Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Questions of Faith

My friend has an interesting post on Obama and faith. He lives in small-town Arkansas so he comes in contact with a very different segment of the voting block than I do. He describes conversations with someone who believes Obama's a closet Muslim, evangelicals who are considering pulling the lever to the left, and a "self described third generation secular humanist" who will remain nameless who doesn't think Obama is particularly religious.

I think one thing this post really demonstrates is Obama's ability to be all things to most people (I guess this charm doesn't work as well on the first group). I think McCain does this too, and these chameleon-like skills leave some voters with the odd false belief that these two are similar in substance. People are able to project their ideal candidate fantasies onto them.

Although I didn't start out an Obama supporter, I feel more positively about his candidacy as the campaign wears on. In theory, it isn't a bad thing for a politician to be able to convince a majority of the electorate he's speaking to them and agrees with them. However, it reminds me of my initial unease about Obama. Will he be a great progressive leader? Is his foreign policy as good as I think it will be? I was uneasy when he revived the social security debate earlier this fall. I think I was immune to the winks and nudges he was sending the rest of the progressive left.

In time, I've come around. I'm quite sure he's winking at me, and sometimes, he's out and out brave. I don't think this is a case of drinking the koolaide, but rather, respecting a candidate more as he is challenged and tested. However, in the end, despite analysis, research, and a far longer-than-usual campaign season, guessing what type of president a candidate will become will always involve a few leaps of faith.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Samaria, Judea, and Tibet

After listening to a radio story about Tibet, my father made an interesting argument about post- World War II conflict and souvreignty that's stuck with me throughout this week.

He argued that since the end of World War II, only two nations have conquered previously sovereign territory and incorporated into their state. The two cases were China (Tibet) and Israel (the West Bank). These instances aren't perfectly parallel-- on the one hand, China had more recent territorial claims to Tibet than Israel had to the West Bank, but on the other hand, Israel claimed the West Bank as a buffer zone in the content of a larger war and never gave it back whereas China took control of Tibet in the absence of a surrounding conflict.

There have been other states that have controlled territories that had sovereign claims, such as the former Soviet Union. However, these territorial encroachments occured before or at the onset of the post-war period and they have gained independence since. There have also been prolonged occupations (like the current US position in Iraq) but although that occupation invalidated Iraqi sovereignty and does n't seem likely to end soon, the US never claimed Iraq was now part of our state, and has argued that Iraq should be sovereign.

At first, I worried that this argument was limited because it excluded most of Africa because few modern African states had sovereignty before World War II. However, I can't come up with any cases in Africa, either.

There have also, of course, been sovereignty movements by groups within states that have been repressed by the state (Basques in Spain, etc) but this isn't the same as the state conquering sovereign territory. If anyone can think of another case besides China and Israel, let me know.

If this argument is true, I think it has two important implications:

A. The UN charter has been successful in creating a norm in which states do not conquer; they do not claim sovereign territory. This is different from the world before the charter (colonialism, German aggression, etc) and the fact that war over land and boundaries continues to exist suggests that the difference cannot just be attributed to the decreasing bounty gained from territorial war.

B. Both the exceptions to this rule may have benefited from the UN structure which may enable them to be exempt from the dorm. China has a security council veto and Israel is closely allied with a country that has a similar veto. I think this buttresses an argument I made on one of my honors exams; the UN's weaknesses are more due to dated structural weakness within as declining external support, corruption, or the "unsuitability" of IGOs to the current world order.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Trouble with Polylingustic Blogging Technology

Some readers may remember that while in Japan, I was consistently
outsmarted by my plumbing. I like to pretend that such laspes only occur when I'm at a linguistic disadvantage-- would YOU know how to talk to a Japanese toilet?-- but, as my close friends would no doubt tell you, I have similar difficulties stateside.

Among the most recent of these is an ongoing frustration with the inflexibility and intelligence of blogspot. While I was in Japan, blogspot picked up on the fact I was in Japan, and decided to speak to me in Japanese. While I'm very impressed both that a) blogspot is so aware of its environs and b) blogspot speaks Japanese, I'm frustrated at blogspot's unwillingness to recognize it has returned home to the United States. Either that, or it has decided I'm a Japanese speaker.

I've tried to convince blogspot (through verifying the language setting on my computer, etc) that we have, in fact, returned to the states, and I do, in fact, speak English, but alas, the program is stubborn.

Ok, I know this isn't quite as funny or novel as the talking shower, but it explains why I can't change much on the site (all the prompts/menu options are in characters) and I needed a warm up post.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Obama and Nativism

I've been reading a lot on the web that it seems the dominant line of attack against Obama in the general election would be to challenge his patriotism and loyalty to the United States, with varying hues of sophistication. Hence the dissection of Michelle Obama's 'proud comment' and the circulation of pictures of Obama in traditional Somali clothing and the repeat use of his middle name.

I have a friend who's a Clinton supporter, and throughout the early primaries, he emphasized how most of Clinton's support seemed to be coming from the white Democratic working class rather than the more white-collared Obama supporters. While it seems this pattern was somewhat shattered on Super Tuesday, the argument gave me, as a former Edwards supporter concerned with growing economic inequality, some pause. Were Clinton's policies more pro-poor? Were working class people just more comfortable choosing the white woman over the black man?

I don't think the differences in their economic policies are significant, and I think racism transcends class differences in the US, it just may take different forms. I wound up leaning towards both a preference for competence/experience and nativism as the major explanations for the early class gap among white blue collar voters.

Over Christmas break, an aunt of mine who lives in Virginia told us that many of her friends didn't want to vote for Obama because "he was Muslim." I think that while it's easy for us to laugh off these stories-- or be disgusted by them-- inside DC, they have a real impact on many voters. However, it would be short-sighted and unfair to blame the current tide of nativism solely on shallow prejudice.

Over the past few years, the average American has not seem much good that comes from other shores. We can take 9/11 and the spectre of Islamo-terrorism completely out of the picture and still make this claim. People have gotten poorer, and I think they see their wealth going overseas in two ways.

First, while free trade is not the bogeyman in this election and seems unlikely to become one, immigration certainly has the potential to be. (My father commented that a lot of conservative pundits don't like McCain because they had hoped to make immigration the general election wedge issue that gay marriage was in 2004 and his vote on the immigration reform act this summer makes that difficult.) I think the following myth is fairly common: "I am worse off and my taxes are going to help out illegal immigrants."

Second, America is spending billions of dollars abroad fighting an unpopular and unsuccessful war. People see this loss both in terms of their tax dollars and in terms of the lack of social programs that could otherwise be in its place.

(On a slightly different note-- and discussing a different portion of the electorate--I think it's important to note that due to the weaker dollar, fewer Americans may be traveling abroad than in the past, and this may also weaken America's affection for the rest of the world.)

I think there are seeds for a preference for soft isolationism among both the Democratic and the Republican electorate, and the strategy to paint Obama as a foreigner-- a man who grew up outside of the US, who isn't white, who has a funny name and is from a rioting country-- could definitely continue to have legs. In 2004, the Manchurian candidate threat could have held more weight, but I think the bulk of the insinuation this time around can be much softer. "He isn't one of us; he's from somewhere else."

To me, this potential rising isolationism and nativism is one of the biggest battles we foreign policy people (SAIS kids who don't vote and liberal economists too) are going to have to fight in the next decade (and it's not one we can win, or even understand, by labling our opponents as intolerant or bigoted). It's not just about rebuilding the world's faith in America, but rebuilding our own faith in the world and our place in it.

I think it's actually one of the best reasons for Obama's candidacy. I think we need a candidate who can credibly assert that our relationships with the rest of the world can be based on more than fear and protection. Although I'm pretty weary of the hope rhetoric, I'd like to see a candidate inject a little hope into the foreign policy debate. I don't know if Obama will do this-- it might be a bold step when McCain's predictions are so scary-- but I think he has the ability and opportunity to.

(I hate to make grand speculations about what candidates will do [and Obama supporters are particularly guilty of this] but I do think Clinton has forced herself to play more of McCain's game on foreign policy because of her Iraq vote, etc...)

Otter Creek and Magritte

Earlier this week, I met some high school friends-- and their friends at SAIS-- at Brickskeller, a place in DC famous for having over 3,000 beers.

There was a temptation to try to show off by ordering Tusker or Efes or Mythos or Kirin, but I decided it was a good rule of thumb not to try to out-worldly future potential career diplomats, and I stuck to Otter Creek. It was also the cheapest thing on the menu.

(Otter Creek is a town near Burlington. Back when I was in high school, they had the best debate team in state for a year. Their champion debater had an extremely low, calm voice that really stood out as everyone else raised their voices as the round continued. I always envied that voice, and as a result, wanted to try the beer. Somehow, I don't think this has broad implications as a marketing technique.)

In general, the SAIS kids didn't vote and were proud of it. I promise, this is not my only topic of conversation, and in this case, I didn't bring it up, I swear, but of course, once it came up it had to be argued about. It's really depressing that people who will probably have a fair share of influence over American foreign policy-- and would certainly like to, at least-- don't think it's important to make it to the polls.

On the bathroom wall, someone had written "this is bathroom graffiti." Someone else (A 20th century art student? A freshman encountering Foucault for the first time? Someone with a brand new and tantalizing sharpie who was too drunk to be clever?) wrote under it "This is not bathroom graffiti." I thought it was just a Magritte spin off and then I realized it was different from the painting of the pipe. The painting was not a pipe because it was a painting. The bathroom graffiti was bathroom graffiti. I spent a little while trying to think what this meant. Then I was glad I didn't major in philosophy.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Another Reason Florida Mattered

I was talking with my friend Rachel the other day, who's considering going into electoral reform activism. I think electoral reform is really, really important, but it's not something I ever want to do myself, so it's a little like playing tag. If I convinced her to do it, I wouldn't have to feel guilty about not doing it. She believes the job of an organizer is to bring together and empower grassroots movements, and a lot of her hesitation about taking up the issue was she felt like there was no grassroots movement to back it and that it was mainly a concern of the elite. She might be right, but I think there's a lot of evidence that the average voter (especially the average minority voter) worries about disenfranchisement.

One of my friends voted in a historically black neighborhood in Atlanta and said the young woman in front of him brought four photo ids to the polls because she was so worried someone would keep her from voting and she wanted to vote for Obama so badly.

In PA, there were frequently reports from minority would-be voters who had been registered but mysteriously never received their voter reg card.

The other day, I was meeting a bunch of friends for breakfast and didn't feel like getting properly dressed so I just threw on my Dean sweatshirt. On the train, the guy sitting next to me asked who I was voting for. When I responded, he said, "well, I'm not going to vote for Obama just because he's black. I'm going to vote for the person who promises me my vote is going to get counted. Why doesn't anyone talk about that anymore? I haven't heard anything about that. Bush stole the election in 2000, you know that? I haven't voted since then. Not going to vote this time, either."

He was from New Orleans and he still didn't have a permanent home. There were a myriad of reasons he could have been angry at the government. The one he picked was the very oldest scandal, the Supreme Court decision that won Bush the presidency, the failure to recount the votes of Florideans.

I made some pretty feeble "not voting isn't a good way to protest the system" arguments but he got to me a lot more than I could get to him. If you're afraid your vote isn't going to count, why vote?

Mambo Vipi Kweli, Tanzania?

President Bush has spent the last five days visiting
Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia. I'm a little bitter it takes being a lame duck and plummeting approval rankings to get the President to make his second (somewhat promotional) trip to African in eight years, but it's something...

(The title from the entry comes from the fact I'm actually kind of impressed Bush greeted Tanzanians with the hip "mambo vipi?" Most Americans say "Jambo," which is acceptable in Kenya but considered a little rude in Tanzania, where people prefer the more formal "Hujambo?" The "kweli" means really or truly, but I might have put it in the wrong place. Eleuthera?)

I think it's interesting Bush is entirely bypassing Kenya. If the trip took place three months ago, I wonder if he would have visited Kenya instead of Tanzania. For the most part, conflict in Kenya is bad for Tanzania, but on the other hand, it may mean Tanzania can seize more of Kenya's tourism, marketshare, and headpatting for being a beacon of democracy in East Africa.

The tour is primarily promoting the Millenium Challenge goals and counter AIDS/malaria relief rather than confronting the political turmoil. I think there's space to criticize the Millenium Challenge goals-- the program reminds me a little of No Child Left Behind in that it incentivizes "good results" without providing the tools to get there-- but I think it's done more good than ill and is one possible way to combat corruption. Based on my time in Tanzania, it was hard to see how this translated into any poverty reduction, but I didn't have an comparison point.

There's a lot to criticize about PETFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. In addition to funding delays and dependence on expensive antiretroviral drugs rather cheaper South African generic drugs, PETFAR shifted funding away from AIDS programs that promoted condom use to programs that emphasized monogamy and abstinence. I wrote a column last year
that criticizes PETFAR. It was my first column, so it's a bit too dry, but it explains some of the reasons the plan isn't as good as it sounds.

Of course, no one in Tanzania is going to say that because money is better than no money and a president visiting is better than no president visiting. There's this hope, that maybe if they are very welcoming and maybe if he sees just how hard things are, maybe the United States will help a little bit more. (How can it not?) And if not, then they can tell their children they saw the American president. The American president can get coverage more friendly than he's gotten in months. And for the most part, everything will stay the same.

I don't mean to be cynical, I'm just sad.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Why Do Gyms Have Free Coffee, Anyway?

I've made two exciting discoveries about my gym over the past month;
1) There is good free coffee
2) The conditioner is higher quality than the conditioner I buy for myself.
Given that I'm both a caffeine addict and I have a lot of hair, I figure I can turn my gym membership into a way to save money. By showering there, I'll go through conditioner at home more slowly and my hair will look better. I can save the money I would have otherwise spent on coffee, and the whole system further incentivizes going to the gym. (This sounds a little like something Macon Leary in The Accidental Tourist would have done. Oh dear.)

I'm not that cheap, I just like buying shoes and Ethiopian food more than I like buying conditioner and coffee.

Saturday, February 16, 2008


I figured it was time for a location update. Although at this point, I don't take anything for granted till I have the plane ticket in my in-box, I'm pretty sure I'll be in Greece for the summer. I'll be in DC until late April or early May (and can see the famous cherry blossoms, hurray!) and then will be on the road again.
I imagine blogging will pick up again then. It's harder for me to do in DC without falling into the trap of blogging about the primary. I'm certifiably obsessed with the primary, but really can only act as an internet echo machine (which I do anyway), so I probably won't post more than once or twice a week until I have a lot of slice-of-lifey things to write about again.

When the NATO project was first discussed, I wasn't thrilled by it because my academic interests have more traditionally been tied to the developing world. The more I think about it, the more excited I get, though. I was reading an interesting article in The Economist at the gym about how, in the event that Kosovo declares independence from Serbia, this may have some bearing on other "frozen conflicts" within Europe, particularly the Georgia-Ossetia conflict because it will change the precedent. (Nationalism is a contagious, contagious business, apparently.) I don't know very much about this, but plan on reading more this weekend, because Serbia forecasts Kosovo will declare independence in the next twenty-four hours.

My mother pointed out that being in Greece makes my blog title extra appropriate. I originally came up with it just because the argonauts traveled (I think the VT part is self explanatory). Then, boredom in the UAE drove me to wikipedia the argonauts, and I discovered the golden fleece is sometimes seen as an allegory for truth. I love being accidentally profound.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Access versus Depth

I'm from Vermont, so I have a sentimental attachment to town meeting day. It seems almost as close to pure democracy, bypassing the representation, that exists. For a while, I thought caucuses were almost like town meetings-- a chance to interact with other people and discuss candidate preferences gives each person the opportunity to express a more nuanced political opinion than pulling a lever. I love the way systems like instant run-off voting let voters rank preferences rather than just vote for their top candidate, and in a sense, caucuses are closer to this model.

However, caucuses are not a discussion of issues and solutions, or an airing out of concerns. They take much longer than the two minutes required to rank candidates and leave the voting booth. Instead, they are a multi hour process completely inaccessible to those who can't find a sitter for their small children or can't get the night off work. They are unappealing to those who work long hours and dread the thought of tagging on a few more. They're a challenge to people who plan to vote differently than their boss, husband, or best friends-- all people who may caucus at the same place.

Because of the time and political capital investment required, caucuses substansialy increase the cost of each individual's vote. They limit the types of individuals who can participate in the political process.

All these points about caucuses have, of course, been made over and over again by people far more knowledgeable and articulate then me. The point I want to make is not that caucuses are less democratic than primaries, but that in their best forms, a caucus and a primary represent two different democratic ideals. Is it more valuable to have a deeper discussion that may allow for a more nuanced representation of issues or to allow more people to participate? I tend to favor access over depth-- I think it's just a more democratic principle-- but I do think there's a real debate to be had there.

Guess Which Amendment is My Favorite

One thing I regret not studying more in college was democratic theory. I had this mistaken conviction that democratic theory classes would focus on, say, GOTV techniques. Whenever people start to explain GOTV to me, I zone out, furtively try to figure out where they put the Box o'Joe, and impatiently wait for them to finish and give me my walk sheets. Said exercise did not seem like the best use of college tuition.

My senior year, I took a Latin American comparative politics seminar that clued me in on the fact that democratic theory was not, in fact, about which doors to knock on. Nor was it just about elections, period.

Increasingly, I realize that just as I thought democratic theory was the study of electoral engagement, the United States seems to think democracy is elections. I don't think a democracy can exist without elections, but I have no doubt elections can exist without democracy.

Elections are often (and this goes back at least to El Salvador two decades ago; it's not a new phenemenon in Iraq and Afghanistan) hailed as not only a signpost on the road to democracy, but as the pinacle symbol of a democratic society. I think in part this is because elections are so tangible; one can quantify their success by the turnout, the lack of violence, the level of enthusiasm. A couple bloggers and authors also argue the United States tends to focus on elections because we have for so long; we know how to build reliable election systems (really?) whereas developing a participatory society from scratch is something that a) outsiders are less equipped to do and b) we've been a democracy for too long to understand. Personally, I'm a sap for the lovely romance of one man, one vote-- the idea of each and every person having the same amount of voice to make their own private choice (we'll leave campaign contributions and the electoral college out of it). It's hard not to be touched-- nor should we be anything but-- by the stories of formerly disenfranchised people, allowed to vote for the first time ever, lining up outside the polls.

The emphasis on elections as the hallmark of democracy rather than, say, a deeper democratic society is one reason we are quick to uphold results-- people voted, right?-- even in cases, like the recent Kenyan election, where it seems clear there was a lot of fraud. (There's probably space here for a whole separate digression about whether we value stable, predictable outcomes over democracy...)

(I think there are some interesting challenges involved in elections themselves: what do ballots look like in a country with a low literacy rate? If political parties don't exist and there are hundreds of candidates-- as was the case with the 2006 parliamentary elections in Afghanistan-- how can people possibly vote on anything other than tribal affiliation? Historically, in Mexican elections, voters have a finger inked at the polls to prevent voter fraud and repeat voting. However, this also allowed the PRI to check up on voters and punish non-voters. If we assume the decision to not vote is a legitimate one-- and that the choice is private-- then to mark voters contributes to potential coercion.

For the most part, though, challenges associated with elections themselves are technocratic and specific rather than philosophical.)

The challenge I find the most gripping is how to create a climate in which elections are meaningful. A friend of mine who's family is originally from China argued that democracy just wouldn't work in China because people weren't interested in events outside of the family and didn't think about how things should change. My Latin American politics teacher convinced me that democracy is not neutral but is a value-driven system, but I don't think I'll ever be convinced it's a peculiarly western institution.

I think it's impossible to make claims about what people think or do not think in a nation in which free speech and free of press and freedom of access to information don't exist. I believe these freedoms are the basic foundation of democracy and must be in place before one can even talk about elections. (Even without a structural move towards elections, I think freedom of expression would eventually lead to a change in goverment; I know some people argue that this is not the case if the country is well off enough-- people don't riot over votes, but instead, bread shortages. However, if this was the case, there would be no need for repression and censorship in the UAE.) There can't be a developed meaningful difference of opinion-- key to a legitimate election-- without speech. Issue based platforms and corresponding support can't exist without the ability to discuss possibilities different than those currently persued by the government.

Corresponding conditions are wide access to information (radio's great) and a state monopoly on force. A constitutional guarentee of free speech becomes meaningless if paramilitary gangs can punish you for its execution.

I guess one could argue that free expression is a pecuilarly western institution, even if democracy is not, but I think it's important to remember that free speech is relatively new, somewhat rare, and very fragile throughout the west as well.

In the end, I think supporting democracy is a worthy goal for American foreign policy, I just think our current instruments and assessments are ill-suited to achieve it. Generating support for free speech overseas is much subtler than supporting elections. I think at the very least, we need to strengthen domestic civil liberties so as to be able to lead by example, and we must resist the urge to bolster stability at the expense of democratic processes abroad.

(I also like the 13th-15th amendments a lot, especially their mid-century rediscovery.)

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Missing Piece of the Puzzle

The other day I was reading (I forget where, a hazard of reading too many blogs) that youth turnout was also extremely high (both in general, and for Obama) in South Carolina. The blogger who posted this information pointed out that this major plotline has been ignored in the media's haste to make the primaries about race and gender. Although it certainly is a historic race, it isn't the first time large numbers of blacks or large numbers of women have voted, or the first time they have had an affinity for a particular candidate. However, it seems that historic "firsts" are occuring with respect to youth turnout.

I've been trying to figure out why this is. One possibility is that gender and race are more sexy and contraversial than age. Another theory I have is that in a sense, stories which focus on the campaigns as a battle of identity politics diminish women and blacks and also the strength of the support for the candidates they are turning out for. The implicit argument is along these lines: "Women are only voting for Clinton because she is female." "Blacks are only voting for Obama because he's black." This then makes it seems as though the support isn't based on substansive policy, and a reasonable (white male) is the only one sufficiently disentangled from identity politics to objectively judge the candidates.

It's harder to make the identity politics case with young voters. A narrative in which voters between 18-25 jump up and down about Obama because he's 14 years younger than Clinton (and a mere 22 years older than them) just doesn't seem plausible. There are four competing narratives, one of which is infinitely more appealing.

First, young people could like Obama because he seems cool and hip and has the support of Obama girl. In this storyline, any boost in youth turnout in the general election next November can be traced to, like, political "debates" on facebook, and the youtube debate. Message: package old ideas in a new and sexy way and the kids'll come out. I feel pretty unqualified to comment on the veracity of this explanation-- my 18-25 year old circle is more wonky than hip-- but I'm not thrilled by the implications.

A friend pointed out a second explanation to me today. Obama's youth support comes from college campuses. That's the mechanism through which youth voters are typically registered and reached. Only half of Americans are able to afford a college education. We already know Obama does well among wealthier, better educated liberals. His youth support may just reflect the general class trends in the primary.

Being moderate became very cool sometime when I was in college, maybe a little after the 2004 election when Bush bashing felt trite to some people. (I guess people don't want to stay on the losing side too long...) I think people who considered themselves 'intellectuals' or 'reasonable' liked to label themselves as moderate because it seemed intellectually rigorous and less ideologically driven. I thought we were done with that trend after 06, but some of Obama's support among young people could stem from his claims of post-partisanship.

The story I like the best is that youth support for Obama is because young people are tired of staleness and looking for something new and different. If we must set it up as a vision vs experience debate, they are looking for sweeping vision. I also think (and if anyone has confirmation of this, I'd love to see it) that youth are likely to be the most angry about the Iraq war. First of all, all wars are fought by young people. Second of all, it's gone on for our entire adulthood. I think we may also be less likely to accept or appreciate political calculus and compromise, therefore Clinton's voting record on foreign policy seems more atrocious to us then it might to someone who was willing to see it as "politics as usual."

Monday, January 28, 2008

Witnessed Courtship in a Maryland Diner

After making the rounds last Saturday night, my friend Jon and I found ourselves unexpectedly hungry at 2 am. Because Sunday's my major grocery shopping day, our only solution was to go to the near-by "American City Diner," which has all the neon signs, jute boxes, giant shakes and general kitsch one would hope for in a diner of that name. When we first got there, all the other patrons were cool high school kids with generous curfews but by the time we left the patrons were older, and the large groups had been replaced with couples.

The couple behind us didn't seem to know each other that well. She wore a floor length, crinkly brown dress under a jacket with a parka with a fake fur collar, and he wore a blue blazer that I think was supposed to be ironic in some way. He was black and her family was originally from Mexico. She was either a little bit drunk or very energetic. They sat on opposite sides of the table, and she passionately gesticulated over their shakes as she explained her objections to CAFTA. He kept calling it Kafka and she kept correcting him. Kafka, she explained, was the guy who wrote about the man who turned into a bug.

At one point, she raised her voice and informed him that he should stop trying to paint some radical, and her positions were quite mainstream. They talked about the primary, and Jon speculated that they both liked Obama but one of them was pretending to like Clinton so they could just keep arguing. We made up a lot of things about them and I think we were mostly correct.

When we left, they were sitting on the same side of the booth, and he had his arm around her, and she was drinking from his milkshake.

Have I mentioned just how much I like this city?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

DC Village

DC is surprisingly small for a city of 600,000. I thought this was because I've mainly been sticking to Northwest and the Eastern Market area, but then I realized that was also the same size as Vermont, and you know, all we Vermonters know each other.

My friend Eleuthera was down from New York for the weekend, and over the course of two days, we accidentally ran into five swatties ranging from class of '05 to class of '09. We even ran into the same swattie twice, once in an art museum, and once biking on U Street wearing an intimidating ski mask. It's an invasion. I feel like we're running the city. If FISA gets through, I'm looking at you, Swarthmore Poli Sci department. Hmph.

Someone I meet for the first time one evening will be in my metro car the next day. I'm so glad Swarthmore taught me the swivel. I use it. A friend from the summer knows someone who used to work with my aunt. A girl I met at a party works with a friend from Swarthmore. There's less of a bubble, but a healthy dose of tact remains essential.

We aren't quite sure what the best term for the District of Columbia is. I go by "DC" but E thinks non-swatties may tend to say "Washington." I've been trying to catch locals referencing their home, and am considering "the District" as an alternative. I was under the illusion that's what the cool people call it, but have been told that's what Hollywood wants me to think the cool people call it. Next thing you know, I'll be dying my hair blond.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Women and Men of 2038

After watching the South Carolina debates last night, my friend Jon and I spent a while talking about what we hope the US will look like in 2038. One thing that struck me was that it was much easier for me to come up with social goals than economic goals or international goals. I think in part that's because I have a clearer sense of what my social "end vision" is whereas I don't know exactly where on the spectrum between a complete free market economy and a socialist command economy is ideal. Our role in the global sphere is even harder to project because there are so many other variables.

Here are some of the things we settled on, or that I thought of afterwards. We tried really hard to be realistic:

-universal healthcare coverage
-access to college: both that everyone can attend college and that cost is not a variable that constraints people's college decisions
-less of a wealth gap, both domestically and globally
-lifting the specter of severe enviromentally catastrophe
-societal prioritization of the need to restore clean water, air and ecosystems
-general era of peace, where the US military has only limited engagements
-an international criminal court and greater support for global legislation enforcement, whether it be about human rights, labor, or the enviroment
-a parallel commitment to open borders, and a rollback of ag and textile tariffs in the developed world
-I'd like to see a greater access to free information that still incentivizes the creation of information and art. It seems almost inevitable that we're moving in this direction, but I'd hate to see intellectual property laws that attempt to get around advances in technology and roll back the other way.
-the abandonment of the word 'gay' to describe negative things (Jon started off the conversation with this one. I guess his buddies at the Basic School find many objects attracted to other objects of the same sex. Or long runs. Male long runs are only attracted to other male long runs, I bet, especially if they are wearing gear. Gear is sort of like accessories, and therefore, particularly gay.)
-a constitutional framework for abortion and gay rights that is based on equality, not privacy. Maybe this means the ERA or maybe it means revisiting the intent of the 14th amendment.

Essentially, this is a progressive's agenda with a bit of a free trade, globalist emphasis.

A last wish I have for 2038 is that we expand the way we look at masculinity as a society. I'm not entirely sure how to get there-- Jon pointed out that probably many Americans think our current idea of masculinity is already too expansive-- but I think it's a change that's got to take place on the household level before it can take place on the national stage (although policies such as paternity leave would help).

When I was fourteen, I got my first job working as a bookshelver at the library. It was, other than RAing and dinners in Greece, the most fun I've ever been paid for. However, one thing that continually struck me was how critical parents were of their sons' choices. Babysitters' Club was a "girl's book." So, incidentally, was anything by Beverly Cleary, Rumor Goden, or Tamara Pierce. I see why J.K. Rowling dropped the Joanna before Harry Potter's debout and I see why she made Potter a boy. You can't really blame eight year old boys for rejecting books about girls if that's the message they have gotten from their parents and peers all their life.

I very rarely heard a parent to tell a girl to put down a book because it was a "boy's book." I think now (at least among my generation) a certain amount of tomboyishness is acceptable, or even encouraged in young girls. I doubt most of my male peers had their reading choices censored this way, but I think that right now there are more ways to "be female" than to "be male." Disney can make movies with female warriors decades before they make movies with princes who are not warriors. I think in general, uniqueness is more tolerated among female children than male ones. (I don't think this is true globally, of course, or cross cultures, and I'm willing to concede if someone wants to argue it's only true in certain socio-economic classes.)

I'm certainly not arguing it's easier to be female than to be male (although I wouldn't swap). I once talked this over with my friend Allie, and she commented that although we are no longer telling girls they must be this, or must be that, instead we are sending the message that they must be everything, and I think this is spot on. I obnoxiously, earnestly, and unnecessarily spend hours stressing about how I'm going to balance a family and a career (I want to help change the world and make awesome Halloween costumes, help!), even though now I don't have a boyfriend or a job I'm going to stick with in the long run. I expect I'll spend a far part of the next twenty years worrying about the same thing, hopefully less obnoxiously. I think some traditionally female problems-- such as worry about the approval of others or body image-- have become more equal-opportunity problems (gotta love those races to the bottom), but still affect women more.

(One thing that makes me a little sad for guys is that I know very few men who had childhood, and particularly adolescent, friendships as close as my own friendships. I don't really buy maturity gap arguments (my mother is convinced I have that teenage guy risk-loving hormone), but if there is one, I think it exists for that reason. It has to be a bit emotionally stilting to not have anyone to call when upset. Sometimes I think some guys want girlfriends so they can have a really close friend as much as anything else.)

There is more general consciousness of way our society needs to change in its treatment of women. I think these large scale changes can't come about without
redefining masculinity in a way that hinges less of aggression and leaves more room for having feelings and being nurturing. It would be a safer world to be female in. There would be fewer limits on what it was socially acceptable for a guy to do or say. I also think it would be easier and less stigmatized for men to take paternity leave or stay at home with children which would both open up more options for most couples and would put women who choose to take time off at less of a disadvantage.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Soup of the Week

Dear Senator Leahy,

I appreciate the sentiment, but next time, pls make your endorsements before the primary next door, Jim Douglas-style.


I have this new scheme where I make a different soup every Sunday (ok, so far have only done this once, but...) and then freeze it and eat it each day for lunch. It's snowing out now, and Sunday's chili couldn't be more delicious. I find it pretty challenging to eat enough produce while just cooking for myself, and a soup with a lot of veggies helps. I think I also want to try using leftover salad vegetables, post-chop-up, in omelettes. My friend Michele thinks the solution for cooking for yourself is to eat the exact same thing every day, so you don't wind up with ill-suited leftovers. Katie thinks the secret is a dinner composed of no-prep snacks-- a rice cake here, a yogurt there. I really want to learn to cook though, so I'll keep you posted if I develop any brillant strategies.

Any candidates for the next soup of the week?

Rootlessness and Americanism

While wandering through old Kyoto, Rachel and I were struck with how alive and universal the sense of ritual seemed to be. It feels as though there is a certain way to be Japanese -- to go to neighborhood shrines, to live with your parents after college, to prepare bentos for your children's lunches, to eat certain foods in certain ratios, etc. While this seems very confining (when I talked to Japanese girls who'd studied in the US, they worried they were too "individual" to continue to work and live in Japan, at the same time it felt like there was a common sense of belonging, a united identity.

For a brief moment in the old city, I craved a common history, an external identity accompanied by ritual. I guess some people find this in religion and others find it in culture and nationalism. On a personal level, I've always sort of valued having a level of distance from the divides and limits these identities create, but in Kyoto, I thought about the limits of not having one.

I think it would be so interesting to live in a place where one felt that all the people they saw went home and ate rice just like you, or also woke up at 5 am for the first of five prayers and believed in the same god. The first time I had sex, I spent weeks amazed that this was something everyone did, a common private activity binding me to the SWILies making out in their long capes and the 40 year old biology teaching with the wedding ring. (Whenever I try to explain the way I felt about this relevation, friends stop me at that point.)

When it comes to countries, I'm less divided. I'd much rather live in a country with a plethora of contradicting traditions and identities than a larger, potentially exclusive one. (Even in this, I'm clinging to my own particular idea of American diversity, a part of my own identity.)

I find it much easier to describe what a Japanese person does or what an Emirati person does than what an American does. Clothing styles, food preferences and houseware are easier to generalize. Part of this may be that its harder to stereotype groups one belongs to, but I really do think American identity is more diffuse.

When I was in Tanzania, the questions people asked me about America included "Do girls really starve themselves?" "Where do the cowboys live?" "Does everyone have plastic surgery" "Does everyone own a gun?" When we tried to give correct, narrowly tailored answers to these questions, people then asked us what America was like. If not cowboys with rhinoplasty, then what?

I don't know. The truism that one never feels more American than when they are abroad certainly applied to me, but I still don't know what that means.

(to be finished tomorrow)

As I write, I recognize that everything I characterize as American-- our brand of democracy, our cultural pluralism-- is up for debate. And I like that, too.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Doing Capitally in the Capitol

(I have a sneaking suspicion that one of three people is going to email me and tell me that the spelling "capitol" can only be used to refer to the building, not the whole city. However, the bigger issue here is that this title is really too corny for use. Bear with me all the same.)

I arrived in DC last Friday, and am really excited to be back. I'm living with my aunt and uncle and cousin out in Chevy Chase. They have a basement apartment under their house with a separate door and kitchen, so it's pretty ideal.

In the last week, I have characterized DC as a social mecca, cornucopia, buffet, grail, basically any word that encapsulates an abundance of interactive goodness. I like that I can do a different interesting thing with a different interesting person every night of the week if I like. Over the summer, this became a bit exhausting, but I think I could wind up a DC-for-lifer if I had a place like VT to escape to.

I saw a friend from the summer this weekend, and she said she felt like seeing each other was one of Madeline L'Engle's wrinkles in time. Seeing one another made it feel like all the time we'd been apart was folded up between us and the time we'd lived together felt like it was the closest thing to the now. I like tesseracts.

I've noticed that people always get a lot cooler> after they stop running for president. Predictable, I guess. I think Kerry makes this point very well; Democrats (and, um, everyone else) should never be the party trying to suppress turnout.

In all the campaigns I've worked on, I've always believed turnout was a good sign. For the most part, if you don't at least feel that way, you're working for the wrong person. (Although maybe I'd feel differently if in a swing state when the ballot initiative was tailor made to turn out evangelicals.)

Friday, January 11, 2008

Human Rights, Glass Elevators and Heights

The next morning I took the train to Osaka, where I parted ways with Rachel. I left my stuff in a locker, and set off to explore Osaka. The day got off to a pretty rough start---I lost my airport shuttle ticket immediately after purchasing it, I consequently had to take out yen on my last day (the calculus of having just enough foreign currency to last through a trip without running out or going over eludes me yet) and it took me roughly two hours to figure out how to navigate the station. Finally, I purchased a ticket and rode the circular route out to the Human Rights museum, feeling very independent, relieved, and triumphant.

The Osaka Human Rights museum was one of the best museums I have ever been to. Admission only cost about two dollars, even without a student membership, and at the door, the guides offered me a free headset that had an English translation of all the exhibits. (I'm still trying to figure out how the museum was funded. I think it's virtually impossible that the Japanese government funded it-- the exhibits were too critical. My best guess is that a Korean businessman who was successful in Japan during the postwar period but had to hide his identity sponsored it.

The museum was broken into three parts, the first section which discussed the way certain norms were enforced in Japanese culture, resulting in the exclusion of whole segments of the population. The final section had a series of narratives by people who were marginalized and the victims of human rights abuses. The middle section, my favorite, dealt with the historical and contemporary status of disadvantaged groups within Japanese society. The groups discussed included: women, people who were queer, victims of enviromental disaster, people with disabilities, slum dwellers, Koreans, Okinawans, people living with AIDS, the Ainu, and the burakumin (ghettoized descents of leather workers and undertakers who have continued to be treated as a seperate caste within Japanese society long after the caste system was abandoned).

I liked that the museum combined these disparate groups. I thought that offered a very sweeping perspective of human rights in Japan rather than, say, just looking at dissents or just focusing on members of a particular minority group. I was impressed by the museum's honesty in approaching these struggles as ongoing rather than historic battles the country has moved beyond. (The Museum of the American Indian in DC also does a nice job with this.) I also think it's very challenging to create exhibits about people who have been victims without creating a one-sided narrative in which they become agency-less objects, and are dehumanized. While it's also bad to create a fake story in which people who could not fight fought back, this museum did an excellent job of contextualizing the ways in which people had resisted oppression. It told stories of victims of enviromental discrimination who had sued, both losers and winners. It featured video of speech contest in which all the participants spoke Ainu. It had pictures of Burakumin youth drummers who spoke to communities about the way they were treated.

The curators at the museum were excellent, and I was really glad to go. I feel like I got a taste of Japanese history and culture that I otherwise would have completely missed. I think the discriminated-against in Japan face a very uphill battle because: a) sameness is so valued (how can such a conformist society also be so creative?) b) breaking consensus-- ie, complaining-- is frowning on and could bring further shame on one's family c) politics is not a forum through which every day people can exercise any will.

I ate some curry at the museum, then spent the afternoon wandering around Osaka. I meant to go to the aquarium but accidentally wound up at the water conservation museum instead. I think it was geared for enviromentally conscious Japanese-speaking ten year olds, but props that they have a free, interactive water conservation museum.

Osaka felt a little bit poorer and more industrial than Tokyo to me. Homelessness is nonexistant or invisible in all the parts of Tokyo I've been to, but in Osaka, there were people sleeping under bridges and taking shelter against the wind under cross-paths over the streets. There was occasional graffiti, although it still seemed a lot cleaner than most American cities. The city itself spans a river, and unlike Yokohama, which doesn't seem to quite know what to do with it's waterfront, there were lovely parks along the water and running trails. Rachel says Osakans are like the "Greeks of Japan" and are known for being more demonstrative and friendly.

That night, I went up to the "Floating Garden Observatories" in Shin-Umeda. There were two towers linked by an open observation deck at the very top. First, visitors rode up in an enclosed elevator, and then switched to a glass encased elevator offering a great (but sort of scary) pararoma of the city. On top, there was an indoor photo exhibit and a cafe, then a staircase that led up to the open deck. I walked around outside for a bit, then went inside to the cafe to watch the sunset over the city before boarding my flight home.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Kyoto III

After seeing the Roman aqueduct, we rode back in to downtown and wandered around Pontocho alley. Back in the days when Kyoto was the capital of Japan, Pontocho alley was on the other side of the river, officially outside city limits. Officials and visitors would cross the bridge over from Gion for debauchery, and pretend it all wasn't happening in the capital. (All the historical signs around the alley cite it's long history as a "gay area" where people met to meet prostitutes. I think somehow the distinction between a 'gay district' and a 'red light district' got a bit blurred in translation.) When we arrived there, it was just getting dark, and the narrow streets, lined with restaurants and well-lit signs, were just coming to life. It's still a major going-out area for young Kyoto residents, and reminded me a bit of the Latin Quarter in Paris.

After a while, Rachel and I realized we were in an actual red light district (some things need no translation) and headed back to the main road. We stopped at a little bar/restaurant off the main road. When we saw that the place was nearly empty, we intended to just get a drink and some sashimi and then go elsewhere for dinner. The owner had other plans, and prepared a delicious meal, course by course. I think, in the end, it was my favorite meal I ate in Japan.

It began with tuna and mackerel sashimi, and I'd finally gotten acclimated enough to enjoy it (I've missed it since getting home). It also came with delicious, very fresh-tasting leaves to wrap it in. Next, he served oden, something I've been fascinated by in convenience stores, but don't have the communication skills to order. Next to check out in Japanese convenience stores, right next to the sweet bean mochi, is a big tub of heated broth with stewed fish cakes, boiled egg, daikon (radish), etc, floating in it. After the oden, we had a thumb-sized bit of carefully cooked chicken, followed by tempura eggplant, green beans, and the same fresh-tasting leaf. I'd never really think of frying those vegetables, but I'd love to learn how now. The meal inevitably ended with rice, and green tea ice cream. We were glad we'd apparently lost agency. The owner-- who was quite young and had World Cup paraphenial all over his restaurant-- adopted the greviances of a much older man. He was distressed that young Japanese people prefered Chu-hi to sake and conventional entertainment to the traditional.

Our hotel that night had co-ed floors and women's floors. As women traveling along, we were shuttled off to the woman's floor, which had careful signs on the door leading to the elevator which made it absolutely clear no men could escape through. The hotel room had a 1950s style decor, as well as button-up light brown pajamas for the guests.