Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sunday Reading

Leonard Pitts on what the “B” word reveals about us.

“So,” the woman asked, “how do we beat the bitch?” And Sen. John McCain laughed.

It was, he said, an “excellent” question. Yes, he went on to express respect for Hillary Clinton, to whom the woman referred. But not once while answering that question at a campaign stop in South Carolina recently did he suggest that it wasn’t appropriate to call Clinton a “bitch.”

Can you imagine if the Democratic front runner were Sen. Joe Lieberman and the woman said, “So, how do we beat this Hebe?”

Can you imagine if it were Gov. Bill Richardson and the woman said, “So, how do we beat this spic?”

Can you imagine if it were Sen. Barack Obama and the woman said, “So, how do we beat this coon?”

I guarantee you, McCain would not have laughed and if he had, we would now be writing his political epitaph. But the woman asked, “How do we beat the bitch?” and McCain did laugh and now shrugs off any suggestion that he should have done more.

He’s wrong.

I get that many people don’t like Clinton. I don’t like her much myself, and my reasons echo the consensus. She seems cold, calculated, brittle.

Here’s the thing, though. I find that I can’t name a single female national political figure I do like — not respect, not agree with, but like. Oh, I can name many men who, their politics aside, strike me as likable: McCain, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, even cranky old Bob Dole.

But women? Not so much. Nancy Pelosi, Janet Reno, Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright… I cannot see myself — we are speaking metaphorically here — cuddling up to any of them. They all seem formidable, off-putting, cold.

Which suggests the problem here is not so much them as me. And, if I may be so bold, we. As in, we seem unable to synthesize the idea that a woman can be smart, businesslike, demanding, capable, in charge, and yet also, warm.

Consider one of the many anti-Hillary smears now circulating online. It purports to be a compendium of profane, ill-tempered tirades she has unleashed upon subordinates. Your first thought is, what an unlikeable person. Your second is, or should be, wait a minute. Does George Bush never use potty language? Was Bill Clinton never brusque? Does Dick Cheney always say thank you and please?

But it’s different, isn’t it, because she’s a woman? With the men, toughness reads as leadership, authority, getting things done. With her it reads as “bitch.” There is a sense — and even women buy into this — that a woman who climbs too high in male-dominated spheres violates something fundamental to our understanding of what it means to be a woman. Indeed, that she gives up any claim upon femininity itself.

Nor is that assessment only perception. To the contrary, it has been quantified in a number of scholarly studies and papers. For example, in Formal and Informal Discrimination Against Women At Work: The Role of Gender Stereotypes, a research paper published this year, authors Brian Welle and Madeline E. Heilman report that the woman who succeeds at what has traditionally been men’s work — and what is a presidential campaign if not that? — risks being seen as “hostile, abrasive, pushy, manipulative and generally unlikeable.”

Sound like anyone you know?

We demand certain “feminine” traits from women — nurturing, caring, submission — and the woman in whom those traits are either not present or subordinated to her drive, ambition and competence will pay a social price.

“How do we beat the bitch?” the woman asks. She asked it without blinking, without a second thought, righteously. And John McCain laughed.

That’s telling. The ostensible purpose of a campaign is to reveal the candidate. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, it seems, is revealing a whole lot more.

Speaking of Women: Frank Rich on another woman — Judith Regan — who might control the fate of Rudy Giuliani’s political future.

New Yorkers who remember Rudy Giuliani as the bullying New York mayor, not as the terminally cheerful “America’s Mayor” cooing to babies in New Hampshire, have always banked on one certainty: his presidential candidacy was so preposterous it would implode before he got anywhere near the White House.

Surely, we reassured ourselves, the all-powerful Republican values enforcers were so highly principled that they would excommunicate him because of his liberal social views, three wives and estranged children. Or a firewall would be erected by the firefighters who are enraged by his self-aggrandizing rewrite of 9/11 history. Or Judith Giuliani, with her long-hidden first marriage and Louis Vuitton ’tude, would send red-state voters screaming into the night.

Wrong, wrong and wrong. But how quickly and stupidly we forgot about the other Judith in the Rudy orbit. That would be Judith Regan, who disappeared last December after she was unceremoniously fired from Rupert Murdoch’s publishing house, HarperCollins. Last week Ms. Regan came roaring back into the fray, a silver bullet aimed squarely at the heart of the Giuliani campaign.

[…]

Journalists, like generals, love to refight the last war, so the unavailability of millions of Hillary Clinton’s papers has received all the coverage the Giuliani campaign has been spared. But while the release of those first lady records should indeed be accelerated, it’s hard to imagine many more scandals will turn up after six volumes of “Whitewater,” an impeachment trial and the avalanche of other investigative reportage on the Clintons then and now.

The Giuliani story, by contrast, is relatively virgin territory. And with the filing of a lawsuit by a vengeful eyewitness who was fired from her job, it may just have gained its own reincarnation of Linda Tripp.

The Fall of the American Empire? Chris Hedges asks if the history of other empires has a lesson for us.

All great empires and nations decay from within. By the time they hobble off the world stage, overrun by the hordes at the gates or vanishing quietly into the pages of history books, what made them successful and powerful no longer has relevance. This rot takes place over decades, as with the Soviet Union, or, even longer, as with the Roman, Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian empires. It is often imperceptible.

Dying empires cling until the very end to the outward trappings of power. They mask their weakness behind a costly and technologically advanced military. They pursue increasingly unrealistic imperial ambitions. They stifle dissent with efficient and often ruthless mechanisms of control. They lose the capacity for empathy, which allows them to see themselves through the eyes of others, to create a world of accommodation rather than strife. The creeds and noble ideals of the nation become empty cliches, used to justify acts of greater plunder, corruption and violence. By the end, there is only a raw lust for power and few willing to confront it.

The most damning indicators of national decline are upon us. We have watched an oligarchy rise to take economic and political power. The top 1 percent of the population has amassed more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined, creating economic disparities unseen since the Depression. If Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes president, we will see the presidency controlled by two families for the last 24 years.

Massive debt, much of it in the hands of the Chinese, keeps piling up as we fund absurd imperial projects and useless foreign wars. Democratic freedoms are diminished in the name of national security. And the erosion of basic services, from education to health care to public housing, has left tens of millions of citizens in despair. The displacement of genuine debate and civil and political discourse with the noise and glitter of public spectacle and entertainment has left us ignorant of the outside world, and blind to how it perceives us. We are fed trivia and celebrity gossip in place of news.

An increasing number of voices, especially within the military, are speaking to this stark deterioration. They describe a political class that no longer knows how to separate personal gain from the common good, a class driving the nation into the ground.

[…]

Nothing makes these diseased priorities more starkly clear than what the White House did last week. On the same day, Tuesday, President Bush vetoed a domestic spending bill for education, job training and health programs, yet signed another bill giving the Pentagon about $471 billion for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. All this in the shadow of a Joint Economic Committee report suggesting that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been twice as expensive than previously imagined, almost $1.5 trillion.

The decision to measure the strength of the state in military terms is fatal. It leads to a growing cynicism among a disenchanted citizenry and a Hobbesian ethic of individual gain at the expense of everyone else. Few want to fight and die for a Halliburton or an Exxon. This is why we do not have a draft. It is why taxes have not been raised and we borrow to fund the war. It is why the state has organized, and spends billions to maintain, a mercenary army in Iraq. We leave the fighting and dying mostly to our poor and hired killers. No nationwide sacrifices are required. We will worry about it later.

It all amounts to a tacit complicity on the part of a passive population. This permits the oligarchy to squander capital and lives. It creates a world where we speak exclusively in the language of violence. It has plunged us into an endless cycle of war and conflict that is draining away the vitality, resources and promise of the nation.

It signals the twilight of our empire.

A Teachable Moment: A popular teacher is fired from a prestigious prep school for writing a novel, and his students and friends rise to his defense.

It was an “O captain! My captain!” moment.

Andrew Trees had been informed that his contract at the Horace Mann School, one of the nation’s most academically respected high schools, would not be renewed, and this May he was in his final days. A history teacher who had taught at the private school for six years, Mr. Trees had written a satirical novel, “Academy X,” about an elite school where students and parents resort to bribery and blackmail to ensure Ivy League college admission.

Like Robin Williams’s character in “Dead Poets Society,” Mr. Trees was admired by some of his students despite the school administration’s disapproval, and a week before the end of classes they were showing it.

In the movie, the students at a conservative boarding school stand on desks, saluting their departing teacher by quoting the Walt Whitman poetry he’d taught them, providing a sense of hope that their spirits would not be broken. In real life, a former student of Mr. Trees who had moved on to another history class, this one studying civil disobedience, rallied his classmates to march toward Mr. Trees’s classroom. Along the way, they picked up another class of students, studying the rise of Bolshevism.

More than 30-strong, they walked into Mr. Trees’s class, overlooking the school’s central lawn, and, along with his current students, began offering testimonials.

“Dr. Trees is the best teacher I ever had,” said one, according to Danielle McGuire, the teacher of the class studying civil disobedience. It is the practice at Horace Mann for students to address their teachers with Ph.D.s by the title “Doctor.”

The march was a rare flicker of disobedience at one of New York City’s most prestigious schools, but the departure of Mr. Trees has continued to roil the Riverdale campus. In the last year, the controversy has led to the censorship of the school newspaper, the resignations of all the members of a teachers’ grievance committee and, this month, a breach-of-contract and defamation lawsuit against the school filed by Mr. Trees.

The 120-year-old academy in the Bronx, which charges about $30,000 a year in tuition for high school, has a sterling reputation, sending a third of its roughly 170 graduates each year to the Ivy League and counting among its alumni William Carlos Williams, Eliot Spitzer and the historian Robert Caro, many of whom still strongly support the way the institution is run. “The school was great when I was there,” said Jeffrey Brosk, a sculptor who graduated in 1965 and is a member of the alumni council. “And the people who are running it seem really great to me now.”

Horace Mann officials, including Head of School Thomas M. Kelly, declined to comment for this article. Many parents of current students, members of the alumni council and current teachers did not return phone calls requesting interviews about the dispute stirred by Mr. Trees.

The school’s motto is “Great is the truth and it prevails.”

[…]

After the school informed Mr. Trees his contract would not be renewed, a group of his supporters wrote to the school newspaper, The Record. “We were shocked and disappointed that the Horace Mann School would dismiss a faculty member for writing a novel,” their letter began, “and we applaud the many Horace Mann students who courageously and thoughtfully protested this action and advocated for academic freedom.”

It was signed by a history teacher at the school, Peter Sheehy, who with others gathered signatures from notable academics like the Civil War historian Eric Foner, and Julian Bond, the chairman of the N.A.A.C.P.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Bond, a history professor at the University of Virginia who has no connection to Horace Mann, said: “It seemed to me an egregious action for them to have taken. A satirical novel about the school, that’s permissible discourse as far as I’m concerned.”

High school teachers at private schools are not generally protected by the system of tenure in force at universities, where it is almost impossible to fire tenured professors, no matter how controversial their writings.

Doonesbury: The dilemma every blogger faces.

Opus: Mid-life madness.