Category Archives: My (largely correct) political views

White Affirmative Action

I wrote this op-ed for the Denver Post* after we got a flyer under the door of our law office.  It was published on January 18, 1998.  Given that we have just recently been treated to the clownshow of a white Supreme Court justice announcing that African-American students would be better off in “less-advanced” or “slower track” schools, rather than the University of Texas, I thought it would be fun to re-run this.  The Post called it “Clear the bench (and bar) of privilege.”  I thought of titling it “Gimme a Fucking Break,” but went for the more descriptive “White Affirmative Action.”

We recently received — under the front door of our law firm’s office, sans postage — an interesting missive announcing the organization of a group called VICTIMS OF AFFIRMATIVE ACTION (all caps in the original).  This group (we’ll call them VAA) opposes affirmative action  — from context, the race-based variety — and proposes to shed light on “the appointment of lawyers holding unmerited law degrees to the federal court bench” (underline in the original) and to “deny . . . admission of scholasically unfit ‘minorities’ to law schools.”  The letter concludes by asking for our “assistance, financial or otherwise.”  I choose “otherwise” and offer my invaluable assistance through the formation of what VAA will surely recognize as an important allied organization:  VICTIMS OF PRIVILEGE AND NEPOTISM.

VAA argues that their group is necessary because they have found at least two black judges they claim are unqualified for the federal bench:  one because the judge invented a story about his youth in Mississippi; the other because the judge — at the trial court level — had no previous judicial experience.  (The letter does not mention the law board scores, law school grades, scholastic honors, professional experience or judicial competence of either man.) This got me thinking:  In my ten years of legal practice, I have encountered not only a few incompetent white judges but scores of incompetent white attorneys and I have begun to suspect that these lawyers, too, are the recipients of unmerited law degrees.

To remedy this situation, VAA will have to agree, will require our new group to deny law school admission to scholastically unfit white applicants who rely on such illegitimate factors as where their parents went to law school, who their parents know in the admissions department, or how much money their families have contributed to the school over the years.  Also in our cross-hairs will be such system-abusers as white kids with lower-than-acceptable scores who try to get admitted based on international travel, internships with friends of the family, political work with same, and other life-enhancing experiences open only to those of wealth and connection.  Practicing lawyers who were admitted to law school based on any of these factors must be deemed to hold “unmerited law degrees,” right VAA?

And it doesn’t stop with law school.  We’ll also have to get rid of any white lawyer who got his job because he or his parents knew someone at the firm, because his family attended a church or country club with one of the partners, or because the supervisor from a previous — nepotistically-acquired — job made a recommendation.  Any white judge appointed based on political connections developed through contact with other privileged white lawyers or contributions to the campaigns of privileged white senators cannot be considered qualified to serve.  Finally, of course, any white lawyer who has received the benefit of the doubt based simply on having white skin, good clothes or a standard accent or because a boss or judge of the same ethnic background felt “comfortable” around him — where an equally talented minority lawyer would have been passed over — must step aside.

Well, I’m outta here.  And so are most of the white lawyers and judges I’ve worked with over the years — the good, the bad and the ugly.  Truth is, it is we who benefit from affirmative action and always has been.  Sure merit matters — that’s why we have a bar exam.  But if we think merit was ever all that mattered or that affirmative action was invented in the 1970s to assist minorities and women, we are living in a fantasy world.

We white people have been enjoying the fruits of affirmative action ever since a white skin was all you needed to not be enslaved.  Even after discrimination was declared officially illegal, our prospects in the school-admissions and job markets still benefit overwhelmingly from affirmative action through nepotism, connection, economic privilege and — above all — the largely subconscious sense of most white bosses and faculty that we are like them, that we fit in, that they are comfortable around us, or that we remind them of their kids.  Affirmative action that favors minorities — both the type that requires outreach to non-white populations and, on a larger scale, the type that keeps an eye on the numbers — is necessary and will be until our economy and workforce are sufficiently diverse that the affirmative action working against minorities has faded away.

So whaddya say, VAA?  Are you ready to address the plight of all VICTIMS OF NON-MERIT-BASED SELECTION PROCEDURES?  We’d like your assistance  . . . but skip the “otherwise,” I’ll take financial assistance.

The Post asked me to add a one-sentence biographical description.  I chose confession and tribute:

Amy Farr Robertson is a Denver lawyer who graduated from Yale Law School 28 years after her father, who taught her to appreciate all the ways she has benefited from affirmative action.

*****************

*The link will make you pay $2.95 to read the above.

New/old rule: no one gets to criticize the way other people mourn

The days since the attacks in Paris and Beirut have followed a predictable Scold Cycle:

  • Massive coverage by Western news sources of the attacks in Paris.
  • Outpouring of sympathy for Paris with associated profile-photo-changing, Marseillaise-singing, and awkward-French-speaking.
  • Outpouring of hypocrisy-pointing-out with calls to acknowledge the recent attacks in Beirut.

Rinse repeat.  Although I guess this blog may be the next round in the cycle:  the criticism-of-hypocrisy-pointing-out.  But ever since Republicans decided to launch a media campaign denouncing the way grieving liberals spoke at Paul Wellstone’s funeral — one of the most craven political acts in a sea of cravenness — I’ve decided that people get to say pretty much whatever they want when they are grieving.  Perhaps all the Tricolour profile photos belong to people who have traveled to France, or have loved ones there.  Or maybe it is because they identify with white Europeans more than brown Lebanese.  I don’t know.  Let them process their shock and grief for a bit before telling them that it’s racist or colonialist.

Corollary:  this is not the time to point out that France has done all sorts of First World colonial bad shit.  Yes.  True.  This is not the time.  Like that time you attended the funeral of a guy who had done both good stuff and bad stuff in his life.  The funeral, right then, was not the time to point out the bad stuff.

Obviously, the media are in a different situation.  They need to be more evenhanded in the way they cover violence.  Yet the American media still cover the rest of the world according to Spy Magazine’s “Death News Equation:”  a calculation that involves the number killed or injured, the “sensitivity . . . of Times editors to the episode,” and the proximity of the incident to Times Square.  And by “sensitivity,” I think they meant “resemblance of the victims to actual Times editors.”  That equation still holds up, though I’ve always thought — based on my experience living in Taiwan — that it was a fairly universal phenomenon.  The day Benigno Aquino was assassinated, the banner headline in the main Taiwanese newspaper read, “China Airlines service to Philippines suspended” with a smaller headline and article below explaining that Mr. Aquino had been shot on the tarmac after disembarking from a China Airlines plane.  We’re all about ourselves, wherever we are.

Trump:  shockingly unaware of how the First Amendment works.

If I become president, we’re all going to be saying Merry Christmas again, that I can tell you.

The free speech clause and the establishment clause: both a mystery to Trump. Or maybe he’s just planning a bullyocracy.

 

Drive Like Your Kids Live Here*

Image: Red lawn sign with white letters that read "Drive Like Your Kids Live Here."  Other lawns in the background have the same sign.These preachy little signs are popping up all over our neighborhood. Every time I see one, two thoughts float through my head:

First thought:  I don’t have kids, you sanctimonious shit, so I’ll drive the way I would if my imaginary kids lived there and my imaginary kids all drive for NASCAR.

Second thought:  let’s apply this standard universally:

  • Provide access like your kids used wheelchairs.
  • Provide interpreters like your kids were Deaf.
  • Locate fracking like your kids lived there.
  • Make cops treat all kids like your kids.
  • Fund public education like you had one imaginary kid in each school in the country.  (Hey, if the Duggars can do it . . .).
  • Generally do unto others like you would do unto your kids.

Wasn’t there some guy a while back who had a whole philosophy, a religion, actually, IIRC, around a concept sort of like this?

Actually, a third thought often sneaks in, which is this:  I HATE this sort of sanctimony . . . FLOOR IT!  I honestly think this reaction would not be unusual, and that they’d have better results with a sign that read something like, “radar speed camera ahead.”

**************

* Shouldn’t it be “like your kids lived here.”  It’s the subjunctive, you sanctimonious UNGRAMMATICAL shits!

Dignify THIS!

I’m done. I’m done being polite.* I’m done shutting up about good liberals who seem to get every sort of civil rights and civil liberties except the equality of rights, respect, and dignity of our brothers and sisters with disabilities. I’m done with disability rights as a “when we get around to it” right. I’m done with people who are willing to use respectful terminology except — *big sigh* — avoiding using the word “retard” is just one step too far toward thought control.  And I’m done with “civil rights” law firms in inaccessible offices and “civil rights” lawyers who don’t hire interpreters. I’m done.

What pushed me over the edge was this voicemail, from a fellow attorney who would, I believe, describe himself as favoring civil rights. I suppose it’s my one last shred of not-yet-quite-doneness that leads me to keep him anonymous.

But who he thinks he is and who his words and actions show him to be should not be anonymous. It needs to be out there for good liberals — chock full of self-righteousness and non-disabled privilege — to observe and perhaps see themselves.  And become real civil rights lawyers by according people with disabilities the same rights and respect you accord other groups you work so hard for.

First let’s play the “protected class switcheroo” game. Imagine I got this voicemail:

Hey Amy, [Name Redacted] here. Trying to get in touch with you and/or Tim. I’m working with a group that is sponsoring legislation to increase penalties for disrespecting police officers. They got bogged down because of some African-American, ah, community concerns – said it would be used as a sword instead of a shield. Um, I think it’s miscommunication. I think the African-American community should be absolutely in favor of it and I wanted to hook up with folks, the right folks, in the African-American community and I thought you would know the behind the scenes politics of who best to contact. . . . .

Pretty gross, eh? No good liberal would talk that way, at least not in public in 2015. This is, in fact, the voicemail I received. Verbatim.

Hey Amy, [Name Redacted] here. Trying to get in touch with you and/or Tim. Um, I’ve done work in the past through when I was at the ACLU with the Hemlock Society; they’re now the Compassion and Choices organization and they sponsored some legislation about right to choose or to refuse treatment. They got bogged down because of some disability, ah, community concerns – said it would be used as a sword instead of a shield. Um, I think it’s miscommunication. I think the disability community should be absolutely in favor of it and I wanted to hook up the Compassionate Choices people with folks, the right folks, in the disability community and I thought you would know the behind the scenes politics of who best to contact. . . . .

And here is my response:

[Name Redacted] –

Thanks for your voicemail.  I think I can say with a fair degree of confidence that there was no miscommunication on the disability rights side.  The position of CCDC, Not Dead Yet Colorado, and a long list of prominent disability rights groups opposing physician assisted suicide is well thought out and thoroughly researched.  I can’t possibly improve on the information on NDYCO’s website, so I’ll provide a link:  http://www.notdeadyetcolorado.org/.

To be clear, Colorado’s bill was not about refusing treatment:  anyone can do that at any time without the proposed legislation.  It is also not about choices:  we can all choose to buy a gun and shoot ourselves; to drive in front of a train; to stop eating and drinking; etc.  Instead, the discussion revolves around getting a doctor to assist you in killing yourself to avoid — tracking the title of the bill — an undignified death.  What is characterized as “lack of dignity,” however, are conditions that many people with disabilities live and thrive with every day:  the need for a vent; a feeding tube; colostomy; urostomy; assistance with activities of daily living.  Statistics from Oregon, for example, a state that has legalized assisted suicide, demonstrate that people do not chose assisted suicide to relieve intractable pain — the purpose for which it has been sold to the public — but rather to address perceived loss of autonomy, inability to engage in activities of daily living, and loss of dignity.

These perceptions and the urge to kill oneself over them result directly from a society that does not value people with disabilities — and such perceptions are (circularly) reinforced by bills like these and the rhetoric that surround them.  Assisted suicide is urged in an environment in which people with disabilities do not have universal access to attendant care in their homes and communities, to assistive technology and mobility devices, to accessible vehicles or modifications, or to home modifications — hell, to accessible homes to start with.  These are all things that people need to continue to live — with dignity — in the community.  In the absence of this sort of support, many disabilities fit the bill’s definition of “terminal,” making it the worst sort of health care rationing:  cheaper dead than disabled.

A bill proposing that it was “undignified” to live as an African-American, an LGBT* person, or — to take an historical example — as a Jew, thereby justifying easy access to death would be rejected with horror.  Yet good liberals appear completely at home with providing a cheap and easy path to death for people with disabilities.

Furthermore, the concerns of people with disabilities reflect a great deal of thought and considered analysis; it is patronizing to suggest that they result from miscommunications.  I can’t imagine any other group active in the civil rights dialog that would be the subject of a voicemail like this.  When LGBT* groups oppose civil rights rollbacks, are they perhaps just victims of a miscommunication, which can be corrected by identifying the “right” groups?  How about African-Americans calling for law enforcement reform?  Shall we identify the “right” groups to support our men and women in blue?

The debate over physician assisted suicide has been plagued by this sort of condescension, as liberal and radical disability rights groups are accused of being pawns of religious conservatives, as if incapable of independent thought.  This infantilizing of our movement underscores our fears that disability is so stigmatized that ostensible civil rights champions would rather be dead than disabled.

Ultimately, if the ACLU is devoted to nondiscriminatory civil liberties, it should support a universal right to assisted suicide.  Anyone, anytime, can request a lethal dose, not just those in circumstances defined in terms of a protected classification.  This I would support, though I believe other members of the disability rights community are more compassionate than I am.

I would be happy to put you in touch with any of the groups on this list to help with any miscommunications:

  • Access & Ability Colorado
  • ADAPT
  • ADAPT Colorado
  • Assn of Programs for Rural Independent Living
  • Autistic Self Advocacy Network
  • The Center for Rights of Parents with Disabilities
  • Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition
  • Disability Rights Center
  • Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund
  • Justice For All
  • National Council on Disability
  • National Council on Independent Living
  • National Spinal Cord Injury Association
  • Not Dead Yet USA
  • Not Dead Yet Colorado
  • Patients’ Rights Action Fund
  • TASH
  • The World Association of Persons with Disabilities
  • The World Institute on Disability

Sincerely,

Amy

********

* Yes, I know, there is clear and convincing evidence that I was done with politeness, as a general matter, a long time ago.

What the fucking hell: “In U.C.L.A. Debate Over Jewish Student . . .”

In U.C.L.A. Debate Over Jewish Student, Echoes on Campus of Old Biases – NYTimes.com.*

I don’t have time for a well-thought-out blog post, so I’m going to express my views, even more than usual, though profanity.

What the fuck?  How did we get to the place where a bunch of entitled little shits at a prominent university, ostensibly full of smart people, could question a student’s fairness based on her religion.

I blame:

  1. The students.  Grow up, get your heads out of your asses, and think like decent human beings, not self-important Judgers of the Universe.  You’re 20ish.  Know, now, that you don’t know shit.  Think before you talk.  Maybe even consult a grown-up before you talk.
  2. A sound-byte culture in which it’s always less than a step from reasoned disagreement to ad hominem vilification.  Disagree with American policy?   You’re unpatriotic, a “fifth column.”  Disagree on middle-east policy?  You’re a suspected Mossad agent and/or ISIS sympathizer.**  Believe that women should control their own bodies?  You’re a baby-killer.  Think that we should perhaps consider the growing life inside the woman’s body?  You’re “fighting a war on women.”***  I’m sure there has always been plenty of invective to go around — since the invention of the swear word in prehistoric times — but it seems now that this the culture kids are steeped in.  They grow up on the internet perhaps thinking that the self-righteous, self-centered and generally nasty world of internet comments is normal or OK.
  3. Whatever passes for history teaching these days.  How the fuck could these smart kids get to their early 20s and not get — viscerally — that what they were doing was deeply, deeply wrong.  Any sort of reasonable instruction in the holocaust and the civil rights movement should have made this assaholic move impossible.

I’m concerned that these — and likely other — factors caused these kids’ brains to turn off and their sound byte/talking head/internet troll training to take over.   I sentence them to a intensive course in 20th Century History and a serious time out.

**********

* I truncated the headline in my blog title because once you get to “debate over Jewish student,” you’re in “what the fucking hell” territory.

** I guess the “and” side of the “/” is fairly unlikely.

*** I’m not suggesting false balance (“and now over to Dr. Schmuck, for the flat-earther position”), but merely that when discussing even those views we personally think are utter horseshit, we stop and think about the substance and keep the discussion on that level.  I’m just fucking tired of media talking shrieking heads and what it’s doing to the culture in which we hope to raise a rational next generation.

 

“We were strangers once, too.”

Image:  slighly blurry black & white photo of a group of 6 people.  In back, a young woman, two middle aged men and a middle aged woman; in front of them, an older woman, and in front of her, a child of about 10.

My Jewish grandmother, Edith Spivack, was born in Kiev, Ukraine in 1904 or 1905.  The family immigrated to the U.S. when she was young, and her remaining four siblings were all born in America.  She’s not in this photo, but her father (my great-grandfather), Zacharias, is the second from the right in the back row, and next to him is his sister, Fanny.  The older woman in the middle is Zacharias’s mother, my great-great-grandmother.

Update:  My mother just sent this excellent old-world photo, though by dint of the cast of characters, taken in the U.S. in about 1907 or 1908.  (Thanks, Mom!)

Image: sepia (brown and white) photo of eight people in formal dress of the early part of the 20th Century.  In the back row, three women (standing) in high-collared blouses, all apparently in their 20's or 30's; in the middle row, two men (sitting) wearing suits; the one on the left has a moustache; the one on the right has a full but neat beard.  In the front row, three children.  Two toddlers sit on the men's knees.  One perhaps 4-year-old stands on the right, with one of the women's hands on her shoulder.

From my mother’s description, with my commentary:  Back row:  Rachel (Toporovskaya) Palkin; Ida Toporvskaya (apparently  not yet married when this photo was taken); Fanny (Toporovskaya) Spivack [my great-grandmother].  Middle row:  ? Palkin (Rachel’s husband); Samuel Spivack [Fanny’s husband; my great-grandfather; Zacharias from the photo above — Samuel was the English name he selected].  Front row:  Palkin child; [my great-uncle] Max Spivack (on Samuel’s lap); [my grandmother] Edith Spivack (later Blau; standing, her mother’s hand is on her shoulder).  Rachel, Ida, and Fanny were sisters.

On the Protestant side, you have to go back a couple more generations:  my great-great-great-grandfather was born in Colne, England.  I have fuzzy memories of my father — an enthusiastic if not terribly well-organized genealogist — telling me that that he or another early family member essentially absconded from England with a patent that he did not, technically, own to start a manufacturing business in Massachusetts.

Update:  My Protestant peeps deserve a photo, too, right?

Image:  sepia photo of two young blond girls in white dresses with white ribbons in their hair, standing in front of a painting or backdrop of a beach with a rowboat.

My grandmother Helen Farr Smith [Robertson] [Love] and my great-aunt Elizabeth (Betty) Lees Smith [Carey], in 1911.

So we were strangers, once, and possibly of that criminal immigrant element you keep hearing about.  And yet here we are, a largely productive and law-abiding bunch.  I am grateful for the country that welcomed these people from such different places.  I’m grateful for the opportunities that allowed my grandmother to go from the shtetl to Radcliffe in the span of a single life.

Image:  black & white photo of a middle-aged woman with short salt & pepper hair and wire-rimmed glasses, wearing a suit jacket and a lace blouse underneath

I’m grateful for the mixing bowl that allowed a Protestant college guy and a Jewish college gal to meet and marry and have the quintessential American mutts that are my brother and me.  I’m grateful that many of us still welcome the strangers from many places, and hopeful that those who don’t will gradually find room in their hearts for their fellow immigrants.*

Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger – we were strangers once, too.

My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in, and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal – that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.

Barack Obama, November 20, 2014.

*************

* Well, most of us.  I realize these heart-warming words need some editing for those whose ancestors crossed the Atlantic in the hold of a slave ship or were already here when our ancestors got here and started waxing eloquent about welcoming each other.  Bottom — un-heart-warming — line:  white people who would close our borders need to stfu.