Monday, November 30, 2009

Missing Pieces

I went back and forth with my friend Shane last week having one of those political science discussions that could've gone on forever - and still might - and ended with us agreeing for the most part.

Shane argues that the progressive movement lacks strong enough convictions to hold Democrats accountable. The conservative movement has the Federalist Society, Ayn Rand and the Christian right to ground its ideas independent of the GOP's political desires. The movement demands allegiance for its votes and its money and in turn, the GOP slavishly listens. For better or worse, the movement has succeeded in kicking out those whose beliefs differ - thus, no more moderate Republicans. This winnowing might eventually undo the GOP if the conservative movement's demands exceed its vote-getting power...but for the moment, the marriage thrives.

The Dems don't have the same ideological obligation to a movement. While the conservative umbrella gets smaller and more exclusive, the progressive umbrella gets ever bigger. I've always liked that the progressive movement has a bigger umbrella and can handle dissent within, but if the term "progressive" is too broad, it loses meaning - the Stupak amendment to the House version of the health care bill is the latest example of the problem. If a cohesive progressive movement had held Dems accountable on the defense of a woman's right to choose, then poor women wouldn't have been sacrificed at the alter of politics. But if a movement doesn't demand or can't agree to demand an action, then why should a political party strictly uphold any belief beyond its own political ambitions? After all, where are traditional Democrat voters going to go?

I bring this up because I've been gaining new respect for the conservative movement while reading Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine which looks inside the current Supreme Court, profiles the justices, their opinions and legal philosophies, the legal strategies that worked and didn't, and chronicles how the conservative movement gained influence in the Court. It's been a fascinating look at how the groundwork was laid and built upon for decades for the confirmations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito.

After seeing the history laid out, I find myself chagrined that the best the progressive movement seems to have is "Palin 2012" and "Down with the crazy Christians!". I exaggerate, but it was easier to be a progressive when it was solely a reactive movement that could blame everything on Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. Now, Dems have power and I supposedly agree with them because I don't agree with the GOP...and yet Bush's policies are still in place on trying detainees held at Guantanamo, the definition of torture, warrentless wiretapping, a woman's right to choose, and don't ask don't tell policies on gays in the military. I'm disenchanted. And I wonder who actually represents me. Well, no one represents me since I'm a DC resident, but that's another blog post.

So, who represents me? Before I can answer that adequately, we need more political parties - after all, I might align with the Dems but if they're not advocating on my behalf then who am I going to vote for instead? And most assuredly, we need election reform - voters should never be put in the position of voting "strategically" as it was artfully called in the 2000 presidential election. So, while I've certainly been talking about convictions, I see the lack of convictions as evidence of structural problems. Consider that a promise for part 2!

And thanks, Shane, for the links and the arguments.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sugarcane Candles

I had my second annual Divali dinner last month (I just realized that when I say it like that, it sounds like a real tradition!). It's a tradition I really enjoy keeping, though my dinner parties don't resemble the Divalis I grew up with.

For one, it wasn't called Divali. It was Divari with the accent on the first syllable. The Indian New Year I grew up with had lots of family and the homemade sweets that you could only have at that time of year and maybe little presents for the kids - or maybe I'm making that part up, not sure. My grandparents' apartment was always alit with candles to keep away the evil spirits and the doorways were decorated with wreathes of flowers and scrolled designs on the thresholds made of colored powders. Everyone endeavored to get along for the night and usually did. Which meant they'd all get together and urge on the child of the house - me - to do the prayer/benediction/ceremony that involved walking around the house with a homemade sugarcane candle chanting the Aireu Maireu (anglicized obviously). I'd wonder at how the piece of sugarcane with the cotton ball wick turned into a candle, get horribly bashful about the chanting, thrill to the moment and then ask for another of the sweets. All the food was always delicious - not just because of the holiday but because my grandmother was a great cook.

Cooking is one of the arts that I wish I had cared to learn from my grandmother when she was still alive to teach me. She died about 10 years ago and it was a few years before I realized the lost knowledge. But I still missed eating good Indian food so I started cooking anyway using cookbooks. It wasn't the same, but I had to start somewhere and I got better the more I cooked. After moving to DC, deciding to have the first Divari dinner party was a big deal - would we end up eating anytime that night? would it feel like something was missing if there weren't sugarcane candles and chanting? what if someone was allergic to something? and of course, would it taste good? It all came together beautifully though and that's when I started branching out beyond Indian food for people other than myself.

I'm not experienced enough with Indian cooking to be the intuitive cook that my grandmother was but, in getting to a place where I enjoy sharing my cooking, I feel like I've reclaimed some of what was lost. Except the sweets. I need to figure out how to make those to complete the lesson!

It's probably just as well that I forget to take pictures at my dinners since these and these are much, much cooler.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Civic Duty

I finished a week long jury trial last week - my first time serving on a jury. The defendant was charged with possession of a controlled substance - pot - with intent to distribute and possession of an unlicensed, unregistered firearm - a semi-automatic Tec-9.

I'm glad I had the opportunity to serve though I'm left wondering how anyone ever gets convicted. My fellow jurors and I were told after we delivered a verdict that the first jury to hear this case couldn't come to a decision. We came close to doing the same, but after endlessly discussing the definition of "possession", we ended up compromising enough that I doubt anyone but the defendant was satisfied. Of course the law needs specific rules, but I'm dismayed at how much of the law is about technicalities and finding the right one to suit the occasion. Technicalities serve both sides, but it's also easy to see how an inexperienced public defender can be overmatched.

I was more bothered by the semi-automatic than a little pot, so convicting the guy on possession of less than $200 of pot stung a bit. But without more evidence there was nothing more to do. Despite popular rhetoric on the sanctity of the Second Amendment, actually getting caught with a gun you're not supposed to have is apparently much more perilous than such small quantities of marijuana.

I also hadn't thought about the impact of having a law student on the jury. It was like having a medical student around when they're learning how to diagnose people: everyone's sick with an exotic condition...rather than just having a cold. The same was true for this guy: why didn't the cops watch longer, were they profiling the neighborhood, maybe the defendant was passing candy bars, how come they didn't find this and that piece of evidence. All valid questions, but you can only judge what's there.

The best part of the experience was talking to both attorneys after rendering a verdict and learning their opinions of their cases. The defense was resigned to losing the drug charge but both attorneys thought the case for the weapon was leaky. It felt very much like being inside an episode of Law & Order and watching the attorney work a little sleight of hand to obscure the missing evidence. These people weren't Sam Waterston, but in retrospect the diversions and the glamours weren't hard to see.

Anyway, my $4/day travel payment is in the mail and I'm off the hook for at least another two years.