Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Providing a word

People have been commenting on Ross Douthat's essay today. I haven't seen anyone provide a particular word that is emphatically important in this discussion.

But with great power comes a lot of pressures as well, starting with great fear: The fear that through inaction you'll be responsible for the deaths of thousands or even millions of the Americans whose lived you were personally charged to protect. This fear ran wild the post-9/11 Bush Administration, with often-appalling consequences, but it wasn't an irrational fear - not then, and now. It doesn't excuse what was done by our government, and in our name, in prisons and detention cells around the world. But anyone who felt the way I felt after 9/11 has to reckon with the fact that what was done in our name was, in some sense, done for us - not with our knowledge, exactly, but arguably with our blessing. I didn't get what I wanted from this administration, but I think you could say with some justification that I got what I asked for.


Okay. People were scared. And they did something bad, something that they shouldn't have done, but god, people were scared, and they had reason to be scared, right?

There's a word for that. It's a really common word, and it's one that gets misused a lot, so a lot of people might not recognize that it fits, perfectly and properly here.

That word is "cowardice". And the noun form, "coward", is the proper word to apply to those who chose this course... or even who approved of it.

When you let fear drive you, when you let it lead you to do something wrong, based upon that fear, you are showing cowardice. If you continue to let fear drive you, week after week, month after month, year after year, you are being a coward.

While I have some sympathy for people who are driven by fear, that sympathy dries up for those who choose to lead our nation. They have a simple choice: either to consider our most precious values to be more important than their fear, or quit, and let someone with courage take over.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A couple of toxic memes

There are two toxic memes spreading, and a great many people have already shot them down, but that doesn't mean they don't bear being shot down again, just in case.

First: there's a meme going around that UAW workers in GM plants get $70 an hour.

This is completely false. However, if you take all of GM's labor costs, and divide them by the hours worked by UAW workers, you do get $70. What's up with that?

It's simple. GM promised pensions and medical care to their retirees. Of that $70, $30 are legacy costs... payments to medical and pension benefits for retirees. The remaining $40 is how much UAW workers actually get paid.

You can argue whether this means the UAW used to be too greedy, or GM used to be stone stupid, but it's irrelevant to what the UAW is doing right now. Right now, the UAW is bargaining in good faith, trying to protect their members, those folks who want to go to work, do their jobs, and take home a paycheck.

I know it's politically correct for Republicans to hate unions in general, but even the most hard hearted Republican should be able to recognize basic fairness; the UAW is getting paid on a par with other, non-union shops. Even if unions were pure evil in most cases (and, obviously, they're not), in this case, the UAW is being accommodating.

Toxic meme number two: Obama is not being forthcoming enough on Blagojevich, because he's saying there's no "there" there, and he won't comment further on an ongoing investigation.

Folks, come on. That's the equivalent of the old joke about "have you stopped beating your wife?" It assumes that there's something nasty already there. Obama can only be "more forthcoming" if there's more than he could say! If he has no connection to Blagojevich's corruption, he has literally said all he can say; that there is no connection, and he's not going to speculate about the case until all the facts are in.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Thoughts on sexism

This article is a pretty good opening to a discussion of sexism.

Campbell Brown is scolding Jon Favreau, Obama's chief speechwriter for having been photographed (at a private party) pretending to cup the breast of a cardboard Hillary Clinton cutout, and also scolding Hillary Clinton for not calling out this awful sexism.

This is a good discussion topic because it shows just how complicated everything is.

First, while this incident could be a demonstration of sexism on Favreau's part, it could also be innocent clowning around with friends. People sometimes act the clown, and say or do things that they know won't be taken seriously, without any malicious (or sexist) intent. Doing this kind of thing with the expectation of being photographed (and the photograph placed on the internet) would be sexist (or stone-cold-stupid)... but doing it because it'll draw laughs from a small group of friends is a different matter.

It can certainly be indicative of sexism, even misogyny. And it's certainly the kind of thing that should make even a generally-non-sexist person think "what was I thinking?" in retrospect. Favreau should be thinking "what if someone saw that, and thought I viewed Clinton as some stupid bimbo, rather than the strong, intelligent woman that she is?" Perhaps more importantly, he should be wondering if he's just given someone else license to think of Hillary Clinton as some stupid bimbo, if he's let someone shield themselves from criticism by being able to point to Favreau's example.

But let's also remember that this was not a public party. And let's remember that most people do stupid things sometimes, and say or do things just becuase they seem like fun, and "nobodies here but us chickens".

The way people act in private matters, but I remember how Molly Ivins spoke admirably of a Texas gentleman who always called women "honey" and "sweetiepie" but always, at every opportunity, argued strongly, and voted, in favor of women's rights. While the private stuff matters, the public stuff has to be included in the equation.

At the same time, that doesn't mean one should disgregard obvious and blatant sexism, either. Ivins didn't say she liked him calling women "honey" and "sweetiepie", just that she liked him, as a whole person, including his flaws.

So, yes, Favreau was stupid and acted in a sexist manner, and that shouldn't be disregarded, but we should also keep in mind the context as well, and we should always look at the whole person.

But that brings us to Hillary Clinton.

This is one of the really interesting parts to this situation. Clinton hasn't had any problem with this. Brown seems to have a problem with that. And that bothers me on two levels.

On the one hand, maybe she is using the same reasoning I used above... sometimes people clown around, and say things they really, honestly don't mean, and is perfectly willing to forgive because she's bighearted in that way. Or, maybe she, herself, said or did something stupid or embarrassing one drunken night, and she knows just how it goes, and is more than willing to be forgiving, because she'd hope she'd receive the same forgiveness in return.

On the other hand, if Clinton were to get upset about this, a lot of people would come down on her like a ton of bricks, calling her a humorless ball-breaker, or worse. And the scary thing is, it wouldn't just be the pro-sexism crowd. There are a lot of people who'd honestly think they're not sexist, but that she just needs to lighten up. "It was just a joke, just innocent clowning around, how dare you get angry over it!"

She can't really make a free choice; no woman in her position can. She still needs to show she can be "one of the guys". If she's angry, she must let it go. If she feels hurt, or humiliated, well, that's too bad, and if she wants to fit in, she won't show it.

And here's the fun part of all of this. On the one hand, there are women who've been hurt by similar displays of sexism. Some of them are waiting for the day when they're allowed to be upset by this, when they don't need to be "one of the guys", when a complaint over such oafish behavior will be taken seriously without anyone crying "Feminazi!" It's people like Senator Clinton who can help move us closer to that day.

On the other hand, we do need to be forgiving of innocent clowning around, and realize that sometimes it really is better to just laugh it off.

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