Gridlock is Good

As someone who considers himself a moderate, I’m not particularly inclined to believe one party rule is a good thing. I want each party to be in charge of something. That way each of them have a stake in government and no party constantly gets their way.

Divided government also requires each party to compromise, forcing people to govern from the middle of the country rather than Dennis Hastert’s “middle of the majority.”

That’s one reason I’m hoping that the Democrats will take at least the House.

If you’re interested, here’s an article about divided government that I’m largely in agreement with.

Bill O’Reilly on David Letterman Talking About Iraq

Here’s clip from David Letterman’s show in which David Letterman and Bill O’Reilly talk about Iraq. There’s a point in it in which O’Reilly asks the sort of question that he often asks on his own tv show–a question that makes the interviewee look like a fool when he/she answers differently than Bill O’Reilly would have.

It’s harder to put someone into a box when it’s not your show.

Thinking About Iraq Again

Some of you may remember this post I made about Iraq a while back. I can’t say my views have changed much since then, but that won’t stop me from briefly revisiting them.

Here’s the worst case scenario I worried about pre-invasion due to the little I was hearing about post-invasion planning:

1. We invade and win.
2. Due to not having enough troops on the ground, we are not able to prevent an insurgency from developing.
3. Because we do not prevent an insurgency from developing, many people die and the U.S. public loses confidence in the war.
4. Because the war is unpopular, we pull out early. This leads to civil war or at least civil disorganization.
5. Eventually some sort of dictator comes into being, stabilizing the country, but causing the U.S. to wonder whether it should go in a second time.

Though I don’t find it particularly comforting, I’ve been a little bit relieved to find that we are only at number 3 (even though the current situation edges toward 4) in my worst case scenario.

“Well,” I’ve said to myself, “at least we haven’t had serious talk about putting in a dictator to stabilize the country.”

You can then imagine my reaction to this NPR story about coup rumors in Iraq. The good news is that a coup isn’t likely. The bad news is that some Iraqis appear to be thinking that it wouldn’t be an entirely bad thing.

In the past I’ve written that the solution to insurgency is putting more people on the ground. I still think this. The trouble is that the chances of that are roughly zero. If we wanted to raise the necessary troops from our own country, we’d need to draft people. Raising troops from other countries seems unlikely.

Bearing that in mind, it seems that the question then becomes how to leave responsibly. As in, how do we leave while giving Iraq the best chance to avoid civil war and dictatorship? Personally, I’d be in favor of a slow withdrawal while simultaneously training up Iraqi troops. The trouble is that that seems to be our current policy and my impression is that it’s not working very well.

Every so often I’ve heard people who defend the war say something along the lines of, “Leaving Iraq alone would have left Saddam Hussein in charge. Removing him is an improvement no matter what else happens.”

While I agree that removing Saddam Hussein from power is potentially a good thing, I’m inclined to think that a process of removal that turns Iraq into a chaotic mess (or creates a new dictator) is just as bad or worse.

Grand Rapids Local Websites

I’ve been meaning to write about Grand Rapids websites that follow local news and developments for a while now. Here are a few:

Urban Planet: Devoted to covering the “new urbanism” movement, Urban Planet has forums that talk about Grand Rapids property development, buildings, Grand Rapids history (as it relates to neighborhoods and buildings) and discuss the “mystery project” in excessive detail.

Michigan Buzzboard: Discusses Michigan tv and radio news programming and the personalities behind it. In fact, you’ll find some of those personalities lurking quietly (or not so quietly) in the forums.

Local Area Watch: It’s tagline is “reporting the news the news won’t report in Western Michigan.” It seems to be a blog devoted to reporting on things the author doesn’t like about various organizations and individuals in Grand Rapids.

Politics of Civility

We hear a lot about how politics is unnecessarily harsh these days. I was reminded of it recently via both Reddit and Digg. Both linked to reports of what happened during a debate between Al Franken and Ann Coulter. Here’s the opening of the speech plus discussion on Al Franken’s web site. You can read another account with discussion on Free Republic.

If you read the comments on each site, particularly focusing on the comments about Al Franken by Republicans or about Ann Coulter by Democrats, you’ll probably note that they can be intensely personal and rather nasty. I’ve seen (in other places) people of both sides note how the other side constantly uses personal attacks. Reading these discussions makes it pretty obvious that no side has a monopoly on that sort of thing.

I can come up with possible reasons pretty quickly. They might include:
1. The blending of the public and the personal that Joshua Myerowitz suggests that technological communication promotes in his book No Sense of Place. Personal attacks on politicians are a logical result.
2. It could simply be that online communication makes it easier to be rude.
3. it could be that political parties and activist groups demonize the other side too successfully, making rational communication hard.
4. It might be that harshness of political rhetoric goes in cycles and soon this too shall pass.

That being said, it may be that imagining our time is somehow abnormal in the harshness of the rhetoric that’s inaccurate. I always heard that a person should avoid discussing religion and politics if you want to have a pleasant conversation.

Anyway, here’s a list of what I like in a conversation about politics:
1. Discussing the pros and cons of an issue, but, allowing for the possibility that you might be wrong or haven’t considered certain aspects of a problem.
2. Avoiding excessive language. By this I’m not meaning swearing. I mean overly broad statements about the worth of an idea or the worthlessness of a particular perspective (“Well of course you think that, you’re a Republican/Democrat/Scientologist…” or “Bush/Clinton is evil/has no morals/has bodies buried under the East Lawn”).
3. Allowing people to save face. Saying “I told you so” or making it clear that someone with a particular perspective is an idiot means it will take that much longer (if ever) for them to tell you that they’ve changed their mind. Who wants to admit to being a fool?
4. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt. Politics is something people feel passionate about. Sometimes they say something stupid while promoting their beliefs. So does everyone.

I don’t write this under the illusion that it will change anything, but would very much like to talk about politics without having other people go into massive rants in front of me.

Online Comics: PVP and Race

PVP is a webcomic that generally focuses on interpersonal relationships, work, role playing games, geek culture, and computer gaming. It does not generally focus on social issues.

Last week Scott Kurtz did an interesting thing in that he let us into his head as he was trying to write a black character, something that he’s apparently not entirely comfortable with.

If you read the two comics I just linked in the preceding paragraph you’ll know exactly what I mean by that. If you didn’t you might want to because what follows will assume you did, possibly ruining the humor in the process.

Anyway, I can understand why Kurtz might feel uncomfortable writing a black character. I’m writing a novel–one that includes a black character–and I’ve sometimes felt a little nervous as I do it. There are a number of reasons that a white writer might feel nervous about writing a black character.

The first and best one is simply the need to have the character feel authentic and real to to the reader. If you’re black you will have experiences and assumptions that are different from those of your average white writer. If you are a white writer and you’re realistic, you know that you can only guess as to what those experiences might be. How are you going to avoid screwing things up and making the character feel fake?

Unfortunately for the realistic writer, however, there’s more of a risk than simply having the character feel not quite right. There’s also the risk of having the character come off as a racial stereotype. Having the character feel fake is merely a technical failure. Having the character turn out to be a racial stereotype (unintentional as it might be) opens you up for public humiliation.

To me this underlines something about current moment in the US experience of race and racism. As a society, we’ve come to the point where most people agree that racism is wrong, but it’s still such a raw wound that it’s hard to talk about it publicly.

The obvious and best solution is to write a person of whatever race (or gender) as first of all a person and hope that common humanity will carry the day. I think about Michael Bishop who included a gay AIDS patient in his novel Unicorn Mountain. Michael Bishop isn’t gay, doesn’t have AIDS and doesn’t obviously have a lot in common with the character.

He made the person feel like a real human being and his gay character seemed as real to me as Samuel R. Delany’s various gay characters (Delany, incidentally, is gay). Of course, I’m not gay so I may have missed something there.

I am, however, a US citizen of Dutch descent and though that’s far from a persecuted minority, it has been interesting to read books in which people of Dutch descent appear. For example, at least in the books I read, the primary association with being Dutch is sailors and traders. Farmers and immigrants to the US barely ever appear–and when they do it seems that they turn out to be sailors.

I remember being particularly irritated by one alternate history which imagined that England never conquered New York City/New Amsterdam. It irked me that in an alternate version of the US with a strong Dutch presence I found little awareness of Dutch Reformed thought or much of a sense of Dutch history other than “sailors and traders.”

There were also structural problems with the novel, but I won’t get into that here.

Making your characters human doesn’t always quite work either and Scott Kurtz is right to be uncomfortable, but as my comments about the above book indicate, writing about white Europeans isn’t as easy as you might assume either. I’m hoping Scott sticks with the character. Even if he makes mistakes in the process, I think he’ll eventually get the character right.

Of course, if he sticks in a character who’s descended from Dutch sailors, I’ll be cranky.

Nativism

I was listening to NPR at some point recently (within the last few months anyway) and heard a professor being interviewed who argued that anti-immigrant feeling in US politics could be traced to the economy. Basically, the idea was that people were more nervous about immigrants when the economy was bad or percieved to be bad.

I can’t cite sources, but it sounds right to me.

I remember my sister giving a Christmas gift to a friend of hers in middle school. Her friend’s father worked for a company that made auto parts. This was during the early 1980’s. The US was in a recession and everyone was worried about how the Japanese were dominating the world economy, how much better their educational system was, and how they were buying US companies and landmarks.

The pencils were made in Japan. Her friend’s father broke them.

He still had a job, but he feared the inroads the Japanese were making in the auto industry.

Nativism has played an on-going role in US politics. Apparently it led to support for the temperance movement and prohibition (in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s) because immigrants were percieved to be the ones doing most of the drinking. It’s showed up on an off throughout our history, but in my lifetime people seem to be most worried about immigrants when the economy is bad.

As mentioned earlier I remember the fear of the Japanese economy in 80’s, but I also remember people being highly worked up about illegal immigration from Mexico back then too.

Think about some of the issues people have been worked up about lately: offshoring jobs (to India or wherever), illegal immigration (again), the whole mess with a company from the United Arab Emirates leasing portions of our ports (often reported as buying our ports for some reason), China’s growing economy, the US being educationally behind other countries (again)…

Basically they seem to be different versions of “those foriegners are taking our money.”

I don’t get too worked up about these issues. I remember Japan. They’ve been in an economic slump for the last 10 years or more now and may be coming out of it, but they’re not exactly the economic force they used to be.

I’m not saying we should ignore issues like offshoring or how US educational effectiveness compares to the rest of the world’s, but, I think a sense of perspective helps.

Summit on Racism 2006

I just thought I’d link to what I’ve been working on for the last week of so. Summit on Racism is a yearly conference devoted to changing the experience of race in Grand Rapids and the surrounding area.

It attempts to do more than just talk about race. The Summit is designed to promote action. People get into groups and then sign up to do things during the coming year. Mind you, not everyone continues to be involved for the year, but that’s okay too.

In any case, this year the speaker’s Bobby Moresco, the writer of the movie Crash. Also, (and more importantly) we’ll be deciding the direction of Summit on Racism and GRACE’s Racial Justice program for the next few years.

It should be interesting.