Tuesday, April 28, 2009

To the left, to the left

Arlen Specter's defection to the Democratic Party is being dismissed by Republicans as a desperate last ditch effort to save his senate seat. Uber principled Michael Steele's statement sums it up.
Let’s be honest-Senator Specter didn’t leave the GOP based on principles of any kind. He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record.

Republicans look forward to beating Sen. Specter in 2010, assuming the Democrats don’t do it first.
Indeed, Specter admits that he assessed the situation and came to the conclusion that he would lose the 2010 Republican primaries. In his statement, he explains:
... I have traveled the State, talked to Republican leaders and office-holders and my supporters and I have carefully examined public opinion. It has become clear to me that the stimulus vote caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable. On this state of the record, I am unwilling to have my twenty-nine year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate.
His prospects were bleak because he was not conservative enough. I tend to believe though that he is sincere in expressing exasperation over the GOP's takeover by the hardcore fringe.
Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right ... I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.
This realignment should not come as a surprise. As John Nichols reminds us, Specter started his career on the Left.
Specter, who was a liberal Democratic lawyer in Phildelphia in the 1960s before accepting a GOP nomination for district attorney as part of a reform-movement battle to break the city's Democratic machine, has long been the most left-leaning member of the Republican caucus in the chamber.

And now the senior senator from Pennsylvania is returning to the fold.

Specter, who has served five terms in the Senate as the last of the old-school Rockefeller Republicans, has finally given up on his long, fruitless quest to revive the spirit of east-coast liberalism within what has become a hard-right party.
Specter is joining a host of other Americans weary of the anger, irrationality, obstinacy and hatred of the far right. Theirs is an exodus to the left which really ends in the center where most citizens are.

For some strange reason I have Beyonce's To the left stuck in an endless loop in my head.

Image from Joel Rose.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


The recent suicides of two boys have us looking for someone to blame - we don't need to look far.

As Examiner.com reported:
Two 11-year-old boys took their own lives this month. Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Massachusetts and Jaheem Herrera of Georgia both committed suicide by hanging themselves after enduring unbearable anti-gay bullying at their respective schools. They join an alarmingly growing list of students who have ended their lives, desperate to escape the torture of relentless homophobic attacks. School officials failed to address the bullying despite Walker-Hoover and Herrera’s parents’ repeated attempts to raise their concerns.
In both cases, the boys' mothers and many others hold school administrators and faculty accountable. David Mattingly of AC360 asks,
How could a child be forced to such an extreme act in such a short time?

It’s not like he was suffering in silence. Jaheem told his mother about the verbal abuse — and one physical assault. His mother says she complained multiple times to school officials. And this is a school system that experts say had a progressive anti-bullying policy.

Jaheem’s complaints should have been taken seriously and adults in the school should have intervened. Did they?

And he refuses the pro forma response - we want to reassure the community that this is an important concern ... we care about the well-being of all of our students ... we are committed to providing a safe and nurturing environment for them to learn ... we will continue to reinforce our policies/programs to address behaviors that are unacceptable - given by school officials.

I’m sorry, but this is not enough.

An 11 year-old child who should have been preoccupied with things like Wii and comic books found his life so miserable and meaningless that he ended it. Where was this “safe and nurturing environment” when he needed it? This is not a failure of a system or a program, this is a catastrophe.

I agree that schools failed Carl, Jaheem, Eric Mohat, Lawrence King and way too many other kids who looked, spoke and acted "different." And there lies the real problem. Our children need to learn that there is nothing wrong with being so. That there is nothing wrong with being gay or transgender.

But how will they learn this when day in and day out, they hear words and witness actions of adults that condemn homosexuality as simply wrong? If society, especially its moral arbiters, curbs homophobia and attendant bigotry fear and hate, then not only will words like "fag" and "homo" lose their fangs, they will not be gleefully employed by children.

We don't need to look far for someone to blame for the suicides of Carl and Jaheem. We are all complicit.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Straight Factor

It must have been over 15 years ago when I met a gay man who simply refused to have anything to do with straight people and "their" world. He worked at a gay owned and operated company, kept gay friends, lived in a gay neighborhood, ate at gay restaurants, patronized gay retailers and worshiped with a gay congregation. Although I was aware of his painful personal history of homophobia and rejection, I was nonetheless taken aback and tried to argue that he was denying himself of another world and some really wonderful straight folks. But he was having none of it. I wonder whether he stills thinks and feels the same way. I hope not.

Fact is, it would be next to impossible for a gay person to totally isolate himself from straight people because homosexuality has entered the mainstream and there are few places in which to hide. In New York where I had lived and DC where I now live, there no longer are gay ghettos. The gays have moved uptown and out of town directly into the suburbs. Moreover, there is no reason to inoculate one’s self from heterosexuals as more and more of them are accepting of us. Many people have gone beyond mere tolerance to sincere welcome. Yes, undeniably there remain way too many others who'd rather we not existed, but this is not the early 1990s much less 1969.

And as the LGBT community continues to labor for their rightful place in society, it makes all the sense for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered individuals to live openly and proudly and to reach out to their straight neighbors and coworkers. As writer Jonathan Rauch points out in a salon.com discussion on the future of gay marriage, an important change in the equation is the mobilization of straight advocacy of same-sex marriage.
For those of us who tilled these vineyards for years, it was frustrating that the only people who felt strongly were people who were only 8 percent or 5 percent of the population or whatever, and the religious right -- you know what those numbers look like ... In the wake of Prop. 8 in California, we saw something in a way that I had never seen before, which was a whole lot of straight people getting involved and getting energized and feeling strongly about this issue.
Polling expert Anna Greenberg believes that there is unrealized potential among fair-minded, thinking and compassionate heterosexuals.
... I would argue that there's some real work to be done in the so-called straight base of support for marriage. There's a lot more potential. I do think that we've seen some of the movement that Jon has talked about ... it's not just the increasing public prominence of people who are gay or coming out, it's not even having you know someone in your family or a co-worker, it's that people have people they are close to and care about who are coming out, who are gay and want to have recognition of their relationships.

In the research I've done, what's interesting, it actually isn't knowing someone that is a predictor of supporting a gay marriage. Liking and feeling close to someone who is gay is a predictor. You could have the uncle of the family who is gay, but you might not like him or you can disapprove of his choices that he's made. So it's not just having a family member or co-worker that's sufficient. But what I think we're seeing is an increasing number of people whose consciousnesses have been raised by discovering that they've got people who they care about and are close to who are gay and want to have their relationships recognized.

Indeed, a Southern beauty queen I know who might have at an earlier point in her life muttered the same inanities as Ms. California, now expresses support for LGBT rights because she knows me and my partner rather well. Because I explained to her how we are treated like second class citizens and how we are denied many benefits heterosexual married couples take for granted. Because I asked her to think about me and John when she votes or talks to her conservative friends. Because we are cousins as well as friends.

Image from the Sacramento Bee.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Fear of the Truth

Fundamentalist Americans are scared of penguins. Gay penguins that adopt cuddly, innocent and vulnerable penguin chicks.

The American Library Association's (ALA) website reports that in 2008, its Office for Intellectual Freedom received a total of 513 "challenges." That is, "a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness." Topping the list for a third consecutive year is And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell and Henry Cole. The children's book is based on the true story of Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins that coupled up and hatched an egg.

As Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the ALA's office for intellectual freedom, told the Guardian:
Books that address same-sex parenting, or same-sex relationships, are particularly prone to challenges in the US ... In the case of And Tango Makes Three, there are many parents who believe it inappropriate to teach children anything at all about homosexual relationships, even in the form of a picture book about a true story.
Anti-gay individuals and institutions, especially fundamentalists and their churches, argue that homosexuality is unnatural, that it is an aberration of God's design. But the simple and plain fact is, homosexuality is part of nature - examples abound.

Five years ago, a National Geographic News article read:
Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it. So go the lyrics penned by U.S. songwriter Cole Porter. Porter, who first hit it big in the 1920s, wouldn't risk parading his homosexuality in public. In his day "the birds and the bees" generally meant only one thing—sex between a male and female. But, actually, some same-sex birds do do it. So do beetles, sheep, fruit bats, dolphins, and orangutans. Zoologists are discovering that homosexual and bisexual activity is not unknown within the animal kingdom.
So if one believes, as they do, that God created nature, then there is nothing unnatural about gay penguins. Or humans. There goes a core justification for sustained bigotry!

I suspect that behind the irrational and sometimes violent reaction of this intolerant and hateful lot is the growing realization that the ideas they cling on to are patently false and man made. That the story they tell themselves and their children - that they are the righteous and chosen ones - is false. They are scared. Their world is under attack and is in danger of crumbling.

I get that. But there is a real world in which the rest of us live. A far better one that allows for diversity and deserves acceptance and compassion. If only they would choose to open their minds and hearts and listen to a better story.

May I suggest a book?

Image from the Official Blog of Marc Steiner.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Heterosexual Hegemony

The backlash against positive and much needed change brought about by the Legislature of Vermont, the Supreme Court of Iowa and the City Council of Washington, DC, particularly by fringe groups such as the National Organization for (Straight) Marriage, made me think: heterosexual hegemony.

Heterosexual hegemony is the dominance and control of one group over another, namely, the LGBT community. The norms and values of straight people are institutionalized and imposed upon gay and transgendered women and men. It is the assumption that there is only one way of being. Case in point, marriage, which is nothing more than a consensual and contractual relationship between two adults. It is limited to heterosexuals by heterosexuals.

This subjugation if you will, permeates the daily lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people. People can lose their jobs for being true to themselves. Loving and committed parents can not adopt kids that desperately need families. Patriotic women and men are not allowed to serve the country they love. Girls and boys are bullied, leading some to commit suicide. People have been beaten, raped, sodomized, tortured and killed because they do not conform to the heterosexual norm.

Certain segments of society are up in arms against fairness and justice - the American way - because they know that heterosexual hegemony is eroding, slowly but surely. While I do not agree with their reasoning which is flawed and tenuous, I can imagine the fear they choose to embrace and spread. They feel overwhelmed by what in their minds is a tsunami of change and are terrified by the thought of losing control.

As it is, they are still trying to deal with a new administration that does not bend over to placate them.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Main Stream Media

No one at the table had heard of the reality TV show the Cougar. Of course not. Except for the young man who brought it up and whose high school buddy is one of the prey, and me who rationalizes intake of popular media with the argument that to be an effective communicator, I need to know what the masses are talking about. The rest were serious scholars at the policy think tank where I work. It was the monthly bagel breakfast and the president, an avuncular and professorial man, happened to be sitting at the next table. So I thought out loud whether he knew of the Cougar.

Turns out that, unsurprisingly, he did not. However, his wife had recently turned him on to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. He asked if any of us followed the less than cordial exchange between Stewart and Jim Cramer (ask me! ask me!). He was amazed by Cramer's contriteness. However, he was concerned that a majority of Americans, especially the young ones, got their news and editorial from Stewart and Colbert than Lehrer.

Eric Alterman writes in the Nation:
It's a sad--almost terrifying--comment on the state of the American media that we have come to rely on these two funnymen to tell us the truth about our country in the same way we relied on Murrow in the '50s and Walter Cronkite in the '60s.
However, Alterman articulates my feeble protest to the boss that Stewart and Colbert serve a valuable function in contemporary punditry.
... as the mainstream media keep reminding us, albeit unintentionally, the MSM's groupthink is invulnerable to reality. Like the president who remained so popular with them for so long, it literally takes a hurricane and a biblical-style flood to get them to pay attention to events that do not conform to the agreed-upon national narrative.
As such, while Stewart clowns it up,
.... along with Stephen Colbert, his ability to entertain is what lends him his authority in the first place. Think about it. Why should we care who this or that newspaper publisher endorses for president? Answer: we only care because we care about the editorial influence on the audience. Presidential candidates don't go seeking the endorsement of high school newspapers because, well, dude, kids don't vote. Stewart and Colbert have the audience that powerful people want to reach; yet at the same time, these two men do not participate in a pack mentality, and that's what makes them politically invaluable (and at this point, irreplaceable).

Their "we're just comedians" protestations notwithstanding, both men appear to take this part of their job no less seriously than they do the funny parts. It cannot be mere coincidence that they are responsible for three of the most important/cathartic media moments of the past decade. Stewart pretty much ended Crossfire all by himself and retired the foolish notion that a left/right food fight leads one any closer to truth. Next, Colbert shamed and exposed the pathetic performance of the White House press corps with his brilliant after-dinner speech at the correspondents' dinner. And now Stewart, first by eviscerating the coverage of CNBC and second by forcing Jim Cramer to own up to his on-air hucksterism, has revealed the lie at the center of most business coverage (and just about all cable news).

While I do watch the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, I also catch the Newshour with Jim Lehrer and Washington Week with Gwen Ifill (love her!). However, whether we like it or not, I can see how eyes can glaze over PBS news coverage. Shields and Brooks ain't Stewart and Colbert (sorry gentlemen). It is what it is. At least the young ones are getting some news and sound albeit less-formal-and-more-farcical opinion from really smart thinkers. The challenge now is to find the right format and media to transmit good information and analysis to the next generation.

Image from SteveAudio.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Benign Neglect

The result of being considered the model minority is benign neglect. That is what the director of a social service agency told me. She finds it difficult to raise funds and obtain grants from government and foundations because people think that the families her organization serves - Asian Americans - do not need help. After all, aren't they smart, hard-working, thrifty and well off?

As C.N. Le of Asian Nation notes:
Many people go even further and argue that since Asian Americans are doing so well, we no longer experience any discrimination and that Asian Americans no longer need public services such as bilingual education, government documents in multiple languages, and welfare. Further, using the first stereotype of Asian Americans, many just assume that all Asian Americans are successful and that none of us are struggling.
Indeed, another director of an Asian serving nonprofit noticed what she calls "congenial discrimination." Politicians and other community leaders are civil, even friendly most of the time, but little attention and hardly any support is given to her constituency. While this lack of influence and access to resources may also be due to Asian Americans being a minority among minorities, she suspects that it has more to do with the myth of Asian affluence and independence.

A report from Asian American LEAD, Invisible Americans: The Hidden Plight of Asian Americans in Poverty, concedes that there is reason why the idea persists.
Looking at aggregate figures, one might easily assume that virtually all Asian Americans are living the American Dream. Census data puts Asian Americans as a group at the top of the income scale, with the highest education levels of any racial group. Asian Americans are more likely to graduate from college and doctoral programs, and to come from two-parent homes than any other population in our country today.
Moreover, Asians are less visible than other minority groups again due to sheer numbers and to a non-confrontational culture as well. However, the report's authors quickly add that
... a closer look at these figures tells another story. While as a group Asian Americans fare well, a substantial subgroup falls far below the poverty line. Per capita income for Cambodian, Hmong, and Laotian Americans is about half that of whites, and below that of African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians. The homeownership rate for Asian Americans lags that for white Americans by 20 percentage points. Asian American households are more overcrowded than the general U.S. population by 10 percent. One in eight Asian Americans lives in poverty. This figure includes one in every six Vietnamese Americans, and more than one in every four Cambodian Americans. High school graduate rates range from 88 percent for Japanese Americans to 31 percent for Hmongs. One in five Asian immigrants has less than a high school diploma. Asian Americans as a group are more than four times as likely as Caucasians to have no formal schooling; that figure includes one in four Laotian women and one in two Hmong women in America.
The ongoing recession has been affecting the Asian American community just as much as other groups. Last December, the International Examiner reported the rapid increase in the number of unemployed Asian Americans during the previous months.
Nationwide, 72,000 Asian Americans were unemployed in November 2008.This brings the current reported unemployment rate among Asian Americans up to 4.8 percent. According to U.S. Labor Department unemployment statistics released on December 5, the total number of Asian Americans without work in November was 343,000 compared to 271,000 unemployed workers in October, or 3.8 percent of Asian Americans nationwide. The number of unemployed persons in other ethnic or racial groups for the same period (October and November) rose as follows: Caucasians, from 6,923,000 (5.5 percent) to 7,336,000 (5.8 percent); African Americans, from 1,952,000 (11 percent), to 1,979,000 (11.2 percent). Unemployment among Asians (from 271,000, 3.8 percent, to 343,000, 4.8 percent) increased by a full percentage point, while rates in the other two groups increased by only 0.3 and 0.2 percent, respectively. The statistics show that the month-to-month impact has been highest on Asian Americans.
The Asian American community and its leaders need to work together and advocate for those in need within the community - low-income families, newcomers, at-risk youth, battered women, the elderly and those with mental health issues. They need to speak up and dispel the myth that all Asians are successful and that we do not need help.