Monday, September 26, 2005

For a Large Fee in America

Beside my workplace there is an American Apparel retail store. Today marked my second walk-through, and my first close look at the prices, and I find myself rather disarmed.

Is it really possible that such prices, which I find absurd given the (lack of) quality and the abject blandness and ugliness of the clothing, are what it takes to finance a non-sweatshop mass-marketed clothing line? If so, I'm a bit terrified that the prices I've come to consider reasonable exist only as a result of the exploitation of hundreds of thousands of people. Is that really true, or is American Apparel jacking up its prices dramatically, feeling justified in doing so because of the moral face it presents to the world (a face which also seems to justify the softcore-porn style exploitation of images of young women)? Or some combination of the two? Lately I debate at what level I consider business ethics possible, and at what level oxymoronic. The logical extremes of capitalism seem to me to end in no-win situations. And yet, as my beloved Ms. Atwood had the Commander so bluntly put it in The Handmaid's Tale, "Better never means better for everyone. . . . It always means worse, for some." None of the alternatives the world has offered have met with success in a wider context--is that because things that aren't capitalism only work if everybody does them, otherwise they can't be complete?

I reap, I know, the benefits of being white and American. Before my intelligence, before my gender and body, those in themselves gain me a lot. I just don't know how to think about it sometimes. In the end I always say to myself, "What am I going to do, not be white, not be American?" The answer I'd gain from bell hooks's Where We Stand: Class Matters is, share the benefits. I need to figure out the best way to do that.

I'm getting into these brief entries, because it means I can ask simple(r) questions, put out simple(r) thoughts, while working on bigger posts, and not have to be removed from the "post frequently" list on Blue Skies Falling.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Well Well Well, You're Feeling Fine

I'm honestly not that worried about John Roberts.

My new roommate, Cathy, is a television news junkie, and thus I've seen more of the confirmation hearings than I might have otherwise. They seem to consist mainly of Democratic senators demanding to know how Roberts would decide cases on certain preferred controversial topics, and Roberts responding that it's impossible for him to say, he doesn't know, it would depend on the case that was brought before him. He's willing to speak on things about which he's already written; he won't speak on whether his overarching judicial philosophy is "strict constructionist" or not. Roberts responded that to look at the law in question as the precedent was foolish, that one had to get broader than that. Senator Biden, who asked that question in the circumlocuitous fashion that all the senators did (Schumer, whose questions were also interesting, was quite noteworthy on that front), seemed not to feel that the question was answered, but I did. I mean, think about Bowers v. Hardwick (the 1986 case that Lawrence v. Texas overturned, questioning whether sodomy between consenting adults was covered by the right to privacy)--the majority's argument was simply that there existed no legal precedent for the Constitution protecting homosexual sodomy. That's basically doing exactly what Roberts said he didn't do, claiming that precedent about a particular issue comes down only to the particular law in question in this particular case. As to it being impossible for him to say, yes, it is. That’s a perfectly fair answer. A Supreme Court Justice’s personal interpretation is not all that’s relevant to a case; it’s his (and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s) role to decide which side has made the more compelling constitutional argument. Not knowing how individual lawyers might argue the individual case about these controversial issues, Roberts can’t know how he’d rule. Makes sense to me.

Cathy pointed out, and she's right, that he *should* be answering questions about how he would have ruled in cases that have already been decided. "How would you have ruled in Roe v. Wade," though I'm not sure anyone has asked that, is a fair question, because the arguments of the particular case exist and have already been made and therefore he can analyze them within that context, rather than making sweeping generalizations about his political views. As far as I have seen, we have not gotten that, and I’ll consent that we should.

We don't know a lot about John Roberts, but I'm kind of okay with that, because what we do know about him does not conform to political orthodoxy. He wrote that Roe was wrongly decided (in case you haven't noticed, I've concluded that the names of Supreme Court cases need to be italicized, and so they will be in this blog from here on out); he also did pro bono work in favor of gay rights in Romer v. Evans, the case that said laws explicitly permitting discrimination against homosexuals were unconstitutional. (Check my research there; I've never read that case.) We know he's a very good impromptu speaker. We know he worked for conservative administrations, but is answering questions that seem to break him from the judicial philosophy of Antonin Scalia, the Court's living conservative stronghold. We also know that he feels strongly, and feels at pains to reassure us, that his personal views will not drive his decisions. On the surface that statement’s relatively uncontroversial, but, though I’ve never read transcripts of his confirmation hearings, I’m willing to bet that Rehnquist never said any such thing.

On the news (at least NBC and MSNBC News, which is what we've been watching), reporters repeat that "the Democrats" are anxious about Roberts, irritated by his refusal to answer questions, and are likely to vote against his confirmation. I've thus far heard little to nothing about the Republicans' opinions of the man. Now, they are in the same hearings with the same opportunity to answer questions; they're getting as little concrete information as the Democrats are. We can only conclude that they believe they can rely on Bush's decisionmaking power to protect them: even though they have so little information they remain confident that, being nominated by their president, Roberts will come down on their side. So the question is, who’s playing whom here? Cathy asserted that Rove et al would not have allowed Roberts to get by were they not certain of his investment in their agenda. Either the Republicans are playing the Democrats with this nomination in the first place—or, as Cathy put it, Roberts is playing absolutely everyone, and is the smartest guy in the room.

I don’t completely agree with either, but I’m much closer to the latter. In my view, most of the public, including the Senate, approaches the concept a Supreme Court justice's relationship to politics with such ignorance that playing them is relatively easy—you don’t have to be smarter than everyone in the room, just clearer about your role. And since very few senators have ever thought about being a Supreme Court justice, it's no surprise that an attorney and appeals court judge would be much clearer on the role of a Supreme Court justice. Liberals and conservatives make this mistake in equal measure, and it’s based on our reasonable assumptions regarding electoral politics. But Supreme Court justices do not have a constituency to please. I would not, for example, say that David Souter, appointed to the Court by Bush the First, “played” the Senate at that time. A series of hearings over the course of a week were not sufficient to make clear exactly what his decisions would be for the next twenty-odd years. And you certainly could not have predicted that this man would become a “liberal” stronghold on the Court based simply upon who nominated him. Over the course of a lifetime appointment, people are almost bound to change—some change more than others, but almost every justice has made a decision that will surprise you. (Even if, as in the case of Lewis Powell on Bowers>, he regrets it later.) There are some justices who define their tenure by a strict and overarching judicio-political philosophy, adhering to that orthodoxy strictly throughout. Rehnquist was one such justice; in his confirmation hearings Roberts, who clerked for Rehnquist, has made clear that he is not. I think we’re gaining a lot more information than the media’s giving us credit for.

It may be that I’m complacent and would rather think about the domestic and foreign policy disasters in the executive branch. It may be that Ann Coulter’s gotten under my skin. But I think worrying about John Roberts’s politics is a fruitless exercise. There’s very little we can definitively know about the decisions he will make in the next thirty years, and honestly, most of what I’ve seen about him philosophically, I like. Only the concrete aspects of what he’s saying are uncontroversial; in the abstract, he’s saying a great deal. In some ways, he’s more liberal than I am—he believes there’s a *constitutional* right to privacy, he even said so. I may live to eat these words, but my guess would be that I’ll eat them and purge them over the course of the next thirty years. In a lifetime appointment, I think that's how it should be.

*By the by, bonus points for figuring out the title reference and its relevance to this post. I think I'm actually going to start keeping track of bonus points, post winners every few months.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Red Scare, Purple Prose

My job, as an editorial assistant at an educational publishing company, has got me reading a lot of things I hadn't read in a while or had never read at all. One of the things I reread is The Crucible. (Mmmm, spoilertastic.) This post is lifted and expanded from an Email exchange Katie and I had upon my rereading.

The Crucible is a story of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, wherein a group of young women living in Salem Village began to denounce other villagers as witches, a process that rapidly mounted to hysterical and led to the execution of more than fifty people who would not confess to witchcraft when accused. Miller's play follows the story of John Proctor, who once had an adulterous affair with Abigail Williams (leader of the accusing young women) and who, because he does not buy into the concept of witchcraft and fights the court when his wife is accused, is eventually convicted as a witch (wizard) himself. Also, The Crucible, as I imagine most of you know, was Arthur Miller's response to McCarthyism, to being asked to name names during the Red Scare. Miller's own response to his interrogation by the House Un-American Activities Committee was, "My conscience will not permit me to use the name o another person and bring trouble to him." Arthur Miller was eventually cited for contempt by the HUAC. John Proctor is hanged at the end of the play.

Now, contrary to pretty much everything I've ever said, I go in for melodrama. Well, rather than going in, I am taken in by melodrama--against my will perhaps, but nevertheless I end up in. The power of such stories, no matter how over the top, tends to get me. The Crucible is an inordinately powerful story, a story with injustice, martyrdom, the powers of sexuality, love and hysteria, a delicate exploration of some relationships and of disguised mob rule. But the piece, particularly in the latter acts and even more particularly in Act IV, is painful in its inflated language, its roaring, sound-bitey sturmunddrang. However powerful the story, its most interesting and moving points remain those more complex, and those points are those where Miller falters in the comparison to McCarthyism. But it is *hard*, given the context in which the play is almost always presented, to look beyond its metaphorical context.

In searching on the web for articles that will accompany the play in the textbook, I've found a number of conservatives who argue that the comparison does not stand simply because witches did not exist and communists did. That's not the point at all; the point is based on belief. After a point it became--in Salem, in McCarthyism, in day-care scandals of the 1980s--irrelevant whether the deviants existed. The stories, both fictionalized and not, are about the power of belief therein. Whether there were communist spies in the U.S. or not, and obviously there were, there existed a desperate social need for that common and concrete enemy, and McCarthy's (and Hoover's, and Cohn's, and, you know, half the government's) declarations and beliefs that communists were everywhere and threatening us at every turn fed those needs. Salem, a frightened, fledgling colonial community still young enough that it felt isolated from what it knew as society, needed an enemy as well, and witches served that need. Hearing the accusations come from young girls (where Miller's Abigail Williams is 17, old enough to have had an adulterous affair, the real-life Abigail Williams was eleven years old in 1692) allowed residents of Salem to see their own motives as pure--that advantage, for example, is one that those who believed in the HUAC did not have. This is not the aspect of the metaphor that stretches my credulity. It's rather the end, the notion that being hanged for a sin you did not commit is analagous to being blacklisted.

In this, I find Miller somewhat presumptuous. In the first three acts, the play does not establish simple patterns of right and wrong: it shows that many, like the Reverend Hale, do believe in witches and mean well, and that the image of the Devil holds its own independent and dramatic power even when not directly associated with a particular witch. While these girls are deceitful, Mary Warren's perspective also tells the truth about hysteria, about the possibility that it's not lying in that lying implies deliberation and conscious choice. But in the end there is only one right answer, and as Katie so eloquently put it, the reason for that is not based on the plot or characters of the play as previously established, but based on the fact that Miller sees himself as having made the supreme sacrifice that Proctor makes, as being the same honorable martyr. I cannot help but find that egotistical. McCarthyism was horrible, unquestionably, but the impotence of being blacklisted pales in comparison to the Salem Witch Trials, and rather than seem like simply a use of symbolism to justify the grandiosity of emotions, it seems that Miller thought his sacrifice equally important, both to himself and to his world. Therefore the end of the play seems much more black and white than the story we've followed throughout the piece.

There are, I cannot deny it, situations that are in the end black and white, situations in which you either choose to do something or you don't and that's all there is--your reasoning behind making such choices is a level down. I think it's fair to say that signing a false confession when you believe you'll be further damned by lying, both in life and death, when the other choice is to die, qualifies. But it also makes the play less interesting.

What in the play can save it from this polarity? Perhaps the character of Reverend Hale. Hale comes in as a reputable expert in the supernatural; the fact that there is someone honorable at the core of the play with real belief in and knowledge of witchcraft makes the piece substantially stronger. In this world, witchcraft (yeah, yeah, yeah, like Communism) exists. It's studied, its tenets are known, and though this truly learned and studied man, Reverend Hale, is at first satisfied to see his theories made manifest (can you be "made manifest"?), he acknowledges and is duly horrified when he sees it go out of control--along the Niels Bohr lines, I would think. By the end of the play, though, we're made to feel that there aren't really witches--that those who confessed to it, such as Tituba and Sarah Good, are truly just lazy, drunken layabouts who now find their position laughable. Certainly that's not what we saw of Tituba at the beginning of the play--has the witchcraft been taken out of her by means of her imprisonment? Did people lose their communist leanings when blacklisted? Reverend Hale, by the end, seems like he's recanting his theories and scholarship altogether--we're made to believe that the accusations, such as those against Giles Corey, are predominantly economically motivated, and that given what we saw of the Putnams at the beginning (a greedy landowning couple whose daughter is one of those who cries witch), that they were from the start. And it's true that witchcraft accusations the world around, from Salem to Nigeria to South Africa, always have some economic bent to them, but nor is it by any means limited to that. As Katie put it, Hale, by the end, loses his earnestness and is bitterly cynical, while John Proctor gains "earnest conviction"--but what's the use of having a play where Proctor was right all along? He considers changing his story briefly in the fourth act, and Miller makes a histrionic scene of it. That aspect of the piece hardly qualifies as a journey.

Then, of course, there are the women. In most productions, Elizabeth Proctor is cold, distant, a woman whose "justice would freeze beer," a "cold wife [who] prompt[s] lechery," and only in admitting that "it were a cold house I kept" is she redeemed and allowed to be loved. Abigail, sexually powerful and in the throes of her first lover's rejection, is fiery and flaunts morality. It's all very Madonna-whore. But Abigail, as most productions miss--and, I found to my surprise, the script does not miss--is *seventeen* years old (the historical figure was eleven at the time, but the script knowingly and admittedly takes many liberties with history), a charismatic, confused leader who's been rejected by her first love and can't accept it. Lose that youth, that vulnerability--as most productions do--and you've pretty much lost the play. That element, too, cuts down on the frustrating moralism, as does thinking that Mary Warren, too, is in love with John. But then, what of Elizabeth? Katie, who played her in a U of C production, takes issue with the notion that Elizabeth is cold, and I think that's fair. The only evidence of "coldness" we see is in her first scene with John, wherein I hope none would deny she had a right to be angry. After that we see a woman who's seen the unfairness and outrageousness of a situation and hopes to protect the man she loves, the man she has realized she still loves, from it. Martyricious, certainly, and our evidence from the play is that we know an honorable woman by her willingness to sacrifice herself. That's the case for an honorable man, too, of course, but he's to subvert himself to his honorable cause; a woman is to subvert herself first to love of another person. Katie believes that some aspects of Elizabeth are lost when she lies in the courtroom to protect John; I disagree. The fact that Elizabeth puts John before her strict moral system (as John Proctor says, "My wife cannot lie"), and chooses to violate something that has up until this point been dogma for her, proves that dogma *can* be violated, and that we are in a society that punishes it. That scene makes this point in a much more subtle and skillful fashion than Act IV; in some ways I think the play could do without IV, except for the Hale aspects. It's a mess, and it gives more fuel to the argument of sexism: rather than allow Act III to stand in its own complexity, it makes the story about a social difficulty that ultimately turns on the weakness of women. Abigail and her girls destroy society as we know it; then, as Katie put it, "John could have put things right, if Elizabeth had just told the truth."

Does it come down to more than polarizing right and wrong? Doesn't it have to? Sometime when I was in high school, Elia Kazan, the director of (among other things) On the Waterfront, who did name names during the Red Scare, received a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award. Controversy abounded, and a tremendous production was made of who stood to applaud Kazan and who did not. I can no longer recall a single person who did and didn't, but I remember feeling conflicted at the time. I've never seen any of Kazan's films, so I can't say for sure, but by all reports he's incredibly skilled and talented and added a great deal to the American filmmaking canon; it was for that he was being honored, not for his particular perspective on self-preservation versus big-picture political ethics. On the other hand, the fact of his naming names was from one perspective detrimental to the film industry, given the number of people who were for years prevented from working. The questions get bigger, and that's what a good play, as The Crucible is for most of its duration, should make them do. But by the end the questions have gotten very, very small.

Fundamentally, the fourth act of The Crucible sucks. It undermines a lot of what's valuable in the play, a lot of its complexities and values and conflicts. I'm not actually sure if the piece could end with the third act, but it seems a lot closer to being right. It leaves us not knowing everything, but gives us more of a pervading sense of the horror, and honestly, we haven't earned the dissipation of the horror that comes with the fourth act. I mean, big deal, John Proctor dies with his goodness. More power to him--but we've still got a society in wreckage, a society that's destroyed itself by means of inflating its belief system. Are we just to believe it deserves it, be okay with it as long as Proctor has maintained his honor?

The bottom line, for me, is that Miller is a skillful propagandaist and a skillful playwright, and does not mix the two together well. My co-worker pointed out that one must admire his moral stances, that not a lot of people were speaking out strongly against McCarthyism who had both the venom and visibility of Arthur Miller, and I spend so much time in liberal environments and mindsets that I often forget there are places and times in which they are or were unusual. But The Crucible has a number of wonderful points, more than most Miller plays, and it saddens me that it's often burdened by the limits of the metaphor, limited by the singular emotional impluse that drove it originally. Good art has to be more than that, and better productions and ideas of The Crucible can, I think, be available than generally are.

I've Never Done a Meme Before

But hey.

1. Go into your blog's archive.
2. Find your 23rd post (or closest to).
3. Find the fifth sentence (or closest to).
4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions.

The truth is that the culture of educational testing is entirely based on getting to the other side.

I feel I've just sacrificed a wee bit of my dignity; fortunately, I'm working on a post that will redeem it.

Friday, September 02, 2005

We're All Connected

Which was also the slogan of New York Telephone in the late '80s and early '90s.

We are an embarrassing nation in that when we can't create an enemy to fight against, we cannot take care of our own. It has often struck me as significant that the banner headline on the New York Times on September 12, 2001 read "U.S. ATTACKED," as opposed to anything regarding the results of the disaster, the people effected by it. It is truly embarrassing that the National Guard took five days to make its way into New Orleans. When a hurricane's gone, it's gone, and everybody knows it--we're not talking about an unreasonable risk for people who have been trained in disaster relief (although NBC News implies that that training has itself been sorely lacking). We're talking about pure and simple incompetence, lack of pragmatism, lack of forethought. The city is below sea level, and we knew a certain degree of disaster was inevitable, and yet those who we have ostensibly trained to protect the nation had not been prepared or mobilized. There has been no leadership, and no good advisory for leadership. My mother suggested that Bush simply lacks empathy, which is what prevents him from showing any. Bush isn't a monster, not a sociopath or anything of the kind--he loves his wife, his children, his parents. But it is, I think, fair to say that he's incapable of imagining himself in a situation that he's not currently in. And that simply isn't a good quality in a leader.

Once again, as in the case of the Disappeared, what we as a nation under Bush know how to do is strike out, and we have struck so far out that there is a vacancy at the center. And when something strikes the center, as it has right now, we have no resources, practical or emotional, there.

All the things we are as a nation are connected, and the difficulties I mentioned above could not be rendered more concrete than in the travesties of aid that are the aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina and the fall of Baghdad. However highly I think of the foundations of this nation, I can't say I'm pleased to be an American. Pleased to be a human, maybe, in light of the support that has been pouring into New Orleans from individuals and small companies, but not to be an American.

I've been in an American city struck by disaster. I was deeply lucky--my homes were still intact, and I recognize that few in the Gulf Coast area have that luxury. But then, as now, we saw American government, as an entity, at a loss for how to support its own. The rescue workers on September 11 were and are deeply admirable, as are those who attempt aid and rescue in New Orleans now. But all of it was, and is, done contrary to the spirit of contemporary America. We lash out, and we wall ourselves in without looking at what will be inside the walls.

It's the first day I've really focused on this disaster, the scenario and its repercussions, so this post and its arguments may not be as coherent as I want. Let's donate to the Red Cross, to Second Harvest, to organizations that we know are committed to direct action. And in the meantime, let's have a tax protest or something. It may be awfully capitalist of me, but I don't trust the government to use its resources well; I therefore don't want to offer it more means to waste, and I want aid, then, to come from proven parts of the private sector.