Tag Archives: soapbox

“Fight Club” for women?

I finally watched Fight Club a few weeks ago. My review? An underwhelming “so what?” At the most basic level, it is easy to buy into the notion of challenging and/or rejecting the consumerist culture. Being liberated from the shackles of supposed need is an alluring daydream as I sit in front of a computer forty hours a week, drinking lattes, and making enough to buy the key on-trend items that identify me as belonging in a sea of other well-educated, city-dwelling, East coast, middle class 20-somethings. See that Marc Jacobs [insert Longchamps’ Le Pliage for a related sub-group] bag as I sit here tapping away on my iPhone? Oh, yes, I belong. I am one of them. I am one of you, so all is well with me.

I belong, so I dream of breaking out of the confines belonging imposes. But what if I refuse to make that tradeoff anymore? Enter Fight Club. Or Office Space. Or any of the other movies that tap so well into the vein of discomfort running through the shallow monotony of the modern middle class existence. Guy gets tired of his Ikea clad, TPS report producing existence and says, “no more.” Guy reverts to more “primitive” existence of fighting, manual labor, picking up women, etc.

And they are, for the most part, all guys, these cult hero, fight “The Man” types. Which brings me back around to my initial, “so what?” Sure, I can appreciate it for its theatrical entertainment value, but it is interesting that there is no obvious female corollary there.

What would it even look like? Reverting to the “primitive” days before white-collar office work would look like…what? I would venture to say nothing resembling a daydream for most women like me. Even if one eliminates the oft-cited “sex sells” mentality, which is a handmaiden to consumerist culture and feeds into the objectification of women generally and the idealization of a certain type or look of woman more particularly, one is left with another culture in which the situation isn’t much better.

Any way you slice it, the female experience does not lend itself to the same sort of escapist fantasies. I would suggest the opportunities my generation has make modern life the closest thing to a fantasy paradigm one can imagine, which does not make for a very entertaining movie or an encouraging commentary on the models society has and continues to envision for women.

Aid with impact: Assessing the crisis in Pakistan

I think it’s beyond refute to say the U.S. has a spotty record of “success” when it comes to intervening in humanitarian crises. Intervention comes too late, haphazardly, in the wrong ways, through the wrong channels, with too little oversight, etc.

There is just such a crisis brewing now in Pakistan, where the government is in the process of asserting its authority and rooting out extremists in the region of the country which heretofore has largely existed outside its purview. Between those who were displaced amidst intense fighting last fall and those who have been displaced since the most recent round of fighting commenced two weeks ago, there are now approximately 1.5 million who have fled their homes. According to the UN, it’s the largest displacement since the Rwandan genocide.

In politics, as in life, it often seems the flipside of crisis is opportunity. This is no exception. The stability of Pakistan is vital to U.S. national security interests. To that end the U.S. has already pledged aid to help displaced persons, but we need to follow that aid and not just write a check and washing our hands of it. Effectively assisting in relief efforts will provide a rare opportunity to be seen in a positive light — an unusual role for the stars and stripes in that region of the world. Does this mean, “death to America,” will never be uttered again? Hardly. But under the broad umbrella of public diplomacy, this is a chance to build some modicum of goodwill (or at least a more neutral ambivalence, should “goodwill” seem to ring of pie-in-the-sky idealism). 

Additionally, if executed properly, the allocation and distribution of aid could be used as a tool to help cement the relatively new political reality of civilian rule throughout the entire country. Eventually, most of these 1.5 million people will venture back to the towns from whence they came. What will they find when they get there? If the answer is total destitution and isolation with little provision of government services, we’ll once again have a breeding ground for the kind of parallel state structure one sees with Hizballah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza — government ineptitude providing a vacuum for extremist organizations to fill. If, however, the civilian government is seen as capable of establishing some sort of order throughout, it will go far in debunking the cause of those who would promote a return to military rule or embrace extremist ideology in governance. Key to all of this, of course, is exercising a great deal of oversight and prodding of Pakistani leadership to utilize U.S. aid in a manner conducive to those ends (desirable for both parties, but not always self-evident in a fractious, variably corrupt, nascent democracy such as it is).

Taxation without representation meets its end?

mural2

One of the things I love about my neighborhood is all of the random artwork that decorates buildings around here. This lovely mural recently appeared on the side of a building down an alley off 18th St. The picture is a poor substitute as the colors are breathtakingly vivid in real life. The writing, which is also a bit difficult to read from the picture, says, “If you lived here you’d be home now. But you still could not vote.”

I only officially became a DC resident about a year ago. Although I’ve always been into politics, DC’s lack of representation in Congress is kind of difficult to care about when one doesn’t actually live in the city. In theory, of course, it always seemed unfair, but if you aren’t one of the 600,000 or so residents of this lovely city it’s hard to really internalize what it means in a practical sense to not be represented in Congress. I mean, come on, by and large the residents of this city are the ones who make the federal government run and we don’t have a vote in it? It’s beyond absurd.

I’m very pleased that the DC voting rights bill is making its way through Congress and seems to have a better chance than ever at actually passing. Although it only half fixes the issue by making our House member a voting one, it’s better than nothing. Or is it? That’s the thing which vexes me about this whole discussion. There’s a general sense that this is a good first step and that compromises like also creating another seat in a Republican district to diffuse the partisanship of it or tacking on an amendment giving the federal government more say in DC gun control laws (as happened in Senate debate on the bill) is just the price of doing business and getting something passed. That’s just how politics works.

I think this mindset frames the issue entirely incorrectly. It isn’t like Congress is debating “giving” the city a bridge, or an extended Metro line, or money to fix potholes. They are “giving” us the right to elect voting members of our federal legislative body, which, quite honestly, isn’t theirs to “give” in the first place. The constitution already gives it to us in spirit as citizens. What is the foundation of democracy if not the right to elect our representatives? That this right is bandied about like a political football is a little demeaning to all of us who are treated the same as residents of the 50 states in every other respect.

In speaking the language of compromise, it’s vital we keep in mind why any compromise is ultimately untenable. If this bill passes, I will be celebrating along with eveyone else. However, what would make me even happier would be the immediate emergence of a renewed discussion about representation in the Senate and the appropriate role for the federal government to play in local issues.

Working while cute

I am a bit taken aback by the snarkiness that has emerged surrounding this Ali Campoverdi story. Of course it’s just the sort of thing that would make the gossip pages — gorgeous girl, eclectic background, works for Obama, dating a famous guy. Par for the course in today’s media climate.

The (bitterly negative) reactions I’ve heard, however, have been surprising. She was hired because she’s hot. She shouldn’t be taken seriously because she posed for some provocative pictures five years ago. She’s an opportunistic social climber. She’s a “feminist paradox.” Most of these, I must say, were voiced by women.

This is 2009, are you kidding me? I thought the days of a woman having to actively attempt to downplay her femininity lest she not be taken seriously professionaly had faded quietly into the night long before I was born. If not entirely in practice, as I would venture to say most women can attest to encountering an exception here and there, then at least the acceptability of publicly articulating anything along those lines has gone by the wayside. Would I have chosen to pose in Maxim? No, thankfully for the collective eyesight of the male population, I would not. I certainly do not hold it against her though. This was five years ago, it isn’t like they’ve installed last month’s playmate into her own little cubicle in the West Wing. The woman is a Kennedy School grad, one imagines she has the intellectual heft to fit the job requirements of an assistant to an assistant (i.e. copy-making, coffee-grabbing flunkie). As for not having a world of political experience, this is certainly not unheard of. If one has ambition and talent, it’s easy to get noticed and move up fast in this business. That she might have sought out that advancement instead of expecting it to be handed to her is a quality that would be lauded in a man. Here, it just seems to make her an eyelash batting kitten trading on sex appeal (nevermind the fact that there is zero actual evidence to support this beyond the fact that she’s an attractive woman).

Truthfully, the only person who knows why she was picked for the job is the hiring manager. I, along with 99.99999% of the people who are talking about it, have never met the woman and have no clue about her professional demeanor. What bothers me is how the default response seems to be to assume the most cynical explanation and tear her down in the process. I don’t see her as a feminist paradox, I see it as the epitome of what feminism should be in my generation. One can explore different careers, different sides of one’s personality, different experiences, and ultimately be judged on what one brings to the table here and now instead of some convoluted notion about the proper behavior and place for a woman. Me? I’ll just keep rocking those stiletto heels, form-fitting suits, and ambition all the way to the top 😉

Paying to intern?

I got my first internship when I was sixteen. A professor (yes, I started college a bit early) of mine put me in touch with the person who was hiring. He did so, one assumes, because I applied myself in class, took an active interest in the subject matter (it was my major, after all), and had begun early on the task of networking (I went to a large school, but made it a point for him to know who I was). My professional life has evolved in much the same fashion ever since. I apply myself 100% in the office, get to know the people I interact with in a professional capacity, and never miss an opportunity to meet new people (aka, that most dreaded word, networking). These lessons, learned so early on from the task of acquiring my first internship, have served me well. As it should be in a meritocracy, no?

Thus, it was with dismay that I read in WSJ of a rising trend in procuring internships — parents paying exorbitant amounts of money to agencies just to get a foot in the door. That’s right, not only are internships still unpaid, but people are actually blowing thousands of dollars trying to get them. The tagline of the piece really sums it up: “Buying Your Kid an Internship.”  In short…

“Faced with a dismal market for college summer internships, a growing number of anxious parents are pitching in to help — by buying their kids a foot in the door. Some are paying for-profit companies to place their college students in internships that are mostly unpaid. Others are hiring marketing consultants to create direct-mail campaigns promoting their children’s workplace potential. Still other parents are buying internships outright in online charity auctions.”

Awesome, so if you can afford to fund the position (a la charity auction), you can have your kid fill it! Surely that will weed out the less qualified people and increase productivity in any organization. As someone who has had the occassion to hire interns, I really can’t imagine a situation like that. What happened to initiative?

My favorite quote has to be this…

“Without such programs, says Linda Bayer, executive director of the Washington Internship Program [$3,400 placement fee], the capital would be ‘the playground of the children of the rich, whether they were capable or not’ — because snaring internships would largely be based on personal connections.”

Yes, because the “average” parent has three grand lying around to finance something like that. If you’re that well off, I’m sure you could swing it without the money…after all, how many of us did a stint as an intern in the hallowed halls of Congress? When I think about the litany of people I know who have, they certainly didn’t get there because daddy was a major contributor. If you’re there because you paid that much to get into this program, I must say I think that puts you firmly into the category of promoting the “playground of the rich” concept rather than combatting it.

A curious incident

Today, for the first time since I was maybe fourteen, someone referred to me as “fat.” Far removed from the insecure taunts of fellow teenage girls, this little insult came from a man old enough to be my grandfather. To set the scene, a coworker and I were standing on the corner outside our office building downtown waiting to cross the street. People asking for money are not an unusual sight in this part of town. However, I’ve never seen this particular person before — an older man with a cane, having a slight bit of difficulty walking.

My coworker and I declined his solicitation, which precipitated a string of insults continuing as we crossed the street and until we were out of earshot. “Fat,” is the only one I could repeat in polite company. I can’t say I’ve ever been treated to such a…serenade. I was insulted by his crass language, the fourteen year old in me was briefly hurt by his raising a point I had thought I was entirely over, and I was just plain outraged at being harassed like that. I wanted to slap him, I wanted to curse him out, but my coworker and I simply looked the other way, crossed the street in shock, and reported the incident to our building’s security guard.

After google-chatting up a storm about those aforementioned feelings, another feeling began to take over. Here is a man who is obviously suffering. He’s older, appears not to be in the best of health physically, is obviously dealing with some mental health issues to put on a display like that…and he’s begging for his next meal, in weather so cold it’s snowing, on a street corner. How terrible that such a thing happens as the world shuffles along around it — around him.

Admittedly, I know next to nothing about the public services available for people who find themselves in such dire straits in this city, so I can’t turn this into a rallying cry for reform of this or increased funding of that. I can only speak of what I personally witnessed, which began to feel less like a superficial slap in the face to me personally and more like a collective slap in the face to a structure where a person like him fell through the cracks and found himself in such circumstances.

Educated, to what end?

A college degree might be entirely unnecessary. So argued Charles Murray in the NYT over the weekend. A radical thought when it seems like we’ve reached the point, here in the rarified world of DC, where graduate and/or professional degrees are the staus quo.
 
It’s a provocative notion, in theory, but I find his argument lacking. He vacillates between a couple different rationales, which undoubtedly undermines any persuasiveness he might have had in focusing on one core point.

Some thoughts on the points he seems to make (and subsequently, well, “unmake”), in no particular order…

There’s too much of a premium placed on ivy league or elite institutions — Agreed, 110%. I went to a state school after being accepted elsewhere for a variety of reasons. Internships, networking, and plain old initiative can do wonders for career advancement, regardless of the name on your degree. Murray mentions “stripping away the halo” of going to a prestigious school, which almost makes me think he’s mistaking his real argument against intellectual snobbery for dismissing a college degree writ large.

The majority of people don’t have the intellectual heft to succeed in any college setting — Oh, please. Taking the above point into consideration and admitting we aren’t all going to Harvard, I find it difficult to believe the “average” high school graduate can’t sustain a passing GPA at a run-of-the-mill state school. The statistics he cites are flimsy and don’t do much of anything to support this point. If it’s truly the case that the average person can’t hack it, we should be deeply mortified about the state of our public education system — and the answer to that failure, our failure, isn’t, “oh, well, then they shouldn’t go to college.”

Certification tests should take the place of a degree as the bar by which to judge readiness to enter the workforce in a given profession — Maybe if we were all going to work on an assembly line in a factory or something. In a service-sector based economy, it’s difficult to quantify such a thing. A liberal arts education in whichever field one happens to choose at least guarantees a basic level of mathematical proficiency and facility with the spoken and written word, which is what one’s generic office or retail employer is looking for anyway.

College is prohibitively expensive — Noooo kidding! I was lucky in going mostly on scholarship because there is no way my mother could have afforded it while working two jobs just to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. That yearly tuition at some of the better schools is higher than my current salary is kind of mindboggling. There should definitely be greater investment in community colleges (btw, DC should get on this instead of debating it every year or two) and government supported financial aid programs.

Ultimately, this is all irrelevant because the “bachelors as minimum education requirement” is a sea-change of sorts that isn’t just going to be rolled back — particularly as the job market gets tighter in today’s economy. Education is a good thing, it makes us better citizens, promotes understanding and tolerance of the world around us (vital in a globalized world), and creates a safety net of sorts in one’s professional life regardless of the career one pursues. All of these are good things. Telling people otherwise strikes me as the impractical sort of idea that could only be cooked up in the world of academia (said by a woman who works at a think tank and aspires to be entirely overeducated).