Divide and Conquer

Tim WiseI came upon this exceptional video of Tim Wise talking about white privilege. His basic thesis is that the power elites of this country use racism to keep the poor from getting their rightful share of the rewards of this country. He tells the story that I know from Michelle Alexander’s excellent The New Jim Crow. There was no “white race” when the American colonies started. There were lots of indentured servants of European and African origins. The problem was that they had a tendency to bind together and revolt against powerful land owners. That wouldn’t do. So the elites got a great idea: divide and conquer. They defined the whites as slightly better than the blacks. That put an end to the rebellions because they could depend upon the poor whites for support.

The idea is immortalized in this great scene from Mississippi Burning, “If you ain’t any better than a nigger, son, who are you better than?”

As Wise points out, this is still just as useful a tactic today as it ever was. They used to tell Southern whites, “If we end slavery, the blacks will take your jobs!” That’s a powerful argument for poor whites who are just barely getting by. Today the same thing is said about Latinos, “If they become legal, they’ll take your jobs!” Divide and Conquer. That way, the poor will never know what’s killing them: the unjustified riches of the power elite.

Here’s Tim Wise’s brief talk, which is well worth the ten minutes it runs:

Calculus and Leibniz

Gottfried LeibnizEarly Baroque composer Claudio Saracini was born on this day in 1586. Modern master of projective geometry, Jean-Victor Poncelet was born in 1788. Female French novelist who wrote under the name George Sand was born in 1804. Grammarian William Strunk Jr was born in 1869. Silent film pioneer Alice Guy-Blache was born in 1873. She was one of the people who started making narrative films instead of stupid things like Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat and Seminary Girls. She made over 400 films during her career, including 22 of feature length.

Charles Laughton was born in 1899. The great director William Wyler was born in 1902. His films ranged from Wuthering Heights to Funny Girl. Estee Lauder was born in 1906.

On this day in 1915, one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century was born, Willie Dixon. His songs have been performed by countless performers. And often, they gave him credit. If you play the blues, you probably already know that half of all the tunes you play were written by Willie Dixon. Here he is on Saturday Night Live doing “Spoonful”:

And another fine director, Sydney Pollack was born in 1934.

Actor Karen Black is 74. Choreographer Twyla Tharp is 72. Debbie Harry is 68. Here she is with Blondie doing “Rapture”:

And Dan Aykroyd is 61.

The day, however, belongs one of the greatest mathematicians ever Gottfried Leibniz, co-inventor of calculus and so much more, who was born in 1646. And unlike Newton, Leibniz wasn’t an asshole.

Happy birthday Gottfried Leibniz!

Childbirth Is Dangerous; Abortion Is Not

Guns and FetusesThere is a great deal of pretending in public life. For example, people pretend to care about children who float away in balloons. But they don’t really. They like the drama. But they don’t know the kid or the parents. The kid is probably a brat and the parents, as we now know, are assholes. This situation is so much worse in politics. The Onion made fun of this recently in an article, Romney Drops By To See How Down-And-Out Family He Met On Campaign Trail Doing. As we all know, “humanizing” campaign stops are about as real as the Tooth Fairy. Think: Paul Ryan cleaning pots at a soup kitchen.

But the fakery goes much deeper than that. What I most hate are claims by politicians that they are helping rather than hurting. The common argument is that we need to gut welfare programs to protect the poor from the horrors of government dependence. You see, it is those meanie liberals who want to help the poor who are really hurting them. Of course, if conservatives really wanted to help the poor, they would provide universal healthcare for the poor; they would provide good (equalized) schools; they would provide free college. Think about it on the most basic level: if conservatives wanted to help the poor, they would at least provide good food for their children. But what did the conservatives in the House of Representatives just do? The moderates voted to cut nutritional assistance. The extremists voted against this because it didn’t cut enough. So I think we can reasonably conclude that when it comes to the poor, conservatives are only using claims of helping as an excuse for taking money away from them.

It would be a major mistake to think that conservatives only want to harm the poor. Since I’m not able to write a book here, I can’t list all the harm that conservatives would like to do. So let me just mention a convenient example: women. Over the past few years, we have seen campaigns that claim that abortion hurts women. The problem with this claim is that it is true, but misleading. Walking to the store kills women. More than 10 pedestrians are killed every day here in the United States. Walking, like just about anything else you do, can harm you. The question is not whether walking is a totally safe thing to do but rather if the risk is reasonable—especially compared to other options. (Similarly, about two people are stuck by lightning every day in the US, although only about 10% of them die.)

So what about all those dangerous abortions that conservatives are so worried are harming our women folk? Well, it turns out: not so much. Matt Yglesias alerted me to a paper published last year, The Comparative Safety of Legal Induced Abortion and Childbirth in the United States. And they found that women were 14 times as likely to die from childbirth as from a legal abortion.[1] But if the conservatives get their way, we can likely equalize those numbers—maybe even make abortion more dangerous. A liberal might say we could equalize the numbers by providing more prenatal care for poor people. But that might increase the danger faced by poor women as they travel to the doctor. Silly liberals.

I understand the best arguments against abortion. I don’t accept them, but I understand. There is no reasonable argument that a 16-cell zygote has equal rights to its human host. But at least I can interact with such arguments. The vast majority of the anti-choice community doesn’t make those arguments. Most of the arguments just come down to a puritanical belief that slutty girls should suffer. But the argument that these people are just looking out for the health of the women are contradicted by the science. It’s very simple:

Childbirth is dangerous.
Abortion is not.

Any questions?


Here is the abstract of the paper:

OBJECTIVE: To assess the safety of abortion compared with childbirth.

METHODS: We estimated mortality rates associated with live births and legal induced abortions in the United States in 1998-2005. We used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System, birth certificates, and Guttmacher Institute surveys. In addition, we searched for population-based data comparing the morbidity of abortion and childbirth.

RESULTS: The pregnancy-associated mortality rate among women who delivered live neonates was 8.8 deaths per 100,000 live births. The mortality rate related to induced abortion was 0.6 deaths per 100,000 abortions. In the one recent comparative study of pregnancy morbidity in the United States, pregnancy-related complications were more common with childbirth than with abortion.

CONCLUSION: Legal induced abortion is markedly safer than childbirth. The risk of death associated with childbirth is approximately 14 times higher than that with abortion. Similarly, the overall morbidity associated with childbirth exceeds that with abortion.

[1] If you look around, you will find people claiming that far more women die from abortions than child birth. This is referenced to a journal Medical Science Monitor, but not to a specific article. Also, the same journal has published other questionable anti-abortion articles. Regardless, the discussion at Pregnancy Choices 4 Me indicates that previous studies were flawed because death certificates claimed the wrong cause of death in 73% of cases. Regardless of how accurate this is, it does not relate to the study discussed here. There is also the question of spontaneous abortions (miscarriages), which have nothing to do with abortion law and everything to do with increasing prenatal care.

GOP Will Pay No Price for Current Bigotry

Jamelle BouieThis afternoon at the Plum Line, Jamelle Bouie provided, Yet Another Reason to be Skeptical That the GOP Will Reform. Bouie is a “glass half full” kind of guy. But that doesn’t make him naive. Still, that headline is almost sweet; I can’t but smile at the thought of us needing another reason to be skeptical of GOP reform. The Republicans have been approaching crazyland asymptotically so long that they’ve arrived from any practical perspective.

Bouie provides a number of good examples: Texas’ Obamacare refusal and abortion clinic restrictions; Louisiana’s push to turn income taxes into regressive sales taxes; Kansas’ successful attempt to do the same. And now there is North Carolina screwing the unemployed. As Bouie notes, “As a matter of policy, the cuts make little sense. But as a matter of ideology, they fit perfectly.” Indeed they do! These Republicans are mad as hell about mythical problems and they aren’t going to take it anymore. Plus, they need the extra money to subsidize ExxonMobile, which only made $41 billion in 2011.

Where I think that Bouie goes wrong is in thinking that these actions will hurt the Republican Party. Only 50 years ago, the Democratic Party was racist and yet no one blames the current Democratic Party. People hardly blamed the Republican Party after Nixon—Ford almost won re-election. The Republican Party can be as vile as they want as long as they win elections. And the moment that the electoral tide changes, the Republicans can turn on a dime and the people will not blame them at all.

I understand that I am a cynic. But I’m almost never let down. There have been far more cases of Republican corruption than Democratic corruption, but it hasn’t made a bit of difference. Part of the problem is the media. It always treats the two parties as though they were equally valid. If one party started calling for all Mexicans to be put into concentration camps, the media would dutifully report that as the center-right position. (Since I’m on the subject: what the hell is “center-right” and “center-left”? By European standards, the Democratic Party would be considered center or slightly conservative. The Republican Party would be called far right. In what sense is Barack Obama center-left. How is Lindsey Graham center-right? All these labels do is hide the fact that our political system is far out of whack.)

Political parties always follow public opinion; they never lead. Just look at same sex marriage. Obama was against it until he was in grave danger of being drowned by the wave of public opinion. The true movers and shakers in that cause were the brave men and women who—at great risk to their relationships to their families, friends, and employers—came out publicly and said they were gay. And in 20 years, gay men and women will not be any more likely to vote for one party than the other. It just won’t be an issue. The Republicans of that time will pay no price for their decades of homophobia and scapegoating.

The same goes for Latinos and any other minority group that the Republicans currently vilify. Consider George Wallace, one of the most vocal and repellent segregationists in our long and colorful history. In 1982, he claimed to have been wrong and all was forgiven. He was again elected governor of Alabama. And he did some good—making a record number of black appointments to state positions. But the point is, he paid no price for his past behavior. And the same will be the case for the Republican Party generally.

Can’t Two Puppets Cuddle?

Bert and ErnieAfter The New Yorker published their great “Bert and Ernie” cover celebrating the recent same sex marriage decisions from the Supreme Court, there was understandably much debate. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association called it child abuse. And he has been somewhat supported by the Children’s Television Workshop who claim that, “Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics, they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”

I’ve never thought of Bert and Ernie as a gay couple, but they do represent an archetype the same way as Oscar and Felix on The Odd Couple and Frasier and Niles on Frasier. No one is suggesting that these characters are doing the nasty off screen. But they provide in a metaphorical sense something that we rarely see on television: married couples who are equals. But Bert and Ernie do something that we never see with similar characters: they sleep in matching twin beds in the same room, just like married couples in the golden age of movies:

What I find interesting about the magazine cover, is that there is nothing specifically sexual about it. What it shows is intimacy. And that is what Bryan Fischer is angry about. It upsets cultural standards that dictate that men should never be gentle or close with each each. Anything beyond a slap on the back or a punch in the arm might lead to anal sex in a public park. (I assume that people like Fischer spend a good deal of time imagining men having anal sex.)

But I think these kinds of proscriptions are what make men so screwed up. In social interactions between men, I estimate that half of all the time is spent communicating, “I’m not gay!” And that has led me to believe that most men are a hell of a lot more gay than they know. Or at least that unless they keep up all this macho bullshit some gay guy will come onto them. Louis CK has a brilliant routine about when he was younger how this gay bar owner was constantly trying to have sex with him. Twenty years later, he talks it over with a friend and figures out that the actual story was just, “There was this gay guy.” Regardless of how ugly or out of shape a guy is, he thinks everyone just wants a piece of that.

I think much better of Bert and Ernie. I suspect they do cuddle on the couch as they watch TV at night. The one thing I would take exception to is their choice of content. I think they would be more into comedies and musicals. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.