Friday, May 31, 2013

"Change" not any easy thing

In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle caused a national sensation and created a national scandal out of the meatpacking industry. Although the point of the novel was the exploitation of workers and a forum for Sinclair’s socialist philosophy, the public was more outraged by its lurid tales of the shockingly unsanitary conditions in which canned meat—or so-called meat—products were prepared and processed. President Theodore Roosevelt was among those who panned the politics but was shocked into action by its allegations of indifference to public health.  After a report Roosevelt commissioned confirmed most of the novel’s allegations (workers falling into boiling vats and coming out as household “lard” was not, however, confirmed as true), it seemed easy sailing to get a law passed through Congress regulating the industry; indeed a robust law passed the U.S. Senate that included mandatory dating and a requirement that the meat industry be required to foot the bill for inspection, since a federal stamp of approval would be to their benefit as well as the public.

But as James Davidson and Mark Lytle chronicle in their book After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection, this story was far from over. Roosevelt was part of the “progressive” wing of the Republican Party, which included Wisconsin Sen. Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette—whose political philosophy could accurately be described as “socialist.” But then as now many Republicans were tools of industry, and in the House of Representatives the proposed food safety law ran into fanatical opposition by members of the president’s own party. Although the law would have easily passed had it been voted out of committee, it was prevented from doing so by Republicans with ties to the meatpacking industry who argued that  food safety laws were unnecessary and burdensome. 

Roosevelt first tried to persuade and then bludgeon a law through the House, and the watered-down bill that eventually was passed was threatened with defeat by angry Senators who objected to the removal of the mandatory dating and business-financed inspection provisions; but at the last moment, when it seemed certain that no bill would pass at all, Roosevelt persuaded enough Senators to support the Meat Inspection and Pure Food and Drug Acts to eventual passage. Some people might be surprised to learn that other than infant products, dating processed food is still "voluntary" and not required by law.

This episode reveals how even with a popular and charismatic president, widespread public support and even a majority in both houses of Congress ready and willing to pass an effective law, even a small cadre of right-wing zealots can prevent its passage, or one that barely resembles what its backers originally intended. Thus it is hardly surprising that the health care reform and financial regulation bills that finally passed during Barack Obama’s first term were far from what their backers had hoped, and that immigration reform today is far from a done deal, and debt reduction talks continue to be at an impasse, as Republicans in the House insist on deep cuts in Medicare and other programs for the poor. 

This is the cost of “divided” government, in this case when one party that is bent on obstruction is in control of one chamber of Congress. One may ask how Franklin Delano Roosevelt managed to get through Congress such sweeping measures that even during the Great Depression most Republicans denounced as “socialist” and stridently opposed—backed by extremist “Tea Party”-like groups that were not shy about expressing their racial attitudes.  The reason was that Republicans were for once recognized as being grossly out-of-step with the times; as one Republican senator ruefully chided his party, people “can’t eat the Constitution.” Translation: In FDR’s first term, he had a 59-36 filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a 311-117 majority in the House. In the 1934 bi-election, Democrats won a supermajority of 70-23 in the Senate and even gained in the House. In 1936, the Democrats increased their take to 75 seats in the Senate, and in the House, to an astonishing 334 to 88 advantage in the House—and that didn’t include 13 from progressive third parties. Times were so tough that voters simply didn’t have the patience for Republicans who even then insisted that the Constitution and tax cuts for the wealthy would “solve” their problems.

That was a moment in time when voters accepted the need for radical change; the Civil War was also used to rationalize the expansion the authority of the federal government. But as bad as the financial meltdown was in 2008 was, it wasn’t “bad” enough or effected enough people to sustain the desire for major “change” with the election of Obama--if a majority even defined "change" as one of public policy. Today some people blame Obama’s supposed failures of “leadership” for the lack of movement on certain pressing problems like the debt “crisis,” but the reality is that in politics it is easier for one to tango than two. Sometimes the effect can be destructive, as we saw when Republicans controlled all three branches of government from 2000 to 2006, but that was to be expected.  There is no denying that Obama faces far greater challenges than many of his predecessors--including racial resentment by certain constituencies that has been cynically exploited by Republicans.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The real story of the Jodi Arias murder case was the pursuit of false social status, and domestic violence myths

Since the jury in the Jodi Arias murder case in Arizona failed to reach a unanimous decision on Arias’ final date with destiny—a majority saw through her false and manipulative act during her plea for life speech, but others were unable to get past her femininity—it appears that unless prosecutor Juan Martinez decides to drop the death penalty as an option, it will be many more months before the case is finally put to rest. Of course in the meantime there is the George Zimmerman trial soon for CNN to “entertain” the masses with. I’ll talk about that media-poisoned, hypocrisy-laden case again in due time, but I think that we can look back on the Arias case and make a few observations about the trial that the media has overlooked. In my mind, there were two important themes played out in the Arias case that had nothing to do with the media “circus” or the public’s “fascination” with it: The pursuit of social status, and the continuing hypocrisy of how society regards the issue the domestic violence.

First the social implications of the case. Arias is a Latina who seems to have been forever attempting to ingratiate herself in Anglo society. All of her friends appear to be non-Hispanic whites, as were all of her various boyfriends. In order to insinuate herself into this set as an “accepted” member, she dyed her hair blonde, had breast augmentation, and appears to have had a “nose job” to make her look more “white.” She even converted to the Mormon faith in this quest; who knew that doing so gives one a free pass into the wonderful world of non-stop premarital sex. 

All this in itself isn’t particularly “surprising,” given the way society is structured; it is perfectly understandable that someone would attempt to improve their social standing by, say, marrying a white man. Of course, that doesn’t change who they are, and their children would likely inherit their less “desirable” physical characteristics, and thus face the same social “issues.” The problem here is that many women like Arias need something to “sell” themselves to their would-be Anglo "benefactors," and that apparently is often the promise of easy sex. And let’s not quibble about details here; right up to the day of the murder, Arias did everything she could to portray herself as a sex addict in the mind of Travis Alexander. How could he possibly refuse her?

In the 1940s and 50s, films often portrayed dark-haired Latinas as “spitfires” and sex objects who tempted  temporarily weak-willed white men, who in the end would see “sense” and  reject them in favor  the “pure-hearted” blonde white woman. I would not doubt that there is at least the suspicion that this dynamic is still in play in the minds of some—like Arias and her would-be mate, the deceased  Alexander. That Arias tried to change her appearance to resemble an Anglo white female would suggest that she felt threatened by the potential of Alexander preferring the “real” thing. If reports are true that Alexander was soon leaving on his Cancun business trip in the company of another female “friend,” the failure of Arias’ efforts to recreate herself in what she presumed would be sufficient enticement to “keep” Alexander must have been an extreme shock to her ambitions, not to mention her ego.

I must confess that I feel very little but contempt for people who choose to degrade themselves by buying false status, especially through the use of sex.  It has been easier for me than most in my situation to see the futility of pursuing the unattainable, and move on with life; since I don’t go out of my way to mingle with the masses it doesn’t matter so much to me what people think. Maybe I’m not as “ambitious” or as greedy as some. I don’t look at myself in the mirror every day and wish I looked like something else. I can’t change my physical reality. 

That being said, what some people can’t seem to get through their thick skulls (or preconceived notions) is that other than those possessed by demons, human beings regardless of race or ethnicity go through life motivated by the same things, and have the same basic wants and desires; “differences” are generally a matter of degree. Abraham Lincoln, whatever his true attitudes on race, drew the line in accepting popular prejudices of the time in stating that in the right to earn a living, the black man was his or any other white man’s equal. This seems perfectly reasonable, unless of course it means stepping on some "privileged" toes.   Republicans prefer that other groups simply “assimilate” into their "culture,"  meaning that the “assimilated” group must subordinate itself, be submissive and take what they are given; it also means that to be fully “accepted,” they must “accept” and disseminate (see Michelle Malkin) the uglier stereotypes and prejudices of their own or other national scapegoats. 

Nevertheless, I can locate elements of self-worth, if I look hard enough, that does not require confirmation from the majority group. I might not have any money or have adequate housing, but my large collection of classic films—I recently added Criterion’s Josef von Sternberg silent film collection (I particularly like The Docks of New York)—tells me that I am probably more culturally in tuned than, say, bigots like Pat Buchanan and Lynn Cheney.  Fortunately, the Internet has provided me a forum for which to tell you all that; otherwise, I’d merely be wallowing in Stone Age ignorance—or such would be the opinion of most people I encounter on the street.

I’m not like Jodi Arias and others like her. I'm a social and political "soldier"--not a strumpet. I never let questions of “status” bother me overmuch, because that is determined by ignorant, bigoted people who were simply unworthy of my time or patience. Arias was clearly more desperate and single-minded in her efforts to achieve purchased status. She had no money or job-defined social position; she was referred to as a “photographer” by some in the media, but this was just a ploy to puff her up as something more than a pathetic strumpet. She wasn’t alone in this, of course. Lorena Bobbitt confessed that she came to America to pursue her “dream”—to snag a white Anglo husband; to John Bobbitt, of course, she was a trouble-free sex receptacle, at least for a while. Many black professional athletes see a white wife as emblematic of their new social status. Of course, when their careers are over and the money runs out, questions of social “status” tend to shift. 


The second theme of the trial was domestic violence. Arias claimed—after first denying that she even knew of the crime—that her actions were the last resort of a relationship in which she was the victim of repeated violence. Indeed, the savage violence of the murder would make “sense” if she was the victim of a sustained pattern of domestic violence. She also complained that she was abused as a child. You can find plenty of people on the Internet who believed her claim and seemed blithely unfazed by the brutality of the crime, and Arias' lies and fabrications from the very beginning. Even seemingly trivial matters were the subject of confident lying, and Arias' contempt for the intelligence of the jury doubtless went far to insure her conviction; the episode concerning the alleged purchase and return of the third gasoline, when Martinez proved that she actually used it for the purchase of gasoline, demonstrated that no detail was beyond Arias' deceptiveness. Why should she be believed about her claims of domestic violence? Consider the following:

Arias’ demeanor during her trial was for the most part egotistical, self-confident, unemotional and calculating. She never acted like she was a “victim” of anything save a bruised ego. Except during her testimony when she was caught in yet another falsehood, her behavior suggested that she was not only unharmed emotionally by the alleged abuse, but her attitude about the killing seemed to be matter-of-fact, something that everyone would do in her place—if they also had, as a prosecution expert testified, a “borderline personality disorder.”

Arias and Alexander were only a “couple” for less than five months, from February to June 2007. The murder occurred almost a year later. 

Arias repeatedly attempted to entice Alexander with sex, even after they broke-up. 

Alexander’s text messages and other communications with Arias in regard to their relationship suggested that she was insufferably paranoid about the state of their relationship and his feelings toward her.

Communications between the two after their break-up indicate that Arias continued to try to get back together with Alexander. When these efforts failed, she was accused of stalking him, hacking into his Facebook account, and slashing the tires of his car. 

Arias never told anyone about domestic violence at the hands of Alexander until after her arrest.
During her plea for her life, Arias used photographs of happy scenes with her family—which would contradict her claim that she was abused as a child. 

The prosecution proved that Arias’ version of the killing had almost no relation with the physical evidence or the time line indicated by photographs from the camera Arias used before, during and after the murder.

More importantly, Arias told a seemingly endless parade of deceptions and fabrications with remarkable ease, and yet was so certain that people would believe her that she confidently predicted before the trial that “no jury would convict me,” and after the verdict that she felt “betrayed” by the jury. 

What does all this tell us? For one thing, if Arias really was the victim of domestic violence, why would she repeatedly attempt to reestablish her relationship with Alexander? Does this not indicate an aberrant obsession? This was the biggest hole in her defense argument. She had already found a new Anglo boyfriend in the interim—and yet she contacted Alexander with yet another enticement for sex. Was it an obsession that she was unable to control that drove her to give him one more “chance”—and having failed to persuade him, acted on “Plan B”  in revenge for rejecting her, despite offering her body to him yet again? 

One observer who is a forensic psychiatrist, Sheila Wendler, thought that Arias’ behavior was suggestive of “unstable interpersonal relationships and intense fear of abandonment or rejection by their partner. They may react in extreme ways to avoid abandonment, including becoming suicidal, self-mutilate or react with intense anger, which they may have difficulty to control. These women can become cruelly punitive toward whom they perceive as rejecting them."

If Arias’ claim that she acted out of “self-defense” after repeated physical abuse rings false, one thing that we can also reject is the myth of the “passive” female victim, and the suggestion that physical differences between the sexes really matters in how the public and law enforcement should regard domestic violence. Physical strength can be neutralized by factors such as a male’s passive personality, taking advantage of circumstances of weakness, or employing superior force. It was clear that this murder was perpetrated when Alexander was in a vulnerable position in his tiny shower cubicle; Arias had persuaded him to squeeze himself in a sitting position by claiming that she wanted a photograph of him like this for her portfolio. Alexander never suspected what Arias was about to do to him, and he had no means to defend himself but with his hands. 

The defense tried to claim that Arias shot him first, but the wounds on Alexander’s hands and the fact that the blood trail led into his bedroom indicated that he was still alive at least in the first minute of the attack. Alexander apparently died in the hallway outside the bathroom, where Arias apparently slit his throat after knifing him almost thirty times and then shooting him in the head; a demonstration on ABC News showed that a female the same build as Arias could easily drag someone the size of Alexander back into the shower cubicle where he was subsequently found. 

Defense “expert” on domestic violence, Alyce LaViolette,  also did Arias no favors; her testimony had all the credibility of a biased advocate. Under cross examination, LaViolette—who was repeatedly admonished by the judge for giving evasive or non-responsive answers—was forced to admit that despite Arias' many false statements and fabrications, and the lack of any corroborating evidence or testimony that Arias was the victim of domestic violence by the hand of Alexander, she chose to believe Arias’ latest story without the slightest reservation. On the other hand, LaViolette chose to dismiss out-of-hand Alexander’s statement that he was being stalked by Arias and was fearful of her—as it turned out, with some justification. LaViolette’s house of toothpicks was subsequently demolished seemingly within minutes by prosecution witness Janeen DeMarte, whose clinical, objective appraisal of Arias was that her past and present behavior exhibited none of the variables associated with victims of domestic abuse, but that of extreme jealousy.

What then are we to make of this case? Of course, the media has made the case out to be whether Arias’ claim to be abused both physically and personally (i.e. feelings of being a “prostitute,” a circumstance which she alone is to blame) was to be believed to justify that savageness of the crime. But for me, this case is about the desperate lengths a person of a “lower” social status tries to enter the world of a “higher” status, and how it causes those persons to degrade themselves even as they believe they are “improving” their social “status.” This case also demonstrated the limits of using “domestic violence” as defense for murder; without any actual evidence that it occurred, using it as a defense to explain an act of a seeming psychopath seems particularly cynical and opportunistic. More importantly—and unfortunately no doubt going over the heads of just about everyone—this case should demonstrate that women are just as capable of domestic violence, and sometimes of a kind that even the most violent of men would shrink from committing on their intimate partner.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Towing the fine line between comments based on race, and racism

I recall in my youth that there was a period when kids in school told “Polish” jokes; to call someone a “Polack” was generally a disparaging term to infer that someone was a “moron.” It is true that most of the jokes I heard used “Polack” as a generic term not necessarily meant to demean Poles (although Poles might have a different opinion about that), but as a convenient vehicle for juvenile, bad taste puns—like your typical “How many (blank) does it take to screw in a light bulb?” But like “jokes” about Latinos that are meant to be personal and offensive, the origins of “jokes” like “How do you catch a Polack? By slamming the toilet lid on his head while he’s taking a drink of water” were intended to degrade a particular group; such “jokes” were imported from German immigrants, especially those from regions bordering Poland. 

Many Poles also accused the “Jewish” media of disseminating anti-Pole jokes as an act of revenge for anti-Semitism; one may recall that Archie Bunker frequently disparaged his son-in-law as “Meathead” and “Polack” in All in the Family. Of course, it wasn’t always tolerated: “People from Poland are Poles, not Polacks” an angry Stanley Kowalski tells Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. “But what I am is one hundred percent American. I'm born and raised in the greatest country on this earth and I'm proud of it. And don't you ever call me a Polack.” Some of us “others” can relate. Take, for instance, the following conversation I once had with a drill instructor in the Army:

DI: Is this how you fold your socks, you Mexican?
Me: I'm not a Mexican.
DI: You Cuban.
Me: I'm not a Cuban.
DI: You Puerto Rican.
Me: I'm not a Puerto Rican.
DI:: You--whatever you are--except, of course, American.

“Polish” jokes have been out of style for a few decades now, but other forms of demeaning “jokes” still persevere. Take for instance the latest incident in the on-going soap opera involving Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia. Earlier in the week the Golf Channel's Steve Sands decided to stir the pot by asking Garcia at some European golf function if he would invite Woods to dinner when he returned to America for the US Open. "We will have him round every night," Garcia responded. "We will serve fried chicken." Not noted was how many people in the room laughed. One my ask “What is so offensive about that?” After all, is it not true that all “Mexicans” eat tacos and refried beans all day? Why don’t we “ask” Fuzzy Zoeller?

He's doing quite well, pretty impressive. That little boy is driving well and he's putting well. He's doing everything it takes to win. So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here? You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it? Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve.

This comment came after Woods trounced the field in the 1997 Masters Championship. Zoeller grew-up in “butternut” country in Indiana—meaning that the people there share the same racial attitudes as Southerners. The first offense here is calling Woods “boy.” The second is the assumption that he is not like “us”—meaning white people. It was a stupid remark, really; plenty of white folks eat chicken—fried or otherwise. I bet the first Kentucky Fried Chicken joints in the South didn’t even allow blacks inside. Zoeller still claims it was just a “joke,” but unfortunately for him that reference of “they” suggests that his remarks came from personal prejudice and bigotry. 

What then do we make of Garcia’s disparagement of “fried chicken”? I don’t think  Garcia is a racist; one thing I do know is that racism by players and fans is a frequent scandal in European soccer. Perhaps he is just acting out his envy of Woods’ success, or he feels “demeaned” because Woods isn’t “friendly” with him—and so takes his vengeance by using insipid means of demeaning Woods, employing a stereotype that suggests an “unnatural” desire. On the other hand, how do we interpret Steve Williams' comment that he wanted to shove Adam Scott's  win at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational  “right up that black ass”? Williams, who made millions caddying for Woods, was eventually fired by Woods during his “troubled” period. Williams eventually got a new job on Scott’s bag, but it was clear that  he now held a deep grudge against Woods, doubtless feeling that he wasn’t “appreciated” enough. Was it a “racist” remark? Why did he have to identify the “color” of Woods’ fundament? Did IT being “black” make it more despicable? 

In any case, if he was a soccer player, Garcia would have been the subject of a long investigation and penalized. But golf is more “gentlemanly” and it likes to keep things “respectable.” Garcia gave what appeared to be a sincere apology for his remark, claiming that he did not know that in America, it had racial connotations. Well, of course he knew, or else he wouldn’t have used the “fried chicken” crack. From someone else, Woods would likely have brushed off the remark; but given their war of words of late, he decided to rub it in on Twitter: "The comment that was made wasn't silly. It was wrong, hurtful and clearly inappropriate,” but he accepted Garcia’s “regret” about the comment as “real.” The powers that be in European golf also decided that the apology was sufficient and that it was time to move on. Just one problem: 

Most of Sergio's friends in the States happen to be coloured athletes…We accept all races on the European Tour…There is no need for any further disciplinary action—apparently no more than persuading Garcia to make his apology.

These remarks were made by George O’Grady, who is head of the European Golf Tour. Someone subsequently whispered in his ear that in the States  when certain people use the word “coloured”—or “colored”—to describe another group or groups, it suggests these certain people still see other races as a separate species. Now if O’Grady had used the term “people of colour,” that would have been more acceptable, since coloured people sounds suspiciously like “mud” people; putting “people” before “colour” sound more respectful. 

Some people might defend O’Grady for simply being out-of-step with the times, being a Northern Irish Protestant. I once knew a woman from Northern Ireland who worked in a temp office; she said that she was the product of a “mixed marriage.” Someone in the room expressed doubt upon this and asked if one of her parents was black; oh no, her father was Catholic and her mother Protestant. They lived in a Catholic-majority neighborhood, and they were generally treated like pariahs. In a society already deeply divided by religion within a single race, it’s not hard to imagine how racial divisions are observed. John Huggan, writing for Golf Digest, was not as forgiving of this latest example of how some in the golf world still have trouble accepting the reality of a Tiger in the Caucasian clubhouse:

Well, that's all right then, as long as everyone is prepared to accept complete ignorance on the part of the accused as a legitimate defense. Or that being completely out of touch with the modern world also represents a reasonable explanation for such a blatant faux pas. Neither is, of course. But O'Grady -- who has worked for the European Tour since 1974 -- should know better. Indeed, he must know better. If those charged with the administration of golf cannot be trusted to navigate what is admittedly becoming something of a racial minefield, what chance have those more casually involved?

Huggan may have had someone like Scottish golfer/muscle-head Colin Montgomerie in mind. “Monty” leapt to the defense of both Garcia and O’Grady, proclaiming that 

George (O'Grady) says coloured, somebody says black, but who is to say who is right and wrong, and for the chief executive who is a very educated man to get caught up then we need to decide what we can and can't say and move on quickly…I am not allowed to feel sorry for him (Garcia). But we are a family here on the European Tour, a close family unit and we stand up for each other. I've played a lot of Ryder Cups with Sergio and we are a very close family and we should remain that way. This shouldn't affect us…If I get asked at the next press conference I'll have to say 'sorry, no comment' and hope that is not offending anybody. You just can't say a thing, can you? It's a shame, it's a pity. The three 'no-no's' are race, religion and politics and you are going to upset someone along the line if you mention any of them.

Montgomerie is another one of those golfers who has a hard time accepting the fact that Tiger Woods’ place in golf history is a book-length masterpiece, while his will be that footnote of someone who made a stupid or inane comment. Here he reveals himself to be utterly insensitive and basely ignorant. For him and others like him, he can’t distinguish the “fine line” between making comments based on race, and racism (I am also reminded of an incident in college when a pale, blonde female bemused fellow students by saying out loud that she would never marry a black man—but insisted that she wasn’t a "racist").  It’s an easy thing to do to avoid making comments that can be construed as having racist overtones—unless, of course, you suggest things like “We are a European family,” which has its own  discriminatory implications. A social dinosaur like Archie Bunker would have been in complete agreement with that philosophy.