2013 - %3, March

Travels in China, With Skateboard: A Photo Diary

| Sun Apr. 7, 2013 12:00 PM EDT
An image from "Changsa."

Changsha, Rian Dundon's first monograph, could be aptly subtitled My Six Years Hanging out in China. Not unlike the country itself, Changsha is big and sprawling, a photo diary akin to something Anders Petersen, Morten Andersen, or Jacob Au Sobol might put together. There's no real narrative, no particular story set out to be told in pictures. It's just Dundon carrying his camera and loads of black and white film as he tumbles from one adventure to the next. It's my favorite kind of photo project.

Dundon set out on his journey without any real background in the country or its languages, landing in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, located on a branch of the Yangtze River. He expected to be there for a year. He wound up spending six.

It's the absence of any agenda that makes this book work so well.

Dundon dove into the city headfirst, exploring its alleys, skateboarding its streets, eating, drinking, smoking, and, of course, shooting constantly. What emerged was a view of China we don't often see in the West, a chronicle of daily life for a younger generation.

It's the absence of an agenda that makes the book work so well. The in-between moments, direct flash shots in nightclubs, landscapes, city details, and otherwise mundane street scenes come together to create a more telling experience of life in China than any formal photo story could hope to. Changsha offers its perusers a chance to live vicariously through Dundon, and it's a far more interesting armchair-travel experience than anything you'll find in an airline magazine.

Perhaps the best way to review this kind of book is simply to let the photos sell you on it (or not). So here's but a very small glimpse at some of the 200 pages of photos in Changsha, which I recommend highly.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

(emphas.is, 2013)

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The Gay Marriage Debate Probably Hasn't Affected Straight Marriage Much

| Sun Mar. 31, 2013 7:09 PM EDT

Ross Douthat on the coming liberal victory over gay marriage:

Whether people think they’re on the side of God or of History, magnanimity has rarely been a feature of the culture war.

That's true! Also true of practically every other disagreement, big or small, among human beings. The exceptions are rare enough that they usually become famous.

In any case, what Douthat wants lefties to magnanimously acknowledge is the possibility that the growing acceptance of gay marriage, even if it's a net positive, might have contributed to things like the decline in traditional marriage rates and the rise in out-of-wedlock births. He concedes, of course, that those are long-term trends and the Great Recession has made them worse:

But there is also a certain willed naïveté to the idea that the advance of gay marriage is unrelated to any other marital trend. For 10 years, America’s only major public debate about marriage and family has featured one side [...] pressing the case that modern marriage has nothing to do with the way human beings reproduce themselves, that the procreative understanding of the institution was founded entirely on prejudice, and that the shift away from a male-female marital ideal is analogous to the end of segregation.

Two comments. First, I think this is ironic. My sense of the debate is that the procreation argument was introduced by opponents of same-sex marriage, not supporters. Those advocating SSM just wanted gays and lesbians to be able to marry each other. It was opponents, after realizing that Old Testament jeremiads weren't cutting it any more, who began claiming that SSM should remain banned because gays couldn't have children. This turned out to be both a tactical and strategic disaster, partly because the argument was so transparently silly (what about old people? what about women who had hysterectomies? etc.) and partly because it suggested that SSM opponents didn't have any better arguments to offer. But disaster or not, they're the ones responsible for making this into a cornerstone of the anti-SSM debates in the aughts. Without that, I doubt that most ordinary people would ever have connected gay marriage to procreation within straight marriages in the first place. If this really has had an impact on traditional marriage, the anti-SSM forces have mostly themselves to blame.

But they probably shouldn't blame themselves very much, because I don't think the demographic details back up Douthat's case. Take a look at the demographic groups where marriage has declined: very famously, it's been among poor and working class women, and especially among poor and working class black women. I'll concede that I might be off base here, but I think Douthat is assuming that recondite arguments over procreation and gay marriage, which are common in his highly-educated social group, are also common in the groups where marriage has declined. I doubt that very much. What's more, support for gay marriage is lowest in precisely the groups that have abandoned traditional marriage in the largest numbers. If the procreation argument were really affecting marriage rates, you'd expect to see the biggest impact in the groups where this argument is most commonly advanced, and in the groups that most strongly support gay marriage. Instead we've seen the opposite.

The economic and social forces behind the decline in marriage are decades old: stagnant incomes for men, growing incomes for women, an incarceration explosion that's left black male communities decimated, and a feminist revolution that made single parenthood more socially acceptable. Against that backdrop, I guess I find it unlikely that a fairly esoteric debate about procreation, which took place mostly among the chattering classes, had a significant impact on the people who are actually abandoning marriage. I'm open to evidence to the contrary, though.

The Rules of the Game

| Sat Mar. 30, 2013 5:17 PM EDT

Here's a little something to noodle on while I'm lounging in my easy chair trying to solve this week's Saturday Stumper crossword puzzle. First, you need to click here and go read a post by Matt Yglesias. I'll wait.

You didn't read it, did you? Fine. I know you're busy, so here's the nickel summary. Matt is talking about the distribution of income in America, and he makes the point that modern capitalism is fundamentally based on a set of fairly complex rules created by humans. There's no natural, "default" distribution of income, it all depends on what rules we agree on:

It takes an awful lot of politics to get an advanced capitalist economy up and running and generating wealth....You go through the trouble of creating advanced industrial capitalism because that's a good way to create a lot of goods and services. But the creation of goods and services would be pointless unless it served the larger cause of human welfare. Collecting taxes and giving stuff to people is every bit as much a part of advancing that cause as creating the set of institutions that allows for the wealth-creation in the first place.

The specifics of how best to do this all are (to say the least) contentious and not amenable to resolution by blog-length noodling. But the intuition that there's some coherent account of what the "market distribution" would be absent public policy is mistaken. You have policy choices all the way down.

Matt's argument is a common one, and I've seen it made dozens of times in various ways. What's more, it's an argument with a lot of force. It really is true that income distribution depends on the rules of the game, and it can favor the rich or the poor depending on who sets up the rules. There are practical limits to how much you can muck with the rules and keep your economy humming along, but within these limits there's nothing inherently natural about one set of rules vs. another.

So here's the thing to noodle on. Despite having seen this argument made dozens of times, and despite its obvious force, I've never really seen it made in a way that's very persuasive at a gut level. Conservatives have done a very good job of convincing the public that rules which favor the rich really are the most natural ones, and you fiddle with them at your peril. Liberals, conversely, haven't done a very good job of convincing the public that a different, less business and wealth-centric set of rules, would be equally natural, and would benefit more people.

Why is that? It's one thing to acknowledge that changing the rules is hard because rich people have a lot of political power and don't want to see them changed. But that hardly even matters until you can make the egalitarian economic argument in a way that's convincing to the public in the first place. That's apparently very hard to do, but I'm not quite sure why. Guesses welcome in comments.

In Honor of Buzz Bissinger, Strange Fashion Longreads

| Sat Mar. 30, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Karl Lagerfeld, creative director of Chanel.

Last week, Friday Night Lights creator and journalist Buzz Bissinger set the internet on fire with a candid, 6,000-word confessional about his out-of-control addiction to high-end shopping published in GQ.

Bissinger's obsessionforty-one pairs of leather pants? A $22,000 jacket?—is so outlandish that it almost seems like a ruse. Yet there are many more weird stories woven into what we wear, why we wear it, and what happens to it when we clean out the closet.

For more MoJo staffers' long-form favorites, visit our longreads.com page. Take a look at some of our own reporters' longreads here and follow @longreads and @motherjones on Twitter for the latest.


"G.I. Joe: Retaliation": The Anti-Obama Conservative's Fantasy

| Fri Mar. 29, 2013 5:26 PM EDT

#YOLO.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation
Paramount Pictures
115 minutes

G.I. Joe: Retaliation—sequel to American Classic G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra—is escapist filmmaking for the paranoid wingnut.

Before I get to why, let me just state for the record that Retaliation is no Battleship—which is to say it is not a coruscating beacon of unimpeachably fantastic moviemaking. Yes, they are both Hasbro movies; but this one lacks a certain joy and self-aware humor—even though it was written by the same guys who wrote Zombieland and Spike TV's The Joe Schmo Show. The brightest part of the movie is the fact that rapper/producer RZA * plays a blind ninja dojo master named Blind Master. (Click here to see RZA as a ninja-dojo-master action figure.) The film also has Channing Tatum, The RockNorth KoreansAdrianne Palicki fighting North Koreans, and 3D visual effects.

Friday Cat Blogging - 29 March 2013

| Fri Mar. 29, 2013 3:05 PM EDT

Marian bought a new comforter for our bed a few days ago, and it's rather thicker and more cushiony than our old one. Domino adores it. She's actually abandoned her favorite American Airlines blanket and now spends every morning plonked down in the lovely, luxurious nest of the new comforter. She is like the princess and the pea.

Next week: the return of quiltblogging!

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President's Budget May Include Entitlement Cuts

| Fri Mar. 29, 2013 2:45 PM EDT

Damian Paletta reports that President Obama may endorse entitlement cuts when he releases his budget on April 10:

Including entitlement curbs would be notable, as Republicans often have criticized the White House for offering such steps in private negotiations but never fully embracing them as part of an official budget plan.

....The White House declined to offer details of what would appear in the budget, but top officials have said negotiations with the GOP are near an impasse. "We are in a place now where it's difficult for us to reach an agreement when you have a firm bloc of Republican senators who are refusing to compromise," White House principal deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said.

It's sort of interesting how little has leaked about this. In order for the interagency review to be done and printed copies of the budget to be ready on April 10, pretty much all the major decisions must have been made by now. But the only actual example of an entitlement cut that Paletta's piece mentions is adoption of chained CPI for Social Security, a policy that Obama has been committed to for quite a while. If there's more, the president's team is doing a pretty good job of keeping it quiet.

More leaks, please.

The Civil Rights Division Is Kicking Butt, Says the Civil Rights Division

| Fri Mar. 29, 2013 2:02 PM EDT
Civil Rights Division head Thomas Perez.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama nominated Thomas Perez, the head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, to run the Department of Labor. Now, with Republicans scrambling to find any excuse block Perez' appointment, the civil rights division has issued a report detailing its accomplishments over the past four years. 

"For more than 50 years, the Division has enforced federal laws that prohibit discrimination and uphold the civil and constitutional rights of all who live in America," the report reads. "Over the past four years, the Division has worked to restore and expand this critical mission." The report has been in the works since prior to Perez' nomination as labor secretary.

The word "restore" is a backhanded critique of the Bush administration, during which enforcement of civil rights laws dropped and the leadership of the civil rights division was found to be deeply politicized. Under Perez, the division claims to have worked on more voting rights cases, agreements with local police addressing misconduct, and hate crimes convictions than ever before, while acquiring the highest fair housing discrimination settlements in history. Civil rights advocacy groups tend to share the leadership of the division's view that things have improved tremendously since the Bush years.

Here's the division's fact sheet touting its record:

 

 

 

Perez himself has been under fire from Republicans because of a recent Department of Justice Inspector General report that found lingering partisan divides in the voting section while knocking down almost all of the criticisms the GOP has leveled in the division's direction. Republicans are also angry that Perez helped cut a deal that prevented the Fair Housing Act being gutted by the Supreme Court. But given the modern GOP's hostility to many civil rights laws as unjust federal infringement on state's rights, a strong record of enforcement in the civil rights division may just be another reason for Republicans to oppose his nomination.

How Gays Won the Adoption Battle

| Fri Mar. 29, 2013 1:57 PM EDT

Gay marriage has been a culture-war hot button for the past two decades. But what about gay couples adopting children? Why did that never ignite the same level of opposition? In "Under the Gaydar," Alison Gash explains:

The secret to this progress was that gay parents and couples—who were by now aided by newly-formed gay rights advocacy groups—fought these cases in family court, where judges had wide discretion and public scrutiny was minimal. Aware of the perils of drawing public attention to these cases, advocates from national gay rights groups worked hard to camouflage their efforts. They removed their names from briefs, provided behind-the-scenes support, and avoided appealing losses to appellate courts, out of fear that higher-level court approval would awaken the sleeping giant of public opposition.

....Eventually, same-sex parenting cases did make their way to higher courts in two states—ironically in the same year, 1993, that gay marriage hit the supreme court docket in Hawaii (the case that launched a nationwide debate). But rather than rally opposition to both issues, conservatives chose to focus their attention only on same sex marriage. Why?

For one, the co-parenting cases received relatively little attention from the mainstream press—again, because they were not being argued as matters of “gay rights.” Also, many pro-family activists also assumed, or at least hoped, that anti-marriage efforts would limit both marriage and parenting progress. They theorized that same-sex marriage bans would, like anti-sodomy statutes, impose a chilling effect on judges. So while conservatives were busy getting the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act through Congress and initiating state level bans on same-sex marriage, gay parents and their advocates continued to quietly amass significant court victories in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont.

This sparks two thoughts. First, the initial focus of gay adoption was limited to biological parents who wanted to retain custody of their children after divorce. There's an obvious tension here: Should courts be allowed to take children away from their biological parents just because they're gay? Conservatives, who believe pretty strongly in the rights of biological parents, would be torn. I suspect this limited their desire to fight this battle.

Beyond that, however, I wish Gash had written more about the legislative process. It's one thing to argue that gay adoption succeeded in court because it mostly proceeded under the radar, but at some point states started affirmatively passing laws making it OK for gay couples to adopt. That began in the 90s, and obviously couldn't be kept low profile. So how did it succeed, during a period when same-sex marriage was still universally banned? That sounds like an interesting story, and one whose moving parts might be a bit different. I'd like to read "Under the Gaydar, Part II," please.

Fla. State Senator: We Need to "Vaccinate" Against Shariah

| Fri Mar. 29, 2013 1:15 PM EDT

As I reported in a piece for the print magazine last summer, Florida has emerged as sort of the Thunderdome of the anti-Shariah movement, with a host of lawmakers at the municipal, state, and federal level working hand-in-hand with a dedicated group of activists to combat the invisble spectre of Islamic law. Shariah isn't coming to South Florida, but that hasn't stopped the state legislature from trying—again—to ban it from being used in state courts.

On Friday, the South Florida chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations blasted out this video, in which state Sen. Alan Hays, the bill's Republican sponsor, compares stopping Shariah to getting a polio vaccination:

When you were a child, did your parents have you vaccinated against different diseases? That was a preemptive gesture on their part for which I would hope you're very thankful. And this is very similar to that. Your mom and dad would not want you to get sick from one of those dreadful diseases, and I don't want any American to be in a Florida courtroom and have their constitutional rights violated by any foreign law. That's it. It's not that complicated.

By all accounts, Hays considers the threat posed by Islamic law quite dire. The Miami Herald reported earlier in March that the senator had distributed anti-Shariah literature in the halls of the state capitol. Per the Herald, the fliers "present Islam as a threat to the United States," and invoke lawmakers to pass legislation to "save us from an internal attack" and "protect our freedom."

That is, if the pythons don't get us first.


Read more here: http://miamiherald.typepad.com/nakedpolitics/2012/03/anti-sharia-flyers-circulate-senate-hallways.html#storylink=cpy