Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Politics of Appearance

An interesting article here on The Atlantic Web site about beauty standards for women, Elena Kagan, Sarah Palin, etc. Worth a read. I was especially struck, however, by a comment made by a reader who asked when we have last elected someone who looked like William Howard Taft:

A very interesting point. Many scholars (including, in some respects, myself) have argued that Kennedy was the first president to successfully run on a politics of image. This is not to suggest that image and physical features did not color politics before the television age; James Madison was mercilessly heckled for his diminutive stature, and there is a reason why we have the term "Napoleon complex." Still, there were significant advantages to an era when truly meaningful attributes could trump the irrelevant importance of physical attractiveness.

Individuals who listened to radio broadcasts of the first presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960 believed Nixon won, hands-down. Those who watched it on television preferred the well-coifed Democrat over the recently ill, underweight Nixon by a large margin. Leaving Nixon's future escapades aside, and regardless of one's opinion of Kennedy's actions as president, this seems an early indication of something going horribly wrong.

As humans, we are always going to make imperfect judgments, and our opinions will change over time. It bears repeating, however, that the physical attributes we laud now will change dramatically over the centuries:

Woman With a Mirror, c. 1640, Peter Paul Rubens

Seems a lot more sensible to do our thinking through our ears, so to speak, and judge based upon the content of candidates' arguments.

Taft image from Wikipedia Commons. Rubens image from

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

We still haven't made it to "the content of our character"

Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts published a moving column yesterday describing how race continues to color our perceptions of ourselves and each other. It is well worth a read. We still have so far to go...

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Paul, King and Civil Rights

Rand Paul has had some controversial things to say about the Civil Rights Act of 1964... as this link from The Atlantic to an interview with Rachel Maddow indicates. He appears to be casting himself in the pattern of the late Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, who famously opposed the clause of the Act dealing with private businesses on constitutional grounds even though he avowed himself opposed to segregation (and, indeed, did work in Arizona to break down racial barriers in a number of discrete instances).

Paul does not come off very good here overall (neither does Maddow when she refers to sit-ins at "Walgreens lunch counters," but that's another story). Sure, you can make a philosophical argument about private property rights, but the historical reality of Jim Crow America was, in a word, depraved. It was also systematized. These were not individual decisions, made by individual citizens. (Most of whom, for the sake of reference, were Democrats; the long and terrible history of race in America is by now a blot on both parties.)

One statement that particularly troubled me, however, was Paul's reference to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as being concerned exclusively with laws and changing the legal framework of the South. Yes, King was very concerned--even centrally concerned, in many phases of his work--with eliminating de jure, or legal, segregation. But at no point did he ever lose sight of the overwhelming significance of hearts and minds in the battle for equality of opportunity in the United States. He spoke of love; peace; justice (not just legalism, but justice). He was a Christian, speaking of the radical redemptive power of faith and the topsy-turvy reordering of society that Jesus told his followers to undertake. Toward the end of his life he moved increasingly into a realm of concern over issues of poverty and the ways race and class intersected outside the land of Jim Crow--de facto segregation, which was no less real and often more difficult to eliminate, residing as it did in custom and practice, rather than in books of law.

King was no legalist. And when it comes to human rights, neither should any of us be.

Amber Waves of Grain

Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on this day in 1862. This legislation enabled free citizens and immigrants intending to become citizens--male and female--to lay claim to 160 acres of surveyed, unsettled territory in the public domain and earn their way to land ownership for the price of 5 years' labor, "improvement" to the property and a $10 filing fee.

Prior to this date, land acquisition had been based upon the Land Ordinance Act of 1785, which opened the western public domain to settlers for a per-acre price with minimum purchase requirements. Citizens complained that this policy favored speculators who drove up land prices, and over the course of the first half of the 1800s, minimum acreage requirements and per-acre costs were lowered by Congress a number of times. "Squatting"--laying claim to open, unsurveyed land, improving it and then claiming ownership by virtue of the "improvements" that had been made -- was legalized via the Log Cabin Bill of 1841, which granted rights of "preemption" whereby squatters could buy their land at a minimum price once such lands were surveyed and opened to settlement.

Why 1862? The Homestead Bill (before it was passed) was a topic of much contention between North and South. Northeastern industrialists attempted to win the support of westerners by supporting homestead legislation. The economic interests of North and South were often at odds, as the industrializing Northeast benefited from high tariffs while the South wanted minimal barriers to the transatlantic trade that sustained its cotton economy. The Republican Party grew to see small, independent landholders as a bulwark against the expansion of slavery. When the South was away from the Union, the North could play, politically speaking.

"Free land" had enormous rhetorical import, and between 1862 and 1935, when the homestead era officially ended, over 400,000 families received farms through the Act. Given that the surveying process continued to rely upon original, eighteenth century provisions, the western landscape was carved into 6-by-6 mile squares to be subdivided into smaller acreage -- regardless of natural features that might stand in the way. This is a major reason why flights over the middle of the United States reveal a patchwork quilt of squares where farm and settlement boundaries continue to follow these lines.

The impact of the Homestead Act on Native Americans was devastating, ultimately culminating in the Dawes Allotment Act of 1888. This act, an outstanding example of government paternalism and thinly veiled greed, eliminated remaining reservations and allocated individual parcels of acreage to certified tribal members. Remaining land was turned over to the public domain for white settlement, and Native traditions of joint custodianship of the land were ignored.

In reality, many western settlers continued to take up claims under the Log Cabin Act rather than the Homestead Act because they opted not to wait for land to be officially surveyed. Large parcels of land along railroad lines were kept out of the public domain, often going to the railroad companies themselves and spurring a new source of grievance among western settlers. Some unsavory characters manipulated the law, erecting pitiful tarpaper shacks as "improvements" and snapping up considerable swaths of land. Finally, much of the western landscape was simply not sufficiently hospitable to support agriculture intensive enough to make a 160-acre farm practical. (Later in the century, minimum land allotments were enlarged in some more arid regions of the west.) Forty-nine percent of registrants failed to "prove up" their claims.

Onward the course of history makes its march. Far western settlement was already happening, long before the Homestead Act became law. As I sit here in the Willamette Valley of Oregon I am sitting in country first prized for its agricultural bounty in the 1830s. California, too, saw early settlement both for its fertility and for its mineral wealth. Between us and the East, however, are thousands upon thousands of square miles of territory that owe their landscape, their political, economic and social history and even many of their contemporary problems to the Homestead Act, the Log Cabin Act and related legislation.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


I noticed in the paper this morning that Arizona's governor signed into law a new piece of legislation... banning ethnic studies classes in schools.

I have expressed my frustration with the principle of "history months" previously; I feel we should be working toward a more inclusive history that does not consign our recognition of the diversity in our society to specific days or weeks or months. However, I also acknowledged at the time that until we can truly accomplish this, "months" and other attempts to rectify our failure to acknowledge the roles all citizens have played in the story of the United States remain very necessary.

It is a bitter irony that the very lack of historical perspective that has helped lead to decisions like the recent immigration statute (see my April 28 post) has now been codified in Arizona law.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Budget Idol

House Republicans have launched a new project called "You Cut" that lets citizens rank which federal programs they feel should be trimmed in an effort to cut federal spending. Each week, the members of the House Economic Recovery Working Group will post five spending targets, then collect votes online or by cell phone (because imitating "American Idol" is clearly the best approach for fomenting enlightened democracy). They will then attempt to force Congress to eliminate the target that received the most votes the following week.

Problems I see with this:

1) Who chooses the programs? (Corollary: guess whose pet programs will never make it onto that list of five?)

2) There is no way this would ever reveal the reviews of a representative selection of the electorate.

3) I'm not an expert on public policy. How many of those voting will be?


This is, no doubt, largely an election-year gimmick. It draws upon some interesting questions, though, from a historical perspective. Small-government conservatives tend to draw upon a legacy of fealty to the Founding Fathers and their putative Constitutional intentions. The Founding Fathers were extremely preoccupied with the concept of enlightened representation. They did NOT trust in the ability of the common people to make decision in the best interests of the nation as a whole. That is why they originally instated property requirements for voting. That is why the House of Representatives was the only directly-elected national institution. The Senate was chosen by state legislatures, providing a layer of insulation from the craven impulses of the rabble. The Electoral College performed a similar service.

Since then, we have determined that even the "enlightened" are not always that enlightened, and in the early twentieth century Progressive movement citizens mobilized to change, for example, the way the Senate is elected, removing the undue influence of what turned out to be some pretty corrupt state legislatures. Accountability to the people was the catch phrase of the day. Oregon was a particular leader in this movement, as adept political organizing by reformers like William Simon U'Ren and the spectacularly corrupt example of politicians like Senator John Mitchell (see old posts for more information on him) resulted in the development of the "Oregon System," a set of political institutions that includes, among other things, the referendum. Which was meant to forestall corruption by giving everyday people a voice in their government. Unfortunately, U'Ren, et. al. did not foresee the development of special interest organizations who could in turn corrupt their reforms. Oops.

In short, the Founding Fathers to whom these House Republicans no doubt appeal on a regular basis would be absolutely mortified by "You Cut." Second, the reforming efforts that have led Americans to appeal to everyday citizens have themselves proven less than ideal. This does not mean ordinary citizens cannot play a thoughtful and important role in government; it does mean, however, that citizen involvement is NOT in itself a path to better government.

There is a reason why people study policy questions for years. We may not always agree with their policy prescriptions, but doesn't it make a lot more sense to work toward a better enlightened discussion than to abandon all claims to informed debate? An up-or-down vote on a (no doubt not truly random) list of five programs is nothing more than the governmental equivalent of a Facebook quiz. Our representatives owe us more than that. The Founders were wrong about the capacity of citizens from all walks of life to play a role in the governmental process, but they were absolutely right to fear uninformed decision-making by the government.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Brown? Cameron? Clegg?

My good buddy from college, Eric Ruthford, reminded me the other day of the good old days at Pacific Lutheran University when we sat around the Mooring Mast (student newspaper) office and discussed things like international politics and the virtues of different systems of representation. Yes, we were history and politics geeks. No, I am not at all repentant. And yes, the smell of melting wax for pasting up pages -- we were old school -- will always make me feel nostalgic.

Anyway... owing in part to the fact that PLU had a fabulous Welsh political science professor, British politics were a particular interest of mine. This makes the results of the UK's recent parliamentary election all the more interesting. The election has resulted in a "hung Parliament," when neither of the two big kahuna political parties, the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, has won a majority. This result has placed a minority party, the Liberal Democratic Party, into a position where it could swing the rule of government to either party.

Such an outcome is especially important in a country like Britain, where control of Parliament means remarkably complete control over the nation's agenda. While the country does have an independent judiciary, there is no constitutional check-and-balance between an executive branch and the legislature. While theoretically speaking the Queen is in control of the executive, over the legislature, the likelihood of her actually vetoing Parliament's political program is about as likely as the bottom team in the Zamaretto Division One South & West making it into the Champions League (a little 'football' humor there to be regionally appropriate). This power that Parliament wields is one reason why we in the United States have a political system involving so many checks and balances.

One of the byproducts of this hung Parliament is that longtime calls for electoral reform are becoming more prominent. Minority parties, most notably the Liberal Democrats, want to see Britain alter its traditional "first past the post" system of representation to incorporate proportional representation. At present, each (not very large) constituency votes by selecting its MP (Member of Parliament) of preference. If you like Labour, you check the box of the Labour Party candidate. Votes are then tallied, and the winner from each constituency wins that seat. Those winners make up Parliament.

This system irritates parties like the Liberal Democrats, because it means that even if, say, 40 percent of each constituency votes for their candidates, they still might win very little in the way of representation. Forty percent of the country could vote Liberal Democrat, but if Liberal Democratic candidates were second choice in each constituency, none of them would actually be elected. Forty percent of the nation's opinion, then, would be disregarded.

The problem? Alternative solutions can get remarkably complicated. The BBC has put together a very concise series of explanations of the different systems possible, many of which are already in use in different regional governments or elsewhere in the Commonwealth. I won't attempt to explain here what will inevitably be done much better there.

The political system of the United States is an interesting hybrid of "first past the post" and more proportional forms of representation. In the House of Representatives, we follow a system fairly akin to that of Britain. For Senate seats, our voting is proportional on a state-by-state basis, although it still does not wind up truly proportional on a national level. And our votes for President? Proportional by elector--a very important distinction. We vote for electors, and in most cases these are all-or-nothing by state. As a result, the popular vote can differ substantially from the electoral vote. The resulting framework, however, does give us a series of checks and balances that differs from the British system.

It will be interesting to observe the system Britain's political leaders devise for turning this "hung Parliament" into a workable system. One possible result, of course, is a completely unworkable outcome that necessitates a new election. (One more fun fact: British elections happen when British politicians think they should, not on a systematic schedule as in the United States.) Here in the United States, we are much more used to a system where politicians from different parties need to come to some sort of agreement to move legislation forward. Our recent, polarized political climate could be considered an aberration from the past (more on that later, perhaps). The UK might find itself needing to move toward a system where single parties no longer hold sway over the legislative agenda of the country. The results of this could be mixed. Would a system of compromise make individual parties less likely to take ownership of a legislative agenda? Could it become easier to displace credit for actions and decisions? Or will the need to compromise lead to greater cooperation? Important questions to consider.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A bit more on the quirky twists and turns of monarchy:

I was just scanning though one of those lists of historical events that happened "on this day" and noted that among other notable events (The Mamas and The Papas' "Monday, Monday" hit #1 [1966]; Kraft Television Theater premiered on NBC [1947]), this is an important day for Greece. Greece became an independent country on this day in 1832, crowning a new king... Otto of Bavaria.

Yes, Bavaria. After all, nothing says "Greek" like lederhosen and perky polka music.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


I am guessing most Americans have absolutely no idea why they are celebrating Cinco de Mayo today. I am not being judgmental; there is no good reason why they should, given that it isn't something we have traditionally covered in school. Obviously, any excuse to eat guacamole is a good one, but in honor of the actual observance (hint: it has nothing to do with Corona), here is some historical background on a very interesting episode in Mexican history.

In the mid-1800s, France (yes, France... I'll get to the New World in a minute) was ruled by the monarch Napoleon III, who was the nephew of the original Napoleon. France wanted to expand its influence in Latin America, going so far as to actually coin the term "Latin America" in an effort to make it seem more natural that France (a Latin country) should be involved in the region. Meanwhile, Mexico itself was in its fourth decade of independence from Spain and embroiled in a civil war between liberal reformers and conservatives. In 1858, the liberals retook control of the capital, but meanwhile all this fighting had bankrupted the Mexican government. Liberal leader Benito Juárez suspended Mexico's foreign debt payments, and in retaliation France, Spain and Britain collectively occupied the vital port city of Veracruz. (Note this is the rare episode since the 1840s when the United States was not actually involved; refreshing. There was, however, a significant reason; more on that soon.)

Mexican conservatives were searching desperately for a way to overcome the liberals, and they turned to the idea of a monarch. This desire neatly dovetailed with Napoleon III's interest in imperial expansion, and he generously offered them a potential candidate: Maximilian, a member of the Hapsburg dynasty with the best of intentions for Mexico. Conservatives convinced him that yes, Mexicans really did want an Austrian emperor. France duly invaded Mexico in 1862.

The French faced significant opposition, and one of the most notable episodes is the event that gives us Cinco de Mayo. France was utterly convinced that it could walk all over the Mexican army with few obstacles. In a wonderfully misguided demonstration of the racial consciousness that characterized European thought in the 19th century, the French commander wrote to his minister of war on April 25: "We are so superior to the Mexicans in race, organization, morality, and devoted sentiments that I beg your excellency to inform the Emperor that as the head of 6,000 soldiers I am already master of Mexico." Meanwhile, the Mexicans had dug in at the city of Puebla, and on May 5, 1862, battle commenced -- resulting in a thorough defeat of the French army, which hightailed it back to Veracruz in shambles.

Unfortunately for the Mexicans, a glorious triumph in one battle did not end the war. In 1864, France succeeded in installing Maximilian on the Mexican throne (not that it exactly had one, given that it was originally established as a constitutional republic). Maximilian attempted to draw upon Mexican nationalist symbols, with very little success (duh). Meanwhile -- you knew we couldn't stay uninvolved for long -- the United States allied with Benito Juárez. France had clearly violated the Monroe Doctrine (hands off the Americas). We were a little busy in the early 1860s with our own Civil War, but when the war ended in 1865 our attention turned southward. Napoleon III decided to withdraw his own military forces from what had become a costly quagmire, and while Maximilian stayed in Mexico, he was quickly rounded up and executed. Loyal to his adopted country to the end, the poor guy is said to have uttered "Viva Mexico!" as he faced the firing squad.

References: John Charles Chasteen, Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America (Norton, 2006); Michael C. Meyer and William H. Beezley, ed., The Oxford History of Mexico (Oxford, 2000) [quote is taken from the latter, p. 381].

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Human Quantification and its Discontents

The New York Times posted a profile yesterday of a woman who was fired by her employers, allegedly because of her genetic history. She learned that she had a genetic marker for breast cancer. Given her family history, she decided to have a preventive double mastectomy. She informed her employer of her intentions, believing she enjoyed a good relationship with her supervisor. Following her surgery, she found her duties lessened and eventually she was terminated from her position as director of public relations for an energy company. Her performance on the job had previously been considered exemplary.

These are allegations; the case has not yet proceeded to trial. The woman in question formally filed her complaint this week with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. As the Times points out, however, it does raise serious questions about how we as a society will use genetic information. Will cases such as this lead people to forgo genetic testing in fear their employers will find out? Will genetic information eventually become an accepted part of the stable of data we use to quantify ourselves and our worth in society?

The scientific progress geneticists have made ensures that this is a different debate from those of the past. We have more and better information; more and better science. Even so, the controversial public policy questions that arise from the advance of genetic technology should be tempered with a strong understanding of the history behind evaluations of humanity in the United States (and, indeed, in the West as a whole).

American history is littered with false assumptions about human biological capacity based upon inaccurate information, blatant racial prejudice and errant application of principles from one branch of science to another. We have categorized "races" baced upon the shape of human skulls and placed them into a hierarchy of human capacity. We have argued that people from different parts of the world, and even different parts of Europe, have different innate characteristics that inexorably lead to different destinies. This is the "logic" that underlay the immigration debate of the early 1900s and highly restrictive legislation passed in 1921 and 1924 that established quotas on immigration from various countries. Immigration from southern and eastern Europe, for example, was choked off almost entirely because it was argued that individuals from these parts of the world were inherently less ambitious and less talented, more inclined toward dissipation and destined to remain in urban slums for generations. In some circles, we enthusiastically applied Darwin's evolutionary principle to human society, arguing for "survival of the fittest" as a tidy excuse to dismiss those with fewer opportunities and resources as inherently less fit to succeed.

Not pretty.

So... we had better be extremely careful how we use this new trove of genetic information. It is very important data; while arguments can be made about the propriety of too much preventive surgery, the woman above may well have saved her life through her procedure. (Part of the irony of the case is that she was actually less likely to experience medical problems following the surgery, yet she was still--again, allegedly--fired.) The genetic advances we have made will, I pray, lead us toward new treatments that will eradicate disease and help us lead healthier lives. A lot of human grief and trauma may be prevented by the knowledge this genetic data brings, and that will be a wonderful thing.

When it comes to human capacity, however, it is important to remember two things. First, science brings new understanding with every generation, and the assumptions we make now may be regarded as grossly inept and even prejudiced a few decades down the line. Caution should govern our every move, mindful of the mistakes we have made in the past.

Second: some of the most highly regarded individuals in our history have suffered from serious medical problems. Franklin Roosevelt was a polio survivor, paralyzed from the waist down -- and regardless of one's personal opinion of his policies, it can hardly be denied that he occupied an incredibly strenuous and stressful position for twelve years. John F. Kennedy was in serious medical pain through most of his presidency, yet he kept us from nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Stephen Hawking, one of the most publicly prominent scientists of our time, suffers from ALS so severe he speaks through a computer synthesizer.

In short, genetic perfection is NOT a prerequisite for greatness. We would do well to remember the complexity of human life and the human spirit.