Sunday, August 30, 2009

Two Frank Looks at Teddy Kennedy's Legacy

Here's Doug Henwood's take and here's Lance Selfa's. The motif here is that Kennedy's political history is a microcausm for the liberalism of the Democratic Party writ large, which is a frustrating mixture of good and bad. Sustar focuses on Kennedy's willingness to cut deals with the Right (both in the Democratic party and outside of it) and Henwood takes a close look at Kennedy's role in leading the first waves of deregulation during Jimmy Carter's presidency.

Liberals love to hate on the Republicans and the town-hall crazies, but rarely want to take a frank look at just how conservative and tepid even the most liberal ranks of the Democratic party are. People forget that Reagan passed all of his major legislation with a Democratic House and some of the time with a Democratic Senate. Moreover, people forget that deregulation began first during the end of Jimmy Carter's presidency, at the goading of one Edward Kennedy. As Henwood points out, the results for working people did not keep pace with Kennedy's rhetoric about standing up for the poor and powerless.

Ted Kennedy did a lot of good, and his (sometimes) strong advocacy of Single-Payer was particularly admirable.

But its tough to watch so much of the punditocracy move to appropriate his legacy by selectively emphasizing certain aspects of his political career in order to mold the "meaning of Ted Kennedy" such that it is maximally cosy within existing frames of political reference.


Chomsky visits Venezuela

Story here @ venezuelanalysis.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

If you like the insurance you have, you can....

We've heard it a ton: "if you like the health insurance you've got, you can keep it". Yeah. If you like the employer-based, for-profit policy you have... you can keep it, right?

Well, it turns out that you cant.

As Lee Sustar over at reports:

"About 75 workers at SK walked out August 25, about three months after the company--which makes the popular Craftsman brand tools for Sears--cut off their Blue Cross/Blue Shield health coverage.

"I've worked here 23 years, and I've always had that plan," said striker Norma Trinidad. "Unilaterally, without any notice, they cut off our health insurance. What he did was 100 percent wrong."

Many workers found out about the cutoff only when they sought medical care. "People walked into Walgreens to get their prescriptions filled and were told that they owe $300 or $400, when ordinarily it was $40 or $50," Trinidad said."


Racism, "Uptown Update" and Policing Comments

As a resident of Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, I regularly read the neighborhood blog, "Uptown Update", because it has unparalleled coverage of what's going on in the hood. As a source of updates, facts and news in the neighborhood, there really isn't a better source. From what I've seen since I've lived here, UU has done a lot of good and is in many ways a great neighborhood forum and conduit for community.

But they run a tight ship over at Uptown Update. They have a strict political line and they always see to it that current events are massaged to bolster their political aims.

On the issue of gentrification, they are unequivocally, undeniably, openly very much in favor of it. And by 'they', I don't mean just the authors of the blog, but especially some of their readership.

Given my experience posting comments on their blog, I know that they very strictly police what gets put up and what does not. First of all, nothing is posted until a site administrator publishes it. They don't go and police after the fact, but they screen every single comment on their website.

Now I know that doesn't necessarily mean that the blog's authors therefore agree wholeheartedly with everything that gets posted. But I've noticed some trends.

When I attempted to post a critical comment about a post on gentrification a couple of months ago, the folks at Uptown Update decided not to allow my comment to go up. It wasn't shrill or beligerent; it was a short, tightly-argued paragraph attempting to complicate the facile choice that UU was pushing on the issue (i.e. "either we can have a violent slum or we can have Lincoln Park North: there is no alternative"). I've had similar experiences when it comes to posting comments that have a critical angle that complicates the line UU is pushing: they just don't want to hear this stuff and they don't want anyone else to either.

But for all that policing and scouring of comments that they do, they sure let a lot of racist bullshit fly on their comment boards. Here's a recent gem:

" jimo says: Let me guess, if we had more programs out there to help these troubled youths, we wouldn't have these problems, right? LOL

What a pack of animals...can't wait for new members to move into WY...

How sad....

The context of the comment is a recent gang scuffle (i.e. a shouting match with some bottle throwing and shoving) in Uptown that was captured on video by a resident and made it on the evening news. The first 'prefatory' comment suggests that if these teenagers had grown up in different social circumstances, it wouldn't have made much difference (i.e. they're 'essentially bad'). The next comment, "What a pack of animals", refers to the black teenagers involved in the scuffle in the video. When "Jimo" says "can't wait until new members move into" Wilson Yard, a new development in the area that will include social housing for low income residents, "Jimo's" basically saying that any (black) people who might move into the social housing are animals and criminals (and, presumably, shouldn't be allowed to move in at all). Combine that with "Jimo's" preface and you have yourself a pretty fucked up conservative tirade complete with dehumanizing claims about poor black residents in Uptown.

So stuff like that gets airtime all the time over at UU, but if you dare say anything critical they silence you.


Friday, August 28, 2009

Playing nice with insurance companies to get 'politically realistic' reform

"The whole history of the progress of human a
liberty shows that all concessions yet made
to her august claims have been born of
earnest struggle.... If there is no struggle,
there is no progress. Those who profess to
favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation
are men who want crops without plowing up
the ground, they want rain without thunder
and lightning. They want the ocean without
the awful roar of its mighty waters. The
struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a
physical one, and it may be both moral and
physical, but it must be a struggle.

Power concedes nothing without a demand.
It never did and it never will."

-Frederick Douglass


They're not 'libertarians'

As G.A. Cohen explains:

"Anarchy, State and Utopia is routinely characterized as libertarian, an epithet which suggests that liberty enjoys unrivaled pride of place in Nozick's political philosophy. But that suggestion is at best misleading. For the primary commitment of his philosophy is not to liberty but to self-ownership."
And self-ownership is different from freedom. The former basically boils down to a reverence for private property, not freedom as such.

Nonetheless, despite the fact that most libertarians do hang their hat on an unswerving attachment to the sanctity of private property, they are nonetheless "promiscuous in their use of the rhetoric of freedom."

But Cohen's point is that we should not let them get away with this swindle. Nor should we go along with their desire to be called 'libertarians'.

Why should we assume there is an intrinsic link between private property and freedom? 'Libertarians' often defend their advocacy of private property on the basis of freedom, but then also explain what they mean by freedom by simply rattling off a list of platitudes about the sanctity of private property. In other words, 'libertarians' "present themselves as defenders of unqualified private property and as unswerving opponents of all restrictions on individual freedom", but it's unclear that they can coherently be both.

Here's why. Cohen points out that only anarchists can claims to be "unswerving opponents of all restrictions on individual freedom". This is because "if the state prevents me from doing something that I want to do, then it places a restriction on my freedom". Notice that neither 'libertarians' nor socialists (like Cohen) are anarchists. Notice also that we are assuming, for the sake of argument, a narrow conception of 'negative freedom' friendly to the 'libertarian' position, where freedom is just being able to do what you want without external interference.

Imagine the following scenario. Say I want to "pitch a tent in your large back garden", "and if I try to do the thing that I want to do, the chances are that the state will intervene on your behalf and when it does, I shall suffer a constraint on my freedom. The same goes for all unpermitted uses of a piece of private property by those who do not own it, and there are always those who do not own it, since 'private ownership by one person presupposes non-ownership on the part of other persons'." But since the 'libertarian'-favored 'free market' rests on private property, it therefore rests on a restriction of freedom, in the narrow sense specified above.

Thus they can hardly complain that " a socialist dispensation restricts freedom, by contrast, with the dispensation they themselves favor". The difference between their view and that of socialists is not as easy as "they restrict freedom and we don't".

"Libertarians" want to say that they prescribe a system in which there is maximal freedom to do whatever one wants, consistent with a set of maximal freedoms for everyone else. In other words they'd like to say that "we support unrestricted individual freedom except where that freedom limits someone else's freedom". But this is plainly not their view. Their view is that maximal individual freedom is allowed only as long as it doesn't coerce other people or interfere with the institution of private property. But private property limits the freedom of those people who don't own something, as in the case of pitching a tent above. Private property creates freedom for some at the same time that it limits freedom for others. "Libertarians" want to say here that this limit on others freedom is just or right, and there are arguments worth considering that try to show that this is the case. But if that is what they really think, they ought to say that at the onset instead of giving us disingenuous claims about why they, and not others , are the privileged defenders of 'maximal freedom' (in short, they're not really 'libertarians', they ought to call themselves something else).

I'd like to say a bit more about why private property restricts the freedom of some at the same time that it provides freedom for others, or why the amount of one's holdings of private property in capitalism correlates positively with the extent to which one is free.

Those on the Right, e.g. 'libertarians', will reject this. They will say that 'people are free to do however they please, and if they lack resources of money then they lack not freedom but just that: resources or money'. Or those on the Right might respond that lack of money might mean 'lack of ability', but not therefore 'lack of freedom'. As it is sometimes put: "lack of money puts limits on what people can do with their freedom."

But as Cohen points out, this view rests on a reified account of money.
Money is not an object, but part of a complex network of social relations of constraints. And in capitalism lack of money means lack of freedom full stop. Perhaps, as 'libertarians' would want to say, certain people's freedom is restricted justly in capitalism (e.g. since they didn't work as hard, or they didn't obtain something via market transactions, or whatever). But notice that in saying why it is just that certain people's freedoms are limited by property, 'libertarians' are already admitting that they lied when they said they, above all else, value individual liberty. For these folks, private property trumps unfettered liberty.

The way that Cohen makes the point that money restricts freedom is brilliant:
"To see this, imagine a society without money, in which courses of action available to people, courses they are free to follow without interference, are laid down by the law. The law says what each person may or may not do... and each person is issued with a set of tickets detailing what she is allowed to do. So I may have a ticket saying I am free to plough this piece of land, another saying that I am free to go to the opera, while you have different tickets, with different freedoms inscribed on them.

Imagine, now, that the structure of options written on the tickets is more complex. Each ticket lays out a disjunction of conjunctions of courses of actions that I may perform (I may do A and B and C OR B and C and D OR E and F and A, and so on). If I try to do something not licensed by my tickets or ticket, armed force intervenes....these tickets say what my freedoms (and my unfreedoms) are.

But a sum of money is nothing but a highly generalized form of such a ticket. A sum of money is a license to perform a disjunction of conjunctions of actions -actions, like, for example, visiting one's sister in Bristol, or taking home the sweater on the counter at Selfridge's.

Suppose that someone is too poor to visit her sister in Bristol. She cannot save, from week to week, enough to buy her way there. Then, as far as her freedom is concerned, this is equivalent to a 'trip to Bristol' not being written on someone's ticket in the imagined non-monetary economy. The woman I descirbed has the capacity to go to Bristol (she can board the train, etc.). But she willl be physically prevented from doing so, or physically ejected from the train... the only way that she will not be prevented from getting and using such things is by offering money to them... thus to have money is to have freedom."
The upshot of this is that 'libertarians' cannot simply fall back on an assumed link between private property and freedom. Money restricts freedom. And they will want to say that it restricts freedom justly, perhaps because of some story they will tell about natural rights or self-ownership. I do not claim to have shown in the above that they can't actually accomplish the task of showing why its good, or why we must limit freedom in certain cases in order to protect the institution of private property. I think there good reasons to think they can't, but that's another issue.

But having the discussion about whether or not restricting freedom in order to preserve private property is just, is a much more productive and interesting conversation than merely allowing 'libertarians' to rattle off their own advertisements claiming that they are the #1 dentist-recommended defenders of freedom.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Dave Zirin on Caster Semenya and "Sex Testing"

Read Zirin's article here. He was on MSNBC a couple of days ago, viewable here.


The sports world has been buzzing for some time over the rumor that Semenya may be a man, or more specifically, not "entirely female." According to the newspaper The Age, her "physique and powerful style have sparked speculation in recent months that she may not be entirely female." From all accounts an arduous process of "gender testing" on Semenya has already begun. The idea that an 18-year-old who has just experienced the greatest athletic victory of her life is being subjecting to this very public humiliation is shameful to say the least.


The people with something to hide are the powers that be in track and field, as well as in international sport. As long as there have been women's sports, the characterization of the best female athletes as "looking like men" or "mannish" has consistently been used to degrade them. When Martina Navratilova dominated women's tennis and proudly exposed her chiseled biceps years before Hollywood gave its imprimatur to gals with "guns," players complained that she "must have a chromosome loose somewhere."

This minefield of sexism and homophobia has long pushed female athletes into magazines like Maxim to prove their "hotness"--and implicitly their heterosexuality.



Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Socialist Worker editorial on the defeat of health reform

(Excerpts from

Surrendering to the status quo

A president who was hyped as the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt is conceding to the right on every question.

August 25, 2009


Certainly it was expected that the health insurance and drug companies would use their clout to try to block real health care reform. On the campaign trail last year, Obama explicitly promised to keep them in line. "I'll have the insurance and drug companies at the table," he said. "They just won't be able to buy every chair...And I'll be at the table. I'll have the biggest chair, because I'm president." Obama even promised to televise negotiations on C-SPAN.

Yet it was President Obama who empowered Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus to frame health care legislation in a closed-door session with six senators from both parties--and it was Baucus who gave Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa veto power over any deal.

Now Obama is poised to junk the so-called "public option"--a government-run insurer that was supposed to compete with private companies. Obama once championed the public option as an essential way to force private insurers and the industry generally to control runaway health care costs--now he calls it a "tiny sliver" of health care reform.


For health insurance companies, this proposal is "a bonanza," Robert Laszewski, a former health insurance executive, told the Los Angeles Times. He said the insurance companies' reaction to the plan can be summed up in a single word: "Hallelujah!"


Thursday, August 20, 2009

An argument that bothers me: "There is no feminism, only feminisms"

In the feminist blogosphere, I sometimes run across the following argument.

"There isn't one, monolithic feminism. There's always already feminism(s) and there are as many diverse feminism(s) as there are people. Feminism(s) mean different things to different people"

I find this kind of patronizing, for one. This line is always laid down as though it said something profound, but the fact of the matter is that it is a half-baked platitude. It's one thing to take note of the political dynamics of the contestations from the margins, aimed at the (largely) white, liberal, middle-class, straight feminist projects that had come to present themselves as the only game in town. But its quite another thing entirely to propagate the facile conclusion that feminism really just means whatever individual people want it to mean.

In fact, you can't really understand what those very contestations (e.g. from black feminists like bell hooks, revolutionary lesbians like Monique Wittig, feminists writing the wake of colonialism, deconstructive feminists like Butler, etc.) were about unless you unequivocally reject the idea that feminism can mean whatever certain individuals want it to mean. For if it were true that feminism just is the plurality of existing views, norms, and relations of power regarding gender and sexuality, then there wouldn't be much point in contesting the way that mainstream feminists were paving over forms of oppression that didn't mark their lives in the way that it continued to mark those of others.

Moreover, according to those who sing the timeless praises of singularity as such, difference as such, and pluralism as such, etc. it would appear that bell hooks, Monique Wittig, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, and many others did something seriously wrong. How dare they, you might think, contest or launch political interventions aimed at dismantling certain mainstream feminist theories and practices, when they ought to have left well enough alone and let those myopically white and middle class straight feminists "express their singularity and difference"? How dare they tell those white, middle class feminists what to do! Uh oh, its the 'feminist police'!

This is, of course, preposterous. There is a world of difference between making the totally valid sociological observation on the one hand that there is widespread disagreement about what feminism is and should be committed to doing, and on the other, claiming that there is an endless plurality of things feminism can mean for different people. The latter only obscures the actual concrete political dynamics of what gets to count as feminism by whitewashing important disagreements as simply 'different expressions of plurality'.

Notice also, that if the 'endless pluralism' story were right, there would be absolutely no way to identify cynical imposters who simply called themselves feminists disingenuously. In other words if Rush Limbaugh decided, without changing anything about himself whatsoever, to simply call himself a feminist can label his political commitments as 'solidly radical feminist', the 'many feminism(s)'-'endless diversity'-'plurality' story would have no way to contest his claim. For if they were right, they'd have have no reason to want to contest Rush's claims at all. Think about it. He'd simply be expressing what feminism meant to him and proving their point that there really are only feminisms and a wide plurality of views.

If feminism has to do with liberation from oppression, it cannot mean whatever individual people want it to mean. Meaning is never a matter of individual whim. Pretending that it is, however, is hardly a subversive move, but a thought-act wholly welcomed by contemporary consumer culture. This faux-individualist megalomania is encouraged by existing relations of power, it is a powerful narrative running through arguments about social mobility, debates about redistributive taxation, into the ways that people are encouraged to think of themselves in terms of the various consumer preferences they have. Buy, buy, buy! Consume! Give in to your consumerist fantasies and lust after immediately gratifying fixes. And shame on you if you stop to think about what this whole consumerist picture might amount to... that's to commit the sin of 'telling others how to live their lives'.

But in reality, even superficial critical engagement with our culture and society quickly reveals that we are constantly told how to live our lives, how to think about our bodies, how to think about gender norms, how to dress, how to behave, etc. Feminism is a project aiming to uncover and ruthlessly submit these features of contemporary culture to critique.

Banal also is this notion of 'if it feels good do it', 'live and let live', etc. These are not liberatory anthems, but hackneyed slogans wholly amenable to the status quo. Feminism is an unremittingly critical political project. At its best it leaves no cultural, social or political phenomenon uncriticized. But pulling this 'just let women do what they want' line is dishonest. Should feminists condone what Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, and the Anita Bryants of the world say? Is Sarah Palin a feminist? Of course not. And we have a name for people who say otherwise: post-feminists.

Feminists who say let people think what they already think are no feminists at all. Feminism is supposed to be about changing existing relations of power. Its supposed to be about shredding oppressive norms that have come to appear to many as 'natural'. Moreover, it is supposed to be about critically confronting societies and the individuals shaped by them.

On a tangentially related topic, I'd like to point out that I've noticed in some recent French theory that there is this agreed-upon, yet unscrutinised, consensus that 'singularity' (whatever that might mean) is a good thing. It's as though Hegel's critique of Romanticism never really sunk in for these people. We are back to hearing about the ahistorical individual as singular fountainhead (ever think about the sexist overtones in Rand's title?), as creator ex-nihilo, as emerging freely as a beautifully unique snowflake unencumbered by social, historical or political constraints. Of course, I'm exaggerating here. But I think the general point is correct.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Raymond Geuss on the discourse of "soaring prices"

Much of the terrain of recent health care 'debates' has been fought over how to hold down 'soaring' or 'excessive' costs. As this helpful interactive history of health reform makes clear, this is not new. Today the issue is again framed as one of 'excessive' costs. Yet in any reasonably comprehensive discussion of health care reform talk of costs should be marginal, at best.

What about, for instance, the justifiability of subjecting access to health care to market forces at all? What about the status of access to health care: is it a 'human right', as a matter of social justice should everyone have access to basic medical care? Should the institutions responsible for financing people's access to health care be run by profiteers who ration care according to the dictates of profit-maximizing calculations? Should access to health care be thought of in the same way that we think of any other commodity? All of these crucial questions are totally lost in the fray of the technocratic quibbling over 'soaring costs'. As Geuss presciently explained in his most recent book published last December:

"Diverting attention from the way in which certain beliefs, desires, attitudes, or values are the result of particular power relations, can be a sophisticated way of contributing to the maintenance of an ideology, and one that will be relatively immune to the normal forms of empirical refutation. If I claim (falsely) that all human societies, or all human societies at a certain level of economic development, have a 'free market' in health services, that is a claim that can be demonstrated to be false. On the other hand, if I focus your attention in a very intense way on the various different tariffs and pricing schema that doctors or hospitals or drug companies impose for their products and services, and if I become morally outraged by "excessive" costs some drug companies charge, discussing at great length the relative rates of profit in different sectors of the economy, and pressing the moral claims of patients, it is not at all obvious that anything I say may be straightforwardly "false"; after all, who knows what "excessive" means? However, by proceeding in just this way I might well focus your attention on narrow issues of "just" pricing, turning it away from more pressing issues about the acceptance in some societies of the very existence of a "free market" for drugs and medical services. One can even argue that the more outraged I become about the excessive price the more I obscure the underlying issue.... relatively marginal issues come to be presented as though they were central and essential."- From his Philosophy and Real Politics (Princeton UP, 2009).
As Geuss makes clear, the more intensely we are encouraged to focus in on issues of pricing, the more the underlying issues are obscured. The debates over HMO's in the late 60s and early 70s were fought over issues of 'soaring prices', which makes painfully clear how easily the uproar over 'unjust pricing' can be appropriated by the Right. Its not a far reach from the language of 'soaring costs' to move quickly into a fiscally austere, cost-cutting and belt-tightening orientation toward social spending as such. We have already seen some of this right-wing appropriation latent in complaints about 'greedy doctors', which as a friend pointed out to me recently, threatens to become the new 'welfare queen'.

This is not to say that thinking of large, aggregate social costs is not important when devising how the reform of health insurance institutions must proceed. But talking about large, macro issues is a qualitatively different activity from the depoliticized rabble rousing about costs lighting up the 24-hour cable news circuit. The quibbling about costs to individuals says nothing of how much of GDP is spent on health care, how much tax revenue is available to be spent on health care and how best to collect it, how much per capita is spent at present compared to other rich capitalist nations, how much private health insurers set aside for their own enrichment, for advertising, for needless bureaucracy and overhead.

To passively adopt the language of costs is already to accept an entirely unjust set of institutional arrangements. It is to accept the idea that access to health care is a commodity floating amidst a fray of market forces.


Inglorious Basterds: a transcendentally disappointing dud

Read about it here.


Zizek on Iraeli Expansionism

Read Zizek's article on the "quite slicing of the West Bank" in the Guardian, here.

Here's an excerpt:

When peace-loving Israeli liberals present their conflict with Palestinians in neutral, symmetrical terms – admitting that there are extremists on both sides who reject peace – one should ask a simple question: what goes on in the Middle East when nothing is happening there at the direct politico-military level (ie, when there are no tensions, attacks or negotiations)? What goes on is the slow work of taking the land from the Palestinians on the West Bank: the gradual strangling of the Palestinian economy, the parcelling up of their land, the building of new settlements, the pressure on Palestinian farmers to make them abandon their land (which goes from crop-burning and religious desecration to targeted killings) – all this supported by a Kafkaesque network of legal regulations.
When you're the one with power, it's easy to make any resistance by a marginalized group appear as acts of desperate 'hatred' or 'terrorism'. I'm not denying that there is a precise definition of terrorism, nor that terrorism should be condemned. It absolutely should be condemned, and it should be called for what it is, especially when it is the Israeli state that inflicts it. But it is by portraying the status quo legal structure and arrangements of power in Israel as neutral, or mere background, that any resistance whatsoever from the Palestinians can be portrayed as 'extremism'. And what Zizek makes very clear is that many Israelis are not even content with simply maintaining an oppressive status quo; many are intent on entirely cleansing all Palestinian presence altogether. It makes little difference whether their preferred method is a slow, strangling strategy of displacement or a violent barrage of air attacks on a captive population.


How the Democrats sold out health care reform

Lance Selfa at has the story. Here's an excerpt:

And while taking this look behind the curtain, let's dismiss the idea that the Obama administration's and the Democrats' good intentions are simply falling victim to a multimillion-dollar campaign by medical industry lobbyists.

For one thing, as the New York Times reported on August 13, Obama himself has been intimately involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations with lobbyists. For months, the administration has pursued a strategy of trying to neutralize industry opposition by encouraging industry help in drafting the bills.

The poison fruit of one of those deals, according to a secret memo the Huffington Post obtained, was a commitment from the White House to the main pharmaceutical industry lobby that it wouldn't press for any more than the $80 billion in savings that the industry pledged to implement over 10 years. Off the table, therefore, was Obama's oft-made promise (usually a sure applause-getter during his campaign) to end the Bush administration's stupid policy of preventing Medicare from negotiating for lower drug prices with the pharmaceutical manufacturers.

I don't think we should underestimate the significance of the fact that the Administration's strategy, from the beginning, entailed attempting to pre-empt, or "to neutralize industry opposition by encouraging industry help in drafting the bills". Or at the very least, Obama made the terrible mistake of thinking that the inevitable onslaught from the Insurance Industry could be forestalled by attempting to play ball by their rules.

Seriously, even if we accept for the sake of argument that Obama's health plan is the best we can do, is it possible to handle a reform effort more ineptly? Even the most cursory glance at the history of reform belies, in every case, an unremitting ruthlessness on the part of Insurers, right-wing front groups and the always-reactionary AMA. You have to know what you're up against, no matter how tepid your reform aspirations may be. These people will fight to the death against the most miniscule change to the status quo that doesn't sufficiently accord with their interests. And they've succeeded at just about every turn, even where reform was pushed through, in fighting a tough fight and ensuring that their interests are maximally represented in any changes that occur.

The creation of Medicare and Medicaid is probably the only example of a reform effort that was more or less rammed down their throats, although we must recall that even those efforts were diluted by right-wing opposition, and that the Insurance Industry was less wealthy, entrenched and powerful than it is today.

How could Obama be so naive? The records of the Max Baucuses and Kent Conrads of the world hardly belie a stalwart willingness to enact comprehensive reform. The AMA and Industry lobbyists have, as always, enormous influence. What made Obama think that they wouldn't do what they do best when the possibility of reform became palpable? It seems to me that reform to political institutions has got to be a serious precursor to any serious health care reform effort. Liberal activists aren't the only ones who've noticed that the Democrats have a 60-vote Filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Industry interests have been, as always, hedging their bets by funnelling contributions to both parties and now they are simply doing their best to influence the people in a position to make decisions. And their doing an incredible job. In mobilizing Blue Dogs and other right-wing hacks in the Democratic Party, they seem to have a better grasp of the way Congressional power plays work than Obama does. And, as Selfa points out, by also funding and abetting the lunatic shock-troops descending on health-care 'town hall meetings' they've found creative ways to play both sides of the coin.

All of this feel-good language about consensus, bipartisanship, and faux open-mindedness were merely rhetorical precusors to Obama's calamitous strategy for health care reform. The result is that all Left critiques of the Public Option are proscribed, the tireless advocates of single-payer are shut out of public forums, the long-time Democratic politicians famous for their advocacy of health care reform are given the cold shoulder. Meanwhile, all of the forces who've historically been successful in destryong reform efforts were given a comfortable seat at the negotiation table, as though to sanction (rather than challenge) their deep-seated authority from the onset. The result is unsurprising.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Liberty as protection against counterrevolution

Great post at A Very Public Sociologist. Here's a sample:

The workers' state constructed on the bones of what went before would likely be more democratic and free than any form of political rule possible under capitalism, but there remains a key contradiction at its heart. As the rule of the workers become more consolidated and a greater proportion of society falls under its conscious democratic direction the need for security against counterrevolution from within and without remains pressing until capitalism is decisively defeated on a global scale. The Russian revolution and the history of the USSR demonstrates the negative resolution of this contradiction. Actual counterrevolution and the threat of it saw the infant workers' state in that country relied on militarily defeating those who wished to overthrow it. But in so doing, exacerbated by the backwardness and devastation of the country the state became increasingly bureaucratised and turned into the very opposite of a socialist state.


Please Don't Ask Me if I've Lost Weight

For one thing, I don't know if I have. On my best days, I could say I really don't care if I did lose weight. Other days, I can at least be honest and tell you I don't keep a scale around so that I can't obsess about weight, and honestly, I don't know. On my worst days I could at least say I'm not sure because knowing things like that becomes too consuming and I don't want to be consumed by it.

For another thing, while I know you think you're making me feel good, you're really just letting my sick mind know that you thought I looked fat before, enough so that now you think I look different enough that it bears pointing out. It feels like a back handed compliment, whether you wanted it to or not.

For another thing, you say it with this proud grin on your face, which immediately reminds me how much you value thinness, and how hard it is for me to make myself not care about it, when I've grown up around people like you and in a culture that makes you seem so normal. And, no matter how strong I was feeling that day, it immediately makes me question whether I should be valuing thinness just a little bit more.

For another thing, you have that proud grin on your face when you don't even know how I've lost the weight (if I even have lost any). One time my cousin went to a family Christmas party where everyone, so impressed by her drastic weight loss, inquired repeatedly about how she got to "look so good." Each time she'd say, "Oh, I got really really sick this Fall. Honestly, didn't know if I'd make it. But I couldn't keep anything down. I had to be hooked up to a feeding tube. Dropped like 20 pounds in a month. I've never been so miserable." And the relative would walk away, embarrassed to have been so happy about something so awful, to have celebrated what was tragic and unhealthy, to have called something sickly, "looking good," to have betrayed that they might consider someone happy, healthy and curvy to be, on first glance at least, less adequate than someone sick and malnourished and miserable.

I always wondered if one of the millions of women with eating disorders were so honest when asked how they manage to look so good, if people would feel the same shame. "I haven't been eating. What I do eat, I purge later on. I also exercise obsessively, to the point I throw up. I spend more time counting calories than I do doing my homework. It consumes my whole life, and I'll never be satisfied with my weight, even as my tactics get more and more extreme." So why do you assume this isn't how I've been losing weight? It isn't. But how would you know? It is how a great percentage of young women lose the weight. So why assume it's okay to act impressed by default, when something so ugly could be behind it?

But most of all, don't ask me if I've lost weight while my younger sister is standing nearby. When she hears you pay me this compliment, how can she not want to seek the same reward?

She doesn't eat breakfast before school. And she refuses to take a lunch with her, or even take money so she can buy something there. If she leaves the house with no means to a meal, it's that much easier for her to resist eating when she gets there. When she comes home she might be forced to nibble at a plate of dinner that was prepared for her, and this can only be enforced occasionally through guilt and constant harassment from concerned people like me.

And she's only 14. And her body is growing. And she needs nourishment. But at school she knows thin is in, and then when she sees you, it gets set in stone.

Why would she want to stop that, when she gets such frequent reminders that you admire discipline and ambition to be thin? And how can I ever possibly convince her that weight is not important, health is important, when you and the rest of the world keep praising weight loss? And how can I ever convince her that weight is not important, health is important, when I myself have trouble believing that, every time I see that proud grin on your face?


Sunday, August 16, 2009

60 seat filibuster-proof majority

“Look, the fact of the matter is there are not the votes in the United States Senate for the public option.” - Kent Conrad (D-North Dak). 7/16/09

OK. So what the fuck is the point of voting for the Democratic Party? If the Democrats can't pass low-hanging fruit like a public option (similar to RomneyCare in Mass), with a filibuster-proof 60 seat majority, what is the use?

I can already hear the litany of excuses from some on the liberal left to explain why the public option crashed and burned. But this is not only the doing of a handful of conservative Democrats in the Senate. This is a deep institutional problem with the Democratic Party, with our electoral procedures, with the weight of economic power that prevails within our political institutions.

I hate that I was right about this, but I recall being totally alienated at the Obama victory-rally amidst huge numbers of elated people in the streets. I recall feeling stressed, thinking to myself: all of this energy has been spent for this moment, but this moment is only (at best) the opening of a small amount of space for other things to happen. And what's going to ensure that they do?


"White House appears ready to drop 'public option'"

From the Associated Press

That's fucking great. I had to create a new tag, because of this story: Obama Blows.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Going mad for Mad Men? What's with the feminist love?

For the past few weeks the blogosphere has been buzzing about the premiere of season 3 of AMC's critically acclaimed Mad Men. Feminist after feminist blogger has declared her love for the show and its portrayal of gender roles in 1960s America.

At some points I found myself enjoying the show. The drama was interesting. Some of the characters are incredibly compelling. Everyone can play armchair psychologist while they watch the show. "Pete Campbell has such daddy issue and a huge case of white privilege. " "Peggy is trying so hard to shake the repression she faced growing up, but she can't even fully decide if it was a bad thing." So it has that appeal. Plus, an article in the London Review of Books after the first season really sums up its other sources of appeal perfectly:

Mad Men is an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better. We watch and know better about male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-semitism, workplace harassment, housewives’ depression, nutrition and smoking. We wait for the show’s advertising men or their secretaries and wives to make another gaffe for us to snigger over. ‘Have we ever hired any Jews?’ – ‘Not on my watch.’ ‘Try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology; it looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.’ It’s only a short further wait until a pregnant mother inhales a tumbler of whisky and lights up a Chesterfield; or a heart attack victim complains that he can’t understand what happened: ‘All these years I thought it would be the ulcer. Did everything they told me. Drank the cream, ate the butter. And I get hit by a coronary.’ We’re meant to save a little snort, too, for the ad agency’s closeted gay art director as he dismisses psychological research: ‘We’re supposed to believe that people are living one way, and secretly thinking the exact opposite? . . . Ridiculous!’ – a line delivered with a limp-wristed wave. Mad Men is currently said to be the best and ‘smartest’ show on American TV. We’re doomed.

Beneath the Now We Know Better is a whiff of Doesn’t That Look Good. The drinking, the cigarettes, the opportunity to slap your children! The actresses are beautiful, the Brilliantine in the men’s hair catches the light, and everyone and everything is photographed as if in stills for a fashion spread. The show’s ‘1950s’ is a strange period that seems to stretch from the end of World War Two to 1960, the year the action begins. The less you think about the plot the more you are free to luxuriate in the low sofas and Eames chairs, the gunmetal desks and geometric ceiling tiles and shiny IBM typewriters. Not to mention the lush costuming: party dresses, skinny brown ties, angora cardigans, vivid blue suits and ruffled peignoirs, captured in the pure dark hues and wide lighting ranges that Technicolor never committed to film.

Sooner or later, though, unless you watch the whole series with the sound off, you will have to face up to the story.

And the main gist of the story centers around Don Draper. And Don Draper is a real asshole. And that's really what I can't get over when I watch this show. He's a terrible person, and the people around him are worshipping terrible people. That or their victims of the terrible people. And I get so tired of the psuedo-edgy male protagonists in dramas these's nothing new. It's been around at least since Joseph Conrad in the 1890s. The detached male figure, isolated, trying to figure out his identity in a crazy, mixed up, modern world. It's so cliche. And what bothers me even more is that he's portrayed as being so dreamy. He's an asshole, and yet his fellow characters, and even progressives who watch, seem to admire him. You might know he's a sexist, capitalist, narcissistic asshole, but you can't help but gawk at his beauty, his power, his smooth talking.

I think there's a desire to see a lot more subversion in this show than is there. I just can't see the depiction of patriarchy and racism and economic injustice as subversion, if it's never called those things, and the man who stands as their champion is our hero. Yeah, we see a lot of misogyny, and every once in awhile we see a little hope that the women on the show just aren't going to take it any more. But that's not a startling critique of society -- society then or now. It's just a depiction of society in the 1960s.

I think it's part of an artistic cowardice among progressive artists these days that creator Michael Weiner betrays in choosing this approach. They want to show negative social structures, but they don't want to get preachy, because they don't want to alienate people who might still believe in those structures. They'd rather keep their audience big. They want to show self-congratulatory folks how far we've come and how bad things were and make them think they're watching a good piece of criticism, but they don't want to turn off the people who remain misogynists and racists among us, at least not entirely. While some of us are seeing the sexism in the show as exactly that, vintage sexism from a time before the women's movement of the 1960s, others might see it as simply a portrayal of how things once were, and maybe even, be able to watch the show and go on thinking those gender relationships were just fine. Don Draper is sexy. And rich. And he gets everything he wants, even if he is torturing himself a little inside. It's doesn't look all that bad, in the end.

And let's face it, there's something intoxicating about the show and all of its sin, and I don't just mean the incredible amount of alcohol the characters consume. These people are attractive. They have very sexy sex. And the nostalgia of years past, even if we can recognize the social ills of the time, appeals to us at some level, even if it's not the old fashion or the traditional family, but something like the smell of social change in the air. I can understand the desire to try to read more subversion into the show than is actually there. Watching the show has some pleasure in it, so it's not unbelievable we'd want to think we're doing more than we are by watching it.

I just wish we could watch shows like this and acknowledge what it is we like about them, not try to turn them into the works of art for social justice and social commentary that they aren't even trying to be. Showing sexism is not the same thing as fighting sexism or even labeling sexism. And it isn't necessarily progressive in any way (Even Jezebel's feature on "15 Feminist Moments From Mad Men" is really just a list of moments where sexist things happened to women). Let's just face the fact that at the end of the day, watching a drama about Don Draper and the madness of the 1960s is good entertainment. There's little redeeming about him, and as far as I can see, little redeeming about the show and its take on anything, including gender roles.


US Income Inequality: The Gap Grows

From Tim Fernholz at Tapped:

As you can see, nearly a quarter of total income goes to the top 1 percent of Americans, nearly as high as the most recent peak, in 1928. (Notice any correlation of events?).
Recessions (depressions?) seem to hurt some people more than others...


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

No. I do not worship the Free Market God, for I have seen his frailties, and he is not a true God.

Now, from that weird break below to ramble briefly about sex, I return to the issue of healthcare that we can't seem to escape lately:

Please stop telling me how great the free market is at fixing things and creating the best systems possible. See, I work for a private company. And I see the bureaucracy, and the laziness, and the shit we get away with doing to customers and the crap we can pass off as a product to them. And guess what? We still have paying customers. Thousands of them. We still have customers because there's no real competition for us (broadband service in rural communities). The free market hasn't made competing with us look very profitable. And so our customers get what we give them, which isn't great. We could do better, but why would we when we are already making money? There's nothing magical about the profit motive, you see. The only thing unique about it compared to other motives is it usually, but not always, leads to profit. Sometimes it leads to failure. Much like political motive. Sometimes political motive creates a product that is successful from a political standpoint. Sometimes it fails. But neither motive is perfect. And when one has failed, I say, let's try another.


Pro-sex? Anti-porn? Where do I fall?

Deep inside my brain there is an ongoing dialogue about pornography, about sex, about relationships, about misogyny, and about love.

There are, in this dialogue, two competing sides. There is what I consider my more idealistic side, what I sometimes fear is naive (in fact, what I've been told is naive by pro-feminists even), and yet still can't decide is actually wrong or any more unreasonable than any desires for utopia.

Every so often I'm forced to reckon with the way popular culture depicts sexual relationships between men and women. Most recently, it was the tragedy in Pennsylvania where a man who blogged about how cruel women as a whole were for not having sex with him targeted and killed women at a gym. Men all over the internet expressed horror at what he did, but expressed that they understood what he was talking about, that yes, women are uppity, and yes, women do dismiss the wrong guys, and yes, women do send the wrong signals and then insult their dignity.

What's clear is that a lot of men think they have a right or entitlement to have sex with women, simply for being alive, and it's not like this is happening in a vaccuum. Most romantic comedies these days, especially those geared at men (or can we not consider, say, Judd Apatow movies to be romantic comedies, even though they involve both romance and comedy, simply because they're geared at men?), involve some sort of conquest where sex is the end prize, where sex marks the man's success in life, or success as a man, and the woman involved is fairly irrelevant at least up until the big final moments when he realizes actual feelings aren't bad to consider.

The hilarious premises are about how to trick the opposite sex into having sex with you or being in a "relationship" with you. Men and women are in competition. Sex is a game. Human connection is irrelevant. This isn't like friendship where you meet a certain person and click and then rely on each other. Romance, or sex, is strategy. It's tricks. It's like an illusion. You either win the game, or you lose it, and that has nothing to do with the particular human you are pursuing or the particular human you are, but is a matter of technique and generalized truths about each sex.

It's not hard for me, as a feminist, to see that this cultural understanding of sex can be dangerous. Which isn't to say many people will take the path Sodini took and mass-murder a group of women because he sees them as the enemy or opposing team, which is, of course, exactly how they're portrayed in this love-game. But that's not to say it doesn't have widespread negative consequences, relating to partner violence, incredible possessiveness and jealousy, the sense of entitlement to women's bodies that leads to street harrassment, sexual violence and assault, and even puritanical protection of those bodies. The plain fact is that I don't like living in a society where sex boundaries are not only set up like this, but depicted as cute and funny in popular culture.

I think the love-game portrayal I described above is part of this problem, and I think porn is another part of it. A piece of culture created solely to sexually gratify the onlooker. How can there be a human connection when only one human is involved? The other is merely a performer on the stage, a character, sometimes just an object of gratification. It's not just masturbation that relies on the fantasy of another person, it's a sole focus on the image of a voiceless stranger.

I don't say all this expecting that, ideally, every sexual act would be the culmination of years of getting to know the other person, of knowing them deeply, and of wanting to love them. I don't pretend to advocate against completely casual sex between two people. What I want though, is the acknowledgement between both parties that their partners are humans, who are fully dimensional, with depth, and thoughts, and likes and dislikes and vulnerabilities.

And so, I say, when asked about the issue of pornography, that I'm not anti-porn in the sense that I'm actively campaigning to shut it down or outlaw it or even to chastise those who consume and produce it. But I do see its creation as a symptom of a society in which sexual relationships are not seen as fully human, and therefore, I see it as something that would not exist if my dream of a feminist utopia were realized. People would no longer get off by looking at one dimensional, voiceless, personless representations of the opposite sex, because they'd want sex to involve mutual humanity...(You have to already share my belief here that our sexual desires and the things that gratify us are, at least in part, constructed by the society we live in. If you disagree we'll discuss in another post)

And this, of course, is where the nay sayers, and, in fact, my own, other, nay saying strain of thought catch up with me. "But wait, it says, is there really ever going to be a time when people won't need visual stimulation to feel sexually satisfied when . Maybe if the actors in porn were just portrayed more like real people and there were real stories and realistic encounters it would be better. Maybe we could just improve porn. Maybe even in a completely economically just society, where education was available and free, and jobs were not in short supply, some people would still want to act in porn, and maybe in a society with no sexual baggage and a totally human outlook on sex, people would still want porn. "

Yes, maybe I'm being naive and judgmental about why people watch porn and why people act in porn. It's possible. And I can't help but be insecure about the fact that I did grow up in a subculture with pretty puritan views of sexuality. Could I have internalized that and could I just be trying to justify that from a feminist perspective? It could be. But I just don't think that's it. I don't FEEL like I have issues with sexuality. I don't judge people who have different sexual behaviors than myself. I just don't think sex should be about conquest. I don't think it should be a sign of someone's success as a person or a man or a woman or a social being. And not because I believe in some ancient view or morality or want to shame anyone for experiencing pleasure. Honestly, it's just because I think anything else is dangerous.

I can't shake the idea that porn and all those comedies I talked about above are not signs of a healthy societal view of sexual relationships and that they breed bad ideas about who gets to have pleasure and how. When we think of ourselves as having a right to have sex with others and players in a big game where sex is the prize, dehumanizing partners and potential partners seems like a natural consequence.

I'm at a stalemate with myself in this conversation. What knowledge or life experience would make me land more firmly on one side or the other?


How did we get so delusional?

At what point does the discourse about healthcare in the mainstream media send me into a hair-pulling, teeth gnashing, fit of rage?

About the same time CNN uncritically says things like this to characterize the opponents of reform:

Specter remained calm most of the time, except when a woman asked if the bill meant a 74-year-old man with cancer would be written off by an overhauled health care system.

"Nobody 74 is going to be written off because they have cancer," he responded angrily. "That's a vicious, untrue rumor."

Is a news outlet no longer capable of then following up with comment on whether or not the bill allows for 74 year olds with cancer to be left to die?! Is it not a matter of fact or fiction? There is in fact a bill in public. There are in fact reporters capable of reading. Let's not leave this as a "here's what this side says, here's what that side says," issue if it isn't one. There's a truth here. Fucking write about it.

And this:
In particular, Republicans and some Democrats reject a government-funded public health insurance option, arguing it would lead to a government takeover of the health care system.
No comment on whether a public option actually could elad to a government takeover, what they actually mean by a government takeover, whether these claims are legitimate or just political fuckery. That's just the end of the article.

I can't take much more of the healthcare debate. I imagine being politically conscious in the early 90s fight could've killed me.

p.s. If I hear one more person say they don't want the government taking away their healthcare OPTIONS I will freak the fuck out. WHAT OPTIONS DO YOU HAVE?! I've never had options. I was either lucky enough to have coverage or unlucky to not have coverage at every point in my life. It has always been completely out of my hands. And what's certain is that when I have had coverage, I haven't had any choices, no say in what that coverage is, in what it covers, in what my deductible is. It's either being paid for by someone or it's not and I have to live with it.

Options presented to you by a for-profit health insurance industry are not options. That's not freedom of choice.

Ok, ok. /rant


Monday, August 10, 2009


From wikipedia:

"Baucus has a 74% pro-business voting record as rated by the United States Chamber of Commerce."

So I guess that means I am disposed to potentially agree with 26% of what Baucus does? Glad he's running the Senate committee in charge of health care.


Lance Selfa Rip of the Current Health non-Reform


"Given this constrained vision--where the "progressive agenda" becomes increasingly melded with the White House's agenda--even liberal complaints about Obama's concessions to corporations and "centrist" politicians fall by the wayside. Perversely, of course, this gives even greater license to the White House to make concessions to business and conservative politicians.

Until there is independent pressure from a mobilized social movement, combined with a real political challenge from Obama's left, the type of reforms--even the prospect of reforms--are likely to follow the pattern we're currently seeing in the health care debate."

In a way, I wish that Selfa was wrong about this but he's not. I can't tell you how many times I've heard from liberal friends that the problem is Max Baucus, Blue Dogs, Republicans, etc. Yes, they're all blowhards. Yes, they're doing their best to thwart reform. But they're not alone. Obama and friends are doing plenty to screw this up as well. I think most of Selfa's criticisms are right on -Obama didn't try to mobilize popular support, but tried to broker a deal among elites with the assumption that if he played their game that they would bargain, with the result that we get 'something' without having to start a fight with Big Pharma, the insurance companies, etc.

There's also the related issue of Obama's rhetoric: he speaks about reform in terms of technical points which are admitedly important in some respects, but he leaves the normative punch of why we need health reform largely out of the message.

I agree wtih Selfa. I think most liberals know all of this, but feel strongly that the Democratic Party is the best that we can do. If not Obama, then John McCain. If not Harry Reid, then Mitch McConnell. But where does this leave anyone remotely close to the Left in this country? Is there no other viable option other than to sit down, shut up and resign ourselves to health care 'reform' that's beginning to look less progressive than RomneyCare?

This is a serious dilemma, and its not hard to see where the liberals have a point here.

But its also not difficult to see that the meagre electoral Left (to the extent that there even is one) has no bargaining chips. They are marginalized in the Democratic Party. Its even worse for voters, who don't get to vote on legislation but only between a canditate from one of the two dominant parties. The voting Left is powerless; the Democrats never fear for a second that they won't get these votes, because they know that these people have nowhere else to turn. They know that anyone remotely progressive despises the Republicans and that that alone will turn them out. And it does, I've seen it. I've seen anti-war friends committed to mariage equality and social justice campaign for right-wing Democrats committed to war, homophobia and cutting funding for education. I'm hardly exempt here; I've helped out and cast many votes for 'centrist' and 'Blue Dog' Democrats.

Still, the ISO invocation to 'build an independent social movement' is appealing yet frustrating. The reason that many people don't join an independent social movement isn't that they don't agree with the ISO here; its tough work that pits one against a heavily-funded institution with shock-troops who themselves claim to be 'progressive'. Most media, 'pundits', etc. won't even take note of what you're doing- and if they do they'll just distort you. Meanwhile, they'll be playing up the next election like its the most important even of the century and making you look more and more irrelevant. Its not an easy struggle. Its not easy to see what an independent Left-wing organization should be try primarily to do -its not claer what the goal should be if the organization lacks the ability to threaten to take votes from the Democrats. Of course, building a separate party is another dilemma entirely. I'm not saying its not worth trying again -there are probably many lessons to be learned from the demise of the Green Party. Still, I'm not convinced that's the place to begin putting time and energy.

The thing that intrigued me the most about the EFCA, wasn't that the big unions would get more members. In general, I'd rather that they did, but this wasn't the most interesting part of the card check. Think of the political reverberations of having more people join a union and encounter some of the values (solidarity, community, equality) that accompany the experience of striking together, fighting for a contract, etc.

Alas, I don't know what the right way forward is. But I'm not getting sucked into the next round of elections where I am supposed to bite the bullet and canvass for Democrats (no matter how conservative).


Staying in Bed with Big Pharma

Some free market this is. From Robert Reich at Salon:

Last week, after being reported in the Los Angeles Times, the White House confirmed it has promised Big Pharma that any healthcare legislation will bar the government from using its huge purchasing power to negotiate lower drug prices. That's basically the same deal George W. Bush struck in getting the Medicare drug benefit, and it's proven a bonanza for the drug industry. A continuation will be an even larger bonanza, given all the boomers who will be enrolling in Medicare over the next decade. And it will be a gold mine if the deal extends to Medicaid, which will be expanded under most versions of the healthcare bills now emerging from Congress, and to any public option that might be included.


I don't want to be puritanical about all this. Politics is a rough game in which means and ends often get mixed and melded. Perhaps the White House deal with Big Pharma is a necessary step to get anything resembling universal health insurance. But if that's the case, our democracy is in terrible shape. How soon until big industries and their Washington lobbyists have become so politically powerful that secret White House-industry deals like this are prerequisites to any important legislation? When will it become standard practice that such deals come with hundreds of millions of dollars of industry-sponsored TV advertising designed to persuade the public that the legislation is in the public's interest? (Any Democrats and progressives who might be reading this should ask themselves how they'll feel when a Republican White House cuts such deals to advance its own legislative priorities.)

We're on a precarious road -- and wherever it leads, it's not toward democracy.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

"The Health Insurers Have Already Won"

Businessweek has the story.


Saturday, August 8, 2009

Racism, Class Power and Democracy

Within the framework of neoliberal 'development' prescriptions, it is 'bad policy' to enact laws in a 'developing nation' which imposed higher taxes or regulations on foreign corporations operating in that nation. Imagine the following semi-true scenario: we're in South Africa in 1995. After decades of oppression and Apartheid, finally universal suffrage is extended and a Left-wing government promising to fight for universal health care is elected by a margin of 80%-20%.

In this case the democratically-elected government of a sovereign nation has an overwhelming majority and has the strong popular backing of more than 80% of the electorate. The Constitution of the country states that the legislative branch of government, backed by a democratic mandate, has the sole power to make laws as it sees fit within the limits set by the Constitution.

Unfortunately this isn't how it works under capitalism. Say the hugely popular government wants to impose a new corporate tax to fund a social program aiming to provide health services. Say they have more than the enough votes to easily pass the law.

We can imagine the companies who would be taxed saying in response: if you tax us heavily we will leave the country. Capital flight, massive job losses and economic turmoil will be the result. Still want to try and tax us?

Make no mistake: this is a threat. And it is one that no government could possibly ignore. As soon as the government heeds the threat, it becomes clear that the legislative branch is neither as sovereign or powerful as it would seem on paper. Despite overwhelming popular support, a small clique of capitalists, themselves accountable to no democratic vote, have an inordinate amount of leverage over what becomes law (and this is already assuming that they haven't done anything to game the process via lobbying). In this case political power is subject to democratic principles but economic/class power is not. The result is that undemocratic concentrations of economic power have bargaining clout and leverage over democratic political institutions. This is especially lopsided in 'developing' nations whose economies may depend very heavily on foreign investment.

But neoliberals see no problem here. They would merely comment that it would be 'bad policy' to raise the taxes on corporations. Instead the job of governmental institutions is to create a 'good business climate' and create conditions favourable to large accumulation of profits by business. This will bring jobs, investment, etc. Democracy may actually get in the way of this process, according to the neoliberal line, so it is not particularly useful in 'development' to have wide democratic participation. Let the capitalists and 'experts' organize and coordinate participation.

Now fast forward to Chicago in the early 1980s. The demographics break down roughly as follows: 35% black, 35% latino, 30% white. But you would never know this from glancing at Chicago's political institutions.

In 1976 Lord/His Majesty/Mayor Richard J. Daley keeled over dead while in office. By law, the man designated to succeed him was President Pro Tempore of the City Council, William Frost. But because Frost was black, he was literally locked out of meetings and deliberations set in place by the white-majority City Council to determine who would be acting-Mayor after Daley died. A couple of days later Michael Bilandic, a white man, was declared acting-Mayor.

A power-struggle was set off within the Chicago Machine over who would be the next Big Guy. Ruptures in the Machine opened up space for a challenge from below from Chicago's black and latino majority. Over 100,000 black and Latino voters were registered for the first time to vote by community organizers. Harold Washington, a U.S. Congressman at the time, surprised everyone when he eked out a close victory in the Democratic primary (which, in Chicago, is usually tantamount to winning the election; The Republican Party is meaningless here).

Harold Washington, Mayor 1983-87
In 1983, Washington was poised to become the first-ever black mayor of Chicago in heavily-Democratic Chicago. But after Washington won the primary, over 90% of the whites in Chicago's Democrats deserted the Party and registered as Republicans to vote for the G.O.P. challenger. This was totally unheard of.

The most frequently-aired argument against Washington was something like the following: if you elect a black man, Chicago will "become another Detroit". Jobs will go, High-rise public housing projects will be crop up everywhere, crime will sky-rocket, and another wave of severe White-flight will devastate the city's tax base.

You might say that allowing the government of Chicago to actually reflect the make-up of the people who live there would be 'bad policy'.

Now I see a lot of similarities between the imagined South Africa case and the Chicago case. In both cases, we see that when political democracy is actually extended enough to pose a threat to existing relations of power, counter-threats from elites follow. And they are in a position to make threats because of disproportionate concentrations of power outside the political realm. What I mean is that if whites didn't have the economic power, wealth, ability to move to the suburbs, etc. that they currently have, they wouldn't be in a position to make these kinds of "this city will become Detroit" threats. Can you imagine the black population threatening 'black flight' and telling white elites that they'd better listen up and change their ways? Of course not, because the black population in Chicago is not in the position of power that white elites are.

This is an unbelievably unjust state of affairs. In effect, the black population is told the following: either you stay in your place and accept that the majority-white Machine is in charge, or you can feel the wrath of disinvestment, job loss, white flight, and economic turmoil. Either we run the show, or you can have another Detroit.

What's interesting is that the "Detroit card" isn't really a cynical threat for many whites in Chicago. They believe it. They are scared, paranoid and worried that the "urban crisis" of the late 1960s/early 70s could happen again. And this is why so many whites who have qualms about Daley and the Machine vote for it again and again. But whether or not whites vote, a 30% sector of the population should not be able to even cast a veto on potential mayoral candidates. Yet the reality is that this 30% constituency largely calls the shots. Democracy? I don't think so.


Friday, August 7, 2009

GritTV: Rep. Weiner puts Single Payer on the Table

I'm not sure I understand the logic of getting a vote on Single-Payer. I think I'm sympathetic to the argument that Single-Payer should be part of the discussion to give the Left leverage over the conversation, in effect, pushing the entire debate to the Left. But what will an up or down vote do? I'm not sure I see the point. I suppose any publicity is better than none, and perhaps forcing a discussion by any means necessary is what's going here, but I'm not clear if this is the motivation or not.

I must say, as disgusted as I was with the modesty of Obama's plan and the way in which Single-Payer was locked out of forums purporting to 'put all options on the table', I am ready to start struggling just to get Obama's plan passed. Faced with the prospect of yet another right-wing foot-dragging assault on reform, I think I am ready to table medicare-for-all demands for the moment and start struggling against these kooks who watch Glen Beck or whatever. Perhaps the best way to participate is to air the medicare-for-all argument in order to balance out the complete morons who are whining about 'stalinism', etc.



Thursday, August 6, 2009

G.A. Cohen (1941-2009)

The Canadian-born political philosopher and author of the 1978 Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defense, Gerald Allen Cohen, died yesterday of a stroke. My encounter with his work as an undergraduate was an important part of my intellectual and political development, and I regret that I never had an opportunity to meet him. Despite having never met him, I was pained by a feeling of loss when I read of his death last evening.

I read KMTH as well as If You're an Egalitarian How Come You're So Rich? and History, Freedom and Labour at a time when I had come to believe, as a result of the general trajectory of Anglo-American political philosophy, that Marxism was an intellectual dead end. Cohen's sharp critical writings and intellectual rigour changed this considerably. It wasn't that I'd read and been dissatisfied with other radical thinkers on the Left at that time: I simply hadn't read them for the reason that Left politics had little voice or presence in the mainstream philosophical literature.

I recall reading Robert Nozick's defense of right-wing libertarianism in Anarchy, State and Utopia and feeling really disturbed by the position it put me in. On the one hand, I've never had any sympathy for Nozick's pro-capitalist libertarian conclusions, but many of the arguments he put forward against egalitarianism were formidable. The eye-opening thing for me was that the replies from the liberal-left, primarily from John Rawls, always left me wanting a more forceful and fundamental rejection of the trajectory of Nozick's project. It seemed to me at the time, given the way I felt about Nozick's brand of bare-knuckles capitalism, that Rawls shared too much with Nozick for me to feel comfortable with his arguments against libertarians. I was left with a series of questions: What about capitalism itself? What about racial oppression? What about the wage system as such? What about ownership of the means of production? What about class power?

It was at this time that I read Cohen's book Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality in which he took Nozick seriously and gave a sharp socialist response to many of the central premises of Nozick's neoliberal tract. What was most influential for me was that Cohen didn't take for granted that 'capitalism is the best we can do'. I felt like this opened up an entire universe of possible political options that had hitherto been unfathomable within the horizons of the language of "liberal vs. conservative" that dominates so much of the narrow discussion of politics in the US. In a way I suddenly felt like politics Left of 'liberal' was a live option.

I've always found Cohen's writings to be tightly argued, refreshingly Left-wing, readable, as well as acerbic and witty to boot. His most recent effort, Rescuing Equality and Justice, is no exception. This is a serious loss.

(PS: keep an eye open for the book pictured above "Why not socialism?" which will be coming out this month in a similar format to Harry Frankfurt's popular "On Bullshit".)


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Racism and ambivalence

In an earlier post on "what racism is" I concluded that race is a social/political concept whose meaning and deployment has varied. Race is obviously not a concept that can be cashed out entirely in terms of biology or genes; on the contrary, thinking that it can is tantamount to a rather potent form of racism. There I drew on some of Ali Rattansi's excellent Racism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2007), which I'd like to share more of below.

Opening a discussion about Columbus's 'discovery' of two Caribbean islands, Rattansi points out that: "One of the lessons of the history of 'race' is an appreciation of the extent to which European colonizers saw not the cultures of the colonized as they were, but as they expected them to be."

Of course, the occupants of the islands were sophisticated peoples with deft agricultural, maritime, fishing and many other skills. But when Columbus showed up (who, incidentally, believed in 'one-eyed men with tails, mermaids, and wild tribal monsters), he saw "a primitive people, unclothed and dark, and therefore close to nature and uncivilized."

Nonetheless, Rattansi points out, "contrary to much of the writing about early encounters (with the occupants of the islands), Columbus's reactions were by no means entirely negative." Indeed Columbus's reaction tended to be expressive of a deep ambivalence about the native peoples of the islands: "he oscillated between seeing the natives as either completely and extraordinarily good or essentially wicked".

This ambivalence, we should take note, has persisted in different forms throughout the subsequent history of racism. As Rattansi puts it: "for the subsequent history of racism, it is vital to note this constitutive duality and ambivalence, and to understand its characteristically tangential relation to what these strangers might really be like".

I found this to be extremely poignant. It seems to me that this kind of ambivalence is always an aspect of the way that racism manifests itself. Think of the "noble savage", or the "positive good" ideology backing Slavery in the early 1800s. Or alternatively think about myths like "asians are good at math" or "black men have large penises". All of the above are no less racist for propagating supposedly 'positive' judgments instead of 'negative' ones.

I also find Rattansi's comment interesting because of the "tangential relation" that he takes note of: this ambivalence is always from the perspective of the dominant group gazing at the marginalized 'Other', and whether it assigns 'good' or 'bad' predicates it is nonetheless already estranged from the 'Other' people in question.

To link this ambivalence up with something else I've read recently, consdier how one of Studs Terkel's interviewees puts it in Divison Street (1967): "The average white person, you ask him about integration, is the Negro equal? He wants to scream NO. But he thinks back and he's a Christian. Now he knows in his heart that he doesn't believe he's equal, but all this Christian training almost forces him to say yes. He's saying yes to a lie, but he has to come face to face with the truth some day."

This seems to ring true even today in many respects. Many white people still feel, in some sense, that the answer is "NO", however, they also have many other commitments that do not jibe with that judgment. For example, many 'average' white people also take themselves to be committed to universal suffrage, belief in the humanity of all peoples, equal rights, etc. Peoples' commitments are rarely if ever without tensions and contradictions and racism is no exception.

Another way that this ambivalence expresses itself is in the fact that racism is not often about particular people, qua individuals. Someone can 'have minority friends' or may genuinely admire non-White individuals, while at the same time expressing racist views in many other ways (I've observed too many cases of this phenomenon to count). Or think of people who are genuinely kind to people they interact with, but nonetheless can be heard uttering racist remarks about this or that group. Racism hardly ever expresses itself as an all-encompassing worldview wherein the racist person categorically hates or looks down upon all individuals of a given 'race'.

Very often I hear character defenses for people who are accused of racism: "but he can't be wholly rotten since he's done so many other good things and has lots of non-White acquaintances!". But if we understand racism as a social phenomenon with some measure of ambivalence built into it, this kind of defence is no longer relevant.

Even in the extreme case of post-WWII Germany we find that this sort of ambivalence is part of what sustains racism. Adorno argued in the late 1950s that little could be accomplished in the way of fighting anti-Semitism by means of "community meetings, encounters between young Germans and young Israelis, and other organized promotions of friendship. All too often the presupposition is that anti-Semitism in some essential way involves the Jew and could be countered through concrete experience with Jews, whereas the genuine anti-Semite is defined more by his incapacity for any experience whatsoever, by his unresponsiveness". What he means by "incapacity for experience", is that to be able to carry out the horrors of Auschwitz one cannot just hate certain people, one must be unresponsive and hollow, mechanically precise and numb, incapable of seeing people as human beings. In the Marxist tradition, of which Adorno's work is an important contribution, this social pathology is called "reification", that is, seeing human beings as exchangeable objects and social relations as relations of exchange.

The point of Adorno's observation is that the problem was not a lack of 'good' concrete interaction with individual Jews: anti-Semitism has nothing to do with Jews as individual people, it's precisely the opposite. Anti-Semitism, like other forms of racism, often amounts to failing to see the hated group as fellow human beings. We misunderstand what racism is (and where it comes from) if we think that it has only to do with an individual's assessment of other individuals.

Adorno also mentions, in the 1959 radio address from which the above was quoted, a "story of a woman who, upset after seeing a dramatization of The Diary of Anne Frank, said: 'yes, but that girl at least should have been allowed to live.' To be sure even that was good as a first step toward understanding. But the individual case, which should stand for and raise awareness about the terrifying totality, by its very individuation became an alibi for the totality the woman forgot".

The point here is that racism is not overcome in the instance when a racist empathizes for a moment with an individual 'Other' as a fellow individual human being. Adorno points out that the experience of empathy for a fellow human being should, in fact, lead us to conclude that the entire phenomenon of racism as such is bankrupt. But unfortunately it doesn't always work like that; instead empathy for a particular individual may end right there at the individual level, and the constitutive ambivalence of the racist remains intact. The bigger picture remains opaque.

I agree totally with Rattansi when he argues in the introduction to his book that "one of the main impediments to progress in understanding racism has been the willingness of all involved to propose short, supposedly water-tight definitions of racism and to identify quickly and with more or less complete certainty who is really racist and who is not".

To wrap up this post, I'd like to make one more point. I don't mean to 'let racists off the hook' by claiming that they are really all just torn about whether to be racists. This is not the view I've examined above at all. Instead, I've rejected a straw-man account of what racism is (a thoroughgoing, uncompromising hatred of everyone who falls under the hated group in question) because it seems to me that this straw-man account shuts down many discussions about race among whites arguing over whether someone is 'really' a racist. Once we reject the idea that the object of discussion is whether a person 'really is a racist', where the set 'racist' is defined by precise and succinct necessary and sufficient conditions, there is no more need to put up with character defenses when discussing race. Many on the Right respond to accusations of racism by distorting the character of the accusation: "well, if you think he's a filthy, racist hatemonger who's never helped a non-White person in his life, then you're wrong!". They make it sound as though charges of racism are tantamount to charges of being a Nazi, with the result that those who call racism for what it is appear to be 'overreacting'.

It is precisely here that the point about ambivalence is helpful. When I notice that a family member or a co-worker says something really racist, I don't think: wow, this person is a horrible human being and they must hate everybody who isn't white. I do think, usually, that they've got some really fucked up views about race and that those views should not be tolerated. I think about how their social pathologies perpetuate injustice. I think about how disturbingly common those sorts of views are. I also think about how they can be changed and also how they came about. I think about how they are in a position of privilege to even be so blasé about race, given that they don't have to confront its oppressive character.

But none of these important thoughts that I have are helped along or illuminated by the facile attempts we often hear about whether or not someone gets the 'racist' sticker. I'm not sure I see the political payoff.