Journalism is to thought and understanding as the indictment is to the trial, the hypothesis to the truth, the estimate to the audit. It is the first cry for help, the hand groping for the light switch in the dark, the returns before the outlying precincts have been heard from. - Sam Smith
Friday, April 25, 2008
BLACK LIKE WHO?
Discussions of race and gender have overwhelmed the presidential campaign - or national conversation as the yammerers like to put it. But they show little sign of helping people seeking the right choice of candidate. One reason is quite simple. As the community organizer Saul Alinsky explained once, "When the poor get power, they'll be shits like everyone else." The same is true of blacks, women and blind, dyslectic Latvians.
Thus, being either ethnically prejudiced against a presidential candidate or enthused because of that candidate's genome misses the point. It is power itself that more likely calls the shot.
For example, in my home town of WashingtonDC, over the past decade two black Democratic mayors, with the help of Democratic black and women city council members, have:
Closed the city's public hospital
Torn down much of the city's public housing
Emasculated the elected school board and turned much of the public school system over to private charter schools.
Encouraged in numerous ways the socio-economic cleansing of the city and its neighborhoods.
Outsourced its prisoners to the federal system, meaning that nonviolent inmates may be thousands of miles away from home and relatives.
Disrupted a taxi cab system which was the largest per capita in the country and the only major one in which a majority of drivers owned their cabs.
It is true that some of these efforts were enabled by a federal takeover of the city in the 1990s backed by a white president name Clinton, but he had considerable help from our black female non-voting delegate in Congress and his own black budget and management aide, Franklin Raines.
Raines, the son of Seattle janitors, went to HarvardCollege, Harvard Law and to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He recently agreed to pay $24.7 million to escape further actions over his misdeeds as vice chair of Fannie Mae two years after a federal suit had been filed against him to recover some or all of $50 million he received thanks to accounting "errors" that vastly increased bonuses for top executives like him. To get some idea of how much this is, consider that Wesley Snipes is headed for a three year jail term for the accounting error of not filing personal income taxes that involved about 7% of the amount in the Raines case. So even among the powerful there are gradations.
The reason the Washington example is useful is because, literally being a U.S. colony, it has a long history of being the canary in the mine shaft of American politics, both for the good and the bad. On the good side, for example, Lincoln signed a DC Emancipation Act nine months before the federal one. On the bad side, DC is used as a dumping ground for crummy ideas that congress members can't get approved in their own districts.
For some years now, the story of Washington has been one of subtly brutal treatment of its underclass. For example, despite an alleged urban renaissance, from 1989 to 2006 the poverty rate increased by one third - from 15% to 20% even as services were declining.
In comparison, between 1980 and 1989 the poverty rate actually fell 20%. The mayor was also black but of a sort white liberals have no problem ridiculing: Marion Barry. In fact, under Barry, conditions for lower income residents, blacks, women and gays all improved despite his drug habit. And while the Washington Post missed no opportunity to trash Barry, to this day it covers for Raines. Similarly, while blacks and whites working to save basic services for the city's less wealthy wander in the wilderness, the upscale crowd and the Post still backs Mayor Fenty to the hilt.
So even among the powerful there are gradations. Distinctions are easily made by white liberals between a Barry and a Fenty, or a Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama, but that is considered safe because they involve class and style rather than ethnicity. Change the names to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and you have a whole new game.
Providing some scientific support for Lord Acton's remark about the corruption of power, psychology professor Dacher Keltner in the magazine Greater Good writes:
"Unfortunately, this is not entirely a myth, as the actions of Europe's monarchs, Enron's executives, and out-of-control pop stars reveal. A great deal of research-especially from social psychology-lends support to Acton's claim, albeit with a twist: Power leads people to act in impulsive fashion, both good and bad, and to fail to understand other people's feelings and desires.
"For instance, studies have found that people given power in experiments are more likely to rely on stereotypes when judging others, and they pay less attention to the characteristics that define those other people as individuals. Predisposed to stereotype, they also judge others' attitudes, interests, and needs less accurately. One survey found that high-power professors made less accurate judgments about the attitudes of low-power professors than those low-power professors made about the attitudes of their more powerful colleagues. . .
"A great deal of research has also found that power encourages individuals to act on their own whims, desires, and impulses. When researchers give people power in scientific experiments, those people are more likely to physically touch others in potentially inappropriate ways, to flirt in more direct fashion, to make risky choices and gambles, to make first offers in negotiations, to speak their mind, and to eat cookies like the Cookie Monster, with crumbs all over their chins and chests.
"Perhaps more unsettling is the wealth of evidence that having power makes people more likely to act like sociopaths. High-power individuals are more likely to interrupt others, to speak out of turn, and to fail to look at others who are speaking. They are also more likely to tease friends and colleagues in hostile, humiliating fashion. Surveys of organizations find that most rude behaviors-shouting, profanities, bald critiques-emanate from the offices and cubicles of individuals in positions of power. .
"This leaves us with a power paradox. Power is given to those individuals, groups, or nations who advance the interests of the greater good in socially-intelligent fashion. Yet unfortunately, having power renders many individuals as impulsive and poorly attuned to others as your garden variety frontal lobe patient, making them prone to act abusively and lose the esteem of their peers. What people want from leaders-social intelligence-is what is damaged by the experience of power."
There are another problems with harping on race and gender. For one thing, favorable stereotypes about such topics are just as discriminatory as unfavorable ones. Further, race is a racist concept and doesn't exist as an objective fact. The power of this concept, however, can be seen in that Obama is almost universally considered black even though his mother was considered white. No one on national TV dares talk about why Obama is called black and not white or bicultural. And while sex does have a physiological basis, what is being discussed or hinted - namely the alleged distribution of human virtue - is just as amorphous and unreliable. Besides, in a truly non-racist, non-sexist society we wouldn't be so obsessed with the subject.
On the other hand, the question of how each candidate might handle power is fascinating, important and underreported. Both Clinton and McCain have had their sociopathic moments based on the accounts of colleagues and staffers. The sort of anger and threatening that each has displayed hardly recommends them for the 3 a.m. watch. Obama seems to swing between being a preacher or a professor, both roles tending to leave him aloof from some of the audience he is trying to reach, especially those who are culturally removed, whether by education, ethnicity or class. But a more serious problem may be that he will over-parse issues, thus producing insignificant results, rather than that he will bully or manipulate his way to his goal. In this way, he may be far more accomplished on foreign policy disputes than on domestic policy. He may be a new Jimmy Carter, who in the end did better overseas than on Capitol Hill.
Obama may also imitate Carter in being a transitional figure. The Carter administration was a bridge over which America crossed, leaving the New Deal and Great Society behind and moving into the brutal capitalism of Reagan, Bush and Clinton. Just as Carter's failure helped bring Reagan, so Obama's weaknesses may help to revive progressive politics.
These are just guesses, but they raise a far more important and useful topic than race or gender because, yes, Hillary Clinton is a woman, but like who? And Obama is considered black - but black like who? And we're not helping either come up with the right answer by reducing the race to a choice as puerile as selecting your favorite brand in a supermarket aisle. Likewise the seeming indifference of Democrats to what sort of black Obama would be or woman Clinton would be.
In the end, it makes a lot more sense to talk about real things, like who's going to end the war and the recession, and who's going to end their administration with honor. The danger, in the alternative, is to discover too late that you bought what was on the outside of the box and not what was actually in it.