Thursday, September 29, 2011

Quote of the Day: Bayard Rustin from 1965

From a classic essay, which my students were assigned for the seminar I'm teaching this fall:
I would advise those who think that self-help is the answer to familiarize themselves with the long history of such efforts in the Negro community, and to consider why so many foundered on the shoals of ghetto life. It goes without saying that any effort to combat demoralization and apathy is desirable, but we must understand that demoralization in the Negro community is largely a common-sense response to an objective reality. Negro youths have no need of statistics to perceive, fairly accurately, what their odds are in American society. Indeed, from the point of view of motivation, some of the healthiest Negro youngsters I know are juvenile delinquents: vigorously pursuing the American Dream of material acquisition and status, yet finding the conventional means of attaining it blocked off, they do not yield to defeatism but resort to illegal (and often ingenious) methods. They are not alien to American culture. They are, in Gunnar Myrdal​'s phrase, “exaggerated Americans.” To want a Cadillac is not un-American; to push a cart in the garment center is. If Negroes are to be persuaded that the conventional path (school, work, etc.) is superior, we had better provide evidence which is now sorely lacking. It is a double cruelty to harangue Negro youth about education and training when we do not know what jobs will be available for them. When a Negro youth can reasonably foresee a future free of slums, when the prospect of gainful employment is realistic, we will see motivation and self-help in abundant enough quantities.

-- Bayard Rustin, "From Protest to Politics" (Commentary, February 1965)

Postscript: And while I'm at it, how about this prophetic little sentence from later in the same essay:
It may be premature to predict a Southern Democratic party of Negroes and white moderates and a Republican Party of refugee racists and economic conservatives, but there certainly is a strong tendency toward such a realignment...

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Quotes of the Day: Andy Borowitz Edition

In one article, Andy Borowitz captures the essence of both political parties today. In the headline -- actually, in the sub-headline -- he nails Obama precisely:
In Compromise, Republicans Allow Obama to Create One Part-Time Job
Step in Right Direction, President Says

And then he nails the Republicans -- the only reason this is not perfect is that he happened to pick on the person whose front-runner status has just been canceled, so he's nailing the wrong guy, but since he was the right guy (or the right's guy) as of a week ago, it's still pretty apt:
"If we don't cut Social Security now, we won't have enough money to execute our children's children," Gov. Perry said.
Bull's-eye again.

The rest is pretty funny too, although I think those were the best parts.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Even the Conservative New Republic...

...gets what Obama's chief mistake was:
Charismatic leaders can reshape and even defy their nation’s political culture. Franklin Roosevelt did so during his first term. But Roosevelt inherited a situation so desperate that the public was willing to tolerate any kind of experimentation. Obama entered office with some of the preconditions for radical reform. Crisis was in the air. Wall Street was in disfavor. Voters blamed the downturn on his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. And he had the rudiments of a political movement. But the country was not in as desperate shape as it was in 1933, and the opposition was still functioning. To have put in place a program that might have spurred at least the beginnings of a recovery, Obama would have had to be both extraordinarily bold and fiercely combative. And he was neither.

In dealing with the downturn and financial crisis, the president was cautious—as evidenced by his choice of Geithner, who had presided over the Federal Reserve Bank of New York during the crash. Like MacDonald, Obama harbored a dream of bringing the parties and interest groups together behind his program. As The Financial Times’s Martin Wolf put it, “Mr. Obama wishes to be President of a country that does not exist. In his fantasy US, politicians bury differences in bipartisan harmony.” After the bruising battle over the debt ceiling, Obama may have finally put his dream of a post-partisan politics to rest and adopted a more aggressive political style. But the narrow opening for dramatic change that existed in early 2009 has probably closed.
(The context is John Judis's article about how the world is recapitulating the mistakes made early in the Great Depression. He says that "Obama—at least judging by his recent jobs speech to Congress—seems to understand that this approach is leading to economic disaster; but he may have waited too long to begin making this case to the American people". Judis's entire article can be read starting here. (Via Digby.))

That gets what to me is the essential point, as I said a while ago: Obama came into office in a once-in-a-generation moment, in which the normal rules of American politics might have been overturned and the country could have been set on a genuinely new direction -- the economic catastrophe averted, the global warming apocalypse reversed, the crimes of the Bush era ended and prosecuted (rather than covered-up and continued). And he flubbed it. Whether he did so because he was inept or evil doesn't actually matter at this point: the point is the chance is gone. Similarly, whether Obama's recent combative rhetoric and almost-on-the-liberal-side-of-the-conservative/liberal-divide proposals is just a cynical election-year ploy (as Greenwald argues) or is a genuine, belated recognition that their approach was a total failure (as should have been obvious from before it was tried, frankly).

Various centrist commentators, (e.g. Steve Benin) are claiming that Obama is now doing what his left-wing detractors have been advocating for a long time. I can't speak for anyone else, of course, but for my part, this isn't true: I think it's too late. Obama had one shot at this -- in the first few months of his presidency. Maybe he could have reversed course after a few months -- say, when he finally got 60 votes in the Senate -- with a "we gave it our best shot" moment. But by, say, December 2009, he'd blown it for sure. And of course by the time that the Republicans won in 2010, it was way, way, way too late.

Obama had a chance to save the country. He didn't. Now it's too late. And now I myself see no possible hope on the horizon. Oh, we can fantasize about some massive citizen campaign changing things. While we're dreaming, though, I'd like a few million dollars, and a pony. Seems just about as likely.

I think that 2009 may well have been this country's last chance to change course. And Obama was the man who could do it. At the very least, he could have tried. But he didn't -- didn't even try, let alone succeed. And for that I think Obama will be, in the words of a politician who did not flinch when his test came, "damned in time and eternity."

Update: In the interests of full disclosure, I should note I've used the joke that is this post's title before. And (although I thought of it independently,* for what little that's worth) I wasn't the first either. In comments to his own post, PNH explains the joke for those who miss it.

* Twice, actually, since I didn't remember making it before.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Long Live Zhōu Yǒuguāng!

Googling something up, I clicked (at a whim) on the link for the Wikipedia page about one Zhōu Yǒuguāng (周有光), called the "father of pinyin"*... and saw that while it listed his birth date (January 13 1906), it didn't list the date of his death.

Frankly, I thought that this might be an oversight on the part of the
Wikipedia hive-mind... but no, it seems that he's still alive and well and living in Beijing. He recently celebrated his 106th birthday. According to Wikipedia, he has an eight-year-old great grandson.

Here's a profile of him from two years ago (from which I took the above image). Here's a video profile from a year before that (via).
The editor of the English-language site met him a few years back. The same site has the table of contents of Zhōu's book, The Historical Evolution of Chinese Languages and Scripts, plus a few sample pages, such as this page on what pinyin is not (the "three nots" of pinyin), this page on homophones and (from an appendix) the rules of pinyin orthography.

He's lead quite a life. He was an economist, who returned from the U.S. to China in 1949 (the year of the founding of the PRC), convinced by his acquaintanceship with Zhou Enlai (no relation), one of the top people in the party, that it would be a democracy (he was not himself a communist). He was put in charge of the pinyin project thanks to that same acquaintanceship, despite protests that he was just an amateur linguist. And he, like so many intellectuals, was exiled to the countryside (away from his family & work) during the madness of the Cultural Revolution. But he survived, returned after three years, and kept working: and he's still doing fine. Writer and actor Stephen Fry interviewed him for a documentary last year ("Joy... never stopped laughing" Fry tweeted); here's a photo of the two of them.

A nice, happy discovery that a man who did great work is still alive & doing well at a pleasantly advanced age.

What can I say but
Wànsuì Zhōu Yǒuguāng! (Although I guess he's pretty much got that covered, doesn't he.)

* Pinyin, of course, is the standard romanization for Chinese, adopted by the People's Republic of China in the 1950's, and by now adopted pretty much universally (e.g. even in Taiwan), which is why the city you used to see referred to as Peking is now universally known as Beijing: it's just a different way of romanizing the same Chinese name, 北京.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

This Post Which Will Be 30 In the Year 2041

Teresa Nielsen Hayden links to a real-time historical exhibit*, which presents "usenet, updated in real time as it was thirty years ago".

Shouldn't it expand as the net did, and eventually become the entire internet, updated in real time, thirty years after the fact? Which means, thirty years from now, it will contain within itself a rerecreated form of the usenet, updated in real time as it was thirty years ago as it was thirty years ago. Which in turn will morph over time...

And so on, in an endless, iterative cycle, a 'net-flavored version of the Eternal Return.

And around the same time, of course, this post will be in there too: and perhaps someone inside olduse's recreation of the internet will google it up, wondering if anyone would have guessed it; and they'll see me (you, there, are seeing me now) waving across time, thirty years into the future.

Hello up there....**

0 Title footnote.

* And how marvelous is that concept: a "real-time historical exhibit"? (I guess the various reenactors would say they'd gotten there a long time ago, although I don't know if any given reenactment is really long enough to qualify.)

** Although this is all I've got to say, really.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Quotes of the Day: Two Thoughts on Action

Action is transitory - a step, a blow,
The motion of a muscle - this way or that -
'Tis done; and in the after-vacancy
We wonder at ourselves like men betrayed:
Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark,
And has the nature of infinity.

-- William Wordsworth, The Borderers
(also online here and here)

I saw this in Chris Hedges's remembrance of 9/11 (via) which -- like this essay which I linked to yesterday -- notes the disappearance of the jumpers from the media narrative, speculating that
The "jumpers" did not fit into the myth the nation demanded. The fate of the "jumpers" said something so profound, so disturbing, about our own fate, smallness in the universe and fragility that it had to be banned. The "jumpers" illustrated that there are thresholds of suffering that elicit a willing embrace of death. The "jumpers" reminded us that there will come, to all of us, final moments when the only choice will be, at best, how we will choose to die, not how we are going to live. And we can die before we physically expire. The shock of 9/11, however, demanded images and stories of resilience, redemption, heroism, courage, self-sacrifice and generosity, not collective suicide in the face of overwhelming hopelessness and despair.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years After: Link Roundup

A lot of people are writing about the anniversary today. Although a fair number of other people are simply staying silent (example, and another) -- more than I'd have thought, really. For myself, I don't really have anything to say save to offer the traditional Jewish words about the honored dead, may their memory be for a blessing.

Or, as Bruce Springsteen put it (from the album The Rising, which is my personal candidate for the greatest work of art to come out of 9/11 (a topic I've seen debated all over the place recently)), referring specifically to those rescue workers who rushed "up the stairs -- into the fire":
May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love
About the dead I would, typically, say "rest in peace". But somehow, given what has been done in their name in the decade since, the words turn to ashes in my mouth. So I can't even really say that.

May their memory be for a blessing.

-- But here are links to some people who had more to say -- things that have struck me over the past few days leading up to this date. Most of these are via somewhere, but for most of them I forget where; I apologize for the breach of netiquette.)

Rick Perlstein, "Solidarity Squandered". An early leading candidate for the best thing written about the tenth anniversary.

Paul Krugman, "The Years of Shame". Another leading candidate. A very brief piece, but one which cuts to the heart of the matter: "The memory of 9/11 has been irrevocably poisoned; it has become an occasion for shame. And in its heart, the nation knows it."

• Krugman's is the best, I think, but here are similar views from Tom Engelhardt, Lawrence Weschler and Cliff Schecter.

Lauren Walsh on the suppressed images of 9/11 (via)

"Nation Would Rather Think About 9/11 Than Anything From Subsequent 10 Years" -- The Onion, living up to its tagline ("America's finest news source"), as it has so often over the past decade plus (including in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (via)).

• Speaking of things written in the immediate aftermath (also via), I missed this the first time around: "Why the Bombings Mean That We Must Support My Politics". Snippet:
Of course the World Trade Center attacks are a uniquely tragic event, and it is vital that we never lose sight of the human tragedy involved. But we must also not lose sight of the fact that I am right on every significant moral and political issue, and everybody ought to agree with me.
• Speaking of older pieces, from 2007, David Foster Wallace on 9/11: "Just asking". (via)

Abbi Sutherland:
[P]undits and politicians are trying to do to our memories of that day what those films did to my private Gandalf... the media wants to overwrite our own recollection, our own reactions and considerations, with their carefully packaged interpretations... We are being farmed for our anger, fertilized with the same images over and over again, that we may come ripe on election days and when the pollsters call.
The rest.

Jim Henley lays on a refreshing dose of cynicism.

Will Bunch on the 10 unanswered questions of 9/11... although the answer to #10 is clearly just "no".

Updates, 9/12:

Krugman's post, linked above, was apparently the target of a right-wing hissy fit. Krugman himself follows up here, but even more worth reading is Greg Sargent, and even more worth reading is -- as usual! -- Digby (from whom I took the "hissy fit" label).

Amp, in comments, suggests this Noah Millman as an addition to the above.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Poem of the Day: Labor Day Edition

A Worker Reads History

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima's houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Greek triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.

-- Bertolt Brecht

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Quote of the Day: the Bureaucrat's Redemption

From Teresa Nielsen Hayden's lengthy and fascinating account of her excommunication from the Mormon church (officially, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints):
And there's one other thing, the official action that really and truly made me excommunicate: When the central organization of the church received word that I was out, someone formally went to the filing cabinet where my membership file was kept. And that someone, specifically and officially using red ink, took my folder and stamped across the face of it EXCOMMUNICATED. And do you know what? If I repent and am once more received into the church and my sins are washed away again, I will triumphantly be issued a new file folder. I thought this was wonderful, a sort of bureaucrat's revenge and redemption.
Read the rest if you want more odd details, like how the excommunicating church officers say goodbye by shaking her hand and saying "it was nice to meet you", which is pretty funny in and of itself.