Thursday, January 3, 2008

Post-colonial cliches come to life

The newest development in outsourcing: Indian women renting out their wombs to Westerners:
In a new twist to the outsourcing for which India has become renowned, poor Indian women are renting out their wombs to foreigners. Surrogate motherhood -- carrying to term and giving birth to another woman's baby - once was limited in India to helping close relatives who couldn't complete a pregnancy due to medical difficulties. But leading gynecologist Dr. Kamla Selvaraj says it's now becoming a regular "profession" in India, with more and more women willing to carry babies for others, for a fee.

Women's counselor Harleen Ahluwalia says surrogacy cases are estimated to have nearly doubled in the past three years. "Foreigners find Indian legal procedures easy and less exploitative, unlike [in the] U.S., where any complication could cost a fortune," she said.

While a couple in the U.S. will generally pay tens of thousands of dollars to a surrogate mother and affiliated agencies, in India the cost could be around $5,000, plus medical and attendant costs.

Note the special use of "exploitative" in the second paragraph -- it refers to the fears of the "customers" that they might be liable in case of complications to the surrogate.

You grope for some line about capitalism colonizing the bodies of the poor, but that doesn't seem clever or insightful here. Just ... true.

Friday, December 21, 2007

What Happened?

Any time, these days, I see a New York friend for the first time in a while, there's a conversation we always have. It begins, "What's up with Spitzer? He has really screwed the pooch," with about half the time "on this immigrant thing" appended.

I mean, look at it. The guy comes out with a proposal to allow undocumented immigrants to get drivers licenses, a proposal that is, to coin a phrase, politically right, legally right, morally right, right on the merits. But how does he do it? He doesn't consult with his allies in the immigrant world or in the legislature, doesn't even give them advance notice. Nor does he make any effort to defuse the opposition. He never met with the Daily News editorial board before the press conference announcing the proposal. Clergy? They'd be an easy sell on this but no one from the governor's office even tried. And he certainly didn't line up business allies. Dollars to donuts, nobody even did a vote count.

And then? And then? When the pushback gets too intense he announces he's got a deal with Homeland Security for their ok on a two-tier system where undocumented folks could get special licenses valid in New York only and not usable as IDs. Again, no consultation with immigration advocates or Ds in the legislature, some of whom had put their necks out considerably for his original proposal. The Daily News is still "No sale." So, once more without counsulting with anyone, he drops the whole thing. Net result: undocumented immigrants are still driving without licenses and scared to cooperate with police or emergency services. The Senate Rs see Spitzer as weakened and vulnerable, that mandate is looking pretty frayed at this point. The public sees a loser. And Spitzer's friends and allies see a man on whom they can't rely.

OK, honestly, everyone in NY politics has this conversation. But here's my original contribution.

This is exactly how a prosectuor handles things. You don't try to recruit allies on the jury before the trial, or neutralize a hostile judge. That would be seriously illegal. You don't come into the courtroom with a coalition, you come in with a case. That you've worked out with a few trusted colleagues and subordiantes. And if the case out not to be a winner? You try to settle. No settlement? Then drop it, and move on to the next one. Very smart, very sensible ... if you're a prosecutor.

Unfortunately, the fallacy of sunk costs is not a fallacy in politics. Once you're invested in something, you can't back off without seriously weakening your credibility down the line. (N.B.: this argument is often applied in cases where it's wrong; doesn't mean there aren't cases where it's right.) In politics the merits of a case matter much less than who's on which side of it. Practical politics is about 90 percent about relationships. You need to build up your allies and peel off your enemies. The notion of a leader who directly represents the people and doesn't need to accomodate established interests is a very attractive one. For better or worse (mostly better, IMHO), American politics doesn't generally allow for that. It's not a high school debate, it's not a chess game, it's not -- maybe Spitzer has learned by now -- a court case. Being right on the merits is helpful. Having a winning coalition is essential.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Other Cromwell

So I read in the LRB that Henry VIII's great minister Thomas Cromwell "created a number of 'courts' (effectively, ministries), specialized in function, which were independent of the Exchequer and ... symbolic of impersonal, institutional continuity." Why would he want to do that?

It's a more general problem one runs across reading history. How did the individuals serving and composing the various dynasties replace their own personal interests with the interests of the "impersonal, instituional continuity" of the states they served? Unquestionably they did: states in the pre-modern period pursued consistent objectives over periods well longer than a human lifetime.

Who knows? But I speculate that one important motivator was hatred. Hard to imagine why they would have wanted some future sovereign to thrive but easy to imagine that they would have wanted rivals, present and future, to go down. A purely selfish motivation that is yet impersonal and extends beyond the personal existence of the hater: and we can, if we are honest, recognize it in ourselves.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Varieties of Religious Experience

1. "Little or big, learn’d or unlearn’d, white or black, legal or illegal, sick or well, from the first inspiration down the windpipe to the last expiration out of it, all that a male or female does that is vigorous and benevolent and clean is so much sure profit to him or her in the unshakable order of the universe, and through the whole scope of it forever."

2. ... Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.

3. "Generally the closest I ever came to wondering about the meaning of it all was to consider that I must be the victim of a joke. ... I had a moment's glory that night, though. I was certain I was here in this world because I couldn't tolerate any other place."

I've been to see the future

... and it's called Southland Tales.

This thing is iconic. It's post-post-modern. It's Repo Man and Brazil and Blade Runner and Blue Velvet and Dr. Strangelove. It's got neo-Marxist revolutionaries and the Wicked Witch of the West running Homeland Security the mother of all SUV ads and a song-and-dance finale on giant airship called, yes, the Jenny von Westphalen. Sure, it doesn't exactly hold together, but who cares?

Whatever's the fuck has happened to American culture, it's doing great things to the movies.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Bechdel Standard

Based, apparently, on a a character in Dykes to Wath Out For's explanation that she never sees movies because so few meet it: There must be (a) at least two female characters, who (b) have a conversation with each other that (c) is not about men. Think about the last few movies you've sen: It's amazing how few satisfy even the first two conditions, let alone the whole thing.

Me: In the Valley of Elah, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Diva, and No Country for Old Men. Two outstanding movies and two not-bad ones, but none of them meet the Bechdel Standard.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Todos pecados son iguales

Do you ever wonder if maybe the street preachers are right?

There was one on the train coming home tonight, bearded and straggly. He spoke in Spanish so I couldn;t understand all of it, but what I could make out went something like this:

"All sins are the same. It doesn't matter whether you rob or kill, or if you only feel anger or greed. To God it's all the same; he only cares what's in your heart. So forget whatever you are pursuing in life. Money, success, it doesn't matter. Just think about your heart, because that's all that God sees. Just seek that there be no sin in your heart."

And isn't that what Jesus would say -- and isn't that who Jesus would be -- if he came back today?