Once Every 16 Years

I don’t write much about politics, as I’m not particularly political. However, this piece about Bernie Sanders’s die-hard supporters brought back disconcerting memories, like this piece on Nader backers before the 2000 election, the first time I could vote in a presidential election. The similarities between the two stories are eerie: the disgruntlement, the casual dismissal of the damage the other party’s candidate could do, the false notion that the two major-party nominees are interchangeable.

2016:

As for Trump: “I think he’s a terrible person, a terrible human being, I don’t support him at all,” he said. But he’s probably not that dangerous. “It has no legs, it’s just nonsense,” Villasenor said of Trump’s xenophobic anti-Mexican rhetoric and policy proposals. “He’s using that as a platform to get all those racist folks behind him.”

2000:

”I’m not afraid of Bush,” said Mr. Davis, who didn’t vote in 1996 because he did not like any of the choices. ”I’m just a disgruntled citizen.”

 

2016:

“The other two are shit and shinola, you can’t tell the difference,”

2000:

”My life is not going to change very much if either Bush or Gore are elected,”

 

Do we really need to relearn the same lessons the hard way every 16 years?

Giant Step Forward for American Parents of Infants

This, from a story on two Washington state agencies generously allowing their employees to bring their kids between six weeks and six months of age to work with them:

State officials say both parent and baby win, saying “research proves that allowing a parent and infant to remain together in the earliest stage of life supports critical bonding, healthy infant brain development and parental wellbeing.”

 

Put another way:

maternity leave-01

 

Saunders Hall Renaming: A Few Thoughts

I’m happy UNC no longer has a building named after a KKK leader.

I do believe there could be a certain level of burying history with removing the name from the building. However, history is only one of the factors to be weighed. The effect on current students also deserves significant consideration, and it’s not a big stretch to imagine how walking past a building named for a Klan leader can have a negative effect on black students. I do subscribe to the “man of his times” argument in some situations, but starting the KKK in North Carolina is well past where I might draw the line.

I’m not mad the building was not named after Zora Neale Hurston.

I get the symbolism of naming it after someone famous who was denied admission to UNC because of her race. Nonetheless, her ties to UNC are just too strenuous for me to really feel that her name should be on a building on campus. Other people of color who have made greater contributions to the university should be considered before her, and I hope they will be at some point. That said, however …

I’m kind of glad no one’s name is going on the building right now.

Given the contentious nature of the renaming debate and the fact that many are upset by the rejection of Hurston Hall, any other person whose name is put forward for the building at this particular time is likely to have every record of his or her life meticulously picked apart and debated not only in and of themselves, but also in the scope of this controversy and the angry feelings it has engendered. To me, that’s unfair to the individual, and it doesn’t strike me as the best way to decide someone’s worthiness to be thus enshrined. A cooling-off period is probably good for all involved, though the 16-year moratorium seems a little excessive (can that really be called “temporary”?).

The BOT’s lecture to protesters was way out of line.

The Board of Trustees told protesters to turn their attention to more substantial issues like the plight of black men on campus. That is absolutely ludicrous since, hey, that is YOUR job, UNC!

A thought on whom to rename the building after

How about: UNC courts donors for major gifts to develop an awesome support program for students from underrepresented races/ethnicities (e.g., scholarships, on-campus support, etc.), and name the building after the top donors. The renaming would then not only carry symbolic meaning, but also deliver tangible benefits to UNC and its students, especially at a time when the university could really use more money. Surely UNC can make that happen in 16 years, right?

On the journalism around the renaming

An unexplored story angle: An interesting story for a reporter to do (and please point me to it if one has already been done) would be to examine, through the lens of the renaming controversy, the fact that Hurston was denied admission to UNC because of her race yet was a vocal opponent of desegregating schools (not for white supremacist reasons, of course).

I know precious little about Hurston. It fascinated me when I discovered, while searching for information to better understand the renaming debate, her stance on desegregation, but I don’t recall seeing any mention of this in any of the coverage of the debate. It would be very interesting to delve into that aspect of her life; its pertinence to the issues raised in the renaming debate; and how it might affect the debate (e.g., if the building had been renamed Hurston Hall, do we need a plaque explaining why it was named for an opponent of desegregation? Would/should an accomplished person of another race be considered for enshrinement on a building if they were against desegregation, even if for non-racist reasons?). I hope someone writes that story someday.

The DTH’s coverage: The Daily Tar Heel has done a really good job staying on top of the renaming debate. Its searchable database of comments submitted to the BOT by UNC faculty and staff regarding the renaming is a clever use of public records.

However, I do wonder about the database potentially being used to identify people for harassment by those who disagree with their views. This is why I can’t really get on board with the DTH’s complaint about the university redacting names of students when it released the comments. If I were UNC, I would not readily give out those names either, considering that doing so could open those students up to harassment when I’m supposed to be providing a safe environment for them.

I’m not saying that’s why UNC did not release the names (I don’t know why); this is just my own reason for not doing so. Claiming that the names are under FERPA protection is unquestionably a stretch, but what other tool does a public university have to keep such information private, even if for a good reason? Also, if I were still practicing journalism, this would be a situation where I step back and really weigh the benefits and potential consequences before publishing the names, especially those of students.

The Shame About Rolling Stone’s McChrystal Story

Yesterday, I finally got around to reading the Rolling Stone profile of Stanley McChrystal that led to the general’s downfall. After digesting the piece, what really struck me was that the controversial remarks by McChrystal and his aides about the administration, which ended up costing McChrystal his job, were actually a relatively small part of the story and, I would argue, not even the best journalism in the piece.

On the Rolling Stone site, the article is split into six pages. If you break it down, the parts of the article that actually deal with the now infamous snipes only make up about one page. The more interesting parts, at least to me, were the last three pages of the story, which paint a picture of a general struggling to win the war and, more disconcertingly, struggling to deal with his troops’ increasing anger and frustration over the counterinsurgency policy he’s pushing. For someone like me, who doesn’t follow the developments of the war in Afghanistan very closely beyond what tidbits I pick up on NPR on the evening commute (usually stories about the latest casualties), it was an informative and revealing look. Unfortunately, that has gotten nary a mention amid all the hoopla over the remarks about the administration.

As for the badmouthing of the administration, my main reaction to it was more or less a shrug. Considering the stakes, the amount of power involved, and the stature of the players, one would be surprised if there weren’t clashes, and there already had been reports about past tensions. The surprise in this isn’t that the general and (quite reasonably) his aides don’t like certain members of the administration and talk smack about them behind their backs, but just that they would be so careless as to say those things within earshot of a reporter in their traveling party.

And then there’s the matter of the fallout from the report. In this interview with MSNBC, Michael Hastings, the author of the article, said that the soldiers he had been talking to after the firing say they are glad about the change in leadership. But note the reason for which they were glad — they weren’t glad to see the general get canned because he had a strained relationship with the administration, but rather because they disagreed with his policy.

Was McChrystal fired for the ineffectiveness of his policy? For his role in previous scandals? For losing the support of his troops? No. He was fired for a couple careless remarks to a reporter about certain members of the administration (and really, his aides said much more and far worse things in the story than he did). Basically, he got fired for being a bad media manager, for letting a political pissing match slip into public view. What’s more, it’s not even a new pissing match. It’s hard to imagine the president and his team were unaware of the general’s opinions of certain members of the administration before this report, so the administration was obviously willing to more or less let such clashes go … until they spilled into public view.

Though the firing was necessary since those remarks painted the president into a corner publicly, I wish it was done for better reasons than what basically amounted to a few tabloid moments by people in high places. Considering the reason McChrystal was fired, it doesn’t seem likely any of the real concerns about the war effort raised in the Rolling Stone story will be addressed (and Hastings himself said as much in this interview). And it’s a shame that the story has so far managed to primarily incite only a national “OMG, he said what?!” response. I can only hope that the attention surrounding this story will eventually shift to its more worthwhile components.

Related Thoughts

The Rolling Stone Headline

After reading the story, I couldn’t help but be a bit ticked about Rolling Stone’s headline on the story:

The Runaway General

Stanley McChrystal, Obama’s top commander in Afghanistan, has seized control of the war by never taking his eye off the real enemy: The wimps in the White House

For one thing, that subhead says pretty much the opposite of what the story says. If anything, the story conveys the idea that McChrystal has been struggling to seize control of the war and in fact is having problems convincing even his own camp that what he’s doing is the right path. And then the “the real enemy: The wimps in the White House” part just strikes me as being sensational.

The Reporter’s Reaction

I also found Hastings’ reactions to the responses to his piece interesting. In the MSNBC interview above, he said he really didn’t expect the general to lose his job over the story. Also, in an NPR interview, he seems to get agitated when the NPR anchor asked him whether the general admonished his staff when they were making fun of the vice president (you have to listen to the audio clip to get the full effect):

NORRIS: When that joke was made, did McChrystal admonish that aide in any way? Or did he go with the flow?

Mr. HASTINGS: No, they were laughing. Have you hung out with the military much?

NORRIS: I certainly haven’t spent the kind of time that you have spent with the military. In that statement, I guess…

Mr. HASTINGS: I know. I mean, these guys – that’s who these guys are. That’s why I’m so shocked. These guys have been living these wars for the last nine years, you know? They don’t see their families. They hang out with a bunch of other guys and then, you know? You know, they’re in fights. They lose their people they love. I mean, they (unintelligible) some of this humor.

The “(unintelligible)” part in the transcript actually says “it’s a release valve, some of this humor.” Hastings certainly doesn’t seem surprised that the general and his aides make such remarks among themselves and seems to be almost defending them a bit by pointing to the stress they are under. Between this and the MSNBC interview, it seems that Hastings assigned less significance to those remarks than seemingly everyone else has.

Reporters and Access

The story has also sparked a discussion about reporters and access to sources. Many have argued that beat reporters would not have written about the inflammatory remarks because they want to preserve future access to the sources, whereas Hastings, a freelancer, has no such concerns. I think there’s certainly a level of truth to that sentiment. However, I would point out that even as a freelancer, Hastings would not have been able to gather the inflammatory part of his story in the first place without — that’s right — access.

The issue here isn’t whether the desire for access is bad. Much of journalism, no matter who’s doing it, depends on access, on sources being willing to engage the reporter on some level. Preserving access isn’t a yes or no issue, but rather a balancing act — how do you balance future access to a source against reporting everything you encounter through the access you currently have? The guiding principle isn’t so much “Don’t write anything bad about a source so you can keep access,” but more like “Is this story important enough to burn this bridge?” Consider what Hastings himself wrote in this GQ piece about covering the 2008 elections:

The dance with staffers is a perilous one. You’re probably not going to get much, if any, one-on-one time with the candidate, which means your sources of information are the people who work for him. So you pretend to be friendly and nonthreatening, and over time you “build trust,” which everybody involved knows is an illusion. If the time comes, if your editor calls for it, you’re supposed to fuck them over; and they’ll throw you under a bus without much thought, too. (I should say that personal friendships can actually develop, despite the odds.) For the top campaign officials and operatives, seduction and punishment of reporters is an art. Write this fluff piece now; we’ll give you something good later. No, don’t write it this way, write it that way. We’ll give you something good later.

“If the time comes,” and in this case, Hastings obviously believed it was important enough for him to burn this particular bridge (and as Rachel Maddow said in this segment, other reporters would, too).

As some have pointed out, the fallout from the Rolling Stone story likely will mean less access for reporters in the future. I think that’s an accurate assessment. Jon Stewart, in lampooning some of the media’s reaction to the story and how it affects future access, said of access, “I don’t need it anymore. I got this amazing story.” Of course, that doesn’t answer the question of what will you do when you need access to help you nail down that next amazing story. And while we may feel the temptation to say, “A good journalist can get that without access,” consider that had Hastings not been allowed to follow McChrystal around for a month, the general would most likely still have a job right now. The concern going forward isn’t whether Hastings has ruined it for hacks who coddle their sources to curry favor, but rather how much more difficult will things be for the next Michael Hastings as officials clamp up even more after seeing what happened to McChrystal. This is something that will affect all journalists, whether they are beat reporters or freelancers.

So was this a worthwhile tradeoff? I’m ambivalent on that question. On one hand, his story has certainly generated a huge response and led to big changes. On the other hand, the response and the changes more or less missed the more important points the article was trying to convey. I do think Hastings has written a good story, but I don’t think the things for which he burned potential future access were the best part of his article. In fact, he may have burned his bridge to write about the aspect of the story that ended up making the biggest splash, but in making that splash, that aspect also seems to have pulled attention away from the more crucial issues he was trying to shine a light on.

Asian Names Are Too Hard To Deal With; Can You Change Yours?

From the “I can’t believe they’re stupid enough to say that!” files:

A North Texas legislator during House testimony on voter identification legislation said Asian-descent voters should adopt names that are “easier for Americans to deal with.”

The exchange occurred late Tuesday as the House Elections Committee heard testimony from Ramey Ko, a representative of the Organization of Chinese Americans.

Ko told the committee that people of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent often have problems voting and other forms of identification because they may have a legal transliterated name and then a common English name that is used on their driver’s license on school registrations.

Brown suggested that Asian-Americans should find a way to make their names more accessible.

“Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?” Brown said.

Read the entire story here. Needless to say, there are so many things wrong with that remark that an Asian-American would not know which part to be more offended by.

Here’s the thing: Speaking as a Chinese-American, it does make sense in a lot of situations to adopt an American name. My Chinese first name has two X’s, one of the hardest consonants for Westerners to pronounce (there is simply no English equivalent). When I came to America, my elementary school teacher suggested that I consider picking an American name to help me better assimilate into society. In many ways, it has. One of my recurring pleasures in life for the last 20 years has been to watch people I just met stumble left and right trying to pronounce my Chinese name and then bashfully apologize for butchering it. It doesn’t bother me. I always just smile and tell them it’s ok, followed by “I go by ‘John'”. I appreciate the effort they make to try to pronounce my Chinese name, but I’m also thankful, for them and for myself, that they don’t have to try to wrestle with it every time they just want to say hi to me in the hall, as it would serve as a constant reminder that somehow we are different even though it is such a superficial divide.

That said, what leaves me speechless about this particular incident is the utter stupidity and insensitivity the legislator displayed. Yes, I go by an American name to make life easier for myself and others, but I also take great pride in my Chinese name as it is part of my heritage. When I became a U.S. citizen, I had the chance to change my legal name to whatever I wanted, yet I opted to keep it, even if it means having to clarify that I have a different legal name every time I fill out paperwork or having to listen to customer service reps butcher my name every time they pull up my account information. To suggest that Asians adopt American names just because poll workers can’t bother to spend an extra 30 seconds getting a name right is just asking for a spanking in the realm of public opinion.

In fact, this remark is so idiotic that even though I’m not all that offended from a race perspective, I would act enraged just to punish this legislator for being stupid enough to not consider how her comment would be received. I’m no big fan of political correctness, but these are the times we live in, and it’s shocking to see a politician say something like this seemingly without any warning lights going off in the back of her mind.

I’m reminded of a recent exchange with my wife about new restaurants in the area:

Her: Hey look, they’re getting a Cat in the Kettle and a Chinese restaurant.

Me (deadpan): What’s the difference?

(Slight pause … and then we both have a good laugh)

Ok, maybe that was funny, maybe not. But in any case, it was something that would probably elicit pretty different reactions if it were said by a Chinese person vs. a white person. Face it: There are just some things a white person can’t say to or about Asians without coming off as racist in this particular time in human society, and a public official should be aware of that.

By the way, since I have already adopted an American name to make non-Asian Americans’ lives easier, I’m wondering if they can do something to help me with my problem: I can’t tell white people apart. It’s a problem I’ve struggled with ever since I came to the U.S. I try to hide it by smiling politely and nodding acknowledgingly when I’m in the company of white people, acting like I know Ben from Jerry. But after a time, it just wears on you.

——————————————-

On a related note, a lot of people in China are giving themselves English names (presumably to make white American pollworkers’ job easier in case they emigrate to America):

Stuck on the Shoulder of the Information Superhighway

cables

While waiting for my food at Amante’s the other day, I perused a week-old issue of the Independent Weekly and read the interesting cover story about the lack of high-speed Internet access in Chatham County, NC. Apparently the cable and phone companies don’t think there would be enough demand for it in this rural county to justify the cost of building the infrastructure for high-speed Internet, so people there are still stuck on dial-up.

I haven’t been on dial-up for 10 years, and I’ve quite forgotten how slow a connection is on your modem. The Indy story provides a reminder:

A PDF can take 45 minutes to download. And those virus protection updates a PC routinely needs? The couple drives to Pittsboro to buy them on disk, because the connection times out before the updates finish downloading.

Dial-up can’t go any faster than 56 Kbps, and Upshaw says his fastest speed is 48 Kbps. “Some days, it’s a slow as 2 Kbps,” Upshaw says. “When it’s that slow, you just turn off the computer.”

I feel sorry for the people in that situation. And according to the story, people out there are paying $79 for satellite Internet connection and $65 a month for cellular service. That makes the $50 bucks I’m paying for RoadRunner look like a pretty sweet deal.

N.C. Considering Taxing Drivers by the Mile

road
How much will driving on this road cost you?

I came across this article via my friend Ryan’s blog this morning. North Carolina is considering implementing a road-use tax that would tax drivers by the mile in order to offset the loss in gas-tax revenue from people driving more fuel-efficient vehicles and driving less in general.

I’m no transportation policy expert, but here’s what I don’t get: You are losing revenue because people are driving less. So your solution is to implement a tax that would make it even more costly for people to drive, hence giving them even fewer incentives to drive?

According to the story, the tax won’t really be that steep for the average driver, and I would support it if the aim was to encourage people to make greater use of public transportation, but not if the goal is to offset revenue losses that stem from people using public transportation more often. It seems like this measure would just exacerbate the revenue problem in the long run. Maybe they need to consider finding additional revenue that doesn’t hinge on people driving more in a time when it’s increasingly trendy and sensible to drive less.

Muslims, Arabs Need Not Apply?

I rarely write about politics, but I thought I would pass along this video commentary from CNN’s Campbell Brown, in which she raises the question: So what if Obama, or even McCain for that matter, was an Arab or a Muslim? In my opinion, she correctly blasts the notion that somehow being a Muslim or an Arab is an undesirable quality that makes one a less ideal candidate for government office.

In a country that claims to embrace diversity, that purports to be a melting pot of cultures and ideas, its hypocrisy has bubbled to the surface in this election. Hey, remember when being part black was considered in a similar light? Remember when people who were discovered or rumored to have an African-American ancestry weren’t allowed to play professional sports or hold public office? A century later, and America is still trapped in the same kind of bigotry.

Truth be told, America has never been really comfortable with the high-minded ideals it claims as part of its moral fabric. It has never embraced diversity so much as merely tolerated it better than most other countries that might have such a mixture of races and cultures. At its founding, America declared that it believed that “all men are created equal” while keeping an entire race subjugated to slavery. It took a bloody civil war to finally abolish slavery, yet another hundred years passed before the government took action to officially recognize that race’s right to equal treatment. It’s been more than 40 years since then, and relations between whites and blacks are still making slow progress. What’s more, in that time they’ve both found other races and cultures to fear, to act as scapegoats for the country’s woes, to scorn as “outsiders”. And that’s just the most obvious instance of America’s discomfort with its diverse racial and cultural makeup. Throughout its history, one group after another has been scorned as “not one of us”, until they slowly integrate into society and begin to contribute to the disdain for other races and cultures. I’ve always thought that the best way to unite all races is to create a fictional race that presents a common threat and common target toward which all people’s hatred can be directed.