A PRAYER FOR THE CITY

Just finished Buzz Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City, which he wrote after shadowing Ed Rendell (and staff) through his first term as Mayor. It’s a compelling read and gives an interesting sense of the politics of early ’90s Philadelphia and, more than that, of how folks in City Hall go about their jobs and why. The book suffers, though, from the blinders of ideology in a way that maybe only a book by a zealously pragmatic journalist about a zealously pragmatic technocrat can.

In the Philadelphia of Bissinger’s book, there is no public policy argument for raising taxes to maintain public services – only the weakness of previous politicians who indulge in tax hikes like heroin. Disability rights activists get a dismissive sentence about how they unreasonably expect the city to spend “money that isn’t there” on public services. In Bissinger’s Philadelphia, there’s little grounds for the skepticism Ed Rendell and his crew face from people in the “Black establishment” or “Hispanic interest groups” – you wouldn’t think from the way such folks are described that they really represented anybody, except when Rendell worries if they turn on him they could summon thousands to vote him out of office. The most prolonged, serious engagement with the reality of racism (as supposed to the evils of racial politics) is a discussion of the the devastating legacy of explicitly racist New Deal redlining on the city’s neighborhoods, and it segues back into why urban citizens don’t trust the federal government rather than why racial distrust might still persist. Bissinger’s narrative of the life of an African-American great-grandmother struggling to raise her great-grandkids, like the redlining discussion, is compelling, but essentially divorced from the discussion of racial politics and the book’s scorned “Black leaders.”

And while a good chunk of the book is built around Rendell’s successful campaign to force takeaways in negotiations with the public sector unions, we never get a sympathetic – or even much better than contemptuous – portrayal of anyone who works in one. Bissinger repeatedly mourns, in vividly anthropomorphic terms, the death of middle class manufacturing jobs in Philadelphia (and he talks about service jobs as though they’re inherently undignified and inevitably sub-middle class). But he never gives the reader any reason beyond greed that the city’s employees, some middle class and some aspiring towards it, might zealously defend the standard they’ve won. He gives no reason beyond ambition and self-protection that Union leaders would go to the ramparts in that fight. Bissinger is super sympathetic, on the other hand, in describing a fervently anti-government libertarian who comes to work for Rendell on subcontracting out city jobs and ultimately moves first from downtown to gentrified pricey Chestnut Hill and then out to suburbs because of crime and schools. In Philadelphia, Bissinger states flatly, she had “no choice” but to pay for private school education.

THE MEANING OF THE WORD "CRIMINAL"

Media-appointed populist Mike Huckabee reassures CEOs everywhere that raking in the cash while laying off the workers who made it possible isn’t the kind of “criminal” activity that the government should do something about:

In one memorable riff at the Reagan Library early this year, Mr. Huckabee called it “criminal” for corporate CEOs to take fat bonuses while shipping the jobs of ordinary workers overseas, adding “If Republicans don’t stop it, we don’t deserve to win in 2008.” In a Christmas eve interview on CNBC, I asked Mr. Huckabee what he intended to do about it. His answer: nothing soon in the way of new laws or regulations. He said he would use the bully pulpit to shine a spotlight on the practices and seek increased responsibility from corporate boards of directors.

So breathe easy, rich guys: under a Huckabee administration, the only CEOs who get locked up will be the ones with HIV.

POLITICIZE AWAY

Of all the tropes trotted out in the wake of the murders at Virginia Tech, perhaps the most grating is the one about how tragedy shouldn’t be politicized. The tragedy is already political. It results from the murderous choice of one man. But only some murderous plans are realized. And only some murderous potentials flourish. To honor the dead by eschewing public policy discussions about how to reduce the likelihood of a disturbed student getting a gun and killing dozens of classmates and faculty is a cruel joke.

Liberals and others make a mistake when they excoriate the right-wingers proposing sex-segregated housing or mandatory monotheism or concealed weapons for everyone as solutions to this tragedy for “politicizing” the deaths. Instead, let’s excoriate them for offering really, really bad ideas, and for blaming the wrong people for something terrible that transpired.

Why shouldn’t people contending to run the country tell us – as they did with this week’s Supreme Court outrage – what it has to do with their plans for our country? We can mourn together with people we disagree with without pretending that those disagreements have no consequences.

LONG ARM OF THE WAL

Apparently, Wal-Mart has discontinued its policy of aggressively pursuing prosecution of those who steal even the cheapest of goods from the store. Now, you have to steal things worth at least $25 before the long arm of the Wal sets about trying to shut you down for good the way they would, say, a unionized store.

Some of Wal-Mart’s critics are pointing to this new leniency on Wal-Mart’s part – a policy which matches what most of the industry was doing anyway – as another example of what’s wrong with the store. Seems to me there’s a better example of what’s wrong with Wal-Mart: the fact that until a few months ago, it was aggressively pursuing the prosecution of people who shoplifted socks.

The old policy, as the article notes, put a disproprotionate and needless strain on government resources, just as Wal-Mart’s refusal to adequately ensure its workers does – even as Wal-Mart provides critical support to the conservative project of drowning government in a bathtub.

It evinced the same punitive callousness that Wal-Mart’s comfort with locking its employees inside the building does.

And the company’s comparatively vigilant defense of its property against shoplifting customers still contrasts tellingly with its lesser attempts to protect its customers against violent crime.

So it’s good news, if only marginally so, to see Wal-Mart tempering its response to one-time offenders who try to abscond illegally with candy bars. Bad news is, that just leaves that much more energy to rain down illegal punishments on workers trying to exercise their legal rights. That union-busting is a high-stakes crime, and one who costs – not just to Wal-Mart workers, but to all of us living under a Wal-Mart economy – make stealing a pair of socks seem trivial.

Not that that’s hard to do.

BIBLICALLY INCORRECT

Democracy for America just e-mailed to announce an on-line petition against Pat Robertson’s fatwa on Hugo Chavez reminding the pastor of the biblical commandment that “Thou shalt not kill.” I’d be all for spreading a little gospel to the everyone’s favorite venal, hateful, antisemitic (didn’t stop the ADL giving him an award for supporting the Israeli occupation) pastor, except for one problem: There is no biblical commandment that says “Thou shalt not kill.” There is a biblical commandment saying lo tirtzach. But that doesn’t mean “Do not kill” (not reason to dress it up in Old English). It means “Do not murder.” The Torah has lots of words for killing itself, but they don’t show up in the Ten Commandments – they show up at the various points where God affirmatively commands Israelites to kill particular people or peoples.

That’s not to say that opposition to violence itself doesn’t have support in Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s just to say that opposition to killing people across the board has no more grounding in the literal meaning (or p’shat) of the Torah than, say, opposition to aborting fetuses. What the Torah is clearly against is murder – killing unjustly. And the plentiful body of (inter alia) Jewish commentary on what counts as wrongful killing provides plentiful arguments for serious discretion in the use of lethal force. One cluster of examples would be the set of restrictions on the application of the death penalty which rendered it virtually impossible for human beings to carry it out (rules like the traditional prohibition on executing anyone based on a unanimous verdict, because a unanimous verdict suggests that the jury didn’t struggle with the issue hard enough). Needless to say, there are no lack of compelling religious arguments for why murdering a democratically-elected foreign leader in cold blood is something other than a good idea.

ROBERTS’ RULES

Good news: Edith Brown Clement is not, for the moment, a nominee for the Supreme Court.

Bad news: I’m starting to miss her already.

John G. Roberts’ America is not one which does the best traditions of this country proud.

People for the American Way has compiled some of the reasons why. Among the more troubling of his arguments:

School-sponsored prayer at public school graduations poses no church-state problems because students swho don’t like it can just stay home from their graduations.

Congress can ban flag-burning without a free expression problem because bans don’t prohibit the “expressive conduct” of burning the flag – they just remove the flag as a prop with which to do it.

Arresting minors for crimes for which adults are given citations poses no equal protection challenge because minors are more likely to lie.

On choice, Roberts authored a government brief in Rust v. Sullivan that Roe “was wrongly decided and should be overturned.” As for the Lochner litmus test, he dissented from a D.C. Circuit Court case upholding the constitutionality of the Endangered Species Act. And at least in Law School, he apparently took a very broad view of the “takings” clause, opening the door to dangerous judicious activism targeting popular economic regulations which protect the economic security of the American people.

BUSH BACKTRACKS

Scott McClellan, October 6, 2003: “The topic came up, and I said that if anyone in this administration was responsible for the leaking of classified information, they would no longer work in this administration.”

George W. Bush a few minutes ago, on whether that policy still stands: “If someone committed a crime, that person will not be in my administration.”

And here we thought it was liberals who went around “moving goalposts” and “defining deviancy down,” and George Bush who would bring us a “responsibility era.” Based on Ken Mehlman’s praise of Fitzgerald in his performances in front of the press yesterday (“Hey look! ‘Vindicate’ rhymes with ‘implicate’ – but it means the opposite!”), the Republicans seem to be betting that Fitzgerald won’t be able to prove Rove and company guilty, and that the spin-masters will be able to convince us that that means no one did anything wrong.

Just remember: Bush was for responsibility before he was against it.

THE RIGHT WAY TO HONOR THE 4TH

is to extend the reach of Americans’ constitutional freedoms by enfranchising those who’ve had their civil rights wrongfully stripped from them over prior felony convictions. That’s exactly what Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack has done in an Executive Order which goes into effect today. Now tens of thousands of Iowans (a quarter of whom are Black, though only a fiftieth of the state is) have the chance to exercise that most fundamental franchise, one which fosters opportunities to fight for the all too many others whose realization in this country remains deferred or denied. As the Des Moines Register wrote:

It is the right move. Convicts who have served their time should not forfeit such a fundamental constitutional right…Vilsack’s announcement, which came out of the blue Friday afternoon, stunned even close observers of the issue. It also angered critics, including Republican state legislators who saw it as a political calculation to add 50,000 or more likely Democratic voters to the rolls. Perhaps, but that sounds like support for denying ex-convicts constitutional rights to maintain a Republican edge in numbers…restitution [to victims] should eventually be paid in full, and the state has many tools at its disposal to push for compliance. The toolbox should not include denial of constitutional rights, however. The inability to vote is a visible brand ex-felons bear that labels them social outcasts, increasing the risk they might commit new crimes. The sooner convicted felons are allowed to participate in this civic responsibility, the better their odds of leading successful lives.

THE WRONG WAY TO HONOR THE 4TH

is to narrow Americans’ constitutional freedoms by amending the first amendment to ban unpopular symbolic speech. It’s disturbing to see the Senate within a few votes of following the House in passing the abysmal “Flag Burning Amendment.” And it’s disappointing to see so many Democrats (Bob Menendez, Sherrod Brown, and Loretta Sanchez among them) joining the pandering parade.

As I said in this piece (also here), crimminalizing flag-burning is a desecration of the flag and of our freedoms. As Hendrik Hertzberg once observed, it’s impossible to burn the flag, though some may choose to burn a flag or two. Trampling the freedoms for which that flag stands, however, is all too feasible.

That’s exactly how we should recognize the criminalization of a symbol based on offense at its content. After all, if the burning of a flag can be rendered illegal on grounds of outrage at the message it signifies, why not images of burning flags? Why not incitement to burn flags? Why not Dick Durbin’s insistence that torture is more befiting a despotic regime than the United States of America? There was a moment in this country’s history before the First Amendment when representatives on the floor of Congress had a constitutional right to free speech unavailable to regular Americans. It would be shameful for us ever to enter a moment after the unamended First Amendment in which the same is the case.

A Flag-Burning Amendment would still be outrageous if flag-burning was an everyday occurence in this country. But it’s worth noting that it isn’t. Not only was the pro-amendment Citizens Flag Alliance only able to document four incidents this year (three of them last month, while the Amendment was under debate and in the news), every single one involved people burning other people’s flags. However one ranks the wrongness of setting the local Public Library’s flag on fire relative to, say, denying healthcare to returning veterans, it’s already illegal.

What’s at issue is this: Living in a society with a robust Bill of Rights means that in some rare instance, some American may exercise the freedom granted under our flag to burn a flag in hopes of dramatizing a divide between a vision for this country and its present reality. The discomfort that’s inspired by a burning flag, or a confederate flag, is a small price to pay for liberty.

I’ve been hard – I’d say appropriately so – on John Kerry recently. I’ve also tried to acknowledge intermittently the moments of political courage when he’s rejected the DLC mantras by hewing to the left of where Bill Clinton ran in 1992. The major one of these areas, as I see it, is crime. I’d say it speaks well of the electorate that even after Clinton’s eight-year concession to counter-productive right-wing assumptions on crime, Kerry could run on a promise to attack crime by funding Head Start rather than more prisons, intimate concerns about the drug war, and only somewhat scale back his opposition to the death penalty – all without seeming to lose any support. Another issue where Kerry deserves some measure of credit, apparently, is gay marriage. Turns out his position, shameful as it was, wasn’t as shameful as Bill Clinton’s would have been. But don’t take it from me:

Looking for a way to pick up swing voters in the Red States, former President Bill Clinton, in a phone call with Kerry, urged the Senator to back local bans on gay marriage. Kerry respectfully listened, then told his aides, “I’m not going to ever do that.

Last summer, the New York Times magazine ran a cover story on “The New Hipublicans” – college Republican activists. The article, despite seeming to bend over backwards (likely cowed by the ever-present specter of “liberal media bias”) to paint the kids in as positive a light as possible, came under attack from all corners of the conservative press as another example of how out of touch the Times was when it came to conservatives. As I said at the time, if there was something leery and out of touch about the magazine’s coverage of conservative activists, it was an outgrowth of the Times‘ leery, out of touch approach to activists of any stripe, not to conservatives. One classic example would be the NYT cover story on the Howard Dean movement that so bugged me in December. Another would be today’s front-page piece on anachists, which introduces them by listing off protests at which they’ve been blamed for violence:

Self-described anarchists were blamed for inciting the violence in Seattle at a 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in which 500 people were arrested and several businesses damaged. They have been accused by the police of throwing rocks or threatening officers with liquid substances at demonstrations against the Republican convention in Philadelphia in 2000 and at an economic summit meeting in Miami last year. Now, as the Republican National Convention is about to begin in New York City, the police are bracing for the actions of this loosely aligned and often shadowy group of protesters, and consider them the great unknown factor in whether the demonstrations remain under control or veer toward violence and disorder.

No discussion, of course, of the role of New York City police in determining whether demonstrations veer towards violence and disorder. Instead we get this implication that civil disobedience is something to be ashamed of:

But even anarchists who are against violence are warning of trouble and admit that they are planning acts of civil disobedience…

And to top it off, a couple paragraphs for John Timoney, who oversaw the unfortunate violence of the police treatment of protesters in Philly and Miami, to blame it all on the activists without anybody to refute him.

Needless to say, a book like Starhawk’s Webs of Power gives a much more grounded, nuanced, relevant portrayal of anarchists and their relationships with other activists. Maybe someone at the Times should read it

I’d say Kerry’s speech is comparable to Edwards’: it hiet each of the major points it needed to, with some good moments that were memorable in the short-term but seem un-likely to get re-aired on on C-SPAN at future conventions, and some low points too.

I’d say he did a largely effective job of talking sympathetically in about his own life in a way which personalized him while tying him to a national narrative and avoiding appearing self-aggrandizing or apologetic. His explicit gendering of his parents was irritating. His unapologetic ownership of the accomplishments of 60’s movements was gratifying. His refusal to mention gay liberation, or the gay community, was not.

It was good to hear the word “poverty,” but disappointing not to hear more about it, and particularly not to see Kerry’s support for raising the minimum wage and recognizing card count neutrality agreements touted as centerpieces of his economic plan. I did think he set forth his stance on the Bush tax cuts with admirable frankness and simplicity, and in a way which doesn’t leave the Republicans much room to maneuver.

I remain pleasantly surprised to see Kerry talking about spending more money on Head Start instead of the prison system, a welcome departure from Clinton’s strategy of apeing Republican rhetoric on crime. The fact that the line has the entire staff of The New Republic apoplectic is a good sign. Calling the “family values” crowd on not valuing families is well-deserved and long overdue. Reaching out to those who self-identify as people of faith is all well and good, but you don’t need to announce that you’re doing it. The Lincoln quote is one of the great ones in American politics, and put here to great use.

All that said, it’s an exciting night.