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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Of PDA and PDA (Or, Welcome to the Synopticon)

In the days immediately before the inauguration there was much talk about whether the new president would have to give up his Blackberry personal digital assistant. Every president before him has, ostensibly due to concerns about security, given up e-mailing before taking office. It is one of the many losses of privacy that come with being leader of the country (and of the “free world”, as many media sources remind us). The new president, however, found this a difficult pill to swallow since he is said to be, like many users of the device, almost addicted to using it. There is a reason that some people call it Crackberry. Ultimately, President Obama won the fight and will be allowed to use a new, specially designed PDA.

Now, I don’t have a Blackberry. My lack is not because I am some sort of Luddite but because since I left the world of private law practice some years ago I just haven’t been able to afford all of the coolest electronic gadgets. Still, I am enough of a techie to see how not being able to e-mail, IM, text and telephone one’s contacts at will could feel like a form of death. I think that in a contemporary version of Dante’s Inferno, one of the circles of hell would be a place where there is no Internet of any kind. A slightly higher circle would have Internet but it would be dial-up service only.

There were a couple of often repeated objections to allowing President Obama to retain his Blackberry. First, someone might be able to intercept his messages, thus compromising national security. After all, wireless communications are famously hackable. Next, theoretically any written communications sent with such a device become part of the official correspondence of the office of the president and may be subject to subpoena by Congress and the courts. Such e-mails may also be subject to public records laws, such as the Presidential Records Act, which requires the National Archives to preserve presidential records.

Both of these objections can be overcome. As to hacking the President’s PDA, it is said that the device to be used by President Obama will be an uber-PDA, one which, while not impossible to hack, will offer security beyond that found in a standard device. As to the possibility of having to archive routine private or familial communications not intended to have much official import (“Hey Michelle, are you going to Malia’s teacher conference today?”), there are exceptions in records keeping laws for purely private communications. At the end of the day, it is likely that Obama’s PDA use will not compromise national security, but will instead be a way for him to stay in contact with his family and close associates. So, what’s the big deal about Obama’s PDA?

I think that part of the big deal about his PDA has to do with the other kind of PDA surrounding the Obamas—that’s Public Display of Affection. Thanks to twenty-four hour news channels, the Obamas PDA was frequently on view during the campaign (remember that affectionate fist bump that got transformed into a “terrorist fist jab” courtesy of Fox News?), during the inaugural parade (serial hand-holding) and most notably during the inaugural balls (lots of lovey dovey, close, but not dirty, dancing). Both types of PDA have to do with the articulation of the traditional binary public-private distinction. This distinction appears to be an expression of a particular point of view in which the public sphere is carefully distinguished from the private sphere. Things associated with the family, with the body, or with any form of intimacy were to be tightly bound within the private realm. Women, and especially men’s intimate relationships with women, were clearly part of that private world. But something odd goes on when dealing with major political office such as the president of the United States. The rules are different, and power is exercised not through keeping intimacy private but through making public certain legitimate, state-sanctioned forms of intimacy. It is a synoptic relationship: the many observe the few, and from those observations, the many draw a sense of discipline, order, and propriety. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman observed, postmodern compliance to social standards is achieved via enticement and seduction rather than by coercion. This enticement comes in the guise of free will, transparency and access, rather than revealing itself as an external force. The whole notion of a “First Lady” is exemplary of this process. The First Lady is First Wife and First Mother to the President and to the nation at large, and such, is our guide to behavior.

Given the symbolic importance of the First Lady, what happens when she is black? Whether we deal in private text messages on a PDA or romantic little hand-squeezes between the Obamas, both are carried out in the context of a culture marked with complex mythologies about black family life and sexuality, and especially about black women. Black women, while long eroticized, have rarely been viewed as having sufficient aesthetic, cultural or intellectual appeal to become models of virtuous Womanhood.

With both PDA and PDA the Obamas are not only redrawing public/ private boundaries but charting new terrain altogether.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

He Is (Or, We Are)

The make it alrighter
The get you through the nighter
The soul defender of anything I fear
The pain remover
The bad times undoer
The joy bringer
The love giver
He is.

Heather Headley, “He Is”

He is walking out onto the stage, the president elect of the United States. This feels like a life-changing event. I am already crying, weeping loudly at first, trying to bring myself under control, glad that I am not in a public place right now. I promised to blog this moment, even in the midst of writing up notes for my paper and preparing my talk, struggling to keep it a regular day, the day that I had planned. I cried when the little black girls came out. He is their father—that one fact is part of what brings it home to me. God Bless America.

Rick Warren is there, providing the invocation. “Let us pray.” There are a few boos. Folks, folks, it’s not the time for that. Good, they keep it together during the prayer.

Biden is being sworn in. He squints—is the sun in his eyes?
It is 11:58 a.m., Barack is up in a few minutes. Yo Yo Ma is playing, beautifully.

Here come Roberts,Barack and Michelle with the bible in her hand.

It is done. He is… the President of the United States. I weep loudly and insistently now with no shame, shaking my head at the unreality of it. It is like when my mother died. Spinning unreality, hot, hot tears, a knowledge that the world will forever, be different, different. But this is a birth; we have collectively given birth to a new leader who is a symbol of a new era. He is, however, but a single symbol in what will, I hope, be long period of broad civic engagement, both here and abroad. Yes, he is, but we are, also.

In his essay, “Messianism in the Political Culture of the Weimar Republic,” author Klaus Schreiner discusses how language is a creature of both cause and effect: on the one hand, changes in language illustrate how society’s political thought and behavior has been transformed, but on the other hand, it is language itself that often spurs these changes. Applying this to the Weimar Republic, Schreiner observed how the use of messianic concepts on the one hand laid bare the presence of messianic impulses in civic life, but such language was also the catalyst of the messianic fervor came to undermine democratic ideals.

Now, this is in no way to suggest that the new administration in Washington is somehow on a messianic journey to undermine American democratic ideals and lead us to a hypernationalistic state. Quite the contrary, I took great solace in the first official statement of our new President. In his inaugural address, President Obama opened with: “My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.” Though many commentators critiqued the speech as lacking in “grandeur” and “loftiness,” I think that President Obama got it just right. He went on to remark how “greatness must be earned” and how there is a long and rugged path back to prosperity.

President Obama is not a messiah or the Messiah. He is a strong and capable leader. He will not walk on water to save us from drowning. He will probably not even tow us all to shore while swimming with the rope from the raft in his teeth. He will, I believe, captain our common ship during storms or fair weather, and even help us to paddle it when it the engine falters.

We must resist the impulse of imagining the secularized eschatology of a New American state, one wherein we are immediately reborn as both less and more: less sexist, less racist, less homophobic, less bellicose, but more rational, more compassionate, and more inclusive. These things may happen, but only over time, only if we, collectively, make them happen.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Change, Change, Change of Fools (Or, If You Don’t Hear, You’ll Feel)

Happy New Year. I meant to write this several days ago, but fighting a cold and nursing a weak voice that has waxed and waned throughout the holiday season has kept me sidelined until now. (Sports metaphor!) A few more dozen cups of sage tea should fix me right up, though. (Sage works—really.)

I finally gave up this year. I slept through the New Year instead of straining to stay awake as I have almost my entire adult life. I didn’t have Champagne. Instead I toasted in the New Year at 11 a.m. on January 1 with a glass of eight year old Virgin Islands rum, which, by my lights, is a much better drink than even expensive Champagne. For the first time, I did not watch the Times Square ball drop, either in person or on television because, whether in person or on television, I never found it that much fun (sacrilege!). On New Year’s morning I did not watch the Rose Parade or even think about it for the first time since my early childhood in Los Angeles, where my late mother Marie (not her real name, but for many reasons, it's what we called her all of her life. So, I guess it was her "real" name... ), bless her soul, thought that the New Year simply would not arrive if one did not watch the Rose Parade. Past viewing of the Rose Parade has induced within me such a level of ennui that in some years it took me days to recover. In one fell swoop I seem to have abandoned a lifetime of New Year’s Day customs. (I did eat black eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck—there’s no need to tempt fate.) It’s all because, like the song says, I am changing. But I am changing into myself. (Dream Girls, eat your hearts out.)

Change is in the air. Just ask the people who voted for Barack Obama. Or, for the flip side of the joy of change, ask the people who invested with Bernard Madoff. My changing means getting in sync with who I really am and who I really want to be, as opposed to what I think someone else thinks I am or ought to be. I’ve spent years trying to craft a workable public persona. Quiet, cooperative team-player? (Sports metaphor!) That seemed to be a good way to go early on in my career. Combative shrew? That comes in handy when years of team play get you nowhere but still on the bench. (Another sports metaphor! Really, they’re much too present in the language and culture. And what do they really add? That’s for another blog, maybe.) It’s hard to know how to behave when neither persona seems to get consistent good results. (Actually, I’ve never quite reached my full shrew state—it takes so much energy, and one tries to reserve that level of outrage for truly pressing problems.) The truth of a person’s identity is much more complex than binary good/bad behavior.

What I now know for sure that I only suspected before is that the goal is to be respected, and maybe liked and admired (icing on the cake, but nice nonetheless), for yourself, your real self. Not a self constructed solely for public consumption. To achieve that, somebody has to be willing to listen to you. I mean, really listen. Not grudgingly lending half an ear then parsing your words and turning them into what you didn’t say. Not involuntarily flinching when you open your mouth then inartfully changing the subject to something that hopefully you won’t join in on. To really listen to someone else is probably one of the most revolutionary acts that any of us can engage in. This is because listening to others means risking the possibility that the listener will himself be changed by what he hears.

A favorite expression of my late grandmother-in-law Nen (Nen was her nickname; her real name was actually Marie but nobody called her that; how the Maries have shaped my life!) was “If you don’t hear, you’ll feel.” It was in its simplest terms an admonition to children to heed their parents’ words or risk physical punishment for failing to do so. But she also uttered these words as a continual reminder that failure to listen to others could bring on all sorts of untoward conditions. These few words actually summarized Nen’s political philosophy. To Nen, hearing the words of others was a necessary first step to understanding your own role in the world, even if ultimately you did not act in accord with what you heard. Indeed, you might even do the exact *opposite*. But before choosing to go left, it’s useful to know why the people going before you went right.

If you don’t hear, you’ll feel; moreover, you risk engaging in the change of fools.