Monday, March 28, 2005

On the other hand, part two

Michael Schiavo should allow his wife's parents whatever comfort they can find in giving their daughter a Catholic funeral and let them bury her near their home:

Michael Schiavo, who had his wife’s feeding tube removed by court order ten days ago, has made arrangements for her to be cremated and her ashes interred in his family’s plot in Pennsylvania.

But Bob and Mary Schindler want their daughter to have a Roman Catholic funeral service and to be buried near their home in Clearwater, Florida.

The Schindlers have endured a pain that few of us can really understand, and having lost their struggle to keep their daughter alive, they deserve the compromise of being allowed to lay her to rest as they so choose.

We the living

I don't share Christopher Hitchens' atheism, but I do share his disgust at how Christian fundamentalists have fetishized Terri Shiavo, and his alarm at how powerful they have become:

It is an abuse of our courts and our Constitution to have judges and congressmen and governors bullied by those who believe in resurrection but not in physical death. Which post-terminal patient could not now be employed, regardless of his or her expressed wish, to convene a midnight court or assemble a hasty nocturnal presidency? Not content with telling us that we once used to share the earth with dinosaurs and that we should grimly instruct our children in this falsehood, religious fanatics now present their cult of death as if it were a joyous celebration of the only life we have. They have gone too far, and they should be made to regret it most bitterly.

Republican politicians should take heed that the people protesting outside Terri Schiavo's hospice represent a constituency that can never be satisfied. Look at how they have turned on Florida Gov. Jeb Bush:

"There will be a backlash. A very strong minority of the conservative base will not only not support him, they will work for defeat." (Bush cannot seek a third term as governor in 2006 and he has said he will not run for president in 2008).

Beyond elected representatives, the fury toward the judges who have ruled against Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, at every state and federal level is being subsumed into the broader national issue of what some conservatives here describe as a judiciary that is "out of control" on issues from gay marriage to religious expression.

"Just in the past year we've had 'under God' struck from the Pledge of Allegiance, the Ten Commandments taken away from the courthouse in Alabama, homosexual marriage created out of thin air and an innocent woman starved to death by judicial decree," said Randall Terry, who founded the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue and now heads the Society for Truth and Justice. "The essence of self-government is that we elect our representatives to do our bidding. We don't have that anymore; we live under an imperial judiciary."

Certainly, not everyone who believes that Terri Schiavo's feeding tube should be re-inserted are conservative Christians; indeed, I still believe that the Florida courts, in the absence of incontrovertible evidence that Schiavo would not have wanted to be kept alive in a persistent vegitative state, should have denied her husband's wishes that the feeding tube be removed.

But it seems that a vocal minority insists on turning this into a sick circus, ignoring even the wishes of Schiavo's parents--who want to keep her alive--to stop their aggressive protests. What a travesty. What a mockery, not only of our system of laws but of their own beliefs.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

On the other hand

Amidst all the overheated rhetoric regarding Terri Schiavo comes this thoughtful essay in Slate arguing in favor of Congress' action to intervene in the matter (My anonymous reader made some of the same points in his/her comment on yesterday's post.) The writer, Harriet McBryde Johnson, makes her arguments on legal grounds as well as moral ones:

In addition to the rights all people enjoy, Ms. Schiavo has a statutory right under the Americans With Disabilities Act not to be treated differently because of her disability. Obviously, Florida law would not allow a husband to kill a nondisabled wife by starvation and dehydration; killing is not ordinarily considered a private family concern or a matter of choice. It is Ms. Schiavo's disability that makes her killing different in the eyes of the Florida courts. Because the state is overtly drawing lines based on disability, it has the burden under the ADA of justifying those lines.

In other contexts, federal courts are available to make sure state courts respect federally protected rights. This review is critical not only to the parties directly involved, but to the integrity of our legal system. Although review will very often be a futile last-ditch effort—as with most death-penalty habeas petitions—federalism requires that the federal government, not the states, have the last word. When the issue is the scope of a guardian's authority, it is necessary to allow other people, in this case other family members, standing to file a legal challenge.

I'm not aware that anything was preventing the parents of Terri Schiavo to pursue the case in the federal courts; indeed, if I'm not mistaken, the U.S. Supreme Court previously declined to hear this case. But the writer implies that their ability to seek federal legal redress was hampered by the fact her husband, who wants her feeding tube to be removed, is her legal guardian.

Still, I remain unconvinced, and while I do believe that many members of Congress were well-intentioned, I believe that many others are exploiting this tragedy for political gain. I don't think that Terri Schiavo's feeding tube should be removed; but the matter, it seems to me, has been properly considered by the courts, and their decision should stand.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Of laws, not men

The New York Times eloquently explains that Congress and President Bush are trampling on the rule of law by their interference in the Terri Shiavo case:

The founders believed in a nation in which, as Justice Robert Jackson once wrote, we would "submit ourselves to rulers only if under rules." There is no place in such a system for a special law creating rights for only one family. The White House insists that the law will not be a precedent. But that means that the right to bring such claims in federal court is reserved for people with enough political pull to get a law passed that names them in the text.

The Bush administration and the current Congressional leadership like to wax eloquent about states' rights. But they dropped those principles in their rush to stampede over the Florida courts and Legislature. The new law doesn't miss a chance to trample on the state's autonomy and dignity. There are a variety of technical legal doctrines the federal courts use to show deference to state courts, like "abstention" and "exhaustion of remedies." The new law decrees that in Ms. Schiavo's case, these well-established doctrines simply will not apply.

Republicans have traditionally championed respect for the delicate balance the founders created. But in the Schiavo case, and in the battle to stop the Democratic filibusters of judicial nominations, President Bush and his Congressional allies have begun to enunciate a new principle: the rules of government are worth respecting only if they produce the result we want. It may be a formula for short-term political success, but it is no way to preserve and protect a great republic.

It seems a bit shameful to shove the Schiavo case into the same sentence as the debate over proposed changes to the Senate's filibuster rules, but both are examples of the breathtaking abuse of power that we are witnessing by this nation's ruling party. There hardly are words to describe it.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

The good old boys

Via Rauterkus, I learn that the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, part of the city's old-boys network (though now open to women of the proper mindset) that continues to believes it knows best for the city, the rest of us be damned, held a mayoral debate, and failed to invite one of the candidates, Les Ludwig. Now, Les doesn't have a chance in Hell of winning, but let's face it--neither does GOP candidate Joe Weinroth, who participated in the debate. What gives? One of the city's biggest problems is that a self-selected group of politicians, corporate and civic leaders have long controlled Pittsburgh, shaping it to their own misguided specifications, refusing to acknowledge decades of failure, and shutting out anyone who refuses to stick to the script.

Pittsburgh's day of reckoning is still at hand, my friends. We haven't even come close to hitting bottom.

Separate but equal

The Trib has a nice editorial today in defense of the California judge who ruled that state's gay marriage ban violates the state constitution:

And from this whirlwind comes a campaign against fellow citizens trying to find in this difficult world a measure of happiness through a singular commitment to another human being.

But try to find a compelling state interest in denying two adults the fundamental right to marry because of their sexual orientation. There is none.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Safe at home

The new Homeland Security Secretary acknowledged that you can't protect all of the people, all of the time, so the government is going to put its resources into preventing the most serious attacks. It's a sensible approach and one that the Bush administration should have adopted publicly almost immediately after Sept. 11, instead of trotting out John Ashcroft and Tom Ridge every other week to send Americans to the hardware store in search of duct tape.

Republicans have long nurtured a reputation for law and order, and critics--myself included--believe they exploited the 9/11 attacks and intruded on civil liberties out of proportion to the real risk of a terrorist attack. A key principle of conservatism--and conservatism and Republicanism are not always mutually inclusive--is that life is inherently risky, tragic even, and that there is a limit to what government can do to mitigate that risk. It's a sensible philosophy.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

From my blog to his ears

A few days ago I tussled with some fellow bloggers over whether Democrats should support Bob Casey Jr., an anti-abortion Democrat, over Rick Santorum in the senatorial election. I agree that a vigorous primary battle is not necessarily a bad thing for the party, so I'm not thrilled that the powers-that-be are trying to clear the field for Casey. But I disagree that party activists should sit on their hands if Casey is the nominee, simply based on his conservative abortion views.

E. J. Dionne illustrates this point in the Washington Post. He notes that Republicans are far more pragmatic on this issue, and that's paid dividents for them:

...the Republican Party has been utterly realistic, indeed ruthless, in engineering the nomination of pro-choice candidates if they had the better chance of winning. The amazing thing is that some of the staunchest opponents of abortion went right along and sidetracked allies if that was what victory required.

The best example: last year's Republican primary in Pennsylvania between Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Pat Toomey. Specter is pro-choice, Toomey pro-life. Guess who campaigned hard for Specter, following the dictates of Bush and the party establishment? None other than Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania's other Republican senator and one of the most resolute opponents of abortion in Congress. Santorum turned his back on his fellow pro-lifer because Specter, he said, was "an important ally to the president." Specter won the primary and held the seat for the GOP.

Now, Specter hasn't exactly been a good GOP soldier since his re-election; even after he had to kiss some serious butt to get the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he's still indicated that he might seek compromise with Democrats over judicial nominees. But before his re-election, when he knew he would need the president's help, he dutifully supported the president's agenda.

As Democrats head into the 2006 election season, it's important to remember that during the last two mid-terms (1998 and 2002) the party in the White House defied historical precedent by picking up seats. If that happens again, the Democrats will be in trouble:

"If we lose three seats," (Sen. Charles) Schumer said, "many of the things we've cherished and valued over the last 50 years would go out the window."

Save our schools, firehouses, Army bases, etc.

Pittsburgh's elected officials have been faced with some tough decisions the past few years (largely because they put off making them when they should have, but we'll save that discussion for another day), and few are as painful as whether and where to close firehouses and schools. City Councilman and mayoral candidate Bill Peduto has suggested that some kind of independent body decide which firehouses to close, and I think it's a suggestion that the Pittsburgh school board should consider when it comes to closing schools. Few people would argue that the school district isn't overbuilt, given current enrollment, but no one wants to see their child's school close. They protest, pressure their school board members, and often succeed, simply because they might be better organized and more vocal than a group of parents across town.

Now, the district has commissioned facilities studies in the past, and ignored them. So getting an independent body to make tough decisions doesn't entirely remove politics from the process. But it might help.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

I don't care if I never get back

Adults should be allowed to take steroids, or any other drug, for that matter. The government has no business telling you what you can and cannot put into your body. Professional sports leagues can decide whether the use of steroids are tantamount to cheating, and can discipline players accordingly. It is no business of Congress, one way or another.


Sunday, March 06, 2005

Agreeing to disagree

I'm involved in a lively discussion over at Fester's Place.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Money like water

Another reason to hate the campaign finance laws, which do nothing to keep money out of politics, but merely make its influence harder to trace:

Bradley Smith says that the freewheeling days of political blogging and online punditry are over.
In just a few months, he warns, bloggers and news organizations could risk the wrath of the federal government if they improperly link to a campaign's Web site. Even forwarding a political candidate's press release to a mailing list, depending on the details, could be punished by fines.
Smith should know. He's one of the six commissioners at the
Federal Election Commission, which is beginning the perilous process of extending a controversial 2002 campaign finance law to the Internet.

In 2002, the FEC exempted the Internet by a 4-2 vote, but U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly last fall overturned that decision. "The commission's exclusion of Internet communications from the coordinated communications regulation severely undermines" the campaign finance law's purposes, Kollar-Kotelly wrote.

Smith and the other two Republican commissioners wanted to appeal the Internet-related sections. But because they couldn't get the three Democrats to go along with them, what Smith describes as a "bizarre" regulatory process now is under way.

What are the Democratic members afraid of?

Self-indulgence alert, day two

For more information about this post, see yesterday's.

By Jonathan Potts

You’re fat and you’re ugly. You’re a lousy dresser and your haircut has been out of style since the Carter administration. Your love life? Forget about it.

If you think I’m being harsh, then you obviously haven’t been watching much TV lately. Broadcast and cable networks have been spawning makeover shows faster than a rabbit on fertility drugs. From TLC’s “What Not To Wear” to ABC’s “Extreme Makeover” and Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” the unrelenting message of these shows is that nothing in your life is good enough, but that happiness can be yours if only you get sharper clothes, a chic haircut and a smaller nose.

The most extreme example of this genre is, of course, “Extreme Makeover,” a mesmerizing 60 minutes of television in which two people who believe they lost the genetic lottery are selected to receive extensive plastic surgery as well as personal training to free the beautiful person trapped inside the ugly person’s body. A similar show on Fox, “The Swan,” took the concept one further—the women who receive makeovers get to appear in a beauty pageant.

Make no mistake—many of the people who appear on “Extreme Makeover” give life to the saying that beauty is skin deep, but ugly goes straight to the bone. (And before you point it out for me, I realize I’m no Ashton Kutcher.) But many, if not all, seem to be living otherwise happy lives, enjoying successful careers and married to loving spouses who don’t seem to care about their partner’s physical shortcomings.

All the candidates for an “Extreme Makeover” however, suffer from a crippling lack of self-esteem; they are painfully self-conscious about their looks. Yet while the show promises to offer these poor souls relief, it reinforces for the audience the notion that has caused the participants so much pain in the first place: Good-looking people have better lives than their homely peers. Previous generations of ugly Americans had no choice but to make due with what nature had given them. No more; plastic surgery and reality television can now make them as shallow as the rest of us.

Of course, not everyone needs painful surgery to become good-looking; some just need a new wardrobe and a professional stylist. That’s where “What Not to Wear” comes in. Each episode is about a person who has been nominated by their so-called friends to appear on the show because of their criminally bad sense of fashion. Under the guidance of a male and female host, they get $5,000 and two days to buy new clothes. They also get professional hair and make-up advice. At the end of the show, they try on their new clothes for the hosts, who offer self-congratulatory praise about how right their fashion advice turned out to be. The participant admires their new look in the mirror and sometimes even breaks into tears, as though to say, “At last my life is complete.”

I don’t know if the show’s male “fashion expert,” Clinton Kelly, is gay, but I wouldn’t be surprised, and not because of the stereotype about gay men and their preternatural fashion sense. No, it’s because on makeover shows, gay men seem to exist solely to improve the lives of straight men, in the same way that black men in movies exist to improve the lives of white men. (See “The Green Mile” or “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”) Bravo’s much-ballyhooed “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” in which a merry band of gay men make a straight guy safe for marriage by cleaning up his apartment and his wardrobe, has been touted as an example of how tolerant Americans have grown toward homosexuals. If that’s true, then “Amos `n’ Andy” was a great example of how tolerant Americans in the 1920s had become of black people. “Queer Eye” isn’t much more than a 21st century minstrel show, the only difference being that now, the people being made fun of are allowed play themselves.

But let’s be fair to “Queer Eye”; it’s not only patronizing to gay men, but to straight men as well. It portrays them as overgrown boys who are hopelessly unable to dress or pick after themselves without help. (OK, so maybe some stereotypes are true.) Then there’s the point of the show—that these men have to change ASAP, or they risk losing their girlfriends and potential wives. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with trying to improve yourself to please someone you love. Yet I can’t help but wonder what the reaction would be to a television show in which a woman was pressured to make major changes in her life in order to please a man. And “Queer Eye” ain’t doing women any favors, either: It basically affirms many men’s hidden fear that committing to a woman means losing your male identity.

Few things are as American as self re-invention, and while it’s tempting to look for a sociological phenomenon in all these makeover shows, let’s not forget that television programmers aren’t exactly the most creative bunch. The success of one show spawns imitators, and the story arc on most reality shows these days has become as formulaic as those on most sitcoms. TV shows, after all, are just ways to fill the airtime between commercials. And that’s probably what’s most insidious about the makeover shows. It’s not that they schlep specific products, the way, for example, that “Survivor” does when its starving contestants vie for Oreos or Mountain Dew. No, these TV shows plug an idea that’s as old as the medium itself: You can fill every void in your life by buying something, whether it’s an Ikea sofa, a pair of boot-cut jeans, or a whiter, brighter smile.


Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Self-indulgence alert

Over the next couple of days, I'm going to post two essays that I wrote last year but which I never was able to get published. (Not that I made that much of an effort.) At this point, they are a bit dated, but I figured I would torture you with them anyway. What do you expect for free?

Trading Lives
by Jonathan Potts

For all the joy she has brought into my life, my wife has done something to me that I find almost unforgivable: She has gotten me hooked on the television reality show “Trading Spaces.”

Based on the British program “Changing Rooms,” the show, which airs on TLC, features two sets of neighbors who switch houses for two days and, under the tutelage of a professional designer, redecorate a room in the others’ home, each on a $1,000 budget. The owners have no say over the design, and they do not see the redecorated room until it is finished.

The show has attracted legions of fans, and home improvement, of course, has become quite a fad, something experts have attributed to Americans’ post-9/11 “nesting.” But I’d submit that “Trading Spaces” unwittingly says a lot about the way Americans now live, and much about how our society has changed over the course of the last century.

First, there’s the show premise—two pairs of neighbors redecorate a room in each other’s houses. Usually, both sets of neighbors are a husband and wife. The couples appear to be equal partners in redecorating. Men do not merely hammer nails or drill holes—they sew slip covers and frame pictures as well. And the role reversals go both ways. The wives regularly assist the show’s carpenters—one of whom is a woman.

Lest you think me naïve, I’m aware that much of what happens on “Trading Spaces” as with other reality shows, is staged. Sometimes, the sewing machines aren’t even threaded when the cameras roll, as noted in one published account. And who knows how these men act in their everyday lives, when they’re not featured on a television show on a network where other programs include shows about weddings and giving birth.

Nonetheless, how many of our fathers—let alone our grandfathers—would have allowed themselves to be seen on a national television show operating a sewing machine, thread or no thread?

Nor is it easy to imagine men of earlier generations greeting with such enthusiasm the décor of their newly redecorated rooms. On one episode, a man reacted with giddy glee when he opened his eyes to discover the Polynesian-themed bedroom, complete with a seashell-shaped headboard, that his neighbors had helped design. When he was reunited with his neighbors, he hugged the other husband in gratitude—a manly one-armed hug, but a hug just the same. The older men in my family didn’t even hug each other, let alone the guy who lived across the street.

What’s interesting about this is that the show, with some exceptions, rarely acknowledges its own gender-bending. If you think these gender stereotypes were put to rest long ago, consider the ways in which they continue to be reinforced elsewhere in popular culture. Take, for example, the J.C. Penney commercial in which a father, comically annoyed that he actually has to pay attention to his rambunctious kids, asks “Where’s your mother?” Why, she’s shopping, of course! And let’s not forget the pot-bellied masculinity of sitcom husbands on shows such as “King of Queens” and “Life with Jim.”

But even more significant than what “Trading Spaces” reveals about changing gender roles is what it says, for better or worse, about the places in which many Americans make their homes.

Every episode of “Trading Spaces” is shot in a different community in a different state, but you’d never know it from the brief glimpses we get of each neighborhood. The houses, the streets, the perfectly manicured lawns, all look the same. (In fact, on some episodes, the two featured houses are identical.) Just about every episode takes place in suburbia, in the heart of what author James Howard Kunstler describes as the geography of nowhere. You’re sure as you watch each show that there’s an SUV parked in the driveway that’s going to ferry the whole family to the nearest Applebee’s to celebrate after the show.

Even the interiors of the homes resemble one another. They all have the same white walls and beige carpets. None of them looks like they were built more than 15 years ago, and their very blandness is what lends them so well to a makeover.

Of course, it is the unspoken clash of cultures between the homeowners and designers that makes the show great. In addition to the carpenters and the show’s terminally perky host, Paige Davis, the decorators represent the show’s regular cast of characters, and each is either beloved or reviled by the audience. You know, for example, that if the conscientious Vern Yip is designing a room, it’s going to turn out lovely no matter what he does, but if the effete Hildi Santo-Tomas is in charge, smart money says the homeowners are likely to recoil in horror at the finished product.

It’s also a safe bet that these decorators would rather drink instant than actually live in the homes that they redesign every week. And the beauty of the show lies in the conflict, sometimes unspoken, between the avante garde tastes of the decorators and the strip-mall sensibilities of the homeowners.

As often as not, you find yourself rooting for the homeowners. I might not care for a couple’s house, but it is their house, and it’s painful to watch someone’s living room, ruined, for instance, because Hildi thought it would be cute to glue straw to the walls. And what’s wrong with a ceiling fan here and there?

Still, no one is forcing these people at gunpoint to cover their neighbors’ perfectly good fireplace. They volunteered to be on this show, usually because they are devoted fans. One wonders if their willingness to place the fate of their bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens in the hands of strangers isn’t really a cry for help, that perhaps what these soccer moms and soccer dads really desire is an escape from the monotonous and unyielding landscapes they’ve chosen to inhabit.