Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bad News/Good News/Crazy News/Great News

Supreme Court JusticesBy now the dreadful news from California is widely known: by a vote of 6-1, the California Supreme Court upheld the will of last fall's voters who enacted Proposition 8, an initiative which amended California's state constitution to declare that marriage could only legally exist between a man and a woman. The Prop 8 vote, which passed by a margin of 52% to 48% and which has sparked tremendous commentary and opposition, including public protests all over the country. The California Attorney General, former California governor and Oakland mayor Jerry Brown then challenged by the vote, leading to yesterday's eagerly awaited decision. The decision did include the following semi-positive note: the 18,000 same-sex couples who had gotten married before Prop 8 were legally recognized, thus negating the initiative's potentially retroactive power. Yet the overall result is newly denied rights for countless Californians and a court ruling that suggests that the California Constitution does not equally apply to all residents of that state.

To put it another way, for thousands of couples in California, there are no options for legal marriage at the present time beyond leaving the state. The California legislature has twice passed same-sex marriage bills, only to have them vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who will be out of office in a year, so there is some possibility that with enough of a push, California voters could get the legislature to once again pass a same-sex marriage bill that would be signed into office by a new, progressive governor. At the same time, the threat of yet another referendum always looms, which suggests that the initiative process might perhaps be the better route: a popular referendum, organized by a much broader and more proactive coalition, with specific outreach to non-LGBTQ people of all to overturn Prop 8, written in such a way as to ensure its validity against a range of challenges.

Both of these options, as well as the current financial crisis and political gridlock in California, point to another pressing issue, which is the need for a new state constitution, which might include a limit on popular referenda and the power of such initiatives to make and change laws, including amending the state constitution. (I use to think that splitting the huge state into two smaller states, a Northern California, geographically larger in size but smaller in population, liberal state and a Southern California, geographically smaller in size, larger in population, and slightly more centrist, would be a good option and make both more governable, but both would constitutions that improved on California's current one if they came into being.)

While there have been peaceful protests since the panel's decision, I sincerely hope, however, those some of those in California supporting Prop 8 have come to realize the damage it has done and those opposing it recognize how crucial it is to have an effective, appealing and relentless, broad-based campaign that cuts across racial, ethnic, gender, orientation, and class lines. Here the politics of representation are important. It is not enough any more to follow the popular LGBTQ media's usual modus operandi of depicting only upper-middle-class white couples, especially in a minority-majority state, nor will it work to bury the issue of homosexuality and avoid using controversial terms like "gay" and "lesbian"; showing the true diversity and breadth of those who would benefit from having equal rights in the state and speaking with candor about how people's lives will be positively affected by repealing this odious constitutional amendment will go a long way towards ensuring a better situation for all there and, I predict, in all the other states that still have not enacted or do not permit same-sex marriage.


Somewhat counterbalancing this awful news was the announcement yesterday morning of President Barack Obama's first nomination for the Supreme Court, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor. (Photo at left, Lynn Schultze/CNN) If approved by the Democratic-controlled US Senate, which is very likely, Justice Sotomayor would be the first Latina, the first Puerto Rican, and only the third woman to join the nation's highest court. I admit to getting choked up as I listened to her life story yesterday on the radio. The daughter of Puerto Ricans who came to the US mainland in the 1950s, she was born and grew up in the South Bronx. Her father had a third-grade education and passed away when she was 9; her mother then sometimes worked multiple jobs to ensure that she and her two siblings received the best education and lives possible. Justice Sotomayor, who is 54 and has lived with diabetes for most of her life, graduated from Cardinal Spellman High School, Princeton University summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa (and second in her class!), and Yale Law School, where she served as an editor of the Yale Law Review. This is one obviously brilliant woman. She went on to serve an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan under Robert Morgenthau, before serving in private practice as an international corporate litigator. Nominated in 1992 by the first President Bush (ugh!) to the District Court of the Southern District of New York, she was then nominated in 1998 by President Bill Clinton and confirmed to the 2nd District Court position she now holds. She's written hundreds of opinions, some of which are summarized by The New York Times here.

Before Obama even selected Sotomayor, the GOP had begun gunning for whomever he picked, and, with the help of "liberals" like Jeffrey Rosen and the media, began smearing her. Rosen in particular deserves to be called out, because he launched a campaign in the New Republic against her using anonymous sources, which both the right-wing and the mainstream media (cf. Gwen Ifill's question on last night's News Hour with Jim Lehrer about Sotomayor's "temperament") latched onto. Mike Tomasky and Glenn Greenwald have written about this mess perhaps as thoroughly and persuasively as anyone. So it redounds to Obama that he did not allow this waxing, toxic Beltway consensus to sway his selection, which is a smart tactical move any way you assess it. It's an history-making gesture, it affirms the importance of Obama's Latino and female supporters (why on earth in 2009 is there only one woman on the US Supreme Court?), it replaces an unexpectedly moderate liberal with an expectedly centrist-liberal, and it creates a difficult challenge for the GOP and the numerous Congressional conserva-Dems.

In fact, despite the GOP's and media's characterizations, Obama apparently has chosen a judge who is truly centrist-liberal in her adjudication (as opposed to a progressive-leftist, unfortunately), It's likely she will vote and write rulings along the lines of the person she's replacing, Associate Justice David H. Souter, though some of her views, on issues such as executive branch power, abortion and same-sex marriage, are unknown. As current commentary about her judicial record shows, she generally has written rulings generally in the liberal vein, but has occasionally sided with businesses or the government against plaintiffs, including plaintiffs of color. While a few of her statements, such as the 2005 comment about appellate courts being the place where "policy is made" (which she immediately retracted) or her ethnic background and gender providing her with a powerful lens to understand the effects of the law in the everyday world will certainly spark conservative concerns, her overall profile strikes me as quite uncontroversial. (Nevertheless, Republicans are already uttering their usual extremely offensive, racist claptrap.) I hope that she moves further to the left the longer she's on the court, though having left-leaning allies, as opposed to the strong right-wing quartet now in place, might help this along. If the President gets another opportunity to appoint a justice, and I hope he will (2-4 would be great), I would love for his next nominee to be a solid progressive or even a liberal visionary, someone whose ideas and writings could serve as an intellectual and foundational counterweight to the likes of Antonin Scalia and John Roberts, Jr. Anyone got any names to send forward?


And then there's the bizarre. By which I mean the "furore," to use the British form of that the word, surrounding the Professor of Poetry position at Oxford University. If you're a not a literary person or somehow happened to have missed this, here's a recap. Three poets--Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, 79, British poet Ruth Padel, 63, and Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, 62--were finalists for the prestigious but low-paying 5-year position that requires its holder to do little but give 3 talks a year and be a poet at Oxford. Prior holders of the chair include W. H. Auden, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Matthew Arnold, and Cecil Day-Lewis. Shortly before Oxford graduates and academic staff were scheduled to vote up a winner a few weeks ago, a number of them living in and around the university received anonymously mailed photocopies of a book excerpt from The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus, by Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner, detailing a 1982 claim of sexual harrassment against Walcott by a female Harvard College student. (This occurred the year before I started my freshman year, at which point Walcott had moved across the Charles River to Boston University, where in 1996 he was sued for harassment by a female graduate student; that case was settled out of court. I should note that I did meet him several times many years later when he read at the Dark Room Writer's Collective, and several other times after that.)

Once this anonymous campaign came to light, Walcott withdrew his candidacy, stating that
I am disappointed that such low tactics have been used in this election, and I do not want to get into a race for a post where it causes embarrassment to those who have chosen to support me for the role, or to myself....
and went to say that
I already have a great many work commitments, and while I was happy to be put forward for the post, if it has degenerated into a low and degrading attempt at character assassination, I do not want to be part of it.
Hermione Lee, head of Oxford's Wolfson College and a Walcott supporter, urged Padel to dissociate herself from the sleazy campaign, as did others, and Padel did so, stating that she was not involved in the shenanigans and praising Walcott's work.

And then Padel, facing only Mehrotra, was duly elected, becoming the first woman to hold the post since it was created in 1708, and replacing critic Christopher Ricks. And then...the news emerged the other day that in fact, Padel had contacted two reporters via email last month to highlight Walcott's past transgressions. When confronted with the news, Padel had the gall to blame an anonymous student for pushing her to do it, before finally resigning from the post on Monday. The chair is thus empty. Supposedly Oxford will enter a period of reflection, before finding someone else to hold this now radioactive position.

I think it was perfectly fine for Padel and anyone else to publicly express concerns about Walcott's behavior. He is, without a doubt, one of the finest living poets and, as everyone knows, a Nobel Laureate, but his past record concerning the harassment charges do provoke legitimate questions and concerns. I imagine that Padel didn't just openly voice her concerns for fear that in doing so, she would appear spiteful, petty and competitive; yet such commentary did arise among some critics at the time that Walcott received the Nobel Prize in Literature, which in any case has gone to several writers with serious personal foibles (T. S. Eliot, Elias Canetti, etc.). Yet the subterfuge of Padel's actions is digusting, on top of being unethical and, worst of all, amateurish. There was no way that she was going to get away with this, so her actions also reflect badly and baldly on her judgment. Are there really people out there today who do not grasp that if you send someone an email, particularly someone in the media, it's easily traceable? To top things off, what ever led her to think she could trust the British media, who are known for their volubility and scandal-mongering? (On the Times of London online site, the uproar was described as a "sex row.")

I have to ask, is such a position really worth this level of skullduggery? I understand the prestige and any poet's desire for the acclaim it might bring (though if I had my druthers I would much more like to be appointed to the Collège de France), and the fact that the competitive element was already part of the process, but really, it is worth destroying one's reputation to get it? But I know that answer to that; I seriously doubt Padel is the first to have engaged in such behavior, which have surely occurred in the past and in other fields, and she won't be the last.


Alice MunroOn a better literary note, congratulations certainly must go to a writer whom it required maturity for me to appreciate, Alice Munro. During my late high school and undergraduate years I would see her name and stories, and for whatever reason, did not read them, and when I found little to interest me; the plots, the characters, the structures, the language of the stories themselves simply did not stick. Around the time I was deciding about going to graduate school, I started to read her work again, and it was if I'd pulled back a heavy curtain. Now her deft portrayal of characters, her ability to push plots to places I didn't anticipate, her careful and often unexpected play with time, and her seemingly simple but apt and often subtle use of language all drew me in. I haven't ever looked back, and have joined the legions of Alice Munro fans out there. She is without question one of the major living short story writers in English, and one of the finest short fiction artists ever. Yesterday she was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Fiction, earning about $95,000 and further international acclaim, and joining an august list that includes Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe and Albanian fiction writer Ismail Kadare. She certainly deserves it.

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