A long-overdue letter to the editors of the New York Times

I wrote this today in response to an editorial decrying “Two Presidential Candidates Stuck in the Past.”

Thank you so much for continuing the Times’s pattern of false equivalence between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton which did so much to elect the former and besmirch the latter. Trump’s pathological need to tell whoppers at campaign rallies instead of governing is not at all the same as Clinton’s factual answers to a reporter’s questions. There is no doubt that James Comey’s October surprise re-opening of the e-mail investigation damaged her election prospects, nor is there any doubt that Russia interfered on her opponent’s behalf, though direct complicity by the Trump campaign has yet to be proven.

The editors’ instruction to Clinton to stop talking about the election sounds a lot like, “Women should be seen and not heard.” I look forward to your issuing a similarly stern warning to Bernie Sanders, who continues to peddle his fraudulent claim that Clinton “stole” the primaries by defeating him. Until you do, I’d be grateful if you’d stop pretending that Clinton’s telling the truth is somehow the same as Trump’s lying.

Bragging about my wife

Blogs are great for spreading some sunshine onto others, and sharing good news.

After being out of the workforce for more than a decade doing family caregiving, my wife Veronica went back to school at Loyola to become a medical social worker. (She did not come to the University of Chicago because she wanted to do her independent thing, as I’m sure many woman readers can appreciate.)

She has earned A’s or better in every class. She has spent the last academic year doing the neoliberal sellout thing by working with hard-to-place foster youth in the Chicago south-land. It’s not easy work. She bears witness to a lot of heartache and the human costs of child maltreatment. Her encyclopedic knowledge of the NBA, and strong opinions about the Bulls’ choices at the point guard position, proved key assets to bond with young women and their foster parents. Plus a fifty-year-old mom sometimes has an easier time than a 25-year-old being taken seriously in that realm.

Veronica’s return to the workforce is a little bittersweet, too. She’s paid a heavy price carrying water for a long time for many people. Her career was knocked off-kilter when her mom died suddenly in 2004, leaving us to care for Veronica’s brother Vincent, who lives with an intellectual disability known as fragile X syndrome. He’s had a number of medical challenges, too. Just this past month, he had two apparent seizures with attendant hospital visits, home heart monitors, and the like.

She bears the brunt of that. That’s just the reality. Had her mom lived a few more years or had we never disrupted our life at precisely the wrong moment to leave Ann Arbor, Michigan, Veronica would probably now be a full professor of pediatric nursing. She would be living a different life.

We had the usual pragmatic reasons over the years to gender-specialize in our household. This allowed me professional advancement she was not able to enjoy herself. At any given moment, these decisions made sense, but the cumulative impact was to nudge us into a groove that I would not have freely chosen and would not want for the young women I know.

Although Veronica doesn’t vocalize it, it’s been a little scary, too. If anything happened to my health, my job, or our marriage, she would have been in a very difficult situation. Rolling back the tape twenty years, I wonder what professional sacrifices I would have been willing to make to do things differently. That’s a hard question to honestly answer.

There are no comebacks in life. But resilient people sometimes find ways to find new opportunities and adventures.

We just found out that Veronica won a competitive internship at Northwestern’s Lurie Children’s Hospital. She will be doing community care coordination for medically complex children. It’s important work. I hope you can pardon me for bragging about it.

Quote of the Day

This is not the republic of my imagination.

–Charles Dickens, letter to William Macready, from Baltimore (1842)

“Miss Housekeeping”

As Mark and the betting markets amply demonstrated, Hillary Clinton crushed Donald Trump last night. Whatever else happens, it’s great that young people had the opportunity to see a professional woman take on a bombastic, powerful man–and clean his clock when the stakes could hardly be higher. She was smarter, tougher, better-prepared.

One moment really struck me. Clinton noted the fact that Trump had called Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, “Miss Piggy,” and “Miss Housekeeping.” Of course the “Miss Piggy” comment attracts greatest attention. Trump didn’t like that Ms. Machado had gained some weight.

His “Miss Housekeeping” comment hit me harder. It is, at-once, a sexist slur directed at Latina women and a revolting display of Trump’s disdain for the dignity of difficult work.

I do a lot of business travel. I once ran across a young woman who was working as a hotel maid. Her young daughter tagged along as the woman cleaned the rooms. Maybe there was no school that day or something. That’s real life for millions of people. Housekeepers work hard, for pretty low wages, in a not-always-pleasant occupation. People do this work to support themselves and feed their families. I overheard one woman working a similarly tough occupation tell a co-worker, “I don’t work for my boss. I work for my kids.” Millions of women do.

When I worked for a short while as a janitor, I received a small taste of the difficulty and the deceptively fast pace of the work required to clean up after others. Such work allows University of Chicago professors to enjoy our conference trips. It allows casino resort owners such as Donald Trump to make a living. To disparage their work disgusts me. Many of these women contribute more to this world than Donald Trump currently is doing. They may pay higher taxes, too.

More here.

The University of Chicago Strikes Out

My alma mater the University of Chicago has managed to get what it’s always wanted: attention from the national press.  Unfortunately, it did so by sending a completely unnecessary letter to incoming students announcing the school’s opposition to trigger warnings and safe spaces, concepts the letter doesn’t seem to understand at all.  So let me wade into this muck in the hope of achieving some clarity.  As the University of Chicago taught me, it’s best to begin by defining one’s terms.

Just as sexual harassment is a form of expression which is nonetheless regulated to make it possible for women to function in the workplace, various kinds of campus behavior are forms of expression which may nonetheless be regulated to make it possible for non-majority students to function in academe. Surely there are ludicrous examples of demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, just as there are egregious examples of on-campus hostility and discrimination (e.g. men parading outside a women’s dorm yelling “No means yes! Yes means anal!”).  The issue in either case is the boundary between free expression and expression designed to intimidate or silence. No one can deny that a burning cross is an example of expression but as its purpose is to terrorize, it’s considered to be on the wrong side of that boundary. So, in Europe, is Holocaust denial, though it’s tolerated on American college campuses (while assertions that the earth is flat, say, would not be).

Thus people who take seriously the possibility that a person calling black women “water buffaloes” intends to demean and silence them are simply engaging in the type of critical thinking to which universities are supposed to be dedicated as well as the complementary analysis of what is necessary to protect an environment of civil discourse.

I’m a passionate advocate of the educational experience I had at the U of C, and nonetheless I think the letter to incoming students could more succinctly have been rendered as “F**k you if you imagine anything you think will be of interest or concern to us; you must have mistaken us for someplace that cares. And if you don’t like it take your female and black and brown and queer sensibilities elsewhere.” And I am revolted that my alma mater decided its reputation was best spent on that kind of dog-whistle right-wing nonsense.

You don’t want to use trigger warnings? Don’t. But there’s no need to denounce them unless your real purpose is to let people (especially, perhaps, donors) know that you’re indifferent to any concerns about mistreatment based on identity, and that any complaints about such mistreatment will be met with dismissiveness and derision because how dare any of these 21st Century concerns impinge on the 19th Century approach to which we’ve apparently dedicated our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor?

When I spoke up at the law school, I was thanked for expressing “what the women think.” When a classmate objected to the teaching of Plato’s Symposium as though it didn’t refer to gay love, he was told that the University didn’t “cater to special interests.” When students and faculty spoke out for diversifying the curriculum beyond the dead white “mods and greats” beloved of the British university system, the response (from Saul Bellow, no less) was “where is the Proust of the Papuans?” though the whole point of his query was to ridicule the idea of our finding out.

There was nothing “micro” about these aggressions; they were perfectly visible examples of the majority’s desire to humiliate and stifle the minorities.  And the University’s admissions policies in those days (though not now, happily) were carefully designed to make sure that black and brown and even female people were in the tiniest minorities possible.

So the U of C has a long history of behaving as if modernity were a personal insult, and this letter to first-years is as much in keeping with that tradition as any boob’s expressed desire to make America great (meaning white) again.

I’ve heard there are donors to other schools who’ve withdrawn their support when their alma maters have acknowledged their role in slavery or in any way made a reckoning with the imperfections of the past.  So just to balance things out, I’m withdrawing my support of an institution which seems to glory in denying there ever were any such imperfections or that any discrimination or hostility continues to exist today. The U of C exercised its privilege of flipping the bird to its incoming students and I’m exercising my privilege to flip the bird to the U of C.

I hope the faculty and administration don’t experience that as traumatic; but just in case I’m providing this trigger warning.

This is what “No enthusiasm for Hillary” looks like

My little corner of Chicago–two wards, with a tiny boost from Evanston–has more than 100 people signed up to go to Wisconsin to knock on doors for Hillary this Saturday.  With less than 10 days’ notice, we’ve turned out enough people to spill over the boundaries of our original target (Kenosha) and conquer Racine as well.

To put that in perspective, that’s a bigger group of volunteers than we sent to Wisconsin at this time during the Obama campaign.   After Labor Day, we’re going to flood the zone in Iowa.

So don’t let anyone tell you there’s no enthusiasm for Hillary.

Do Fatwas Against ISIS Matter?

A few months ago, 70,000 Muslim clerics issued a fatwa against ISIS. All very well and good, great to see, important to notice, etc.

But whenever violence is justified by appeal to religion (regardless of which religion it is, see Baruch Goldstein), adherents of that religion have to take proactive steps to ensure that beliefs leading to violence are being rooted out. So here is one that I would be interested in discussing with these 70,000 imams:

How do you interpret Qu’ran 4:34?

That verse describes relations between husbands and wives, and in some interpretations allows husbands to beat their wives. Other interpretations suggest that men are superior to women. And yet other interpretations reject all violence or any suggestion of gender inequality. What do these imams think about that?

Now, one might wonder what that has to do with anything: this fatwa concerned ISIS and Al-Qaeda, not gender. But I believe that the two are linked. In male-dominated traditional societies, women can stand in for the ultimate Other, that which must be controlled and dominated. Hyper-masculinism means great propensity to violence, or as a professor of mine once put it, “when it comes to violent crime, women are just not doing their fair share.” The one thing that virtually all terrorists have in common is not their religion, or their culture, or their class background, but rather their sex.

Put another way, Islamic terror will not cease until women in the Umma are empowered and equal. And this applies to all terror. It may not be a sufficient condition — Communist China early on adopted formal norms of gender equality and Maoist rule might have been the most brutal of the 20th century, which is saying a lot — but it is a necessary one. For my own faith, it is surely no accident that the religious settlers who have committed the worst terror against Palestinians are also the ones who hold the most retrograde views on gender.

So while it is great that we hear condemnations of terrorism from imams, my follow up question is: how are you personally, in your practice and in your work, fighting for gender equality with Islam? What do you tell your followers about Qu’ran 4:34? Because if that answer is a shrug of the shoulders, or an uncomprehending stare, it isn’t good enough.

The Powerlessness of Art, MCP edition

Michelangelo’s powerful but ineffective Sybils in the Sistine Chapel.

Sam Wang gives Hillary Clinton a poll-based 70% probability of becoming US President, if the election were held tomorrow, and not after another six months of public exhibition of the ignorance, bigotry, vulgarity and vanity of Donald Trump. Ban Ki-Moon has picked Christina Figueres’ successor to lead the next round of UN climate negotiations: the even tougher Patricia Espinosa of Mexico. The Monstrous Regiment of Women is doing pretty well in many places.

Not everywhere, and especially not in the Vatican. Here is a sobering tale from the Sistine Chapel. Continue reading “The Powerlessness of Art, MCP edition”