Rants, mumbling, repressed memories, recipes, and haiku from a professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School.
Sunday, October 31, 2021
Sunday Reflection: In Disguise(?)
Happy Halloween! It's a fascinating holiday, complete with disguises. Kind of.
I've long thought that many halloween costumes, particularly for adults, aren't really disguises-- they are a revealing of the hidden person within. For example, those many many cats are often people who are kind of feline to start with. And this year I'm seeing an unusual number of people dressed as Charlie Brown (which is surprising because of the the declining cultural currency of the entire Peanuts crew). But... a lot of us are feeling like Charlie Brown these days, don't you think?
One of my own favorite costumes was Boxhead Guy, pictured above. The idea was to wear the box to a party, and then not say anything at all-- to stand at the edge of conversation groups silently. Then, when people got frustrated not knowing who I was, they would yank the box off, and underneath I had this horrifying half-rat thing with a tongue-activated tail in my mouth. People screamed. And no, I don't know what that says about me, exactly, other than a general sense of anonymity I have always had.
One of the disguises many people wear is that of spiritual certainty. They project to others an absolute sense of belief in their faith. I suspect that underneath that is uncertainty, though-- after all, if God is unimaginable to us, a lot of what we believe is necessarily on shaky ground. But there we are, telling others what we know for sure.
But not Boxhead guy. He just stands there, quietly.
[I would note that AFTER I created Boxhead Guy in 1994, he appeared in this video, starting about 2:00:]
Of course, they are pretty interesting anyways-- and they are everywhere. We all have experiences with birds, whether it is a majestic eagle overhead or a pigeon grabbing your sandwich. Let's haiku about that this week! Here, I will go first:
Through open window he flew
Now he looks at me.
And now it is your turn! Just use the 5/7/5 syllable pattern and have some fun!
Virginia is electing a governor, and things have gotten weird. In a time where we are still facing a pandemic, dealing with racial justice, worrying about the economy, seeing the effects of climate change, and trying to figure out what America will be in the future, the people of Virginia (at least many of them) are really worked up about literature.
Specifically, they are in arms about the work of Toni Morrison, who won both a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize for her novels.
It seems that 8 years ago some conservative parents tried to have Morrison's Pulitzer-winning book "Beloved" banned from public schools in Virginia. The Republicans in the legislature passed the bill, but then-Governor Terry McAuliffe-- who is running now for his old job-- vetoed the bill. One proponent said that the sex scenes gave her son "nightmares."
But, really, this isn't a story about sex. It's about race. It's about white kids reading a book by a black author.
I actually was in Virginia when I read Beloved. I was a student at William and Mary, and Prof. Joanne Braxton had assigned Morrison's Song of Solomon. I liked it so much that I read Beloved, too. I probably had dreams about sex (I was a 19-year-old boy), but they weren't about the book, and they weren't nightmares. The books opened up my world to a tradition I did not know, to a part of the human experience I did not know. That's what literature, at its best, does.
Our nation struggles with race, but it is crazy the way we find proxies for it instead of discussing it straight-up and honestly. It could be that some people-- the ones who pretend their son is having sex nightmares-- just don't want to have that discussion.
College football is a guilty pleasure for me, and I've been a Michigan fan my entire life (despite never having gone there after being admitted twice). Saturday, Michigan plays Michigan State, and this year the game between these in-state rivals really means something. Both teams are undefeated going into the game, which is a rarity.
It would be great to see one or the other of them knock off Ohio State down the road. State plays OSU on November 20, and Michigan plays them the following week. It's part of being a Michigan fan that you just want Ohio State to lose (and, if possible, disband or lose accreditation as a real university).
It's been a wacky year in college football, full of fun upsets and surprise success stories like Cincinnati. I'll be watching-- but don't tell anyone.
Facebook is facing scrutiny like it has never experienced before. A whistleblower, Frances Haugen, has gone public with allegations (and backed those allegations with documents) that make it clear that Facebook repeatedly chose profits over the public good.
Which, of course, is what corporations do-- they are constructed to maximize profits, not make society better, and they very often make society worse as they increase profits. Hedge funds destroy journalism, agribusinesses destroy family farms, GM destroyed a sustainable electric trolley network to sell buses... it is a feature, not an aberration, that corporations choose profit over anything else so long as they are within the bounds of legality (and even that barrier does not always hold).
With Facebook there seem to be two core problems. One is that its subsidiary Instagram, in particular, plays a big role in undermining self-esteem and wellness in children and adolescents. A second is that Facebook accelerates falsehoods (ie, about vaccines) and political extremism.
The first problem is very real, and needs to be addressed. We restrict freedom all the time in the interests of protecting children, after all-- and we should. The data both shows that this is a real problem, and that social media is at the center of it.
The second problem is more difficult. Yes, straight-up wrong opinions and falsehoods asserted as facts are rampant on social media. BUT... among adults, the problem is not the medium so much as the recipients. If people don't discern fact from fiction-- and a lot of people aren't-- there is a deeper problem than the medium on which those falsehoods are sometimes broadcast.
There is a great public television program here in Minneapolis called Almanac. It runs for an hour every Friday, and it has for the last three-and-a-half decades on stations across Minnesota. I'm surprised at how many people I know who watch it every week. It's basically the most Minnesotan bit of media around.
When legal issues bubble up, I get to join the show now and then (probably five or six times so far). I love doing it, of course-- it is a great show.
I did the show on Friday to talk about the sentencing in an important local case (you can see the segment here). As I as talking, a fly came by and decided it wanted to buzz around my face. Fortunately, the fly never actually landed on my head, so I avoided a Mike Pence moment, but it was plenty distracting (though I think I worked through it pretty well). I was really tempted to swat at the sucker, though!
Too often, we let the distractions become more important than what we are doing-- or supposed to be doing. I know that happens to me ALL the time. Lately, I've been distracted by little things that bug me, but aren't really worth even a moment-- those everyday bits of unpleasantness that come from traffic or a rude person.
And I realize, too, that too often my personal theology is sidetracked by distractions. I have a few, simple core beliefs, and the other stuff just does not matter so much-- but I find myself going down rabbit holes. For example, my view on the Bible and its authority is simple: I follow the teachings of Jesus. That means that what informs my faith is what Jesus taught. The rest of it is important context, with some poetry, storytelling, fable and history thrown in. But sometimes I get tugged into the rabbit-hole of the Epistles, for example, and lose track of what is really important.
But maybe I'm getting better-- after all, I didn't swat the fly.
The air is cooler outside, and it is perfect walking weather. It's such a wonderful thing, and nearly universal for us humans to take a walk, just to enjoy the outdoors. You might be walking away from something, or toward something, but it is almost always worthwhile. Let's haiku about that this week!
Here, I will go first:
That crunch underfoot
Not our Minnesota ice
A valley of salt.
Now it is your turn! Just use the 5/7/5 syllable pattern and have some fun.
In a US Senate that is divided 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats (including the two independents from New England who caucus with them), West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin is a vote that Democrats need-- and often don't get. Most recently, he has used his clout to remove climate-change protections from the ginormous "Build Back Better" bill that includes a wide swath of proposals.
There are two things about Manchin's positions that seem true:
1) He genuinely believes in these stances, and has long held views that cut against environmental protection and abortion rights and many social benefit programs.
2) Most of the people in his state, which Trump won in 2020 by almost 40 points (!) agree with him.
Given those two facts, he is not changing any time soon.
So why does he stay a Democrat? In part, I suspect it is exactly because of the power he has in this moment. Since the days of Sen. Robert Byrd, West Virginia had been a disproportionate recipient of federal programs because of the power of its senators.
I suspect, and hope, that IPLawGuy has some thoughts on all of this...
Gen. Colin Powell died this week at age 84. I didn't know him, but his son Michael was in my. class and president of my fraternity at William and Mary, so I glimpsed him a few times. He was a compelling and historic figure.
The obituaries (such as this one in the Times) note the trajectory of his life: Born in Harlem to Jamaican immigrants and raised in the South Bronx, he went to the City College of New York as a ROTC kid. He served two tours of Vietnam, and during that second tour he saved three men from a wrecked and burning helicopter. He returned from the war, got an MBA from George Washington, and served as a White House Fellow in the Nixon Administration as a part of his continuing military career. By the early 1980's he became the military assistant to Caspar Weinberger, who was the Secretary of Defense. By the end of the Reagan Administration, he had ascended to a role as National Security Advisor.
His last military assignment, from 1989-1993 (through the Bush and Clinton administrations) was as Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most powerful position in the US military. In that role he oversaw the Persian Gulf War in 1991, which removed Iraq from Kuwait.
Later, under George W. Bush, he served as the first Black Secretary of State, and it was in that role that he made his ill-advised speech at the UN, where he falsely claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
His political life was hindered by devotion to a Republican Party that by the 2010s had left behind some of the principles he most deeply believed in. One of those principles was civility in discourse.
On Sunday I have a piece in the Waco Tribune-Herald (timed to Baylor's Homecoming) about the continuing importance of universities in a minefield of false claims passing as news. You can read the whole thing here (and I hope that you will!).
The Picasso wire sculpture pictured above is kinda scary, isn't it? There is the skeleton aspect of it, of course, and the shadow on the wall behind (at least as it is currently displayed at MOMA in New York). The subject, too, seems to be screaming, or at least surprised.
Or maybe not. It's just as as much a joyful reflection on the human form constructed in an awkward way that emphasizes the liminal nature of our bodies, on that boundary between our consciousness and the physical world. It is more real than real, and there should be nothing scary about that.
But that's the deal, isn't it? Things that are scary to us are not the ones that are outlandish; they are the things that hit closest to the real things in our life. A movie where the bad guy slowly slides open a sliding door is scary because it is so close to the things we worry about: did I lock the sliding door? No one is really scared of Darth Vader, not in that same way, because he is nothing close to what is scary in our real lives.
I think something like that explains the power of Jesus, at least as he is actually depicted in the Gospels. Most of what he does is understandable, close to things we experience in our own lives. He makes breakfast for his friends. He encounters people where they are: at a well, in the Temple, at the bank of a river. He walks, and eats. His parables are not about blinding flashes of light in the sky, but about going to work or going to a wedding. And in that is part of the power of those stories.
Fall is the best time for food-- it is harvest season, after all. It starts with sweet corn, moves on to apples and pumpkins, and closes out with all the great food of Thanksgiving. Let's haiku about that this week!
Here, I will go first:
My pumpkin pie fest
Decimates the whole kitchen
But... then I have pie!
Now it is your turn! Just use the 5/7/5 syllable pattern and have some fun!
Yesterday in the Supreme Court, the Justices heard arguments in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers who set off bombs at the Boston Marathon in 2013. Three people died and hundreds were injured by the horrible act. His death sentence had been overturned by the First Circuit court of appeals based on the trial judge's failures in questioning jurors and admitting evidence. One issue was the exclusion of evidence that could have helped show that Tsarnaev was acting under the influence and control of his older brother, Tamerlan.
It's troubling that the case was in front of the Supreme Court at all. Joe Biden ran for office as an opponent of the death penalty, and has imposed a moratorium on executions during his term. It's morally inconsistent to stop executions while he is president while continuing to pursue the death penalty in an existing case, knowing a subsequent president may well lift the moratorium. After all, the government did not have to appeal the 1st Circuit's decision. Instead they forged ahead.
The conservative judges (a 6-3 majority) seem poised to overturn the circuit court and reinstate the death penalty. Which will add another person to a death row that this administration does not plan to use for its intended purpose.
Naturally, this weird outcome is directed by politics; the marathon bombing was an awful tragedy, and there is little sympathy for Tsarnaev. It would take real boldness to treat the issue with integrity and commute the sentences of all those on death row-- but boldness (outside of spending) does not seem to be the modus operandi of Joe Biden.
I haven't interviewed for a job in eleven years, and I'm not planning to do so anytime soon. Still, I am immersed in the process these days. First, because I am on the hiring committee at my school, so I'm spending a lot of time on the other end of that desk. At the same time, I am preparing my students for their own job interviews.
This much is true-- it IS a lot easier to be the interviewer than the interviewee!
But there are some more important truths, too, of course.
One is that too often people forget to explain the two most important things-- questions you should answer even if they are not asked:
1) How your skill set fits this job, and
2) Why you want this job in this place.
The skill set question is especially important in entry-level jobs, the kind many of my students are seeking after law school. There, they can't say they have done the job before (except as an internship or externship). That means that it is even more important to talk about skills derived from other parts of life. If the job requires people skills, then those years as a restaurant worker really do matter. If your potential job requires quick turnaround, then you need to talk about prior experiences where you had to meet deadlines-- and did. Rarely are you interviewing for the job you already have, so it is crucial to talk about what you can do.
I am shocked at how often people don't seem to know about the entity they are interviewing with. Do some research! Then you can explain with detail why you want that particular job. It shows you have real interest, and it shows a skill: coming in to a meeting prepared.
Finally, there is this... sometimes getting the right job takes time. Be like Patient Bear, who might as well be waiting patiently for his job offer. I've been turned down so many times for so many jobs over the years-- and patience (and preparation) always paid off. It can be hard to hear "no" over and over. But your "yes" will come.
I really recommend this Washington Post piece about a puzzling case involving a maybe-clemency from Donald Trump (and not just because I got to opine in it). It's a fascinating tale-- about a guy, James Rosemond who lobbied hard at the end of the Trump administration for commutation of a long prison sentence. Trump or his associates told Rosemond's supporters-- which included football legend Jim Brown-- that he was granting the petition, but he never signed anything.
So, is it a grant of clemency? The courts will decide.
But this much is clear: those last few days of the Trump presidency were absolute chaos.
I was walking back to my car in a small southern town last night when I saw something I haven't seen in a long time: an honest-to-goodness house party. There was a band playing on the porch and a crowd of people jammed into the lawn, and they were having a great time.
We are made to seek community, to sometimes do things with other people. For millennia, humans have been doing things in groups, gathering to feast, to worship, to make decisions, and to celebrate.
And then, we stopped. We had a good reason to do so-- to save the lives of the most vulnerable among us.
Now, I think, we are struggling to get back to community, in a lot of ways. I know that I am. I am not back to going to church in person, and it looks like the same is true for a lot of people. When I ask people how their churches are doing as they return to worshiping in person, no one has been saying "great!" It could be that people are making the rational choice to not come back until the pandemic is actually over, but I suspect that some people are perhaps just done with church. Time will tell....
We've written about cars before-- but today I want to hear about the car you wish you had, or the one you wish you had back. Many of us are nostalgic about a car we had and then parted with, for one reason or another.
Here, I will go first:
My Honda Del Sol
A little blue runabout
Never failed me.
Now it is your turn! Just use the 5/7/5 syllable pattern, and have some fun....
Some light is shining on the shadow world of the very very rich with the release of the "Pandora Papers," a set of financial documents that set out the way billionaires are able to buy influence, evade taxes, and hide their often ill-gotten gains. It's really pretty astonishing-- you can get a taste of it here.
One of the saddest parts of the whole story is that American billionaires don't even need offshore tax dodges, since they barely pay any taxes anyways. Our system is fundamentally broken-- and I hope that at some point people who supported Donald Trump's tax plan for the very rich realize that the rest of us are having to make up the difference.
Bernie Sanders was wrong about some things, but his central thesis about government and the very rich is true: that billionaires take much more than they give, and that their influence has decayed to moral and fiscal integrity of the government.
Tomorrow at 2:15 Eastern, 1:15 Central I am moderating a panel at a great conference at Ohio State (well, not AT Ohio State-- it was supposed to be in-person, but has been shifted to online because of the pandemic). We'll be talking about clemency, and it features three real experts:
-- Jason Hernandez, shown above, who wrote his way out of prison while serving a life sentence, and who has done great things upon release. I've written about him before here and here at the Razor.
-- Rachel Barkow, NYU law Prof./Vice Dean and one of the smartest people I know. We have written a lot about clemency in collaboration, including this and this and this and this and a bunch of other stuff.
-- Premal Dharia, who is the Executive Director of the Institute to End Mass Incarceration at Harvard Law School. I met Premal when she solicited this piece for the Institute's new publication, Inquest.
Lots of people, including me, find what is going on in Congress right now kind of baffling. In a nutshell, here is the state of play (and thanks to Ben Nesbit for explaining some of this to me):
-- The Senate has passed, by a vote of 69-30, a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that would invest in new roads and bridges, railways, climate change protections, high speed internet, and many other projects. BUT, this bill has yet to pass the House.
-- Meanwhile, the House has passed a $3.5 trillion bill which would broaden investments in health care, education, and other social spending.
-- A small group of Democratic moderates in the House want to pass the Senate infrastructure bill now. But progressives are insisting that they will not vote for the infrastructure bill until the Senate approves the much larger social spending bill.
-- Meanwhile in the Senate, two Democratic moderates, Manchin of WV and Sinema of AZ, have rejected the $3.5 million social spending bill in the absence of a major downsizing.
-- And thus, neither bill is moving, largely because of divisions within the Democratic Party.
-- Meanwhile, Congress has to do two separate things: fund the government in the short term, and raise the debt ceiling to allow that new spending. And, of course, there is a standoff on those issues, as well.
It could turn out that we get neither the social spending bill OR the social spending bill, which would be a huge failure for the Biden administration-- and one they very much want to avoid.
Which brings us to the trillion-dollar coin. In short, the administration could mint a new trillion-dollar coin that would then be transferred to the Treasury, Presto! Lots of money, with no need to increase the debt or raise the debt ceiling.
The idea first came up during and earlier crisis, in 2011, but actually was raised in an episode of the Simpsons 13 years before that.
Why not do it?
Well, it seems kind of silly, but that's not a reason. Nor is "someone might steal it," because it would be impossible to fence. The real problems are the risk of inflation that comes with a big jump in the money supply and the breach of the independence of the central bank.
Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series (which included the painting above) tells a remarkable story about movement and injustice and perseverance. It contains 60 paintings or so, and each one describes an aspect of the Great Migration of Black Americans from the South to the North in the 20th Century.
I've been rolling the images around in my head for a few weeks now. Part of the question before me is how the question of race fits into my theology. There is no question that the teachings of Jesus are for everyone; there is no racial bar there. The descriptions of slavery in the Bible are deeply troubling, but even at that they don't refer to the racialized slavery we saw in the United States.
I feel deeply that my faith compels me to work against racism. How does that derive from the teachings at the root of the faith? After all, Jesus did not talk about it.
What he DID talk about though, over and over, was about addressing the ways in which we hurt others. And that is what racism has done. In the context of our own time, our own nation... that is where the harm has been done.
Yeah, money. It's something we sometimes don't want to think about, can't ignore, and which obsesses some people a little too much. We've all made mistakes with it, lost it, found it, and worried about it at some point. Everyone has a story.
So let's haiku about that this week:
I found a twenty
On the street, held it for a sec
And then put it back.
Now it is your turn! Just use the 5/7/5 syllable pattern, and have some fun!