Archive | May, 2013

There is no IRS scandal

31 May

I was beginning to think I was the only person who was upset by the so-called IRS scandal that they supposedly discriminated against “conservative” groups seeking tax-exempt status. Why are all these people resigning for doing their jobs? Glad to read Robert Reich’s post on his Facebook page on May 28 in which he says that “The more I understand what actually occurred at the IRS, the more it appears IRS agents were doing their jobs. A close examination of the conservative groups allegedly targeted by the IRS — reported in yesterday’s New York Times — revealed a wide set of election activities that tax experts and former I.R.S. officials say provided a legitimate basis for flagging them for closer review.” He wrote a similar post on his blog,, on May 17. There is also an excellent article in The New York Times detailing what kind of organizations were targeted and the rationale behind this.

Several IRS officials have been driven to resignation because it came out they were directed to pay special scrutiny to the applications from Tea Party organizations and for tax-exempt status by virtue of the 501(c)(4) exemption for – and this is the actual statute –
(A) Civic leagues or organizations not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare, or local associations of employees, the membership of which is limited to the employees of a designated person or persons in a particular municipality, and the net earnings of which are devoted exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes.
(B) Subparagraph (A) shall not apply to an entity unless no part of the net earnings of such entity inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.

I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve worked in nonprofits all my adult life. The way I interpret this, in ordinary English, is that these organizations must meet certain criteria:
– They must be organizations operating for social welfare (or be employees in one municipality)
– All their net earnings must go “exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes”
– No part of the net earnings should benefit any private individual.

How does any organization devoted to electoral politics, whether it’s the Tea Party or any offshoot of the Democratic Party or any other party, fit this definition? Apparently the legal loophole is that any activity devoted to telling the public about issues or candidates is now deemed to be “educational.” So, by this logic, we would say that any kind of advertising is now “educational” about the products being sold.

These organizations have become so powerful, and in some cases rich, that when their classification was challenged by the IRS, they went on the offensive, howling that they were somehow victims of partisan discrimination. But the onus is on them to show how their earnings are going to “charitable, educational, or recreational purposes.” In doing so, they have so cowed the Obama Administration that the IRS is backing down without a fight. Isn’t anybody in Congress going to say, as is their oversight responsibility, “Wait a minute, how are these organizations charitable or educational?”

In my most charitable moments, I might concede that information about any candidate – whether or not it leads to their election – is “educational” (especially if it is true), but even so, any policy or candidate whose work results in either economic redistribution from the poor to the rich, or the prevention of vulnerable populations to achieve their rights or overcome the ways they are socially disadvantaged (which is to say oppressed), is by definition working in a way that is the antithesis of “charitable.” An organization that lobbies to cut taxes resulting in the underfunding of schools, cuts to education and nutrition, health care, prenatal or neonatal care, women’s health, job training, and the arts, is acting in a way that is categorically the opposite of “charitable.” That’s the real scandal.

But then I read articles like this one in The Washington Post in which the Tea Party is actively involved in opposing educational standards. This should give the IRS pause. Not only is the Tea Party’s work not going to education, as required to maintain their non-profit status, but they are using the status to oppose stronger educational programs on a national level. So, “charitable” now means taking from the poor and giving to the rich, and “educational” now means blocking stronger school standards nationally. The IRS not only should have questioned these groups’ missions, they should have gone further and stripped them of non-profit status, for they are in violation of the code. They can still operate as NGOs (non-governmental organizations) but our tax law is quite explicit, and these NGOs are not entitled to tax exemption under the law.

Double meanings? Allegories in three films

26 May

These days it feels as if I’m seeing allegories everywhere, or at least hidden meanings and metaphors. Earlier this month, I saw two films that I was sure held double meanings, but a cursory look at reviews failed to find others making the same point, and now I’m wondering if I’m just seeing things that aren’t there, or if reviewers are not writing about this, or if I’m not reading the right people. One of the first people I met to discuss her blogs was a Princeton English professor, but I never thought anything I could say about films would be valuable to anyone. Well, ok, but if so many people are missing the point, is it worth chiming in myself? These films have insightful things to say about gender, class, and race, but insights that penetrate deeper than might at first appear on their surface. The three films are Renoir, Beijing Bicycle (from 2001, but I just saw it on TV), and 42.


Of the three, both Renoir and 42 are biopics, but really only 42 is true to the form. The film Renoir concerns actually two Renoirs, hence the ambiguous title, the father Pierre-Auguste the painter, and the son Jean the filmmaker. The film captures Auguste towards the end of his life, and the son just before he was to begin a career in film. While not having read anything about the film I went in thinking it was a biography of the elder, it turns out to be about much more.

The glorious cinematography by Mark Lee Ping Bin (who also did the camerawork for Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love) actually recreates the palette of the impressionist himself in a kind of cinematic representation of the vision Renoir depicted on canvas. Lee’s use of light and color is breathtaking, and one can only imagine the pressure of trying to develop a cinematic portrayal of landscapes, nudes, and art in general that does justice to not only the painter Renoir but one of the early masters of French cinema as well. With this backdrop, we see the painter struggling to paint his last model, who became romantically involved with Jean and later starred in some of his early films. So the film is largely about transitions from father to son, from painting to cinema as the dominant medium of visual art, and from 19th century to 20th century treatments of women in art – “treatments of” as women continued (and continue) to be objectified even into the 21st century, gazed at, and manipulated, for art’s sake and not. Thinking of women as having been “painted” explains one of the more curious and intriguing moments of the film that involves the spattering of blue paint (which I’ll refrain from spelling out more here). If anything, the film to me is about these latter two themes: how visual art, and male artists’ use of women changed during the early decades of the 20th century, just as the archetypal father was replaced by the more virile son. The ample use of nudity recalls John Berger’s landmark essay in Ways of Seeing on the male gaze, but in this film, written by Jérome Tonnerre, Michel Spinosa and Gilles Bourdos, and directed by Bourdos, it’s as much about male privilege generally and male privilege in the arts more particularly, which still of course exists today. And while the painted nude still exists as a genre and an art school exercise, painting a nude has been replaced in large part by filming or photographing the nude.

    Beijing Bicycle

Where Renoir is thematically concerned with art and women, Beijing Bicycle is more concerned with the rise of capitalism in China after Deng Xiaoping. I’ve read around about the film, found that it was banned for a while, but haven’t seen any criticism that discusses it as an allegory for the new capitalism. Without giving away too much, a young peasant from the countryside migrates to the city and leases a bicycle for his new job as courier. The bike is stolen, and he makes a deal with his boss that he won’t be fired if he can find the bike again – which he does, in the possession of a student, who bought it from the thief with money the student stole from his father. The peasant steals it back, the student takes it from him again with the help of his buddies, and the back and forth reaches a truce with the peasant and the student agreeing to use the bike on alternate days, effectively to share it. There’s more that happens in the end, which I won’t give away here, but for my purposes, what’s really significant is the film’s clear comment on the effect of the new capitalism on China’s core populations. After all, two of the stars in the Chinese flag represent peasants and students, as pillars of the Revolution. This film (unlike the film with which it normally draws a comparison, the Italian neorealist Bicycle Thieves), shows the peasant and the student pitted against each other by the cynical actions of the thief who steals to survive and sells his goods for cash – the capitalist. The peasant and the student, left to share what property is left to them, namely the bicycle, work out a makeshift arrangement that is good for neither, and the thief (whom we don’t see) presumably makes off with the money. The director, Wang Xiaoshuai, renders both the peasant and the student sympathetic (despite the student’s sins there are still ways we are lead to root for him, especially romantically). But they’ve been robbed of their prosperity, and even their future. If communism had been an ideology that at least professed sharing between peasants and students (at least in the early days), the class struggle has been reconstituted under capitalism such that they are pitted against each other, and even their uneasy alliance ruins both as they are powerless against the more materialist elements.


When I first saw the ads for 42 I wondered, Why now? I was surprised there hadn’t been a commercial film about Jackie Robinson that I had heard of, although he is the subject of arguably the most memorable episode of Ken Burns’s documentary, Baseball. I’m convinced it’s not just a biopic, but a film with a very useful message, because the struggle against segregation and degradation is so forgotten by the current younger generation. But there’s got to be more to it. In a way, the story does reinforce the American myth that one individual can make a difference, that social change occurs because of one person, rather than because of collective action. Look at the way the Rosa Parks story has been cast as the work of one resolute and courageous individual – which she was – rather than considering her training and connection to the Highlander School and hundreds if not thousands of other trained Civil Rights activists.

But why is Robinson’s story so important now? It is the story of one individual who was able to break the color line but only if he could turn the other cheek, and not become angry or strike back at those who oppressed, harassed, or abused him. Then I realized, during the film, this is the same story we are seeing played out every day in the Obama story. The U.S. is not baseball, but then baseball has long been a metaphor for the U.S. I am not inside the head of President Obama, nor can I imagine what he has gone through in his life nor the threats and vitriol he probably receives and that we may never fully know about in the future. But I can only imagine that the reaction to his election must rival that of what Robinson went through – and indeed, even Hank Aaron got death threats on the verge of surpassing Babe Ruth’s record. There are levels of hate out there we can only guess at, and they are still out there. If anything explains Obama’s unwillingness to take on the goading, the disrespect dished up daily by McConnell, Boehner, Graham, and others, this is it. It is no secret that what lies beneath a lot of the hatred of Obama and the fear of his “socialism” is still the same old, perhaps more hidden, racism we’ve dealt with for centuries. And if Obama’s legacy really is to open the doors of power to leaders other than people of white European heritage, it’s going to have to be with a Robinsonesque restraint. The long-term goal of human equality may outweigh the short-term goals of trying to score a social justice agenda with a significant amount of economic redistribution. That was the political reality for Robinson in his day and it may still be the political reality today, no matter how much many of us in white America may think we have overcome.

Having said that, I kept thinking how smart Brian Helgeland’s script is. On the surface it’s a straightforward, slightly hagiographic biopic that works effectively without becoming too sentimental or hackneyed. It’s also helped by Mark Isham’s just-right and often beautiful scoring (Isham should give lessons to Hans Zimmer, by the way.) But it’s really a parable for our times. And when I realized this, it made me feel sorry for Tony Kushner, who I think completely misses the point in his discussion of Lincoln on Bill Moyers show, in which he compared Obama to Lincoln as master of the compromise. It’s too soon to tell, but I think it is wishful thinking to compare Obama to Lincoln in suggesting Obama’s compromises will save the union as Lincoln’s did. For me I now consider that the parallel for Obama is not Lincoln, but Robinson. But don’t get me wrong. It’s not just the breaking of the color barrier that links them, it’s the way they have had to use restraint to win. Obama doesn’t have to be a Lincoln to make his mark upon history, and indeed, he may not be – nor is there any guarantee his mark will be great. It is no stretch to say that getting Obamacare passed, or the raid on Bin Laden, may be his equivalent of winning the pennant, not winning the Civil War. Read this way, I think there’s more insight in Helgeland’s script than in Kushner’s, but either way, there’s something to think about as a result of seeing this film. The aptly named 42 is on the surface about #42, but one can’t help wondering if the title isn’t actually meant to draw a link from #42 to #44.

Arts, education, and the force of security

6 May

So here’s some good news. Yesterday I posted a link to this article on my Facebook page. It seems that the new principal of an elementary school in a poor neighborhood of Boston decided to add funding for the arts and a strong program of arts-based education, and he found the money by cutting, deeply cutting, security at the school. In the words of the article, the principal, Andrew Bott, “reinvested all the money used for security infrastructure into the arts.” And so the school began a turnaround, the students started achieving better academically (and, of course, artistically) and there was less of a need for security guards to be present at the school.

The rewards of arts education are many, not just intrinsically but in other subjects as well. There is no surprise here. What is newsworthy (of not surprising to those of us who have worked in the arts) is that students themselves are able at a young age to identify the benefits of an arts-based approach. One 8th grader was quoted as saying, “There’s no one particular way of doing something. And art helps you like see that. So if you take that with you, and bring it on, it will actually help you see that in academics or anything else, there’s not one specific way you have to do something.”

Freedom in education, what a concept.

Either this kid has been reading a lot of Elliot Eisner, or he’s internalized this relationship between learning and an arts curriculum.

As I was posting this yeaterday, I got to thinking about the metaphor. It’s not just that because the kids were engaged in studying the arts that the need for security became less because the kids were more invested in their studies. There must also be a correlation between freedom in thinking and freedom from the security state. Let the kids study not so much what they want but the way they want, let them engage actively in creative learning, and suddenly the need to have security guards on site drops away. If you force students to sit in classes and study for tests that will determine their level of accomplishment and achievement – the “one specific way” that most schools now, by policy, have to function, especially in poor urban neighborhoods – then you need an infrastructure of enforcement to make sure they sit obediently and take in what you feed them. In other words, give the kids the freedom to learn, and more importantly, to experiment creatively, and you don’t have to take away their freedom to think, or encroach on their freedoms by having armed guards in the school to literally keep them in their place.

So what are security guards there for, anyway? Since the Newtown shooting, there has been talk and implementation of greater security in schools to protect kids. But what hasn’t been acknowledged is that at inner city schools, there have been security forces there for a long time. Walk into most high schools in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Newark. And these are the schools where the curriculum is most rigid, most test-based, and where students and schools are deemed ‘failures’ if the students don’t pass the test.

Being held under armed guard and forced to study for a test that determined your educational and professional success is a major disincentive to thinking independently and creatively, and certainly to enjoying learning. Whatever happened to inspiration?

The point is, if all education hadn’t devolved into a system of having to learn for a test, and if arts and music education were a major part of every kid’s school day, curriculum, way of being, then maybe we wouldn’t ‘need’ security in the schools. With less curricular repression, there’s less of a need for enforcement. If students are motivated and inspired, not just to learn but to know that what they think and how they experiment matters, then their whole attitude about learning and about being a global citizen changes. A little freedom goes a long way.

The symbolism of Pope Francis

3 May

I have to start by saying I am not a Roman Catholic, so I am observing this from the outside. My first real exposure to Catholicism was through Latin American liberation theology, the life of Archibishop Oscar Romero, the murdered Salvadoran Jesuits, and that led me back to look at the radical tradition in American Catholicism. I also have to start by saying that I had a father who was deeply suspicious of what he would call “lip service,” people who would perhaps make a nod in a popular direction only verbally, or with some minor action, but the bulk of their actions perpetuated the same oppression and injustices that they had all along.

Having said that, like a lot of people, I have to admit I’ve been fascinated with some of the statements and symbolic actions of the new Pope, starting with his selection of his papal name after Francis of Assisi. I am just as troubled as many are about the questions in Pope Francis’ past and his behavior during the Dirty War in Argentina, and concerned about where he will stand on issues of gender equity, sexual orientation, and other social issues.

But there are two things that already are very notable, and in my opinion very admirable, about this pope. They are largely symbolic, but I’m arguing here that in a position such as his, symbolism is more than lip service, because it becomes an invitation for others to model their behaviors in response. Even if he is only “talking the talk,” it is right and necessary to talk in a language that listeners may not hear from other authorities in their lives. His talk makes it easier for millions of others not only to talk but act in a moral, even rebellious, way in the face of oppression of all different kinds.

The first of these is his attention to economic injustice, to poverty. What really prompted me to write this post was the comment he was quoted as having said when he learned of the Bangladeshi factory collapse: “Today in the world this slavery is being committed against something beautiful that God has given us — the capacity to create, to work, to have dignity.” (This also is in many ways the essence of Liberation Theology, that as we are creative we extend God’s Creation.) And his statement yesterday, on Twitter(!), following on the heels of the other: “My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centred mindset bent on profit at any cost.”

The fact that he is using his position to critique unapologetically the profit motive and the excesses of capitalist injustice is not insignificant, and links him in a common message with H.H. the Dalai Lama. They are perhaps the only world leaders who dare to criticize capitalism. At all. Think about that. Capitalism has become so dominant and unquestioned among our world leaders (elected and otherwise) that there are few lone voices even “permitted” (if I may say so) to provide a social justice or spiritual critique of the economic system that controls the world.

To be fair, Pope John Paul II was also critical of excessive capitalism. But the message that got more play in the international media was his critique of Communism, and the media tended to overlook some of his more radical criticisms of capitalism, which would surprise many people.

Who else is focusing on poverty and the excesses of the profit motive as severe problems in this morally bankrupt world? (Any American Presidents in the past thirty years?)

That’s why it becomes so essential to have someone in his shoes who opens the space for that discussion. Without anyone who gives that his blessing, even symbolically, every practical and even speculative discussion that takes place around the world on the question of sustainability and the relationship between capitalism and the survival of our environment and the poor is by definition marginalized.

The second of his qualities, symbolic or real, is humility. Whether or not he actually is that humble, certain of his actions, ways of thinking, and lifestyle choices, set an example for millions if not billions of people. Regardless of your politics or religion, humility is never bad. (I’m not even going to get into a theological discussion of this in the Bible.) Learning how to think humbly, how to choose the humble option that refuses to dominate other people, other beings, or our Earth, is part a process of personal transformation that is fundamentally necessary if we are to coexist and survive as a species.

Throughout your life, every day in fact, you are presented with options about how to act and how to behave. If you always look for and choose the option of humility, especially if you are a person in a position of power, the impact will be warm and positive on the people around you. What this pope seems to understand is that as a spiritual guide it is his role to show people there is always a humbler way.

Sure, when you get to that level of the world stage – and let’s not forget his actual power as the Supreme Pontiff – you can afford to be humble, even to pretend to be humble. But inspiring people to be humble by imitation, does not make them submissive, as some might cynically suggest, and for his Western audiences, some of the main reasons our environmental sustainability is at risk derive directly from Western and capitalist arrogance. For too long we have acted as if we have a right to conquer nature, to dominate the world, to control other people, and to have unlimited access to the world’s resources. But if indeed we believe that we are all part of God’s Creation, then we have to have the humility to recognize that we share the Earth not only with every nationality but with every living being.

Why not go to a jail to celebrate one of the most sacred masses of the year with the imprisoned, which included young men and women, immigrants, including some who were not Catholic, and some from the most despised ethnic and national groups? Aside from the literal fact that visiting those in prison is explicitly encouraged in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, wouldn’t we experience an incredible social transformation if we all did this? If the most privileged among us took the time and care, and charity, to visit those the most “at-risk” and oppressed?

Pope Francis may do this but once a year. But each of us can follow this symbolic example in our daily lives. Our international leadership, indeed our local civic leadership as well, has become so pragmatic, so cynical, sometimes so money-driven, and sometimes so corrupt, that qualities of justice, compassion, interdependence, empathy, creativity, honesty, sharing no longer exist in civic discourse, in any country. We can debate and write volumes about what it will take to bring about this social transformation, but without any world example, who will teach our young people that such qualities are part of global citizenship?

It is part of the greatness of Nelson Mandela that he is perhaps unique among world leaders to live this kind of life in a secular and civic context.

Another tweet from the Pope (and exactly who else would be listened to if he or she said this?): “How marvelous it would be if, at the end of the day, each of us could say: today I have performed an act of charity towards others.”

May Day

1 May

It’s been so long since I’ve published anything I actually forgot how to log on. I don’t know why, I’ve had a lot on my mind, but haven’t been sitting down to add to this for months.

Having just gotten back from two weeks in Bangladesh the day of the Savar building collapse, I’ve been preoccupied by that disaster. There are now some 400 dead and, depending on which list is accurate, between 130 and 1,300 people unaccounted for.

I was very moved by Charlie Kernaghan’s interview today on Democracy Now!. Codes of conduct are not enough. The U.S. (and other countries) can legislate that imported goods and clothes must be made in factories that don’t exploit child labor, that allow workers to organize in unions for better working conditions, and that meet certain safety standards.

I’ll leave this post at that. I have lots more to say about Bangladesh, a country of incredible hospitality and warmth, and beauty and culture (epecially literary) yet at the same time a country where certain individuals are capable of treating their fellow citizens with sometimes astonishing cruelty and callousness, with total impunity.

I hope this May Day signals the beginning of some real change for workers in Bangladesh, now the 2nd largest garment exporter in the world. We in the West have our work to do too, to use the leverage consumers (and other workers) have to bring about positive change.

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