Movin’ On Up

Please excuse the extremely light posting over the past week; the combination of pre-admit weekend in Cambridge, a surprise math test, a major government paper I had exactly two days to write, and the life-controlling game that is Assassin have left little time for blogging. The scarcity of actual news – except for Jeremiah Wright’s apparent kamikaze missions against his ex-parishioner – hasn’t exactly helped.
However, I have a housekeeping note, and an awesome one at that. Last month, I applied for a summer internship at The American Prospect, and today I learned that I got it. So this summer I’ll be based in D.C., working for the Prospect. I’m really excited about this; the Prospect‘s alumni (e.g. Nick Confessore, Garance Franke-Ruta, Matt Yglesias) and current staff (e.g. Ann Friedman aka One Blogger, Dana Goldstein, Ezra Klein) include some of my favorite political journalists, and it’s a honor to be able to work for a publication with such an impressive pedigree, not to mention a great record of standing up for liberal principles while others capitulated. Among other responsibilities, this means that I’ll be able to write for Tapped, one of the first blogs I’ve ever read, and probably, along with Matt Yglesias’ and Kevin Drum’s, the one I’ve read the longest. It’s kind of surreal to think that in a few months my posts will be there (and here – I’ll cross-post). Anyway, I’m currently in a state of dazed euphoria, and felt the need to share it.

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Coates on Cosby

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on Bill Cosby is one of the most enlightening long-form pieces I’ve read in a while. It’s a subject that I obviously knew little about. Cosby was a self-parody by the time I became aware of him, doing fluff like Kids Say the Darndest Things; I’ve never seen I Spy or The Cosby Show, and I have only the faintest notion of his impact on pop culture. Moreover, his more recent activities aren’t aimed at me. 18-year-old white kids from towns with a 1.74% black population aren’t the people Cosby is telling to grow up. Maybe that’s the problem with his approach, but as it is, the Cosby gospel is told by a black man, for black men (and yes, it’s pretty clear he only means men).
Coates’ main thesis is that this targeting is revealing, not just of Cosby’s message, which isn’t exactly hidden, but of its place in the history of black American social movements. Cosby’s call for individual responsibility, Coates argues, is in line with the arguments of Washington and especially Garvey a century ago:

Garvey argued that blacks had rendered themselves unworthy of the white man’s respect. “The greatest stumbling block in the way of progress in the race has invariably come from within the race itself,” wrote Garvey. “The monkey wrench of destruction as thrown into the cog of Negro Progress, is not thrown so much by the outsider as by the very fellow who is in our fold, and who should be the first to grease the wheel of progress rather than seeking to impede.” Decades later, Malcolm X echoed that sentiment, faulting blacks for failing to take charge of their destinies. “The white man is too intelligent to let someone else come and gain control of the economy of his community,” Malcolm said. “But you will let anybody come in and take control of the economy of your community, control the housing, control the education, control the jobs, control the businesses, under the pretext that you want to integrate. No, you’re out of your mind.”

Those beliefs also animate Come On People, the manifesto that Cosby and Poussaint published last fall. Although it does not totally dismiss government programs, the book mostly advocates solutions from within as a cure for black America’s dismal vital statistics. “Once we find our bearings,” they write, “we can move forward, as we have always done, on the path from victims to victors.” Come On People is heavy on black pride (“no group of people has had the impact on the culture of the whole world that African Americans have had, and much of that impact has been for the good”), and heavier on the idea of the Great Fall—the theory, in this case, that post–Jim Crow blacks have lost touch with the cultural traditions that enabled them to persevere through centuries of oppression.
“For all the woes of segregation, there were some good things to come out of it,” Cosby and Poussaint write. “One was that it forced us to take care of ourselves. When restaurants, laundries, hotels, theaters, groceries, and clothing stores were segregated, black people opened and ran their own. Black life insurance companies and banks thrived, as well as black funeral homes … Such successes provided jobs and strength to black economic well-being. They also gave black people that gratifying sense of an interdependent community.” Although the authors take pains to put some distance between themselves and the Nation of Islam, they approvingly quote one of its ministers who spoke at a call-out in Compton, California: “I went to Koreatown today and I met with the Korean merchants,” the minister told the crowd. “I love them. You know why? They got a place called what? Koreatown. When I left them, I went to Chinatown. They got a place called what? Chinatown. Where is your town?”

Now, obviously this has some perverse appeal to conservatives who want nothing more than for blacks to keep amongst themselves, deal with their own problems and not force whites to own up to the institutional racism we perpetuate, and Coates speculates that Cosby could be the start of a movement of blacks to the Republican camp. But even to a electoral junkie like me, that’s not too interesting, or even relevant. The pervasive theme of Coates’ piece is that his politics, the politics of urban blacks or even American blacks generally, is not my politics. It’s not the politics that’s written about in The Politico or voted on nationally or represented in Congress. The politics I know doesn’t care about Cosby, or Cosby’s late son, or about basically any black family. Or, rather, when it does care, it seeks to destroy:

The rise of the organic black conservative tradition is also a response to America’s retreat from its second attempt at Reconstruction. Blacks have watched as the courts have weakened affirmative action, arguably the country’s greatest symbol of state-sponsored inclusion. They’ve seen a fraudulent war on drugs that, judging by the casualties, looks like a war on black people. They’ve seen themselves bandied about as playthings in the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan (with his 1980 invocation of states’ rights” in Mississippi), George Bush (Willie Horton), Bill Clinton (Sister Souljah), and George W. Bush (McCain’s fabled black love-child). They’ve seen the utter failures of school busing and housing desegregation, as well as the horrors of Katrina. The result is a broad distrust of government as the primary tool for black progress.

Now, you can argue with any of the examples Coates cites. You can say that Reagan’s visit wasn’t racially motivated, or that Sister Souljah was an extremist who needed rebuking, or that school busing did more harm than good. In some cases, busing in particular, you’d be right, on an abstract, policy-analysis level, at least. But that’s not really relevant. Even if busing failed by pushing whites to the suburbs and private schools, ending it sends a signal about which race’s preference matter to the government. Even if Reagan chose Philadelphia, MS for totally non-racial reasons, his insensitivity sent a signal about who he’d represent as president. Even if Bill Clinton was right on the merits, comparing a Public Enemy member to David Duke sent a signal about what he thought about black culture. Even if Bush’s failure in Katrina was more incompetence than racism, it sent a signal about what races the government cares about saving.
So, is Cosby right? Coates is skeptical:

Cosby is fond of saying that sacrifices of the ’60s weren’t made so that rappers and young people could repeatedly use the word nigger. But that’s exactly why they were made. After all, chief among all individual rights awarded Americans is the right to be mediocre, crass, and juvenile—in other words, the right to be human. But Cosby is aiming for something superhuman—twice as good, as the elders used to say—and his homily to a hazy black past seems like an effort to redeem something more than the present.

But the thing is, in a world in which both blacks and whites are allowed to be human, one still suffers far more. Coates is right, blacks shouldn’t have to be superhuman. But they do have a right to the kind of comfort in their humanity that whites enjoy. That they don’t have that comfort today isn’t their doing. It’s the white world’s. That’s where Cosby errs, fundamentally. There’s a variable behind the disparity between the races, and it’s a variable in which blacks have basically no say. DuBois got it right in 1903, and he gets it right today: until the establishment separating the races’ standing is integrated, the root causes of institutional racism, expressed in slavery, Jim Crow, or modern neglect, will remain.

Hillary LeMay

Hillary Clinton apparently lives in a world in which saying that an Iranian attack on Israel would provoke “massive retaliation” and “total obliteration” is not a threat of nuclear reprisal. She even says that “use of nuclear weapons against Israel would provoke a nuclear response from the United States”, but Howard Wolfson says she isn’t threatening a nuclear attack. In other news, ignorance is strength.
What’s so frustrating about this isn’t just that it’s the kind of thing Charles Krauthammer says after a couple bumps of meth. It’s that even a conventional American response to an attack on Israel from a Muslim country has never happened. Not in 1948, when every Arab state was pitted against David Ben-Gurion’s militia. Not in 1967, when Nasser, Assad, and Hussein invaded the not even 20 years old, miles-wide Israel of the time. Not in 1973, when Sadat and Assad came damn close to beating Golda Meir. And all of those instances were before Israel developed a nuclear deterrent. The fact of the matter is that Israel has a much larger (which is to say, existing) nuclear stockpile than any other country in the Middle East, and that the IDF is the strongest conventional military in the region by far. It has defended itself without American military help from far greater threats to its existence than Iran, at times when it was much weaker. If they could afford for us to stay out of it then, they can afford for us to stay out of it now.

Computers Are My Hot, Hot Sex

Shorter Paul Krugman and Kevin Drum: if you exclude the most important invention of the late 20th century, (the computer), the late 20th century wasn’t all that impressive invention-wise. What gives?
To be fair to them, this isn’t an uncommon impulse. For some reason, most boomers really seem to think that flying cars are more impressive than the Internet. It’s insane, and not really defensible at all (I’d argue that the Internet and personal computing have done more to improve quality of life than anything since and possibility including the railroad), but it’s common.

Pennsylvania

Everyone knew Clinton would win; this is, after all, a state whose Democratic party is dominated by blue-collar and white female voters, exactly the demographics Clinton does best with. The fact that Obama tightened it as much as he did, in the face of ridiculous attacks like the Wright, “bitter”, and Ayers smears, is remarkable. According to MSNBC, Clinton’s margin is about 10 delegates, which, while not nothing, is about the number of superdelegates Obama nets on a good week. Indeed, one, the unfairly obscure Gov. Brad Henry of Oklahoma, has already endorsed today. Obama’s still insanely far ahead in North Carolina, despite Clinton’s dispatching of California/Texas guru Ace Smith there, and recent polling in Indiana suggests a moderate lead there too. Even if he loses Indiana, he’ll more than make up the loss in his delegate lead by the sheer size of his North Carolina victory. I really hope we’ll get more Clinton staffers on record as saying Indiana’s a must-win, and then see Obama sweep it and NC on May 6th, so that there’ll be a logical point for the madness to end. The thing that drives me crazy is that this race isn’t too different from past primaries. It’s just that, in the past, losing candidates have been humble/low-profile enough that when it becomes clear that defeat is inevitable, they exit with dignity (see Edwards, Bradley, Tsongas, etc.) But the combination of Hillary’s national figure, sway within the party, and sheer hubris has created the mess we have now. Something like a May 6th sweep would be really nice as an opportunity to knock some sense into her and her campaign and get them to play the role losing campaigns must, and in the past always have, done.

Gimme Gimme Thimerosal Treatment

Barack Obama has earned a substantial degree of good will with me, as anyone who’s read this blog at least once knows, and it takes a lot for me to get truly, actively mad at him, even when we disagreed. Well, his (and, to be fair, Clinton and McCain’s) apparent sympathy for the nutjobs who think that MMR vaccines cause autism provoked that level of anger from me. It should go without saying at this point that the vaccine claims are pseudoscientific bullshit, and as d at LG&M says, vaccine alarmists actively promote death by deterring parents from giving their kids the vaccine. But the main reason this pisses me off so much is that, even if the alarmists were right, it wouldn’t matter.
I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (a variant of autism) at about age 3, if I recall correctly, and I give it substantial credit for the success I’ve had so far in life. The much-touted social ineptitude that comes with autism spectrum conditions has been a problem occasionally, of course, but it has its benefits. It leads to an instinct for introversion that lends itself to long hours online or buried in books. It provokes long periods sitting alone, thinking. It turns useful activities – like writing essays, or research – into welcome respites from social activity. A more powerful, and far less noted, aspect of the syndrome is its tendency to provoke deep obsessions. For some people, that obsession is trainspotting, or birdwatching, or animé. I lucked out with more mainstream and useful ones, namely politics and popular music, but the mechanism behind them is the same. Aspie obsession is an end in itself; it gives research and the acquisition of facts and theories with the same importance as eating or sleeping. And it’s a truly awesome (in both the archaic and vernacular senses) power. This blog wouldn’t exist without it, my grades would be much lower without it, and admissions committees would have been far less charitable without it. On a more ideational level, I’d be a much more ignorant, dumber, and less interesting person. For me, Asperger’s Syndrome is not a mental illness; it’s more or less the opposite.
This isn’t to say that parental concerns about autism are unfounded. Asperger’s is more mild than traditional, Kanner’s autism, and I sympathize with parents whose children still cannot talk to them at seven or eight. That said, the testimonies of classical autists, along with more recent scientific enquiries, suggest that its negative effects are greatly exaggerated. Kanner’s autists are not more likely to be mentally retarded than non-autists. They can communicate articulately, albeit in non-traditional ways. The more autists are treated as humans and not as case studies, the more it becomes clear that autism qua autism is not a disease, but a natural, and often beneficial, way of thinking.
The idiocy of the three remaining presidential candidates on thimerosal is disappointing, but it’s also an opportunity, an opportunity for liberals to take a stance on autism broader than mere condemnation of scientific illiteracy. It’s an opportunity for liberals to acknowledge, openly and loudly, that autism is not a disease, that it’s a grave insult to autists’ dignity to even think of “curing” it, and to condemn groups like Autism Speaks and embrace those, like Aspies For Freedom, that have the interest of autists, instead of non-autists frustrated with the autists in their lives, at heart. Liberals have a long and noble record of standing up for tolerance and diversity. Neurodiversity should be no different.

Fire John Yoo

I was about to write a post responding to Brian Leiter’s bizarre defense of John Yoo’s tenure, about how if tenure is anything less than a suicide pact it ought to be voided by the commission of war crimes, about how not even firing Yoo from his prestigious job would send an awful message about how Americans as a people treat the most shameful among us, about how it undermines our moral authority in prosecuting other war criminals, and about Yoo’s legacy is one dedicated to the transformation of the United States into something distinctly different from a liberal democracy, into something antithetical to everything universities should and must stand for. But then Brian Beutler wrote that post, and he wrote it better than I ever could. So go read. And screw John Yoo; he deserves a prison cell in the Hague, not a full professorship at Berkeley.