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Another Two Horsemen: Thoughts on the Midterm Election

Added on by Nadine Friedman.

The New Yorker’s Andy Borowitz recently ran a bitterly amusing headline: Boehner, McConnell Seek Two Additional Horsemen. The list of new nominees is long. It’s also sexier than the last round and, per David Brooks, exemplifies “the beau ideal of American Republicanism.”  After the majority of registered voters made the democratic decision to stay home, our new Congressional majority is comprised of Conservative action figures, “prudent business leader[s]… active in the community, active at church and fervently devoted to national defense.” But there’s no need to celebrate or fret the Apocalypse. The midterm election didn’t signal End Times, nor a powerful shift towards Conservative policymaking; rather, it’s a rehash of our last two electoral Olympics which ushered in the likes of Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin and Co., whose main distinguishing characteristic from 2014’s crew were being specifically old and white (and forgetting to shut their mics off). Brooks maintains this slicker, more ethnic GOP reflects the building blocks of American virtue: “the business community, the military, the church and civic organizations,” and will make waves. But besides the irrelevancy of these “pillars” (no science? Education?), he’s also wrong. Though the GOP brand is undergoing renovations, it won’t change Washington’s inertia anytime soon. They’re just Horsemen of a Similar Color.


Confidence the new Congress will pass anything substantial is already low, per Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “About one-in-five Americans (21%) say Republican control of the Senate will change the way things are going in this country ‘a lot’ and 37% say it will change things ‘some.’ Nearly four-in-ten (38%) expect little or no change as a result of the election. Republicans are about twice as likely as Democrats to think that the GOP winning the Senate will usher in major changes (32% vs. 18%).” There was little change in public opinion from 2010’s election to 2014’s. As for Brooks’ gloat the latest Republicans have their fingers on the economy’s pulse, he’s again out of touch. Of course, Pew reported, upper-income households favored Republicans on economic and tax issues. But, “among those with family incomes of less than $30,000, just one-in-four think the Republicans have the best approach.” Those Republican ideals suit a small percentage of Americans; this new cast of characters is unlikely to please the rest.

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback is focused more on pressing issues like upholding the gay marriage ban and making public assistance cards a bright, scolding red than petty problems like the state’s multi-billion dollar shortfall. Closer in line with Brooks’ “pillars of business” model, Brownback‘s back-scratching deal with the Kochs (fossil fuel patriarchs) meant turning his back on recorded support for renewable energy. As for Brooks’ praise of Republican patriotism, re-elected Horseman McConnell’s consistently opposed expansion of veteran rights. H.R.5683 (Veterans' Job Corps Act), which would have returned our service members to work, was blocked by McConnell and his ilk in 2012. And little changed under the new GOP vanguard: just this year, Bernie Sanders eviscerated McConnell for blocking aid again. At the paltry (relative to Iraq war price tags, at least) cost of $21 million, a bill would have expanded vet education and medical services. Sanders addressed the GOP’s fingers-in-their-ears policy towards bipartisanship: “I had hoped that at least on this issue--the need to protect and defend our veterans and their families--we could rise above the day-to-day rancor and party politics that we see here in Congress." If today’s GOP won’t agree on vet rights, what will they agree on?

Brooks namedrops private sector hero Larry Hogan and his Change Maryland, “an activist group,” as symbol of the GOP’s new civic advocacy arm. The Change Maryland website, however, is dedicated only to taxes and a vague “How We’re Going to Do It” manifesto: “Educate, Engage, Energize”. Change Maryland’s Facebook page aims to bring “common sense to Annapolis”, but it’s mostly disturbing user rants about “liberal socialist brainwashing” and Islam in schools. There are suggestions, though: say, eliminating mass transit services to urban areas (a racially-tinged issue), and advancing Concealed Carry laws (legislation one confused Facebooker believes is granted by “the 14th Amendment.”) These are the progressive “bipartisan” efforts Brooks lauds Hogan, and other millionaire GOP seat-warmers, for?   


There’s Thom Tillis, formerly of PricewaterhouseCoopers (recently fined $25 million for compliance with foreign money laundering) as harbinger of modern Republican business ideals. Aside from his PwC association, we know we can trust Tillis with numbers: he once reassured his constituents, though Hispanic and Black voter populations keep growing, the "traditional population of North Carolina and the United States is more or less stable." That’s the civic-minded voice of the 21st century Republican Brooks is talking about! Further evidence of Tillis’ forward thinking is anti-abortion legislation he sneaked into a motorcycle safety bill. We can’t be sure where this type of maneuver fits into Brooks’ “beau ideal” but it’s a relief to know our reproductive organs could be carefully regulated as Harleys. Speaking of advocacy for 51% of the population, the GOP is tripping over itself to trot out Utah’s new black female rep, Mia Love. Her anti-choice position and plan to defund Planned Parenthood goes against the interests of all women, especially minorities; she embodies Brooks’ bygone “inexplicable oddities from another age,” except it’s 2014. She doesn’t look like Todd Akin, but she’s singing the same old song.


Cognitive dissonance is again at work when Brooks reminds us of Sarah Palin’s existence but neglects to mention her second coming in Smith and Wesson totin’, pig castratin’, climate change rejectin’ Joni Ernst. Among the litany of ideas put forth by Iowa’s newest Senator: eliminating the EPA, shuttering the DOE, threatening to shoot people and (of course) a Personhood amendment. A joint resolution she signed “would’ve defined and defended life from conception.”  Details of the legislation, unfortunately, escape her: “I’m trying to remember how we phrased it, but basically that there was an inalienable right to life.” Devil’s in the details (and in premarital sex and Big Bang Theory education, apparently), and she’ll need to back this up next election.


“If the party is to fully detoxify its image, something will have to pass next year,” says Brooks.  Hard to imagine what that something might be. Attach reproductive rights to motorcycle maintenance? Pander to CEO’s? Shut down the government over the Socialist Black President’s health plan again? With all these impressive resumes, Mitch and John will have their Horsemen shortly. But luckily, due to vicious bipartisanship, reliably prehistoric Republican ideology and Democratic spinelessness, Congressional action will be glacial. Republicans will create bills, Obama will veto them. Republicans will ignore science, women and vets while people like Brooks crow about modernity and Democrats pretend to get a phone call in the other room. And after two years and millions more spent in the name of Citizens United, fair-weather voters will turn out and the whole mess will start again.


The Self Made Man Myth

Added on by Nadine Friedman.

The “Self-Made Man’” is an allegory borne of free market aspirations and our attraction to the possibility of becoming something from nothing. Swansburg’s Slate piece, however, highlights the myth’s thorniness. Americans love a yarn, and the Self Made Man Myth (SMMM) is one of our most dangerous; his article attempts to relieve us of our idealism about the correlation between scrappiness and success. Even Oscar-nominated paean to the rags-to-riches narrative, Cinderella Man, is in on the artifice. “It’s no joke, pal,” says a character, as Depression-era New York City caves in around pugilistic family man and hero, James Braddock. “People die in fairy tales all the time.” 


Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism summarizes the insidious relationship between morality and material wealth in the United States. Capitalism is influenced, and intertwined with, religious ideology; according to Weber, the system’s “dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose... economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs. This reversal of what we should call the natural relationship, so irrational from a naïve point of view… expresses a type of feeling which is closely connected with certain religious ideas.” Weber introduces Ben Franklin (a Swansburg SMM) as early proponent of the idea that “the earning of money within the modern economic order is, so long as it is done legally, the result and the expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling.” He cites Franklin’s autobiography and the entrepreneur’s regurgitation of Biblical law: “’Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings.’” Unfortunately, the pious, determined entrepreneur is Dr. Jekyll to a paradoxical Mr. Hyde: if someone’s poor, it’s due to his or her laziness and gluttony. This is a major design flaw of the SMMM, amongst the many others Swansburg’s subjects illustrate.


He opens the conversation about this faulty American allegory with the bootstrap metaphor: Pulling oneself up by them is actually impossible.  The original meaning, steeped in sarcasm, was “a crackpot inventor’s attempt to build a perpetual motion machine." It’s one of several pointed attempts to shake us from our cinematic ideas about who can succeed.


Swansburg profiles Andrew Carnegie, an example of the SMMM that revealed “mounting ambivalence” towards its legitimacy. A man who “ruthlessly fought to depress wages and extend hours at his steel mills, [while] writing passionately about the need to administer to the community,” Carnegie made a fortune off practices he decried publicly, lauding that bootstraps ethos while ignoring his own workers’ plight.  Carnegie is pure fiction, from his interaction with T.T. Woodruff to his coded condescension about mobility. “’If by chance the professional sweeper is absent any morning,” he told aspiring captains of industry, “the boy who has the future partner in him will not hesitate to try his hand at the broom.’” It’s a threat disguised as free market platitudes. If you don’t want your 14-hour Thanksgiving shift at Walmart, someone else surely will.


 This sentiment is a modern Classical Liberalist’s get-out-of-jail-free card for corporations to pay low wages, create deplorable conditions and prevent upward mobility. Recently, sandwich empire Jimmy John’s forced all employees (including those sweepers Carnegie venerates) to sign a noncompetition agreement stating employees can’t work for “any business which derives more than 10% of its revenue from selling submarine, hero-type, deli-style, pita and/or wrapped or rolled sandwiches” within three miles of a Jimmy John’s for two years or risk litigation.  Efforts like this are designed to frighten a minimum-wage worker to stay put, for fear of being sued or unable to find other employment. Intimidation tactics like these were modeled by “SMM” Carnegie (who, like Jimmy John’s, also crushed unionization attempts). 


The case of Horatio Alger speaks to the power of cognitive dissonance around the SMMM by lionizing a pedophile as literary giant and relatable, redemptive son of a gun.  Alger, apparently, had only a small hand in shaping his own myth, one based in our attraction to the idea you don’t have to do good to do well. Instead of piety and hard work (mandatory for a SMM like Franklin), the public was drawn to Ragged Dick’s ascent due to “good luck and the good offices of a wealthy benefactor.” We have an appetite for seeing characters like Dick go from dockside-drinking depravity to respectability without trying very hard; given the opportunity, it’s how most of us would do it post-recession.  One could compare Alger/Dick’s bad boy arcs to the NFL’s valorization of millionaire victimizers like Michael Vick (dogs), Ben Roethlisberger (women) and Ray Lewis (New Year’s Eve revelers). Lewis, from a background not unlike an Alger protagonist, had an NFL finale that baffled a few people. “His teammates, many of whom like Michael Oher (of The Blind Side fame) come from deprived backgrounds, have taken his message [of redemption] to heart,” wrote USA Today Paul Steinberg of the “the hypnotic trance“ in which Lewis placed his teammates, the public and himself.[v]  NBC Sports dissected his martyr-like word salad when asked what he’d tell his victims’ families: “‘It’s simple, you know,’ Lewis said.  ‘God has never made a mistake.  That’s just who He is, you see? To the family, if you knew — if you really knew — the way God works, He don’t use people who commits anything like that for His glory.’” It’s a profitable, childishly scripted narrative, but so is Ragged Dick.


Swansburg’s Nasty Gal profile explores feminist grit and flexibility of the Self-Made “Man” vernacular. Sophia Amoruso, resident “Girlboss,” is positioned antithetically to Lean In ‘s Sheryl Sandberg. By proudly holding up her scrappy entrepreneurialism as a contrast to Sandberg’s path of privilege from Harvard to the Treasury Department to the C-suites of Google and Facebook,” it’s tough to fault the one woman in the narrative. But just as “Amoruso counsels the future girlboss to emulate her …and her aversion to debt” the message is still “coming from the purveyor of $360 stiletto-heeled boots.” The Nasty Girl website’s overwhelming exclusivity contrasts with the SMMM’s modest, relatable values. The clothes are prohibitively expensive, the models are thin and white and it takes six pages on the blog to see a single woman of color. Imagine the effect on young women of color, conspicuously absent in Swansburg’s piece and the majority of American media, if Amoruso wielded her capital to approach women-run industries with intersectionality and diversity. It’s the same complaint - privileged dimness- held against Lena Dunham, our current literary/television IT Girl and NastyGal spokeswoman. “It is not so wrong to craft an exclusively white world- certainly a significant portion of America lives in one,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic.   “What is wrong is for power-brokers to pretend that no other worlds exists.” [viii]  Will we ever see a Self Made (Trans, Queer, Black, Wo)Man? Shouldn’t we?


Indeed, right as Swansburg begins to expand the image of the SMMM, the piece returns to his father- a standard issue SMM model. However, Swansburg is well aware of the story’s illusion, and the historical holes poked in it.  These stories are vital for us, providing vision and hope.  In a struggling capitalist economy with few jobs, divisive leadership and a widening gulf between rich and poor, we need aspiration. We need these fairy tales.


We know how the Grimm ones usually ended, though.



The LaBarberas- first excerpt from the book!

Added on by Nadine Friedman.

Now and again, I'll be blogging stories from the book. My first is from Tom and Susan LaBarbera.

An aversion to carpeted seats, lonely strip mall highways and bus drivers that scream so belligerently at passengers they pant reaffirm how truly far a 30 minute ride to Jersey feels.  I huddled in my seat to Pinebrook to meet Tom LaBarbera, one of the few people I'd meet with Primary Progressive MS- the version writers lazily script for nightmare episodes of SVU, the one that you think of first when you hear someone has it.

Stepping up to Susan and Tom’s sloping yard, I admired the idyllic quiet, the green, the ambitious mosquitoes.  3 generations- Susan and Tom, daughters Amanda and Kim, their husbands and kids- were converging in Susan’s kitchen. It was an unlikely classroom, setting for a lesson in the silent language of empathy when words aren’t always accessible. I wouldn’t have known it from the noise, though. The fridge door slamming, toddlers yelping and the family discussing optic neuritis apace with lacrosse tryouts and gardening at chaotic speeds and volume. Except when Susan, Reiki master and matriarch talked- then it became quiet.  The kitchen was silent as we all sat together over lunch, as Susan emphatically described the day she and Tom learned of his diagnosis: “This jerk neurologist. He got a phone call in front of us, talking about his oil stock, then he looks up and sees us still sitting there. He says ‘You’re diagnosed with MS and there’s nothing we can do”.  

I get cold hearing this, don't you? Not even a death sentence, just a flat, disintegrating plain.  This was 1979. She visited the library afterward and there was nothing- not a pamphlet, not a recommendation. Nothing. She sobbed in the reference room’s bathroom, the book next to her, a pivotal moment in the life of a couple who had been inseparable since they were teenagers.   1979, with its wispy and hard-to-find research, some ghoulish case studies.  I sought out medical journals and books about coping with neurological disease from throughout 20th century to see what baffled, terrified people read.  

From Foster Kennedy (who also advocated for euthanasia for severely retarded children over 5 years old), 1950:

“The diagnosis of multiple sclerosis is not just a diagnosis.  It is also a prognosis, a prognosis of utter disaster to any human to whom it is given.”

A gentler publication, a guide to living with the illness, from 1976:

“One very important fact must be  faced when a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis is established. This is the necessity of living with uncertainty... The patient with MS, and the family, must confront the additional uncertainties of a disease of unknown cause, variable symptoms, indefinite prognosis or course, and no definitive cure. The burden of uncertainty is a heavy one, at time cruel.”

Tom, the provider, the athlete, didn’t read these books, and he struggled. He was angry. He hid the disease from his family for years. She began to help him get dressed, then get onto the toilet; rituals I know.  She worked full time and did these things in the morning, at night.  The disease was never spoken of, those books bought but never read.  But she kept moving, working, the presence of unhappy inevitability hanging over them.  Plainly,  Susan chose numbness, never forgetting what she had read that day in the library while their daughter Amanda played nearby. Not the most saccharine approach, but its what people have to do sometimes.

“This was the life I was supposed to live,” she told me.  One’s inclined to call her a saint- that’s what people said about my father- but that’s not very fair to either Susan or especially Tom, whose wheelchair sat outside the cluster at the kitchen table. He said little and his speech was labored, but he smiled a lot and his grandchildren beamed at him with that crazy pure love.   It's not fair to call her a saint because he is still a person, if, in some ways, changed and diminished. But he is adored. 

“At the time, in our experience, in my circle, we didn’t have this.”   I wanted to ask more, didn’t. I think I was afraid to ask a man what it's like to lose his power, especially when it was so integral to his identity. He finished, “It turns out now... its not so rare.”

I imagined them as teenagers, supernaturally wholesome, at the church fair where they met. He attended a private high school on a basketball scholarship,  and she was a shy junior high student pulled over to his group by a girlfriend. Susan saw him, still sees him, in that moment.   Tom wore a cardigan and stood next to a booth. Surrounded by his friends and an air of  masculine promise, she fell in love with him, her husband and the father of their daughters. I imagined this.  She started a cheerleading squad for his basketball team.  He started walking her home, towering over the petite uniformed girl, bigger than life. What man could ever match this?

“He would walk me to the gate, then to the bottom step, then the first step, then the second step, until the day we reached the top.  He kissed me after one year,  I was wearing stretchy pants. And I wet them. Nothing that happens to kids today can be that powerful, I am sorry for them.”

Her candor stirred me. Unadorned chemistry isn’t a particular feature of a chubby, sarcastic Long Islander teen’s life in the 90’s.  My first kiss was at 14, on an Orlando Hyatt bathroom floor during a high school choir trip with the lights on.  I wrote him a note in regards to the certainty I possessed that we were meant for each other.  He, a senior, handed it back to me and gently suggested I go to college and find myself.  We met up again Thanksgiving break my first year in college; he tried to have sex with me in his parent’s den and I blurted out I didn’t want to get herpes (a de rigeur STI reference for college freshmen).  That's the story of my first kiss.  

So I was impressed by Susan’s teenage instincts which, against our understanding of the age group, tend to be horrible.  They were married after college and started a family 3 years later. His symptoms started right after. But she can still see Tom, a generous and whole young man,  at a fair in a sweater.  What does my father see? My mother, healthy, with a jet black bouffant and gleaming brass necklaces, hitting on him in a Long Island bar long, long before that unbearable end?  This was a few years before Susan and Tom took secret snapshots of each other in front of a carnival booth. Do those pictures last forever for some people? And do they love the newer versions of each other just as much? Susan told me this was the life she was meant to live, so I suppose they do.

I saw Tom that day, speaking slowly, diminished in physicality but no longer locked in rage.  I saw Kim and Amanda’s eyes on their father whenever he spoke, Kim nodding with a different understanding.  She, diagnosed with MS in 2009, is the second generation with this disease.   With her appealing Jersey frankness, she summed how the family’s experience shapes the way she and husband Bobby raise Angelina, Ava and Robbie.  They were beginning lessons in life with that uncertainty of illness, written about decades before, the one we can’t blame, fight, or predict. They were, are, nonexempt.

Tom’s grandchildren will be more educated in these realities as he recedes.  He used to take them for rides on his wheelchair, but he can't now for their safety.  He no longer can read. There are little pleasures- he uses the phone, cheers for his sports teams.  But there is less and less to do everyday. 

But that’ s just today.  “To be afraid of the unknown is really ridiculous. There will never be a guarantee for anything. And everything is mixed.” Mixed into the LaBarbera’s tight, loyal fabric are some terrible things. As much a part of this house as the kitchen, they demand inclusion, and are treated with patient, compassionate gestures. In my head, I mime them-  Amanda squeezing Tom’s shoulder from behind his chair, Ava and Angelina climbing into his bed and laying down next to him to talk. I secretly thieve these actions for amnesty one day.  I remember my mother, and the very real words we used, misfired, and avoided until the day it was simply too late and she couldn’t speak at all. I wonder how we might have communicated had I tried this vocabulary of quiet, acceptance; if I might still have a chance.

Interview with Sarah Burns and Raymond Santana, of The Central Park 5

Added on by Nadine Friedman.

The story of the Central Park Jogger was part of my childhood- the media spin, the NYPD's bluster, the constant refrain of black-man-on-white-woman-crime. It somehow rang.. wrong. Even as a kid.  False and damaging and wrong.

I know now that it's called fearmongering, or rape mythology, or corporate- created Super Predator narratives. Santana was one of five young men of color indicted and jailed for the rape and brutal assault of a white woman in New York City in 1989. Which, when I'd visit with my dad, seemed magical, but dirty, and too big, but magical. Their story is part of the city's mythology, and it was completely fake. The men were freed only recently, their whole lives taken from them until DNA testing exonerated them. Their entire lives.

Read my interview with the filmmaker and biographer Sarah Burns, and Santana. I was humbled.