Wednesday, January 30, 2008

On Race and Politics

One of my former grad students emailed me this morning to note how negative the press has been in their coverage of the presidential primary campaigns, especially the Democratic campaign. As usual, the news media have focused on the negative and the horse race and have failed quite strikingly to cover the issues, especially now that voters are trying to decide for whom to vote.

I typed him a long email that I want to share, because I've been thinking about this quite a bit:

I agree that the media is completely fixated on the negative: it's such a juicy story to see a female candidate and the former president going after a black candidate. Race and gender, especially race, are two topics that are highly controversial. The news media loves a good controversy. It helps when the black candidate fights back. Even more to cover!

Now, in my estimation, Bill and Hillary get some of what they deserve with regard to all of the negative coverage. When major political elites, John Kerry, Representative Clymer of South Carolina, Ted Kennedy, Tom Daschle, etc. all speak publicly about Bill Clinton needing to town down his rhetoric about Barack Obama, you know that even political elites of the Democratic party thought he went too far in pushing race onto the agenda.

But, you see what Bill's doing, right? He's trying to marginalize Obama by turning him into "the black candidate." The spin from the Clinton campaign, from Bill, who is playing "bad cop," before and after South Carolina was to say that Jesse Jackson won South Carolina, too. That's code for "blacks vote for black candidates" or "Obama's a black guy and won't have mass appeal across the rest of the country."

Hillary's statement before MLK's birthday that it took LBJ to sign the civil rights legislation that MLK advocated for made my jaw drop. It could be read as a sincere statement that underscored the importance of the president in establishing law. Or, it could be read as "it takes a white president to get things done." I don't believe the Clinton's do anything innocently or with good intentions (and I don't think journalists think so either, which is part of why they're covering this so heavily).

So, you can see why this is such sexy news to cover. Nothing like watching the former President of the U.S. turn into a knock-em-down, drag-em-out street fighter for his wife against a black candidate (which, then brings up the story line of a female candidate being overshadowed by her husband -- another compelling story line that seems to repeat itself over and over again in campaigns with female candidates). The former "black president" against a potential future black president. That brings eyeballs to advertisers.

And, as far as the journalists are concerned, there aren't any real differences between the candidates, and their issue positions are old news. They announced their health care plans and plans for Iraq nearly a year ago. Their plans for an economic stimulus got some coverage, though, which is good.

One other thought, Tali Mendelberg wrote a book that came out last year titled The Race Card. I've read bits of it. It focuses on race in political campaigns. I think it's why I read the Clinton's as playing dirty pool with race. In it, she argues that when white candidates make subtle allusions to race when the opponent is black -- using code words, invoking images that speak to whites' fear of blacks, or that invoke and underscore the "blackness" of the candidate -- those appeals work very effectively at turning white voters against the black candidate. UNLESS: the white candidate is called on it, either by the media or by the candidate, and the allusions, the implicit racial appeals, are rendered explicit. When that happens, white voters (and the news media) tend to turn on the white candidate, because, although whites may have concerns about blacks subconsciously, consciously we have a sense of justice and rightness that apparent racial appeals violate, and voters punish the candidate who violated our sense of rightness.

I think that's some of what's happening here. The news media and some of the political elites cried "foul" on the Clintons. I think it's some of the reason why Hillary lost the white vote in South Carolina (as well as the black vote). Whether that loss continues is an open question, though.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Farewell Fisher

Today I had to say goodbye to my best cat, Fisher.

We had noticed over the past month that she was losing weight, and this week we noticed that she was walking quite stiffly. So, today Jon took Fisher to the vet to see what was the matter. He called me about an hour later choked up and handed the phone to Dr. Cheever who told me that Fisher weighted all of 3.5 pounds and that she was "loaded" with cancer. She also believed that Fisher suffering. There really was not anything to be done. So, this afternoon at 4:30, we put Fisher down (the euphamisms for death are so annoying, but to say that we "killed" her is overly dramatic, yet she didn't just die. We had a hand in it, we made a choice to end her life -- it's a remarkably difficult act, at least for me, who would rather toss a bug out the back door than squash it).

Fisher was such a great cat. Not only was she simply a terrific companion, she also is part of a significant set of events in my life, formative events that set me on the path that I continue to walk today.

And, she was unique. Not only in her appearance and her manners, but in her origins. When I was 19 years old, in December of 1991, I packed up my old Buick Regal with all my possessions and headed West to San Francisco from St. Cloud, Minnesota. It was the sort of stupid, poorly thought out adventure that teenagers are known for. Within a month, I was nearly homeless, unemployed, and alone. My luck turned when I landed a job "canvassing" for abortion rights. I basically went door-to-door with the California Abortion Rights Action League, trying to get people to give me money, half of which I kept and half went forward to the League. I did that work from February until June of 1992, if my memory services. March and April were the high points. I was raking in the dough (I even canvassed a $500 check once, from a pro-choice Republican woman who was unhappy with the anti-abortion direction her party had headed). And, then, by May my luck had ended.

I remember an especially grim afternoon in the suburbs south of San Francisco. I was in a relatively new suburb, with large houses (the larger the house, the less likely to get a contribution), and SUVs in the driveways. I had wandered around for about 2 hours without getting any contributions or even any remotely friendly interactions. I was disheartened, and thinking seriously that my time as a canvasser was drawing to a close, when I came to my next house on the street. I noted as I walked up to it that it was more modest, and a Volvo was parked in the driveway. A Volvo was generally a good sign. I noted the pro-environment bumper sticker. I knew I would get something from this house.

So, with some renewed enthusiasm, I knocked on the door. A middle aged woman with long, salt and pepper hair opened the door. I opened with my pitch: "Hi, my name is Jenny and I'm with the California Abortion Rights Action League. Are you pro-choice?"

She replied "Yes, I always give to you guys. Come in."

It was protocol to not enter homes, but I broke it when the scene was right, and this scene was right.

The woman ushered me to the back porch and asked if I wanted anything to drink. I declined, but she brought me water anyway as I sat down. I remember she and I talking about the upcoming presidential election and George Bush and Bill Clinton's politics. I also vividly recall the white fur ball of a kitten that moved along the picture window before which the porch sat.

I commented to the woman how cute her kitten was. She explained that her kids had found the kitten and two siblings in a ravine, and had rescued them. One had died, the other two had lived, and now she was trying to find a home for the white one (the other one had already been spoken for), because her cat was unhappy with the kittens around. I made appreciative noises, and she paused, looked at me, and asked if I wanted the little white fur ball?

I said "yes" without thinking.

So, she proceeded to pack up this little white kitten into a wicker picnic basket. In another bag, she gave me kitty litter, and the formula she was still hand feeding the kitten. She was only 8 weeks old.

I didn't canvas another house, but instead went back to the van and hung out until it was time to pick up the rest of the canvassers and head back to base. Back at base, we customarily each wrote down how much we had made that day. Next to my name, I wrote:
$50 + 1 kitten

She was by far the best contribution I received.

Her appearance was always striking, at least to me. She had big blue eyes that were mottled, like they were somehow slightly damaged. She had some fire-tipped Himalayan in her, and some other breed or breeds. She was slight. At her heaviest she was no more than 7 pounds. And she had terrific long hair. At play, she would fluff out and pounce around the house, like Peppie Le-Pew from Saturday morning cartoons. But, she was terrible at cleaning herself. If it hadn't been for Shadow, Fisher would have been a seriously ratty cat, because Shadow, whom we got a year later, kept Fisher clean.

And speaking of Shadow, those two were such buddies. Shadow nursed from Fisher when we first brought Shadow home. Now, mind you, Fisher didn't have any milk to offer, but Shadow nursed anyway. So did Hailie, whom we got a few months before Shadow. Fisher was the nurturer and ruler of our cat roost. She could put the smack down on Hailie, who was almost twice her size, without a hesitation.

Fisher is at least some of the reason why Jon and I are together, or at least that's what we say now. In October of 1992, I decided to move back to Minnesota. I was unemployed, broke, and had no apparent future in California. I'd applied to UC:Berkeley, but had been rejected. At the same time, I had been accepted at the U of M. It was time for my San Francisco adventure to be done.

I met Jon in late January, and over the subsequent months we became very good friends. In May, we progressed to something more. But, Jon was scary (Not axe murderer scary - to be clear). He had asked me to marry him, and I had declined. I knew that if I let myself fall in love with him, we would marry, and I was not ready for such a dramatic event. Jon was patient, and incredibly supportive.

When it was time for me to fly home, he helped me pack, helped pay for my airfare (did I mention how broke I was?), and drove me to the airport. I had given Fisher a sedative to help her cope with the flight, because she tended to freak out in a cage. When we arrived at the airport, Fisher was acting very strange -- like she was having a bad trip. She was tumbling around in her cage, and making dramatic noises. When I had checked in, and the baggage handlers came to get Fisher, they saw my anxious face and told me not to worry. An hour or so later, I boarded my flight after a teary-eyed goodbye to Jon. The plane took off, and I gently wept in my seat. Soon after, a flight attendant came by and asked me if I was Jenny Stromer. I told her I was, and she handed me a slip of paper "from the captain." It was a note telling me that Fisher had not been placed on the flight, because she was acting too erratic. They needed a contact number for someone to pick her up and take her to a vet. I gave them Jon's number. I heard nothing the rest of that anxious flight.

As soon as I landed, I called Jon to learn of Fisher's state. Jon laughed and told me that she was fine, that she was sitting on his chest as we spoke. Apparently, when he arrived at the terminal to pick her up, the baggage handlers were playing with her; she was fine. He put Fisher a flight the next day, and she and I stayed at my mom's until , well, until Jon and I moved in together in Minneapolis in February of 1993, and then wed in August.

I think Fisher was trying to tell me what a bad move I was making in leaving Jon behind. I just didn't get it initially.

While she lived with my Mom, she learned to fetch empty cigarette packs. She loved the crinkly sound of the cellophane wrapping. When Jon and I moved in to our first apartment together, it had a long hallway. Jon would sit at one end and I the other, and we'd toss the empty, balled up pack back and forth over her head. Fisher would do tremendous leaps and twirls in the air to get the pack.

She also loved to be on top of people. She had a terrible habit of jumping on visitors, especially men. You'd be standing in the kitchen chatting away, and all of a sudden, a cat would be flying at you. I had to apologize to more than one guest for the apparent attack.

When we got "the kittens," Tillie and Little Boy, she nurtured them as she had Hailie and Shadow. Tillie and Fisher bonded after Shadow died. Tillie and Fish would curl up in a cat bed on the rocking chair. "Curl up" isn't quite right. Tillie would sleep on Fisher -- even though Tillie weighed twice as much.

I'm a side sleeper, and nearly every day of her life she slept on my hip. We got so used to each other that when I would roll over, she knew how to roll with me such that she'd end up back on top.

And, she used to clean me, especially in the early morning. She would sneak up, sit on the pillow, or on my head, and run her tongue through my hair. Sometimes it was cute and funny, but most of the time it was seriously annoying.

She loved pizza, pasta sauce, and ice cream. She went crazy for Cheddar Bunnies.

I would blow on her face, and she would lick the air.

I loved the smell of her.

I write down these memories in tribute to her. As I get older, I am realizing how fragile memories are. In time, they decay. So, I want to, need to, codify these memories in printed words, so that I will remember and others will know how essential a cat can be to human life. I love all my beasts. I especially loved her.