"As long as we are not chased from our words we have nothing to fear. As long as our utterances keep their sound we have a voice. As long as our words keep their sense we have a soul." -- Edmond Jabes, from The Book of Yukel, Return to the Book

Friday, July 22, 2016

Open Letter to Steve King, R-Iowa / An Op-Ed in the Form of a Poem

(Links to follow)

Dear Congressman, I heard what you said
about lesser subgroups and Western Civilization,
how we face a return to "the Dark Ages"
if we don't defend White culture. I need
to tell you, your hood is showing. Not your hoodie,
though I can see you wearing one,
Iowa State emblazoned on the chest,
rooting on the Cyclones like a good
American. Just not like Trayvon,
or all those protesters marching
in solidarity then and now
as black bodies fall with the regularity
of a metronome. I can see
your hood. White. Pointy. Metaphorical,
but I think it fits. Trayvon was killed
in a hoodie, maybe because of it. Only
thugs wear hoodies, said Bill O'Reilly.
Zimmerman tracked the kid's hooded 
black skin across a Florida night -- a provocation, 
a death sentence. Zimmerman, Latino
on his mother's side, but imbued
with the magic privilege of white skin.
Yes, privilege. As in knowing he can buy
some Skittles and tea and walk home
undisturbed by the neighborhood watch.
In knowing he probably won't get shot,
won't bleed out on the sidewalk, knowing
he doesn't strike fear in passing strangers.
Mr. King, you offered sympathies
to the families, Martin's, Zimmerman's, but
put the blame on the kid in the hoodie, the one
dubbed thug. There was an altercation,
perhaps a rash teenage reaction. Imagine
being followed, wondering what
the middle-aged man on the cell phone
might do. Imagine being tailed
in the mall, on the street, on the roads,
state cops pulling you over for the sin
of driving. Even Newt gets it, or says he does.
Remember what you said when
Zimmerman went free? That "if
someone has you down on the ground
and they're threatening to kill you"
it's fine to "pull a gun out
of your holster" and "shoot to defend your life."
I have to ask, does that go
for Trayvon, too? For Philando Castile, for Walter
Scott, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner? Charles KinseyYou've made
your answer clear, over and over.
When a black kid dies, it's always
the black kid's fault. It's not that they
deserved it. They just didn't know their place.
Profiling, you said, "needs to be
a component of good police work."
So I'm not surprised when you distort history
to proclaim Western Civilization and white
Christians as supreme. “I’d ask you
to go back through history and figure out
where are these contributions
that have been made by these
other categories of people."
Categories. Classifications. Cataloging:
genetics, skin tone, language. You called
Mexicans dogs and, like Trump,
traffic in the language of race.
"Where did any other subgroup of people
contribute more to civilization?” you ask.
Than the pyramids in Egypt
or South America? Than algebra
or astronomy? Have you heard
of Adam's Calendar in Kenya, called
the African Stonehenge, as accurate
a timekeeper as has existed? And what
of jazz and blues, of hip hop, soul
and pop. Rock and roll may never die,
but it was birthed by Mahalia Jackson,
Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson.
But it's the West, you say, only the West
that made the world what it is, as though
the pasty white Jesus of myth came from
the snowy north and not the Levant.
“The idea of multi-culturalism," you say,
"and that every culture is equal—that’s not
objectively true." It's just political correctness,
you say, but I can see your hood. It's
on your desk posing as a Confederate flag.
In your argument that we don't understand
the history of the South. In your belief
that we have nothing to be sorry about
when it comes to slavery. Tell that
to Claude McKay, who gazed darkly into a future
built on sand and saw the nation's hate
and bitter bread eroding its might.
I know you can't see it Mr. King. I know you
long for the America that used to be,
before "demographics" sweetened
our color palette. Somewhere, Pop's cornet
is crying as you speak, as Trump
bangs the drum of hate and fear, as he
chases the White House, Pop's and his
Hot Sevens marching with the saints,
with the nigger boys of N'Awlins who knew
their place. But the rabble of Jim Crow
are seeding the firmament of the American soul,
cashing in the promissory note deposited
with the Constitution, in the proclamation
that all men are created equal. Can't you
see it, Mr. King? Can't you see it?

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

RBG speaks her mind

Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg has no use for Donald Trump. In two separate interviews (here and here), she took him to task as a dangerous demagogue, doubling down on Monday when she called him a "faker."
"He has no consistency about him. He says whatever comes into his head at the moment. He really has an ego. ... How has he gotten away with not turning over his tax returns? The press seems to be very gentle with him on that."
Powerful -- and accurate -- words, and many on the left have been cheering her on. But I'm ambivalent, as I wrote to a friend on Facebook. Here is what I said to him:
The court is supposed to stay out of electoral politics -- which is different than acting politically -- and yet Trump stands outside normality in such a way that this seems to make sense.
I pointed to this piece from Slate, which offers a good overview and attempts to explain her comments. Basically, as the Slate piece points out, Ginsburg's comments were far more strategic than the kind of conflicts we've deemed acceptable in the past (Vice President Dick Cheney and Justice Antonin Scalia going hunting on a lobbyist's dime; Justice Clarence Thomas hearing a case that had a direct impact on someone who employed his wife).

My concern is this: If we have another 2000 situation, she will be put in the position of ruling directly on whether Trump should be president. It is a slim chance -- I just don't see Trump getting above 200 or so electoral votes, let alone getting the 270 he will need to win) -- but if he does get close and there is a dispute, what happens? (Let's also be honest and admit that we know how six of the other seven of the justices would vote if this came up again.)

Ginsberg also may need to rule on the use of presidential power -- which was the central issue in the immigration case the court just ruled on, and which has come up regularly over the last two decades.

And yet, all she really did was say publicly what others have been keeping close to the vest. John Roberts' line that judges are no more than umpires calling balls and strikes has always been bullshit -- not so much a lie but a myth that we all know just ain't true. Viewed this way, perhaps this is the ripping off of the mask of false objectivity?

As I said, I'm ambivalent.

Please, go to my Facebook page and join the debate.

Send me an e-mail.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Poems in a time of crisis: After Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas

Here are three links to poems written and/or published in the wake of this week's trio of horrors. I think they capture a lot of the emotions many of us are experiencing. My own poetic response follows, as well.

From Rattle, Nicole Homer a poem of mourning.

My friend Quassan Castro offers a troubling painful reflection in his poem, "A Black Boy's Fear."

And here is my response:

His hands were empty, will stay 
empty as his body, lowered 
into the dirt, is left 
to rot. He had a gun. 
A carry permit. It was legal. 
He was black. He was 
empty handed, compliant. Dead. 
Alton Sterling's dead. Philando 
Castile's dead. Tamir Rice. 
Laquand McDonald. Sandra 
Bland. Dead. Dead. Dead. 
Bodies robbed of breath, made small, 
inert. Less than human. Less 
and more, magical 
hulking figures, perhaps, 
how we see them, as
comic-book villains, able 
to alter space with 
the mere fact of their bodies. 
Minnesota. Carolina. 
Baton Rouge. Chicago. 
In Ferguson, a dead teen, 
riots. Threat analysis, 
reasonable fear. It's as if 
Michael Brown's black body 
swelled, a golem bulked up
in rage, looking through me, 
past me, my white 
form nothing more 
than a discarded can 
to be stepped on
and kicked down the road. 
Nothing more than, 
nothing at all, not worth 
the effort, leave it
uncovered for hours 
like roadkill. I guess 
that's what he was, what 
any black kid at the cusp 
of manhood can expect, 
to be treated as parasite, 
vermin nibbling the teat 
of polite society, as
predators -- isn't that what 
Clinton called them. Not boys, 
not men. But animals 
devouring their prey. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Enough is enough: Rambling thoughts on the American sin

It is overcast this morning as I sit in my kitchen with coffee and type out these thoughts. The dogs are sleeping and I'll soon wake them and take them on a walk then go for a run, confident that my suburban life is one of relative safety. Yes, there have been some break-ins recently, but the odds are in my favor. I'm white. I'm solidly middle class. I live in a town with a well-run and ethical police force and I have the characteristics that allow me to feel secure that, when I need the police, they will come, they will treat me with respect, will listen and do their best to help.

I'm pretty damned lucky -- as most Americans are.

I say most, because that is not the case in the United States if you are black or brown, if you speak Spanish or Arabic, or live in neighborhoods that have been purposefully neglected for decades.

I say most, because not all police officers are as ethical or conscientious as the men in blue here in South Brunswick. I say most, because there are too many places in this country where safety is a rare commodity, where calling the police is as potentially dangerous as leaving the streets unpoliced.

Alton Sterling is dead, shot by Baton Rouge police. Philando Castile was killed by police in a St. Paul suburb. These killings -- executions, really -- just add to the litany of African Americans who have died in police custody. This is unacceptable, which is why American streets are now filled with protesters shouting enough is enough.

In Dallas, five police officers were killed by snipers in what is an apparent act of revenge. It is a terrible act, a cowardly act, a foolish act. Five more families are now left broken, permanently scarred. It is a reminder of the dangers police face everyday, just as the deaths of Sterling and Castile -- and Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, et al before them -- are reminders of the dangers that black Americans also face. The Dallas attack, sadly, is likely to do nothing more than provide cover for those unwilling to acknowledge the way race continues to infect our public policy, the way privilege distorts the supposed meritocracy in which we live.

We will talk about protesters fomenting violence, retreat to our camps and allow the anger to fester.
We are awash in guns in the United States but we will continue to do nothing about that. Minority neighborhoods are treated as war zones, their inhabitants viewed as combatants, and we will do nothing about it. We will do nothing to address failing schools and broken institutions, but we may find a few extra dollars for police to buy high-tech weaponry, which has been the default position for far too long.

We will talk about high-crime areas, about black-on-black crime, and we will toss around the racist canard that blacks lack responsibility. But that just blames the victims. Residents of cities like Chicago, Newark, Trenton, etc., are at the mercy of broken institutions -- of failed schools, dysfunctional governments, of militarized police. They live with concentrated poverty, in segregated neighborhoods that have seen businesses close, residents flee, and despair move in.

Michael Eric Dyson, the social critic, writes in today's New York Times that the accusations that "black folks kill each other every day without a mumbling word while we thunderously protest a few cops, usually but not always white, who shoot to death black people who you deem to be mostly 'thugs'" is "nonsense is nearly beside the point."
Black people protest, to one another, to a world that largely refuses to listen, that what goes on in black communities across this nation is horrid, as it would be in any neighborhood depleted of dollars and hope — emptied of good schools, and deprived of social and economic buffers against brutality. People usually murder where they nest; they aim their rage at easy targets.
It's about a de facto, if not legal, segregation, he says. While there are blacks and Latinos in the suburbs, overwhelming majority of minorities continue to live in primarily black or Latino neighborhoods. So, we should not be talking about black-on-black crime, but about "neighbor-to-neighbor carnage."

Again, I'm lucky. Many of us are lucky. We are far removed from the carnage, to use Dyson's word. We are not the ones who, when stopped by police, are met with an automatic suspicion based on nothing more than the color of our skin. We have been "given a pair of binoculars that see black life from a distance, never with the texture of intimacy," Dyson writes.
Those binoculars are privilege; they are status, regardless of your class. In fact the greatest privilege that exists is for white folk to get stopped by a cop and not end up dead when the encounter is over.

Those binoculars are also stories, bad stories, biased stories, harmful stories, about how black people are lazy, or dumb, or slick, or immoral, people who can’t be helped by the best schools or even God himself. These beliefs don’t make it into contemporary books, or into most classrooms. But they are passed down, informally, from one white mind to the next.
I have one of those white minds. I've been lucky to have the binoculars, the privilege, to have attended good public schools, to have access to funding, to safe streets, to police who are committed to the notion that they are here to protect and serve.

I could ignore what is happening. I could retreat to my privilege. I could, but I won't. Enough is enough.

Send me an e-mail.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Trade deals are not all good or bad

A good piece that, in critiquing simplistic takes on trade policy and trade agreements, offers a primer on their basic workings. As I tweeted and Facebooked  the other day, trade deals are neither good or bad in theory, but specific deals can be.

You have to look at the details, as Dean Baker says. Who wins and who loses? Who is at the table? How will disputes be addressed? Every one of those questions requires a value judgment -- which is why all trade deals are as much about protectionism as they are about opening markets.

Consider Baker's explanation:
The United States pursues a variety of agendas in its trade negotiations. Naturally it does not get everything it wants, it prioritizes some items over others. In some areas it clearly has been very "tough" as measured by outcomes. For example, Pfizer and Microsoft and other drug, software, and entertainment companies are collecting tens of billions of dollars a year from foreign countries because U.S. trade negotiators have been very tough in demanding that these countries adopt U.S.-type rules on patents and copyrights.

The United States has also demanded that other countries allow U.S. corporations to take their complaints to special tribunals outside of their domestic legal system. This is a central feature of the newly negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership. Undoubtedly our negotiators had to be very tough to get these countries to surrender this aspect of their national sovereignty. (We even had to make a reciprocal sacrifice of sovereignty, allowing foreign investors a route around the U.S. legal system.)

Negotiators have not been tough in pressing demands on currency values, which would have meant a lower U.S. trade deficit with countries like China. While the trade deficit matters hugely to workers, some of whom directly lose jobs to imports and others who suffer indirectly from a weak labor market (in the era of secular stagnation we have no mechanism for making up the demand lost due to a trade deficit), it actually benefits many major corporations.

Companies like GE benefit from being able to produce at low cost in countries like China. Retailers like Walmart also benefit from having low-cost supply chains in the developing world. And highly-paid professionals like doctors, who are largely protected by regulations from foreign competition, benefit from a weak labor market by being able to hire cheap help.
U.S. negotiators, as he says, are picking winners and losers. That's totally appropriate. The issues we need to be discussing, however, are whether the winners and losers they have chosen match the priorities of Americans and workers around the world.

Send me an e-mail.