Watching the oil spill unfold has been like moving through glue - or like oil following the move of the tides - everything moving in some odd, slow motion, the actual contours and dimensions of disaster only just beginning to come clear.
If nothing else, Barack Obama somehow looks like a genius of timing in announcing his plans to expand drilling last month; after carefully constructing an offshore drilling compromise that pleased basically no one, but managed to look like "doing something" on energy policy, the Administration now gets to put all those plans on hold in the name of environmental safety, and returns the oil industry to "evil, bad polluter" status.
And all it took was the largest oil spill in US history.
Like the volcanic ash moment across Europe, the oil spill probably best reflects how feeble our best efforts can be in the face of nature. The "moving through glue" quality of the response of to the spreading oil slick headed for the Gulf Coast has everything to do with not having, really, anything more than "try to surround it with big plastic barriers" as much of a solution. There's an inevitability to all of it that both amazes and awes.
I've been kind of ambivalent about energy policy; I think a lot of the energy vs. environment argument on the left is more than a little naive and surely unrealistic in a world that seems determined to consumer resources at enormous, even alarming rates. You can't stop progress, and if that progress needs fuel for... well, fuel, then people will be to make a lot of compromises for the desired result; whether we feel bad for the trees and the water and the animals, or not.
"Deep Water Drilling" has always struck me as an accident waiting to happen. It's getting oil from very far away, reaching into places we can't otherwise necessarily reach, a hole in the ground with a really long pipe. Breaking, leaking, the explosion of volatile material in the pipe... that all seemed likely. Stopping it, never quite so clear.
But the question of not doing the drilling strikes me as answered: we will keep drilling, for a long time. All the pushing for "green energy" - faith that wind and solar can deliver prodigious results - won't change that. And the other alternatives - nuclear and coal, essentially - are accidents also waiting to happen. Two mine disasters in two weeks underlines the coal dilemma, and living near Indian Point always reminds me that brave talk about massive nuclear plant expansion will always meet hurdles about risks and safety, with safety tending to prevail.
Environmental policy is where the cynicism in my liberalism wins out - all the talk of green things and conservation and Honor the Earth make lovely bumper stickers, but aren't likely to win political arguments. If environmentalism was winning, I think the Green Party would havemore to show for it, just for starters. And in the end we have this compromise, which we pretend to be fine with: the drilling happens, mostly without us looking... and God forbid anything happens to go wrong. That seems pretty close to the definition of "wing and a prayer". And for it, we get oil, lots of it, spreading out in all directions on top of the Gulf of Mexico. Just the cost of doing business... when you don't really have a Plan B.
I'm not going to claim some special expertise when it comes to Arizona... but it's weird to have been there so recently and to watch the immigration debate unfolding around their new law - a law, I have to mention, that seemed to be on no one's mind while we were there.
It's easy to write the angry, left side "how could they do this" screed - as Linda Greenhouse shows, it practically writes itself - but I think the whole unease about "show us your papers" and the intrusive, ugly aspects of the new law are readily apparent, and we've yet to see the worst case scenarios play out. Very likely, we never will. And these exercises in high dudgeon, while necessary, don't necessarily deal with the hard issues around immigration that many - especially the educated, northeastern professional class who can live largely above and beyond the practical effects of immigration issues - don't want to look at in depth.
Indeed, I think the immigration debates of the second Bush term tended to end with "do we really have to do this now", and that feeling, I suspect, is coloring the return of the issue now. As much as there is real fear and real loathing of the new Arizona law, I think the main tone of dismissal is exasperation, a "not here and not now" admonition to a misbehaving child at the mall, where everyone can see. That certainly seems to drive the latest Obama Administration reaction, as they've done so often, of "if we make the appropriate clucking noises and promise to do something real soon, maybe this will just go away."
In terms of doing something, this year, on immigration, I'm betting this will go away, somehow, and soon; there's no real appetite to argue this (again) on the national stage, no one has a good solution, and the politics of immigration cut badly across both parties, something lefties don't like to discuss (because it's about working class resentments about illegal immigrants and the lack of low level jobs) and Republicans like to wish away (because reasonable, thinking conservatives are as disdainful of the ugly xenophobia being sold to the masses as are the actual conservative immigrants who want some immigration reform... just not extremes like this).
But mostly, I think, there's this fantasy, both right and left, that the Arizona law, somehow, just happened out of the right wing, racist, primordial ooze, and that's not the case. I saw enough of Arizona to get that, even though it seemed out of the blue, this turn of events isn't necessarily surprising, and it is borne of a frustration that we can't, for much longer, not talk, and not do something about the immigration mess we have on our hands.
One of the things that I find fascinating and frustrating with the Goldman Sachs mess as it unfolds is the disrespect of brilliance. From the discussion of "sophisticated" investors to the implications of genius within Goldman, smart is taking a beating.
It's hard being the smart one. I come from a smart family, I have a bunch of brilliant friends... and they, never mind me, have felt it. When you are the smart one in the room, all eyes are on you, and taking you down... can look pretty attractive.
I'm not sure being the best, or smartest Wall Street firm is necessarily desirable; that came clear to me back in the eighties, when Michael Milken's genius in selling junk bonds was supposed to make Drexel Burnham Lambert the star of the Street. Being brilliant (and thieving) undid Enron. Being the smart one, and having everyone notice it, seems to lead to trouble. That seems almost as clear watching the various Goldman execs testify today, representing the supposed smart guys of investment banking (who also seem to have been genius for, well, knowing how to hawk junk). Everyone seems to be waiting for a takedown.
On the other hand, there's a kind of "gotcha" element to the questioning that doesn't hold up. It's one thing to say that Goldman should have been more honest about its own holdings when trying to sell securities to others; it's another to ask why Goldman made money convincing other people to buy bad investments. It's rather - though not exactly - like hauling a Senior Buyer at Macy*s up to Congress and asking "why do you sell ugly dresses?" When you sell things... there is a point at which you are not the guilty party in your buyer's choices. And somewhere, somebody has to unload some ugly dresses. And someone winds up buying them.
This is why I think the arguments about "sophisticated" investors is kind of moot. That some banks and firms bought mortgage bonds all the time, and knew what they were doing, presumably... doesn't make them sophisticated, necessarily. The idea that mortgage bonds didn't get sold to "widows and orphans" but "sophisticated" investors doesn't really help anything. In the end, the enormous losses touched everyone; and the supposed sophistication of the financial firms betting on mortgage bonds has turned out, mostly, to be hash.
Goldman's big crime, in much of this... is using math. They did a lot of calculation of risk, and the worth of investments... and made decisions based on the numbers. Anyone, really, can do this. That Goldman did the math, and with their knowledge, did things to maximize profit is both the promise and the problem of capitalism. It's not, in itself, necessarily wrong. And it's not bad, still, to be smart.
But here's the thing: I think with knowledge comes power, and responsibility. Knowing things... you can't pretend not to know. And when you're the smart one... it's not nice to not share what you've learned. The problem with being the smart one in the room is that feeling that it shouldn't always fall on you to educate the rest. And yet, often, it does. Hoarding your knowledge, lording it over the others... will get you nailed. Every time. Or everytime. Or something.
Since I started this blog - a phrase that defines my life more than I ever imagined - I have realized that a commitment to writing on a regular basis takes a lot of... well, commitment.
My ability to make that commitment ebbs and flows; and if I knew how to predict the ebbs better, than the flow might be more steady... but probably not. Sometimes it's the emotional ups and downs of life, sometimes it is the hectic schedule I can't control, sometimes... I'm just worn down.
Right now, there's a little bit of all three in play - no one thing seems to keep me from writing as much as life, all combined, seems to pull me in a variety of directions just at the moment. I can't do everything that everyone wants, I can't do everything I would want to do. And while it's frustrating, the truth is that life, just now, is also pretty good, and I can't say that I'm so depressed as to be totally blocked. The things I want to discuss, though - from finance reform to immigration and Arizona, to elections - take the kind of serious thought and focus that, for the moment, takes more time to muster than I can pull together.
Also, the finale of RuPaul's Drag Race is tonight. :) And I have to miss it to work.
As I thought about all of this yesterday - on the train, after spending a lovely day in New York with Jennifer, shopping and catching some old movies - I realized I should take a moment, explain myself, and, for myself, recommit to what it is I'm doing here, and why. As much as I blog to get my words out there, to affect some sort of conversation, and to have some sort of small influence... I mostly do this for myself... because it is what I want to do most. That, more than anything, is why I struggle with making this a full time gig, and wonder how I can ever make it pay. I'd love to be wiriting and editing full time... I'm just not sure I'd love to compromise the opportunities I have, blogging, to do it just the way I like.
It's a struggle... and all I can say is, I'm committed to keeping on with it. I am not one to say, "well that was fun... but blog no more." I'm not giving up on this, I hope you don't either. Everytime I write these things, my friend J says "write less about writing", and he's right. But I think... write something. Show a commitment. And the rest, eventually... will follow.
The Wall Street Journal's editorial on the Goldman Sachs case did it for me: there is a case to be made that the SEC civil suit against Goldman is a waste of time. It helps, though, if you believe that regulations are useless and Capitalism just wants to run free.
The Journal's editorial board - quite possibly the longest running exercise in perpetuating the conservative ideals of the wealthy elite - has never favored taxation or regulation, and they don't mean maybe or sort of, and as long as you know that, their editorials are often earnestly hilarious. No matter how contorted the logic gets, no matter how they work their way around to admitting that, yes, something bad is happening, nothing changes their mind: taxes are bad... and regulations don't work.
The thing about the Goldman case that I find remarkable is that it isn't hard. There's a lot of ink spilling these days about the "complexity" of derivatives and the "dizzying world of high finance," meant, I think, to be condescending in the worst sort of way: "we know you're too dumb to know, like, math or anything, so don't think too hard about this" - but I think the thing about the housing crisis, and the recession, and all the trading in mortgage securities is that, more often than not, many people get, basically, what happened, and why, and what's wrong with it. The question is... can anyone use the law to try and make that case, and make it stick.
At base, the SEC's case against Goldman is sort of basic: who would by a security that was, in essence, built to fail? And the answer is, either someone who didn't know what they were buying... or someone who wasn't given the information needed to make an informed purchase. And the Journal's editorial says, basically, well, yes... and what's the problem with either of those?
The question here is fundamental: when it comes to financial dealings, is anything too far? Goldman put together a product so lousy it couldn't actually sell all of it (and now uses that failure to sell as a claim that they "lost money on the deal, too" - well, yes, but only because they couldn't unload the crap fast enough), and appears to have misrepresented either what the product was, or how it was put together, or both. But almost everyone recognizes that there's a bigger point here, the one that got us to this point in our financial mess - trading mortgages, elaborate derivatives meant mostly to make one side a lot of money in a short time, traded among a small group of money managers with no real connection to the disasters they were creating. Is there nothing that we can call wrong with that? Is there nothing we should try, maybe, to do better? It's the most basic questions, really, that will linger.
The Journal likes to fancy itself the defender of this macho, anything goes approach to Capitalism; it's not for sissies, or weaklings, or people who can't handle the risks or the rewards. It's telling their audience - bankers, and the sort of conservatives who oppose taxes and regulations, whether or not that makes sense - what they want to hear, and it's free from nagging questions about how that macho, anything goes approach actually works, and free from the reality that we don't have that system, never have, and never will. And just as pointedly, even the supposed free marketers in finance don't want it either - just ask Goldman Sachs, which took government money, transformed its bank practices to get that money... and insisted in the government paying them money owed by AIG. It's all very "macho libre" until there's a need... or the chance for a handout.
What we do have, though, is imperfect, broken and in need of fixing. And the Goldman case does make a point that the current dance around "financial regulation reform" is mostly for show - we have laws that could be used to police firms; and we should have other rules in place that would slow or stop some of these practices all together. That's not what we're getting, at least not so far. Then, too, much of the discussion of new regulations is focused on preventing the crisis we've already had: we're going to do a great job stopping future mortgage specualtion... but that's already happened, and it's not likely to be where the next problems will lie. And in that sense, too the Journal's right: markets are people and there are people will always run, freely, towards the prospect of money. That's greed. It doesn't make you good, or some brave sort of macho Capitalist, to encourage it.
For a generation of gay men - my generation - a lot of cultural touchstones can be traced to a string of "British Boarding School" movies in the eighties and nineties, most notably Another Country (which helped Rupert Everett to stardom) and Maurice (the culmination, really, of Merchant and Ivory's work adapting EM Forster), with Brideshead Revisited (the Granada version everyone remembers from Masterpiece Theater) firmly in between. All of these films describe life between the wars, when young people enjoyed a certain newfound freedom (that's the roar of the twenties you hear in the background, sloshing with the bathtub gin), and young men were allowed some leeway in forming attachments to their fellows. From the allure of classic preppy fashions to the soft looks and wedge haircuts, with clipped accents as the icing, these films shaped not only a style, but a whole notion of lives lived in feverish romance, desperately secret, awaiting only some final betrayal.
It took years for films to reach beyond a lot of this; I'm not sure gay male culture has ever entirely recovered (films from Bright Young Things to the recent remake of Brideshead suggest there will always be an English Boarding School in our future). We are still more likely to see doomed romance onscreen than actual happy endings (and, as a string of more modern American gay romances show, happy endings can be overrated). And it's a shame, in many ways, because gay life needs more stories, and more variety.
Little Ashes, released two years ago, is one film that fills in some of the blanks. Taking similar material - young men in college between the wars, a doomed romance, the onset of war - Little Ashes offers a history (much like Another Country, which concerned Guy Burgess, a British spy) previously unseen. Only this time, the setting is Spain. And it makes for a much different ride.
The film connects the dots of actual history among some well known Spaniards: among others, artist Salvador Dali, filmmaker Luis Bunuel and playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca were all in university together in Madrid in teh twenties, living in the same building of student apartments. Little Ashes focuses on Lorca, and on his infatuation and ultimately doomed romance with Dali, running through to Lorca's death at the start of the Spanish Civil War.
Like its Brit cousins, Little Ashes trades on the soft, fey look of young men in the twenties, and the cultural ambiguities that allowed for stronger male attachments. Director Phil Morrison deserves credit for the handsome look of this film, entirely twenties in feel, but very Spanish in style. There is less of the overarching correctness and airlessness of British upper class culture, which offers a freer, more passionate expression of creativity and desire (as well as, no blondes - it's all brunette beauties here).
As Lorca, Javier Beltran gives an accomplished, passionate performance, as Lorca struggles both with his own dawning sexuality and the up and down nature of his relationship with Dali. The film makes liberal use of Lorca's poetry (even considering that most of the film plays in English, the beauty of his imagery shines through), as well as Dali's paintings, and snippets of Un Chien Andalou, the surrealist film Dali and Bunuel collaborated on, and which is an early, important work of film.
I was curious to see the film, though, for the casting of Robert Pattinson as Salvador Dali, which he managed to squeeze in between turns as Edward in the first two Twilight films. Seeing Little Ashes gives the best indication yet that Twilight only scratches the surface of Pattinson's talents and surely what he will become in his career. Playing a celebrity as known as Dali, on the cusp of what he would become is a challenge, but Pattinson does an even more amazing dance between reality and madness that makes Dali's contradictions believable and his internal tensions more sympathetic. I'm not sure the goth-lite, "nice" girls who worship Pattinson as Edward will understand his other career choices... yet; but he's clearly going to chase after interesting work, and more power to him for it. With that passion, and those cheekbones, he could easily trace a path similar to Johnny Depp.
Little Ashes is a small film, and shouldn't be seen for more than what it is, or given too much credit for playing to similar emotional touchstones and familiar romantic inclinations. Doomed romances of beautiful boys that can't survive beyond the magical free period of the twenties and thirties... that storyline is getting old. As much as Little Ashes gracefully and passionately draws in a Spanish translation of some old English tales, there's only so far it can go. At this late date, as lovely as that place looks, we can't stay in that other country forever.
It's apparently A Very Gay Day for the WeBoy today.
Scanning around the intertoobz as I was putting together the last post, I ran into an article late last week by Ann Friedman over at American Prospect, another cautionary tale about the Perils of Outing. These come up every so often - ironically, often from gays - to remind us that There's Nothing Wrong With Being Gay and outing people for being gay... is bad. Or something.
I like Friedman's work, and her politics, so I was a little surprised at her take:
We snicker at the details of these illicit affairs, especially when the leaders in question are anti-gay. And, many would argue, why shouldn't we laugh at Larry Craig's wide stance, Mark Foley's illicit instant messages, or Ted Haggard's taste for prostitutes? If you make it your business to meddle in the lives of gay Americans, we'll make your sexuality our business. Rep. Barney Frank distills this argument in the 2009 documentary Outrage: "There is a right to privacy, but there is no right to hypocrisy."
But it's worth stepping away from the cable-news chyrons and juvenile jokes to ask: Who are we really shaming when we mock politicians who are outed as gay? Are we training a spotlight on how America is still so homophobic that politicians in many areas of the country must keep their gay identities under wraps? Or are we doing the opposite and actively fueling a broader, more pernicious narrative that being gay is something to be ashamed of?
Friedman goes on to rope in Eric Massa, as well, as the latest "victim" of this expose and embarrass brigade:
Massa's recent scandal is instructive because hypocrisy doesn't really come into play -- the freshman Democratic congressman doesn't have a particularly anti-gay record. While a member of Congress groping his staffers is certainly worthy of outrage, in Massa's case the gender of the people in question seemed to be just as important as the harassment itself. That's pretty revealing.
Well, yes... it is; but it's also a reminder that the "snickering" Friedman's decrying and the pious stance towards lefties making sex and sexuality a political issue broadly, and surely, misses the point. Consider the trajectory of her examples:
I'm not going to try and deny that homosexuality isn't a big part of each story here, or that these incidents don't, as much as anything, reveal the challenges gay people face. But let's be clear: what made these stories into news - as Editors and Reporters often remind us - was behavior that had nothing to do with being gay. Indeed, in the cases of Foley and Massa, being gay has nothing to do with wghat made their behavior problematic. Harrassing anyone in the workple is the issue, and as I've said in both cases, it's a reminder that we don't, in fact, take sexual harrassment of men as seriously as we do when a woman is harrassed. Then too, while one can argue that Larry Craig's arrest brings up the criminalizing of gay sexuality, the fact remains - most gays no longer troll T-rooms, and that behavior is widely frowned upon.
Is there a complicated question here about behviors that stem, in some sense, from being closeted leading to scandal? Sure; but that's why gay people have sop fiercely championed the idea of coming out, being out, and making sure that society doesn't in fact, succeed in forcing us to hide. It forces good people into troubling behavior,; it encourages alcohol and drug addiction as a way to medicate personal pain. And, yes, for some men, of a certain age, it can seem too late, too scary, or too hard to come out. But that doesn't make the bad behavior okay... and it doesnn't mean that, once the bad behavior is discovered that sexuality, somehow, won't become the biggest part of the story.
Friedman's take is about as tortured as the anti-outing logic gets: outing is bad, it makes being gay look bad, so it's bad for us that these stories come out. As if, somehow, the press was breathlessly chasing any of these men - and of course, only men - to get at "the real truth." Even if you argue that Craig, and possibly Massa, were dogged by gay rumors, the reality is, no one especially cared. Until the other, more troubling behavior, surfaced.
As Ricky Martin has shown in the past few weeks... outing, in the fullest sense, is pointless; Martin went for years "outed" by various gay writers and parts of the entertainment press, yet he still, after all of that, didn't have to publicly acknowledge being gay until it was on his own terms, in his own time (and, conveniently, years after if it would matter to almost anyone). That's the reality: being gay, being labeled gay by others, coming out as gay... is just not that interesting, and mostly, not news. Harrassing people, chasing strangers in rest rooms, drunk driving away from gay bars... that's a problem. And it's news. It's not the getting caught with your pants down... it's what you were doing when we found you there. And why.
I have no idea. Until last night the idea hadn't, honestly, occurred to me; but, apparently, it's been kind of discussed, or known about... or something, while Kagan was at Harvard as Dean of the Law School. In a blog post about top candidates for Supreme Court Justice, Ben Domenech included Kagan - the current Solicitor General (and the first woman in that post) - as one of his examples, and lauded the fact that she'd be an openly gay Justice. The post was picked up by CBS News, which has been using Domenech as a blogger (more on that in a moment). And then, apparently, all hell broke loose.
The White House had a spokesperson come out and complain that Kagan was facing "false charges" of being a lesbian. CBS asked Domenech what evidence he had for the claim. Domenech, it turned out, had none... but didn't realize it was an issue. And he was backed up, in terms of this being sort of understood, by Julian Sanchez and Matt Yglesias, two bloggers not generally sympathetic to Domenech or his conservativism.
Like I said... I have no idea. Kagan's 50, unmarried, no one's ever mentioned a man or a potential husband, she certainly seems to have pursued a professional career with no interest in marriage or children... but I'm loath to draw conclusions. In one sense, of course, it hardly matters. Lesbian or not, Kagan seems like an interesting choice for the Court, and I'm among those who'd be pretty well pleased if she were nominated (Bill Clinton nominated her for the DC Circuit Judge slot that eventually went to John Roberts, on his way to Chief Justice).
What interests me is this official "we shouldn't care if she's a lesbian... so don't say she is" approach to dealing with the discussion.
The thinking behind this logic has been rolling along for a while; it drives some of the discussion of gay progress, and gay anger, in these Obama-led times, issues that I discussed, as others did, during the primaries and the election season. Barack Obama, clearly, was a better choice for gay people than John McCain. I'm not sure, then or now, that he was a better choice than Hillary Clinton... but that's not the point, not now anyway. However, I think the larger problem for gay people is this illusion, often perpetuated these days, that gays have somehow made more progress than has actually occurred, only to discover, in unpleasant moments, that things are as bad, or worse, then they've ever been.
Gay marriage and "Don't Ask Don't Tell" are obvious, hot button examples... but this goes to, I think, some of the depression that followed the prom story in recent weeks, and underscores what's not happening with Kagan. There's this notion that people are out, that gays are accepted, that our society is more accepting and tolerant... as long as we don't push it too far. It doesn't matter if Elena Kagan's a lesbian... just don't suggest that she is one.
We forget, really, that despite suggestions of progress... many prominent people are not out. Still. We ignore that people who are out, in government, still face surprisingly high hurdles in, say, the confirmation process for appointed offices. The illusion is filled in, I think, because, being out, in small ways, and in many places, isn't a big deal, and gay people quietly live within certain limits. That, and we convince ourselves that a couple of reality shows about hairdressers and fashion designers amounts to progress.
My friend J likes to point out, whenever a new sex scandal pops up, that there's an unspoken double standard in politics that never gets brought up: all these stories about married men who are discovered with mistresses and hookers tend to underline the fact that single men, in fact, can't get elected to high office. Yet we never mention it, never even to point out that, for many of the men caught in the scandal, wouldn't face social rejection or ridicule if they were not married. Sleeping around, being somewhat promiscuous... no big deal. Just don't wear a ring... but if you don't, people will be wondering about when you run for office.
If the Kagan story has legs - and I suspect it does - we are bound to be told that there's a "double standard" when it comes to gay people, or women... or something. But there's not a double standard; there's a lack of any "standard" at all. There's a conviction, in the culture, that there's this acceptance of gay people, when in fact, there really isn't. It's an illusion. And into our clouds of illusion and fantasies that it's all better now, Elena Kagan's possibly being a lesbian challeges two things: the debate over what information is public or private, which shifts like sand... and the illusion that being gay is no big deal... unless, you know, you're actually gay.
That all of this will come from Ben Domenech, of course, is no help at all; Domenech's credibility has been shot since it was revealed in 2006 that he had an extensive history of plagiarism, having fallen upwards as a "prominent conservative" into a position at the Washington Post, and the resulting scandal forced him out of that job. Domenech has toiled since, quietly but determinedly, in reestablishing some bona fides, and restoring at least his reputation as a capable writer. This won't help; it's a Journalism 101 error that CBS should have seen coming, a reminder that "hiring paid bloggers" is often shorthand for "getting journalism on the cheap" often by reducing the presence of editors, whose function is to help catch things, like unsupported assertions in posts. Like I said... I have no idea if Kagan's a lesbian or not, and really, I couldn't care less. It'd be nice if she were, nice to know that we were, as a nation, capable of acknowledging appointing a lesbian to the Supreme Court. But my standard is not the national standard... because we don't have one of those. And let's not pretend that we do.