Archive for January, 2008

And Then There Were Two

January 30, 2008

Just heard as I was brushing my teeth this morning that John Edwards has pulled out of the Democratic race. Last week it was Kucinich. After the Iowa caucuses at the beginning of the year, it was Dodd (I think.) Gravel is still officially in the race, but nobody has taken him seriously. Dunno about Biden. So for all practical purposes it’s down to Clinton and Obama. During the same period, the Republican field has also narrowed, as Giuliani pulled out, leaving Romney, Huckabee, McCain, and Ron Paul.

Since I don’t get to vote till next week (actually I can vote early, and may do it today, but my vote won’t be counted until next week,) I’m kind of annoyed at having fewer people to vote for than the residents of South Carolina and Florida. But, on the other hand, this year, at least nobody’s getting knocked out of the race for some petty trumped-up pseudo-scandal like the ones that were all over the map in 1992 (like Senator Biden’s ghost-writer plagiarizing from some British politician’s ghost-writer, and Dukakis’ staff-person leaking the story about it to the paper) and 2004 (like Howard Dean’s barbaric yawp.) This time, people are just running out of money.

The media, of course, have still played a malignant role, but a slightly different one from earlier years. Now they don’t bother trashing anybody’s reputation (well, okay, Edwards did get some flak about being a rich trial lawyer and espousing the needs of the poor, but it never really caught on and they never really pushed it), they just blandly state up front that certain candidates don’t count, and cannot be taken seriously. Ron Paul, for instance, and Dennis Kucinich, and Mike Gravel, and Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden. Even when the “don’t-counts” stay in the race, the media ignore them and do everything possible to keep their faces and their messages away from the public. But trashing them would require paying attention to them, and maybe even (heaven forbid) attracting the public’s attention to them. Can’t have that.

So the tone of this race has been elevated slightly (well, not debased as badly as in previous years), but the range of media-acceptable political opinion has, if anything, narrowed. The field of candidates has narrowed, and the significance of the primary process has been eroded still further.

I can still remember the 1968 Democratic convention, which happened right down the street from where I was working at the time. Most people, of course, were mainly paying attention to the protests against it. But it was the last blast of the old system of nominating presidential candidates. One of the things that some of us were protesting was the fact that the convention was nominating a candidate who had not won a single primary election. In 1972, our current system was set up to replace the smoke-filled room. Three dozen years later, it is becoming obvious that we have merely replaced one set of smoke-filled rooms with another. (Well, okay, probably nobody smokes inside any of those rooms any more–that would be illegal and unhealthy.) The old party hacks who allowed Lyndon Johnson to impose Hubert Humphrey on the Democrats have been replaced by media hacks and money-raisers. Most of the party hacks had, at least, been elected to something by somebody, somewhere along the line. The media hacks and money-raisers are answerable to no one but their donors and their own whims. Public funding, which was supposed to solve at least some of these problems, has been swamped into irrelevance by the sheer magnitude of the private money available for campaigning these days.

And I am still bothered by the increasing number of voters, in person-on-the-street interviews before, during, and after the various caucuses and primaries, who come right out and say, “I’d like to vote for X, but Y has a better chance in the general election.”

In the first place, if we haven’t learned by now how badly the official sources of information are doing at calling winners and losers this year, we just aren’t paying attention. I wouldn’t vote for dogcatcher on the basis of what this crop of experts predicts. They’ve been wrong over and over again, and anybody lazy enough to listen to them instead of watching the numbers themselves deserves to be bamboozled. So who knows which candidate has the best chance in the general election? The waitress who brought my soup at lunch today is as likely to be right as anybody else, and I might as well rely on my own hunches.

And in the second place, “strategic voting” undermines the whole point of the secret ballot. Polls have shown again and again that if you ask a voter “Who will you vote for for X office?”, you will get an entirely different answer from what you get if you ask, “Who would you vote for if you thought s/he had a chance of winning?” Isn’t it about time we tried electing some of the people we’d prefer if we thought they could win? Maybe some of them could win. And if one of them did, maybe we’d be better off than we are now.

It’s the old “neighbor” fallacy. During the early days of the Civil Rights movement, pollsters asked people how they would feel about living next door to, working with, or working for someone of another race. The answer, more often than not, was something like, “I wouldn’t mind, but my neighbor/co-worker/friend would have a fit.” Sometimes those answers were given in good faith but in ignorance of how the neighbor/etc. really felt, and sometimes they were disguises for the respondent’s own racism. But either way, they deprived the pollster, and the rest of us, of the respondent’s honest view of the possibility of racial justice, which we really needed.

So here’s a modest proposal for this year’s election. For at least one office (not necessarily for president, since so many people are so fearful of “wasting” their vote by not voting for the winning candidate), vote for the person you most respect in the entire world, whether or not that person is on the ballot. Write him/her in if you have to. Real or fictitious, living or dead, involved in politics or just somebody you really admire. Your husband, your mother, your favorite teacher, Mickey Mouse, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa. The real “waste” of a vote is voting for somebody you really don’t want. This year, make sure that at least part of your vote isn’t wasted.

Red Emma

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WHO GETS THE REBATE?

January 29, 2008

Our Glorious Leader has decided to stimulate the economy by giving tax rebates to ordinary working taxpayers.  And seniors on Social Security.  And people getting the Earned Income Tax Credit.  And…sorry, I’m losing track.  But I’m pretty sure that none of the people on the list are independent contractors or entrepreneurs.  None of them, that is, are the people whose income mostly shows up on the Schedule C. 

 The Schedule C is the IRS form that people submit with their 1040 to report “profit or loss” from a business.  In the political realm, it is the form people love to ignore.  The only presidential candidate who is proposing anything that will affect Schedule C filers is Mike Huckabee, who wants to abolish the IRS and the income tax altogether.  By implication, that means the Schedule C gets abolished too.  This is as close as anybody has come to mentioning it in what passes for political discourse since 1960 or so. 

Why on earth should that matter?  People talk about the income tax system only to denounce it, or occasionally to protest excessive denunciation.  Why should we care about one particular obscure tax form?

Because Schedule C is what our economy increasingly runs on, that’s why.  Schedule C is how entrepreneurs, and small business owners, and independent professionals, and contractors, and odd-job men (and women) report their income (or lack of it.) 

 Lots of people who get most of their income from a job, reported on a W-2 form, also file a Schedule C for doing various odd jobs on the side.  And some people who report most of their income on a Schedule C also file W-2s for various part-time job income as well.  But the people whose income shows up entirely or mostly on a Schedule C are, arguably, the people our country and our economy are built on. We are the people who make most of the new jobs. (Last I heard, the Fortune 500 had not created a single net new job in the last thirty years.)  We are the people who work without a net, outside the corporate welfare state. We provide our own health care, our own retirement, our own office space and equipment, our own training and education, our own unemployment compensation.  When we succeed, we may get famous.  When we fail, if we’re lucky, we can get welfare.  When we just muddle along, we get from one day to the next.

In the meantime, the politicians look out for corporate employees and major business owners.  The Small Business Administration, which you might expect to be helpful to the sole proprietor, defines “small business” as including any operation grossing less than $750,000.00.  Even in these days of galloping inflation, I find that unhelpful. 

Back when “tax simplification” was the mantra (about three elections back), all the “simplifiers” talked about was the 1040 Form.  They managed to get it down to the size of a postcard, at least for some filers.  I’m still waiting for the Form 1040 BS (standing, not for the obvious barnyard epithet, but for Bumper Sticker, the ultimate simplification), but sooner or later it has to happen.  That does absolutely nothing for the increasing number of people who have to file Schedule C.

And why is that number increasing?  Well, maybe some of it is the Baby Boomers and their progeny, who are just too individualistic and ornery to make it as employees.  But most of it is the result of one round after another of job cuts in one segment of the economy after another, while the erstwhile “safety net” that was supposed to catch workers as they fell out of those industries tatters and shreds.  If those of us who have been declared “redundant” (in the elegant British word) stubbornly insist not only on living but on having families to support, the only place most of us can go is into self-employment of one sort or another.

There are different kinds of “self-employment”, some of which are purely fictive.  Every now and then the federal government actually sues some large employer for representing that certain of its workers are “independent contractors” (and therefore responsible for paying their own income and Social Security taxes), when in fact they are employees and their employers have that obligation.  But most of the time, employees and “contractors” work side by side in the same companies, doing the same work, and nobody knows the difference except the payroll office. 

Some “self-employed” people are actually farmed out to employers by “temporary” agencies. Their “temporary” status may be fictive as well. Some “human resources” specialists use charmingly oxymoronic terms like “permanent temporary” and “full-time part-time” to describe workers who do precisely the same work as their fully employed colleagues, but have been arbitrarily defined as “temporary” or “part-time” so that they don’t have to be given the same pay and benefits.  Indeed, it is fairly common for a full-time employee to be fired and then allowed to come back to exactly the same job as a “temp” or a “part-timer” or a “contractor” so that the employer can skimp on the worker’s pay and withdraw benefits altogether.

That’s different from the real independent contractors, who at least get compensated for their low pay and total absence of benefits by not having a boss.  Or, depending on how you look at it, having lots of bosses, but not being dependent on any one of them for their entire livelihood.  That’s basically my situation.  I get hired and fired all the time, by one client or another. Sometimes I quit, too.  That has its attractions.

It almost makes up for the fact that, so far as I can tell, we “independent” workers are not going to collect one cent in rebates in this upcoming economic stimulus.  It’s bad planning on the part of the government, though.  If Uncle Sam sends a rebate to an ordinary employee, it will eventually get spent, probably on personal consumption items.  But if that same rebate gets sent to an “independent contractor,” that money may very well get spent hiring another independent contractor to do some subcontract work, thereby going through two families rather than one–twice as much stimulus for the same buck.  Give it a thought, George.

Jane Grey

THE THEOLOGY OF OBESITY

January 29, 2008

Let’s start with a pop quiz.  Question 1:  How many of you made New Year’s resolutions this year that involved either (a) losing weight, (b) eating more good stuff and/or less bad stuff, or (c) exercising?  Almost all of you, right?  Question 2: How many of you made any New Year’s resolutions that involved anything else?  Maybe one or two? Question 3:when was the last time you used words like “vice,” “virtue,” and “sin” in any context other than diet and exercise?  Maybe back when you were in Sunday school, right?

In short, most of us have moved morality out of the boardroom and the bedroom, and into the dining room and the gym.  It no longer matters much whom or how we screw, as long as we eat right and exercise.  A BMI (body mass index, for the uninitiated—the ratio between height and weight) of 23 or less is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  It has the advantage that it is outward and visible, very publicly so.  Nobody needs to snoop into your bedroom or read your email or do DNA testing on your girlfriend’s dress to ascertain that you are saved or damned, as the case may be. (Although, interestingly enough, the thing people of both sexes are most likely to lie about on internet dating sites is their weight.)

Now that we have assigned a major moral value to physical fitness, of course, we can start theologizing about its particulars.  How many calories can dance on the point of a pin?  Are we saved by faith or by works?  Specifically, what causes the “obesity epidemic” which (we are told several times a day in every organ of the mass media) now afflicts the US and is spreading (you should pardon the expression) to the four corners of the earth from here?  And how can it be stopped?

There is the hardcore predestinarian view:  everybody has a “set point” of weight, to which they tend eventually to return after every binge or diet.  It is probably genetic, or at least congenital.  The “morbidly obese” person may have an abnormally high set point, as a result of glandular abnormality or some other genetic problem.  The rest of us, by the time we reach middle age, can count on looking a lot like our parents at the same age, barring really unusual circumstances.

There is the equally hardcore moralistic view:  obesity is caused by taking in more calories than you work off.  You eat too much and don’t move around enough.  You’re lazy and gluttonous.  The cure is to eat less and move more.  If you claim to be doing that and you still don’t lose weight, you’re obviously lying, at least to yourself and possibly to everybody.  You’re a sinner, and you’re damned, damned, I tell you!

(The corollary to this approach is that losing weight by any means other than diet and exercise is cheating, even if it works, and even if it significantly improves the patient’s health. For instance, recent research has shown that liposuction and bariatric surgery can help people with Type II diabetes lower their blood sugar, often to the point of no longer needing medication.  Most doctors, however, refuse to perform such procedures on drastically overweight people who are not willing to promise to “do penance and amend their lives” afterwards.)

Then there’s the “salvation by faith” approach: obesity is caused by stress, and the cure is to relax.  Sleep more and better.  Use exercise as a means of relaxation.  Diet by eating less but eating stuff you really like, and eating slowly.  And if that still doesn’t work, accept yourself as you are and work on just keeping yourself healthy and happy.

There are fringe-group views, such as the “obesity virus,” and the attribution of obesity to various chemicals in our food or our environment.  And there is the “peccate fortiter [sin boldly]” school of thought, whose evangelists tell us that we all need to accept our inner [and outer] fat selves, stop discriminating against and harassing the fat people among us, and live with obesity, no matter what causes it.

I’m certainly no expert on what causes obesity.  I’m not sure there is any such expertise among us these days.  Probably one of the causes is just that we are, as a society, accustomed to eating like farm workers and stevedores, even though we now work like code monkeys and telephone marketers.  We have systematically squeezed almost every erg of physical exertion out of our paid work, without decreasing our caloric intake correspondingly.

Let’s look at this a bit more closely.  Most of us have three kinds of time: paid work, unpaid work, and leisure.  As stated above, our paid work almost never involves physical exertion.  At most, we will exercise one or two musculoskeletal systems, often beyond their capacity [that’s called “repetitive stress injury” and it’s the commonest source of Worker’s Comp claims], while all the others loaf. Most of us don’t do any systematic physical labor in our unpaid work time either.  So if we’re going to get in any physical exertion, we have to crowd it into our already scanty leisure time, where it competes with family interaction, dating, entertainment, and other much more attractive pastimes.  Mostly, of course, it loses the competition. Surprise.

And then there’s eating.  Which is just about the only source of physical pleasure we can engage in in public and while working.  It is a social activity. Often, it is a political activity (almost every candidate gains weight during a campaign. The ones who don’t are probably concealing a serious health problem.)  Sometimes it is even a competitive sport (see “American Pie.”)  It is also, in many faiths, a religious observance.  (A real one, I mean, not just a metaphor.)

So, whatever the reason, we should not be surprised that the visible outcome of eating + exercise is an important social marker.  This is nothing new.  In pre-industrial times, being fat was a sign of wealth and importance.  Look at the paintings of the Dutch Masters.  Read the Victorians. Read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.  The irresistible Grushenka would be, by modern standards, a cow. 

Back when the ordinary lower-class worker did physical labor, outdoors, and thereby became thin and tanned, his betters distinguished themselves by being pale and plump.  But beginning in the 1920s, more and more ordinary lower-class workers did sedentary, or at most single-muscle, labor, indoors.  They became plump and pale.  Those who had leisure time in which to do physical exercise outdoors could distinguish themselves by being thin and tanned.  Now that we have discovered the medical dangers of excessive tanning, we are backing off from valuing it as a component of beauty.  But thin is still in.

There has probably always been a wide difference between the ideal of physical beauty and the reality of how most people looked.  And it has probably always been weighted (you should pardon the expression) in favor of the rich and against ordinary working people.  But that difference is wider now than it has been in a long time.  The Ideal (rich) Woman is thinner and the Real (working-class) Woman is fatter than ever before. 

And, as mentioned earlier, we are putting more and more of our moral energy into issues of body mass than ever before.  There’s nothing new about trying to distinguish Good People from Bad People on the basis of how they look.  It’s pure moral laziness, but it’s purely natural.  It just takes a lot less work than getting to know an individual as an individual.

Human beings have always tried to base their moral valuations of people on things that could be easily seen.  That’s where racism comes from.  White people did not decide to discriminate against black people because they had been slaves. We decided to make them slaves because they were black.  And, when we stopped keeping them as slaves, they were still black, so we could still discriminate against them.

Sometimes, we made the process even easier, by requiring certain people to look different from the rest of us, and then basing our moral valuation of them on that difference.  Prostitutes, for instance, have often been required to dress differently, or dye their hair a particular color, so that they would not be mistaken for respectable women.  In Christian Europe, Jews were often required to wear distinguishing costume.

Full disclosure:  my husband is extremely overweight.  When he is getting to know someone, he often feels obliged to explain that he was not always this way.  He used to exercise, he used to be fit (it’s true, too.)  But now he has an illness that makes exercise impossible.  He doesn’t eat all that much (less than I do, most of the time.)  But he feels ashamed, and guilty, about his weight.  Probably most people who see him think he should. 

In fact, there are lots of reasons for people to be overweight, other than gluttony and sloth.  Working-class women spend most of their time in paid and unpaid labor, with no time for exercise, and no pleasures other than socializing around food.  Children in bad neighborhoods are often kept indoors for their own safety.   And some people have medical conditions that make exercise impossible.  All of these people have more than enough burdens.  We don’t need to go out of our way to add to them.

Yes, obesity can be bad for the health.  But so are shame and guilt, especially when, in most instances, “amending one’s life” is either impossible or possible only at the price of ignoring most of one’s other commitments.  And our current obsession with food and fitness is really bad for our social health.  It is a pure waste of moral energy.  It is a distraction from the urgent real issues that confront us today.  It is one more easy excuse for discriminating against poor people.  It is one more burden we lay upon women, who already have too much to do.  It is one more way we mess up the lives of girls.

So how about another New Year resolution?  Resolve today to use the words “sin,” “vice,” and “virtue” at least once a week each, in some context other than diet and exercise.  And be nice to a fat person today.

Jane Grey 

How Post-family-wage Families Can Work

January 24, 2008
Geez am I tired of hearing about the evils of single-parent families. It is, admittedly, better than the earlier gripes about female-headed families. But it never quite gets to the real point–irresponsible men. But let’s face it, we preach to the choir–in this case, single mothers–because they’re actually in the pews and available to be preached to, and many of them will actually sit there and listen to the finger-pointing and doom-crying and even feel guilty about not having a husband around. The people who never show up–the guys who walk away–are by definition not in the audience.
Guys walk away, social commentators keep saying, because they can no longer support their families single-handed.  Which is in fact a damn shame.  But they aren’t willing to hang around and do the things they COULD do to make the family’s life easier, because none of those things are “manly” enough–you know, like taking the kids to the doctor, going to parent-teacher conferences, doing the laundry, and all the other stuff Mama can’t do because she’s working two jobs, neither of which allows any paid time off. 
Two generations back, women were supposed to defer to their husbands because the husbands were supporting the family.  Now, apparently, women are supposed to defer to the men who might or might not become their husbands, because, poor things, they CAN’T support their families.  Does this sound like a con game or what?
Okay, time to light a candle and quit cursing the darkness.  I want to memorialize here a man who did do his share and more of bearing the family’s burdens, even though he was in no position to be their financial support.  His name was Tim, he was my best friend’s husband and my godson’s father, and he was killed in a car crash last summer.  His son, my godson, had Down syndrome.  My friend, Tim’s wife, worked professionally with people with disabilities.  Tim, who had grown up in various institutions and never finished high school, worked in factory management for many years, back when there were still factories to be managed. 
When the factory closed down, he stayed home and  managed the household, freeing his wife to devote her energy to her profession.  He took care of their son, and ran several paper routes, both for extra money and because it was work he and his son could do together, giving his son contact with the world and the pride of being useful.  After Tim was killed, his wife was surrounded by people he had run into on his daily rounds, who all said, “Tim always had something hopeful to say.  And it was absolutely clear how much he loved his son.”  The economy failed this family.  But Tim never did.  Yes, guys, it is possible.  Try it.

Red Emma

Adam and Steve, Lilith and Eve

January 21, 2008

Full disclosure here: I’m Jewish, and I read the bible in a traditional Jewish way.  Not the King James translation, to start with.  With careful attention to the context and order of the juicy quotes. And from the presumption that God does not waste words.

Also, I’m a lawyer.  So it really matters to me what the meaning of “is” is. (Even in Hebrew, which strictly speaking doesn’t have a word for “is.”)

As a regular reader/poster on another blog which shall remain nameless, I’m always running into discussions of same-sex marriage and how it will destroy the Family As We Know It.  Fortunately nobody on that blog actually uses the sign about God creating “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”  But it’s around all over the place anyway.  And when somebody presumes to tell me what God intended by creating things the way they are, I am compulsively drawn to read what the bible actually says about this stuff.  After all, some huge proportion of what most people claim “the bible says” is actually drawn from Shakespeare or Ben Franklin.

Finally, the Jewish tradition uses midrash to illuminate the text.  Midrash is how the curious reader figures out what the characters do between installments.  A lot of what some people think “the bible says” is actually midrash.  (So, by the way, is a lot of Cecil B. DeMille’s version of The Ten Commandments.)

So let’s start with Genesis I, 26-28, which is the first version of the creation of humanity.  After the cosmos and the earth’s plants and animals are created, then come humans.  It’s an equal-opportunity story: “male and female He created them,” apparently at the same moment.  They’re always together.  Then they are commanded, “Increase and multiply and fill the earth.”

But in the next chapter (Genesis II, 7), the story seems to backtrack, to before there was any vegetation on the earth, or any human to take care of it (the implication is, what’s the point in making a garden if there’s nobody to tend it?  People are necessary to the proper running of the world.)   God makes Adam from the earth, and then plants a garden for him to live in and care for.  Lots of travelogue stuff follows, and then (Genesis II, 18-25) God finally figures out that “It is not good that Adam should be alone.”  Which makes it clear that this version of the creation involved only a single person, at least to start with.  Adam tries to interact with the various critters around him, but it doesn’t work for him.

Then God slips Adam a mickey, takes a rib out of his side, and makes it into Eve. Adam says, “Therefore shall a man leave father and mother and cleave only unto her, and they shall be one flesh.”  All this, before there are fathers and mothers. Adam is clearly thinking ahead.

The Jewish tradition asks, reasonably enough, why two stories about the creation of humanity?  And, okay, the Adam who shows up in both of them can reasonably be taken to be the same person, but what about the females?  One of them is made simultaneously with Adam, inseparable from him.  She is also never named, and never mentioned again. A chapter later, we have Eve, who is made after Adam, and from him, and to whom Adam gives her name.  The last time we see her name is in Genesis IV, 1, but by that time she has become an essential component of the story.  So whatever happened to The First Mrs. Adam?

The traditional midrash fills in the gaps with her name (Lilith) and her fate.  The two of them have been commanded to increase and multiply.  But she will not allow Adam to dominate her–why should she, she asks, when they were created at the same time and are made of the same substance?  When he tries (traditionally by using the male-on-top position for sex), she flies away.

The midrash leaves us with the presumption that Adam, having had a partner and lost her, is now alone and not happy about it. God catches on, and makes another partner for him.  This time, God sees the partnership as primarily about companionship, not just procreation. In fact, God doesn’t say anything else about increasing and multiplying until the Noah story (Genesis VIII, 17) after everybody except the inhabitants of the Ark has been wiped out.

In short, the second creation, the one that “takes,” sees people as partners with each other, with the earth, and with the Creator in managing the earth.  Partnership is first about companionship, and only secondarily about procreation.

And, incidentally, there are limits placed on procreation.  “Increase and multiply and fill the earth.”  The commandment is issued again only after the earth has been forcibly emptied, by the Flood.  Once the earth is filled, or re-filled, procreation loses its importance.

In fact, the version of the command given after the Flood says “be fruitful and multiply.”  A traditional Jewish reading of that phrase might lead one to ask, “is there a way to multiply without being fruitful? or to be fruitful without multiplying?” God doesn’t waste words, remember.  Is it possible that God is backtracking on the original command to “increase and multiply” because it didn’t turn out so well?  The Flood, remember, was a cleanup job on a planet whose inhabitants had become a violent, nasty bunch.  Maybe that’s what happens when creatures just increase for the sake of increasing, instead of being fruitful? 

Maybe fruitfulness is an increase in the quality of life, rather than just the quantity of living things? 

In fact, maybe it’s okay, and consistent with the commandments of the Creator, for people to be together for the sake of companionship, and to be fruitful in ways that don’t necessarily involve multiplying.  Maybe, now that the earth is filled, that’s more than merely okay, it is praiseworthy. 

CynThesis

Today, Anonymous Would Be Illegal

January 20, 2008

Does anybody remember the Primary Colors scandal?  In 1996, the novel of that name (later to become a motion picture) was published.  It is set in the inner circles of Washington, and its characters are thinly disguised simulacra of the Clinton administration’s high and mighty political figures and their opponents.  Its author went by the name of  “Anonymous.” 

For six months after the novel came out, “Who is Anonymous really?” was the favorite cocktail party game in DC, and in the NY publishing world.  Including Newsweek.  Somebody at Newsweek got the idea that “Anonymous” might be their own columnist, Joe Klein.  So they asked him.  Naturally, he denied it.  A couple of months later, it was finally revealed that Joe Klein was “Anonymous.” 

I would have expected the public reaction to be either “So what?” (among those who really didn’t care) or “Hah! You owe me five bucks!” (among those who did.)  Instead, there was another burst of finger-pointing and hand-wringing about “dishonesty in journalism.” 

I’m not altogether clear whether the dishonesty is supposed to have resided in Klein’s use of a pseudonym (anonym?) in the first place, or in his denying it when asked.  But what’s the point of using a pseudonym if one is required to admit it the first time anybody thinks to ask? In any case, Newsweek apologized to the public in general, and Klein apologized to Newsweek. 

So much for George Eliot, George Sand, Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, Patience Dogood, George Orwell, James Tiptree, Malcolm X, J, P, E, and D, and all the Anonymouses who stayed anonymous. (For the uninitiated, in order of appearance, these were the pseudonyms of: Mary Anne Evans, Aurore Dupin Dudevant, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte, Benjamin Franklin, Eric Blair, Alice Shelton, Malcolm Little, and the purported authors of the Yahwist, Priestly, Elohist, and Deuteronomist strands of the Hebrew Scriptures.)  We have apparently decided that, while automotive homicide is a mere traffic offense and failure to tell one’s sexual partner about a positive HIV test is a matter of privacy, using a pseudonym is “dishonest.”

It used to be possible to write for money under a pseudonym that concealed the writer’s name even from the publisher.  The check would come in under the name “Joe Blow,” and the author (Jane Doe, let’s say) would then endorse it “Joe Blow pay to the order of Jane Doe” and deposit it in Jane Doe’s account.  Apparently banks really don’t like that kind of arrangement now.  Aside from which, most publishers now insist on getting social security numbers from their writers, so as to be able to send out 1099 forms at the end of the year and keep themselves and the writers kosher with the IRS.   

So okay, the authors of this blog are using multiple pseudonyms, and, since we’re not getting paid, at least it isn’t a legal hassle.  But it is an infringement on The System’s current mania for total honesty on the part of ordinary people. 

Remember when a plane ticket was the equivalent of a bearer-negotiable document, which you could buy any time, make a reservation on at any later time, return for complete refund any time, or just sell or give it to anyone else to use?  If you paid the proper sum for it, it was yours, no questions asked.  Remember being able to walk into a public building without identification?  Remember not having to have a Social Security number until you were actually working?

Or remember cash?  Remember being able to just walk into a place of business, plunk down your money, and walk out with the desired merchandise? Today, some stores (most notably Radio Shack) ask you for your name and address when you make a cash purchase.  I usually either refuse, or tell them my name is Emma Goldman and my address is Waldheim (the cemetery in Chicago’s western suburbs where Emma Goldman is, in fact, buried.)  This may actually be a criminal act, but so far I’ve lucked out.

We are giving up a lot of privacy with very little thought.  The blogosphere may be one of the last refuges of anonymity.  Let’s hang out here together, shall we?

Red Emma

Who are the Wired Sisters?

January 20, 2008

Some of the literati among you may recognize the weird sisters as the witches in Macbeth. The Wired Sisters, obviously, are a cyber-version.  At the moment, there are, as in Macbeth, three of them:  Red Emma, Jane Grey, and CynThesis.  Others may turn up later.  Red Emma (named for her icon, Emma Goldman, anarcho-free love advocate of the late 1890s and early 20th century) is the wild-eyed politico.  Jane Grey (named for yet another icon, the 16th-century scholar and 16-year-old accidental martyr) is the religious scholar and social almost-conservative.  CynThesis is, of course, the personality who tries to work out the conflicts between the other two.

For a look at the antecedents of the Wired Sisters, take a look at http://dissociatedpress.blogspot.com

Good to meet y’all.

CynThesis