Tina K. Russell

October 3, 2009

The President’s safety

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 1:33 pm

Thomas Friedman: “I have no problem with any of the substantive criticism of President Obama from the right or left. But something very dangerous is happening. Criticism from the far right has begun tipping over into delegitimation and creating the same kind of climate here that existed in Israel on the eve of the Rabin assassination… Even if you are not worried that someone might draw from these vitriolic attacks a license to try to hurt the president, you have to be worried about what is happening to American politics more broadly.”

via A Dangerous Environment — Political Wire.

My concern about the guy with the assault rifle at the Presidential rally has always been this: Though we’ve all feared for Barack Obama’s safety, given raw memories of the assassinations of the sixties and his immense symbolic power, I’ve always taken comfort in that no President today would ever ride, say, uncovered in a parade going past an abandoned book depository. I’ve always thought that, with advances in Secret Service practice and Presidential custom, Obama is not in the kind of danger that JFK (or RFK or MLK for that matter, or Lincoln) was.

All that changes when members of Congress defend Americans’ “right” to bring loaded assault weapons to Presidential town halls, when the Secret Service is brought under the wing of the dysfunctional Department of Homeland Security and is subsequently cut back, and mainstream voices shout louder and louder that Obama is hijacking the country for filling his electoral mandate.

Mock the President, ridicule the President, do whatever you need to do; it’s an American tradition and a cornerstone of democracy. But we, as Americans, all have a right not to have to fear for his life. The JFK’s assassination was traumatic for the country, and no one, on any side of the current debates, wants it repeated. Most of the reason I’m so bothered by the political climate, and its both implicit and explicit threats of violence, is that I do not want to worry about whether or not the President is safe.

September 14, 2009

You First. No, You First.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 10:28 am

Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam, the custodian of its two holy mosques, the world’s energy superpower and the de facto leader of the Arab and Muslim worlds — that is why our recognition is greatly prized by Israel. However, for all those same reasons, the kingdom holds itself to higher standards of justice and law. It must therefore refuse to engage Israel until it ends its illegal occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights as well as Shabaa Farms in Lebanon. For Saudis to take steps toward diplomatic normalization before this land is returned to its rightful owners would undermine international law and turn a blind eye to immorality.

via Op-Ed Contributor – Land First, Then Peace – NYTimes.com.

This is a very strange argument when Israel’s excuse for holding up the peace process is that they’re saving diplomatic negotiation as a sort of reward for good behavior, even when their citizens are dying in rocket attacks. Israel and the United States will not engage with Hamas until they renounce violence and recognize Israel, while Hamas is only willing to give Israel a grudging acceptance, and then only if they return the Occupied Territories. If Saudi Arabia joins in this game, it will ensure a kind of reverse Mexican standoff that will ensure nothing gets done, and that Israelis and Palestinians will keep dying in endless conflict merely for dreaming of a homeland of their own.

August 31, 2009

American nihilism

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Tina Russell @ 12:44 pm

David Brooks:

We in this country have a distinct sort of society. We Americans work longer hours than any other people on earth. We switch jobs much more frequently than Western Europeans or the Japanese. We have high marriage rates and high divorce rates. We move more, volunteer more and murder each other more.

Out of this dynamic but sometimes merciless culture, a distinct style of American capitalism has emerged. The American economy is flexible and productive. America’s G.D.P. per capita is nearly 50 percent higher than France’s. But the American system is also unforgiving. It produces its share of insecurity and misery.

This culture, this spirit, this system is not perfect, but it is our own. American voters welcome politicians who propose reforms that smooth the rough edges of the system. They do not welcome politicians and proposals that seek to contradict it. They do not welcome proposals that centralize power and substantially reduce individual choice. They resist proposals that put security above mobility and individual responsibility.

via Op-Ed Columnist – The Great Gradualist – NYTimes.com.

Unfortunately, this is the essence of America, and what I want people to know when they stereotype us. We’re not lazy; we work too hard. We put too much stock in numbers, be they GDP, net worth, or our personal account balances as measures of our self-worth. We’re a nation hopped up on epinephrine, jumping from place to place, never enough time for our friends and our families. In fact, we idealize the person who never has enough time to relax, the jet-setter, the fast-track executive, the determined career woman. We never stop to think about what would actually make us happy; by that time, we’re retired, and firmly in the grip of old age. (We’re also in nursing homes by then, because we don’t have a concept of extended families.)

I find Brooks right and wrong in a lot of ways. He’s right in that he’s nailed down our problems, but he seems to idealize them. He speaks of our GDP per capita being higher than France as though GDP was ever meant to be a measure of well-being, or that GDP per capita, as an average measure, can ever be used to make generalizations about individuals (it can’t). We’re obsessed with these lifetime numbers, these scores, believing them to assess, somehow, how well we’ve done in life. It’s not only untrue, it’s dangerous.

Where Brooks is wrong is in assuming that Americans, by and large, are happy with this. I think most of us would be willing to let the government share some of our many burdens, so as long as they don’t start telling us what to do. I think the growth of the New Age movement, disgusting as I find it, shows a willingness to find meaning and wholeness beyond our boardrooms and bank accounts (though I don’t think squeezing an hour of yoga into all our other commitments really counts as enlightenment). I really do love America’s rambunctious, somewhat obnoxious culture; otherwise, I might not still be here. We just never seem to reflect on what we do well, our brilliant engineers and high-yield cultural exports, what we do poorly, such as our crumbling infrastructure or the miserable public educations we give our children, or what we need most, such as a sense of meaning independent of GDP or performance bonuses.

I love America, but we’re fundamentally broken, and instead of celebrating it we ought to get around to fixing it.

May 1, 2009

School of hard knocks

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 11:41 am

Op-Ed Contributor – End the University as We Know It – NYTimes.com
… Faculty members cultivate those students whose futures they envision as identical to their own pasts, even though their tenures will stand in the way of these students having futures as full professors.

The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That’s one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course — with no benefits — than it is to hire full-time professors.

In other words, young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments. But their economical presence, coupled with the intransigence of tenure, ensures that there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.

It’s not a dirty little secret for me; it’s been a terrifying transition, from community college to a state university, to find how many classes are taught by disinterested grad students racking up chits.

In a community college, professors (and they are all professors) are essentially volunteering, since they’d get more pay and prestige at a “real” college. This means, in my experience (in Portland, land of the free) that the teachers are really good (they volunteer their time, so they care deeply about what they do) or really bad (they couldn’t get a job anywhere else). Community college was a complete crapshoot for me in this way, and any class could be the best experience of my life or two and a half months of hell, with little in between.

At the University of Oregon, this experience has been thrown out completely. Most general classes, like trigonometry or microeconomics, seem to be taught by grad students (Graduate Teaching Fellows, or GTFs). I don’t want to disparage the profession except to say that every single class I’ve taken, led by a GTF, has been one hundred percent abominable. It breaks my heart because I took first-year economics at Portland Community College and it was taught by a man who cared deeply for his work and got the class excited to learn about comparative advantage and bond maturation. When I began second-year economics at UO, taught by a graduate student, it was so horrible that I wrote this lengthy post that has become one of my most popular ever. (In short, the GTF made economics not only painfully boring, but abstract to the point of irrelevance to us, and so I feel a little bit vindicated now that this financial crisis has happened in large part due to the over-abstraction of finance. …Even if I’d rather not be in a financial crisis.) I dashed out a quick drawing to teach in five minutes what he failed to teach in two hours, and I’m heartened to read comments from people saying it helped them grasp key early concepts of microeconomics.

And so, when I look to sign up for classes, I now vet the names given, not at RateMyProfessor or somesuch but in the faculty directory. When I thought I might want to re-enroll in second-year economics (it wouldn’t be that hard for me to get an economics minor, and maybe then I could make millions by giving bad advice with conviction on my own cable TV show), I looked up the teacher and found that he wasn’t even listed in the faculty directory. I could find his official university page using a Google search, and he proudly provided links to his curriculum vitae and his personal website, both of which were broken. (Since then, he is now listed in the directory, but those links are, hilariously, still broken.) Needless to say, he was a GTF, and I didn’t take his class.

I didn’t take his class because those things confirmed my worst fears: that he didn’t care. The hallmark of any bad teacher is thinking of his or her work with students as perfunctory, a second job, something to do before getting back to research and boinking freshmen. I’m always annoyed with the way undergraduates tend to be referred to in a dismissive sort of way, the undergraduates, not, you know, the reason the school exists. We’re the ones paying for the experience, and yet, we seem to be treated as though we have not reached the requisite level of cynicism for the ultimate goal of academia, which is to pass that cynicism (I’m sorry, critical thinking) onto a new generation of students. We’re barely out of high school. What does our opinion matter?

That brings me to the other tragedy of leaving community college, which is no longer being treated as an adult. I always loathed that, in community college, everyone else had someplace else to be (work, kids, etc.), and I was actually going there for my intellectual and personal formation. There is an advantage, however, in dealing with professors used to dealing with students who have work, or kids, or other obligations: they treat you like an adult out of habit. I developed the habit of acting like an adult, since that’s how teachers treated me back in Portland. At UO, that’s welcome to some and an affront to others.

I’ve learned to avoid teachers (and people in general) who see me as being like them when they were young, and so they want to mold me into the chiseled warrior they are today. If somebody acts rough to me, expecting me to cower in response (or to sass back, so they can rough me up more, in a coming-of-age basketball-movie sort of situation), I tend to sidestep the passive-aggressive initiation by saying “please don’t do that. I just don’t respond to it.” I already know what I want. I’m a grown woman. I have no obligation to entertain others’ fantasies of who I am. So, being told of hoops to jump through, initiations to fulfill, rightful destinies to claim usually makes me sick. I want to improve my writing. I want to improve my art. I want to learn about the world. I want to make sound judgments. You can help me do that or you can stuff it. I’m the one paying to be here.

The truth is, though, that life consists of compromises, and all this has made me a profoundly unhappy person. I’m majoring in history—history—because of how incredibly mean the school’s art department was to me, and how much I want to get out of college. I love history and it’s a good subject for me to study, and that’s why I had so many credits in it already, which is why I chose it for my major. Taking either writing or art, my two real loves, would have exposed me to a culture of people who want to break me and mold me in their image, and anything else would have involved GTFs who just don’t care. (History professors, in my experience at UO, are actual professors.) But, in writing or in art, I’d be doing what I love, and as a class and not simply as a side project. And, I wouldn’t want to punch someone in the face whenever they ask me the standard icebreaker of “what’s your major?” (Then they ask, “what sort of history?” and I say “world history” but I want to say “history that happened in the past, you numbskull.”)

When I do what I love on my own, though, it means I can buy whatever books I want and keep whatever hours I want and focus on whatever areas I want. …But, I have no one to mentor me, no one to guide me around the usual pitfalls and express pride in my development.

I did take art classes at the community college. Do I ever have stories from that, obviously, but I should limit it to just one.

When I took a painting class, I was afraid of what I was turning into. I love art, but I want to ensure that I never become the sort of person who does art for the sake of prestige; I want to ensure I’m always making art because I feel it in my gut, because I can’t not make art, not because I want to deconstruct the fundamental didactic of human existence or related nonsense. I want to make art for myself, and through myself, for the world, not for any immediate circle of high-minded friends. I want to make pictures worth a thousand words, not a handful. I want to show, not tell. I want to be my art.

Art class can be fundamentally lonely, given that we’re all on painful personal journeys while surrounded by others. So, when we watched a film on a sculptor whose work seemed more aimed to shock than to reveal (or to provoke responsibly), I tried to start a discussion, asking a man nearby if he had any thoughts on that artist. (If you’re reading this, I’m sorry.)

“I don’t care much for her,” he said, and shrugged. I concurred… “she reminds me of everyone I don’t like,” I responded.

Later he walked up to me and said, “gosh, Tina, when you said that… I hope I wasn’t included in those you don’t like.” I told him not to worry, but I was flabbergasted and went home in existential crisis, pouring my feelings out to my parents later on. You see, he was exactly the sort of person I was thinking of, right down to the fundamental belief (from my perception of him) that art should shock people not by being brutally honest, but for the sake of being shocking. I wailed to my parents, “oh my God! Vapid people don’t know who they are!” And if they don’t know who they are, how do I know I’m not one?

And how will I ever tell if I become one? What if my personal defense mechanisms wear out, and spending too much time around art students will suck me into my own vanity? What if someday I start breaking mirrors or putting chairs on their sides and calling it art, and don’t realize how soulless I’ve become, how little I have to say? I’ve always described my creativity as a sort of lonely island I want to share with others… what if my island becomes a solitary, ragged life-raft that I’ve tricked myself into believing is a beautiful cruise liner? What if my art goes from being that which burns in my soul to that which glistens on my social résumé? Will I ever know?

As a result, there is some element of relief. Perhaps not going into art education has resulted in me not being devoured by the vanity and pointlessness of the modern art world. But perhaps I’ve missed my life’s calling… perhaps I would have learned something I never could on my own, perhaps I would have met people who would have guided me through me life, perhaps I would have been pushed in directions I truly need to go. Perhaps I have become cynical myself in fear of those who are cynical, and wish me to be the same. Perhaps I really am vain, protecting my precious sense of self via the path of least resistance.

Thoughts?

.

February 7, 2009

Partisanship

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 1:46 pm

David Brooks:

Op-Ed Columnist – The Gang System – NYTimes.com
Barack Obama is not initiating events (he’s had surprisingly little influence on the stimulus bills’ evolution). But circumstances now present him with a precedent-setting moment of decision. Does he embrace the Gang System and try to use it to create a new style of politics? Or does he remain an orthodox Democrat, deferring to the Old Bulls on legislation, enforcing party discipline and trying to pick off a Republican or two here and there to pass laws?

The liberals already are mobilizing against the Moderate Gangs. On Thursday, the liberal interest groups were intensively lobbying against the stimulus cuts. But there’s no way that Obama, who spent two years campaigning on postpartisan politics, can reject the single biggest manifestation of postpartisanship in the country today. If he does that, his credibility will be shot.

I really, really hate this idea, that it is somehow virtuous to compromise in every situation, at the exact midpoint of what each side is requesting. There’s no thought involved; you just declare yourself a moderate, step back, and feel righteous. It makes no allowance for the fact that, in a polarized political world, the center is itself subjective because it’s determined by the poles. It’s especially frustrating to those who support one side or the other, because the feeling is that you haven’t even looked at our ideas; you’ve just tarred us as “partisan,” dismissed us as “the liberals” or “the conservatives.”

It also perpetuates an irritating stalemate in American politics, where the party of good government and the party of small government compromise with a big government that doesn’t work. It’s everywhere in the government we have (and possibly deserve); it’s what you get with a longstanding mentality of “starve the beast.” If liberals aren’t willing to confront that head-on, then we aren’t worth our salt in politics. If conservatives were unwilling to defend their beliefs, I’m not sure why they would be in politics, either.

I’m also irritated whenever I hear the word “post-partisan.” I voted for Barack Obama largely because I saw shades of the Wellstone model of politics in him (after all, they both came from academia and mastered grassroots organizing). In the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s method (described in The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda, not to be confused with Paul Krugman’s book of a similar name), you don’t give up your principles; you hold strongly to them, but you also reach across the aisle to find where your strong beliefs intersect with others’, even those of your supposed ideological archenemies. Wellstone hopped from coffee shop to coffee shop both to campaign and to get feedback on what his potential constituents wanted; what he found was that people who identified as strongly liberal, strongly conservative, or anywhere in between were still mainly concerned with the same issues, like good schools and healthcare. If you get beyond those labels, you can get a lot more done.

So, to hear that the only way Barack Obama can get past the partisan gridlock of Washington is to abandon his principles makes my blood boil. We’ve suffered through decades of conservatives absolutely convinced in the most radical solutions to every problem, and liberals struggling to compromise and giving themselves a raw deal. Barack Obama can and should do what he feels is right, what is in his best judgment, exercising the faith we placed in him through election.

The difference between this and the Bush era needs to be listening and careful consideration. Barack Obama needs to communicate with Republicans, get their input, and address their concerns just as he must do with Democrats. He must treat them equally as governing partners in a system of checks and balances, and as duly elected representatives of their constituencies. He must respect their experience and value their opinion.

Congressional roll calls are a childish way of measuring this, however. If not a single Republican voted for the stimulus in the House, perhaps they were exercising their right not to agree with the President in the end. That is their right, and it doesn’t mean the President is dismissing their concerns, nor does it mean the bill isn’t better for their input. It certainly doesn’t mean we should hold our political process hostage, watering down the bill until the numbers look more “post-partisan.” Sometimes that merely means devoid of strong ideas.

Our political process works through vigorous debate, and it’s for good reason that nothing mandates that everyone agree. In addition, in some situations, a compromise can be worse than either original proposal. Bipartisanship and cooperation are worthy goals. Post-partisanship, silencing the voices of all those who have strength in their convictions, is not.

January 28, 2009

Who are you?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 9:55 pm

David Brooks:

What Life Asks of Us – Op-Ed – NYTimes.com
In 2005, Ryne Sandberg was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame. [Political scientist Hugh] Heclo cites his speech as an example of how people talk when they are defined by their devotion to an institution:

“I was in awe every time I walked onto the field. That’s respect. I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponents or your teammates or your organization or your manager and never, ever your uniform. You make a great play, act like you’ve done it before; get a big hit, look for the third base coach and get ready to run the bases.”

Sandberg motioned to those inducted before him, “These guys sitting up here did not pave the way for the rest of us so that players could swing for the fences every time up and forget how to move a runner over to third. It’s disrespectful to them, to you and to the game of baseball that we all played growing up.

“Respect. A lot of people say this honor validates my career, but I didn’t work hard for validation. I didn’t play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that’s what you’re supposed to do, play it right and with respect … . If this validates anything, it’s that guys who taught me the game … did what they were supposed to do, and I did what I was supposed to do.”

That is really wonderful. It reminds me of the philosophy of ubuntu, that “I am what I am because of what we all are.” If you live only for yourself, you’re just a sack of meat sliding towards death. If you learn to live for yourself and those around you, you can be part of something much more amazing and gratifying.

I don’t think I’m there yet, but I’ll keep you posted.

December 5, 2008

The economic crisis, in sum

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 8:16 pm

Paul “Tails” Krugman:

Op-Ed Columnist – Lest We Forget – NYTimes.com
One answer to these questions is that nobody likes a party pooper. While the housing bubble was still inflating, lenders were making lots of money issuing mortgages to anyone who walked in the door; investment banks were making even more money repackaging those mortgages into shiny new securities; and money managers who booked big paper profits by buying those securities with borrowed funds looked like geniuses, and were paid accordingly. Who wanted to hear from dismal economists warning that the whole thing was, in effect, a giant Ponzi scheme?

November 13, 2008

An Apple car wouldn’t drive far from the tree

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 3:47 pm

Thomas “Omega” Friedman ends a column on our auto industry’s failure to innovate with a rhetorical device that really bugs me.

Op-Ed Columnist – How to Fix a Flat – NYTimes.com
Lastly, somebody ought to call Steve Jobs, who doesn’t need to be bribed to do innovation, and ask him if he’d like to do national service and run a car company for a year. I’d bet it wouldn’t take him much longer than that to come up with the G.M. iCar.

Here’s what it would do: it would look shiny and new right when you got it, back when it was cool to have one. In five months, it would look scratched up and awful, but no fear; auto magazines will already be drooling over the next-generation iCar announced by Jobs at his CarWorld keynote.

You could only get your oil changed at iCar franchise dealerships, and if you run out of gas, you’ll have to send it back to California so that they can swap out the gas tank. Also, you can’t open the hood; that would violate the manufacturer’s rights!

The Republicans regroup

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 12:03 pm

David Brooks on the delusional fantasies of high-minded movement conservatives:

Op-Ed Columnist – Darkness at Dusk – NYTimes.com
Members of the conservative Old Guard see themselves as members of a small, heroic movement marching bravely from the Heartland into belly of the liberal elite. In this narrative, anybody who deviates toward the center, who departs from established doctrine, is a coward, and a sellout.

This narrative happens to be mostly bogus at this point. Most professional conservatives are lifelong Washingtonians who live comfortably as organization heads, lobbyists and publicists. Their supposed heroism consists of living inside the large conservative cocoon and telling each other things they already agree with. But this embattled-movement mythology provides a rationale for crushing dissent, purging deviationists and enforcing doctrinal purity. It has allowed the old leaders to define who is a true conservative and who is not. It has enabled them to maintain control of (an ever more rigid) movement.

That’s awesome. Yes, David Brooks is right. This enormous, battle-tested organizational structure has given Republicans an advantage for a long time for the way it has mentored both Republican politicians and conservative talking points. It’s an advantage that Democrats never had until now, with Daily Kos, MoveOn.org, and other liberal bastions rallying the party faithful to help build a liberal majority. And, as those conservative institutions, built in William Buckley’s day, lurch forward into a brand new era and collapse under the crushing weight of doublethink (universal healthcare is unacceptable because it’s “socialism”… but bailing out banks is okay… ouch!), our new liberal institutions are more dynamic, more populist, and more attuned to the kind of change and rigorous discussion that fuel a successful party.

The GOP’s rigidity, its insane ability to march in complete lockstep, has served it well… until today. The GOP can’t be a party of perpetual anger at the “elites,” it has to make itself relevant to the concerns of ordinary people and explain why it can do a better job than the Democrats.

David Brooks continues in his column by saying that the old guard will eventually crumble and reformers will be able to bring about a bold new conservative dawn. You should, obviously, never trust me in giving advice to the Republicans. But, I will say this.

Part of the difficulty of being a Democrat is that we don’t seem to stand for anything. The Republicans are, off the top of my head (on their best days): small government, hard work, family values. The Democrats are… something. We’ve genuinely been too afraid of alienating somebody that we haven’t put forward a real party image (like, I don’t know… against war, caring for children, good schools, etc.).

The Republicans could sieze on this and create a party with a more dynamic image. I always thought that, if I formed a party, it would be one of personal empowerment… Uncle Sam can’t do everything, but he’s a fine chap and he has your back. He’ll help you out if you want to start a business, or if you’re sick, or when you want to send your kids to college. Mostly, he stays out of your way, but he’s there when you need him. Now that social Darwinism and a fundamentalist approach to the free market has failed utterly, there’s a way the Republicans could make inroads… not so much small government but smart government, a government subservient to its people (as it should be), a government that not only figures that you know best, but gives you the tools to succeed (good roads, schools, healthcare, etc.).

That could take a while. And, of course, the Republicans had better hurry, because Obama’s busy soaking up all that ideological space when he talks about personal responsibility and the government meeting people halfway who are already trying hard. In fact, I think we may have painted the Republicans into a pretty nice corner; let’s hope the embattled GOP doesn’t simply filibuster every damned thing that passes through Congress. (How come we never seemed to use that power ever when we were the minority party?)

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