Sunday, April 15, 2007

Geaghan: Sunday Snippets from the paper of record

Since she began writing a regular column for the New York Times in 1995, Maureen Dowd's career has been distinguished by an almost indiscriminate series of personal hit pieces on everyone from the Clintons to Al Gore to the Bush dynasty and, this week, Paul Wolfowitz. Her name has even become a verb in some quarters, as in "to dowdify." If she has ever written a kind word about anyone in politics, I must have missed it. (I readily admit, however, that there may be few reasons to write anything positive about our political classes.)

Wolfowitz, the neocon who played a central role in selling and quickly botching the Iraq war, is now embroiled in a scandal involving nepotism, among other things, in his new gig as president of the World Bank. As with Iraq, he seems incapable of recognizing his mistakes. Dowd, as she often does, skewers her target nicely:
Like W., Wolfie is dangerous precisely because he’s so persuaded of his own virtue.
Not surprisingly, people who are so convinced of their own infallibility can do no wrong and are not bound by the same limitations (including the law) that constrain the rest of us. Or so they believe.

Meanwhile, Frank Rich's columns can be equally (and appropriately) devastating for his subjects, except he frequently transcends personal vilification and shifts his focus to the culture at large. In today's column, for example, he explores the fallout from last week's firing of Don Imus by CBS:

The biggest cliché of the debate so far is the constant reiteration that this will be a moment for a national “conversation” about race and sex and culture. Do people really want to have this conversation, or just talk about having it? If they really want to, it means we have to ask ourselves why this debacle has given permission to talking heads on television to repeat Imus’s offensive words so insistently that cable news could hardly take time out to note the shocking bombing in the Baghdad Green Zone...

If we really want to have this conversation, it also means we have to have a nonposturing talk about hip-hop lyrics, “Borat,” “South Park” and maybe Larry David, too.
Though we've been hearing rumors about a national "conversation" on racism for decades, it's not happening now and won't even begin unless our political, cultural or religious leaders are willing to confront some very difficult questions about both our history and current social realities.

Instead, we're seeing a sustained reaction against "political correctness" and "victimology" that's analogous to, and part of, the opposition to feminism documented by Susan Faludi in 1991 in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1).

That reaction is based on a simple premise: women, blacks and other minorities may have had some legitimate complaints about systematic discrimination in the past, but American society has evolved towards greater equality. So their litany of complaints is entirely out of proportion to current realities and, thanks to programs like affirmative action, serves only to victimize the white majority (and especially white males). As long as that all-too-convenient perception exists, any "conversation" will be impossible or, at best, unproductive.

The right has added its own variation on this theme: the inequality of African Americans is the result of years of paternalistic federal programs created by Democratic administrations and congresses. These programs have created an unhealthy dependency that has prevented blacks from taking initiatives that might allow them to enter and thrive in the free-market system. As the inflammatory Dinesh D'Souza once wrote, "the American obsession with race is fueled by a civil rights establishment that has a vested interest in perpetuating black dependency" (4).

The reasons for the backlash? Faludi's comments in a 1999 interview still seem valid today:
Look, it's hardly a time of great jubilation for anyone. But it's much harder for men in many respects because they have this feeling that women are rising just as men are falling. The truth is, of course, that women are moving from the subbasement to the basement. By any objective measure -- pay, representation in boardrooms, status -- men are still ahead. But psychologically it's much harder to fall than to climb, even if you land at a higher point than those who are just beginning to rise.
By most measures, of course, African Americans haven't experienced even the limited social and economic mobility that Faludi describes for women (2). Until we have our national "conversation," that reality seems unlikely to change.


(1) Followed by Faludi's Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man in 1999.

(2) The scope of the problem, contrary to popular perceptions about minority preferences in hiring, was revealed by a 2003 study conducted by researchers from MIT and the University of Chicago. They submitted a large number of job applications that were substantially the same in terms of education and prior experience, but they differed in one respect: half the "applicants" had names that "sounded" African American. Those applicants were 50% less likely to be invited in for interviews, and the percentage was even lower for better paying, more responsible positions. [See also this article by Tim Wise and our posting on the U.S. "Punishment Culture."]

(3) In a January posting, we attempted to apply the academic construct known, awkwardly, as "cultural pseudosubspeciation" to Iraq. That concept has equal application to racial, ethnic and gender relations in the U.S. and elsewhere. Our friend Ellis at Disambiguation (which has been far too quiet of late) has privately expressed some disagreement with our use of that notion. Maybe we can elicit a comment from him, or our hordes of readers, on this subject.

(4) In his lengthy analysis of race relations in The End of Racism (1996), D'Souza also wrote: "Activists recommend federal jobs programs and recruitment into the private sector. Yet it seems unrealistic, bordering on the surreal, to imagine underclass blacks with their gold chains, limping walk, obscene language, and arsenal of weapons doing nine-to-five jobs at Procter and Gamble or the State Department."

PHOTO: The gleaming new headquarters of the New York Times, designed by Renzo Piano, on 8th Avenue in Manhattan.

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