State of the Union

A Journal of Poetry and Place

Study of a Warrior’s Head by Leonardo da Vinci / Wikimedia Commons

The New Trad is a poetry journal and self-described experiment, published by a small press in Sydney, Australia. This little literary platoon is determined to revive poetry’s place in the public consciousness, come what may. They are well aware that they face an uphill battle, but their resolve to eschew free verse and highlight the importance of place and rootedness is admirable.

The introduction makes a valiant effort—and largely succeeds—in describing the two-part decline of poetry in the public sphere. On the public side, the song and novel largely replaced the poem’s literary value during the second half of the twentieth century:

 The people’s poet of the nineteen-sixties was not Ted Hughes but Bob Dylan. The popular song is what impinges on the traditional territory of the poem, forcing it to deform itself to justify its existence, much as the photograph did to painting, film to theatre, or science to philosophy. (p.9)

But changes in popular taste are not solely responsible for poetry’s endangerment. The editors accurately observe a recalibration amongst the intellectual milieu and academia writ large from a vertical to horizontal orientation: “Above was replaced with ahead; the promise of a kingdom of heaven was exchanged for the promise of the Enlightenment: a self sufficient humanity, striding forward into a future of progress, peace and self-mastery.” (p.7) The unfortunate byproduct of this rearrangement is the poem’s obfuscation; there is a resulting lack of connection between poet and reader. A true commitment to form is replaced with lines devoted to the author’s own internal monologue, decreasing the impact on his readers.

Now that the poem is more a means of expressing individualism, it has lost much of its original potency of evoking a particular time and place. Poetry is a cultural heirloom in a way the novel is not. Novels, by design, are narratives subject to the author’s vision. Poetry, even in epic poems that have a narrative, is imbued with historical and cultural ties that are tantamount to identity. Homer’s cultural influence on the Ancient Greeks, for example, was inestimable not only in terms of its artistic contribution, but also in its cultural legacy. In other words, poetry has a rootedness—both in its structure and in the themes it evokes.

In its first volume of poetry, New Trad seeks to bring back the locality of metered verse, mostly modeled on the Ancient Greek rhyme and meter patterns. What the editors describe as the raw emotional power of the confessional poetry that dominated post-modern poetry (Ariel by Sylvia Plath was the groundbreaking work in this arena) is preserved in the poems printed in this edition, but the rhyme scheme and meter is the invisible structure holding it all together. The journal’s first edition is divided into three parts: the first is a spate of a few short poems submitted by writers and academics; the second contains two academic papers on meter. The second paper is an introduction to a segment of an epic poem written in an Icelandic style that constitutes the final section of the journal. You can get through the volume in an afternoon. Read More…

Posted in , , , . 2 comments

Error Has No Commencement Speakers

This spring, left-leaning college students across the country are stepping up their activist efforts by pressuring graduation speakers to decline invitations and refuse honorary degrees as punishment for their lack of adherence to progressive values. Former National Security adviser and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice declined to speak at Rutgers University after students and faculty protested her involvement in the Iraq War. A week earlier, Christine Lagarde, CEO of the International Monetary Fund, withdrew as a commencement speaker at Smith College after protests on campus, which included an online petition with nearly 500 names calling the IMF “a primary culprit in the failed developmental policies in some of the world’s poorest countries.” And this week, former chancellor at the University of California at Berkeley Robert J. Birgineau, is the latest to bow out of an honorary degree and a speaking slot at Haverford.

The charges against Birgineau involved the excessive force police used against the Occupy movement on Berkeley’s campus three years ago. Haverford’s students wrote a letter to Dr. Birgineau, demanding public recompense for the use of violence in the demonstrations: “Your brief apology … is inadequate. While you say that you ‘sincerely apologize for the events of November 9 … it seems you do not want to admit any wrongdoing or take responsibility in court.” The letter concluded with a list of demands that Birgineau meet, including admitting his own involvement in the alleged police brutality. Nearly 50 students and three faculty members signed the letter.  Summarily dismissing guests for perceived slights is not only immature, but is harmful to both the student’s educational experience and long-term universities’ relationships with high-level organizations.

This is a new low for the politically correct left, which is adding demands for public repentance to its roster of activist tools. But while these soon-to-be college graduates may be scoring political points against institutions’ alleged friendliness towards oppression, they are unwittingly depriving themselves of one the benefits of their increasingly-expensive education: the opportunity to hear the perspectives of those with whom they may disagree. In time, they may ultimately appreciate the difficulties that come with making decisions in leadership roles, even if they disagree with the outcome.

The president of my alma mater, Wesleyan University, alluded to this in a column he wrote earlier this week about knee-jerk criticism that fails to properly engage content. “In the last half-century, though, emphasis on inquiry has become dominant, and it has often been reduced to the ability to expose error and undermine belief. The inquirer has taken the guise of the sophisticated (often ironic) spectator, rather than the messy participant in continuing experiments or even the reverent beholder of great cultural achievements.”  (Emphasis added) The student’s job is now to expose and demand retribution. Intellectual inquiry has been supplanted by a crusade for social justice, making the pursuit of truth increasingly irrelevant. Read More…

Posted in . 16 comments

What Imagination and Kindness Bring to Community

One of the recurring themes at The American Conservative is an emphasis on localism and community as an alternative to impersonal big business. Communities, no doubt, have a plethora of benefits: they are a way for us to increase our personal happiness, reduce our suffering, and share our lives with each other. But not all of us have the good fortune of being born into communities that nurture and support us. External factors such as poverty, abuse, and illness can isolate individuals and prevent them from receiving the validation and solidarity they need. Fortunately, there is a solution to this common problem. Communities can be built through creativity and kindness, where families or other preset communities fall short. Imagination and kindness, used together, can create a richer experience than if one or the other were used on its own.

A pertinent example of this is the protagonist Sara Crewe in the childhood classic A Little Princess. At the start of the novel, Sara’s community is guaranteed to her through money: her father’s wealth gives her a place at a boarding school where, despite her idiosyncrasies and friction with the headmistress, her place within that community is secure. When conflict arises, Sara relies on her imagination to assuage her grief for her absent mother and separation from her father. She spins elaborate stories for her classmates to distract herself from reality. But then Sara’s father dies, and his fortune evaporates. Sara is now dependent on the headmistress for a roof over her head.  Her community stripped from her, Sara’s poverty sentences her to a life of destitution and isolation. Her once vibrant imagination falters. In one particularly heart-wrenching scene, Sarah flings her prized possession, a porcelain doll across the room in a fit of rage once she realizes that the doll cannot comfort her.

The desperation of Sara’s situation drives her to rely on her kindness to build her community anew. When a kind baker gives Sarah extra buns, she gives them all away to a child on the street, leaving one for herself. The small gesture provides Sara with a measure of relief. She understands that there are those worse off than she is, and that the kindness she extended helps her cope with the limits of her own circumstances. Shortly after this revelation, a mysterious donor appears in Sara’s life, leaving food and extra blankets, which she shares. Her kindness is more than repaid, eventually restoring her back into a second, more permanent, community. Read More…

Posted in . 2 comments

Twitter Is Alive and Well

Despite The Atlantic’s elegy for Twitter last week, the real-time social network simply isn’t dead. Far from it—instead of dying a natural death, it may be undergoing a similarly natural process: evolving with the times to maintain its relevance. The half-life of the Internet grows shorter and shorter, forcing would-be social media companies to either adapt or fade into obscurity.

Part of the false perception of Twitter’s purported demise is its near-constant comparison to Facebook. From Wall Street investors to the layman who utters Twitter in the same breath as Facebook as though the two companies are partners, Facebook and Twitter are thus paired as the icons of social media. But, as Will Oremus at Slate correctly points out, that comparison is misleading. Facebook focuses on connecting you with people you know in real life; Twitter helps you share content with strangers. You can’t share photo albums, invite people to events, or instant message people on Twitter; it’s a largely impersonal space. Twitter is a portal into public discourse, a tool that allows a glimpse into groupthink, and provides a platform to build your own public persona.

Twitter is indicative of a new trend of communication; its real-time format has expanded the reach of conversations from a handful of people offline to dozens or hundreds at a time. You even can be made or broken by a single tweet: the seemingly innocuous tweet by communications professional Justine Sacco did not only cost Sacco her job, but her company’s shareholders their wealth, at least temporarily. Ellen DeGeneres’s Oscar selfie got over 3 million favorites and 1.5 million retweets. News anchors refer to tweets on the air to either bolster their claims or to get immediate feedback on their shows.

A social media platform that has become an indispensable part of the public discourse will remain alive as long as people value its service. It may have lost its “little platoon” feel, but that is the result of an increase in users, an unfortunate byproduct of expansion. In order to maintain the “good neighbors” aspect of Twitter, users may have to put up some good fences to protect their conversations from the wake of larger-scale shouting matches.

This past weekend, the White House Correspondent’s Dinner had a formidable Twitter presence, and the hashtag #BringOurGirlsHome has been gaining momentum, prompting the Nigerian government to take more action to rescue hundreds of kidnapped schoolgirls. These are not the symptoms of a dead or dying organism. They are the signs of a growing, changing, complex system.

Posted in , , . Tagged . 2 comments

Women Should “Branch Out,” Not “Lean In”

There has been much discussion of late of the obstacles women face in their careers: the pay gap, and more recently, the confidence gap. The takeaway from the ink spilled on these subjects is that women need to close these gaps in order to achieve greater equality in their professional lives. Women should “lean in”, speak up, and make themselves more visible on the job. The reason given for why women bump up against those stubborn glass ceilings is that they are more focused on accomplishing tasks than advancing their careers.

But why must it be women’s responsibility to “lean in”, or to attempt to emulate male bravado? Overconfidence has its pitfalls, and when women attempt to step up and demand more from their employers, they can face severe consequences. Instead of “leaning in”, perhaps women should branch out and find methods of leadership that work best for themselves and those around them; otherwise they risk swapping one stereotyped gender role for another.

One problem with the “lean in” hypothesis is that not all women have their careers inside the corporate machine. Men have historically dominated corporate culture; consequently, women who challenge it or attempt to circumvent it risk punishment. Sometimes they are even branded as pariahs and pushed out. The authors of the confidence gap piece in The Atlantic correctly intuited that if women mimic their male counterparts’ confidence, irrespective of expertise, they are thereafter known as “bitches”—a label that hurts them in the eyes of their peers and superiors. Rosa Brooks at Foreign Policy expanded on that idea, detailing the drawbacks of overconfidence: the most famous example she gave is former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s bold statement that the Iraq invasion would last no more than five weeks. If women imitated this reckless behavior, they stand to make the same blunders without the same benefit of the doubt afforded to men. So leaning in or faking confidence might not be the way to build the necessary credibility to lead.

Fortunately, there are viable alternatives for women to rise to the top. America has been steadily moving away from corporate culture, especially after the 2008 crisis; women especially are making great strides in entrepreneurship. According to research performed by the Center of Venture Research, more venture capital is being directed towards female-led businesses: since last year, there has been a 20 percent increase in venture capital firms investing in female-founded companies with high growth potential. Out of 17 countries, the U.S. in ranked number one for having the ideal conditions to foster successful female entrepreneurs. A local example of this is the two sisters behind the spectacularly successful Georgetown Cupcake in Washington, D.C. Aside from their flagship store in Georgetown, they have opened satellite locations in New York City, Boston, and Los Angeles. After being denied business loans, they maxed out their credit cards to obtain startup capital. Though the traditional route of a business loan was closed to them, the sisters used their creativity and tenacity to establish a flourishing business. An added bonus is that they are able to use their autonomy to express themselves: their website features them with a mixer covered in pink glitter, not something you would normally see in a corporate business. Read More…

Posted in , . 10 comments

America’s Not an Oligarchy—Yet

A new study released over the weekend sparked a miniature firestorm on the Internet, mostly because it confirmed long-held suspicions about the role of money in politics. While the researchers make strongly-worded conclusions about the state of American democracy, journalists have used hyperbolic language to state that America is already a de facto oligarchy: PolicyMic calls the findings “beyond alarming…their statistics say your opinion literally does not matter. [italics in original]” Such overblown rhetoric makes it difficult to examine the root of the problem dispassionately in order to address the underlying issues beneath the growing inequality; instead, such reporting is fueling hysteria and pessimism about America’s inexorable decline.

Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University conducted a study measuring the impact of the wealthy and powerful interests groups on American democracy. Looking at over 1,700 proposed policy shifts, they tested whether the interest of the general public, the preferences of elites, or the desires of interest groups had the greatest influence over whether the policy was put into practice. It was hard to test the relative influence of elites and ordinary Americans, since, for the most part, the two groups had identical policy preferences. But, when the groups differed, the elites were much more likely to prevail against the popular will than vice versa.  In the statistical model used by the researchers, the effect of popular opinion dwindled into insignificance once the will of the elites was factored in.  The idea of “oligarchy” is never explicitly endorsed by the paper; it’s only referenced in other cited works. Furthermore, they admit that there are other factors outside the analysis they performed: “[I]t is also possible that there may exist important explanatory factors outside the three theoretical traditions addressed in this analysis[.]”

The New Yorker offered a cool-headed take of what the numbers might mean, a welcome counterpoint to the media hand-wringing. Their blog post points out that the model only explains 10 percent of the data, which, by the authors’ own admission, is a low number that lends itself to weak explanatory ability. The New Yorker wisely doesn’t presume to judge the full validity of Gilens and Page’s argument, but gently suggests that less inflammatory language be used besides the term “oligarchy” that media outlets have picked up. It’s chiding sensationalist journalism more so than attacking the authors, but a look over the study’s introduction and conclusion does reveal some charged language: “But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.” Ultimately, the statistics they used suggest an interesting narrative, but do not tell a complete story. Another thing worth noting is the lack of future predictions regarding the impact of wealth on the political process—all the data is from 1981 to 2002. It would be helpful if the researchers could predict which direction they think America’s political process is going based on their findings. “America May Become an Oligarchy” is still a very clickable headline, but a more responsible one.

American democracy is rife with troubling inequalities, but calling it an oligarchy is a step too far. Framing America as an oligarchy implies that there is a disenfranchised group pinned down helplessly by an oppressive elite, and that the true nature of our democracy is defunct. Before making grim prognoses about the extent of the elites’ influence on policy, it may be wise to first examine all the factors that contribute to a certainly troubling trend. That way, we can start to find a solution to cure what ails a society that may be concentrating influence in the hands of too few.

Posted in . 18 comments

Don Draper Returns for One Last Shot at Salvation

After Sunday night’s premier of season seven of “Mad Men” aired, the critics agreed: this first episode of the final season, “Time Zones,” is a foil of the very first episode of the series, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” It’s January of 1969, the nadir of bohemian ennui, a stark departure from Camelot’s straight-laced glamor at the top of the decade. But in “Mad Men”’s world, the emphasis isn’t on what has changed, but what hasn’t. Don’s is still tensely married to a (admittedly different) statuesque woman; Peggy is still frustrated at the office and in her personal life; Joan’s loneliness still undercuts her book-balancing, man-taming acumen. All these tropes were present in the very first episode, and nine years later, we can see how far these characters haven’t come.

But this season, there have been significant changes under the guise of sameness; the largest is that Don’s leave from his firm is an involuntary one. Don has played hooky before, but always on his own terms. Less and less of Don’s life, as we see, is within his control. Gone is the lean, mean advertising machine. He’s been replaced by a sallow sadsack, a shell of his halcyon days. Ashley Fetters at The Atlantic contrasts the Don from the first season and with this one in season seven:

The last shot of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is of Don’s home life, complete with a pretty young wife and children—which reveals that Don spends his days lying to and fooling other people. “Time Zones,” however, finds Don lying to everyone about how he “has to get back to work” and remaining somewhat deludedly optimistic about returning to SC&P, then ends with a closing shot of Don’s home life. This time, he’s sickly-looking and miserable, out alone in the cold with just his muddled thoughts. This time, it looks more like he spends most of the day consciously fooling himself.

In spite of Don’s unraveling, the culture critics at Slate feel Don’s self-deception can still work, at least at work, at least for a little while. One of the episode’s highlights is the “Accutron” pitch, delivered on the lips of Don’s former colleague Fred Rumsen, but with all the punch and power of a Don Draper masterpiece.

Regardless of whether or not Don still has the “it” factor that gets him out of every jam thrown his way, the cornerstone in Don’s rootlessness is Anna Draper’s absence, whose maternal guidance was an essential component of Don’s confidence. Read More…

Posted in . Tagged . 12 comments

Discrimination Is a Distraction from Real Wage Gap Causes

The White House of late has been peddling the claim that women make 77 cents to every man’s dollar for the same work. Elizabeth Plank and Soraya Chemaly from PolicyMic ran with this dubious statistic, creating the hashtag #withoutthewagegapIwould that circled the Internet with statements such as: “without the wage gap I would be able to buy my sister a house.” Phrases of that ilk are meant to elicit an immediate and visceral reaction. Were it not for the wage discrimination, women’s finances would dramatically improve. But would they, really? There has been strong blowback against that statistic, with substantial evidence showing it to be incomplete and applied to incongruous employment situations. Misrepresenting data that affects half of the population, even if well-intentioned, risk framing the problem incorrectly, making the path to a viable solution much steeper.

Christina Hoff Summers of AEI, writing at The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post, crunched the numbers and determined that when relevant variables are controlled for (such as occupation, time in the workplace, and college degree) the pay gap between men and women shrank from 23 cents to between five and seven. It’s not yet clear whether or not discrimination accounts for that last nickel, but it disarms a would-be political platform purporting to give underpaid women their retribution. Matt Yglesias attempts to argue that statistical controls identify discrimination rather than disproving it, but fails to explain how the wage gap is caused by discrimination.

One explanation for the gap is the professions that women choose: women are more likely to take jobs in the caretaking and artistic fields while men are more likely to elect for professions requiring technical expertise. More women are graduating from college, but fewer of those graduates are getting degrees in STEM fields, where the most lucrative jobs are. According to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, since 1990, the amount of men earning computer science degrees has nearly doubled, while the amount of women earning degrees has stayed the same after a brief bump in the early 2000s. Feminist groups like the National Organization for Women claim that this self-selection is not a woman’s choice at all, but pernicious gender stereotypes predetermining her career path. While there may be little data to support this, but there is significant evidence to support the idea that the main culprit responsible for women’s inability to keep pace with a men’s earning power is the bearing of children. Read More…

Posted in . Tagged , , . 23 comments

Comcast Swallows Time Warner, With Democrats for Dessert

Comcast’s blockbuster acquisition of Time Warner Cable for a cool $45 billion hit front pages again this week in anticipation of the Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, which will review antitrust laws regarding services provided by telecommunications companies. Comcast will also soon have to lay its defense before the Federal Communications Commission, which will closely scrutinize the merger’s impact on public consumption.

According to the New York Times, the most crucial concerns should be raised over high-speed Internet service, not cable television. Comcast’s share of the high-speed Internet market is larger than its cable TV market share, as it holds between 40 and 50 percent of the market for high-speed Internet service. Comcast’s rising market dominance has upended net neutrality, a principle that prevents Internet service providers from blocking or privileging content. It has also strong-armed major companies like Netflix to the negotiating table. Netflix struck a deal with Comcast in order to preserve its ability to provide streaming services to its customers, but according to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, it sets a dangerous precedent. He says in Slate, “If this kind of leverage is effective against Netflix, which is pretty large, imagine the plight of smaller services today and in the future.”

“Crony capitalism” is a politicized term for institutionally supported greed. Comcast has leveraged its considerable financial assets to acquire its biggest competitor, and its political opposition. To make sure that the merger prevails, Comcast has already invested heavily in the Democratic Party, with generous contributions to the Democratic National Committee followed up by extensive lobbying. Executives from Comcast were present at the state dinner welcoming French president Hollande and his wife. Comcast will come out of this merger one of the most powerful telecommunications providers in the country, with the weight to make even otherwise big content providers like Netflix bend their knee. They have the money to play the Washington game and turn the tables in their favor.

Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah has already voiced his opinions on the principles involved in a strongly worded op-ed in National Review Online late last week. Without mentioning the merger, Senator Lee more broadly condemned the Obama administration’s participation in “crony capitalism,” claiming it was destroying market competition, harming the poor, and destroying the middle class. The op-ed went on to detail the benefits of true market competition and allowing small businesses to flourish to create job growth. Reaping political benefits from the line of argument will require more than words, however. Lee continued, “a still-distrusted GOP first must end cronyism in our own ranks. The GOP has to close its branch of the Beltway Favor Bank and truly embrace a free-enterprise economy of, by, and for the people.”

For years, corporate greed has been associated with Republicans, but this merger shows that political influence, Democratic or Republican, is for sale to the highest bidder. If the GOP leadership is smart, they’ll at least make the appearance of breaking away from allowing corporations to stack the deck in their favor, and towards championing local businesses that promote sustainable economic growth. The Senate hearing on Wednesday provides an opportunity to send a signal to the private sector that mergers are not insurable through fundraisers, and to take a first step towards winning back the public trust.

Posted in . Tagged , , , . 17 comments

What Would Tocqueville Say About #CancelColbert?

Suey Park, a 23-year-old self-professed activist known on Twitter for the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick, which provided Asian women a space to discuss and vent the limiting and often stereotyped perceptions of Asians in popular culture, took on a big fist last week with her latest cause, #CancelColbert. The hashtag was in reaction to Colbert’s proposed fictional non-profit, “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever”. The joke’s target was billionaire and Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder. The joke cleverly, if crudely, demonstrated how a public gesture to make amends with a marginalized community could backfire spectacularly.

Park belongs to a generation that uses the Internet as a virtual public square to air grievances and provoke discussion. As recently as five years ago, this meant ranting on a forum like Reddit, where new topics came and went everyday without anyone noticing. With the advent of social media as an unofficial fifth estate, trending topics can be either a boon or bane to journalism and public debate. Park has stood apart from the pack, however, in her ability to harness the general snark and point it in a particular direction. In this case, the target was Colbert, a seasoned comedian with a primetime show. It worked: the hashtag trended for days and became a story that was picked up by major media outlets.

Mocking Colbert seems, frankly, superfluous, as mocking is something he already does quite well. It goes without saying that the Colbert Report is satirical, and it is always obvious whom Colbert is lampooning. During Obama’s campaign in 2008, Colbert called the then-senator a “a secret time traveling Nazi Muslim” and there was no backlash, at least certainly not to this degree. What changed? The emergence of “hashtag activists” like Park who rally thousands of their peers to police the Internet and publicly shame those with whom they disagree. There is a line between advancing public debate and mudslinging, and it’s a pretty thick line—well-worn with laws and ideas ranging from the First Amendment to Tocqueville, and that distasteful little patch in our history called the McCarthy period.

Tocqueville’s insights on the dangers of democracy—mob rule—are especially relevant here. He wrote: “I am therefore of the opinion that social power superior to all others must always be placed somewhere; but I think that liberty is endangered when this power finds no obstacle which can retard its course and give it time to moderate its own vehemence.” The power he is referring to is the sovereignty of the people, the majority who elect politicians, and along with it, set the agenda. Twitter has no such middleman, no representative to advocate policy in virtual space. There is the instant gratification of a response, and the fickle herds that congregate and disperse around hashtags that may or may not be promoting informative discussions. There is an opening for leaders to direct majority rule as they see fit, to set the agenda and push all who disagree with them off the Internet. The result is democratically enforced censorship.

Yes, there is racism, and, yes, we need to talk about it. But viral hashtags calling for public penance do not celebrate free speech: they create a mob demanding blood. Just as virtual public squares can be a place for peaceful gatherings, they can also be a place for mobs to assemble and clamor for their own skewed, narrow view of justice.

Posted in , , . 7 comments

New York’s Segregated Schools Need New Answers

Friday’s Bloomberg article confirmed a longtime suspicion about New York public schools: New York State has the most segregated schools in the United States. It seems counterintuitive, as New York is a Northern state never subjected to Jim Crow. But the deep-seated economic inequalities in New York have created a new form of segregation that exist outside the rule of law but nonetheless affect the opportunities of thousands of students, many of whom will be firmly stuck in the cycle of poverty before they even begin their first day of kindergarten. In a state as liberal as New York, a haven for unions, powerful Democratic politicians, and organizers, those who champion the underdog and preach equality for all are failing the very people they claim to help.

Part of what drives this segregation in New York State is the economic stratification of New York City. Simply put, students from low-income households attend failing public schools, while students from wealthier families have their choice of charter schools, specialized high schools, or private schools. Stuyvesant High School, the most famous and selective specialized high school in New York City, offers admission to whomever passes their rigorous examination, regardless of economic background or ethnicity, but only seven black students were admitted this year, down from nine last year. While there is no law prohibiting black or Latino students from attending to Stuyvesant, low-income families often do not have the resources to help their children prepare for such a rigorous entrance exam. Additionally, if the student is an English learner, he or she will have a steeper uphill battle to receive an even passable education.

One possible factor that could explain such segregation is housing discrimiation. Jamelle Bouie, in one of his last pieces for The Daily Beast, described in stark detail the consistent and systematic methods by which blacks, many of whom were migrants seeking opportunities in the North, were prevented from securing stable housing. The result was the creation of the ghettos that sprung up in Midwestern cities such as Cleveland, and East Coast ones like Baltimore. The schools in these areas often underperform, with high dropout rates and low test scores in reading and math.

In cities like New York, low-income neighborhoods have seen little improvement in their local public schools. In the 1960s, following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, black and Latino children were integrated into predominately white schools, but nothing was done to fix the dilapidated schools they were extracted from, which have limped into the 21st century leaving thousands of dropouts in their wake. In 2014, the battleground for achieving greater educational equality has been charter schools, publicly-funded but privately-run schools that often share space with decrepit public schools. One bone of contention in the controversy is the accusation that charter schools siphon resources from public schools.

It’s true that suffering schools are not directly linked to any particular liberal policy. But the fact cannot be ignored that New York public schools, despite gains made under the Bloomberg administration, are still woefully inadequate. Only 66 percent of New York City high school students graduate, of whom a paltry 47 percent were ready for college, according to data released in December 2013. The bureaucratic maze and insufficient funding make it impossible for students to have their basic needs met to acquire the academic skills to lift them out of poverty and put them on the path to success. New York has long been regarded a bastion of liberal efficiency and equality, an example to the rest of the country for its tolerance and diversity. But this gaping inequality can no longer be swept under the rug. Underpinning this segregation are racist housing policies and willful “scrubbing” of undesirable students from charter schools, which impede black upward mobility as much as the laws in the Jim Crow South. It’s time for New York politicians to understand that their methods for facilitating opportunity have failed, and be more open to new ideas, perhaps from the other side of the aisle.

Posted in . 13 comments

Huawei Builds China’s Own Internet “Home-Field Advantage”

Last weekend, the New York Times and Der Spiegel reported that the NSA has been spying on and hacking into Chinese telecommunications company Huawei since 2009 according to documents released by Edward Snowden. The Chinese response has been swift and strident—high ranking officials condemned these actions and predictably called for an end to the espionage. This disclosure strains the already complicated relationship between the U.S. and China as both giants race to ensure their own economic growth and national security.

At the same time, China may be taking baby steps towards laying down underwater internet fiber optic cables similar to the infrastructure the NSA and British spy agency GHCQ have exploited, what the NSA called their “home-field advantage.” This tactic was among the first in a series of staggered revelations from Edward Snowden in June of 2013. Through a program called Tempora, GHCQ can store communication data for three days and can store metadata for up to 30, providing GHCQ with more metadata than the NSA’s program, with less oversight. This surveillance is conducted partly with assistance from private companies, known as “intercept partners.” It is also conducted without the companies’ knowledge, however, relying on geographic proximity and national familiarity to tap major cables and core internet switches. Now Huawei appears to be developing a similar “home-field advantage” for China. Its current scale is quite small, but Huawei intends to be “one of the top three in the industry.”

It has been well-established that Huawei’s leadership has ties to the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese Communist Party, and the Chinese government. The founder of Huawei, Ren Zhengfei was a PLA engineer, and Sun Yafang, a executive board member, previously worked at the Chinese spy agency, Ministry of State Security Communications Department. When Huawei was still a fledgling company, Sun provided Huawei with millions of dollars to keep it afloat. Since the 1990s, Huawei has repeatedly attempted to establish a foothold in the U.S. telecommunications market, with no success. The United States has remained wary of the Shenzhen-based company, and consistently thwarted Huawei’s efforts to break into the U.S. markets. Finally, at the end of 2013, Huawei announced its intention to seek other opportunities to expand. Huawei has repeatedly denied any significant ties to the Chinese military or government. Read More…

Posted in , , . Tagged , , , , . 3 comments

Taiwan’s Protests Could Mean Trouble With China

Taiwan, the semi-autonomous nation not known for making waves, is erupting over a trade pact with China. Last week, hundreds of student protesters occupied the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s unicameral legislative body, demonstrating against the Guomindang’s (KMT) unilateral passage of a service trade agreement signed last year. According to CNN, protesters successfully blocked riot police from the Legislative Yuan with chairs, and have been seated both in and outside the building, singing, chanting, and holding up signs. Police have since used force to clear the Legislative Yuan, with the prime minister saying that the students were “paralyz[ing] our administrative workings,” according to a New York Times report yesterday.

The pact’s passage breaks the KMT’s promise to collaborate with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), staving off an inevitable conflict with the opposition over the pact. The DPP’s longtime stance is rooted in advocating full Taiwanese independence and dissolving ties with China, with much of its energy expended attacking the KMT for colluding with China against local Taiwanese interests. One of the DPP party slogans is, “sell Taiwan”, implying that the KMT is a cowardly puppet government with no interest in advocating for Taiwanese independence.

The protests come at the tail of a long decline in popular opinion of Taiwanese president Ma Ying-Jeou, whose conciliatory stance with China has incited a slow-burning resentment among his political opponents, and has even caused those within his own party to distance themselves from him. Ma’s approval ratings have dropped close to the level of disgraced former DPP prime minister Chen Sui-bian, who was convicted of money laundering in 2009.

One possible outcome of these protests, especially if the trade pact is derailed, is that formal relations across the strait could begin to deteriorate. Damon Linker in The Week speculates that if China were to take Taiwan, it would herald the end of American expansionism in the region. He argues that in spite of written agreements to help Taiwan defend itself, the United States would be unlikely to join in such a war. American neutrality in a hegemon-underdog dispute would bespeak our weakening global image as the world’s national guard, in Linker’s view. While logically sound, this perspective overlooks one important aspect of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations: The United States’s ability to influence Taiwanese relations with China or in the international community was never very strong to begin with. Read More…

Posted in , , . Tagged , , , . 5 comments

CIA-Senate Feud Risks Partisan Impasse

Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, forged a reputation as a staunch supporter of the NSA even as many of her allies on the left hailed Edward Snowden as a whistleblower. She suddenly and dramatically changed her tune last Tuesday when she accused the CIA on the Senate floor of deleting evidence during an investigation into the nature of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” practiced in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The investigation began in 2009, several years after tapes of the interrogations were destroyed. Then-CIA director Hayden released descriptive cables, stating they contained information similar to what was on the tapes. After an initial investigation concluded that what happened in those interrogation rooms was much more severe than what the CIA led them to believe, the Senate Intelligence committee voted 14-to-1 to conduct its own investigation.

Feinstein claims that in 2010, approximately 920 documents the Senate was reviewing were reported missing, and after initially shifting blame to their own IT contractors, the CIA claimed that the orders to remove the documents came directly from the White House. When staffers discovered the Internal Panetta Report, which was consistent with many of the findings of the independently conducted investigation by the Senate committee of the severity of alleged torture, they printed out a hard copy, placed it in a safe, and redacted information just as the CIA would have done. When the report disappeared, Feinstein brought her concerns to CIA inspector general David Buckley, who passed along his findings to the Department of Justice. The CIA responded by referring Feinstein’s staff to the DOJ for their own criminal investigation. Suddenly the people who had gone the extra mile to protect the report from deletion were now possibly being investigated for theft.

CIA director John Brennan flatly denied Senator Feinstein’s accusations in a briefing at the Council on Foreign Relations, stating “that is beyond the scope of reason of what we would do.” He all but accused Senator Feinstein of lying, and accusations flew the staffers stole the report from the CIA drives. As if on cue, a partisan battle erupted into public, with Sen. Mark Udall taking much of the heat. According to Politico, Republicans are accusing Udall of leaking information to the public about the CIA’s conduct. That he is on the Republicans’ target list for this fall’s midterm elections is mere coincidence.

The Washington Post reported that the Republican-Democratic divide on the torture report long predates this latest public development. Republicans reportedly withdrew from the joint investigation after learning CIA personnel would not cooperate, and conducted their own investigation in a separate secure room. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia was the one Intelligence committee member to vote against opening the investigation in the first place, and he now serves as the committee’s ranking member. While Chambliss has announced his retirement, the next Republican up, Richard Burr of North Carolina, has a history just as hawkish. Should Republicans retake the Senate this fall, Burr would ascend to the chairmanship, raising questions of whether the Senate’s own fight for its institutional independence has a November expiration date.

For the time being, however, there is at least one change has been made at the CIA, by the Senate. Feinstein, among others, complained that the very acting general counsel who referred the committee’s investigators to the Justice Department in the first place, Robert Eatinger, was himself responsible for many of the most controversial legal documents surrounding the use of torture and the destruction of the tapes. Last week, the Senate confirmed President Obama’s own pick for head Agency lawyer, bumping Eatinger out of the top spot.

Posted in . Tagged , . 4 comments

China and India Offer Russia Tepid Support

As coverage of the standoff between Russia and Ukraine continues and debate over America’s role in the conflict rages on, two crucial players have stepped forward to offer support to Russia: China and India. While no assumptions can be made about China’s diplomacy with Russia, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that an economic superpower would protect its trade agreements in the region. China is Ukraine’s second largest trading partner, a partnership worth $7.3 billion dollars a year, with a target of $20 billion by 2017.

China likely has no intention of endangering its profitable relationships in the face of geopolitical conflict. There is no indication that China will publicly condemn Russia’s actions: it may instead carefully weigh its options with regard to its political alliance with Russia and future economic opportunities with Ukraine. China has paid lip service to Ukraine, but that may change as the situation develops. A spokesperson from the Chinese Foreign Ministry reasserted its non-interventionist policy, but left room to switch platforms if it became expedient:

It is China’s long-standing position not to interfere in others’ internal affairs. We respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. There are reasons for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today. China will follow the development of the situation closely and call on relevant parties to seek a political resolution of their differences through dialogue and negotiation based on respect for international law and norms governing international relations in order to uphold regional peace and stability.

As it currently stands, China has not made a definitive move towards either Russia or Ukraine. Joel Wuthnow, a China analyst writing for the National Interest, suggests that China may side with its previously established economic relationships: “In addition, China’s relations with Ukraine deepened in December with a “strategic partnership” signed by Xi and then-president Viktor Yanukovych. This agreement involved a five-year, $30 billion plan to boost PRC investment in areas including infrastructure, aviation and aerospace, energy, agriculture, and finance.” Much of China’s diplomacy springs out of its business partnerships, and thus far Ukraine does not seem to be an exception. But China also has no interest in estranging Russia, especially after Presidents Putin and Jinping appeared together in public at the Sochi Olympics, sending a signal of solidarity as the Western media raked Putin over the coals. Shannon Tezzi of The Diplomat posits that in spite of deep philosophical misgivings, China will put its developing relationship with Russia above its own political agenda, at least in this case. But public support of Russia is not without risk.

What’s confusing is why India has decided to come forward. Read More…

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , , . 5 comments

We Know Obamacare Is Not At All Like Slavery

The most well-received remarks at this year’s CPAC were indubitably Rand Paul’s, who was likely test driving his Republican National Convention nominee acceptance speech. Barely trailing him in cheers, applause and audience size was Dr. Ben Carson. Carson is known as one of the most accomplished physicians of his time, but is building momentum as a rising star among conservatives. Hotel room keys and the shuttles to Union Station are adorned with Carson’s face, next to slogans endorsing him for president in 2016. During his speech, enthusiasts held up signs that read, “Run, Ben, run!” and the ballroom’s sudden swelled in size from onlookers and supporters. Carson’s relaxed mannerisms and tightly focused speech make him a natural, if unlikely, politician, and his prodigious career in medicine certainly qualifies him to discuss health care policy. But President? CPAC has had no shortage of eyebrow-raising moments, but that is the most unconventional one yet. Though Republicans once nominated a former Hollywood actor who went on to be a two-term president, so anything is possible.

Dr. Carson hit his talking points with airstrike precision, to the delight of his audience, who punctuated nearly every point he made with an ovation. Carson disparaged political correctness, likely a nod to the social conservatives who have been feeling that their place in public discourse is increasingly restricted as of late. And then, predictably, he launched into his tirade against Obamacare. And that was precisely when he lost anyone with a level head who has been following Carson’s ascendancy with interest.

Carson referenced—and defended—his claim that Obamacare is the worst thing to happen to this society since slavery, calling anyone who believes that he equated the two institutions a “dummy”. Aside from that claim being patently false—there were a number of things that were nearly as bad as slavery, but none so awful as slavery itself—it is an irresponsible claim to make as a physician. Doctors are trusted to be objective and rely on facts to make decisions on courses of treatment. The fact that Carson was willing to wade into the political fray, making claims that can be easily misconstrued is alarming. Anyone hoping that Carson would bring some balance and perspective to the blaring rhetoric from CPAC this weekend was in for a disappointment.

Carson’s best-selling books—the nonpolitical ones—are nothing like his speeches, and the vast disparity between the two personas is unsettling. The pediatric neurosurgeon whose memoirs I read as a child emphasized self-reliance, hard work, and trust in Providence to achieve the impossible. The speaker today was a speech away from running for office on fearmongering and repealing Obamacare. I was hoping to see more of the man I trusted to perform a complex operation instead of a pedantic speaker that validated the borderline irrational whims of CPAC attendees.

Posted in . Tagged , . 20 comments

CPAC Panels Pack More Punch Than Speeches

Day two of CPAC was livelier than the first, perhaps auguring the required change the GOP needs to undertake to include demographics it has willfully neglected in time for the midterms and 2016. Instead of the soporific, self-congratulatory speeches saddled with the overused phrase, “America is the greatest country on Earth,” several panels raised issues that have significant impact on the future of both parties and the country. Leah Libresco summarized the panel debating Snowden’s actions, during which former intelligence officer and Governor of Virginia Jim Gilmore, who firmly believes Snowden is a traitor, went tête à tête with Snowden’s family attorney, Bruce Fein. Gilmore’s unequivocal statements drew angry responses from the crowd (upon hearing the officer’s remark about his knowledge of the Fourth Amendment, a heckler shouted, “You lie!”), and little else from the panel resulted aside from a passionate crossing of swords. Nonetheless, it was encouraging to see conservatives disagree on two legitimate points of view. Disagreement strengthens ideas, and willingness to listen to those within the party may translate into bipartisan collaboration down the road.

The criminal justice reform panel, though less heated, provided insight into the reality of non-violent first-time offenders. For crimes that are as trivial as selling non-weapon contraband on eBay are languishing in prison while state governments foot the bill. Governor of Texas Rick Perry elaborated on his effective management of the prison system in Texas: fewer inmates are incarcerated in Texas than in New York, and as a result, the state is spending less. “You want to see real conservative governance?” Governor Perry asked in a rare moment of eloquence. “Shut those prisons down. Save that money.” Indeed, the entire panel, including former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik, who served a short prison term himself, agreed that mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines were inefficient and branded too many offenders as felons, a title that would haunt them for the rest of their lives. For the first time at CPAC, there were practical, applicable solutions presented to address an unwieldy problem.

Finally, the panel titled “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Ever Get Along?” was perhaps the panel with most genuinely engaged participants at CPAC yet. The crux of the panel focused on religious liberty within the context of gay marriage. Does the state have the right to enforce a definition of marriage that goes against those who oppose it on moral grounds? Do the states have the right to define marriage? This is a tough question, and has two perspectives: an individual contract upheld by the state, and a state institution that individuals choose to participate in. 20-year old Alexander McCobin, cofounder and president of Students for Liberty, offered remarkably deft and insightful input referencing the 13th amendment and comparing gay marriage to the repeal of interracial marriage laws, an apt legal comparison that was immediately shot down. The panel was unable to find common ground to agree on, which may be the beginning of irreconcilable differences that could lead to a larger split within the conservative movement.

The GOP needs to take the golden opportunity the debacle of Obamacare has given them to reassess its stance on social issues them before getting back in the ring with the Democrats. If they don’t, they will continue to alienate libertarians with their out of touch messaging and stale ideas. Republicans must be willing to strike a compromise for the sake of its own viability in the next two rounds of elections.

Posted in . Tagged , . 2 comments

Closing the Gap Between Politics and Policy at CPAC

Yesterday afternoon, a panel of conservative policy luminaries shared their ideas and expertise with a small group of reporters and conference attendees. They included John Allison, president and CEO of CATO, Carly Fiorina, chairman of the American Conservative Union Foundation, Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, and Lawson Bader from the Competitive Enterprise Institute. All had gleaming resumes and extensive experience, but were as passionate about their causes as recent college graduates, an encouraging sight in a party with a reputation for stagnation. Many professionals approaching the twilight of their careers have long ago shed their idealism for pragmatic cynicism and attend panels as an opportunity to make excuses for the ineptitude of their employers. This panel not only had innovative suggestions, but also discussed how to package new ideas in ways that the average voter can connect to. The presidential elections of 2008 and 2012 demonstrated the power of effective messaging on a grassroots level, and Republicans need to stop licking their wounds and come up with effective strategies.

Fiorina, who ran for public office in California, criticized Republicans for merely lambasting Obamacare while offering no viable alternative. Though she didn’t say it outright, her implicit conclusion was sobering: criticism paired with inaction was an irresponsible move, jeopardizing the already precarious health care system and costing Republicans valuable yardage on the political battlefield. One of the strategies Fiorina outlined to rectify this problem was communication with the poor—not merely buying a marketing strategy and hoping a critical mass of voters jump the fence, but taking the initiative to listen to the concerns of those struggling, and address them with dignity.

“People are poor not because they lack intellect. People are poor not because they lack ambition. People are poor not because they lack ambition,” Fiorina said. “The poor are poor because they lack the training and tools to tap their potential. They are poor because they lack the opportunities to fulfill their potential.”

This strategy and others were generally well received, but others wanted a clearer path from policies to votes. “These ideas are too intellectual,” one audience member said, visibly agitated. “I want to know how we’re going to win elections!”

He had a point. Talking the high art of policy is one thing: changing voters’ minds is quite another. I asked the panel how to bridge the gap between desperately needed policy recommendations and the heavy lifting of politics: phone banking, registering voters, proselytizing conservative principles. Fiorina’s solution was simple yet elegant: engage the average voter with empathy and respect. If Republicans can consistently demonstrate they are willing to do more that spout rhetoric on talk shows and from the pulpit and have genuine conversations, then perhaps Republicans can repair their reputations and regain their political prowess. Effectively communicated ideas translate into changed minds, which mean a strong turnout at the ballot box for the GOP. One can only hope that they start sooner than later.

Posted in . 4 comments

Obamacare Gets Teed Up at CPAC

“Off with Obamacare’s head!”

Such was the battle cry at the first day at CPAC, woven into nearly every speech, from Ted Cruz’s opening remarks at 9AM to the afternoon panels, regardless of whether the topic at hand was healthcare-related or not. Repeated demands were made to repeal or abolish Obamacare, each new iteration met with enthusiastic applause. Obamacare was criticized, attacked, and ridiculed with palpable glee. Speculation abounded about what would happen when Obamacare collapsed under its own weight. But few solutions were offered to replace a defenestrated Obamacare, which will cost Republicans with potential voters in the midterms, and in 2016.

CPAC is not known to be a breeding ground for policy initiatives, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t or shouldn’t be. Try as Republicans might, they have been thus far unsuccessful in their attempts to repeal Obamacare, leaving them with only one viable alternative: reform. In an environment like CPAC, words like reform aren’t “sticky” or in line with the talking points drilled into participants’ heads. But it is necessary, and may even be crucial to our health care system having a fighting chance of recovery. The health care system is in desperate need of overhaul, and Republicans should be leading the charge of how to fix it, not simply pointing out that Democrats broke it most recently. Senator John Barrasso from Wyoming, who had a career as an orthopedic surgeon before becoming a politician, stressed the additional burden placed on patients on having to travel farther to see doctors on a government mandated health insurance program. “Obamacare is patient, heal yourself,” Senator Barrasso said, indicating that it will be harder for seniors to get to hospitals and receive the consistent care they need. “They’re aren’t enough people to take care of the patients, and it’s actually making things worse.”

The silver lining to the grim prognosis is that there is, at last, Republican legislation surfacing. The Coburn, Burr, and Hatch plan is one example of such legislation. The bill takes practical measures to reform Medicaid by allowing patients to keep their own health care plan, reforms medical malpractice law, and allows patients to make their own choices when it comes to their own health care plans, as opposed to government regulations dictating what providers are available to them.

CPAC may be about hitting those talking points, but it can also be a meeting of minds and the beginning of substantive conversations that could put a derailed healthcare system back on track. Republicans need to act quickly, though. Time is running out, and the final phases of Obamacare implementation are on the horizon.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , . 8 comments

Kunming Knife Attacks Point to Prolonged Ethnic Conflict

Chaos erupted on Saturday afternoon at a Kunming railway station, in the Yunnan province of southwestern China. Ten men and women carrying scimitars and meat cleavers descended on unsuspecting passengers, slicing and stabbing at random. Unreleased photos depict multiple victims lying in pools of their own blood. All told, 130 people were injured and 30 were killed. Four suspects were shot and killed at the scene; one is currently detained while recovering from injuries. It is believed that there are currently five suspects are still at large. There was a heightened security presence at both the Kunming railway station and in Beijing on Monday. President Xi Jinping harshly condemned these acts, which have been classified as acts of terrorism. A vigil was held on Sunday to honor the dead and wounded.

The attack was linked to Uighur separatists, who hail from the Xinjiang province in northwest China, directly north of Tibet. Tensions have flared between the Han Chinese and the Turkic Muslim ethnic groups in the region for the last several years, each conflict bringing severe government crackdowns. Because of tight restrictions on reporting, there is speculation as to whether the government has exaggerated the Uighur terrorism in order to justify the use of violence. But there does seem to be legitimate unrest that is swept under the rug.

As recently as last October, Uighur separatists claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Tiananmen Square. The square represents both the heart of Chinese power and dissidence—25 years ago the square was the site of mass student demonstrations advocating for democracy. A photo of the suicide bombing features a single pillar of smoke stretching in front of Tiananmen tower, where the portrait of Mao Zedong looks impassively on. It is not yet known if one or several groups carry out these acts of violence, or if these groups coordinate their efforts.

The Xinjiang region consists of 45 percent Uighurs, most of whom are Muslim, and 40 percent Han Chinese. The Han Chinese are the dominant ethnic group in China, making up 94 percent of the population. As China’s population rises, the Chinese government has facilitated moving some of the Han population further West, to the consternation of the local Uighur population.  The inhabitants of Xinjiang, a part of China heretofore known as an “autonomous region” consider the resettlement both a political and cultural imposition, and fear the loss of their culture by an ethnic hegemon.

Reports of armed attacks from Xinjiang began in 2008, when a woman detonated a bomb in protest of a prominent local businessman who died while in police custody. In 2009, multiple reports emerged of stabbings via hypodermic needles. Protesters took to the streets to display their disapproval with the ensuing investigation. Three years ago, 18 men took over a police station, shouting religious slogans and taking several hostages with knives and bombs. Fourteen of them were killed in a police confrontation.

The inherent opaqueness of such unrest is either incomplete or partially confirmed. In the midst of all the incomplete information, one fact remains clear: the unrest is no longer contained to a remote corner of China. The people responsible for committing this violence have brought the battle to the front and center of Chinese—and international—politics.

Posted in , . Tagged . 2 comments
← Older posts