Archive for the 'Current Affairs' Category


be careful what you wish for

A new poll out today on health care reform illustrates the blow-back from years of anti-government framing, by both conservatives and progressives.

In measuring public opinion about the bill to overhaul health care, Associated Press-GfK found that public attitudes turned sharply negative AFTER the bill was signed into law.

Clues to explain this unusual movement are to be found in the details buried deeper in the poll results.

Despite the clear positive impact the legislation will have on consumers’ pocketbooks, AP/GfK reports that “the public doesn’t seem to be buying it….Fifty-seven percent said they expect to pay more for their own health care, contrasted with 7 percent who expect to pay less. And 47 percent said they expect their own medical care to get worse, compared with 14 percent looking forward to an improvement.”

These results reflect the fact that most folks now expect to be worse off when government programs expand, when government takes action.  And this mind-set is so strong that people will remake facts to fit their opinion, as illustrated with health care reform.

While directly criticizing the role of government is a frequent theme of conservative talking heads, progressive advocates often repeat and reinforce that theme with poorly constructed criticism of government decisions.  Rather than criticize particular decision-makers or the special interests who influence them, progressives often just broadly name and blame the “federal government”, feeding into the notion that government is a bad thing, an independent actor, rather than the expression of public will and community responsibility.

And the chickens have come home to roost.


What “17%” Means

With climate proposals finally landing on the table from the U.S., China, Russia and elsewhere it’s time to figure out how it all adds up. And the answer is that it doesn’t come to much.

The unambitious U.S. proposal (a cut of 4% from 1990 levels or 17% from 2005) seems to have helped to set the bar pretty low for effort all around.  As a result, we are faced with a very hot future.

To understands what this sort of half-hearted ambition means, take a look at Chicago which by mid-century will suffer through a killer heat wave every year, heat waves like the ’95 heatwave that killed hundreds. By the end of the century, Obama’s hometown will go through THREE such heat waves every year. This is all according to the consensus science report issued by the Obama administration back in June (a report, interestingly enough, that was commissioned by the Bush administration and conducted by scientists picked by the Bush crew).

To connect the dots yourself and figure out what the impacts will be in your home town (if you happen to live in the U.S), first go to the website put together by the scientists at ClimateInteractive, which offers a tracking tool that calculates the global CO2e emissions implied by the “confirmed proposals,” and from there calculates how much CO2e pollution will have accumulated in the atmosphere by 2100 [yes, this stuff accumulates, that’s why we can’t wait and fix the problem later – by then it’s too late].

Once you have those numbers in hand, skip over to the impact predictions website put together by the U.S. Global Change Research Program.  There are several tabs to check out.  Most of the local impacts are detailed in a regional breakdown.  Use the accumulated emissions number to figure out which scenario we’re putting ourselves in, and then look at the corresponding impacts that scenario will deliver. Additional impacts are detailed in sectoral summaries (like agriculture and transportation) and are also offered as highlights in the national overview section.  It’s a grim picture, but if you’re interested in knowing how the decisions made in Copenhagen this month will impact your kids’ future, it’s worth the visit.  And, to be sure, the report details what the impacts of lower pollution look like, too.


The Hate that Beck Made

Glen_Beck.37170805The politics of hatred tallied another victory this morning when Obama advisor Van Jones finally threw in the towel and resigned, falling victim to the rabid attacks of Glenn Beck and frothing conservatives.

While Jones himself will land on his feet – the man has no end of talent and energy – the real loss belongs to you and me.  The attacks on him were aimed squarely at the politics of hope.

With Jones’ departure, the Obama administration loses an inspirational leader who had found ways to bridge wedge issues, such as race, that divide our country.  Jones was ahead of the curve in understanding the potential of green jobs to bring prosperity to families in marginalized communities while also defusing the growing risk of global warming, warming that threatens to undermine any possibility of prosperity for all of our children.

As a Black leader who brought a positive vision for the nation, Jones was the perfect target for conservatives who needed a proxy for their attack on Obama.  But, the politics of fear and racism exact a dear cost on our whole nation.  In a time when we need every degree of clarity we can secure, we cannot afford to be distracted from keeping our eyes on the prize.

The attack on Van was but one sally in a larger an attack on our future.  While we shouldn’t respond in kind, our response must be just as vigorous, just a determined, just as sharp.

Calling out the hatred, naming it for what it is, is the first step.  Calling out the resulting winners (right wing politicians, big oil, and the coal industry) and losers (you, me and our children)  is just as important.

Above all we need to keep on keepin’ on, calling the rest of the country up onto the high road from where our shared fate and mutual prosperity can be seen.  The debate on health care and climate protection offer opportunities to do just that, and the sooner we pivot to those debates the better.

Dan Savage does a good job in calling out the hatred politics of the Right in this interview with Keith Olberman:

For some background debunking the attack on Van see Dave Robert’s thoughts on Grist

And to stand with Van check out


Global Warming, Texas Style

Texas Drought

Temperatures are soaring this summer in Texas, driving record-breaking drought.

According to the Associated Press, “San Antonio, which relies on the Edwards Aquifer for its water, is enduring its driest 23-month period since weather data was recorded starting in 1885, according to the National Weather Service.”

“In the bone-dry San Antonio-Austin area, the conditions that started in 2007 are being compared to the devastating drought of the 1950s. There have been 36 days of 100 degrees or more this year in an area where it’s usually closer to 12.”

While not every extreme weather event can be linked to climate change, the science of climate change and extreme weather such as heatwaves and drought is now firmly established, and it is disturbingly similar to the context for other social risks such as smoking or heart disease. Not every case of lung cancer can be linked to tobacco, but when a smoker dies of cancer the cost of smoking is grimly highlighted.

The irony in this drought is thicker than dry river mud. Texan George W. Bush infamously stonewalled any effort to advance climate protection for almost a decade. And now the state’s two federal senators are firmly in the “no” column on climate legislation working its way through Congress this summer.

While conservative commentators focus on the costs of investing in low-carbon energy to secure climate protection, they are blind to the benefits.

Throughout U.S. history, government policy has played a key role in driving the economy by setting the table for technological innovation, from the development of the railroads, through the evolution of the pharmaceutical industry and up to today’s internet built by DARPA.

Texas is host to some of the best wind energy resources in the United States, a resource base that would be developed into a multi-billion dollar industry if we could stop burning fossil fuels with abandon and get onto a low-carbon energy path.  But apparently some Texans would rather fry in hell today in order to avoid going down that road tomorrow.


Mudbloods and Wise Latinas

Harry-Potter-and-the-Half-Blood-PrinceIn today’s Washington Post,  Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite compares the rhetorical hysterics of the Sotomayor confirmation hearing to the racial allegory of the Harry Potter books.

Thistlethwaite pivots her argument on the term “mudblood,” a slur similar to the label half-breed and used by some characters in the novels to refer to wizards with one muggle (i.e. “normal”) parent.

The Potter intro makes for an interesting opening gambit, but then Thistlethwaite jumps the tracks and goes on to write:

“Blood does mean race; it always has, and despite DNA evidence, I suspect it always will. It is too powerful, too important a metaphor, and, of course, Rowling knows that.”

Setting aside for the moment the question of what Rowling knows (though I suspect she knows exactly the opposite), it’s maddening to see yet another progressive cave to the racist logic of the Right, and to do so in such spectacular nonsensical fashion.

Race has nothing to do with blood (as Thistlethwaite acknowedges in the very same breath that she uses to assert the opposite).  That is long-discredited clap-trap. But more interesting (and troubling) is her assertion that blood as race is “too powerful, too important a metaphor.”

Rather than challenging the lie of race, Thistlethwaite is throwing in the towel, simply because she finds the language of the lie too powerful to contest.

Establishing the definition of race is key to controlling the terms of debate. But this is no easy task. Racism is usually understood as a matter of individual attitudes, not a system of rules. When race is spotlighted, it is often confused with ethnicity (religion, cultural traditions, language, country of origin, etc.) as well as with phenotype (skin color, facial features, hair texture, etc.)

Clearly defining race and racism is a necessary communications task. It requires both a thorough understanding of the nature of race and an elegant script for talking about it.

Many people see race as something you inherit—it’s in your genes. From this perspective, race is a matter of biology, even if it is only skin-deep. The race-is-biology perspective dominates media debate. Common metaphorical terms  include “mixed race,” “descendants,” “half-breed” and now “mud-blood.” Of course, some of this metaphorical framework is grounded in an understanding of the positives associated with shared culture, history and geography and the ways that this shared experience as well as oppression have forged common ties.

However, rather than understanding or speaking about race as biology, it can be useful to talk about race as a label, a tag that gets assigned to someone after they are born (when the world can see them), not when they are conceived. For most people, the label they have been assigned is nearly permanent, and it determines much of their fate in the world. In the U.S., for example, the odds of getting ahead are a lot better if you are labeled white.When your racial label limits or cripples your reach in the world, your racial identity can seem to define who you are as much as your genes.

To cross this bridge, it is time to consider discarding the race-is-biology metaphor and develop new metaphors for understanding and debating racism. For example, it can be powerful to use the gaming metaphors “life is a game” and “race is a label.” Players in the game of life can play the game as if life is a puzzle to be solved by searching together for all the missing pieces. Much more commonly however, players play the game as if life is a contest, a board game with winners and losers.

In the board game version of life, when each player arrives at the table he or she is assigned a different racial label (such as white or black), according to the rules of the game. Labels are assigned on the basis of skin color, ethnicity, hair type, facial features, language accent, and more.

Racial labels are assigned according to different rules in different countries. Most countries generally use the same set of criteria: skin color, accent, etc., but in each country these criteria are applied in different ways. In the U.S., for example, if you have one recent African ancestor it does not matter how many of your recent ancestors were Caucasian; you are almost always assigned the label “black,” according to the infamous one-drop rule. Meanwhile a player with a Spanish accent who is assigned the Latino label in the U.S. might be considered white in South America because of the color of her skin and her European ancestry. Different countries even have different and unique racial categories that don’t exist in other countries, e.g., Mestizo in Latin America, Criollo in Mexico. However, just as music and movies from the U.S. have taken over much of the world, so too have U.S. racial categories, which are increasingly adopted overseas.

In the racism game, racism takes on several forms. The life-is-a-game metaphor highlights the systemic nature of racism based in a set of rules, not just individual attitudes. Sometimes the rules are such that they slow down players with certain labels while fast-tracking others. Sometimes the banker cheats to help himself. Sometimes the board has different and more difficult paths for certain players. Sometime one player will refuse to cooperate with others changing the game into a contest where a player gets ahead by putting others behind. In the U.S., for example, racial justice advocates chase redlining banks and corrupt mortgage brokers. The alcohol industry preys on communities of color by marketing unusually potent products and saturating neighborhoods of color with retail outlets. And, white audiences often oppose racial justice initiatives.

The rules are extremely complex. Sometimes the rules are formal: laws, codes, and regulations. Sometimes the rules are informal: social customs, traditions, practices, and attitudes. In the U.S., many of the explicitly racist laws and regulations have been eliminated, but many of the implicit and informal rules of racism are as potent as ever.

The combination of informal, implicit racism and the legacy of more explicit racism creates a dramatic Catch-22 for people of color. Each rule in the game may appear to be well intentioned on its own, but when rules are combined they pave a road to hell. For instance, in the U.S., players labeled “people of color” often start off in a neighborhood without good schools, part of the racist legacy of segregation and poverty that endures in the U.S. The rules say you can’t get into a good school unless your family can buy into a wealthy neighborhood where property taxes and affluent parents pour resources into the schools. But no player can afford to buy into a wealthy neighborhood unless the members of their family have good jobs. Such jobs usually require a good education from a good school. And the Catch-22 for people of color starts all over again as they search for a good school.

The material impact of racism is particularly powerful when the players in the game of life operate with a vision of a game that has winners and losers, that is a game that can only be won when others lose. This win-lose conception of the game of life divides white players from people of color. The win-lose frame implies that players of color can advance in the game of life only at the expense of white players. Employers regularly discriminate against people of color in hiring and promotion. Landlords informally enforce racial segregation among their apartment buildings. And white audiences, blinded by the win-lose perspective, do not see how they could be uplifted by reforming the rules that unfairly privilege them.

Going beyond confronting racism to promoting a vision of racial justice requires looking past the “win-lose” frame of racism and developing a “win-win” vision wherein all players move forward by helping each other. Getting broad audiences to commit to a vision of racial justice requires scripting new metaphors that call upon familiar examples of mutual success. Games and group endeavors such as jigsaw puzzles, orchestras, jazz combos, barn raisings, and square dancing are well-known social activities where everyone succeeds only by working together. Advocates can call upon these activities and others to construct new metaphors for life and for racial justice.

The life-is-a-game metaphor and the race-is-a-label metaphor are powerful and elegant tools for racial justice advocates. These metaphors can be teased out in many different settings, and they talk about race in terms that are internally consistent. The metaphors are easy to understand; gaming concepts like rules, players, and pieces are familiar. Most importantly, these metaphors highlight an understanding of race and racial justice that offers mainstream audiences insight not promoted by the race-is-biology metaphor. Metaphors built upon familiar and shared experiences and social activities in which everyone wins by working together offer all audiences a deeper understanding of their self interest in ending racism and are tools for constructing a powerful vision of racial justice.


genius of the vernacular

There’s has been a lot of chatter recently about Obama’s use of the vernacular, reaching another high point with today’s NPR story.

Over and Jack and Jill Politics, some have referenced Dr. King’s use of vernacular, called “genius” by Michael Eric Dyson, in discussing Obama’s way with words.

The tradition of using the vernacular to convey the essential goes way back, and was  (in)famously employed by Mark Twain to write what some call the first great American novel.

There is an interesting academic side to this communication thread, most notably the work of James C. Scott at Yale, who argues that if you listen closely in places like the parking lot at church, at your cousin’s backyard BBQ, or in the drop-off line at the community day care, you will hear a whole different conversation going on, one much different than what you hear in the mainstream media.  Scott dubbs it the “hidden transcript.”  And most of those conversations are held in the vernacular.

What’s particularly notable for communication geeks about the hidden transcript is that hidden conversation reveals that most folks are well aware of the nature of the problems and contradictions facing common peoples.  What they don’t see are the solutions.

In that context, talking about the problem almost amounts to talking down to people, and misses the point.  Folks get that there’s a problem.  What they don’t get is what the solutions might be.

The silver lining is that if you can speak to those solutions can rally the support of folks otherwise alienated by the “public” debate.  Obama, of course, is that blazing nova of the moment, exemplifying that approach.  And when he employs the vernacular, part of what he is doing is letting folks know that he, too, gets its. He’s been part of the hidden transcript, and he doesn’t need to talk about the problems, he’s ready to talk about solutions.

July 2018
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