Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Identity politics and the culture of narcissism

President Obama has nominated the first Latina--nobody remembers Benjamin Cardozo anymore--to fill Justice David Souter's Supreme Court seat.  Fortunately Sonia Sotomayor has very impressive credentials, and apparently enough Bronx moxey to have a chance at offsetting the influence of her fellow New Yorker, Justice Antonin Scalia, and perhaps at persuading Justice Anthony Kennedy to join 5-4 majorities against rather than with Chief Justice Roberts, Scalia, and Justices Alito and Thomas.  And did I--need I--mention the goodwill Obama has secured in the Latino community, not to mention the velvet-lined coffin he's handed conservative Senate Republicans--i.e., everybody but Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins--by giving them a candidate they cannot possibly have wanted but whose community they cannot afford to alienate?

To all of which I want to say "huzzah," but my conscience nags at me.  I thank the President in his wisdom for obviously having a very impressive short list comprised entirely of women.  In a sense Obama has treated this nomination as finding a replacement as much for Sandra Day O'Connor as for Souter, and laudably so.  

Yet one of the cases likely to give the Republicans whatever ammunition they feel they can let fly involves an affirmative action case involving a fire department exam no minorities passed in New Haven, CT, a city I know well, with a history of racial division, suspicion and violence.  The whole scenario sickens one, a kind of replay of the absurd charge of "elitism" slung at Obama by the McCain campaign.  Substitute Sotomayor's Princeton and Yale for Obama's Columbia and Harvard:  the affirmative action generation has come to power.  And what case of Sotomayor's most annoys the Republicans but an affirmative action case; how poetically perfect, how cynically rich.  Now, at least, we know what really frightened conservatives about affirmative action:  that it would work.

And yet that nagging conscience won't quite leave me in peace.  Think of the constituencies either considered or mentioned in the leadup to this nomination, and even in its aftermath.  Women's groups would not have forgiven him for choosing a male.  The LGBT community wanted one of two openly lesbian lawyers from Stanford, one of whom, Kathleen Sullivan, long ago impressed me as a guest commentator on PBS.  She had my "vote."  The Latino community had a couple of contenders, though White House aides carefully pointed out that published short lists did not necessarily look like the real thing--although in the end they actually did, just longer.  Pragmatism weighed in Sotomayor's favor, and the usual dash of Obama bravado, daring the Republicans to go after her, knowing they cannot, except suicidally.

I believe in affirmative action, and salute what it has accomplished for all whom it has benefitted (that would include society most of all), and have great respect for the pioneers and second and third waves of the women's movement and LGBT activists.  I simply can't escape a certain feeling of unease at the chorus of "Mine!  Pick mine, Mr. President.  (... or I may not vote for you again, you bastard...) " that has attended this process like a stage-whisper.  

Obviously it matters that he picked Sotomayor, that she had the credentials that he could pick her, just as it would have mattered had he picked Kathleen Sullivan, not so much because of her credentials but because she achieved it all as an openly lesbian woman.  To me, it matters most that we put aside the politics of narcissism and recognize Judge Sotomayor for the most important symbolism she represents:  the exaltation of the outsider proclaimed on the statue that guards the harbor in her (and Ginsburg and Scalia's) home city.  If the other five Catholics and the two Jews in the Supreme Court speak to the nineteenth-century wave of immigration dominated by Eastern European Jews, Irish and Italians, Sotomayor speaks to the battles fought in the twentieth century that carry into the twenty-first.  Let those who see their face in hers reflect on the importance that other faces bring to the table; but let the others recognize that all outsiders benefit when one outsider gains entrance to the highest court in the land.     


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Climate change and aesthetics

A writer I know through my job came in to see me today.  The conversation turned, for reasons having nothing to do with Pres. Obama's announcement of new standards for auto emissions--though the subject did come up eventually--to cars.  Chrysler 300s, in the interest of full disclosure.  My writer friend has one, as does a dear colleague of mine, and, for that matter, as did then-Senator Obama until, realizing the liability it would become in a national race, he traded it in for a Ford Escape hybrid.  Again, in the interest of full disclosure.

Even fuller disclosure:  I lack the appropriate taste, apparently, to appreciate such cars.  They smack of illicit display, ill-wrought gain, greed, insecurity--what we used to call, though more with Corvettes and Jags in mind, penises-on-wheels but also on steroids.  In a word, or two, bad taste.  Call me a snob.
Paul gave me some insight into why some people like them, describing it as a redneck thing, meaning a culture that includes him (and my dear colleague, but obviously not the President, whose liking for them would seem to have more to do with the phenomenon of Cadillacs in black culture) and definitely not me.  Not that either Paul or I can afford, say, a Prius, which he finds ugly and I find fascinating, or a Volt, which even he finds snazzy. 

Paul's comment stuck with me as I read at lunch of how folks in rural parts of the country will have a hard time affording that undiluted icon of redneck culture, the pickup truck, especially large ones, except for their businesses.  Obama's reform of the auto industry will change the aesthetics of the American road.  We will see more eccentric designs like the Smart car, fewer appeals to our baser instincts of ostentation.  Mind you, Chryslers 300s and Ford F-150s will stay on the road till they die, hopefully soon, but Pres. Obama has given new life not only to the careers of automotive engineers, especially those with ideas about batteries and hydrogen and such, but also to car designers.  

One wonders where the ripples from all this will go.  Will opulence in clothing become passe?  Though a largely nostalgic part of me hopes not--along with the Gauthier's and Lagerfelds of the world, not to mention Michelle Obama's American designers, all of whom one suspects will survive financially--the notion of down-sizing cars suggests a new era of rational modesty, or at least a hint in that direction.  Imagine the audacity of it, to use one of the President's favorite words.  

Think of it in retailing terms as the ultimate add-on, that suggestion a retail clerk makes after you've decided to buy what you really wanted in the first place, except this time the add-on really does you some good rather than merely pad the retailer's cash-register.  In this case we have, first, personal austerity in the wake of the meltdown; second, smaller, lighter more fuel-efficient cars the automakers will have to find a way to make inexpensive to appeal to the new austerity, and finally, clothing and all sorts of other "necessities" trimmed down to accommodate newly strapped-in budgets.  

If Pres. Obama seems radical to some, his radicalism smacks loudly of good old fashioned desert monastic values like humility and modesty, what he often references as the Kansan common-sense of his grandparents.  And yet as I write this an image comes to me of a well-known and very diminutive Taiwanese Buddhist nun tooling around New Haven, CT in the early '90s with joyful abandon and questionable driving skill in her car--an outsize and even then quite old black Cadillac convertible.  Maybe this change won't come as easily as it might seem, after all.     

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Where have all the soldiers gone?

The Army has announced an alarming rise in the suicide rate of its soldiers, surpassing the percentage of suicide deaths in the general population.  This news comes not long after a numerically much less significant spate of suicides by people affected by or--potentially or in fact--criminally implicated in the collapse of the financial markets, both in the United States and in Europe, as well as other places perhaps, less well reported.  

The literally suicidal choices of these two seemingly unrelated groups of people--what social scientists would refer to as "cohorts"--raise disturbing questions, not so much about the eternal enigma of why (often very "successful") people commit suicide, though we cannot avoid that issue altogether, as about what we think of suicide in the abstract and suicides in the particular.

In the spring of 1976, I had lived in a psychiatric hospital in Charlottesville, VA for about three months.  My psychiatrist, a month or so before my release, had made me the roommate of a brilliant and profoundly disturbed high school student, on the theory that I could counter-balance the influence on A... of an equally brilliant and just as disturbed patient who believed herself an avatar of St. Theresa of Avila.  He thought if I could play chess with A... and befriend him I could pry him away from St. Theresa.  I suspect he knew I could not function in their league--either in terms of psychosis or sheer intellectual brilliance--but perhaps felt he had no other cards to play.  

And so I became a pawn in a very deadly game that ended one night when A... took advantage of a graduate psychology student intern's laxness in locking down the facility, walked less than a mile, hid himself in the bushes by a railroad siding, and waited for the freight train that came through at about 10:15 every evening.  Coming home from the Fine Arts Library--I left the hospital a couple of weeks later to resume my studies and already had some freedom to come and go--I probably crossed the railroad tracks within a few hundred yards of where A... awaited the freight train.

I remember my own numbness and inability to express any coherent response when the news finally came; A...'s always taut and distracted face, and his voice, tired and strained past all imagining for a fifteen year-old; the volume of Sartre on his bedside table, his attempt to find a philosophical handbook for what the pain in his mind and soul led him inexorably to do; the pathetic and humiliating ease with which he would beat me at chess.  And of course the death watch of my shrink, his staff, and the disgraced student intern, hoping beyond hope until the news came that despite an all-out police search along those tracks--he'd made an earlier attempt in more or less the same place before entering the hospital under commitment by his parents--a freight engineer had stopped with far too little warning.  A...'s body lay, a grisly mess on the tracks.  Beyond that we heard no further details.

My point in all this, though, concerns a meeting we had the next morning for all patients and staff.  I remember very little, dumb with sleeplessness and the emptiness of it all, as it felt to me at the time, the inarticulable elusiveness of it.  This much, however, I recall very clearly, because it finally allowed me to feel outrage, not at A..., but at those who would judge him.  A patient from another team--one of the alcoholics, if memory serves, which it may not--a woman in her late thirties, rose and in shrill tones of deeply moral offense declared A... and all suicides cowards.  Empathy, pain, the tragedy of losing a brilliant young mind, all took second place for her to the immorality of cowardice.  Her argument, laced with a bit of rear-pew theologizing, ignited me, though I do not recall what I said, or even whether I said it in the meeting itself, though I believe I did, and forcefully.  I could not say anything intelligible about the death itself, but I had plenty to say about those who would judge it, and that became my comment on the death----my defense of my roommate's courage by the indirect means of impugning anyone else's right to assert otherwise.

This story seems relevant in these days of mounting suicides among those schooled in courage, tested--perhaps too much--by fear.  I felt another sort of outrage at a story of a young soldier on suicide watch identified for all to see by an orange police vest, and by his lacking a belt, shoelaces, or a tie, not to mention a soldier's badge of honor, his gun.  Aside from the gruesomely counter-productive effect of such treatment, it reminds me that one of the great tragedies of suicide lies in our fear of it, our cowardice in facing the terror of it, our unwillingness to reach down, imagine the desperation, the loss of identity--the reason most often given to explain the suicides of the rich and powerful--that would drive one to overcome all one's strongest instincts of personal protection, family ties, and love of life, and to have the self-possession to plan and carry out the dispossession of self by whatever means.  

It takes a certain ruthlessness, after all.  Think of that freight engineer who saw A... and knew he had no chance to stop the train in time, distraught while talking to the police; think of Heath Ledger's family and friends, and the pain the release of the Batman film must have brought them.  Think, think, as though the suicide deserves blame for heartlessness, when all these horrible details of the aftermath serve merely to distract us from the deeply disturbing reality of the deed itself.  Soldiers, of all people, whose bravery we can hardly doubt--unless we blame war for unmanning them of their courage (I have seen no breakdown of the suicides by gender)--must give us pause in our litany of blame.  

I suspect we shy away from associating courage with suicide because we have lionized courage as a virtue.  The idea of a courageous suicide seems hideously oxymoronic.  Soldiers, who have seen so much horror and faced it, know better than others how to face it.  And yet for so many of these--the warriors who whether we like it or not fight battles on our  behalf, lose limbs in the name of liberty, properly understood or no--reaching down into the most frightening corners of themselves and emerging out the other side with an answer none of us can bear seems their only option.  This fact alone might give us profound pause the next time we want to shirk the responsibility of understanding and indeed respecting the desperate composure of one who leaves this world in a manner we cannot intellectually accept or morally compass.


More than all those  

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

so what exactly did joe biden get wrong?

From the media flurry, one would think the Vice-President really put his foot in it this time. Protect kids and loved ones by keeping them in safe places unexposed to a flu virus that changes names as often as it changes its microbiology?  How could the great Senator Amtrak say such a foolish thing as his boss's administration seeks to dampen hysteria about the nascent pandemic?

While the mainstream media grappled with that line of thought, some admitting that the White House found Biden's honest humanity hard to criticize, a friend of mine and I went to the zoo with no thought of the flu on our minds, at least not mine.  The relevance to the swine flu pandemic of our afternoon in the not-so-wilds of Asheboro, NC--though they make an admirable effort--occurred to me only in retrospect.  

The flu and the zoo intersect over an issue that struck me at about the third exhibit we reached, the mountain lion's.  Mountain lions range over a territory of anything from ten to over a hundred square miles, and this somnolent, languorous cat stretched out in front of us had a hillside of perhaps 1,500 square feet, maybe a bit more.  Apparently zoo animals live longer on average than their counterparts in the wild.  One can see why from that sleeping mountain lion. With nowhere to run and no need to hunt, think of all the time to sleep.

From exhibit to exhibit we saw some version of the same problem.  Perhaps as someone who lived in monastic enclosure for a year in a Trappist monastery this issue appears a bit differently to me than to someone who has not had that admittedly unusual experience.  The seals and sea lions have a lovely replication of a rocky coast, but it quickly became obvious that the harbor seals swim laps in a very repetitive pattern, with a wrinkle tossed in every few laps or so.  The grizzly and polar bears showed hardly more energy than the mountain lion, in even smaller confines for animals, especially in the case of polar bears, capable of thousand-mile traverses in the Arctic.   The elk, bison, rhinos and antelope have much more wide open spaces, but then why did the rhino insist on working the very edge of the field in a straight line along the fence?

In case this sounds like a jeremiad against zoos, in which case it would have very little to do with the Vice-President's "gaffe," we felt privileged to exchange what seemed to us reciprocally intelligent stares with the gorilla silverback, the most moving moment of the day for me.  As my friend put it, when the lioness looked at us she saw dinner; the gorilla looked at us as we look at each other, with an intelligence very like ours.  One never knows at what point one merely romanticizes animals, but one sensed a being behind the furry mask of his face, and a self-possession, indeed a self, we did not see elsewhere.

And yet the issue came to a disturbing climax for me a few minutes later, after we'd left the gorillas and seen the giraffes and zebras.  Tucked in between violent outbursts of noise from the baboons up the hill, we stumbled on the chimpanzees.  All seemed well enough until the alpha male sat down at one corner of the exhibition's plexiglass window, directly in front of a couple of families with small children.  At a ninety-degree angle to the window, he began banging his right shoulder against the plexiglass, again and again, psychotically repetitive and aggressive, making eye contact with no one.  Chimps, apparently, fight wars, the only primate to share that unlovely distinction with us.  They throw things ranging from feces to rocks to sticks, and the plexiglass has a long crack and a sizable hole where Hondo the alpha wrought his damage.  A guard told us of the precautions one must take to enter their living quarters, a privilege he once declined.

Even the chimps' great champion, Jane Goodall, documents their potential for homicidal nastiness, so one cannot attribute it entirely to living in imposed enclosure.  And yet Hondo and his band want something we all want, something the Vice-President wants:  safety combined with freedom.   Joe Biden has feedom, but right now doesn't feel safe.  Hondo--and the silverback, the mountain lion, even the alligators for whose beauty my friend's eye has an appreciation that evades mine--has safety, but would, perhaps, give it up in an instant for freedom.  

Perhaps:  because one wonders, frightened and angry as his behavior Sunday seemed, whether Hondo would know what to do with freedom.  Joe Biden knows freedom, and resents having to put it on hold in the interests of safety; Hondo resents enforced safety, too.  Perhaps only because he represents an evolutionary rung so close to ours do we see his behavior as more evidently sad and disturbing than the graceful lap-swimming of the seals.  

And yet that seems precisely the point.  We hate having to worry about whether our kids can go to school or our mates should fly in airplanes.  One hopes the pandemic will abate, and perhaps too smugly assumes it will, while recognizing the tragic consequences it has already had for those who have lost family members.  For most of us, as hopefully for the Vice-President, it will prove temporary, a frightening inconvenience, but little more than that.  Hondo does not have such prospects, and has sufficient intelligence to see something out there--in his case, us, rather than the flu--as a threat and irritant.  And, sitting there carrying someone's old blue sweatshirt like a shopping bag, he feels just as annoyed in his sense of--what, helplessness? or just plain chimpish petulance?--as does the second-ranking man in the United States government, for reasons that may have something to do with each other, after all.