Sunday, July 25, 2010

It's Still Legal to Be Racist

The lesson no one seems to be taking away from l'affaire Shirley Sherrod is that in the United States it's still legal to be racist. The Constitution protects the right to think racist thoughts and express racist ideas; the only thing legislation since 1964 bars is acting on these thoughts or ideas.

Even in the so-called Fox News network's truncated and out-of-context video of Sherrod's statements, she was perfectly within her rights to express a dislike of whites. That's not what she was expressing in the full unexpurgated version, but if she had been, it would have been legal.

No civil servant, employer, supervisor, renter or seller, and so forth, may legally refuse goods, services or opportunities or rights to anyone merely on the basis that the individual is white, Christian, British, male or (in some states) heterosexual. That's the law.

However, you can caricature and even express a hostile disposition in your mind and in your speech against any legally protected group. Neither the civil rights movement, nor much less Congress, ever thought the government could ever actually change minds by law -- only actual external behavior.

The psychologist William James was fond of this approach: force yourself smile and you'll feel more lighthearted. It's a very American approach to social problems such as racism.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Some Blogging Changes

I don't have it in me to keep my day job and write my little essays with great frequency. Therefore, I have started a separate blog, Headline du Jour, for pithy daily commentary. This blog, Antipodes (formerly Shavings Off My Mind), will become my weekly "editorial" or "sermonette." Spanish readers may also try Desde Yanquilandia, my effort to comment on life here in the First World, with some perspectives borrowed from the Third.

Friday, July 16, 2010

45 Days without Money

If you have ever gone without any income or benefits for 45 days, welcome to the world of roughly 2,138,000 Americans this week. What crime did they commit? They had the effrontery of not being able to find a job before June 2, 2010, when Congress allowed extended unemployment benefits to expire.

"Oh, extended" you say? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 6.8 million unemployed Americans have lacked a job for more than six months. That's 46% of out-of-work Americans, which is an all-time historical high (a detailed study on this is available from the National Employment Law Project here).

Now, of course, not all of them will lose benefits right now. But keep in mind that federal extended benefits had provided up 99 weeks (close to two years) of benefits in some states.

That sound too long? Republicans thinks so: they say the benefits are keeping people from looking for a job, which is ridiculous since the last national unemployment figure shrank to 9.5 percent only because people left the workforce in huge numbers. They were discouraged just before Congress cut them off.

Now they're just plain desperate.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Goodbye, Uptown Cathay

Incredible! After so many years I don't know where to write or call Peter, the man I have known as the proprietor of the Uptown Cathay since 1991.

Uptown Cathay Restaurant, Connecticut Avenue, Washington, D.C.
I'd like to tell him that I will miss him and his food.  For years, it seems, this cozy little neighborhood place was where I went with my younger son every Saturday around lunch time.

We had a prandial ritual that the waitress, Grace, knew by heart: pan-fried pork rolls and a half-Peking duck. Enough to feed an entire Chinese family. She didn't know, of course, about our rip-roaring game of 20 Questions.

You know the game: I think of someone famous and you have 20 chances to ask me for clues to the identity of this person. You can only ask questions that can be answered "yes" or "no." Female? American? 20th century? (It was the 20th century, then.)

We began playing traditional 20 Questions, although I gave my son a handicap appropriate for his age (6? 7?). When it was time for him to guess, I once chose the educator after whom his school was named. Later came the grand figures of history; of course, never Hitler or Napoleon, because they were too easy.

Later still, came Reverse 20 Questions, in which the guesser would ask directly "Are you thinking of Napoleon?" If you were, he'd have to continue guessing. The object was for the guesser to ask a name you weren't thinking of, so you had to keep thinking of new historical figures every second.

Then came Anything Goes 20 Questions, a variant of the traditional game in which you didn't have to think of a person: it could be a thing or an idea. I was finally defeated with my son's thinking of "nothingness." He was then about 11 and about to graduate from going anywhere with his father, even if it was just half a block from home.

Of course, the restaurant evolved, just like our game.

The enclosed open-air table area on the sidewalk (lower left, by the date imprint), wasn't there originally. Nor did the menu include Japanese sushi, nor Thai food (added after the Thai Room, once across the street, closed its doors). Before the Cathay, there'd been a deli that was never quite to my taste -- or wallet.

In later years, after my family moved away and I remained. I kept going to the Cathay because I knew the menu by heart. When I didn't know what to order, Grace, who has just had her second child, could pretty much guess something I'd like. One could call that Food 20 Questions, except that the idea would be lost in translation.

Once, Peter gave me a formal Chinese dress shirt similar to one of his that I had admired. It was an Asian version of the guayabera. The one he gave me was too tight around the abdomen. I still have it, always hoping to slim into it next year.

Finally, there came on June 19 the occasion of a friendly postmortem of reading by Sam Munson from his new novel "November Criminals" across the street -- at the bookstore that is (sigh!) on the block to be sold.

That night, I had longtime friends with me, along with my younger son. I had had lunch there and Peter had told me his troubles. This was why I'd brought my entourage after the reading; I was set on spending my way into saving the place.

Peter's wife came over and remarked that she had seen me earlier, so I told her of my "plan." She hugged me.

Next Saturday, the place was shut.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

To love is to bug

This is a new insight that comes courtesy of my special friend, who is prone to flashes of affection, followed by retreats assuring me she won't “bug” me any more. I've come to realize I like being “bugged” that way.

My mother was very affectionate and no one has, or likely will, ever quite match that warmth that comes from the one person to whom you are perfectly beloved, no matter what, for as long as she lives. I lost that when I was 17 and moved away, later irretrievably when she died.

Yet I was not a mama's child. I even complained to her about the sheer arrogance of mothers on Mother's Day.

This was a variation on the critique raised by a classmate to baffle our religion teacher. My classmate had argued that, given all the insistence on worship and obedience attributed to the Supreme Being, God must surely be a preening narcissist.

And, hey, weren't mothers next to God in authority, pomp and circumstance on their day — as well as in and sheer guilt-inducing power if their desires were somehow ignored? And, boy! Mothers could surely bug you with embarrassing displays of affection in front of your peers!

Some people — especially North Americans — react to affection with the horror reserved for strangers' accidental brushes with one's shoulder or arm on the subway or bus. All right, so the Parisian lovers — I have seen this with my own eyes — go to the other extreme with their ... um ... French kissing and embracing on busy corners.

In the end, though, love involves a bit of “bugging” the loved one who is reading The New York Times' book review. You might get carried away by your affection to kiss and caress the reader's arm. For no reason. Even if no one sees.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

The Will to Be Blond

In a discussion of whether we have free will — we don't —I suddenly became fascinated with the imaginary possibility that we could decide our physical beings, pretty much the way we can design an avatar.

I would give myself my overall body as it was when I was somewhere between 17 to 23: thinner, more limber, more easily renewed of energy and vitality.

Then, what if I had the ability to change coloring? I could literally make my skin green with envy or red with anger, look a reflective albino pale if I was crossing a street at night or greenish if I was trying to surprise someone (for something like a birthday, at a picnic.

The color toggle could apply also to hair and eyes. I could be blond or redheaded and have those blue-green-gray irises that change with the mood.

To improve on the present body, I'd make myself permanently and invincibly immune to the common cold and STDs.

And, hey, while I'm playing, maybe I could design some “template” appearances that I could change in and out of, like a suit.

Just imagine what you could do ...

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Socialism isn't ... and is ...

Since forever and a day the Democratic Socialists of America has embodied to me, largely because of my admiration for founder Michael Harrington for picking up from the ruins of the old Socialist Party, the only kind of U.S. socialism I could abide.

Like Harrington, I chucked Catholicism, but not its social teachings, on which I grew up. Of course, I was growing up in Latin America, with a foot in the USA, and liberation theology blowing through the Catholic schools and seminaries just as U.S. soldiers committed atrocities in Vietnam.

The singular “Other American,” as a biographer dubbed Harrington, wrote a book that set off the spark that led to the War on Poverty, in which — despite Ronald Reagan's cynical quip — poverty was rolled back, from 19% to 11% in less than a decade, a feat never repeated. Poverty today in the USA hovers at a little more than 12%.

Yet socialism isn't really about poverty, but the economic order. In all socioeconomic systems conceivable, there will always be those who have less than everyone else — although not necessarily in as abject and degrading a manner as we know poverty today — and those who have more than everyone else — albeit not the stratospheric wealth we know today.

Socialism aims to reorganize the way society goes about waging the human struggle for survival, so that everyone participates, as an owner, in deciding how all the available resources are used. We can, of course, all be as stupid together as the present elite.

Wouldn't you rather make your own mistakes than suffer those of Wall Street or the Pentagon?

Socialism is not — Lenin be damned — about setting up a police state. Nor is socialism about setting up a comfortable bureaucracy for some to claim to represent workers as they play golf with the bosses, nor much less about championing the issues raised by our particular sexual or ethnic identity, nor even about “reforming” anything, be it the money-clogged electoral system or the inequitable and wasteful medical system.

In a real socialist society democracy we would all get a chance to make sure there was more butter than guns, for all enough butter and bread, and — as the women of Lawrence, Massachusetts, sang nearly a century ago — roses, too.