On Ritual

Having been raised in the Catholic Church, ritual is nothing new to me. The rhythm of the Liturgical Calendar, the pomp of the High Masses, and the weekly breaking of the bread have all been a part of my life since before I could walk. They are traditions dating back to the Roman Empire and as such are steeped in meaning. Yet, even in schools which counted “Theology” as part of the fifth grade curriculum, these deep rituals punctuated rather than defined the normal rhythm of life.

True, there are lesser rituals which permeate the day to day. The waking act of rising, washing, and eating. The regular grind of the work week. The release of the weekend. Still, while such a pattern might form the backbone of the average person’s life, it lacks the refinement and deep multigenerational meaning possessed by higher rituals of the type described above. It differs in that it is almost purely practical and seeks not to elevate us but instead address basic needs. Bereft of such nobility, the daily pattern might be better termed routine than ritual.

Of course, such a division is inevitable. If all aspects of one’s day were carried out with the solemnity and weight of a coronation, life would proceed at a maddening crawl. Individuals would meet events with a compressed emotional scale that book cased the reserved stoicism of a courtroom between the grief of a funeral and the joy of a wedding. Rituals attain the awe and meaning they do precisely because they rise above the routine.

Yet, like all good things, to say there could be too much is also to say there could be too little. Ritual and ornamentation may rise above the routine, but they also bring that which is high within reach of that which is low.They animate the metaphysical, give shape to the abstract, and in doing so shed light upon how these things apply to our regular habits. Something is therefore lost when ritual becomes too great an exception as opposed to the norm.

This realization struck with considerable force a month ago, during my first venture out of the United States. Over the last three years, my girlfriend and I have managed to maintain a relationship at the somewhat cumbersome distance of six thousand miles. As she had already traveled to New England on a number of occasions, it was my turn to make the transpacific leap. Aside from the realization that the airline’s liquor service was (mercifully) free, my first cultural shock struck when I attempted to make a purchase at, of all things, a Seven Eleven.

To begin, there was the amount of coin I received back as change. Unlike the States, where even dollar coins are regarded as little more than a nuisance, the smallest Japanese bill is roughly equivalent to ten dollars American. The ability to quickly fish one hundred yen pieces from a fistful of change is therefore a necessity, which might be the reason behind my second shock. Read any decent post about traveling to Japan and it will make some mention of the change trays that abound at registers. Instead of simply handing currency to the attendant, as is done in the United States, one is expected to place his or her payment on the tray. The money is then taken and usually poured into the register, saving the attendant the trouble of actually having to handle it.

Though it seemed odd at first, even standoffish, I quickly appreciated the extra step when I thought about it. Having worked at a bank, I can attest to the fact that cash freshly pulled from a person’s pocket is often less than immaculate. This is especially true of coins, which lack the protection of a wallet and can spend months in between seat cushions or underneath a vehicle’s floor mat. The trays therefore save the attendants the indignity of sifting through a customer’s refuse.

As unassuming as this practice appears, it strikes to the heart of Japan’s famous attention to detail and etiquette. Everywhere one goes in the island nation, the Japanese commitment to promote a sense of public decorum is apparent. It can be seen officially in signs that ask passengers to avoid using their phones while in the subway, or in arrows that remind pedestrians to cleave toward the left in busy stations. On a more subtle level however, rituals have been interwoven throughout routine practices in a manner that draws attention to the beauty of their utility. Exchanging gifts between family and friends, most often after a trip abroad or upon first acquaintance, illustrates the reciprocity that is essential to such relationships. The timing Chefs practice in fine restaurants, preparing and presenting each course right as the guest finishes the last, emphasizes an appreciation of the moment that is indicative of a good meal. Even in inexpensive yakitories, small roadside eateries that specialize in drinks and skewered meats, cooks fill sake glasses to overflowing in a way reminiscent of the hospitality and bounty such establishments are built upon.

Perhaps the most famous and highly ritualized of these practices is the act of public bathing. Though likely not as common as it was when indoor plumbing remained a luxury, visiting a sento or onsen, depending on whether the water is draw from a tap or a spring, is still a regular if not daily practice in Japan. At the one I visited in Izukogen, the experience began at the step separating the baths from the rest of the hotel. As is customary in a person’s home, guests entering a bath house are expected to remove their shoes prior to entry, a fact I would have forgotten had my girlfriend not grabbed my arm as I strode forward. With footwear safely stowed, the individual proceeds to the second locker room where he or she disrobes. This stage of the journey was particularly vexing for me, as it was early, I seemed to be the only one in the locker room, and the signs instructing guests as to how far they should disrobe appeared to have been translated by someone suffering from severe dyslexia. Fortunately, an elderly gentleman soon answered my questions by emerging from the baths wearing the key to his footlocker.      

My stumbling aside, the actual act of bathing was incredibly relaxing. Once undressed, the individual enters the bathing room. In the Kawana Hotel, this consists of an open granite hall with two wings and a large bath set before a floor to ceiling window. To the left were the small shower stalls where guests wash themselves and shampoo their hair before proceeding. After this final preparation was complete, I moved to the main pool just mentioned. Being an onsen, the water there is drawn from a natural hot spring and the ability to recline and clear my head while gazing at the foliage outside was a welcome respite from an otherwise busy vacation. Stepping from the water to a narrow corridor on the right, I lowered myself into what I quickly realized was the cold water pool. Plunging my head beneath the surface, I felt my skin and my senses jolt to life. Considerably more awake than I had been a moment before, I climbed out and moved to the sauna before soaking for a few more moments in the hot spring.

The beauty of this practice lies in the civility and grace it bestows on what is otherwise a mundane activity. Just as bathing cleans away the soil of a day’s work, the onsen’s orderly progression, from changing rooms, to showers, to baths, and back, draws attention to the need for constant and thoughtful self improvement. At the same time however, the act of bathing for its own sake reiterates the need to pause and appreciate things in their own right. It serves to elevate the individual, forcing him to stop, inducing deliberate action, and clearing his mind by focusing it upon the present. In a very real way, it is the traditional, the inherited aspects of this practice which wash away the fleeting concerns that typify the mundane while simultaneously drawing attention to the here and now.

Although there will always be a line delineating routine from ritual, the two need not be completely isolated. Like ivy that has grown into the lattice work, rituals can be incorporated into the routine and the routine into rituals in a way that is beneficial for both. Beautiful as they are, traditions and ceremonies are only as valuable as their ability to relate. They remind us of who we are, what we hold dear, and what we hope to achieve. Just as dead vines can strain the lattice, those rituals that fail in this regard become superficial routines themselves. To my fellow Catholics, how many times have you seen parishioners attend Sunday Mass and mutter the Apostle’s Creed with little care or thought for what these actions entail? For my own part, I have been one such parishioner on a number of occasions.

Thus, there is a clear need to tend to rituals as one would a vine, watering the soil, maintaining the lattice, and cutting away dead stems. Seeking to understand the implications behind our traditions and ways in which such meaning can be more closely applied to the everyday is perhaps the best way of achieving this. Rituals serve as a bridge to our past but it is still up to us to decide what aspects of that past we wish to carry forward. But the meaning which animates these acts is lost when we fail to apply them to the routine, just as our lives and routines become base when we look no further than the needs of the day ahead.


 

American Image

In a recent article, The New Yorker’s Amy Merrick outlined the firing of American Apparel’s founder and CEO, Dov Charney. The proprietor of all things Hipster, Dov has carved out a niche for his brand by simultaneously promoting its hyper sexualized style and its “Made in America” credibility. This has proved a winning combination, as American Apparel now fields “about two hundred fifty stores in twenty countries” and has moved roughly two billion dollars of product over the last two years (Merrick, Dov Charney’s Failed Utopia). Yet, Dov’s desire to create a workplace which mirrors the lifestyle exemplified in his company’s advertisements, a lifestyle which purportedly draws inspiration from the Sexual Liberation movement of the late Sixties and early Seventies, has apparently become a liability. As the article cited above explains, a letter from American Apparel’s board of directors to the company’s founder charged that he “repeatedly engaged in conduct that violated the Company’s sexual harassment and anti-discrimination policy” and, by doing so, placed himself “in a position to be sued by numerous former employees for claims that include harassment, discrimination, and assault.”  (Merrick, Dov Charney’s Failed Utopia)

Regardless of how the above case ends, and it’s almost certainly not over, it illustrates a tension that has long existed between the Sexual Liberation Movement and the Civil Rights, Feminist, and Labor Movements it grew out of. If there has ever been a legitimate social project or conflict that was prone to outright commercialization, it was the Sexual Liberation Movement. To find evidence of this, one needs only listen to The Stones’ Satisfaction, The Doors’ Light My Fire, or The Beatles’ Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?. Although legitimate works of art in their own rights, each of these exemplifies the complicated relationship that existed and still exists between sexuality and the market.

The social theorist Steven Lukes acknowledged this duality in his work, Power: A Radical View, referring to sexual promiscuity as an “illusory freedom”. As he goes on to explain, “we may think we gain more freedom by casting off sexual inhibitions, but we are in fact dominated by images of what constitutes a healthy, fulfilled human being.” It was Michel Foucault however, the author of The History of Sexuality, who put this most succinctly. “Get undressed- but be slim, good looking, tanned!” (Power: A Radical View 2nd Ed, p. 94)

It is this aspect of the Sexual Revolution which American Apparel’s advertising and products harken to. Yes, their promotions illustrate something that might be termed “sexual freedom”, but how equitably is such freedom applied? How diverse are the models when it comes not only to race but also to sexual orientation, gender, and body type? Skimming through the catalog of adverts on their website, the answer in regards to the latter two determinants is “not very”. Ultimately, this kind of exhibitionism has a comoddifying affect on those it targets. As described above, it allows a business to mold consumers to its products rather than products to its consumers. It stamps the psyches of both young men and young women with a prefabricated notion of what is desirable and even acceptable. To men, it says “Sex is good! Sex is healthy! And this is what it’s all about!” To women, “Sex is fulfilling, but you’ll never get any if you don’t look like this!” The pretext of “Free Love” and the imagery of Haight-Ashbury, as applied here, simply grant such advertising a thin layer of intellectual mystique. Scratch the surface and one will find the same machinery at work that has been there since Rosie the Riveter was handed a pink slip and told to go start a family in ’46.

This stands in sharp contrast to their apparent commitment to spur sweat shop production. Following last year’s tragic collapse of a dilapidated factory in Bangladesh, Dov struck out, stating “that the clothes we wear do not need to be at the expense of lives of others’.” (Jillian Berman, 5/6/13) According to the company’s own website, employees in American Apparel’s Los Angeles factory make an average of twelve dollars an hour, “almost twice the federal minimum”. Needless to say, such efforts should be applauded, but they are incomplete if the company’s messaging belittles the dignity and subverts the individuality of young women everywhere.

Unfortunately, such a contradiction between stances raises serious questions as to the very sincerity of American Apparel’s actions. Do they promote fair wages and sexual liberation because they truly believe in these ideals, or are they simply branding themselves to appeal to a certain niche clientele? Dov Charney may very well be earnest in his concern for the Working Class, but what kind of workplace is he constructing if such concerns regarding equity are not extended to the women who work alongside him in the office or the models who pose for his advertisements? There is much to be said for the economic status quo that prevailed following the Second World War, but the social movements of that era arose to address injustices which were still pervasive. Prominent among these was the matter of gender equality!

This is not to say that what American Apparel and Dov Charney have achieved is without its merits. I applaud any company which goes out of its way to treat workers fairly. Such should be the norm, not the exception. Yet progress is not an endeavor with a definitive end, it is a continuum, and achievements on one front should not serve to indefinitely cover for shortcomings on another. In the office, this means protecting workers from unnecessarily compromising situations, just as we seek to protect those on the shop floor from dangerous practices. In advertising, this means consistently using fantasy to shape the reality around us for the better.

I believe there is more than mere showmanship and chicanery to Dov’s words. However, I also believe achievement stagnates and even spoils when left unchallenged. As a large chain which has proven capable both of pushing the envelope and maintaining high sales, American Apparel could very well rise to become the engine of change its founder believes it to be. Thus, I hope the board of directors and their former chief executive will view this recent controversy as a challenge to build upon their past successes rather than a mere threat to the bottom line which must be dealt with and brushed aside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Empathy

Amongst the most renown passages of the Old Testament is the Tragedy of Cain and Abel. The first born sons of Adam and Eve, the brothers grew to be men and sought livings for themselves. Cain turned towards farming and presumably built a permanent home for himself. Abel became a shepherd and hunter, carving a hard, nomadic path. When the two offered sacrifices to God however, the Lord showed greater affection towards Abel. Enraged, Cain slew Abel in a jealous fit and hid the body. When questioned by God on the whereabouts of his missing sibling, Cain simply replied “Am I my brother’s Keeper?” (Gen. 4:9)

It is a question that has resonated through history. Are men and women individuals, wholly answerable for themselves and no one else? Or is humanity intrinsically connected, with each individual dependent upon and responsible for the well being of the whole? The prior of these is obviously impossible, as people band together and cohabitate in even the most remote regions of the Earth. Our very lives play witness to a near constant string of relations and acquaintances. Yet, the question still remains, what is it that binds us together and how far are these bonds to extend?

To begin, humanity is naturally inclined towards companionship. Not only do people crave the company of others, they need it if they are to survive. Aristotle recognized this when he stated that “man is a political animal” and argued that one who chooses to live beyond the protection of a community must be either lesser or greater than his fellow man (The Politics, Bk I, pt. ii). Yet Aristotle’s reasoning is based upon a belief that individuals came together first to ensure material well being and later, once they had the capacity to maintain a leisure class, to cultivate some greater good.

While the Philosopher’s reasoning does posses a certain eloquence, it is hampered by his own prejudices. In his description of the civilization’s development from households to villages to cities, he infamously founds all human civilization upon the relationship between a master and a slave. As he argues in The Politics,

that which can foresee by the exercise of mind is by nature intended to be lord and master, and that which can with its body give effect to such foresight is a subject, and by nature a slave; hence master and slave have the same interest.

Although there may very well be a need for those with greater talent, intelligence, or foresight to take a leading role in matters of governance, this ideal becomes noxious when taken to extremes as it was in the aforementioned work. It benefits a few at the expense of the many and succeeds only in dividing a society into separate castes, erecting artificial barriers between individuals, stoking animosities, and stunting progress as opportunities for social ascent are smothered by an atmosphere of entitlement.

Even when society has succeeded in putting abject servitude aside however, this dichotomy has still managed to reproduce itself. The 20th Century philosopher José Ortega y Gasset recognized this with startling prescience. In a recent article for The Daily Beast, Ted Gioia explains that Ortega understood social hierarchy as being far more than a mere question of wealth. Instead, he argued that people could be divided between experts and the masses, that the ruling elite were composed of scholars, bureaucrats, and a range of highly trained scientists and intellectuals, all of whom had come to power through their claims to knowledge. Far from rejoicing in this academic meritocracy however, Ortega found that the vast majority of those counted amongst the masses despised the opinions of experts. As Gioia explains, “If forced to choose between the advice of the learned and the vague impressions of other people just like themselves, the masses invariably turn to the latter.” (Gioia, The Smartest Book About Our Digital Age Was Published in 1929)

The reason for this, from my own perspective, is something of a dual arrogance. To those who might be counted among the masses, work is likely defined as some activity that results in the manufacture of a physical product or renders a service, and in doing so leads to a measurable profit. This is a hard line, a scale by which the work of most can be justifiably weighed and it serves to drive innovation, entrepreneurship, and even social mobility. However, many of the fields to which the expert class lays claim, fields such as politics, economics, sociology, are either difficult to judge by the above standard or refute it all together. As such, the livelihoods of many experts fly in the face of all the masses hold dear and sacred. This is especially true of the fields listed above, where lives and livelihoods are exactly what is at risk.

Regarding the experts on the other hand, there is a perceived and easily perceptible sense of elitism. Having grown up in the Boston area, the saying “You can tell a Harvard man but you can’t tell him much” comes quickly to mind. It partially derives from the rift noted earlier over the profitability standard, a belief among many experts that those who judge work by such a measure alone can be dismissed as simple and small minded. Yet it also derives from a fierce protection of one’s field and livelihood. Experts have often spent years perfecting their craft and securing their position, whether it be a tenured professorship, a seat in Congress, or a directorial role in some project. They have worked hard to prove themselves to their peers and are constantly under immense pressure to continue doing so. Thus taking criticism from individuals beyond that circle of peers, from people who have not run the same gauntlet they have and lack the education they posses, strikes them not only as unwise but even demeaning! Never mind the fact that tax dollars are often utilized to fund the projects and experiments of this new elite.

Therefore, a discreet enmity arises between the two groups. The masses view experts as detached intellectuals siphoning funds from the common purse to aggrandize their own ideas and maintain their often comfortable lifestyles. Experts view the masses as a vulgar mob of self interested consumers, shopkeeps, and factory workers who are too narrow sighted to come to the aid of their fellow man. This of course is a broad generalization itself, and there are literally countless exceptions to the rule on both sides of the divide. Nor, in my view, do these two broad categories form a simple fault line along which all Men and Women can be divided. The two intermingle constantly in everyday life and fade into one another along the professional divide. I have seen this firsthand, being a graduate student whose parents hail from Middle and Working Class roots, and feel it illustrates just how little truly divides us.

However, I have also witnessed the animosity which gives rise to these fissures. Such is the case when I hear friends openly mock religious beliefs which fly in the face of their reason, or businessmen who deride the values and work of social activists as childish nonsense. These antagonisms slowly wear away at the hope individuals caught in the middle have for compromise, rendering the divide all the more absolute and emboldening those with already entrenched perspectives.

What is needed is empathy. The ability to recognize one anothers’ needs and motives, to chastise without scorn, to stand opposed without hate, to see the Common Humanity in those who differ in their dress, beliefs, diet, and all other customs. It is in this way that Humanity must pursue the higher goods which were the end of Aristotle’s Polis! While there may be a true need for experts and intellectuals to lead, they must also recognize that they do so for the good of themselves as well as the masses. As such, it is only right that the masses have some role in deciding what that good is. At the same time, the masses must be brought to better understand the value of these intellectual pursuits, a task mass media has by and large failed to pursue. But so long as each group views the other with suspicion and contempt, divided as it were between camps of shepherds and settlers, the opportunities for change will remain few and far between. Aristotle was right to propose that Man is naturally dependent upon his Fellow Man. Where he fell short was in describing the nature this codependence takes.

We’re Right, They’re Wrong…

There can be little doubt that we live in turbulent times. The Near East is in the midst of a widespread transformation, the United States is attempting to bring two foreign wars to an acceptable close, and the World as a whole is embroiled in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  Now, as much as ever, there is a desperate need for serious deliberation and flexible political thought.

What has arisen however is something quite different. Over the last four years, the increasing polarization between members of Congress has come to be a dishearteningly prevalent theme. Even more disturbing however is that this divide is not confined to the chambers of Washington. Political animosities have begun to penetrate the culture at large, where catch phrases such as “death panel” and “class warfare” have grown to become disturbingly prevalent. With actors on both sides firmly entrenched and sure of their positions, such a trend seems unlikely abate anytime soon. Much to the contrary, it stands to reason that as this divide grows ever wider and the factions occupying its limits become increasingly vocal, those remaining in the medium will feel increasing pressure to choose sides. Still, while contention between both the parties and the constituencies through whom they were elected has become indicative of Obama’s time in office (something probably not unworth noting), the origins of this contention extend well past the 2008 election.

Claims and accusations of polarization are hardly new to democracy and in regards to recent memory stretch back to at least the early ’90s. As is pointed out by Morris Fiorina and Samuel Abrams, a turning point came when “presidential candidate Pat Buchanan notably declared a culture war for the soul of America in his speech at the 1992 Republican national convention” (Fiorina & Abrams, p. 564). Despite this however, there is relatively little evidence to suggest that the populous as a whole has grown more divided over the last forty to fifty years. (Morris Fiorina & Samuel Abrams, Political Polarization in the American Public)

Garnering a far greater scholarly consensus on the other hand, is the premise that there has been a growing ideological cleave between partisans, or those who identify themselves with one party or the other. Unfortunately, such a revelation reverberates as cold comfort. Amongst these individuals are counted not only those who hold office, but also the individuals with whom they often work on a community and grassroots level. Given the outspoken loyalties of such people, it stands to reason that they will be more vocal and politically active than the majority of their neighbors, giving them heavy influence over the political discourse around them. (Laura Stoker & M. Kent Jennings, Of Time and the Developement of Partisan Polarization)

The results have been catastrophic. While partisan animosities have no doubt grown hot in the past, the type of gridlock currently on display in Congress is something novel. For much of the recent past, American legislation has slowed to a grind as Senators and Representatives rally to their selective parties. Just this past summer, a lengthy debate between the House and the Obama administration over the government’s debt ceiling led to the first ratings downgrade of American credit in history, sending shock waves through the economy. When pressed for their reasoning, Standard & Poor’s sovereigns rating commission chairman went so far as to say the decision “was pretty much motivated by all the debate about the raising of the debt ceiling”. (Damien Paletta & Matt Phillips, Wall St. Journal)

Still, this does little to shed light upon the roots of the current situation. There are a number of matters which must be addressed if one is to understand the issues that currently stand before us. Not least amongst these are the questions of “how?”, “why?”, and “what?”. How is it that a government expressly designed to guard against the ill effects of faction has run aground against the legislative gridlock so often equated with it? Why has the public discourse grown so venomous of late? And, most importantly, what can be done to reinvigorate the body politic? (Madison, Fed. 10)

Unsurprisingly, there are a number of theories as to what might have prompted the increasingly divergent political landscape which took shape over the latter half of the 20th Century. It appears that the roots of this trend can be found in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, when the parties were placed under increasing pressure to take a stance on racial issues. Understandably, young voters who had recently joined the electorate and had yet to form a political identity quickly began falling in line with whichever party best exemplified and promoted there views in this arena. At the same time, those of past generations with established party affiliations and loyalties stayed true. To achieve this however, many would likely have needed to adjust their views so as to be more in line with the prevailing sentiments of the party. (Laura Stoker & M. Kent Jennings, Of Time and the Developement of Partisan Polarization)

Within Congress, and especially in the House, reforms put in place during the ’70s by Democrats to ensure party loyalty amongst the leadership helped set the stage for things to come. Perhaps due in part to the changing political atmosphere mentioned above, the early 1970s witnessed a slew of retirements and election defeats amongst the Democratic incumbency. Those tapped to take their place largely hailed from a younger and far more liberal branch of the party. Unsatisfied by the soft power approach espoused by their senior colleagues, the junior members began seeking a means by which to bypass the existing hierarchy and exert more direct control. Utilizing a combination of political pressure and procedural reform, the new guard set about doing just that. (CQ Press, How Congress Works, 4th ed. p. 20)

Particularly impacting were a set of reforms which established a new layer of subcommittees and opened the existing committee chair positions to direct election via secret ballot by the Democratic Caucus, thus disbursing and undermining the influence long held by the committees and their chairs. These were soon followed by further reforms which granted the speaker increased power to enforce the party line and ensure tight Democratic control over important posts. (CQ Press, How Congress Works, 4th ed. p. 20)

Congressional polarization in its current and most potent form appears to trace its origins to the late eighties and early nineties however, as increasingly confrontational personalities took the reigns of power within both parties. For forty years, from 1955 to 1995, the Democratic Party successfully held the House of Representatives in a death grip. Understandably, both the indignation and massive stumbling block this posed to Republican law makers led to increasing frustration. They found themselves to be increasingly disenfranchised and the prospect of compromise with an opponent who invariably outmatched them held ever less appeal. It was these sentiments that a representative from Georgia would exploit as he rallied his party for the comeback of the century. (CQ Press, How Congress Works, 4th ed. p. 20)

Having lost twice while running as a moderate, Newt Gingrich was finally elected to Congress in 1978 when he opted to run as a more traditional Republican instead. Like the activist Democrats who had come a generation before him, Gingrich found his party leadership to be soft and ineffective. He viewed the House as an engine of reform and sought not only to retake it for the GOP, but to ultimately make it “the co-equal of the White House” (CQ Press, p. 28). Harping on concerns that their leadership had become detached from the party and promoting his vision of an Opportunity Society driven by the free market, Gingrich rose through the Grand Old Party’s ranks. By 1986 he had been selected to chair the conservative action committee, GOPAC, and by 1989 he was voted in as minority whip. (CQ Press, How Congress Works, 4th ed. p. 27-28)

What Gingrich brought to the table was a sense of ideological clarity and imperative. He openly opposed compromise, was willing to stand against the party leadership if it meant maintaining partisan integrity,  and took an increasingly oppositional stance towards the Democratic party. Unlike his predecessors however, Gingrich painted his battle for the House as much more than a simple struggle for influence. Instead, he framed it as a conflict between moral extremes, an epic contest between the Republican David and Democratic Goliath. (CQ Press, How Congress Works, 4th ed. p. 27-28 & 39)

Under the elevated temper of the GOP’s rhetoric, an expanding range of legislative tactics became justifiable. Gingrich not only challenged his opponents in terms of their political stances, but also on their ethics and even their personal lives. His use of such methods reached its height when Rep. Wright was forced to surrender the Speakership under charges of financial misconduct. As the rift between Democrats and Republicans grew more profound, the minority whip utilized the mounting tension it had created to rally support to his Contract with America. By 1994, Gingrich had achieved his goal and retaken the House, an event now referred to as the Republican Revolution. For his own part in this, Gingrich was rewarded with his own Speakership. (CQ Press, How Congress Works, 4th ed. p. 23-28)

Through their first year as a majority, the House Republicans largely continued the tactics they had pioneered as a minority. Ingeniously, his Contract had been written in a way which emphasized the issues and platforms the party largely held in common, such as caps to welfare budgets and restrictions against the use of American forces in UN operations, while avoiding divisive ones, such as abortion. With a clear and unified superiority, the Republicans set about promoting the ten points behind their Contract with America. (CQ Press, How Congress Works, 4th ed. p. 27-28)

Although he failed to maintain the momentum built during his rise to power and lost the Speakership only four years later, the tactics which Rep. Gingrich pioneered would continue to resonate. From the impeachment of Pres. Clinton, through the controversies over both Sen. Kerry’s and Pres. Bush’s military service, to the questions circulated in regards to the current President’s birth certificate, the no holds barred style of politics which Gingrich brought to bear has continued to proliferate.

Ironically, it would be these very tactics which ultimately unseated him. From 1996 onward, Gingrich’s credibility was battered by a series of ethics charges which led to a formal reprimand by the House, the first of its kind ever issued against a Speaker. Finally, in the wake of an ill-fated campaign strategy, Newt Gingrich relinquished his Speakership and his seat in Congress. (CQ Press, How Congress Works, 4th ed. p. 29)

Still, it hardly seems plausible to argue that the current political climate stems from Congress and Congress alone. Both in its size and in the short duration of its term lengths, the House of Representatives was intended by the framers to be that part of the Federal government closest and most dependent upon the “fountain of authority” from which the entire body politic is drawn, namely, “the people” (Madison, Fed. 51, ¶ 2). Thus it seems clear that some responsibility must also lie with the electorate, as it is they (and by inclusion, we) who have chosen and maintained individuals professing such stark ideologies and beliefs. How such a diverse and vast electorate as that encompassed within the current Union came to look toward such divisive leaders is deserving of its own time and attention however, and will therefore be addressed in a later post. (Madison, Fed. 52)

Strength in Rememberance

It has been nearly a year since I last wrote on this blog, and while I do hope that it is not nearly as long before I write on it again, it does seem that I have chosen a strange and sad week to return to it. Between the shocking events which occurred in Arizona this past week and the somber realization that today marks the one year anniversary of the earthquake which devastated Haiti, any opinion which I might possess simply seems trivial.

Instead, in light of such frightful events and countless others like them, it appears far more appropriate to quietly reflect upon what can be learned from such tragedies and pray for all those who might have been effected by them. Though it could hardly be said that this is all that can or must be done, it does seem like a healthy and necessary step both in honoring those who have been lost and in moving forward and beginning the process of recovery. It is with this in mind that I wish all of those affected by tragedy beyond their control, and in particular those effected by the recent events in Arizona and the ongoing difficulties in Haiti, the peace of mind and tranquility of soul which they and all others so truly deserve.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-12143774

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-12160748

Google and Data Mining

There can be little doubt that Google stands as one of the most powerful and prominent corporate entities of our day, and with good reason. For millions of people it has come to be the primary provider of that very commodity which defines our age, information. With a simple keyword and a click of the mouse, we are instantly presented with countless articles and opinions in as many languages from across the globe. It is actually stunning to think how what might have taken months or years just a few decades ago now occurs in a matter of seconds. But these are considerations which we have all heard before.

The more important matter at hand is the question of when? When is it that an enterprise whose primary purpose is the collection of information oversteps its bounds? When is it that simple data collection becomes infringement of privacy? When is it that the public sphere bleeds into the private? On Friday, May 14, Google admitted that Street View Cars had unwittingly gathered small amounts of private information which had been sent over unprotected wireless networks. Although it does appear that this fairly minor invasion was accidental, it also raises a current and unfolding opportunity to explore the questions above. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/15/business/15google.html?scp=3&sq=google&st=cse)

Naturally, the next question which springs to mind when considering this matter is, simply put, what is private? The Bill of Rights makes clear that, according to law, each individual is to be secure in his or her “persons, houses, papers, and effects” against all unwarranted “searches and seizures” (Amt. IV). Given this clarification, it might be argued that virtually anything not placed on clear public display, such as a billboard or an open window, could be protected as private.  Yet this still leaves electronic signals, such as those sent over WiFi connections and cell phone signals, in something of a grey area.  According to their official blog, the data which Google had unwittingly gathered found its source in computers using unsecured WiFi signals. Furthermore, this data was actually collected by street level teams sent to gather information for the search engine’s mapping program. Do these considerations absolve Google of any responsibility at all? Do they nullify any argument that might be raised claiming this information as “private”?(5/14/2010, http://googleblog.blogspot.com/)

Simply put, no. Despite the fact that the information was unsecured and gathered in a public space, it does not seem right to view it as open to the public. In order for this to be the case, the medium would have to be one which is some generally accepted reason to view it as such. However, when something is written or viewed within one’s own home, its content and even the very knowledge of its having been written or viewed are meant to be guarded by one’s legal rights to privacy. Such rights are meant to be abridged only when the party in question sees fit to wave them or when there is some truly pressing need to revoke them. similar regulations also necessarily apply when an individual uses a private device (such as a laptop) in a public space, but such situations require further consideration which can be saved for a later discussion.

Still, it does not appear that Google’s collection of “payload data” had been intentional. Besides, the information in question found its source in WiFi networks which were unprotected. Does this leave Google void of any responsibility for this breach? Again, the answer seems to be no. As anyone who has ever driven on a major freeway can attest, even accidents cause their damage. Governments, corporations, and individuals must all play a role in preserving and protecting those rights to privacy which lay at the very foundation of our society. This is of the greatest importance because the more often these rights are breached, even when accidentally, the more complacent we as people come to be. Thus, even accidents leave the private realm increasingly vulnerable to an intentional intrusion.

This is not meant to imply that blame should heaped at Google’s doorstep, or even that Google is unaware of the gravity of the situation. Although mistakes may have been made, it does appear that internet has taken care to correct the situation as much as possible. According to both their blog and other sources reporting on the incident, they have parked the Street View Cars which had gathered the information, have taken steps to delete any unwarranted data which might have been collected, and have asked a third-party to both “confirm we deleted the data appropriately” and review the software which initially collected it (5/14/2010, http://googleblog.blogspot.com/). Google has also reached out to public authorities for direction and assistance in this effort. Even under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, this transgression would not be seen as a crime since it was apparently unintentional. At the same time however, this should also stand as a reminder to remain vigilant. Rights only exist so long as they are upheld and it is up those who lay claim to them to uphold them.  Charters, bills, and laws may be necessary and important, but even today they are empty if there is no popular will to enforce them. ( http://news.cnet.com/8301-30686_3-20005051-266.html?tag=mncol;posts)