Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sunday Reading

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buffer — Charles P. Pierce on the Supreme Court’s ruling and free speech.

A year ago this week, Wendy Davis rose in the Texas legislature, and she talked for a very long time in order to delay passage of a preposterously restrictive law aimed at preventing women from exercising their constitutional right to make their own medical decisions. This made Davis a national celebrity. This made Davis a (so far pretty inept, alas) candidate for governor in Texas. The problem is that history guarantees nobody a happy ending. The bill not only eventually passed, but also became a model for, and an inspiration to, anti-choice state legislatures all across the country to the point that, in Mississippi, there’s only one clinic left that offers abortion services, and there are only six such clinics left in Texas, all of which are imperlied when the law goes into effect in September, and there is not a single clinic in Texas west of San Antonio, which is a considerable hunk of Texas. So yesterday’s decision by the Supreme Court that struck down a law here in the Commonwealth (God save it!) that enforced a 35-foot “buffer zone” around women’s health-care clinics probably won’t have much of an effect on the states that passed such laws. Soon, there aren’t going to be any clinics in those states anyway. What will the “sidewalk counselors” do then?

I don’t even want to think about it.

In general, I’m with Scott Lemieux.  This is a bad decision that is redeemed only by the fact that it’s not a horrible decision. The Hill decision is largely intact. However, the worst thing about it is the fact that (again) members of the current Supreme Court seem not to live in the same political reality as the rest of us. The situation outside the clinics up here was really a terrible one before the law was enacted in 2007, and that was the case even if you didn’t count John Salvi’s murderous rampage in 1994. This was not gentle little Eleanor McCullen out there “counseling” women. This was bullying and hectoring and, occasionally, assault and vandalism. However, the Court seems to believe that McCullen is the rule and not the exception.


I am not immune to the irony that the Supreme Court has a buffer zone, but that your average Planned Parenthood clinic doesn’t, at least not on a public sidewalk. (If I read the Court’s decision correctly, PP would be well advised to place all its clinics in strip malls, which are largely private space.) I’d say the Court struck a balance on this issue, too. But, damn, there’s that pesky reality again. It’s not like the people against whom the buffer zone was directed have a track record of respecting the distinction between public and private space. These are the people who stalk — and, yes, shoot — doctors in their own homes. In fact, I’m very concerned about this decision in the context of our newly expressed affection for our firearms. What if the sidewalk counselors decide to open-carry? And, conversely, what if a woman in Florida, attempting to enter a clinic, feels threatened by the spittle-fringed howling of the protesters? Can she Stand Her Ground and just Zimmerman the lot of them with an AR-15? Inquiring minds want to know.

There is a legitimate free-speech issue here. That’s why I have a very real touch of sympathy for the unanimous majority on the Court here. That it is inconsistently applied — Are we still going to have “free speech zones” at political conventions? — and that it reflects an airless view of the law outside of a real-world context are its major flaws, and they are going to become even more obvious as the effects of the decision start being felt around the country. That puts the onus on local police and local prosecutors. Trespassing is still trespassing. Assault is still assault. Vandalism is still vandalism. Being a public nuisance is still being a public nuisance. Disorderly conduct is still disorderly conduct. If these crimes are being committed in our communities, it doesn’t matter that they’re being committed by people with rosaries entwined in their fingers. The police and the local prosecutors still work for us. We have to make them do their jobs.

The Glass Closet — James B. Stewart at the New York Times profiles John Browne, former CEO of BP, and the perils of being openly gay high up in the corporate world.

In 2007, John Browne, Lord Browne of Madingley, resigned as chief executive of the British oil giant BP after being outed as gay by the tabloid The Mail on Sunday: “The True story about Lord Browne — by ex-rent boy lover.”

Mr. Browne said then, “I have always regarded my sexuality as a personal matter,” tacitly confirming that he was gay.

Now, he has written a candid and unsparing book about his tortured life as a closeted gay chief executive, “The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good for Business.” He thus becomes the first current or former chief executive of a major publicly traded corporation to acknowledge that he is gay.

After being outed, Mr. Browne was under no illusions he’d ever be chairman or chief executive of another publicly traded company. “To a headhunter I would have been seen as ‘controversial,’ too hot to handle,” he writes. “Sadly, there were some people, mostly from the business world, who never again displayed any warmth to me.”

Such attitudes may help explain why there are no publicly gay chief executives at any Fortune 500 company, according to Richard Zweigenhaft, co-author of “Diversity in the Power Elite” and a psychology professor at Guilford College in North Carolina.

That’s not to say there haven’t been any gay chief executives at major corporations — Mr. Browne is unique only because he was outed — and there are gay chief executives today, some of whom lead relatively open lives. But thus far, none have been willing to publicly acknowledge being gay. I reached out to several of them for this article, and all refused to be identified.

That makes the corporate corner suite one of the last frontiers for gay civil rights, now that even a professional football draft pick, Michael Sam, has publicly acknowledged being gay.

This seems especially baffling given recent advances in gay civil rights. And corporate chief executives are ostensibly evaluated by objective measures of financial performance, which should render their sexual orientation irrelevant.

But conforming to social norms has long been an unspoken requirement for the top jobs at public corporations. And even for gay people who have managed to get there, coming out publicly violates a norm that chief executives don’t court personal publicity or raise issues that might distract from the company’s business. “There may be what’s known as ‘pioneer fear,’ ” said Kenji Yoshino, professor of constitutional law at New York University and co-author of “Uncovering Talent, a New Model for Inclusion.” “No one wants to be first, with some asterisk after their name.”

Professor Zweigenhaft added that chief executives typically don’t have the personality of civil rights trail blazers. “The kind of person who becomes a C.E.O. isn’t going to surprise the board by coming out in The New York Times,” he said.

Although women and blacks are more visible, they face similar pressures in the executive suite. “Corporate boards tend to be older, white, male and conservative, and they want C.E.O.s they feel comfortable with,” Professor Zweigenhaft said. “Women who make it to the top need to show they can be one of the guys. African-Americans can’t seem threatening. You’re not going to find Jesse Jackson on any Fortune 500 boards.”

Mr. Browne says it was his efforts to conform to the homophobia he confronted — “my overwhelming desire to conceal my sexual orientation,” as he puts it — that led to his undoing. Like anyone leading a secret life, he was vulnerable to blackmail, and his former lover, a 23-year-old escort he’d met via the Internet, sold his story to a tabloid after their relationship ended and Mr. Browne stopped sending him money.

“My greatest regret in life is that I wasn’t honest while I was chief executive,” he told me recently over coffee in New York, where he was promoting his book. “I led a great company for many years, and not to let people see who I was, was a big error. People need to see role models. I could have left BP in a very different way.”

The Curious Friendship of T.S. Eliot and Groucho Marx — Lee Siegel in The New Yorker on the correspondence between them.

In 1961, when the literati were still marvelling over Arthur Miller’s marriage to Marilyn Monroe, and before high and low culture had so thoroughly merged, the idea of a relationship between Groucho Marx and T. S. Eliot would have been the stuff of a never-to-be-written proto-postmodernist novel. But here was Eliot, writing to Groucho to ask him to send along a different photograph than the official studio shot that Groucho had first mailed. Eliot wanted one with Groucho sporting his famous mustache and holding his signature cigar. But Groucho waited almost two years before sending it. Growing impatient, Eliot pointedly wrote to Groucho, in February, 1963, that “your portrait is framed on my office mantelpiece, but I have to point you out to my visitors as nobody recognizes you without the cigar and rolling eyes.” Perhaps Groucho had sensed all along a belittling sentiment behind Eliot’s request for the in-character photograph; nevertheless, he put one in the mail shortly thereafter.

Though Eliot was considered the reigning poet of the English-speaking world, and Groucho his counterpart in the world of comedy—celebrated by the likes of Antonin Artaud—each man seemed to provoke in the other a desire to conceal an essential liability. Eliot seems to have wanted Groucho to consider him a warm, ordinary guy and not the type of stiff, repressed person who disdained from a great height “free-thinking Jews.” He can’t quite bring it off—his acquired British self-deprecation stumbles into an American boorishness. On the eve of Groucho’s visit to London, Eliot wrote, “The picture of you in the newspapers saying that … you have come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighbourhood, and particularly with the greengrocer across the street. Obviously I am now someone of importance.”

Compared to the buried anxieties that Eliot stirred in Groucho, though, Eliot’s strenuous bonhomie seemed like the height of social tact. The font of Groucho’s and the Marx Brothers’ humor was an unabashed insolence toward wealth and privilege. Born at the turn of the century to an actress mother and a layabout father in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood, the brothers turned the tumult of their hardscrabble origins into a universal reproach to the rigidity of social class. The encounter with Eliot brought out Groucho’s characteristic tendency to hide his embarrassment about his origins by pushing them in his audience’s face.

The Marx Brothers were hypersensitive to the slightest prerogatives of power; a person in authority had only to raise a finger to turn them hysterical and abusive. “I decided what the hell,” Groucho said once. “I’ll give the big shots the same Groucho they saw onstage—impudent, irascible, iconoclastic.” They fought with studio bosses and alienated directors and comedy writers. The humorist S. J. Perelman found the brothers to be “megalomaniacs to a degree which is impossible to describe.” There was a tremendous release in watching them utter and enact taboos in the face of power and privilege. That sense of liberation—of something unthinkable and impossible being deliciously actualized—is what makes even their less funny movies enthralling.

But underneath the compulsive truth-telling onstage there was a tremendous insecurity, which often expressed itself through acerbic joking about sex and sexuality. When Groucho appeared on an episode of William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line,” in 1967, an enmity sprang up between the two men almost immediately, with Groucho characteristically going on the attack the minute he perceived Buckley’s air of privilege and authority. At one point, as Buckley was trying to expose Groucho as a hypocrite for not voting for F.D.R. in 1944, Groucho turned suddenly to the moderator and said, of Buckley, “Do you know that he blushes? And he’s constantly blushing. He’s like a young girl. This is a permanent blush, I think.” The Marxes’ preternatural vulnerability to power and authority made them reach for their genitals the moment they ran up against the slightest impediment to their freedom. What Artaud, with a kind of condescending credulity, perceived as the brothers “brimming with confidence and manifestly ready to do battle with the rest of the world” was really a manic compulsion.

The same impulse to unman a social or cultural threat gambols across Groucho’s exchanges with Eliot. “Why you haven’t been offered the lead in some sexy movies I can only attribute to the stupidity of casting directors,” wrote the movie star to the rather dour literary man. Recommending his autobiography “Memoirs of a Mangy Lover,” Groucho wrote, “If you are in a sexy mood the night you read it, it may stimulate you beyond recognition and rekindle memories that you haven’t recalled in years.” He concluded another letter by writing, “My best to you and your lovely wife, whoever she may be.”

Doonesbury — Living large.