing about his childhood -- so much that I could not see or imagine at the time.

This long story started out to have a point, which was: how much of who we both are was fatefully changed by the fact that we attended a -- harrumph -- "economically integrated school"?

Friday, September 23, 2005

Picking Sides [LONG]

This post started churning about in my head shortly after Alan Stewart Carl published his final piece here last week. Unfortunately, I was busy racing out of town for a blog-free vacation at just that time, so the piece had a good long while to ferment. It is, as a result, rather lengthy and involved, not to mention meandering, senseless, and probably hallucinatory in a few places. Read at your own risk.


In his recent farewell to blogging, Alan Stewart Carl offered a withering (and well-written!) critique of the political blogosphere:

And to say blogging is a form of debate is giving most who practice in the medium too much credit. There are extremely good blogs out there, but most blogs are just noise. Most bloggers aren't citizen journalists or even citizen essayists. They are citizen spin doctors. They aren't debating ideas. They're spinning the truth. They're wasting their intelligence and time trying to force every event, every moment into their pre-conceived notion of the world. They don't want to add to the national debate. They want to keep debate from ever happening.

For bloggers of moderate sensibilities, Alan's observations are something of a challenge -- in their way, reminiscent of the challenge Daily Show host Jon Stewart offered up on Crossfire last year. If the blogosphere is indeed such a relentlessly partisan din, what are we doing here? Would our energy indeed be better spent on other efforts? What should those who want to create substantial change for the better do?

One might argue that the blogosphere is more open and rational than Alan allows. I think the right person could make an interesting argument there. While its inarguably true that moderate blogs are few in number and tiny in size, it's possible that they can have outsize impact. Well- placed links and marketing can get good ideas into the funniest places; there are plenty of odd little "pockets" of moderation even on the most famously partisan blogs, the Koses and Powerlines. Moreover, one could argue that the diversity among blogs makes up for the frequency of shrill tones within them. As a reader, I've certainly been exposed to a far wider range of opinions through the internet than I ever would have without it.

Unfortunately, I'm not the person to make that argument, because I basically agree with Alan. Blogs are, on the whole, a din. Right and left are filled with misleading information, often intentionally so. The vast majority of really successful bloggers are highly partisan activists, and I expect with time that more and more of these will be compensated for their efforts. And the vast majority of comment window space is wasted on inane levels of name-calling, semantics, and general obfuscation.

When all is said and done, it may very well be that the blogging age is best remembered for its destruction of two old debating standbyes: politeness and facts. The blogosphere is well-known for its abundance of the rude, and unfortunately we have no Hannibal Lecter to eat them for us. Actually, to be fair: I truly believe that the anonymity and facelessness of blogging encourages rudeness to a disturbing extent. Most people find me to be a terribly polite person in real life (excepting of course my loved ones, who never knew prior to registration what a stream of belches, glazed-over eyes, and vicious swearing such a quiet, unassuming fellow could produce). Yet on anonymous message boards I can be an out-and-out devil, flaming wingnuts and mediots right and left for the sake of sheer sadism (I swear it's not me, it's the medium!).

Meanwhile, the Fact, which already took a terrible bruising during the the twentieth century, may very well face extinction in the salad days of this one. What Fact is out there that can no longer be challenged? Face it, there are none - and if you're as much of an information addict as me, you've read the rebuttals to gravity, the rotation of the earth, and the existence of the sun twelve times already. While the blogosphere is not responsible for the slow decline of the Fact, it may very well be the technology by which we deliver the killing blow.


So, all that said - yes, I agree with Alan. And yet, I continue to blog, at my admittedly slothful pace. Why?

Well, for starters, I think the phenomena described above and in his post is not just relegated to the blogosphere. Rudeness, partisan shillery, and the steady erosion of truth are to be found throughout the various media, and really throughout the political world itself. I also believe there's a simple reason for this, and that reason is: we are not rational. (And yes, that probably does mean that I blog because I'm not rational).

The point has been made many times, by people much smarter than myself. It goes like this: Humans generally do not choose their political affiliations rationally, by determining what their opinions are and then choosing a party that supports them. Instead, we are far more likely to do the opposite -- choosing a party based on childhood preoccupations or tribal instincts, and then choosing our opinions based on those around us. However, despite all this, we almost always believe that our opinions are chosen rationally, because we have come up with rationales which support them.

This is not to argue that we are completely irrational beings. After all, we may change our affiliations, often through process of reason. Rather, it is to argue that first, rationality is not core to our being; it is more like a tool that we have access to, and can use when properly motivated. Second, it is to argue that we may believe we are acting rationally even when we are not.

This belief is a core component of what currently passes as my political philosophy. And I try, as much as I can, to apply this belief to everything. Sometimes when I state it, people attack me as elitist - suggesting that I believe that "the rubes" are irrational and make poor political decisions. But actually, the evidence suggests that the higher your education level, the more likely you are to be decisively partisan one way or the other. Lots of people know this, including lots of bloggers...yet very few actually bother to apply it to themselves.

Let's give it a shot: I'm a well-educated person...and if I'm really honest about it, I have to admit that my political stances have been pretty irrational. For instance: I have a long, grudging tolerance for the Democratic Party - and an equally long, half-tempered dislike for the Republican Party. The reasons seem pretty simple to me: my parents were both loyal Democrats, as were most of the families around us; I grew up in New York City, about as blue an area as you can find; I was not a rebellious child, and so accepted the belief system that I inherited; I tend to root for underdogs, and for most of my life the Dems have held the weaker hand.

That last one is pretty important, actually, because by late high schoolI realized that my Democratic affiliation was irrational, and instead decided to be anti-system. I couldn't vote in the '92 election, but if I could I would have voted for Perot. By '96 I started identifying as a radical and refused to vote entirely; in 2000 I would have voted for Nader, but having been radicalized, forgot my ID at home and was denied access to the polls.

Looking back, I don't doubt that all of these decisions were irrational too. At each step, I was deeply influenced by the thoughts of friends and loved ones. Moreover, my constant desire to support the underdog led me from the Democrats, to the radicals, to a brief flirtation with Libertarianism -- and today, to "moderate liberalism," "centrism," and "radical middlism". With the significant exception of The New York Yankees - who I have also drifted from - I have never supported a big-time winner.

Rooting for the underdog is a common trait, and a beautiful one to my mind. It indicates a desire to live in a just world. Unfortunately, it has never been demonstrated to be the crux of a rationalist belief system.


I've offered up a fair amount of personal information in this post, but it's not just about me. Without trying to sound too clichéd, it's about us.

It's amazing to me sometimes how easy it was for me to make the transition from being a WTO-protesting, Green-voting, hippie-clad, self-proclaimed "anarchist" to being a member of the "sensible middle." It happened in the space of a few short years, with no change in any of my closest relationships, no change really in my core beliefs about the world. The main thing that changed was probably my mode of dress. I think I've become more open-minded about some things, but those things tend to be Means rather than Ends, so to speak. I still want to live in a world that is more just and fair, where human happiness is more abundant than it currently is. I've simply accepted that I haven't yet imagined all the ways to get there, and that I may have something to learn about it from those with whom I'm used to disagreeing.

But I think that transition was easy for me for a pretty simple reason: it's an easy transition to make, period. Both "radicals" and "sensible centrists" are basically consigned to being political outsiders. The insiders, these days and all days, are political partisans, party people. If you like to root for underdogs, you will eventually find yourself outside all parties, looking in.

I think my story will probably be familiar to most readers and writers on this blog, and of most self-styled centrist blogs. And if this is indeed true, I must leave you with a warning: If the thinking that led me here was not necessarily rational, can you say otherwise for yourself?

Centrists, moderates, and the like often pride themselves above all on rationality. As Alan writes:

We created The Yellow Line as an attempt to battle that trend. I'm not claiming a purity of vision. All I'm claiming is that Joe and I (and those who've joined us) have made an honest attempt to keep truths as truths and our opinions as opinions and we've tried not to mingle or purposefully confuse the two. We haven't always succeeded, but we've always made the effort.

I don't intend to pick on Alan - as I said, I mostly agree with him on this topic, and it sounds like it was both personally and politically sensible for him to forge a new path. I also believe that this focus on rationality and reason from moderate bloggers is an essential part of their voice, their sense. However, I also believe that there is nothing unique about this. Democrats also believe that they are rational, as do Republicans, libertarians, radicals, anarchists, communists, religious fundamentalists, racists, and ideologues of all stripes. Every group believes that it has the truth, and every group believes that its truth is the highest one. That's even true for those of us who believe that the truth may be found in different places.

Which is to say as well - if you want to create change in the world, don't look at rationality as the way to get you there. Up to a point, a shared sense of what is rational and true is essential for community-building. If you want to get some people together, you have to start by figuring out what you have in common. Reason is a fine basis for this; in many ways, it's the only such basis that has ever existed. All of our meetings are meetings of the mind.

However - and this is the "point" I've been working towards - we cannot live by reason alone. Moderates, centrists, radical middlists -- do you realize that the organizational problems that plague you are the very same ones that plague Naderites and Greens, Libertarians and Socialists? At some point, it's no longer about reason, it's no longer about moderation, it's no longer about finding common ground. At that point, it's about two things: the often grinding work of building or transforming institutions, and fighting to win.

Like all other outcast groups, moderates need to learn to fight to win. The middle can't just be radical; it also needs to be partisan! And given the inherent nature of "middle" blogs - reasonable, open-minded, peaceable - that is going to be the hardest job of all. At this point, blogging as a political tool is only going to be useful to moderates if it can contribute as a partisan device. Moderates cannot win unless we form a common identity, even if it is somehow inclusive of membership in major and minor parties - and then fight to win.

That doesn't necessarily mean a third-party run -- although I'd certainly enjoy that. It may need to be more of an inside job. But more than anything, it needs to be a movement. People don't always get persuaded through reason. Sometimes they need to be swept up by momentum. That in turn means that all of our tactics and approaches need not be rational - and for that matter, need not even be nice. Democrats nowadays often speak of trying to learn from Republican tactics. Moderates in turn shudder or snort and look away. Maybe, just maybe, we should try studying what other groups are doing, and using those techniques we can stand to use?

Or maybe - there is no "we" at all? Just how much are we willing to turn away from our partisan instincts and backgrounds.


I recently read the books Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler. Like many science-fiction writers, Butler's as much of a thinker as a storyteller, if not more so. The two books tell the story of Lauren Olamina, a young woman living in a near-future, very believably dystopian America. How believable, you ask? Let's just say that Butler's books very ably predict the recent, unnerving descent into chaos in New Orleans -- and the latter of the two books was written in 1998.

Olamina's response to the growing chaos and violence around her is very peculiar: she decides to start a religion, called Earthseed, whose god is Change, and whose goal is for people to leave Earth and populate other planets. This at a time when the space program has fallen into complete disarray, and is mocked by nearly everyone. Her religion begins as kind of a cult, attracting a few followers here and there, who together form a fragile community. I won't give away the ending of the novels, but suffice to say that what is interesting about Earthseed is that it is a semi-rational ideology that ends up being a surprisingly rational response to the real circumstances in the books.

Butler identifies as an atheist, yet she is remarkably open-minded about religion, to the point of writing a series of novels that ask the question of how a religion can be useful even if it is not rational or even true. Her works suggests that sometimes one can serve the greater good by telling a little fiction now and then.

I would like the readers of this blog to think about this. It should not be too controversial to point out that "centrism" or "radical middleism" is to politics as atheism or at least agnosticism is to religion. Many of us moderates often pride ourselves on our attachment to making politics rational; we also want politics to serve the greater good. What if serving the greater good requires bending the truth, discarding rationality for utility?

Like most moderates, I have no easy answers. I leave my questions for your consideration.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Being Black Does Not Equal Being Poor

Crossposted at the Moderate Republican:

As we all saw the black faces trapped in New Orleans, I started to hear talk about race in America.

And that's when I started feeling funny.

There is talk again about the topic of race in America and how we need to do more to help African Americans. What's interesting about this talk is that it is interwoven with a talk on poverty in America. Witness this column by Washington Post writer, David Broder. Broder seems to mix the issues together. I have a problem with this. For one thing, yes, race is still an issue in America (witness the Rodney King verdict and subsequent LA riots), but let's face it, the America of 2005 is not the America of 1955. I can eat in a restaurant and sleep in a hotel and very few would bat an eye. That wasn't the case with my Dad fifty years ago. He moved to Michigan from his native Louisiana in the early 50s. When he went to visit his Mom back home, he had to sleep in the car and eat meals packed for him because he couldn't sleep in a hotel or get a good meal at a diner.

What also bothers me is that most often when we talk about blacks and whites, blacks are always portrayed as poor and whites are all well to do. This is malarkey. There are blacks who are firmly in the middle class and whites who are poor. I have relatives who make six-figure salaries and I've met white people who are very poor. It's a little frustrating to when people see blacks and white as monolithic groups and not diverse communities.

I think the civil rights revolution of the 60s did a lot to remove the racial barriers that kept Black Americans from being full members of society. It helped lift a fair number of blacks out of poverty and into the middle class. But there were a lot of blacks that lacked the basic resources and remained mired in poverty. Those were the faces we saw in the Big Easy. Was race involved? Maybe. But it seems the bigger issue here is that there is a little opportunity for these people to get out of poverty and better themselves, their families and their communities.

I tend to believe all the talk about race tends to sidline poverty. There will be calls for more conversation and some blacks will talk about how hard it is to be black in America. But that talk tends to focus on middle class blacks and not about how to help the poor.

Let's also not forget that there are huge numbers of poor people who are whites as well. For some reason, they tend to be forgotten.

It's time for America to have a conversation, NOT on race, but on poverty. No one wants to talk about this. Liberals don't want to talk about poverty because it doesn't fall into their view of indentity politics. Conservatives don't want to talk about it because it means questioning their worldview that there is a class system in American society.

We need a government that would develop programs to give people a hand up. Affirmative Action should not be soley racial based (it only helps the black middle and upper classes) but based on economics,to help those who are economically behind as well.

We need to ask why we ignore the poor or condemn them. We need to ask what makes people poor. And we might even have to ask the poor to stop doing behavoir that could keep them mired in poverty.

Booker Rising quotes Vanderbuilt professor Carol Swain on how to solve this issue:

“The best strategy for racial and ethnic minorities to adopt, therefore, is one that minimizes identity politics and instead focuses on the attainment of policies and programs that will address common needs. Fortunately, many of the problems affecting poor minorities are common among poor whites as well. A political strategy that deracializes issues is more likely to succeed than one framed around race. Surveys have shown that a large percentage of Americans support job creation, universal health care, education reform that expands parental choice, a minimum-wage increase, and immigration reform. On some of these issues the political parties are not responsive to the will of the people. It should be encouraging to minorities that the majority of white Americans, while opposing racial preferences, support outreach, nondiscrimination, and equal opportunity. We are in trouble, though, unless Americans move away from narrowly defined identity politics. Strategies that ensure more support for race-neutral policy agendas should be preferred over those geared toward enhancing the perceived needs of any single racial or ethnic group. Indeed, beyond a certain point, a focus on narrowly defined group interests can become counterproductive. When leaders are responsive to the needs of the people, the race of the legislator becomes less important.”

So, let's talk about poverty and class. Not to blame, but to find solutions. I don't have time to rehash and argument that was mostly (but not totally) settled 40 years ago. I'm ready for the discussion. Are you?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Watching the Fat-Fight

{Cross-posted at Charging RINO}

While I worry about the ultimate result of the intra-party sparring now occurring within the GOP over how to pay the Katrina bills (because I'm afraid they'll push for some silly nonsense plan that cuts valuable social programs while still pushing up the deficit with more tax cuts), I think it's well past time that the party actually engaged in this debate.

As the Post and Times both report this morning, Republicans in Congress have begun, for really the first time, to question the White House on fiscal issues (and vice versa). There are those who want to use the Gulf Coast reconstruction as a shield to make sharp cuts in domestic programs across the board. There are a few suggesting that it may be time to consider raising taxes. And as the Post notes, "many in the middle want to freeze Bush tax cuts that have yet to take effect" as well as fish out any spending cuts that can be made without cutting vital services and important programs.

I welcome this debate. I think it's healthy for the party to have, and I'm glad that legislators might actually start looking at the numbers and realizing that the current trend (spend but don't tax) is unhealthy for the long-term fiscal stability of the country. Congress should consider all the proposals being offered with due seriousness, including (even particularly including) those which call for halting the implementation of further tax cuts (no that is not raising taxes) and excising the pork from the existing budget.

Those who want to examine the budgetary impact of the Katrina costs, though, remain a small fraction of the Senate and House GOP caucuses, as Senator Judd Gregg told the Times. There are plenty, apparently including the leadership of both houses, who are content to just push ahead with more spending, more tax cuts, and more deficit growth as far as the eye can see. These Happy Mariners don't mind watching the ship of state sail off into the sunset of Fiscal Oblivion, but for those us of out here who do have concerns reaching past the end of our noses (or November 2006, as the case may be), that's no longer an option.

Let's have the debate. Let's ask the questions, and let's demand the answers. It's not too mush to ask for.

Monday, September 19, 2005

The State of Conservativism

Cross-posted from the Moderate Republican:

Andrew Sullivan links to some good posts today about what conservatism really is and how the Bush administration has abandoned those tenets.

Jack Balkin notes how cold and heartless conservatism has become in that it has to add the qualifier "Compassionate" before the word conservative. He quotes F.A. Heyek, which has been considered one of the fathers of conservatism. Many have seen him as anti-government, but Balkin quotes the Austrian who wrote The Road to Serfdom tended to see a role for government in free societies:

[T]here can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody...

Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance...the case for the state's helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong....

To the same category belongs also the increase of security through the state's rendering assistance to the victims of such "acts of God" as earthquakes and floods. Wherever communal action can mitigate disasters against which the individual can neither attempt to guard himself nor make provision for the consequences, such communal action should undoubtedly be taken.

I think some who call themselves conservatives today would wonder if this really was Hayek talking. But as someone who considers himself progressively conservative, it does. One doesn't have to be a socialist to support some minimal standards to ensure people have proper housing, medical care and food. To not care about whether people have these doesn't make someone a conservative in my book, but a heartless...well, this is a family blog, so I will just say a heartless person.

For some reason, conservatives have started to believe the small government means a government that buys into some sort of economic darwinism; continually cutting taxes for the well off, cutting services for the less fortunate and piling up debt for the next generation. People like Grover Norquist talks about some kind of anti-government utopia, but to me it seems more like something out of
Lord of the Flies.

Republicans doesn't have to develop large government programs as Democrats have (save President Clinton) to tackle poverty. But we do need to find ways to bring economic freedom to the poor. The poor can't simply do it on themselves when they are faced with poor education and crime.

My liberal friends talk about social justice and for some conservatives, it brings up this image of the bloated welfare states found in Europe. But for me, social justice means setting things right for the poor; giving them a chance to get out of poverty. It comes from the Bible where we are reminded to care for those less fortunate. Conservatives don't have to become liberals in order to deal with these issues, but they have to have a heart about this.

There needs to be a wholesale intellectual revolution within conservatism. It starts by doing this: Republicans need to start reading your Bibles, beyond the few scattered verese that talk about homosexuality. The Bible is filled with verses about caring for the poor, so it seems that God is a bit more concerned with people being well-fed, than with two guys holding hands.

If the father of conservatism can see the importance of helping the poor, maybe other conservatives need to take notice.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

And Yet, There Is Hope

[Cross-posted on AmbivaBlog]

You know what? The conservative blogs are right: not all the news from Iraq (and Afghanistan) is bad, by a long shot. And since perception leads as well as follows reality, we all have a sacred responsibility to the long-suffering yet high-spirited people of Iraq (and Afghanistan) to add to their measure of hope by proclaiming the good news. Read it, because your consciousness is one of the places where the balance is teetering between hope and hopelessness. You'll never know whether your thought is the atom that could tip the scale.

This post at Gateway Pundit tells of fed-up Iraqi civilians making a courageous citizen's arrest of terrorists. (Thanks: Karen Bathalon.) The post also quotes Colonel Robert Brown, Commander of The 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, Multinational Force-Northwest -- a Stryker brigade in Mosul -- from this Department of Defense Operational Update Briefing:

Prior to the elections last January, we faced a very well-trained foreign fighter and some very intense battles. And what we've seen is a population that was on the fence at that time, to post-election, a population that has absolutely understood that their government, their Iraqi security forces support them, and the terrorists offer no hope for the future.

One of the great pieces of information we got recently is 80 percent of the al Qaeda network in the north has been devastated. And those are not our figures, those came from the last six leaders in Mosul, al Qaeda leaders that we captured; they informed us of that. We also had a letter that was captured from Abu Zaid (sp) going to Zarqawi. We recently killed Zaid (sp) and we had that letter, and it also talked about the desperate situation for the al Qaeda and the insurgents in Mosul and in the north. And then also, sources we have inside the al Qaeda network up here have also informed us of that.

So we're very proud. We have a situation where the Iraq army is being rebuilt. The Iraqi police that ran away in November are standing and fighting. In fact, they recently found one of the largest caches certainly in the north, and maybe all of Iraq. And they're doing a very good job.

And then we have the population, I think is the most significant change I've seen over the last 11 months, from a population clearly on the fence, not sure -- they want freedom, but they weren't really sure what freedom was, and they were clearly intimidated, to a population that clearly understands they want freedom; they are absolutely sick and tired of the terrorists, the brutal acts against innocent civilians, and they want a brighter future for their children. And we've got a lot of statistics to back that up. Like when we first got here in October, there was -- no hotline existed. We opened a hotline; we got about 40 calls a month prior to January. The last six months, we're up to 400 calls a month. Every day the citizens are stopping us on the street telling us where a potential suspicious individual is who may be a terrorist, and telling us where they tried to plant IEDs and those type of devices. So the population is clearly very confident.

Also, I'm out -- I was out every day over the last 11 months on the ground, and great news about elections up here. You know, we went from last January we weren't sure if we could even have elections. Right now, 80 percent of the folks on the street in Mosul and Nineveh province in the north here say that they will vote. And very interesting -- these are -- many of the folks I talked to are Sunnis who are very upset that they were lied to last election, told not to vote, and they were very excited to vote this election. And I think the biggest challenge is going to be getting enough ballots to the polling sites because so many people want to vote . . .

To Centerfield's surprise, The Boston Globe has also published an op-ed eyewitness account of good things happening in Iraq, by Brian Golden, a major in the US Army Reserve in Iraq and a commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Energy:

On the night of the draft [Constitution]'s approval, it was interesting that the Iraqi Army generals who work near my office watched local television coverage of spontaneous celebrations throughout Iraq. . . .

January's election turnout was astounding; it will certainly be surpassed this fall. A recent poll in the Arabic newspaper Al Hayat reports that 88 percent of Iraqis plan to vote in the October referendum. The Kurds and Shi'ites, comprising 80 percent of the population, embrace the draft constitution. Even disgruntled Sunni Arab leaders are redoubling their efforts to register voters. Many Sunnis will vote in opposition, but opposition in a democracy isn't a bad thing; it's a victory.

And what does this mean for the insurgency? It's a disaster. The insurgency is despised because Iraqi civilians suffer most at their hands. Recently, even the spiritual leader of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist leader, demanded that attacks on civilians cease.

When you read this, it may dawn on you that the near-assumption (of which I've been guilty myself) that Iraqi Arabs don't really want or can't handle democracy, that they're doomed to either a civil war or a Shia theocracy, is nothing but bigotry based on ignorance. Golden provides some corrective information:

Can constitutional democracy work here? Bernard Lewis, a premier historian of the Middle East, identifies the West as originator of harsh authoritarianism here, from Napoleon's dictatorship in Egypt in the 19th century, to the arrival of European-style fascism in the 20th century. Lewis insists that prior to European approaches the region produced far less menacing leaders. Lewis sees hope in history because these earlier leaders -- while not democrats -- governed through consultation and consensus among the major stakeholders in society. Looking at the political posters throughout Baghdad left over from the January election, I realize there may be a historical and cultural foundation that accepts democracy. . . .

Capable people comprise the constructive forces in Iraq. While Saddam Hussein's policies devastated education in the 1990s, older Iraqis grew up in one of the most literate countries in the Middle East. They can produce goods and services and run businesses.

Then there's the awesome voter turnout in Afghanistan today. We should only vote in such numbers, and take such joy in it -- and we don't have Taliban mortars pointed at us:

"We're building our country, we're making our parliament," said Mohammed Twahir, 36, after voting in the southern city of Kandahar, once a bastion of support for the Taliban.

"Before there was no democracy, now we have democracy. Democracy means freedom."

That enthusiasm was echoed by many other voters.

"I'm so happy, I couldn't sleep last night and was watching the clock to come out to vote," said Qari Salahuddin, 21, in the eastern city of Jalalabad soon after voting began.

Who's inspiring whom here? Really. Read the stories. Time is against the insurgents. Give these people your heart.

One-Two Punch

[Cross-posted to AmbivaBlog]

Listening to "Meet the Press" this morning -- Southern Republicans turning against tax cuts, everyone acknowledging our almost Biblical obligation to the poor -- it strikes me that the last four years for America have been bracketed by a one-two punch. Bin Laden's blow spun us to the right, now Katrina's roundhouse is snapping our heads to the left. In both cases, it was a correction we needed, though a terrible way to get it.

Are we going straight ahead yet?

Friday, September 16, 2005

The Hottest New Carnival: GOD or NOT

[Cross-posted on AmbivaBlog]

What could be hotter? GOD or NOT will be a duel and dialogue of posts on specific topics between atheists and believers (monthly at first, more often as it heats up), with hosts from alternating camps. Fierce debate will be encouraged; there will be zero tolerance for vilification and abuse.

Chris Hallquist, of The Uncredible Hallq, alerted me to this, saying, "Not sure where a self-described spiritual nomad would fit in if you decide to participate."

Here's what I wrote back to him:
COOL!!!! Great idea.

I guess where I would fit in is on the "or"! :)

To get these folks talking to each other, or at least beside each other, civilly (comments should be enabled after the posts!) is a brilliant idea. They may agree to disagree, or they may find out they have more in common than they knew because it was being obscured by issues of language, or they may have marvelous fights in a demarcated ring, or they may generate a third way, but it is definitely a place (as between New Orleans' poor and the rest of the world) where there needs to be more actual contact and de-demonization.
The first GOD or NOT carnival will be at Skeptic Rant, whose blog epigraph is "A man without GOD is like a fish without a bicycle," and the first topic is Original Sin. (An inspired mismatch right there!) Read the rules here. I am very much for this dialogue (in a way, it's been going on in my own comments section for quite a while, between Karen and Sleipner and Michael and all), and I hope to help the carnival founders find what they need most right now -- more believers volunteering to host. My beloved commenter Karen Bathalon doesn't have a blog (she has a dairy farm and four kids, for Chrissake), but as a conservative pro-life Catholic struggling to stay open to people she adamantly disagrees with, she exemplifies the kind of courage I hope believing bloggers will show in charging into this fray.

No Excuse

Crossposted from the Moderate Republican:

In the days before Hurricane Katrina hit land, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, FEMA Director Michael Brown and other top Homeland Security officials received e-mails on their blackberries warning that Katrina posed a dire threat to New Orleans and other areas. Yet one FEMA official tells NPR little was done.

Leo Bosner, an emergency management specialist at FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C., is in charge of the unit that alerts officials of impending crises and manages the response. As early as Friday, Aug. 26, Bosner knew that Katrina could turn into a major emergency.

In daily e-mails -- known as National Situation Updates -- sent to Chertoff, Brown and others in the days before Katrina made landfall in the Gulf Coast, Bosner warned of its growing strength -- and of the particular danger the hurricane posed to New Orleans, much of which lies below sea level.

But Bosner says FEMA failed to organize the massive mobilization of National Guard troops and evacuation buses needed for a quick and effective relief response when Katrina struck. He says he and his colleagues at FEMA's D.C. headquarters were shocked by the lack of response.

"We could see all this going downhill," Bosner said, "but there was nothing we could do."

Listen to this National Public Radio story here.

It is really breathtaking to see how incompetent the federal response was.

Live, From New Orleans

Cross-posted from the Moderate Republican:

I watched President Bush's speech from New Orleans last night. On the whole, I think it was a good speech, but I also think it was about a week too late. I think it would have made more sense to have made this speech the Thursday after the Hurricane hit than two weeks later.

Be that as it may, he had some good ideas of trying to help the Gulf Region. I liked that he wanted to get locals involved in the efforts to rebuild. I liked that he wants to do a full scale review of emergency preparedness plans, though you'd think that would have been done after 9/11.

I thought this passage about poverty and race was interesting:

Within the Gulf region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well.

That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.

So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality.

When the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses, along those streets.

When the houses are rebuilt, more families should own, not rent, those houses.

When the regional economy revives, local people should be prepared for the jobs being created.

Okay, so he sees poverty as a problem. What's his solution? The President continues:

I believe we should start with three initiatives that the Congress should pass.

Tonight, I propose the creation of a Gulf opportunity zone, encompassing the region of the disaster in Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama.

BUSH: Within this zone, we should provide immediate incentives for job-creating investment; tax relief for small businesses; incentives to companies that create jobs; and loans and loan guarantees for small businesses, including minority-owned enterprises, to get them up and running again.

It is entrepreneurship that creates jobs and opportunity. It is entrepreneurship that helps break the cycle of poverty. And we will take the side of entrepreneurs as they lead the economic revival of the Gulf region.

I propose the creation of worker recovery accounts to help those evacuees who need extra help finding work. Under this plan, the federal government would provide accounts of up to $5,000, which these evacuees could draw upon for job training and education to help them get a good job and for child-care expenses during their job search.

And to help lower-income citizens in the hurricane region build new and better lives, I also propose that Congress pass an Urban Homesteading Act.

BUSH: Under this approach, we will identify property in the region owned by the federal government and provide building sites to low-income citizens free of charge, through a lottery. In return, they would pledge to build on the lot, with either a mortgage or help from a charitable organization like Habitat for Humanity.

Homeownership is one of the great strengths of any community, and it must be a central part of our vision for the revival of this region.

Some of the ideas are good. The Gulf Opportunity Zone is kind of an enterprise zone writ large and might spur some economic growth. I'm a little wary of the job training program since there has been some concern that these programs do very little to help people find jobs. The Urban Homesteading idea sounds good, but my concern is how a poor person could get a mortgage or if the influx of people wanting homes would swamp non profit housing agencies like Habitat for Humanity. On the whole, they are all good starting ideas, that need to be tweaked.

The President also noted that future large scale disasters might involve the military, something unheard of in America:

It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces, the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice.

These were all good promises. What remains to be seen and what is always the problem with the President is follow-through. From 9/11 to Iraq, the President has always had a great ideas, but his implementation has always been at issue. For the president to make this work and to also salvage his approval ratings, he needs to take charge and get on top of this. He royally screwed up in the first important hours after the Katrina hit, but he has a chance to repair that mistake if he can crack a few heads and spearhead the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast. If not, the GOP can expect the Chicago Effect to hurt the party in 2006 and 2008.

The Perfect Storm

[Cross-posted on AmbivaBlog]

Michael Reynolds at The Mighty Middle cleverly nails the three competing story lines about the Bush administration, in its conduct of both Hurricane Katrina relief and the Iraq war, that are advanced by the right, left, and center:

1) (Right) Bush & Co. can do no wrong. They're principled, stand-up, can-do guys in a world of traitorous wusses.

2) (Left) Bush & Co. can do no right. They're evil, racist, imperialist, conniving oil-industry puppets.

3) (Center) Bush & Co. can't do. After a promising start in Afghanistan, whatever good ideas and intentions they've had, they've botched out of sheer incompetence.

The tactic of #1 is to accuse anyone who dares to mention #3 of simply being #2. But now, Reynolds suggests, by "tak[ing] responsibility" for the inadequate Federal response to Katrina, as he really had no choice but to do, President Bush himself has opened the door a crack to #3 -- by extension also undermining his administration's already quavery bravado on Iraq.

This story from Yahoo! News (now removed) was quoted at Free Republic:

Islamic extremists rejoiced in America's misfortune, giving the storm a military rank and declaring in Internet chatter that "Private" Katrina had joined the global jihad, or holy war. With "God's help," they declared, oil prices would hit $100 a barrel this year.

AND NOW, THE ANTIDOTE: Purple Stater at Centerfeud quotes and basically seconds a Christopher Hitchens spine-stiffener about how -- despite mistakes made -- it's absolutely crucial to stay and win in Iraq, and to keep sight of the gains already made. (H/T: CommonSenseDesk.)

UPDATE: As I think about it, I somewhat disagree with Michael. I think being able to admit mistakes is actually a sign of strength, and a sine qua non for being able to learn from them. There is a direct relationship between #1 and #3, in that an individual or an administration that cannot acknowledge its fallibility cannot make the necessary and swift course corrections that, in a world of universal fallibility, constitute competence. So it is a promising sign that Bush is acknowledging and resolving to correct mistakes made in the nation's disaster preparedness and response. May he, indeed, do the same on Iraq.


From the Washington Post account of Bush's speech last night, scripted by his first-term speechwriter Michael J. Gerson:

Vickie Johnston, 37, a hairdresser, sneaked into the city Thursday only to learn she had lost everything -- her clothes, furniture, and irreplaceables such as correspondence and photos. She voted for Bush twice but feels betrayed by all government. "They knew New Orleans was a fishbowl. They knew," she said. "Now it's a toilet bowl. How can they do this to us? Why did they let the water get so high?"

In his speech hours later, Bush expressed understanding of such sentiments, acknowledging that the response "at every level of government was not well coordinated and was overwhelmed in the first few days." The lesson he saw was the need for "greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces, the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice."

As he did on Tuesday, Bush said he accepts accountability: "Four years after the frightening experience of September 11th, Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency. When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I as president am responsible for the problem, and for the solution."

Many will say that this is a pledge at least as much intended to rebuild Bush's reputation as the Gulf Coast (the two will of course be inseparable), and will comment again on his administration's un-Republican-like penchant for buying support by pledging and spending squadrillions (the differences from Democrats being that they borrow it from China and our children instead of raising our taxe -- bad -- and earmark it for enterprise incentives more than handouts and for more faith- and less Fed-based aid -- good). I too have expressed annoyance at the political motivation apparently driving every carefully calculated move this Administration makes. However, in this case I suspect they're doing the right thing partially wrong for a mixture of the wrong and right reasons. Until the Millennium comes (hey, wait a minute, the Millennium already came and went!), that's the best we can do.

Monday, September 12, 2005

The End of the Line

Regular readers have doubtlessly noticed that my frequency of posts has greatly decreased. This has partly been due to my family’s cross-country move. But it’s mainly been due to what you could call blog-out. Yep, I’m fried.

Political blogging is a consuming hobby. Unlike collecting stamps or gardening or writing poetry, there is an unceasing immediacy to blogging. To keep the reader traffic flowing, to keep getting quoted on the cable news channels, to keep getting linked by bigger blogs, you gotta keep writing. Slow down and you lose readers. And readers are the point for most of us. Without readers, you might as well be writing in your diary.

At first, the pace was exhilarating. But then it became burdensome. It cuts into my job during the day which means my job cuts into my time with my family in the evening. And that’s just the effect it has on the allocation of my time. Blogging also creeps unwanted into my mind, alters my perceptions of the world. Every event becomes a source for commentary. Every news story a debate just waiting for bloggers to draw the lines.

Now, I love good debate. That’s why I changed the format of this blog to focus more on ideas and less on news. But, you know, not everything in life is a debate. Not every world event is a chance to pick sides. Some things just are. And sometimes reactions just need to be left raw. To debate can be to eviscerate.

And to say blogging is a form of debate is giving most who practice in the medium too much credit. There are extremely good blogs out there, but most blogs are just noise. Most bloggers aren’t citizen journalists or even citizen essayists. They are citizen spin doctors. They aren’t debating ideas. They’re spinning the truth. They’re wasting their intelligence and time trying to force every event, every moment into their pre-conceived notion of the world. They don’t want to add to the national debate. They want to keep debate from ever happening.

Sometimes I think too many people in this country have stopped trying to change the world and are now just trying to redefine its truths.

We created The Yellow Line as an attempt to battle that trend. I’m not claiming a purity of vision. All I’m claiming is that Joe and I (and those who’ve joined us) have made an honest attempt to keep truths as truths and our opinions as opinions—and we’ve tried not to mingle or purposefully confuse the two. We haven’t always succeeded, but we’ve always made the effort.

Yet I have come to wonder if being a tiny voice for reason in the blogoshpere din is worth the tremendous personal effort that goes into this blog. I wonder what real effect I can actually have here and what price I’d have to pay to achieve it. I wonder if blogging is the best way for me to make a difference. And I wonder if I can achieve much more good with my time by focusing on other paths.

So, after a little less than six months of blogging, I am retiring. The Yellow Line will stay alive should all the contributors who post here want to continue to use this forum. But I’m done with blogging for now.

I want to thank all those who’ve read my words and all those who have taken the time to comment intelligently on them. My frustrations with the form of blogging are only a small reason why I’ve made this decision. The primary reason is my want and need to spend my time differently. And while I am highly critical of many bloggers, I want to make it clear that I have nothing but respect for the writers who contribute to The Yellow Line—they are what’s right with the form.

Unfortunately, I no longer have the energy or will to join them.

I will leave with this last comment: Our political system is in serious trouble. The vast majority of leaders produced by our parties are partisan hacks more interested in political power than in governing wisely or even well. We need change. And the people, I’m convinced, want that change. Not just minor adjustments, but fundamental change.

I think the time for talk is quickly passing. It’s now time to act. I’m not sure what that means for me, but I know it will include me in some form or fashion. I may be leaving this blog, but I’m not giving up on the fight.

I’ll see y’all around.

Sunday, September 11, 2005


Over at The New York Times Magazine, Mark Danner presents a frightening analysis of the war on terror thus far.

Let me admit frankly that despite my leftism, when it comes to our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, I am something of an agnostic. Mideast politics has always perplexed and bothered me; I have never been quick to take a stand on much of anything going on over there. And although I am a reflexive pacifist, I've generally been quiet about the decision to send our soldiers to Iraq. I felt going into it -- to invoke Leonard Cohen for a moment -- that there already was a war; the damage done by our sanctions combined with the cruelties of the Baathists had been immense. An invasion, I reasoned, could hardly be worse.

I've also been influenced somewhat in recent years by the writings of pro-war centrists and lefties like Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Friedman, Dan Savage, and Paul Berman, as well as the very capable bloggers Michael Totten and Dean Esmay. Their narratives tell a different story of the Bush Administration. For all its flaws, they see it as conspicuously liberal in taking on the challenge of democratizing the Middle East, a region that for too long has been under the heel of autocrats, theocrats, oligarchs, and warlords. As someone strongly drawn to feminist and pro-labor thinking, I've been particularly moved by their and others' arguments that the US show solidarity with unions and women's rights groups in the region, most of whom are very much pro-intervention.

The pro-war liberals have something else going for them, too: strength of story. Like the neoconservatives, the story they're telling is a stirring one -- profound, challenging, even unsettling at times. Especially for a pseudo-intellectual news junkie like myself, their interpretation of current events can be compelling; certainly more so than most of the antiwar stories going around. Despite my many misgivings about the Iraq invasion, I've avoided actually protesting it because I've found the antiwar story -- one which frequently neglects to acknowledge just how bad the Hussein regime really was -- to be dangerously shallow. There are exceptions of course -- this old Washington Monthly article by Josh Marshall is one of them. But for the most part, while I've been a fellow-traveller with peacemongers before, lately I've been sitting it out.

Anyway, enter Mark Danner to cast a shadow upon my doubt. His article isn't exactly anti-war, although I have no doubt that it will be seized by that movement, and castigated by the prowar liberals and neocons. What it does offer, however, is offer the narrative that the anti-war crowd has long been missing. It describes, in chilling terms, how an invasion could be worse, has already made things worse - at least, for us. This is Cindy Sheehan for the insider set. I expect sparks to fly.

Read it, and tell me what you think. I'm not convinced, either way. If anything, I remain out of my depth on this issue.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Popular Opinion is Right This Time

There's something a little out-of-place with pointing fingers before a tragedy has even fully passed. But in the wake of Katrina, popular opinion seems to be that the federal government was too slow in its response. And where there is popular opinion, you can guarantee that there will be those who believe they are superior to it.

Power Line has done its usual frantic spin to protect Republican interests. As have other right-wing bloggers and commentators intent on convincing readers that the Katrina failure was completely a local one and that the federal government performed admirably. These opinions are to be expected from partisan hacks. But they aren't alone. Dean Esmay of Dean's World has also joined the voices claiming "there was no problem with the federal response."

I respect Dean. He's a smart man with truly original opinions. But when he gets it wrong, he gets it really, really wrong. His weakness is a rampant distrust of popular opinion. If everyone is saying one thing, Dean feels compelled to say the other. Sometimes that's the right response. But this time, it's dead wrong.

Here's the thing: it’s right to blame the New Orleans city government. They failed miserably to protect and then rescue their city. But to absolve (or even mostly absolve) the federal government is wrong. By last Tuesday night, it was clear the local government was on the brink of failure. Why did it take until Friday for the federal government to respond in any meaningful way?

Don't tell me that FEMA's guidelines say it will take 72 hours to respond. Don't tell me that this was an "adequate" response within the "norm." Don't sit behind your TV or computer and turn this into an intellectual exercise about the proper delegation of power between federal and local governments. Look at what happened. Read what happened. And then ask: should this have happened in America?

The answer is no. I don't care if the response was within the established paradigms. What I care is that the severity of the disaster did not spur the federal government to break free of those paradigms. The federal government could have done better. Should have done better.

Blame the New Orleans government. They deserve it. But don't shield the feds. A government's primary responsibility is to protect its people. The execution of that duty should rely on need, not on guidelines. The need was great. The response was not.

Sometimes popular opinion is exactly right.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Meanwhile, in Other News

With some quiet backing by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the Service Employees International Union, among others, some 200 Wal-Mart employees in Florida have formed a self-help organization. Called the Wal-Mart Workers Association, the group is agitating, fairly gently, for better wages, benefits, and insurance against cut hours.

As an advocate for a reinvigorated labor movement, I think this is good news. It indicates that the private unions are listening to feedback from their members, and seeking to really grow the movement rather than pillage from each other. It also indicates that they've shifted their approach for unionizing Wal-Mart to one that is led by Wal-Mart employees themselves. As I've argued previously, such a shift is probably necessary for any advancement towards a true Ownership Society.


I'm not usually one to pick on President Bush's verbal gaffes, but this one is a jaw-dropper:

The good news is -- and it's hard for some to see it now -- that out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast, like it was before. Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott's house -- he's lost his entire house -- there's going to be a fantastic house. And I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch. (Laughter.)

What on earth was he thinking? (I mean: what on earth were his speechwriters thinking?) Andrew Sullivan:

Just think of that quote for a minute; and the laughter that followed. The poor and the black are dying, dead, drowned and desperate in New Orleans and elsewhere. But the president manages to talk about the future "fantastic" porch of a rich, powerful white man who only recently resigned his position because he regretted the failure of Strom Thurmond to hold back the tide of racial desegregation.

All I can say to that is: God save us. And I don't even believe in God.

This is How We Respond to Catastrophe?

Today President Bush said the Hurricane Katrina relief effort has not been acceptable. That’s putting it mildly. American citizens in one of our larger cities have been forced to live in squalor, surrounded by corpses, without adequate sustenance and terrorized by roving gangs. How can this be happening?

The images and stories from New Orleans are practically post-apocalyptic. And I don’t think that’s exaggerating. They are so horrible that I cannot help but wonder if we as a nation are at all prepared for catastrophe. All the time and money spent after September 11, 2001 to ready ourselves for mass disaster—and this is our response?

This was a foreseeable calamity. Everyone who knew anything about New Orleans knew that a powerful hurricane could submerge the city. Did the plan extend no further than evacuating the city before the storm? Did no one consider what to do with those who would not or (in most of the cases) could not leave?

I don’t think it’s too soon to ask these questions. Right now, while we can still see firsthand what is happening—and not happening—we need to ask these questions. If this is how we respond to a catastrophe we could predict, what on earth is our response plan in the event of an unforeseen disaster such as a massive terrorist attack? If we can't handle a flooded city, how can we handle something worse?

After this is over, after New Orleans is again a functioning city, some will doubtlessly say that the response was adequate given the circumstances. That will be wrong. I cannot believe that the response has been adequate or timely or well-planned. Hurricane Katrina has exposed our emergency preparedness as severely lacking.

I pray that God watches over those poor people still trapped in New Orleans and that all the money and aid all of us have given will get to them quickly. Now we must press forward as best we can and save those still stranded as quickly as we can. But we cannot ignore the failings of our government in preparing and responding to this disaster.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Prayers for the Gulf Coast

I have not yet written about the tragedy that was and is Hurricane Katrina, but do so now even as my words are but nothing in the face of this catastrophe. The images and the stories keep coming and the news does not get better. This is natural disaster on a scale America has not suffered in a long time. From what we know, New Orleans and elsewhere are not only submerged in increasingly diseased-filled waters, but are also in the grips of anarchic gangs of looters and thieves who are turning violent. Many police do not even have stations from which to operate.

Someone even took a shot at a rescue helicopter.

How quickly we can be thrown back. God's wrath (or indifference? or test? or what?) has all but removed civilization from a wide swath of America. Oh, we will prevail. We will turn back the waters, we will rebuild and we will return, but the shock of it all will take time to subside. There will be scars there for decades.

We will overcome. We may not know why this happened, but we know what we have to do. Come together. Show compassion. Heal one another. That's why I hope all who read this who can spare even a penny, give to the relief effort.

Here is a link to reputable charities seeking donations.

Our prayers are with the people of the Gulf Coast.

The Elephant in the Room . . . [UPDATED]

. . . that all the news anchors delicately tiptoe around -- that the camera announces so loudly into their silence -- is that almost all the looters shown in news footage loading Wal-Mart shopping carts with videogames and Nike shoes are black. And they look giddy and celebratory, like people who've won a shopping spree on a game show, as they indulge in this macabre parody of American consumerism. (One helicopter-borne observer marveled that this was a case of "you can't take it with you," since when the city is evacuated most of the loot will perforce remain behind. It almost looks as if the fantasy being fulfilled was shopping, not owning.)

I wonder what the blogs are saying about this; anchorpeople may mince words, but blogs are not known for euphemism; they're usually refreshingly blunt and opinionated. But I don't know where to look, except Booker Rising -- the wide-ranging black moderate-to-conservative site -- which has two posts, one about the, yes, racist difference between coverage of whites described as "finding" and blacks "looting" food from grocery stores, the other about the racial composition of New Orleans (two-thirds black, many of them middle class and outta there before Katrina hit). Though this post is titled "Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina," it mostly deals with issues other than looting, until the end, where Shay admonishes "Ain't helpin' the cause. Come on, my people, we are better."

First of all, I would like to state that the word "looting" does not properly apply to anyone, of whatever melanin concentration, taking food and drink from a deserted grocery store in the middle of a catastrophe. On September 11, everyone in New York rode the city buses for free. In the same way, in a disaster-stricken city, food and drink belong to whomever needs them.

Gleefully filling shopping carts at Wal-Mart is something else. One of Booker Rising's commenters expresses ambivalent leftist schadenfreude at Wal-Mart's (and Nike's) comeuppance:

I'm not too broken up about people stealing from Wal-Mart, another highly questionable capitalist organization that will have no difficulty recouping their losses through insurance. Also, I take some small satisfaction in seeing people steal Nikes, a corporation that has built its empire on the backs of the poor in sweatshops worldwide. When a pair of $150 basketball shoes only cost you $12 to manufacture and $8 to market, there's a kind of equitable symmetry in seeing poor people steal these shoes, though in practicality I realize that the retailer is the one who's really taking the hit.

What are we seeing in the flooded streets of New Orleans (and Biloxi, too)?

Well, for one thing, a kind of frustrated, pent-up consumerism bursting out in people who are constantly being teased by ads for things they can't afford. (Of course, that's also the rapist's excuse for assaulting a provocatively dressed woman.) More seriously, you're seeing people who are very alienated from any notion of the common good. Blame slavery, or blame liberalism for blaming slavery, but you're seeing people who feel that the social compact does not include them; that society at large has given them nothing, and therefore they owe it nothing.

The proximate cause of looting is the combustible mix of opportunity plus poverty. Poor people loot -- but then again, most poor people don't, and not all looters are poor. Would some poor whites do the same? Sure. (We have to assume the cameramen are not selectively filming black looters but are simply filming what's there; the majority of New Orleans' poor, as of its population, are black.) But do more poor whites identify more with authority and mainstream culture, making them law-abiding citizens who support the corporate establishment against their own economic self-interest, as progressives like Thomas Frank complain?

My guess is that the answer is ultimately more cultural than economic, although the two are hard to separate. Remember the phrase "the culture of poverty"? You might as well talk about "the poverty of culture," a disease that, it could be argued, also afflicts some high-living, double-bookkeeping CEOs, even if they do contribute lavishly to the symphony. People, white or black (or other), who are influenced by a strong religious or cultural value system will not loot, however poor (or rich and powerful) they may be, while people whose only religion or value system is greed and grievance will -- often, however well-off they may be. I'm thinking, too, of the late '60s-'70s fad for shoplifting among middle-class kids. Abbie Hoffman's Steal this Book. It was called "liberating" stuff back then.

Maybe, in the flooded Wal-Marts of New Orleans, it still is.

UPDATE: This morning the "looting" is so violently out of control -- a Chinook helicopter preparing to carry refugees to the Astrodome had to call off its operation when it was shot at -- that it's clear all we're talking about now is the culture of criminality. Gangbangers and thieves are terrorizing everybody else. That fraction of every population that is only kept in check at all by law enforcement is reveling in its absence and completing the hellish destruction Katrina began. Anyone who romanticizes lawlessness should take a good, long look.

UPDATE II: Ann Althouse has a good post on this, quoting Peggy Noonan -- who also says that taking necessities of life should not be confused with "looting" -- and with many thoughtful comments, the gist of which is that thugs now were thugs long before the hurricane. This issue has nothing to do with race, except the human race -- every group has its thugs.

[Cross-posted on AmbivaBlog]