Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sunday Reading

Skating Too Close? — Jackie Calmes looks at the Tea Party activism of the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

As one of the keynote speakers here Friday at a state convention billed as the largest Tea Party event ever, Virginia Thomas gave the throng of more than 2,000 activists a full-throated call to arms for conservative principles.

For three decades, Mrs. Thomas has been a familiar figure among conservative activists in Washington — since before she met her husband of 23 years, Justice Clarence Thomas of the Supreme Court. But this year she has emerged in her most politically prominent role yet: Mrs. Thomas is the founder and head of a new nonprofit group, Liberty Central, dedicated to opposing what she characterizes as the leftist “tyranny” of President Obama and Democrats in Congress and to “protecting the core founding principles” of the nation.

It is the most partisan role ever for a spouse of a justice on the nation’s highest court, and Mrs. Thomas is just getting started. “Liberty Central will be bigger than the Tea Party movement,” she told Fox News in April, at a Tea Party rally in Atlanta.

But to some people who study judicial ethics, Mrs. Thomas’s activism is raising knotty questions, in particular about her acceptance of large, unidentified contributions for Liberty Central. She began the group in late 2009 with two gifts of $500,000 and $50,000, and because it is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit group, named for the applicable section of the federal tax code, she does not have to publicly disclose any contributors. Such tax-exempt groups are supposed to make sure that less than half of their activities are political.

Mrs. Thomas, known as Ginni, declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed without an agreement not to discuss her husband. In written responses to questions, Sarah Field, Liberty Central’s chief operating officer and general counsel, said that Mrs. Thomas is paid by Liberty Central, with the compensation set by the group’s board, and that the group has “internal reviews and protections to ensure that no donor causes a conflict of interest for either Ginni or her husband.”

More below the fold.

Ugly Technology — Leonard Pitts, Jr. on what technology has unleashed on us.

There is another story here.

That it has escaped us thus far is not surprising. After all, the primary story, the obvious one, is compelling and sad.

In recent weeks, a string of teenagers have killed themselves after being tormented by classmates because they were, or were believed to be, gay. That includes 13-year-old Seth Walsh, who hanged himself, 13-year-old Asher Brown, who shot himself, 15-year-old Billy Lucas, who hanged himself. It includes Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers who leapt into the Hudson River after his roommate secretly ”webcammed” him making out with another man in their dorm room and streamed it live.

Add in the bizarre case of Chris Armstrong, a gay University of Michigan student who is the target of ongoing harassment by no less august a personage than Michigan Assistant Attorney General Andrew Shirvell, and it’s not hard to understand why the headline here is about the bullying of gay young people. In a 2005 Harris Poll, a staggering 90 percent of gay students (versus 62 percent of straights) reported being harassed or assaulted in school. So, yes, the headline is appropriate.

But separate Tyler Clementi from the others and you’ll see: There’s also another story here.

Imagine an alternate scenario. Imagine that instead of a guy, Clementi was making love with a girl when his roommate, Dharun Ravi, went to another dorm room, remotely activated his webcam, and broadcast it to the world. With the distracting filter of homosexuality removed, a troubling question emerges.

Forget gay or straight. How do you do that to someone? Anyone? How do you broadcast someone’s moment of intimacy or private indiscretion for the world to laugh at? And why?


In a Facebook, iPad, automated teller, self-serve, smartphone, e-mail, voice recognition kind of world, it is increasingly possible to make it through an entire day without the bother of having to interact with other human beings. Maybe as a result, we are forgetting how.

No, there is nothing new about pulling pranks.

What is new is the distance we now have from other people, this tendency to objectify them.

What is new is the worldwide reach technology now affords us.

And what is new is the cruelty, this willingness to casually destroy someone else with a few clicks of a mouse.

It is as if we have forgotten or never knew: people are not objects. They have feelings. They have intrinsic dignity and worth. And each of us is bound to respect that. There are things you just don’t do to other people, and the fact that technology makes those things easy to do doesn’t make that any less true.

So yes, there is another story here, and it is wrenching, simple, and self-evident: Tyler Clementi was a human being.

And he wasn’t treated like one.

Cluck Off — Susan Orlean confronts the growing problem of telling roosters from hens.

The rooster problem isn’t going to go away anytime soon. I’m no zoologist, but I’m guessing that the hen to rooster ratio is probably one to one, but the desirability ratio is about twenty million to one. The world is filled with redundant roosters. Most people who keep chickens want hens so they can get eggs. You don’t need a rooster to achieve that (for some reason, even people who did fairly well in high school biology ask me whether you need a rooster to have eggs, which is like asking whether a woman needs a boyfriend in order to ovulate). You do need a rooster if you want baby chickens, but you knew that. If you do have a rooster in your flock, he will serve as the chairman of the board, and he will romance the hens indefatigably, and he will perhaps do a little work as protector and savior, if so called upon. He will also crow, which some people (me) find charming and others not so charming. The people who find it not so charming have made roosters illegal in many municipalities that have otherwise permitted chicken-keeping (New York City, for instance). A rooster will also go mental if he thinks something other than a hen has invaded his personal space—another rooster, for instance, or, problematically, a human being.

Doonesbury — Everything old is new again.