Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The ‘Dream’ and its legacy in reality

A dream is a wish your heart makes
When you're fast asleep.

— Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston,
for the Walt Disney film “Cinderella”

EVEN BEFORE the observances of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington informally started — days and weeks ago — the talking points were already out. As we might have expected, the view comparing America in 1963 and America today has yielded a keep-on-pushin’ narrative of black progress and empowerment in the half-century since Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took the podium at the Lincoln Memorial to deliver the “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the handful of signal aspirational orations in American history.

Though the speech is rightly acclaimed and has more than held its reputation as a defining national statement, its detractors, or those more neutral or indifferent to its galvanizing emotionalism, have criticized the positioning of King’s aspirations in the context of a dream. For these tin-eared literalists, a dream is by definition illusory — something you wake up from, and, ergo, not to be taken seriously in the hard, fast, waking world.

They’re to be forgiven if King’s rhetorical choices don’t work for them. Such critics of the speech get too wrapped up in the means of delivery rather than focusing on the gift received. Bless their hearts, they don’t understand why “I have an objective today!” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

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What King dared to posit that sweltering day in August 1963 was nothing less than an America that paid the check and kept its promises, the ones made to its people and to itself. An end to racial bias, principally in the South; a balance of opportunities in all spheres of the American experience; a tabling of the old racial animosities.

In that, much of the Dream — the objective — has been achieved. The Washington Post, using information from the U.S. Census Bureau, recently offered a compelling snapshot of the progress of black Americans.

Things have changed for the better. The homeownership rate for black Americans stood at 41.6 percent in 1970, the first year those numbers were collected. It was at 43.4 percent in 2011; that figure was recorded after the recession of 2008, so black home ownership was almost certainly higher before the recession hit. Likewise, home ownership between 1963 and 1970 (most of those years before the Fair Housing Act of 1968) was just as certainly lower than 41.6 percent.

Black public officeholders are less uncommon than they were before. There were 1,469 black elected officials nationwide in 1970, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which uses a number that was, given the politics of the time, certainly lower in 1963. In 2011 that number had swelled to about 10,500.

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IN 1964, 25.7 percent of blacks age 25 and over had completed at least four years of high school; that percentage stood at 85 percent in 2012. In that same time, the number of black people with high school diplomas mushroomed almost tenfold, from 2.4 million to 20.3 million.

Between 1964 and 2012 the percentage of black Americans 25 and over who completed at least four years of college exploded from 3.9 percent to 21.2 percent, with the number of black Americans with bachelor’s degrees similarly expanding from 365,000 to more than 5 million.

The rate of African Americans voting in presidential elections has risen from 58.5 percent in 1964 to 62 percent in 2012.

In 1963, a black quarterback in the National Football League was as rare as the 31st day of June. By that year, there’d only been three in the history of the league, which began in 1920. Fast forward to today, when, happily, you can’t swing a live wide receiver without encountering a black quarterback — and a starter at that.

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All of these metrics and more besides point to the thrust of what King was really trying to say that day in 1963: without the hard work needed to power it into reality, a dream will never be more than a dream — something African Americans understood then, and understand today.

That opens onto a more central, more important question in the context of our contemporary understanding of Dr. King’s “dream.” More than ever, we need to ask ourselves, are we viewing the “Dream” as an event or as a furtherance of a process?

It’s not a trick question. People speaking about Dr. King’s speech and comparing the achievements of then and now often ask, “are we there yet?” The question itself is problematic. “There” implies an end point, a terminus, a finality, a finish line. As any student of American democracy understands, there is no one absolute destination for African Americans, Latinos, women and LGBT Americans.

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THERE ARE commonalities, of course, within different approaches, different ways of gaining the same general opportunities for self-actualization of one’s goals and identity. Certain things — the chance to vote and be recognized, to marry whom you choose, to live where you want (or at least where you can afford) — deserve to be uniform throughout society.

But at the end of the day, there’s more to the “American dream” than achieving the permissions of the Constitution. Your American dream ain’t like mine ain’t like hers ain’t like anybody else’s. And the obstacles to reaching that goal won’t be the same for everyone, either.

Syria and the ‘red line’ frontier

SINCE SYRIAN President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on his own people in March 2011, events in Syria have steadily unraveled and worsened for its people. The speed and scope of the atrocities authored by Assad has been dizzying and brutal, in the last two years achieving such broad savagery that avid bloggers struggle to keep up; the world watches, agonized and dumbfounded; and the White House internally wrestles with the matter of how to react.

For more than two years now, the barbarity of the Assad regime’s response to a populist uprising inspired by the Arab Spring movement has frozen the United States and the world into the numb shock of inactivity, indecision, impotence. That may have ended on Aug. 21.

When rockets containing toxic chemical agents struck three towns in the suburbs of Damascus (as part of a Syrian bombardment of rebel positions), the results were widely and almost immediately catastrophic, a vision of hell on earth. People died in their beds with no visible wounds or signs of trauma. Others survived, writhing, convulsing and coughing. The images are ... difficult to watch.

At this writing, 355 people were killed in the gas attacks, with another 3,600 injured, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders). Those numbers are almost certain to increase.

One year after President Obama said that Syrian use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that would “change my calculus” on dealing with Syria, it fell to Secretary of State John Kerry to announce, on Monday from the State Department, that Obama’s red line had finally, unambiguously, been crossed. We’re about to discover how beyond that red line lies a frontier as dangerous for America as it will likely be for Syria. And maybe more.

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“What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world,” Kerry said Monday. “It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear. The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable. And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable. ...

“There is a reason why President Obama has made clear to the Assad regime that this international norm cannot be violated without consequences. And there is a reason why no matter what you believe about Syria, all peoples and all nations who believe in the cause of our common humanity must stand up to assure that there is accountability for the use of chemical weapons so that it never happens again. ...”

And then, more ominously, Kerry said: “The administration is actively consulting with members of Congress, and we will continue to have these conversations in the days ahead. President Obama has also been in close touch with the leaders of our key allies, and the president will be making an informed decision about how to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons.

“But make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny.”

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THE DEVIL, as usual, is in the details. The first option being considered is a punishing air strike against Assad’s military command and control centers.

UnaccountableDrones, commenting at the Foreign Policy Web site, has an answer that Sen. John McCain and other automatic hawks in Congress would endorse: “Go all in: “Completely annihilate Assad's air power, his 50 usable jets, his helicopter gun ships and the runways on his 6 major airfields in a couple of nights launches of Cruise missiles and airstrikes from outside of Syrian borders putting no US lives at risk.

“He's used chemical weapons and there simply has got to be a response to that or the world changes for the worse.”

But Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told John Hudson of Foreign Policy that any plans for surgical strikes against the Syrian regime were likely to fail. “Tactical action in the absence of strategic objectives is usually pointless and often counterproductive," Harmer said Monday in FP’s The Cable.

Harmer said: “[T]his is a low cost option, but the broader issue is that low cost options don't do any good unless they are tied to strategic priorities and objectives. Any ship officer can launch 30 or 40 Tomahawks. It's not difficult. The difficulty is explaining to strategic planners how this advances U.S. interests.”

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THAT VIEW is, frankly, too Machiavellian by half. Any conventional strategic metric, the kind that weighs the costs and benefits of any military intervention according to how it “advances” our “interests,” goes out the window in the face of chemical weapons being used against whole populations of Syrian towns, weapons banned by international consensus with the Geneva Protocol of 1925, weapons used in Syria to kill hundreds and injure thousands more — so far.

The use or the threat of use of these weapons by a totalitarian state, the already horrific recent loss of life, and the potential for their use by Assad again are matters that trump any narrow, reflexive consideration of What’s In It for Us. This is bigger than that. Ban Ki Moon knows it.

“Any use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anybody, under any circumstances, would violate international law,” the United Nations Secretary-General said on Friday, adding that gas attacks constituted “a crime against humanity” deserving of “serious consequences for the perpetrator.”

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Harmer’s view (fully elucidated in The Cable) is downbeat in the extreme — Chicken Little on steroids — but it does underscore what Kerry necessarily tiptoed around Monday at State, what Obama must recognize in the White House, and what NATO and the wider Middle East will come to understand, if they don’t already: There are no good options here.

Leaving Assad to his own devices is an absolute non-starter. To walk away from nothing less than a moral gut-check for everyone in the civilized world would send a tacit signal of approval, or at least tolerance, of his actions — and few things would invite more such crimes than doing nothing. We’ve been there before, as the middle years of the 20th century made clear.

What’s just as bad is the prospect of an outright invasion, or anything even remotely like it. France seemed to hint at this prospect on Monday. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Europe 1 radio on Monday there would be a “proportionate response” to the chemical weapons attack, affixing blame to the Assad regime. “It will be negotiated in coming days,” he said, as reported by The Associated Press. “All the options are open. The only option that I can’t imagine would be to do nothing.”

Monday, August 26, 2013

A very rough Patch:
Tim Armstrong’s myopic hyperlocal vision

AT ROUGHLY the same digital time when the mainstream media and the blogosphere had their collective knickers in a breathless twist over Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post, another media story was playing out with a lot less attention, one with a grim short-term impact for Patch’s hyperlocal news model, and many of the professional journalists and citizen writers who’ve tried like hell to make that model work.

Patch, the company-community of hundreds of local news sites covering events in America’s smaller cities and towns, formally announced on Aug. 14 that it would start laying off hundreds of workers effective on Aug. 16. Two days later. We got the dark warnings of the layoffs on Aug. 7, when Tim Armstrong, the irascible CEO of AOL, Patch’s parent company, said what was coming in a conference call. This prime directive figured that about 300 underperforming Patch sites would likely be shuttered, sold, consolidated with other Patches, or made to partner with other existing local-news sites.

It was only some of the latest bad news for a company whose business model has been a stretch from the start, a patchwork of local sites that suffers from a shortage of paid (and therefore incentivized) workers, traffic data, per-site resources, cutting-edge technology and editorial vision from the top.

And bad news got even worse. Armstrong broke that on an Aug. 9 second-quarter earnings call. Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici reported that, out of the 900+ Patch sites now up and running, “only about 500 will remain under the corporate umbrella as owned-and-operated properties.”

The apparent implosion of Patch as a mushrooming community-news venture reveals the frailties of a business model that‘s been, finally, at odds with itself. An aggressive approach to indigenous, hyperlocal news is collapsing under the weight of its own templatized, hypernational ambition, and a willful ignorance of a fact of independent community-based journalism: Local doesn’t scale.

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Patch is the Rashomon experience of modern American local newsgathering, its value and the effectiveness of its strategy dependent on who you’re asking. Its workers either love or hate the Patch business model of hyperlocal news, and react accordingly when new decrees on Patch’s survival come down from HQ. The latest: Patch leadership has decided to thin the herd selectively, with some employees asked to stay on until Oct. 15, and others ... not.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Bookmark this space:
Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post to come

YOU KNEW something was up the day of and the days after the announcement that the irrepressible multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million if you watched MSNBC. Ezra Klein, a Washington Post writer on politics and economic policy, was pinch-hitting last week for one of the hosts on the cable channel. Klein was mostly as usual: sharp, direct, accessible, efficient in his on-air delivery.

But at least once when he was on the air  talking about the Post deal, Klein betrayed a look of uncertainty; at times he looked vaguely stricken — perhaps to be expected when your employer becomes, suddenly and maybe even transformationally, a bigger part of the news than it’s already been.

To call the Bezos buy a thunderclap in the media world would be a profound understatement. This purchase — with Bezos’ own couch-cushion money, mind you — will wed one of the nation’s pre-eminent newsgathering organizations with its equally pre-eminent online reseller; for journalists and readers of news content, the contemplation of what might be possible boils the brain cells, even as it raises the prospect of what in this new conflation of content and commerce might go wrong. Let’s remember: there hasn’t been such a noisy mashup of old media and new media since ... since AOL and Time Warner. I’m just sayin’.

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The question, of course, screams to be asked: WTF would Jeff Bezos do with The Washington Post? Let the speculation industry begin. Some have guessed that Bezos, said to be a Libertarian, is making the buy to advance that political philosophy, but there’s little to support that. He’s reportedly made campaign contributions to more than one political party in the past, and Bezos is an intensely private person, so much so that, thankfully, his personal politics appear to be the best kind for an otherwise toweringly public persona: His own damn business.

There’s some thought that with the Post buy Bezos gains Amazon additional credibility as a force to lobby in Washington on matters from taxes on Internet commerce — a longtime thorn in Amazon’s side — to Internet security.

Others give Bezos more indulgent reasons. With a personal net worth in the gilded neighborhood of $25 billion, Bezos has been able to act on his wildest ideas, including development of a clock in West Texas intended to keep time for the next 10,000 years and a project to recover rocket remnants from the historic Apollo 11 moon flight in 1969. Some think that buying The Washington Post is his latest exercise in vanity.

But even that’s a weak reason; fun is fun, but $250 million is still serious money. More sober considerations have Bezos up to something as serious as the investment.

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WHY IS Amazon’s founder betting on old media? Here’s one answer: Jeff Bezos loves content and he always has,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek senior writer Brad Stone said.

“Of the businesspeople I know, he and Bill Gates are the two most intellectually curious people I know. It doesn’t surprise me that Jeff would find something with the intellectual depth of The Post an intriguing, compelling thing to be involved with,” RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser told The New York Times.

Maybe. Bezos could have gone on loving the Post’s content forever without actually buying the company. Henry Blodgett, an editor for Business Insider and someone in a position to know, or certainly speculate, says: “I’d guess that Jeff Bezos thinks that there are some similarities between the digital news business and his business (ecommerce)–and that no one in the news business has really capitalized on this yet.”

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Alec MacGilllis, writing in The New Republic, senses something more sinister:

“[L]et’s not kid ourselves here: The company that made him one of the richest men in the world has had a less than benign impact on our nation. It has devastated the publishing industry, from the big presses to the small booksellers. It has exacerbated the growth of the low-wage economy, to the point where the president feels the need to celebrate an increase in warehouse jobs that will pay barely more than minimum wage. (Fun fact uncovered by the Morning Call in Allentown, Pa. two years ago: Instead of paying for air-conditioning at some Pennsylvania warehouses, Amazon had just stationed paramedics outside to take the inevitably heat-stressed workers to the hospital.)

Even allowing for some misprecision — the Post was a personal Bezos buy and not an outright, per se extension of the Amazon empire; that distinction deserves to be conceded, at least for now — MacGillis makes a good point: historically, Bezos’ proven love of content has meant love on his terms. How that’s reconciled in the reliable chaos of the news game today is anyone’s guess.

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CHRIS HUGHES, the majority owner of the New Republic and a co-founder of Facebook who bought his interest in TNR in March 2012 — and immediately faced the same “why?” Bezos is dealing with now — thinks Bezos’ move is meant to capitalize on more than the assets of the purchase, more than the sum of its parts. Writing in his own publication, Hughes says

“I’m guessing that Bezos understands an old truism: brands matter. The wonder and magic of institutions like the Post or The New Republic is their history — their stories track the American story. In many cases, they have made that very history through their reporting. No owner can brush aside these powerful legacies, regardless of his or her start-up bona fides. ...

“We read differently today than 20 years ago or even two years ago. Tablets, phones, blogs, print—we find content everywhere, but expect different things from it depending on the context. But the one constant, the one thing that matters when readers think about paying or advertisers think about buying, is the power of the brand. ...

Sunday, August 4, 2013

‘Carlos’ in danger:
The shortcomings of Anthony Weiner

CENK UYGUR, the explosively self-confident host of Current TV’s “The Young Turks” and a man given to over-the-top liberalism, recently weighed in on the matter of Anthony Weiner — and speculation on what’s the matter with Anthony Weiner in his probably doomed quest to be mayor of New York City. Others on the “TYT” panel charitably debated Weiner’s viability as a candidate earlier that week, and since, as the fallout from Weiner’s personal online peccadilloes continues — just like the behavior that got him self-bounced from Congress two years ago.

Uygur cut to the chase with an uncharacteristic brevity. “I don’t care what pictures he sent on Twitter, I’ve never cared,” he said. “But to have the incredibly bad judgment, after you got caught, to do it again, then to run for mayor knowing that you’re likely going to be outed again — it’s a level of hubris I’m not comfortable with.”

That in a nutshell is why Weiner’s campaign for mayor, quixotic from day one, is fated to end badly. In both his personal behavior and his public-service performance, there’s a level of hubris about Weiner’s bid to helm the American colossus that’s likely a bit much. Even for New York City.

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We know the back story. On June 6, 2011, in an emotional press conference at the Sheraton Hotel in midtown Manhattan, then-Congressman Weiner admitted sending sexually explicit or suggestive photos and messages over the Internet to “about six women over the last three years.”

“Last Friday night I tweeted a photograph of myself that I intended to send as direct message as part of a joke to a woman in Seattle. Once I realized I posted it to Twitter, I panicked, I took it down and said that I had been hacked. I then continued with that story to stick to that story which was a hugely regrettable mistake.”

He resigned shortly after that, and has spent the past two years in wilderness, making what appeared to be good progress in righting his wrongs, going to therapy sessions, respectfully laying low and doing right by his wife, Huma Abedin, a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the mother of Weiner’s son.

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THEN ON May 21, with unalloyed chutzpah, Weiner announced his plans to run for mayor of New York City. “Look, I’ve made some big mistakes and I know I’ve let a lot of people down,” he said in a two-minute campaign video. “But I’ve also learned some tough lessons. I’m running for mayor because I’ve been fighting for the middle class and those struggling to make it for my entire life. And I hope I get a second chance to work for you.”

Early reaction from New Yorkers was promising. New Yorkers can be a forgiving lot, and the early polls showed this: Weiner took an early lead in preference polls, with Weiner actually leading City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, New York City public advocate Bill De Blasio, and former comptroller Bill Thompson. Crisis averted, or at least navigated.

Then two months later, almost to the day, Weiner stepped before the microphones with Abedin at his side, both there for a news conference that began the new downward spiral for Weiner and his political ambitions — a spiral that proceeded from the one what did him in the first time.

“I have said that other texts and photos were likely to come out, and today they have,” he said on July 23. “I want to again say that I am very sorry to anyone who was on the receiving end of these messages and the disruption this has caused.” It was a roundabout way of Weiner admitting that he had continued to send explicit messages to women well into 2012, and as recently as April of this year, using the singularly ridiculous alias "Carlos Danger." Weiner admitted that one of those images, a previously unpublished selfie of a penis posted to the Internet on July 23, was his very own.

The picture was posted on the entertainment site, after the recipient of the picture sent it there. And here we are.

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On July 27, Danny Kedem, Weiner's campaign director, told the world he’d had enough when he announced his resignation. Polls suggested that New Yorkers were coming to the same conclusion.

A Quinnipiac poll released the week of July 20 had Weiner actually leading the mayoral race, 25 percent to 22 percent over Quinn.  A New York Times/Siena College poll from about the same period showed Quinn with a sizable 27-18 lead over Weiner among registered voters in New York.

Fast forward one week, give or take. A Quinnipiac poll released on July 29 had Quinn out in front by 27 percent, followed by De Blasio, Thompson ... and Weiner, in fourth place with 16 percent favorables.

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FOR ALL the public justification for either outrage or rejection in the polls, the daily Weiner vilification in the media — Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate” on 24/7 steroids — is looking a bit unseemly and automatic. Like with the citizens of witch trial-era Salem, Mass., or the burghers in some town in Veddy Ole England — the people who couldn’t resist kicking the man bound hand and feet in the stocks on the town square — the serial media punishments visited on the former congressman say as much about us, our capacity for forgiveness, as they say about him.

The media’s been tut-tutting and piling on for weeks. On ABC News, Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal said Weiner’s actions were “quite clinically sick.” Over at CNN, New York GOP Rep. Peter King, spoke of Weiner’s “pathological problems.” And the tabloids weighed in, of course, with a variety of lurid, childish compressions of headline language, usually playing off of Weiner’s last name.

What’s been almost as reflexive is the willingness of some in the media to positively position Weiner’s campaign against the other candidates seeking the mayor’s office. All the talk about how the field of candidates is “weak,” “dull,” “lackluster” and “unexciting” — validating Weiner’s campaign by inference — misses the point of what’s at stake: the gravity of the job of running the world’s indisputably pre-eminent city, containing the world’s biggest stock exchange and the second-largest city economy on the planet.

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Whatever other shortcomings Weiner may have in terms of qualifications, he shouldn’t get demerits for dullness or lack of excitement. Mike Bloomberg hasn’t been exactly swinging from the chandeliers at Gracie Mansion the last dozen years. If it’s bombast and swagger New Yorkers want, if they’re looking for a showman, let ‘em appoint Donald Trump mayor-for-life and be done with it.

At the end of the day, the hard work of running the biggest city in the world probably couldn’t be more dull or unexciting — the difference between campaigning and governing never more obvious. For New Yorkers, then, it comes down to who’s most capable to do the job.

New Yorkers may sense that it’s over for Anthony Weiner, although he has aggressively vowed to stay in the race. But just because they see that coming doesn’t mean they won’t hear the man out. Even if Weiner is finally considered out of bounds, New Yorkers want to be the referees making that call. That’s the parochial, proprietary, purely emotional button Weiner hopes to push and push between now and the Sept. 10 primary election.

New Yorkers forgive, and they’re not alone. Look at David Vitter. Look at Mark Sanford. Hell, look at how far Richard Nixon got with a cloth coat and a dog. Like it or not, it’s what Weiner’s saying now, it’s this kind of passionate, full-throated defense of oneself, one’s civic identity and personal ambition that sometimes gets candidates elected — against all odds.

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BUT WEINER has two bigger problems. One is a matter of lessons unlearned. Between June 2011 and earlier this year, Weiner’s rehabilitation appeared to be well underway. People magazine published an affecting profile of Weiner the family man, husband and father, about a year ago. All the signs were right for starting over. Then it all went south in July, at a news conference, with his wife at his side, looking by turns game and gut-punched.

New Yorkers are cool with redemption. Recidivism? Not so much. They’re used to colorful characters running the city or campaigning to run it, but what’s engulfing Team Weiner now is another matter entirely. His recent behavior reveals something that’s not just iconoclastic; it’s been evidence of the polymorphous perverse. New Yorkers get plenty of that already.

The other problem is politically more substantive, and harder to ignore. Simply put, Anthony Weiner suffers from an achievement deficit. First elected to Congress in 1998, Weiner proceeded to build an image of a cocky, abrasive, ruthlessly intelligent advocate of his constituents, the picture of what one associate called “a pothole congressman.” Over time, it worked to a great degree.

His desire to be New York’s mayor is nothing new; it began with failed campaigns in 2005 and 2008, when Weiner proved to be nakedly strategic in his pursuit of the mayor’s job — even while keeping his day job in Congress.

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He started making the rounds on the cable shows, and in July 2010 he fully established his pepper-pot persona in the public eye with a memorable rant on the House floor, in which he excoriated House Republicans for their obstruction of a healthcare bill meant to aid New York health-care professionals who responded on 9/11.

It looked good for the cameras, but to insiders it was something else again. “Several New York members [of Congress] — most notably Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney — had labored to craft the 9/11 bill and to win over Republican support, but Weiner had played no meaningful role before the floor debate,” wrote Salon’s Steve Kornacki back in June 2011. “The episode perfectly illustrates the conflicting realities of Weiner’s new role in politics: To activists outside Washington, he’s a refreshing voice shaking up Congress; to his own colleagues, he’s a camera-seeking nuisance who’s interested in gaining publicity for himself — not in doing any substantive work.”

“In 12 ½ years in Congress, he sponsored and wrote only one bill that he steered to enactment: a measure pushed by a family friend who gave his campaigns tens of thousands of dollars in donations,” The New York Times reported in June.

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AND THAT’S likely to be the heavier lift for Weiner: not convincing New Yorkers of what he won’t do again, but convincing them of what more he will do — and do effectively as mayor — than he did when he blazed through the halls of Congress.

Just because he’s no longer in the federal government doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have to work with the federal government if he becomes mayor — on homeland security, infrastructure, immigration, funding for capital construction and any number of other issues where the interests of the city and the nation are intertwined.

It’s harder to do that when you’ve burned your bridges with an acetylene torch.

“I don’t take my cues from the headline writers in the newspapers. I never have,” Weiner said at a photo op/news conference on Monday, doubling down on his identity as a New Yorker. “Those are some of the very same people that didn’t want me to run, that didn’t want New Yorkers to have that choice in the first place.

“I don’t really care if a lot of pundits or politicians are offended by that. I’m gonna let New Yorkers decide!”

The primary election to decide the mayoralty of New York City is 38 days from now.

Also published at Image credits: Weiner top: AP Photo/John Minchillo. Weiner front page: New York Post, June 2011. Quinnipiac University logo: © 2013 Quinnipiac University.  Still image from broadcast of Nixon Checkers speech, 1952: public domain. Weiner family: People Magazine. Weiner on House floor: still from Associated Press video. 

The United States of Amygdala?

WE'VE BEEN debating forever the inability or unwillingness of Americans to engage in the kind of conversations, private and public, that could move the ball of race relations down the field for any appreciable distance. A reluctance to engage on the issue has been too easy to place in the context of legislative antagonism, willful intransigence, regional identity or intellectually-processed reactions. Science says that, thanks to an almond-shaped nucleic structure located deep in the temporal lobe of the brain, we may be more slaves to our physiology vis-à-vis race than we realize.

On a recent edition of Current TV’s “Viewpoint,” show host John Fugelsang and Democratic strategist Alexis McGill Johnson talked about the role played by physiological responses in perpetuating institutional racism and how that gets in the way of a real dialogue on race.

“We’re living in this world where the right [wing] has been very effective in suggesting that race doesn’t matter any more and that we live in a colorblind society,” Johnson said July 22. “So it’s very difficult for us to talk about race because we have a lot of anxiety in having that conversation.”

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The reason, she said, may be rooted less in sociology and more in physiology. “Part of your brain called the amygdala, [which] registers fear, increases. Your heart rate increases; your respiratory rate increases — all because we’re being primed to have these responses that are very quick, very unconscious, in a way that doesn’t reconcile with our understanding of where race is supposed to be.”

Johnson recalled there were tests revealing literal physiological changes of test subjects connected to monitoring equipment. “You can chart the anxiety growing in our bodies,” she says. “When race kind of drops into the conversation, on both sides — our executive brain shuts down. We go into ‘fight or flight’ mode. It’s really a physiological challenge at this point.”

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THIS FIELD of study, of course, is nothing new. What Johnson related as an apparent discovery in July 2013 is the basis of experiments that go back several years. In 2007, for example, one study scintillatingly titled “The effects of skin tone on race-related amygdala activity,” examined the phenomenon using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, and came to the conclusions Johnson mentioned. The amygdala, the subcortical interpreter of potential threat based on social or emotional stimuli, has been studied for its possible connections to racial biases since at least 2000.

But such studies raise as many questions as they purport to answer. If dialogue is the basis for these conclusions, what’s the context of the conversation — or was that even part of the control protocol? What’s the gender distinction one from another? Was there a generational difference in reaction to race discussions — did very young children, for example, act the same way as adults?

If reaction to photographs is the basis for these conclusions, what happened when test subjects were shown photographs of blacks and whites together, in the same image — or was that even part of the control protocol? How did the data break down by cultural terms—are some cultures more susceptible to an outcome than others?

And finally, how do amygdala reactions navigate the increasingly diverse demographic composition of modern America, a place with blacks and whites as descriptively polar extremes — and Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and the populations ancestral of the Middle East dominating much of the rest of the national spectrum?

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Ironically, for all their provocative nature, such studies would seem to have a relatively limited value in our increasingly crowded American future. In a nation more diverse than ever, we don’t have the luxury of thinking only in black and white; amygdala studies that don’t venture outside that duotone comfort zone are feeding into their own obsolescence.

And anyway — none of this should be to let our country, our leaders or ourselves off the hook by shrugging our shoulders and assuming the nation’s longstanding racial divide is just a matter of physiology, and something we just can’t help.

There’s too much of our fractious racial experience that’s processed intellectually, articulated legislatively, to be just unconscious response. There’s too much of what we do, what we say and how we act about race that’s been deeply, historically rationalized to a fare-thee-freakin-well. You can’t blame 237 years of racial inequality on an almond-shaped thing in your head. There's more of the rest of the brain involved in that.

The United States of Amygdala? Only in part. We’re bigger than our base response to stimuli. We’re better, we’re more than the victims of unfortunate cerebral wiring.

At least, we’d better be.

Image credits: Amygdala illustration: Via Greenwich Academy Science Times Web site.
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