Monday, February 25, 2013

On CPAC, Christie, and GOProud

So it looks like Chris Christie, governor of my beloved Garden State, is being denied an invite to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this March.  What gives?

For a little background, CPAC is the biggest yearly gathering of conservatives—political leaders give speeches, conservative organizations raise awareness for their work in an exhibit hall, and there are people everywhere.  I mean, this thing is HUGE. The conference taken place within DC for decades, but it’s been moved to the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland this year since no hotel in DC is big enough to hold it. How many people attend? More than 10,000.  

So, yeah, this is a major platform for conservative/Republican politicians, and those who speak there tend to speak for the conservative movement.  This year’s theme is “America’s Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives. New Challenges, Timeless Principles.”  When this theme was first announced, I was initially excited, thinking that this meant that conservatives/Republicans were coming to realize that their message had not been working and so welcomed the infusion of young blood.

Well, then. Among the speakers this year are Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Sarah Palin.  Yup, they’ve all spoken at CPAC in recent years. It’s good to see younger leaders like Marco Rubio, Kelly Ayotte, and Mia Love get speaking spots, but I don’t really get an overwhelming feeling of youth looking at this year’s agenda. Most of the speakers have made many an appearance at CPAC over the years.

Where is Christie, one of the most popular governors in the country? (Not one of the most popular Republican governor—one of the most popular governors regardless of party. He’s currently got a 74 percent approval rating, according to Quinnipiac.) The conventional wisdom is that his cordial relationship with President Obama regarding the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Well, let’s say that’s the reason why—that’s still not a valid reason for being less than welcome at CPAC. I’ve seen many a verbal altercation at CPAC—libertarians vs. social conservatives, neocons vs. isolationists, etc.—so it’s not like there haven’t been differences of opinion in the past.

Unfortunately, this Christie news is consistent with the direction CPAC’s been going over the last couple of years: rather than welcoming those of varying viewpoints into the conservative fold, CPAC has been limiting their access.  The most well-known example is the exclusion of GOProud, a gay conservative group, as a co-sponsor of the conference.  GOProud is fiscally conservative, pro-life, and believes that the question of gay marriage should be left to the states. Hmm.  Sounds like many of the conservatives I know!

I just don’t see any good reason why GOProud should be shut out of CPAC.  In fact, if CPAC’s goal this year is to get young conservatives and Republicans more active and more represented, it’s actually counterintuitive to keep the group out. A 2012 Pew poll showed that nearly 4 in 10 Republicans between the ages of 18 and 29 support same-sex marriage.  Eight years ago (back around the time when I first attended CPAC—yes, I am old), only 28 percent supported it.  Young people are clearly shifting on this issue, but CPAC doesn’t seem to recognize that.

Back to Christie: it’s clear that the many young conservatives who attend CPAC would love to see him speak.  I could point to the fact that he is blunt and charismatic, but let’s have the public opinion numbers speak for themselves.  In the same Quinnipiac poll I noted above, Christie’s approval among voters aged 18 to 34 stands at 53 percent.  That’s among all young voters—not just Republicans.  He would be treated like a rock star at CPAC, and again, I just can’t see why he wouldn’t score an invite.

With major national and statewide Republican losses just in the rear view mirror, and with the waning influence of the Tea Party, this would really be a great time to make the conservative tent bigger.  In my opinion, sharing the “timeless principles” of conservatism doesn’t mean that the biggest conservative gathering of the year should exclude those who have complimented the President for helping his own constituents, or those who believe the government should stay out of certain private decisions.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Wiping away Ray's Heck Sauce, but not memories

Dear Lord, do I love food.

And as much as I like a nice, classy restaurant with fancy food, I’m just as happy with a slice of pizza or a hot dog at the ballpark.  (In fact, as I write this, I am eating cake batter-flavored fro yo out of a paper cup.  Awesome.) Yes, I love eating, but I think one of the greatest things about food is its ability to bring people together and create some great stories and lasting memories.

That’s why the news of Ray’s Hell Burger’s permanent closing is especially tough to take—more than most restaurants in the DC area, it embodied all the things that make food so awesome.  Of course, the burgers at this Arlington institution were other-worldly—there was nothing much better on this earth than a grilled Little Devil with tons of toppings and lots of Ray’s Heck Sauce (obvi).  A huge line always greeted you as soon as you came in the front door, but you knew that the wait for your burger would be worth it—and it always was.

But while I of course think about the great burgers when I think of Ray’s, I first think of the great times I had there with great friends.  That time we sat at the same table Barack Obama and Joe Biden had dined at? (I’m pretty sure that this is true—let’s just pretend that it definitely is.) The impromptu walk to Ray’s on the 75-degree St. Patrick’s Day last year?  Eating Ray’s takeout around a friend’s coffee table before an epic birthday night out?  It’s hard not to think of a Ray’s memory that doesn’t put a smile on my face.

You see, places like Ray’s take us back to certain times in our lives—certain memories we carry with us long after the last bites of burger are taken.  There’s just something about sharing good food with people we care about that makes a great meal taste even better.  And ever since I came to DC, Ray’s has been one of those places for me—a place where new acquaintances started to turn to friends who then turned into a second family.  We came from different states, and even different countries, but the great food was something to bond over as we learned more about each other and evolved into the tight group we ultimately became. 

But dang, one of those Little Devils would be good right about now!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"J-Bird" and the NASCAR obsession

As I noted in my previous post, I come from a car-obsessed family.  While this is mostly the work of my dad, I must take part of the credit (or blame)—and that is in the area of NASCAR. From the time I was about nine years old, watching NASCAR races became a non-negotiable part of every Sunday afternoon between February and November.

Really, it started as a father-daughter bonding thing.  Every Sunday without fail, my dad and I would sit in front of the TV, turn on TNN (anyone remember TNN? Apparently, it's back.), and check out the latest action from Daytona, Darlington, or wherever the NASCAR boys happened to be that weekend. And for the three hours the race was on, there’d be nothing else—no work for him, no homework for me. Just fun times talking about the cars, the drivers, and the action on the track. For the first time, really, I wasn’t just a little kid—I was my dad’s buddy, and that made me feel really special.  My dad, ever the Thunderbird guy, would call me “J-Bird,” like the T-Birds we watched on the track.

When he suggested that we go to Dover, Delaware for a race in mid-1995, I think I might have been the happiest kid in the world.  I will never forget the first time walking into the racetrack, standing up against the catchfence, and feeling the force of the cars going by at nearly 200 mph. Still have the tickets from that day in a scrapbook. With the exception of one year, we’ve gone to at least one race in person every year since then.  I still love the feeling of those cars going by, but since my dad and I live far apart these days, I really love the ability to go to a race with him.  I feel like I’m my dad’s buddy again.

What keeps me a NASCAR fan is that it is a sport that incites deep passion.  Because there are 43 cars on the track, with differing levels of driver skill and equipment quality, victories are hard to come by.  A little anecdote: when I was 12, my favorite driver was Bill Elliott, and with fewer than ten laps to go in the Daytona 500, he was leading. This was 1997, and he had not won a race since 1994.


So I freaked out, to put it mildly. After three years, my guy was finally going to win a race, and the biggest race of the year to boot!  Well, sadly, this story did not end well for me. He got passed by three other drivers with just a few laps remaining and finished fourth. I was disconsolate and showed my displeasure by locking myself in the bathroom and refusing to come out of a decent period of time.  (Was I prone to melodramatic gestures? Maybe.  Do I regret doing this? Absolutely not.)

The real kicker? Bill didn’t win another race until 2001. Yup, seven years between victories. There were many happy tears cried the day he finally broke that streak.

And while the victories are so much sweeter in NASCAR than they are in other sports, the losses are especially tough to take.  Unfortunately, the potential for great tragedy is always there, and the pain of those losses is amplified by the passion one feels for the sport and its competitors.  Having gone through the loss of one of my favorite drivers to an on-track accident, I can tell you it makes you all the more appreciative of the days where the action is intense but everyone stays safe.

Well, when those engines fire up again this weekend for the first time since last November, you better believe that I’ll be calling up my dad to talk racing.  It’ll feel good to kick off another NASCAR season.

Monday, February 11, 2013

How do you solve a problem like Detroit?

You may have caught Mark Binelli’s recent NY Times op/ed on the sad state the city of Detroit is in; if not, definitely check it out here. Binelli (who’s a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and the author of a book on Detroit) notes that while the Big Three automakers are recovering nicely since the GM and Chrysler bailouts four years ago, that has absolutely not translated into recovery for the city itself.  In fact, the city may be mere days away from bankruptcy. 

According to the most recent US Census, the population of Detroit has shrunk by more than a quarter in the last ten years.  More than 237,000 people left Detroit in that time--far more than the 140,000 who left New Orleans. 

Coming from a car-obsessed, Tigers-loving family, many a family vacation has been spent in Detroit and its environs.  If you haven’t been there, all I can say is that all the things you’ve heard about it are true. There really are entire city blocks that are empty.  There really are plants growing on top of old houses and abandoned buildings.  Going to many parts of Detroit is like being in the midst of a post-apocalyptic film.  Even the parts of downtown that have signs of life feel like they’re stuck in a time warp.

And one of the saddest things about it is that there is still so much that remains of its successful past and of the potential the city still has.  Due to the dearth of recent investment in the city, there are many buildings whose original early 20th century architecture is still present.  And the Detroit Institute of Arts is among my favorite art museums in the country; its prestigious collection is clearly a remnant of a time in which the city had significant cash. (If you happen to be there, definitely check out the huge Diego Rivera mural, a tribute to American innovation. It’s really a sight to behold.)

So Binelli talks about three recent suggestions that have been made to bring Detroit out of its economic funk. Among them: Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposal to turn Belle Isle (a city park in the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario) into a state park.  However, after the Detroit city council postponed a vote on the proposal (as Binelli puts it, “under pressure from a vocal minority suspicious of ‘outsiders’ looting Detroit’s few remaining assets”), Snyder withdrew the proposal last summer.  Yes, the Detroit city council is so entrenched, so resistant to change, that the Michigan governor is viewed as an outsider…

Binelli really boils the problem down to its essence in this one sentence: “Detroiters who are worried about ceding local power to Michigan’s Republican governor shouldn’t forget the ways in which power has already been ceded to an unelected oligarchy, whose members might, no matter how ostensibly well intentioned, possess questionable ideas about urban renewal.”  How could the city perhaps most traditionally associated with American ingenuity have ended up in such an ossified position today? Binelli hits the nail on the head: Detroit’s leadership is an oligarchy whose inaction to save the city goes largely unquestioned by the ever-shrinking populace.  If the members of the city council really care about the city’s recovery, they have a hell of a way of showing it. They may verbalize support for Detroit, but when it comes to making life better for the people who live there and attracting new residents, their actions (or inactions) often say the opposite

And while I do think that their resistance to new ideas comes from a partisan place, I also believe that they’re ignoring some good ideas from the left side of the aisle. Urban farming is a great example of this—parts of Detroit are in such a sorry state that urban agriculture projects may be the best way to use land that is currently uninhabited.  Not only would such projects create jobs for many Detroiters, but they offer the prospect of profit for those who start such enterprises.  Good for the environment, good for residents, and good for investors? Can’t get much better than that.

Well, it’s not so clear-cut to the Detroit city council.  Back in December, they narrowly approved the sale of land for the Hantz Woodlands project in Hamtramck (a bit north of downtown), which promised to be the “world’s largest urban farm.” Though the sale was approved, it met with oodles of opposition (check out this article for the details)—mostly on the grounds that the city government made it nearly impossible for individuals interested in smaller-scale urban farming to purchase land.

OK, let’s get this straight: on the table is a proposal to potentially transform Detroit’s landscape, put people to work, and get on the road to recovery.  But since the CITY ITSELF makes it hard for everyone to do so, no one should get to do so? Great idea—let’s keep moving down the same road and see what that does for us.

Kudos to the five city council members (and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing) who support the Hantz proposal. But seriously, what are the four other members thinking? Your city’s survival could depend on this, and because you think of this as a “land grab” by a big company, you are willing to set aside practicality for some greater “principle.” I just don’t get it.

The city will have to take extreme measures if it hopes to recover.   Yup, Detroit will have to go back to its roots of innovation to save itself. And at this point, all ideas should be on the table.  As Binelli writes, the “tragicomic” nature of recent proposals underlines the fact that Detroit is in dire straits, and that big, perhaps radical changes are needed.  Unfortunately, I won’t be holding my breath on this one…

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

All hail the fiber arts

Now, I am no Marxist (unless we’re talking about Groucho), but I think Karl really was on to something when he talked about the dignity of work and the alienation that many people feel from the work they do and what they produce.  In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx decried “the fact that labour is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his essential being”—this resulted in the “alienation of labour.”

A couple of years ago, I read a really fantastic book, Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft. (If you haven’t read it yet, you really owe it to yourself to do so.)  Crawford is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University in Virginia, but just as importantly, he runs a small motorcycle repair business.   Prior to writing his book and starting his business, he was the executive director of a Washington-based think tank, and to be blunt, he hated it.  It didn’t offer him fulfillment or satisfaction—instead, he found much more happiness in working with his hands.

The motorcycle business may have paid a lot less than his think tank job, but the motorcycles were far more rewarding. As Crawford writes, he feels “a greater sense of agency and competence …doing manual work, compared to other jobs that were officially recognized as ‘knowledge work.’” This knowledge-based economy is quite different from the 19th century manual labor economy Marx talked about, but even now when knowledge work dominates, it’s hard to refute that we all feel “alienated” from the work we do sometimes.  Can anyone who sits behind a computer for eight-plus hours a day really feel entirely engaged with what they “produce” all the time?

So where do the fiber arts (or any craft involving yarn or thread) come in? I’m glad you asked! You may know that I am a long-time knitter (or “knit-wit,” as my dear boyfriend likes to call me).  It is something that I do for relaxation, but more than anything else, I love the process of creating something tangible.  I, like Crawford, love to work with my hands.  (I would have loved a home economics and a shop class when I was in school, but neither was offered.  I’ll come back to this another post, when I can give it the time and complaining it deserves.)

Although Crawford goes out his way to say that his description of the intrinsic rewards of manual labor do not translate to manual hobbies, I actually think that at least parts of his book are applicable to them. In fact, knitting is a perfect example.  Yes, it can be repetitive, but it also often presents problem solving challenges, whether they are in pattern design or in fixing mistakes.  (This is consistent with Crawford’s contention that manual work is often more intellectually stimulating than knowledge work.)  And the result, when the process is completed correctly, grants a nice sense of accomplishment and pride. It fills a void that knowledge work alone cannot fill.

Crawford maintains that “crafts” are not the same as manual labor, or “trades,” and this belief springs from the reason for the onset of the modern appreciation of crafts.  The Arts and Crafts movement which arose during the Progressive Era was largely “a form of protest against modernity.” Those who embraced arts and crafts did because they had the luxury to do so: “such spiritualized, symbolic modes of craft practice and craft consumption represented a kind of compensation for, and therefore an accommodation to, new modes of routinized, bureaucratic work.”  Translation: like Marx said, the new knowledge economy bites, and crafts make your life more bearable and remind you of the joy of human creativity. (Maybe the folks at Initech could have used some knitting needles and yarn.)

But here’s where I differ with Crawford: knitting is not only a leisure activity and something to be enjoyed among those who have the luxury of free time.  Its roots are in necessity—people knitted clothing to keep warm.  Yes, it is more a hobby these days than anything, but the skill is a valuable and a useful one, in my opinion. Furthermore, as someone who enjoys manual and non-manual work, I find I need to be engaged in both pursuits, and having the former as a hobby enriches my life, even if it is not how I make money.

For Marx, part of the reason why manual labor was alienating because workers were just cogs in the wheel—by only being part of the production process, you’re not really “in touch” with what’s being made. But the process of making something from start to finish is much more rewarding and fulfilling, because it is much more an expression of one’s self.  In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx has a line that really strikes me: “the less you express your own life, the greater is your alienated life.” He may be talking about estrangement from work, but I think it applies to a manual hobby just as much.  Wearing a sweater I made is much different from wearing one I bought at a store. However, it’s not just because I appreciate the art of a handmade piece; it is also the reflection of a skill I possess.  For me, at least, that is where most of the pride comes from.

As I said above, I’ll return to this topic, because oddly enough, it’s a rather political one (the growing separation between “thinking” and “doing,” and what that means for how we are educated and what skills we value as a culture). But for now, the latest expression of my own life:

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The GOP needs to learn how to talk to girls

My friend Sabrina Schaeffer, who’s the executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum, was just interviewed for Glamour magazine’s website, all about women and conservatism. This is always one of those topics that really grabs my attention—not only do I belong to both the “woman” and “conservative” categories, women’s voting behavior is something that I’ve spent a lot of time researching of late.

It’s no secret that the GOP has been nothing short of abysmal in reaching out to women recently.  There are the obvious things: Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment, and Richard Mourdock’s controversial rape comments.  But there’s a deeper problem than just embarrassingly bad remarks. Much like an awkward 13-year-old with no moves, the GOP just doesn’t seem to know how to talk to girls.

My apologies if you’ve heard me tell this story already, but I came across a piece on Buzzfeed a few months before the 2012 election that really summed up the Republican “woman problem.” The article looked at the online stores for the Obama and Romney campaigns—more specifically, the women’s sections of the respective stores. Obama’s store offered three pages worth of merchandise for women, from Obama t-shirts to “Our Health, Our Vote” tote bags.  Romney’s store offered exactly three items for women: an Ann Romney button, and two bumper stickers—one proclaiming “Moms Drive the Economy” and the other “I’m a Mom for Mitt.”

Welp, I’m not a mom AND I’m car-less, so that knocks out two-thirds of the items for me.  And, to tell you the truth, walking around wearing a large Ann Romney button doesn’t really do it for me. So pretty much, for a young, single gal with (I like to think) a semblance of fashion sense, the Romney campaign really didn’t offer any women’s items worth considering.

In a way, I can see where Republicans are coming from—after all, the gender gap may be large (8 points), but the marriage gap is even bigger (21 points).  However, I don’t believe that the GOP should be waving the surrender flag when it comes to winning the votes of other women.  Many voters of both genders did not come of age in a time when a single political philosophy dominated, and so they were less likely to forge a lifelong devotion to one or the other party.  Their voting habits are more subject to fluctuation.

Back to Glamour: there are two things in Schaeffer’s interview to which I want to draw particular attention.  First, how should the GOP talk about the big elephants in the room (no pun intended) having to do with women—abortion and contraception. Honestly, these are really tough topics for the GOP, ones that highlight a fissure in the party that has to do with the very role of government.  While many Republicans oppose abortion (either entirely or in most cases), those who lean more to the libertarian side of things question whether the government should be involved with such private decisions.

For contraception, it’s more about who pays for it. This should be somewhat easier for conservatives and Republicans to argue: if the government should be kept out of the bedroom, then government should not pay for birth control. But instead, some have used name-calling, which only serves to undermine what could be a strong argument.

Schaeffer (correctly, I think) points out that “both parties are so focused on talking to women about so-called ‘women’s issues’ that they forget about the real issues facing women.” As a female, I find it more than a little bit demeaning that the parties think that all my “demographic” seems to care about is issues affecting our bodies.   Schaeffer says that just like men, women are thinking about the economy and jobs.  To say that women are concerned mainly with the politics of “lady parts” is not only insulting, it’s just plain incorrect.

And guess what? The stats back us up.  Take a look at this October 2012 Gallup poll.  About 4 in 10 of female registered voters believed that abortion was “the most important issue for women” in the 2012 election.  But when these same female voters were asked about which issues were most important in influencing their vote for president, “government policies concerning birth control” lagged behind unemployment, internal issues, healthcare, and the federal budget deficit and national debt.  Now, to be sure, 6 in 10 female voters said that the candidates’ respective positions on birth control were either “extremely important” or “very important” in influencing their vote, but that’s compared to 9 out of 10 female voters for the other issues I just listed.  In short, female voters seem to think that women care more about abortion and birth control as election issues than they actually do.

That takes me to the second point. I think Schaeffer is dead-on in her prescription for the GOP: “I think that Republicans don’t simply need to tweak their message, they need to really rethink the way they’re talking about everything.” Women’s lives have significantly changed since the days of June Cleaver, but the GOP doesn’t seem to realize that we’re not living in a Leave It to Beaver world anymore.  The percentage of unmarried women with kids is growing, especially among white women under the age of 30 with some college.  While the conservative ideal may be a stable, two-parent household, that’s just not the case for millions of women.  The GOP must learn to communicate with this growing audience—or it can write off their votes for good.

Phew, time to take a breath!  I’ll return to the topic soon.  Until then, please take the time to read the full Glamour interview—it’s really good stuff.