Category Archives: politics

“certainly no bimbo”

Did you know the current president of the University of Missouri — Michael Middleton, the man they chose to replace Tim Wolfe — testified about pubic hair and Coke?

This is relevant, I promise. Let’s back up a bit.

Last night, the film Confirmation aired on HBO. Kerry Washington played Anita Hill, a lawyer who worked under Clarence Thomas at the Department of Education. Clarence Thomas. You know, the Supreme Court justice who asked a question in court in February for the first time in ten years. 

When Thomas was going through his confirmation hearings to be on the Supreme Court, Hill testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her when he was her boss.

anita hill.jpg

Well, you know the ending to this story. He was confirmed anyway. And he’s not spoken much since.

I’m not going to write about the film, because I haven’t seen it. I am going to talk about the hearings, though.

I don’t remember the hearings. They were in 1991, the year I was born. In fact, the first time I’d heard of those hearings was two years ago on an episode of This American Life.  And then, back in December 2015, I found myself reading about the hearings again.

I was backgrounding the University of Missouri Pres. Middleton for a story when I found something that struck me.

Middleton was an aide to Thomas during the time when Hill and Thomas worked together. So, he was called to testify.

This is from a Wall Street Journal article:

One of the oddest of Ms. Hill’s allegations was that one day when she and Mr. Thomas were working in his office, he got up from the table where he had been sitting with her, went over to his desk to retrieve a can of Coca-Cola and, after staring at it, demanded to know, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?”

Thomas aide Michael Middleton also says that he heard the pubic hair story associated with Mr. Thomas before 1985, when he too left the EEOC. “I have this vision of Clarence at the EEOC picking up a Coke and saying, ` Who put this pubic hair on my Coke?”‘ says Mr. Middleton, now a professor of law at Missouri North Central University. Mr. Middleton adds that he told his wife about it at the time and that years later, during the confirmation hearings, he turned to her and asked if she remembered the story, and she did.

But the memory, Mr. Middleton says, is quite hazy. He says he isn’t sure whether he heard Mr. Thomas say it or just had it described to him back then. “It could have been a joke I heard him tell in the office,” Mr. Middleton says. “It’s vague. I just know that pubic hair in a Coke can was not new to me {during the hearings} with Clarence Thomas.”

anita hill 2

And this is from a Time Magazine story: 

“She was a real straight arrow,” says Michael Middleton, who worked with both Hill and Thomas at the Department of Education and later at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Very proper and straitlaced. She was certainly no bimbo.”

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

Now, back to work.

storytime: chats with uber drivers

The first time I took an Uber, I tried to get into the wrong car.

I was in Arlington, Va., and after a midnight soak in a friend’s rooftop hot tub on a freezing February night, I had to get back to my budget hotel in D.C. My friend sent me a code for a free Uber ride, but I was apprehensive. Could I trust the Uber driver to not kidnap, kill, cut me into tiny pieces and/or stuff me into his trunk? That apprehensiveness grew when when I tried to open the door of a car that was parked in front of my friend’s apartment.

The door was locked. I knocked on the window.

“Uber?” I asked, waving my phone. The confused driver stared at me, and then shook his head.

I tried to ignore the fact that I had essentially turned a stereotype on its head–instead of a large black man trying to rob a small white woman, I was the small white woman who appeared to be jacking a large black man’s car–and I called my Uber driver.

“You’re parked around the corner?”

I got back to my hotel in one piece.


Two days later, I almost missed my flight back to Kansas City.

I sat in the back of an Uber, waiting as we stood still in traffic for five full minutes.

“Is it always this bad in D.C. on a Friday evening?” I asked my driver.

“Oh, that’s the President’s motorcade driving past,” he said.

Washington, D.C.: view from the Newseum.

Washington, D.C.: view from the Newseum.


By the time I visited Atlanta a month later for a computer-assisted reporting conference, I was an Uber convert. An Uber proselytizer, really. I was sharing a cheap hotel room with three other  grad students, and we were shamelessly cutting costs at every corner.

“We can share the cost of one Uber ride, which’ll be $3 each,” I told them. So, we took Uber everywhere.

We probably had ten drivers total. Not one of them was white, and two of them were women.

I asked one of the women how she started working for Uber.

“Well, I came to Atlanta to help out my daughter,” she said. “She’s thirty, but she acts like she’s sixteen years old or something. She burned through all her money. So I moved from Alabama to help her out.”

“Do you like Atlanta?” I asked.

The woman laughed. “Nope, not really.”


“Do you like Atlanta?” was a question I asked often, and more often than not, the Uber drivers said yes.

I soon learned that several of these drivers had recently moved to Atlanta from other states in the South–Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana.

Our first morning in Atlanta, our driver  could not sing the city’s praises enough. “I moved here two years ago, and I love it,” he said. “Ladies, you would love it too. You’re just what Atlanta needs–four, young, smart, pretty single ladies out on the town!”

He wore a metallic patterned shirt, and his energy at 7 a.m. was more effective as a strong cup of coffee.

“Is that your real eye color, or are you wearing contacts?” he asked me.

“I mean, I’m wearing contacts, but they’re not colored…”

“Well, girl, you have got beautiful eyes.”

Funny, the most romantic thing ever said to me was by a gay Uber driver.

He loved that we were new to Atlanta, and he loved pointing everything out. “And that’s the Hard Rock Cafe,” he said, his voice authoritative, as if we couldn’t read the giant neon sign that read: “Hard Rock Cafe.”

“That’s a trolley car–they’re just testing it out. See that man in the yellow vest? That’s a cop. They’re everywhere, but they’re friendly. They’re here so tourists will feel safe and come back,” he said. “Homeless people might ask you for money, but if you say no, they won’t harass you. It’s because they know the cops don’t mess around. Oh! See that other guy in yellow? Another cop.”

Thanks, buddy.

Atlanta

Downtown Atlanta


One of our Uber drivers, it turned out, was a retired cop and Atlanta native.

I couldn’t help myself.

“I’m a journalist from Missouri, and I’ve been covering some stuff about Ferguson and its aftermath,” I said. “What do you think about the police department here in Atlanta? Do you see similar issues?”

“It’s not as bad here. In this city, a lot of the cops are black. A lot of the people are black,” he said. “I tell you what, and this is just my opinion, but I truly believe it. If the racial makeup of police forces reflected the racial makeup of their cities, we wouldn’t be having these problems.”


On our final morning in Atlanta, our last Uber driver had another solution to my questions about Ferguson and race (oops–we’ll blame it on the reporter in me; nobody’s perfect).

“I’m not a Republican, I’m not a Democrat. We need rules and regulations, but we need family values too. You know what would solve the world’s problems? If parents taught their kids compassion!” he said.

“But how does that translate to legislation?” I asked.

“Those lawmakers need to legislate compassion!” the driver said, half-laughing, half-serious. “Nothing is just Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. It should go deeper than that. My political philosophy, I get that from Star Wars. Yoda said, ‘Only a Sith deals in absolutes.'”

Hear that, world? Only a Sith deals in absolutes.

vote baby vote!

Gabriel Hackett/Getty Images

Gabriel Hackett/Getty Images

In journalism school, we like to talk a lot about reporters’ role in a democracy. Inform the public of affairs! Power to the people! Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable!

Too bad there’s a lot of pre-election reporting that falls into the so-called Horse Race; rather than covering the issues, journalists pick up on the minute details of a politician’s behavior, or unflattering fashion choice, or accidental speech flub. When paired with the negative campaign ads that saturate the t.v., is it any wonder that voters get turned off from politics?

In fact, on Tuesday, only one-third of Missourians are expected to go out and vote.

Perhaps our election coverage should cover voting itself. We’ve come a long way since the new American nation considered land-owning white men as the only people worthy of voting. It’s important to remember that women and minorities had to fight for their right to vote.  It’s also important to remember that laws continuing to disenfranchise minorities still exist.

I know that the upcoming elections are only the mid-terms. Maybe it’s not glamorous or exciting to vote on state amendments or local ballot issues, but they have direct implications for you. You’ve got a day left–that’s plenty of time to get educated about your state, district or town. (If you’re in Missouri, by the way, here’s a good place to get yourself up to speed.)

So in the end, it’s up to you. Power to the people! Go and vote!

linguistic weapons: ISIS, ISIL, IS or Daesh?

France, always the blazing non-conformist, has recently decided to stop calling ISIS by the name ISIS… or ISIL, or the Islamic State. Instead, its foreign minister recently announced that the French government would begin calling the group “Daesh.”

Why am I writing about this? A great question, my Discerning Reader. Here’s the reason: words matter, and names mean a great deal.

Let’s break it down.

  1. ISIS stands for the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. Al-Sham is an Arab word referring to a giant piece of land in the Middle East near the Mediterranean.
  2. ISIL stands for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The Europeans came up with the word “Levant,” which an area in the Middle East that roughly overlaps with the territory considered Al-Sham.
  3. In June, the group dropped the last two initials from its acronym and began calling itself the Islamic State, or IS.
  4. Daesh actually comes from an acronym too, al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham. But even before France decided that it would use Daesh, the group’s enemies in the Middle East have been using the word since April. It’s meant to be derogatory because it sounds a whole lot like the Arab words “Daes” (“one who crushes something underfoot”) and “Dahes” (“one who sows discord”).

I’ll continue to call the group ISIS for continuity’s sake, but here’s the bottom line: By calling themselves the Islamic State, ISIS is trying to legitimize themselves as their own nation, literally taking down borders between Iraq and Syria and putting up their own.

Here’s the bit on the Vice documentary on ISIS which shows militants taking down the barbed wire that divided Syria and Iraq by way of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

(Side note: If somebody knows how in the world Vice got such unprecedented access to ISIS for this documentary let me know. Did they know people? Did they pay ISIS? I mean this is the organization that has been beheading journalists… how Vice managed to get this footage just floors me.)

Most nations and news organizations refuse to call ISIS the Islamic State, thereby refusing to recognize the group as a legitimate state. But when France, Iran and Syria call ISIS Daesh, they’re taking it one step further. It’s as if they’re mocking ISIS, spitting in its face. 

Semantics, everyone. Words working as weapons.

how to define “barbarian”: a case study on ISIS

A few days ago, I retweeted this from a fellow Mizzou journalist (ignore the fact that he’s a national correspondent a the L.A. Times and I’m a first-semester grad student–we’re essentially colleagues):

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 10.13.19 PM

Oh boy, this got people talking. “As if they have to be mutually exclusive” responded one Twitterer. “Tech savvy barbarians are still barbarians,” said another. One girl asked, “I’m just curious, what would you deem ‘barbaric’? if beheading with a knife isn’t such an act.”

I’ve got a bit of a long-winded answer to that, Ms. @bileej897.* Here’s the thing about words: they don’t exist as entities by themselves. They’ve got no “true meaning” separate from interpretation. I’m going to take a page–well, a passage–out of linguist S.I. Hayakawa’s book Language, Thought, and Action on how dictionaries are written. It’s

a task of one’s recording, to the best of one’s ability, what various words have meant to authors in the distant or immediate past. The writer of a dictionary is a historian, not a lawgiver. (original emphasis)

So let’s imagine that we are dictionary writers, and we’ve gotten through our As. “Authentic” was difficult to define, but we finally did it, and after celebrating with champagne and balloons, it’s time to define “barbarian.” First question we need to ask: how has this word been used in the past?

We start with the Bible. In Corinthians, we find a passage, “I would they were Barbarians..not Romans.” Okay, so a barbarian is anyone who’s not Roman. …We look at each other skeptically. Are you and I Romans? No. Does that mean we’re barbarians? Of course not! We smile and tell our friend, “Wow, orange is definitely your color!” when that tangerine dress looks hideous on her. A barbarian would never have such great manners. But, hey. This version of the Bible was published in 1607, and it’s dealing with a historical time period thousands of years before. Phew. Moving on.

If we’re not going with the Bible, why not make a 180 degree turn and take a look at Darwin. How did he use the word barbarian in An Origin of Species, published in 1869? “Geologists believe that barbarian man existed at an enormously remote period.” Looks like he’s talking about people who have yet to discover reading, tacos, Breaking Bad: you know, uncivilized.

And let’s please not forget that Joseph Conrad text, a staple of every English major’s education, Heart of Darkness (1899). How does the British Charles Marlow describe the so-called barbarians he sees in Africa?

It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—the suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly.

So we’ve discovered that the word “barbarian” has come to mean a wild, savage person–no, not even a person, an animal who seems human-like. Colonialism has framed it this way, that ol’ classic Us vs. Them, Domestic vs. Foreign, or in this case, Civilized vs. Barbarians. When Europeans viewed Africans, Arabs and Asians as barbarians, it became much easier to take over their livelihoods and artificially split up their lands. It became the Europeans’ moral duty to tame the beasts and evangelize.

You might protest: “No, no, not all foreigners are barbarians. You’re talking 100 years ago, but we know better now! Barbarians are people who are cruel, who are murderers.”

But even those connotations come out of a history of colonialism, dehumanizing the Other. We cannot separate words from their historical contexts. With regard to Matt’s tweet, it’s not simply that the words are “old.” They are vestiges from the violent language of imperialism.

This response gets it right:

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 11.15.49 PM

Language has the ability to flatten people. If we consider ISIS monsters, barbarians, savages, demons, we risk losing any understanding behind their motivations. I’m not in any way defending ISIS. The group is responsible some of the most horrific murders and ethnic cleansing in memory, not to mention the severe subjugation of women among other atrocious acts. They need to be stopped, somehow.

But calling ISIS barbarians isn’t going explain their extreme religious devotion which has caused them to force ethnic minorities to choose to convert or suffer beheading. Calling them monsters can’t explain the cyclical oppressed-becomes-oppressor pattern that history can’t seem to shake.  Indeed, using the language of imperialism to define the Islamic State certainly won’t stop them from becoming their own brand of 21-century imperialists in Syria and Iraq. That’s irony, my friends.

Reuters

ISIS. Photo Credit: Reuters

*Twitter handle has been changed, slightly.

**Note: Definitions of “barbarian” from the Bible and Origin of Species from the Oxford English Dictionary. And I wanted to dig out my copy of Heart of Darkness to find a passage where he actually uses the word “barbarian,” but my books are stacked in piles on my floor. Looking for that book is a lot more physical labor than I’m willing to do for Joseph Conrad’s sake. So I found this quote on GoodReads.

vacuums and vetoes

On Wednesday, the Missouri legislature voted to become one of three states to require a 72-hour wait period before a woman can have an abortion. In Missouri and South Dakota, there are no exceptions for rape or incest.

Governor Nixon vetoed the bill in July, but both the House and the Senate voted to override that veto.  I’ve been covering the bill for both the Columbia Missourian and the Jefferson City News Tribune, so I was in each chamber as representatives debated the bill in the House and Democrats filibustered it in the Senate.

Here’s a lesson in breaking news, kids: when you’ve got 45 minutes to turn a story after the House votes, you can’t include every argument posed in a 90-minute debate on the floor. One representative whose words caught my attention but did not make the published article was Rep. John McCaherty, a Republican from High Ridge. Here’s what he said on the 72-hour wait period:

By the way, there are two states that have this law, South Dakota and Utah. Both of those states [laws] are in effect at this time unchallenged in the courts, just in case anybody’s interested in an actual fact instead of rhetoric. Because we hear a lot of rhetoric about what we’re doing and what we should be doing or not be doing… we’re not extending it 72 hours, we’re extending it 48 hours*. It’s a 72 hour total.

I heard that three days of thinking about it is really too much to ask. Really? I bought a vacuum one time from a salesman that came by my house and knocked on the door and came in and gave us a free clean. I had 72 hours to change my mind whether or not I wanted to purchase a vacuum. But it’s too long to decide whether or not somebody lives or dies.

And so we’re going to vote how we’re going to vote, and we’re not going to change anybody’s mind here, but let’s keep the facts the facts.

Here’s the full audio for McCaherty’s talk, if you’d like to hear it for yourself:

*True. Currently, Missouri law requires a 24-hour wait period before abortions.

missouri veto session link round-up

Rise and shine, my magnificent Missourians, because your veto session begins today! Governor Nixon (a Democrat, allegedly, with no relation to Tricky Dick Nixon, allegedly) vetoed 33 bills this year, and now Missouri’s legislature needs a two-thirds majority on each bill to override them. And guess what? Republicans just happen to have a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate. Guys. This should be fun. I’ll be in Jeff City, live tweeting, so you can follow me here.

For your convenience, Reader, I’ve compiled a master post on the Missourian’s website outlining all 33 bills on the table.

Loads of these bills carry a lot of weight, like the one that would triple the waiting time for abortions to 72 hours, so we decided to profile the heavy stuff before deliberations are under way. I wrote about the abortion bill here, and Phillip’s piece on teachers carrying guns in schools (welcome to Missouri, Internet friends) is here. Madi wrote about the so-called dairy bills, and I also wrote about regulations and taxes for e-cigs.

Ask me any questions via Twitter or at kekovacs@mail.missouri.edu.

Keep yourselves informed, friends.