Archive for the ‘vast right-wing conspiracy’ Category

See What The Boys In the Basement Will Have

December 7, 2011

The “boys in the basement” are what Stephen King calls his muse, the source of his imagination. Mostly they just hang out, idly, making occasional noise, drinking beer, and every now and then sending messages upstairs. When they are napping, or when the folks upstairs are paying insufficient attention to them, the writer is stuck. “Blocked,” as some of the semi-pros like to say.

The pros often say there is no such thing as writer’s block, there is only laziness. I think that may depend on how one experiences, or defines, the state of consciousness required for writing. For me, it varies, often depending on the context. Back when I wrote regularly for publication, what I mainly required was a topic, a word count, and a deadline, and I believed I could produce just about anything on time. That belief may or may not have been justified, but it worked pretty well most of the time, for the kind of stuff I was expected or contracted to write.

Under deadline, I don’t recall ever being blocked. Often, I would wait until some siege of particularly inclement weather (snow or heat) to wall myself up and produce produce produce. Chicago can be trusted to come up with such onslaughts often enough to keep the writer at work. Sometimes, I would use a long weekend for the same purpose. But working against the clock really helped a lot.

These days, when nobody is waiting on my production to fill space or meet some third-party obligation, it’s harder for me to get going. The boys in the basement are too busy playing video games to communicate with me. When they bother, often, it’s to complain about the brand of beer I’m stocking.

Sometimes, the problem is that I feel as if I’ve already said it all, at least about some particular subjects. Newt Gingrich, for instance. Back when he was just a twinkle in the eye of his Georgia congressional district (which my brother was living in at the time), I thought he was a flake, but a smart flake. I still do. Since then, he has made his bones as a serial wife-dumper and contributed significantly to my opinion of the GOP as a large closet rather than a big tent. He has joined the collection of people I would cross the street to avoid shaking hands with (along with Clarence Thomas, but that’s another story.) (People with whom I would cross the street to avoid shaking hands? See Churchill’s “the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”) But mostly, I think I said it all in the 1990s.

Same goes for The Bell Curve, which is now enjoying revived discussion in the Atlantic by two of my favorite writers, Coates and Sullivan. I taught a course using it, and Plato’s Republic, and Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man, back in the 1990s, and essentially summarized the course for a review in a small newspaper around the same time. What more could I possibly say? See for yourself (http://dissociatedpress.blogspot.com/search?q=Bell+Curve) If they’d just give me some frakkin’ new material, maybe I could think of something new to say about it.

Okay, what about the GOP primary? Is Romney “inevitable”? Maybe. Maybe even in the general election, since it looks as if both sides might actually allow him to govern if he gets elected. Not sure any other candidate, on either side, meets that qualification. That may be all the voters want, these days. Chances are, they would even accept a third-party candidate if he seemed likely to meet that bar. Cain is comic relief; although it bothers me that some commenters see the stories about his affair as being all the more damaging because it allegedly lasted 13 years. I think 13 years is a plus. It indicates that Cain is capable of focused affection, unlike the afore-mentioned Newt, or Rudy Giuliani, who actually managed to cheat on his wife, his official mistress, and his girlfriend within the same short span of months. Maybe that’s just the cynical perspective of a divorce lawyer. But dammit, it’s all old news.

Okay, how about: which is worse, or better, the Tea Party, or Occupy Wherever? (A recent client of mine actually got busted with Occupy Salt Lake City, a mind-boggling concept.) That’s relatively new news, right? I think they draw their passions from the same cultural spring. They’re not quite as easy to tell apart as anarchists (dionysian) versus libertarians (apollonian.) They both have a very healthy dose of localism. And they both have a large dose of dionysian energy and not a helluva lot of apollonian intellect behind them. But they are both, in fact, slightly differing ways of saying “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” Which dates back to Network, in 1976. And which in turn, I think, is a loose translation of “je m’en fichisme,” a French phrase which the New Yorker dates back to 1917 or thereabouts, but which I first encountered in the late 1950s, and which apparently has stuck in my memory because I was studying high school French at the time, and got a kick out of learning a French phrase that the good sisters undoubtedly were never going to teach me.

How about sexual child abuse among college football coaches? Nothing new there, except that none of them are vowed to celibacy, and some of them may even be Protestant. The scandal seems to have erupted on a slow news day and then taken on a life of its own.

Okay, breaking news—our Chicago public radio station has just announced that tonight it is “pre-empting the world” ! How’s that for nerve? Actually, it just means we don’t get to listen to the BBC world news program tonight, because the head of the Chicago public school system is coming on live to answer questions in the same time slot. Not a bad idea, but not exactly world-shaking (or even world-pre-empting) either. Maybe I’m the one with a case of je m’en fichisme.

Or maybe my real problem is that the boys in the basement, kind of like a newborn baby, sleep when I’m awake and available to write, and start jumping around when I’m getting ready for bed. Stephen King, never having been pregnant, seems not to notice the similarity.

Today, our former governor got sentenced to 14 years for corruption. His predecessor, I think, got six and a half years on similar charges. Two of their predecessors also did time, and another one was indicted but acquitted. More not-very-new-news. From now on, maybe I should plan to start writing sheer fantasy of various fictional and nonfictional varieties, just to keep the boys in the basement awake when I have time to write.

Oh, and one more bit of not-very-new-news: Kathleen Sebelius has overruled the FDA and chosen not to make the “morning after” pill more readily available. No doubt the Obama administration is choosing its battles carefully these days. But it bothers me that the religiously-affiliated lobbies that have worked so assiduously to make access to contraception more difficult have not uttered Word One about the evils of prescribing Viagra for unmarried males. So much for a consistent sexual ethic which is not to be viewed as anti-woman.

In the meantime:

Raisin Consciousness

Physicists say that time

Is what keeps everything from happening at once.

But holidays

Are what keeps everything from feeling as if it’s happening at once.

Holidays are like the raisins in rice pudding.

Without them, it turns into a glutinous untextured mass.

The raisins add texture,

And sometimes, sweetness.

A good holiday to you all. Peace and light,

The Wired Family

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A Limited Defense of Affirmative Action

May 29, 2011

I am a beneficiary of affirmative action. These days, so they say, I should be ashamed to admit it. It implies, after all, that I was not otherwise qualified for some benefit I obtained only because of being some kind of “minority.”

I have actually benefited from affirmative action on two different counts–as a woman, and as a Hispanic. Every now and then that gives me a slight edge on the competition. That doesn’t bother me particularly. I’ve been discriminated against as a woman more times than I can remember (or, probably, than I have ever known) beginning at least with my first permanent job, which I obtained only by giving the right answer to the employment agency’s question about what method of birth control I used. (For those too young to remember that era, the right answer was not “none of your damn business.” It was “the Pill.”) On another job, I was sexually harassed before there was even a word for it, much less a cause of action. So I figure any benefit I get from the double x chromosome is just a matter of restitution.

I have also been discriminated against, I’m pretty sure, for being Jewish. This, of course, gets me no affirmative action points, but that kind of makes up for the fact that I do get points for being a Hispanic (both my parents were born in Cuba, and my family is essentially bicultural) even though I have never been discriminated against for that fact. (As a matter of fact, since I am a natural blonde and speak English without an accent, nobody knows I am Hispanic unless I choose to tell them, and I normally do that only where I will get extra points for it. Which is generally in jobs where my ability to speak Spanish really is a plus.) And most recently, I have probably been discriminated against for my age, which is illegal, but for which I get no affirmative action points. So I will take those points where I can get them, without embarrassment and without feeling that my competence is in any way in question.

I went to a good college and made Dean’s List my last two years. I scored in the 98th percentile on my LSATs. But when I applied to law school, I was admitted to a school in which 45% of my class was female, in the mid-’70s, and rejected by another school which had a far lower percentage of female students in that year. The evidence seems clear; I was almost certainly admitted to the former because of my gender, and rejected by the latter for the same reason. My objective qualifications were equally irrelevant to both schools. Probably all those qualifications got me in the second school was a rejection further along in the process than some of my less-qualified sisters (and my totally-unqualified brothers.)

Realistically, of course, nobody ever challenged my academic competence, or that of any other woman I know who has been accepted into any academic program under an affirmative action program. Even the most neanderthal of male supremacists will grant that women on the average do better in school, except in mathematics and the hard sciences, than men. The reason women have historically been discriminated against in academic admissions is that we are not expected to be able to do much of anything useful with our knowledge and academic credentials after we get them.

So the affirmative action issue really only gets raised, where women are concerned, when one of us is promoted to a position of power, beyond the glass ceiling. Then the innuendoes fly–quotas, sleeping with the boss, the supervisor is a leg man, somebody’s sister, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s wife. Most of us, however, would still rather live with the humiliation of possibly having been promoted because of our gender than with the equally potent and much less remunerative humiliation of not having been promoted for the same reason.

Stephen L. Carter’s misgivings

Which is why I have trouble with people like Stephen L. Carter. His Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby is a thoughtful and well-written book with a good sense of the complexities of inter-ethnic relations in the United States of the 1990s. But I have a few problems with its basic premises. Don’t expect the Establishment to make special standards for you, he tells young African Americans. It’s humiliating that we should think we need that. Meet their standards, beat their standards, and demand to be accepted on their terms. For Blacks and Hispanics, who are popularly expected to be less competent in academic achievement, it may actually be a source of humiliation to be admitted to a respectable school under an affirmative action program because of their ethnicity. However, most of the “affirmative action babies” I know would say that it is no more humiliating than being rejected because of that same ethnicity, and pays a lot better.

Carter’s advice takes the Establishment’s claims of devotion to meritocratic standards at face value. Which gives a lot more credit than it deserves to an Establishment that has never really believed in those standards, and has espoused them only when doing so would serve the purpose of keeping a particular group of outsiders outside.

The reason Carter has not seen this hypocrisy is that he is looking at the experience of only one group of outsiders. If he were to consider that of three others–women, Asians, and Jews–whose ability to meet meritocratic standards has rarely been questioned by anybody, he would discover that the Establishment has never had any difficulty excluding them, or severely limiting their upward mobility, on some other grounds.

The merit system: now you see it, now you don’t

For instance, in the 1930s, Harvard Medical School discovered that, if academic qualifications were to be the only criteria for admission, its entire entering class would be Jewish. Indeed, they would have had to double the size of the entering class to get in more than few token gentiles. So they suddenly discovered that there was more to being a physician than “mere” academic excellence. Arbitrarily, they set a quota of 22% for Jewish applicants, a quota which remained in effect until the ’60s, when, like the Jewish quotas in many other educational institutions, it was replaced with a larger and slightly less transparent quota on students from large cities, especially New York City, under the rubric of “geographical distribution.” Those quotas still exist today in many schools.

The experience of women is in some ways even more blatant. When my classmates and I graduated from college in the early ’60s, we frequently looked for jobs before and between graduate school, in the public sector. We took the civil service exams, scored at or near the top, and were repeatedly beat out for the actual jobs by men who had scored a good deal lower, before using their veterans’ preference points.

When I was at college, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, it was a truism, repeated to us regularly by faculty and admissions honchos, that men scored higher than women on the math section of the SAT, but women scored higher than men on the verbal section. It didn’t, of course, get us much. There were fewer places available for women at good colleges (or any other colleges, actually) than for men, and less scholarship money available for us. So nobody thought much about it. But twenty years later, when the various controversies about the biases of the SAT arose, I was startled to hear everybody, on all sides of the dispute, saying that women scored lower than men on both sections of the SAT. Even the American Association of University Women, in its otherwise beautifully researched study of discrimination against women in education, could only conjecture about what happened, by the end of high school, to the clear lead in reading and verbal skills, that girls have over boys in elementary school. What had happened–a couple of very well-hidden and quickly forgotten news stories revealed–was that in the middle ’60s, ETS changed the verbal section of the SAT, substituting scientific essays for one or two of the fiction selections in the reading comprehension test. Female scores promptly dropped to their “proper” place–visibly below those of their male classmates–and have stayed there ever since.

Asians are the most recent victims of similar policies. Several West Coast schools, most notably the University of California at Berkeley, have experimented with ceilings on the number of Asian students within the last 10 years. A university, the administration proclaims, has the right to put “diversity” above “mere” academic excellence.

In short, the history of other groups of outsiders suggests strongly that if an entire generation of African American young people followed Carter’s advice to meet meritocratic standards and beat them, the Establishment would have no trouble finding some other pretext to exclude all but the most presentable tokens among them from the precincts and perquisites of power–either by changing those standards, or suddenly discovering the greater importance of some other factor.

That does not, of course, invalidate Carter’s advice. It does make one wish Carter were a little more careful about truth in advertising, however. I tend to prefer Malcolm X’s more honest approach, when he advised his followers to read anything they could get their hands on and get all the education they could, even if all it got them was the proud position of best-educated person in the unemployment line.

Was there ever a merit system?

Before the phrase “affirmative action” ever found its way into our vocabulary, the reality of affirmative action was already as American as apple pie. After all, what else is veterans’ preference, if not an affirmative action program for (in the post-World War II era in which it was born) men? What else is seniority, if not an affirmative action program for older workers? I have never known a veteran, or an experienced union man, who was in the least ashamed to have benefited by those affirmative action programs.

Nor should they be. Before the rise of the meritocratic mythology of the ’70s, any American old enough to have held a job at all knew that nobody gets a job solely by virtue of being the most qualified candidate for it. In an economy which has never even aspired to full employment, most available jobs have several well-qualified candidates on hand. Most employment discrimination does not involve hiring an unqualified person in preference to a qualified one, but rather choosing between more-or-less equally qualified candidates on the basis of factors unrelated to the job.

The Jewish Establishment’s position

Many established Jewish community organizations, like many other high-minded, principled opponents of affirmative action, really believe that they are espousing a pure meritocracy as against a system of arbitrary choice. To take that position, they have to presume that, before the 1969 Civil Rights act, all male Jews had the jobs they were entitled to, by reason of their meritocratic qualifications. They also have to presume that all Jews are male, white, anglo, and middle-class and have nothing whatever to gain from affirmative action. They have to, in fact, ignore the experience of considerably more than 53% of the Jewish community. They even have to advocate giving back to the same academic and professional Establishment that subjected Jewish males to explicit, exclusive quotas until the early ’60s, the power to do it again.

Two cheers for affirmative action

Most supporters of affirmative action see it as a lesser evil. But, unlike its opponents, they recognize the realistic alternative as a greater evil. Affirmative action is not a matter of substituting for a pure meritocracy a system of choices among qualified candidates according to standards unrelated to job or scholastic requirements. It is a substitution of one set of arbitrary choices for another.

The alternative to affirmative action in real life is the divinely-ordained and legally-protected right of the employer or supervisor to hire people who remind him [sic] of his best friend, or people who fit his stereotyped image of the “proper” telephone operator or waittress or whatever. We know that most people who get jobs get them for reasons only distantly related to their ability to perform. In fact, the most serious downside of affirmative action, so far as I can tell, is that it denies future generations a really useful index of professional excellence. When I meet a doctor, or a lawyer, or a CPA, who is female or non-white (or better still, both) and who got his or her professional credential before 1970, I know I am dealing with a superlatively qualified professional, because only the best women and non-whites were able to survive the discriminatory professional screening processes in those days. For professional women and non-whites with more recent qualifications, alas, I have to take my chances, just as I would with a white male of any age.

So we sincerely hope that the people into whose hands we put our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor are in fact qualified to do their jobs. But as a practical matter, we know that we are at least as much at risk from incompetents who were hired or promoted for being the boss’s brother, or being tall, or not being Hispanic, or having an officious-sounding British accent, as from those hired or promoted for being female, Black, or Hispanic–quite possibly more, since the latter are usually watched more closely. In fact, these days I am beginning to suspect that American-born doctors can no longer be presumed to be as competent as doctors with foreign accents, since the latter are subjected to much tougher screening standards.

Well, maybe two and a half

We may see ourselves as winners or losers, and we may attribute our situation to other people or to our own deserts. Human beings generally have never had any trouble taking credit for their own good fortune or blaming others for their misfortunes. More recently, “new age” thinking has led many of us to take the rap for our own misfortunes, often in truly preposterous ways (“How have I created this reality?” the cancer patient asks.) But it is difficult for any of us to admit that our good fortune may be the result of some totally unearned “break” from the outside world–being white, for instance, or male. That is the real threat of affirmative action–that it requires us to consider the possibility that (even if, as is likely, we aren’t as well off as we would like to be) we haven’t “earned” even the few goodies we have. For those of us raised in the Jewish tradition, which teaches us that the Land promised to us by the Holy One is ours only on loan, and that we were not chosen to receive it because of any particular merit on our part, that shouldn’t be too much of a leap. It should make us more willing to grant similar unearned goodies to other people. “Use each man according to his deserts,” says Hamlet, “and who should ‘scape whipping?” Or unemployment, as the case may be. Even us, the few, the proud, the overqualified.

Red Emma

It’s the Same Old Song…

April 4, 2011

Maybe it’s the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Or one of the pale imitations that sprang up in WWII. One of the ever-so-alluring melodies of a “good war.” Given half a chance, most of us—and even worse, most of our presidents–really want to be the good guys in somebody else’s revolution, the Lafayette to somebody else’s Washington. We may have other motives lurking underneath, like oil, but that one is the hardest to ignore. And now Obama, whom I would have expected to be immune to that nostalgic passion, has been hit hard by it.

It shouldn’t surprise me all that much. In 1964, my first election, I voted for Johnson precisely because he was such a seasoned politician. Too self-interested, I thought, to blow up the world. Nobody blows up the world out of self-interest. Clausewitz says so. (What he actually says is something like he is presuming that the opposing parties do not possess any weapon capable of utterly destroying each other, which is why it’s reasonable to consider war a pursuit of politics by other means.) And so long after the fact, it’s hard to figure out how much self-interest and how much yearning for a good war comprised his motivation for lying us into Vietnam. But it is absolutely clear that he was motivated by both.

And then there was Jimmy Carter, who apparently thought the Ayatollah was a brave and saintly rebel against the evil Shah, until the American hostages got locked up. Everything that happened after that was fumbling, because he still had a hard time grasping how the Iranian Revolution had gone wrong (or maybe, that it had never gone right in the first place.)

And even Clinton, who insisted on intervening in the Balkans based on the really awful things the Serbs were doing to everybody else in the neighborhood—where, I asked myself, was the draft dodger I had voted for?

Of course, Woodrow Wilson, who “kept us out of war” just long enough to get re-elected before getting us into WWI, wasn’t a particularly great example either. The only president I can recall who promised to get us out of a war and actually did it was Eisenhower.

All of this should be going up on the wall beside my list of never-believes, like “Never trust a person who says ‘trust me.’” Or, as Nelson Algren says, “never eat at a place called Ma’s, never buy a used car from a man who calls himself Honest John, and never sleep with anybody who has more troubles than you do.” Never vote for a presidential candidate who promises to get or keep us out of a war, unless you really want a war.

Is there a chance Libya won’t turn into another Iraq? Apparently, Ghadafy is trying to work things out diplomatically, preferably by letting his son inherit and sort of clean up the family business. It might even work. But we ought to have figured out by this time that, when you elect somebody to an office that includes the title of Commander in Chief, you’re handing a gun to a 12-year-old, and the best you can hope for is that he knows how to use it without shooting anybody he’s not trying to hit.

Daniel Ellsberg has a slightly different take on all this. For him, it’s not the title or the frills that turn a rational animal into a predator. It’s the super-classified information you get, that almost nobody else has access to:

“First, you’ll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess. In particular, you’ll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn’t know about and didn’t know they had, and you’ll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.

“You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don’t….and that all those other people are fools.

“Over a longer period of time — not too long, but a matter of two or three years — you’ll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn’t tell you, it’s often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn.

“In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?’ And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I’ve seen this with my superiors, my colleagues….and with myself.

“You will deal with a person who doesn’t have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.” (http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2010/02/daniel-ellsberg-limitations-knowledge)

Oddly enough, the History Channel, and writers like Dan Brown, may be our best defense against this problem. They tell us up front that our world is run by an intersecting cabal of hidden rulers who know things the rest of us will never know because they will never permit us to learn them. The Secret Brotherhood of the Tasmanian Illuminati is as good an explanation as any for what happens to American presidents once they get elected. Dan Brown and his ilk seem to have a plan to overthrow the Secret Brotherhood—subvert some of the people best qualified to belong to it, before they come to power. Sneak people into Harvard, and Princeton, and Skull and Bones, and Opus Dei, who will survive the initiation without losing their moral compass. People like Dan Ellsberg, in fact (alumnus of Harvard, the US Marine Corps, and the RAND corporation.) Bradley Manning doesn’t exactly fit this profile, nor does Julian Assange; technology may have changed the prerequisites for the job of mole in the Illuminati. But arguably, that’s the real purpose of a liberal arts education—to train both the next generation of the Illuminati and a few moles to keep them honest. In the meantime, if you are confronted with a choice between two presidential candidates, both more or less equally qualified except that one promises to end a war, or not to start one, you might as well flip a coin. You’ll get the same results.

Red Emma

Snowpocalypse Now

February 2, 2011

Happy Ground Hog Day to all! Apparently the entire central US, from Oklahoma to Maine, is on the wrong end of a massive snowstorm, just as Australia is bracing for a historically huge typhoon and Cairo and its environs are bracing for actual all-out battle. We are all in the middle of an Irving Allen scenario. Here in Chicago, we have been getting blizzed since yesterday afternoon. The Public Safety people just gave a press conference in which they said, essentially, “Stay home. If you absolutely have to go anywhere, call ahead first to make sure somebody is there. If nobody answers, stay home!!” The fact that none of them were calling from home somewhat blunted the effectiveness of this counsel.

Punxsutawney (sp?) Phil apparently violated this very good advice to come out at dawn today and predict an early spring. It can’t come early enough for me right now. Outside, I can hear our super running the snowblower, which he has been doing since roughly 6 AM. I do admire that man.

CynThesis

Abuses of WikiPlumbing

December 19, 2010

The Wired Family is somewhat confused about the WikiLeaks revelations and the various reactions to them. Mr. Wired thinks they were a really bad idea, and Julian Assange should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. But the sisters are all uncomfortable with this proposal. Red, predictably enough, considers Julian to be a hero. She looks forward to the end of official secrecy in the Western world. Jane, on the other hand, misses diplomatic discretion, which did some useful things in its day. Cyn is most concerned, not about the breaches of governmental secrecy, but about the measures being taken to discourage repeat performances.

First, Cyn, being the lawyer in the family, is discomfited by repeated proclamations that the US government (and probably others as well) is trying to figure out how to rewrite the Espionage Act to cover the behavior of Assange and his sources. Umm, guys, that’s behavior that has already happened. Which means any law enacted or amended now to punish it is an ex post facto law. And Article One of the US Constitution specifically prohibits the enactment of such laws. Okay, maybe the government just wants to close the barn door before the next batch of horses is stolen. That’s not what it sounds like.

Secondly, Cyn finds the behavior of private agencies against Assange and his buddies really scary. Closing down his server and his domain; shutting down credit card donations to his website; arresting him for utterly unrelated criminal charges in Sweden, which may or may not have any factual basis, and in either case may or may not be the sort of thing the Swedish courts normally prosecute—try to imagine, gentle reader, how easily you could be the target of such sanctions, if some government took a dislike to you. Note that most of these sanctions were implemented by private organizations, such as MasterCard, Amazon, Bank of America, PayPal, Visa and Swiss bank PostFinance. Suppose your bank decided to stop accepting deposits to your account. No more direct deposit of your paycheck or your pension. Suppose your website, or blogsite, or email, got cut off by your server. If you have not had the foresight to put a substantial portion of your money into your mattress, you may discover yourself homeless and broke, and unable to communicate your plight to most of your friends and family. Writers of speculative fiction have played with this scenario for several decades now—most notably Whitley Strieber in Nature’s End and John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider, but the list is a lot longer. We have all entrusted our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor to a bunch of faceless non-governmental strangers who can all too easily be co-opted against us by an irritated government (or even an irritated corporation.) After all, under US law, MasterCard, Amazon, and their other buddies, as non-governmental actors, are not bound by the Equal Protection and Due Process mandates of the Constitution.

Assange, of course, is far from friendless. His supporters are retaliating against the above-mentioned malefactors with Denial of Service attacks far beyond my poor power to add or detract. But how many of us have access to such support? Maybe while governments are tinkering with the machineries of censorship to fend off the next batch of leaks, the rest of us should be organizing a vigilante support mechanism to protect ourselves from the vengeance of the international bankers and servers.

Maybe Assange deserves it. I haven’t read most of the leaked documents, or even read a synopsis of them. The ones I do know anything about seem more embarrassing than dangerous. Red, as previously indicated, likes to see politicians embarrassed. It may help keep them honest. But even if he had put the formula for the Universal Solvent on the front page of the New York Times, or done something else that really deserved punishment and needed deterrence, so far nobody except maybe the Swedes are even trying to follow the law in sanctioning him.

There are a few other background questions that need exploration. Like: how many of these leaked documents were originally created with the specific intention of being leaked, as unofficial and unauthorized but plausibly deniable and highly useful communications? Or in the alternative, is there any likelihood that some or more of the documents were falsified or redacted by WikiLeaks to say things they never originally meant to say? And if so, how does that change their legal status (compare: the guy who knowingly sells oregano claiming it is marijuana—what crime, if any, has he committed? Or suppose he sells it with the explicit disclaimer that it is oregano, but wink-wink-nudge-nudge we all know better don’t we?)

Consider the bizarre fate of Leonard Lewin’s Report from Iron Mountain (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ The_Report_from_ Iron_ Mountain), a kind of fictionalized predecessor of the very real Pentagon Papers. It was published in 1967 as a satire purporting to be a report on military-industrial policy prepared by several government officials and think tankers. But 30 years later, a right-wing nutcase printed excerpts from it in his propaganda screeds, and defended himself (unsuccessfully) against Lewin’s copyright suit by claiming it was a government document and therefore in the public domain. What if the WikiLeaks papers turn out to be another Report from Iron Mountain? Or, as the Italians say, Si non e vero, e

Ben Trovato *

*A friend of the Wired Family, and director of the Iron Mountain Office of Creative Publicity and Quasi-Factual Information.

Rude Awakening

December 3, 2010

I slept a little late this morning. What woke me was the news on the radio. Specifically, what woke me was the news, in two closely adjacent pieces, that Congress (1) would not extend the unemployment compensation benefits for the long-term jobless, and (2) that God’s Own Party does want to extend the Bush tax cuts, not only for lower- and middle-income taxpayers, but for those making more than $250K per year. They don’t want to extend unemployment benefits ( which would put a $65B dent in the budget) unless they can be “paid for” by cuts in some other area. They are not the least bit interested in demonstrating how the tax cuts for billionaires (roughly a $700B addition to the deficit) can be “paid for.” With great difficulty I restrained myself from leaping out of bed shouting “this is bullsh*t,” which would have painfully startled Mr. Wired and the cat out of their sound sleep.

Let’s break this down a bit. Those losing their unemployment compensation benefits number roughly 800,000 human beings, most of them with families. The average weekly benefit for each member of this unfortunate group is $300.00. That’s a total annual income of $15,000.00 per person, or more likely, per family. Keeping the Bush tax rates for all taxpayers would mean that the something like 225,000 households in the highest tax bracket (up in the $300,000s per year, or 20 times the average annual unemployment benefit) would be taxed at a maximum marginal rate of 35% instead of 38.6%. Crunch the numbers for yourself.

But, the party of Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln tells us, the upper bracket tax cuts are different from the pittance we give unemployed workers. If we give the unemployed their weekly $300.00, they’ll just use it to buy food and pay rent and put gas in their cars so they can keep looking for jobs. If we give the rich more money, they will use it to create jobs. (I love the word “create” in this context. It well-nigh apotheosizes Big Business. One can see Donald Trump leaning out over the heavens, his fingertip outstretched to a Walmart sales clerk… Moro, can you draw this? Anybody else?)

Just as they have created jobs over the 9 years during which the Bush tax cuts have already been in effect, right? The nine years in which corporations have repeatedly demonstrated that they will do almost anything rather than hire American workers to work in the United States at full-time permanent jobs with health insurance and retirement benefits. If the Bush tax cuts had created jobs, there wouldn’t be 800,000 people out of work now for more than a year. Why should we expect the tax cuts to do now what they didn’t do last year or the year before?

And why, pray tell, do we accept the Republican double standard on deficit reduction? That standard dictates that all government spending for ordinary people and their families must be “paid for,” and paid for not by tax increases on anybody else, but by spending cuts on other government services to the same ordinary people. But it also dictates that tax cuts on the richest Americans do not need to be “paid for” at all, because they will by some magical process pay for themselves in jobs to be “created” from the same inanimate matter that used to create organic life in the theories of Aristotle. In short, they would have us keep two sets of books, one for the rich and one for everybody else. Each set must balance within itself, but the two need have no interaction whatever with each other, except across the celestial spark gap (see above) in which the superrich “create” jobs. My father the CPA would be aghast at this maneuver.

But there seems to be a bipartisan push to extend jobless benefits in exchange for extending the Bush tax cuts for even the richest taxpayers, and to hell with the deficit for this week anyway. Republicans and Democrats, the pro-life corporate party and the pro-choice corporate party, shoulder to shoulder against financial sanity.

Well, I gotta go. The sovereign state of Illinois has just passed a bill legitimizing civil unions for same-sex couples. The Catholic Church says this is an assault on the sacred covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, and that means I probably ought to cook dinner for Mr. Wired before our marriage falls apart altogether.

Red Emma

A Climate of Controversy

November 8, 2010

Why does the Right—religious and otherwise—so strongly oppose the scientific theory of global warming? Everybody seems to just accept this as a given, apparently without noticing how odd it is. I can certainly understand why the Right, especially the Religious Right, would oppose theories about human overpopulation of the planet and its essential harmfulness. Such theories have obvious implications for the proper organization of sex and marriage and the family, about which the Religious Right has strong convictions. Similarly, I can understand their problems with evolution, which casts doubt on the human race being God’s favorite children. If they re-started the controversy about the geocentric vs. heliocentric vs. randomly organized universe, I could understand that too, though I would marvel at their ability to ignore evidence.

But global warming? Are they opposing the theory just because the Left (such as it is in this country) supports it? Yes, the science behind it is not yet rock-solid. I can remember back in the early 1980s reading some very persuasive scientific articles about the impending Ice Age, a theory that seems to have evaporated of its own accord in the intervening decades. (Although there is a perfectly respectable scientific scenario that involves global warming resulting in an Ice Age, at least in Europe, by way of shutting down the Gulfstream.)

One possibility is that the Right, Religious and otherwise, is in the pocket of the global oil industry, and opposes anything that could result in reducing the use of petroleum products and the profits to be derived therefrom. For individual politicians, this may be a sufficient explanation. The fact that the petroleum industry itself seems to be rolling quite well with the scientific punches and is now establishing multiple beachheads in alternative energy technologies casts doubt on it, however. The Left does seem to be underestimating the flexibility of global capitalism (which is probably quite prepared to market numerous consumer-attractive varieties of marijuana if it becomes legal, especially if tobacco also becomes illegal) but apparently the Right does too.

With some hesitation, I find myself returning to my gut-level realization that my fondest dream is somebody else’s worst nightmare. Let’s take that a step further. There are people out there for whom my fondest dream is their worst nightmare precisely because it is my fondest dream. If I (secularist feminist socialist that I am) can dream fondly of a future in which every household provides its own power from solar cells or whatever, why shouldn’t Ayn Rand, given her fondness for smokestacks and their emissions, be horrified by that dream? Certainly I read Rand’s utopian screeds with less than impartial skepticism, precisely because they are Rand’s and not, say, Marge Piercy’s. “I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,” after a while, becomes its own rationale, capable of justifying almost anything.

Some thinkers on the Right seem to honestly believe that the Leftist Conspiracy has concocted the theory of global warming as a great hoax upon both the economy and the body politic. They spend a lot of time attempting to demonstrate that the theory is not scientifically valid, or has even been fabricated from whole cloth by a bunch of mad scientists. But they never (so far as I know) bother to explain just why the scientists, or even their sinister political supporters, would go to all that trouble. Cui (the late congressman Sonny’s adopted Vietnamese daughter) bono? No doubt there are “green entrepreneurs” who could make money off it. If they’re any good at their job, they could perfectly well make money off of some other less speculative technology. Why bother with this one?

Other than the Doctor Fell theory, I have no answer, and have seen no plausible answer either from the Left or the Right. What am I missing? In the words of Our Leader, is this anything?

CynThesis

You Go To Work With the Workforce You Have

September 30, 2010

Not, as Donald Rumsfeld would have said, the one you’d like to have. (Or, as the little boy asked his mother after first seeing a classical ballet, “Why don’t they just get taller girls?”) We keep seeing all sorts of opining about how, in order to reduce unemployment, we need to have a smarter, more flexible workforce to participate in the new information marketplace. And admittedly, the diminishing proportion of American-born graduates from US science and engineering programs is scary, and betokens a deplorable trend to laziness and anti-intellectualism in our younger generations ( See http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1933011/posts.)

But we cannot educate our way to full employment. Yes, more employers are requiring college degrees, or at least “some college” for new hires. Often the jobs for which such higher education is required are pretty much the same ones our parents got on the strength of a high school diploma and on-the-job training. But there are still plenty of jobs out there with just such requirements (See http://www.insidehighered.com/news/ 2009/02/23/stimulus ) A lot of them get filled by immigrants, often at substandard wages. And a lot of the “information marketplace” jobs are also getting filled either by immigrants, or by foreigners with graduate degrees telecommuting from their home countries.

These uncomfortable facts tell us that the American employer’s current reluctance to “create jobs” for American workers does not just reflect the inadequate educational system that produces them. American business isn’t looking for better-educated American workers. It also isn’t looking for competent blue-collar American workers. In fact, it isn’t looking for American workers. Or at any rate, it isn’t looking for workers demanding a living wage in the American economy. It isn’t looking for workers who demand the American Dream: home ownership, two cars, health insurance, retirement benefits, paid vacations and sick time, and enough money to send the kids to college, all in the USA. The nice thing about hiring immigrants is that they will accept a lower standard of living. The nice thing about hiring foreigners in non-European countries is that they often have a lower cost of living.

The oncoming new economic paradigm is the Arabian petroplutocracies, countries that have succeeded in pretty much abolishing poverty among their own citizens through oil subsidies. All this means is that they have had to import a whole population of poor people from other countries (mostly Asia) to do poor people’s jobs.

Assuming that all American workers are either able or willing to undergo the education necessary to fit them for the “information marketplace,” doing it would not eliminate poverty. It would just put us in the position of Saudi Arabia, having to import poor people to care for our children, elders, and invalids, collect the garbage, deliver the mail, and clean the streets.

Aside from which, trying to educate our way out of unemployment requires too many unsustainable assumptions to be worth the trouble. Assume we had the resources to run the educational system that could produce universal scientific and technical literacy. Yeah, right. Assume that, even if we did, all American workers, young and old, were willing and able to achieve such literacy. Yeah, sure. The one assumption no one is even trying to suggest is: assume that American business were willing to pay their workers enough to live like middle-class Americans. In your dreams. We’ve already given up on the “family wage”—one which will enable one person to support an entire family in the style to which the American Dream once made us accustomed. Now we are expected to forfeit the “demi-family wage”—one which would enable two adults to provide for their family at that level.

Trying to turn the American workforce into what the “information marketplace” is looking for, assuming it were possible, would just give us a higher class of unemployed people. Malcolm X, of all people, once proclaimed in a somewhat different context that being the best-educated person in the unemployment line was a goal worth striving for, no matter how bad the job market might be. And there is considerable moral and philosophical validity to that approach. It may be what our children and grandchildren will have to settle for. But at the very least, we need to tell them that, however much education and competence will improve their daily lives, it cannot be counted on to raise their income, or even provide them with one in the first place.

CynThesis

WHAT’S SO ETHICAL ABOUT THE AMERICAN WORK ETHIC? A Labor Day Meditation

August 31, 2010

What drives this train of thought is all the stuff I’ve been reading lately about how Social Security can be saved only by people retiring later. Since the SS retirement age is already creeping up slowly but surely, I’m not sure what else these guys have in mind. They could, of course, be following in the steps of Otto von Bismarck, who came up with the idea of retirement pensions in the first place back in the early 1800s, and who deliberately set the retirement age at 65 because, back then, that was the age by which most people were dead. So maybe the SS doomsayers want to raise the age to where most people are dead nowadays. Which, in the US, is somewhere between 77.5 and 80.

But that raises yet another issue. Raising the retirement age won’t necessarily increase the number of geezers and crones working for a living. What it will undoubtedly increase is the number of senior citizens looking for work. Unemployment and underemployment among older workers is already higher than in the general population; older workers take twice as long to find new jobs as their younger counterparts, and are far less likely even to get responses to their job applications, much less interviews and offers.

Presumably those recommending an increase in retirement age know this. They are the same people who brought us “welfare reform” back in the 1990s. Back then, the welfare moms who were moved into the work force actually had a good shot at getting employed, though not necessarily in full-time permanent jobs with benefits. That was a blip, an economic oasis in the desert most of us have been slogging through for the last 35 years. But the long-term result, and quite possibly the intended result, was the same as the result of raising the retirement age—more people looking for work.

The strategy of the New Deal was the very opposite: use Social Security to get the elderly out of the workforce; use Aid to Dependent Children to get widows with children out of the workforce; use stricter enforcement of child labor laws to get children out of the workforce; use Unemployment Compensation to give the jobless time to look for good jobs instead of day-to-day scrambling. In an era when there are 5 applicants for every available job, that strategy looks pretty good.

However, we Americans think holding a paid job, any job, is not just a nice way to keep hand and mouth together, but a moral and psychological benefit in itself. It means being “self-reliant,” which is in and of itself always Good for You. We also like to think that everybody who is really willing to work can get work. Having a job, any job, is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. And, contrariwise, not having a job is a deliberate choice, and proof of being a lazy, greedy, ripoff artist and freeloader.

We also think that, if somebody isn’t employed, the way to get him/her onto a job is to cut off all other means of survival. We think we’ve proved that, because once people run through their Unemployment Comp benefits, they stop reporting themselves as unemployed. Which must mean they’ve found work. What it actually means is that there is nobody to report themselves to, and no reason to take the time and the trouble to do it. It almost never means they’ve taken a job they had been turning down for the preceding 99 days.

And finally, we think that if people aren’t employed, that means they aren’t working, and are of no use to society. I still think of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in this context. There aren’t many people in his exalted position that I would cross the street to avoid shaking hands with, but he’s one of them. Not because of the Anita Hill stuff, but because of the way he bad-mouthed his sister for accepting welfare (and, he said, becoming “dependent” on it.) Turns out that she went onto welfare to care for their elderly aunt and uncle, who had raised them both. If you have never cared for two elderly relatives, or even one, believe me, it’s a full-time occupation. Brother Clarence contributed neither time nor money to this duty. Well, okay, he had a wife and a kid and a career to tend to, so that’s kind of understandable. But then, to bad-mouth the person who did take on that burden, because she didn’t have a paying job? Well, the sister, being a good Christian, has never said a word against him. The Wired Family has no such compunctions. Welfare did for Justice Thomas’ family exactly what it was intended to do—enable families to care for their own under the most difficult of circumstances. There should be no shame attached to those who accept it.

And then there’s my godson’s father, Tim Preston, of blessed memory. My godson has Down Syndrome, possibly with a touch of autism. His parents were just about the only people who could understand his speech. Tim got a bunch of paper routes for local publishers, and the two of them would go out delivering papers a couple of days a week. In the course of that work, Tim would introduce his son to the world—loading dock workers, bakery clerks, guys at the gas station—and make the encounters a joy to everybody on all sides. The money wasn’t much. But the earning of it accomplished two crucial things: it created a life for the young man, and it gave his mother time to develop a professional practice. And then Tim was killed by a collision with a truck. The owners of the trucking company provided the widow with the mingiest possible settlement, based, of course, on the fact that Tim didn’t have a “real job.” His widow has had to give up her profession. Fortunately, she and her son get Social Security survivor’s benefits. What she does, staying home with her son and managing his life, isn’t a “job” either, of course. Somewhere out there, a conservative is thinking of the two of them as freeloaders who should be forced to get “real jobs.” It would be good for them, he is thinking. It would free them from being dependent on the dole.

The other part of this American Mythos is that jobs, those sources of all personal good, are “created” by business. Therefore anything that is good for business is good for jobs, and for those who hold or seek jobs. We woo and coddle businesses; our local governments give them tax cuts, land, and all kinds of breaks in local regulation, all because they “create jobs.” The fact that one of the breaks we often give them is the right to shut down and move away or sell off or even leave the country without consequence, thereby destroying jobs, makes this adulation of business a bit counterintuitive. The fact that businesses often cut jobs in order to make their stockholders happier doesn’t exactly make sense either. There is almost nothing many businesses won’t do to avoid hiring American workers at wages sufficient to live decently in America. Move the jobs out of the country; move immigrants (whether legal or not) into the country; move jobs around the country in endless flight from unionization (some economists refer to this practice as “rotating the crops”) –whatever it takes.

Which leads us right back to the beginning. One of the things business wants to do in pursuit of forcing wages down and eliminating fringe benefits entirely is to increase the number of people looking for work, even as they do everything possible to decrease the number of jobs available to American workers. This is not only “rotating” the crops, it is creating a bumper crop and then plowing 80% of it back into the ground.

Such policies might be at least marginally acceptable if our culture as a whole were willing to recognize unemployed people as providing at least one major service to the economy—keeping other people’s wages low and making stockholders happy—and often other major services to their own families as well. Why not hold occasional ceremonies to distribute medals to the casualties of the war against inflation? Why not honor those who hadn’t “made the cut” in an increasingly selective employment market, for having so valiantly tried, and so heroically endured?

But this is the grim final feature of the American Mythos: we honestly believe that the only reliable way to motivate civilian workers to do the Right Thing and refrain from doing the Wrong Thing is Fear Itself, the fear of losing a job, or not having a job, or never again having a job. It doesn’t work in the Army, of course. What works in motivating soldiers is the bond between them. That works even when the brass has betrayed them and the politicians are ignoring them. It works even when the giving of medals and commendation is shamelessly politicized. If we can’t offer workers at the bottom of the food chain a living wage, can’t we at least give them honor and comradeship?

Okay, in keeping with our earlier pledge to focus on our visions of the good in political discourse, Red Emma’s vision of the good is a world in which everybody who wants to work for wages can find work, everybody who needs to work for their own families can have the resources to do it, and anybody who can’t find work can at least feel like a normal human being. Would this increase the number of freeloaders in our economy? Not sure. Dunno. This may depend on how one defines “freeloader.” Let the reader decide.

Red Emma

Right Turn Only?

August 25, 2010

Most Constitution-watchers agree that a successful call for a constitutional convention is unlikely in the foreseeable future, since it would require a super-duper majority of Congress to agree on something. If that happened, our elected representatives would probably be too enthralled with the sight of all those flying pigs out the window to pay much attention to business anyway.

Most progressive legal scholars think that’s just as well. A constitutional convention, they believe, would be a jurisprudential disaster. The Bill of Rights would be up for grabs. The essential function of a constitution–restraining the power of the majority and its elected representatives–could easily be thrown out the window by a bloodless majoritarian coup. The only serious proposals for a Constitutional Convention are being made by the Far Right, and include such unnverving suggestions as the abolition of the income tax, the restoration of a property qualification for voting, the establishment of Protestant Christianity as the national religion, the elimination of the “natural born citizen” requirement for the presidency, the Right to Life Amendment, the Defense of Marriage Amendment, and the elimination of birthright citizenship.

So the progressive response to calls for a constitutional convention has been a simple and oft-repeated “no.” While not unreasonable, that leaves the Left with nothing intelligent to say in the admittedly unlikely event that a constitutional convention actually happens.

Progressives need an agenda for a constitutional convention, for two reasons. The first is the reality of any negotiating situation: the party that begins with the status quo as a negotiating position is

    guaranteed

to end up with less. The only way to have even a chance at maintaining the Bill of Rights in its present shape, if a Constitutional Convention actually happens, is to demand something that will be perceived by the other side as even more radical.

And the second is that the Constitution in its current form really could use some changes.

First, of course, is the Equal Rights Amendment, which needs no introduction and very little comment. Illinois and several other states have such amendments in their constitutions and have used them quite successfully to combat sex discrimination through state litigation.

Next is the power to initiate military action and international alliances. Currently, the President has the power to commit troops to military action, but only Congress can declare war or vote funds for it. The technology of both communications and warmaking has far outstripped this anomalous political mechanism, set up when the speed of the horse and the sail was the limiting factor for both. The War Powers Act, enacted to resolve this dilemma, may itself be dubiously constitutional. Similarly, no treaty is valid unless ratified by Congress, but the President can accomplish by executive order virtually everything the treaty-making power can achieve.

And these awkward dilemmas are merely a special case of the greater conundrum bequeathed us by the Framers–when does the system of “checks and balances” among the three branches of government encroach on the “separation of powers”? This is no mere academic debate; it was crucial to the Watergate proceedings, for instance. What did the federal courts have the right to order the President to do? Could the executive branch resist the power of the judicial branch to demand evidence? And so on.

Next is the equally awkward dilemma woven into the fabric of the First Amendment, between “free exercise” of religion and “no establishment.” As a practical matter, the Supreme Court has dealt with it so far by importing into the public realm as “secular” observances, piece by piece, one ritual or artefact of mainstream Protestantism after another, under the “free exercise” rationale, while barring similar concessions to other religions under the “no establishment” clause. It’s okay to require businesses to close on Sunday, because Sunday isn’t a religious day of rest any more, it’s a secular observance. It’s okay to make Christmas a national holiday, for the same reason. It’s even okay to display statues of the Virgin Mary, the infant Jesus, and miscellaneous angels and shepherds, on public property, so long as they are, as constitutional scholar Alan Dershowitz says, “flanked by two plaster animals in sufficiently bad taste.” (He calls this the Pink Flamingo Rule.) But it’s

    not

okay for a federal contractor to provide that all its Jewish and Seventh-Day Adventist employees automatically get Saturdays off, when its other employees have no such “privilege.” That’s discrimination against the others on religious grounds.

Then there is the Second Amendment, dealing with the right to keep and bear arms. Much of the current dispute about its meaning (from the point of view of an ex-English teacher) results from the fact that the nominative absolute (“…a well-regulated militia being necessary…”) has dropped out of use. So the Second Amendment needs to be rewritten in modern grammar. Some gun control advocates find such a prospect terrifying, but it is difficult to conceive of any way the Amendment could be redrafted that would be any

    worse

than the way the NRA and the Supreme Court interpret the current version. (Well, okay, incorporating into the Second Amendment the Kennesaw, Georgia ordinance requiring every citizen to own a firearm could be worse…)

Additionally, there are the affirmative rights not clearly protected by the Constitution, at least as read by the current Supreme Court. Most crucial would be an unambiguous enactment of a right to privacy as such–a limitation on the right of state and local government to intrude into people’s personal lives. The Warren Court found this concept obvious, and used it to protect the right of married and unmarried people to procure and use contraception; the Rehnquist Court eroded it by holding that a state government can forbid consenting adults to engage in “sodomy” in the privacy of their own bedrooms. The Roberts Court seems a bit squishy on privacy too.

    Education has never been held to be a fundamental right.

A state or local government which is unwilling to provide equal school facilities to all races and nationalities can stop providing any schools at all (as a couple of states and several localities did in the ten years following the Brown v. Board of Education decision.) And there is no constitutional ban on governmental discrimination against the poor as such, so that public school systems which (like banks) provide adequate resources only for those who don’t need them, are under no constitutional mandate to do otherwise.

Even more startling from the point of view of classical political theory, the Supreme Court has stated in DeShaney vs. Winnebago County (1982) that state and federal governments have no constitutional duty to protect the citizen against private violence. (But, presumably, any protection it does provide must be equally distributed among racial, religious, and ethnic groups.)

Beyond these specific shortcomings, there is a basic flaw in the Fourteenth Amendment and the legislation implementing it, which forbid violations of individual rights only where they involve inequality and discrimination against specifically defined groups. Thus, the rationale for banning sexual exploitation on the job is that the boss who requires sexual favors from one gender but not the other as a condition of advancement is discriminating against people of the former gender. This rationale would leave the exploited employee with no recourse against sexual extortion from a bisexual boss.

Similarly, state-run colleges and universities that are not permitted to discriminate by reason of race, religion, sex, or handicap, can quite freely discriminate on the basis of income and socioeconomic class. There is no right to be free from sexual extortion on the job; there is no right to education as such. There is only the right not to be extorted or barred from school by reason of race, religion, etc.

In short, we need to re-examine, from the ground up, the whole notion of “fundamental rights.” The “equal protection” model, at best, sets up a lowest common denominator which, on occasion, can quite legally be set at zero. And, by defining a limited number of unacceptable bases for distinguishing between applicants for a particular benefit, it sets up an inevitable conflict between the groups specifically protected from discrimination and other, often equally disadvantaged, groups with no such protection. The result is the unedifying spectacle of a whining contest, to determine who has suffered the most discrimination most recently and is therefore most entitled to redress.

For instance, the federal courts have held that an otherwise perfectly qualified person can be denied admission to professional school or a professional license because of being fat, having a “sloppy personal appearance,” or having an “abrasive personality.” The only bases for legal attacks on such policies have all had to do with sex discrimination, and were available at all only because so far, the only victims have been female. The courts have, not unreasonably, responded that they were offered no evidence that a fat, sloppy, or abrasive male would have been treated any differently. Absent proof of ethnic or sex discrimination, they were powerless to act. More recently, efforts have been made to give obesity the legal status of a disability, thereby placing fat people in a group with at least some official protections. Such jerry-built rationales should not be necessary. Once the bona fide occupational qualifications for a particular license or position are established, anyone who is denied access for any other reason (other than “we’re not hiring right now” or “we already hired somebody else”) should have a legally cognizable claim. That is, people should have a fundamental right not to be denied employment except for bona fide occupational or economic reasons.

A clearly defined system of fundamental rights to which all citizens and residents of the U.S. are equally entitled, would obviate many of these problems. Likewise, a clear delineation of the ways in which government may and may not forbid violations of individual rights by other individuals and private organizations is crucial to the continued viability of our polity.

All of these omissions could be remedied by a good job of redrafting. An even better result might be achieved by taking seriously the Preamble to the current constitution, which mandates the government, not merely to “provide for the common defense” and “insure domestic tranquility” but also to “promote the general welfare.”

These suggestions are not intended to be exhaustive. On the contrary, they should be a beginning of discussion. What matters from our point of view is that there should be some progressive agenda for a constitutional convention, to which serious study and thought has been devoted. There may be spinoffs and fringe benefits to the proces of debate and research setting up such an agenda. Much of it, for instance, could also be a basis for a legislative agenda, or for rewriting or amending state constitutions. We have nothing to lose and much to gain by doing it, even if no constitutional convention is ever called. And if, against all expectations, such a convention is convoked, we will not be caught with our progressive pants down, and may even achieve some of our own goals.

Red Emma