Kentucky’s Troubled Relationship with the Secret Ballot

I grew up in the Midwest, where everyone knew all the dirt on everyone else, and was therefore expected to pretend they didn’t and to espouse a great respect for personal privacy — sort of a social Mutually Assured Destruction scheme reinforced with good old-fashioned Protestant guilt complexes.

It’s not a system I’d necessarily recommend, but it did have some beneficial side effects, like an obsession with secret ballots. Asking how another person voted, I learned at a very young age, was both rude and an insult to our democratic tradition. People fought and died for the right to vote privately, the argument went, so don’t use it to score cheap conversational points or to stir up shit. (Iowans, even in the days before hog megafarms started exploding in geysers of burning manure, had strong opinions on the subject of shit-stirring.)

But like most patriotic lessons learned in the Midwest, that was based more on fancy than on fact. America didn’t start adopting the secret ballot for major elections until after the Civil War, and even then it took a while to catch on. It’s more accurate — albeit more uncomfortable — to say that lots of people died from the lack of secret ballots, most of them black.

alison-grimes-secretary-of-stateCue the biggest non-story out of Kentucky, the last state in the Union to adopt secret ballots for national elections: because talking about actual policy bores viewers to tears, TV reporters and anchors have suddenly become obsessed with Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grime’s refusal to say who she voted for in 2012.

This is, I kid you not, being spun as a scandal. Eager to tie Grimes to the unpopular-in-Kentucky President, political and media figures have been characterizing her refusal to say who she voted for as “evasive” — rather than, you know, how our electoral system works.

Whether we buy into the old-fashioned notion that it’s a rude question or not (it is), Ms. Grimes is currently Kentucky’s Secretary of State. Ensuring a private ballot is literally her job right now. Who she voted for in 2012 doesn’t have any bearing on how good a Senator she might make, but discussing it publicly would certainly reflect on how good of a Secretary of State she makes.

Mitch McConnell reminded viewers in a debate Monday that there’s no “sacred right” to privacy at the ballot box. That’s certainly true, in part because America doesn’t have “sacred rights” of any kind. But Kentucky, reluctant though it may have been to follow the trend, does guarantee citizens a private ballot, meaning it very much is a right until the law is changed. And it happens to be a law that Alison Grimes is personally responsible for enforcing.

 

Independent Candidate Senate Wins Would Benefit Everybody

Seal_of_the_United_States_Senate.svgWhat was supposed to be a shoo-in year for a Republican Senate takeover is shaping up to be a surprisingly close contest.

In Kansas, with the Democratic candidate officially out of the race, independent candidate Greg Orman is looking increasingly comfortable to win over lackluster Republican incumbent Pat Roberts, whose political survival now depends on getting the tinfoil-tricorn fringe of the party that voted for his opponent in the primaries to turn out for him.

Over in South Dakota, Republican candidate Mike Rounds is polling somewhat better, holding onto a measurable lead over his opponents (in part because, unlike in Kansas, the Democratic candidate remains an active and viable campaigner), but a persistent scandal is dogging his heels and dragging his numbers downward, and his independent opponent, Larry Pressler, is a former Republican with a good shot at wooing away the party’s saner, more centrist voters.

Unlikely as the event remains, a win for both independent candidates in the midterms could be one of the healthiest things to happen to American democracy in a long time.

There are already two independents in the Senate (Bernie Sanders and Angus King), but neither one has ever won election at a time when control of the chamber could be tipped by an independent’s vote. If Pressler and Orman both win in 2014, depending on what happens with other elections, we could conceivably see both major parties with under 50 seats.

For practical purposes, some of the independents would be spoken for, of course — Bernie Sanders is unlikely to cross the aisle and start voting Republican on major issues any time soon. And the GOP in particular seems determined to burn bridges with the independent candidates before election day; RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has already called the possibility of Orman caucusing with Republicans “impossible” and “ridiculous.”

But in theory, independent wins could put both major parties in the position of having to actually work for their Senate majority on votes of substance. That would be unprecedented — and it would be a vital step back toward a functioning democracy, where policy is crafted based on compromises that can win approval from a wide range of diverse interests, rather than by bare-minimum marginal victories along polarized party lines.

Could that, in turn, shift incumbent legislators’ attention away from political grandstanding aimed at winning a party majority in the next election cycle, and back toward actually legislating? Don’t let’s get ahead of ourselves — but it would be a hopeful step, and a badly needed jolt to both major parties’ institutionalized complacency.

Jennifer Lawrence Decries Leaked Nudes (in Nude “Vanity Fair” Appearance)

Coming soon in the pages of Vanity Fair: cognitive dissonance that’ll make your head spin like a sulphur-crested cockatoo’s, courtesy of social media omnipresence Jennifer Lawrence. She’s furious that people looked at naked pictures of her without her permission — rightfully so — and she’s going to tell the world what a violation it was, in print, right next to the full-page shots of her naked body.

vanity-fair-jennifer-lawrence

It’s a hell of a hat trick (er, necklace trick?). The two nudities, of course, are not comparable: there’s a unsubtle difference between having stolen, private pictures published without your permission and making a consenting, contractual agreement with a magazine photographer and publisher. One set of shots may also be more revealing than the other — I haven’t looked at the leaked photographs, and can’t speak to their exact content.

The people who hacked and released her photos were bad people, in other words, committing both a crime and a serious violation of another person’s privacy and physical safety. J-Law and the folks at Vanity Fair, in putting together their shoot, were not. More power to Ms. Lawrence for continuing to put her body out there in ways that she feels comfortable with.

But still, it’s hard to get away from that lovely, water-lapped bosom juxtaposed with Lawrence’s strong sentiment that “Just the fact that somebody can be sexually exploited and violated, and the first thought that crosses somebody’s mind is to make a profit from it…It’s so beyond me.”

Sexually displayed for a profit, on the other hand, is more like business as usual in the world of celebrity glam mags, and clearly not beyond J-Law’s imagination (or participation) at all. Famously, and for decades, Vanity Fair has been in the business of selling sexy pictures of attractive actresses, many of whom also happen to be talented and have interesting things to say — in small letters, down below their airbrushed cleavage. It’s a one-two punch of titillation and “I read it for the articles” legitimacy that’s served the modern reincarnation of Vanity Fair well.

But so long as J-Law gets a cut of the action and editorial control over how bare to bare, it’s neither exploitation nor violation. It will even be enthusiastically cheered as empowering. Everything is fine, and you can ogle to your heart’s content. With her permission!

Ain’t capitalism grand?

~

A NOTE FOR CLARIFICATION: As a number of people have complained that the above post equates to “slut-shaming,” let me be explicitly clear: no one should feel ashamed for getting as naked as they like, with whomever they like, for whatever reasons they like. Jennifer Lawrence hardly needs my approval to take her clothes off for any sort of photo shoot, or for any other reason, but she certainly has it, as does everyone else. Neither her Vanity Fair appearance nor her nude selfies demand any explanation (although, since she offered one for the selfies, I wish it had been a slightly more empowering message than “It was long distance, and either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he’s going to look at you”).

That said, I think it requires substantial self-deception to pretend that the grindingly repetitive media presentation of female celebrities as bosoms first and opinions second is completely unrelated to a culture that thinks itself entitled to those same celebrities’ private photographs. There’s a limit to how much we can cheer actresses as “taking control of their own bodies” by taking their clothes off for popular magazines (as if that’s the best or only way to prove agency) and still be horrified when unethical people, looking for something to steal or profit off, immediately think of those same actresses’ naked flesh.

J-Law called the shot (pun intended) and chose to appear unclothed for Vanity Fair; don’t let’s try to take that agency from her. But don’t let’s pretend that VF would still exist if it couldn’t find someone’s tits to grace the front page every other month or so, either, or that it gives a platform to feminism that doesn’t come with a great rack.

And do let’s question that sales and survival strategy, and everyone — consumers and producers — that participates in it.

The “He for She” Logo Is Literally Ladies Getting Fucked by Dudes

I just want to make sure we’re all completely, 100% clear on this: whatever else there is to say about the “He for She” slacktivism campaign, its logo is a stylized male symbol penetrating a stylized female symbol.

he-for-she-logo

That’s not subtext; that’s just the text. Or in this case the graphic design. Whatever. Upward-angled Mars symbol arrow thingie goes into centered Venus symbol cross thingie, and the tip of the male symbol vanishes. It is literally a picture of hetero fucking. But, you know, iconographically.

I would probably not have noticed this myself, on account of not paying the first damn bit of attention to “He for She,” but my girlfriend (who is, like me, a feminist, and unlike me a graphic designer) had strong feelings about it. Like, bursting into the room waving an iPad and saying “look at this and tell me it’s not a picture of fucking” feelings. She’s not wrong.

If you go to the He for She website and scroll down (which is clearly supposed to kinda-sorta make it run like the hybrid offspring of a slideshow and a video, but the execution isn’t great), you can even watch the image of a contemporary male advocate slotting into a black-and-white suffragette photo.

he-for-she-penetration

Bam! In he goes. At which point she vanishes, which, read whatever you want into that one. But that’s the imagery we’re going with, I guess.

Because it’s time to unify our efforts. If you know what I mean, hur hur hur.

The Endless Update Cycle

Mac_LogoAbout a month ago I finally updated the operating system on my iPhone (an old 4S model) to iOS7.

I wouldn’t have done it by choice, but there was some feature or other that couldn’t open without the new OS, and that was blocking my access to some documents by not opening. So update I did, although the “new” OS at that point was due to be replaced in a few weeks anyway.

And now it has been. And now there’s a new operating system, again. This happens at about the same breakneck pace for full-size computers, for those of us still using them — I’ve updated OSX twice in the four-year lifespan of my current desktop, and it’s still several versions out of date.

So here’s my question: do any of these updates make such substantial changes that anyone else feels they’re worth the hassle?

For my part, I’ve never noticed a particularly stunning improvement in user experience from iOS5 to iOS6, or OSX 10.5 to OSX 10.6, .7, .8, etc.

Now, when OSX itself came out — that was a jump from the old family Mac that had been running MacOS 7.something-or-other for years, let me tell you. A whole new world, a dazzling place I never knew (era-appropriate reference, natch).

But then, we’d been using that Mac for years. It lasted from the mid-90s through the start of the new millennium without ever once downloading an automatic update, mostly because automatic updates and the bandwidth to download them didn’t exist at the time.

I don’t know that I’ve gained much from the ability to update my Mac all the time. Mostly I seem to have gained the inability to use my computer for basic utility programs unless I hassle with (and pay for) a new operating system every year or so. On the phone the cycle is even quicker, although the updates at least are free.

Which would all be fine and good, if upgrading from OSX 10.8 to 10.9 or iOS7 to iOS8 were a dazzling, eye-opening experience that changed the way I use my computing devices.

It’s not.

A Foreign Policy Hammer in a World Without Nails

If ever a headline summed up American foreign policy, it would surely be this one:

us-military-battle-ebola

“U.S. Military to Battle Ebola Virus,” proclaims The Wall Street Journal, entirely without irony. One can almost see them now, camouflaged troopers brandishing their rifles at bedridden patients: “Come out of his body with your RNA up!”

The military will not, of course, actually be pointing weapons at ebola patients (we hope); rather, they will be deployed to “coordinate international aid, build treatment centers and train health-care workers” from a new command and control center in Monrovia, Liberia.

Call it a case of the world’s largest hammer looking for nails to pound. Military training can encompass a great many specializations, of course, including some that are potentially relevant to controlling a disease outbreak, but the reality is that most of our servicemen and servicewomen have rather a different focus. If their skills are relevant to a crisis like West Africa’s ebola outbreak, it is more by accident than design.

cdc-ebola-signNo fault of the military. In theory, we have other agencies to deal with health and humanitarian crises, and indeed, the CDC and USAID have personnel deployed to combat the outbreak already, with more on their way. Those are the professionals who really are — at least in theory — trained to “battle” a virus on foreign soil. It’s their job, not the troopers’.

And yet, and yet, and yet. Three thousand military men and women? Three thousand more, on top of those already deployed to West Africa.

There’s no shortage of work to be done, certainly. Setting up treatment clinics and training centers takes a fair amount of manual labor, which the military is as qualified to provide as anyone. But do we really need to send trained soldiers (with all their attendant equipment) just to put up buildings and run phone centers?

America’s reliance on the military for large-scale overseas endeavors isn’t healthy, and it isn’t cheap. Trained soldiers with weapons don’t belong in charge of peaceful aid missions, and it’s a waste of their training and equipment to have them there. If America wants to invest in foreign aid (which I think worthwhile), it should do it through strengthened aid offices like USAID, the Peace Corps, and specialized services like the CDC and USGS, not through the military.

Most overseas crises that touch on American safety, it turns out, aren’t land wars. We can hit them with our multi-trillion-dollar hammer all we like, but it won’t turn them into the kinds of nails that the military is equipped to pound.

Wikipedia’s Erasure of Belle Knox, “The Duke Porn Star”

BELLE-KNOX (1)If you don’t recognize the name Belle Knox, you’ve still probably heard of her: “the Duke porn star,” a girl who was outed at her college as a porn star and who responded with an aggressive media blitz and a firm refusal to drop out, shut up, or in general be the tiniest bit apologetic about her work.

That being the sort of thing that upsets people, she was in the news for a while, and continues to be a presence on various TV and radio shows. She talks about sex worker rights and feminism, for obvious reasons, but also speaks on college affordability (pointing out that her porn career started as a way to pay for college).

Knox is outspoken, opinionated, and willing to trade on her celebrity to get her message out in a lot of places. She’s been in Rolling Stone, she’s been in Time, she’s been in Salon; she’s done dozens of interviews on TV and radio — and that’s all on top of a continuing porn career, which, unsurprisingly, seems to be doing pretty well.

You can find all that out (and trace the sources for it) in about five minutes with Google. Knox’s presence is real, sustained, and documented.

So why isn’t it on Wikipedia?

If you do that Googling, you will notice something missing: the inevitable Wikipedia page that always pops up in the first three or four results when you Google someone of even the most passing media presence. And that’s not because no one created one, back when Knox first hit the mainstream media; a “Belle Knox” Wikipedia entry existed as early as March 5, 2014. It was deleted later that month, and remains absent as of today (despite roughly 11,000 views of the dead link in the last 90 days, according to Wikipedia’s own tracking).

wikipedia-belle-knox-article-deleted

In a textbook illustration of Wikipedia’s flaws, a site admin approved deletion over a majority consensus that favored keeping the “Belle Knox” entry. The admin (male, with contributions primarily focused on military history and obscure 20th century warship trivia) based his decision on the, in his opinion, “stronger policy-grounded” arguments of the pro-deletion minority, citing by name another Wikipedia user (also male, with contributions primarily focused on the TV show Battlestar Galactica).

The two apparently agreed that Knox did not meet Wikipedia’s “one event” rule, which states that a person does not qualify for a Wikipedia page:

  1. If reliable sources cover the person only in the context of a single event.
  2. If that person otherwise remains, and is likely to remain, a low-profile individual. Biographies in these cases can give undue weight to the event and conflict with neutral point of view. In such cases, it is usually better to merge the information and redirect the person’s name to the event article.
  3. If the event is not significant or the individual’s role was either not substantial or not well documented.

(Note that Wikipedia recommends deletion only when each of those three conditions are met.)

It’s a fairly silly test in the first place, given that a lot of famous people (particularly the victims and/or perpetrators of single, famous crimes) fail. But Knox transparently passes the first bar, since reliable sources have covered multiple appearances of hers, ranging from strip club performances to interviews on CNN to adult video award ceremonies and conventions. She certainly shows no sign of remaining a low-profile individual, passing the second bar as well, and the ample documentation of the initial “outing” and response that sparked her fame passes the third.

And yet, because a couple of guys who like writing about battleships both real and fictional decided she wasn’t important, there’s still no Wikipedia page, even as Konx’s appearances and popularity continue.

There’s a feminist critique of history pointing out that “historical sources” aren’t perfect snapshot pictures of the time when they were written — and, in most cases, they were written by men with a vested interest in erasing women from any position of prominence, making them particularly unreliable where the achievements of women are concerned. Knox’s treatment on Wikipedia is good evidence that the problem is not purely a historical one.

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