Friday, February 27, 2009

We are Halfway to the Future (a mediation on SB 12)

(Note - this was originally posted to my page on the Duke City Fix, but I think here may be more appropriate. Also, I owe you all some good blogginess).

Today in my dorm room in New Orleans I watched the live feed of the senate debate on SB 12 (the domestic partnership one). Being a bit of a political junkie, I found the whole thing inherently fascinating, and was especially appreciative of the New Mexico Independent's live feed, and careful moderation of their own chat box (the entirety of which can be found here). That's the future-y part.

I left the chat for class before the actual vote, but what little of the debate I saw was really, really interesting. Cisco McSorely, the sponsor of the bill, explained the mock-up of it that was sitting on everyone's desk. In light of attention to the bill and strong criticism of it as "secretly gay marriage", the bill had been revised to have complete neutral terms, describing only civil law. Words like "widow/widower", which have social role connotations, and "spouse", which has both social role and religious connotations, had been struck from the bill. It was, in my mind, a masterful use of language itself to forge a new contract - "marriage" is an established entity, with a wealth of meaning behind it in religion, family life, tax code, and civil rights. That's part of why it's so hard to legislate around - people have a very fixed schema of marriage, and while some things may be part of it (divorce is incorporated into that schema, I think), it is an existent entity. So trying to create domestic partnerships was ambitious - the language of it was government and civil, and the religious and wider social connotations of marriage were not only untouched, but were protected as separate. It was, in my mind, a very clever compromise. That's future-ish, but more a product of modern pragmatism.

The debate then began, where it was attacked for being gay marriage. The entirety of built up nuance was thrown to the wayside, and lines pulled from Prop 8 support came to the fore. I noticed a reference made earlier in a Scarantino column happen on the senate floor. Disappointing to myself, but interesting, because I tend to underestimate the influence of commentators on political process. Scarantino's article was argued against in many places, but it was the one in the paper, and the one that got used on the floor. It was an interesting play in a democratic legislature, and it allowed people to protect the practice of religion, rather than protect people from religion. I missed the rest of the debate, so I can't offer wonky commentary on that, but this part at least seems classic, normal, business as usual weighing of freedoms against freedoms.

Then there's the voting. The bill failed, with 17 votes for and 25 votes against. If you want to see the list of who voted how, I recommend here. For me at least, it's a disappointing result, but not an insurmountable setback for the future.

For others, it's huge, and to be fair, people there have far more invested in this than I do. Not that I don't sympathize, and not that I'm not upset, but I'm not surprised to find party unity faltering. In theory, with both state houses controlled by democrats, and with a democratic governor, bills labeled progressive should fly through the government and become law/policy/mandate more or less immediately. At least, that's how it works in countries with way, way fewer veto points. To even get this far, the bill had to make it through votes in two separate committees. To get further, it would have had to make it through at least two more stops. Anywhere in this process, a significant blockage can kill the bill. If we had just one choke point, party unity would be essential - with many, it's easy to trade acquiescence in a few spots for forgiven deviations elsewhere. This holds true no matter the composition of the legislative body - if the parties are close to even, unity is stressed, but hard to enforce when cross-aisle votes are sought after. If one party predominates (as was the case here), the party dynamic changes a little, but the calculus is similar. Party unity is the only thing the minority party can really trade on, so it's essential. Within the dominating party, then, you get a split like the one today, where 10 democrats sided with the minority party, and where 17 sided with the main party ideology. Groups split like this all the time. Democrats are pretty uniform in outlook when they are the opposition; is it any wonder that when they are the majority conservative and liberal divisions surface within the party? Being in the majority allows those things to happen, and it allows bills like SB 12 to even be considered. It's also what allows the bill to be destroyed by the party that sponsored it, and that's a rather bitter irony.

Still, I'm optimistic. I was able to pay close attention to the hearing on a senate bill when I'm 1,100+ miles away. There was direct video feed of the senate floor, and the viewing/blogging public was able to see the arguments brought forth on the bill, and call them out on respective flimsiness. This isn't yet the golden age of internet-aware moves by lawmakers, but the tools to change the status quo are more readily available than ever before. (And that's good, because the status is most definitely not quo.) But I'm confident it will be in the future. Alas, the future isn't tonight, but hey, at least we're halfway there.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Getting Humanitarian Intervention Right

Evan's smart. His latest post, culled from an essay, is about how to do humanitarian intervention. And it is really good. My favorite point?
A majority of the bad reputation that humanitarian intervention has, then, is unearned; it is not the doctrine itself (which is guided by the noble ideal of protecting human life), nor the United Nations as an organization (which is left in the unenviable position of being the impartial mediator) that causes the complaints leveled against humanitarian intervention. It is the member nations themselves who use both the organization and the ideal as an excuse and a scapegoat.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Elephant Diaries: Funny Pages

(Editor's Note: This is the third filler post I'm writing while I try and figure out my Anti-Racism Sermon post. I hope you don't mind the relatively lighter content)

"Elephant Diaries" is the term John Fleck has been using over on his blog to describe the problem facing print media - it's dying, fewer people are subscribing, and where does that leave journalists? Perhaps just as importantly, where does that leave journalism itself? He's been hitting all the big points himself, and I was certain that what would draw me to write about this was Sarkozy and the State sponsorship of newspapers in France. But no - not even that would bring me into the discussion of print. What could compel me more than french government?


Whenever I'm given a newspaper that has them, it's the first thing I read. Childhood habit, nostalgia, early morning brain needing pictures before words, whatever it is, that's where I turn. And I am almost always disappointed. Comics today, as wonderfully satirized by The Comics Curmudgeon, are a mess of slow-progressing story, the trials and tribulations of rich white anglo saxon protestants, jokes that eight-year-olds are sick of, and the unending cancer-rama of Funky Winkerbean.

Sure, there are exceptions, but for every Get Fuzzy there are about seven strips no one would go out of their way to read. And that's the model that has sustained comics for years - hit everyone with a batch of non-offensive stuff, hope they like some of it, and then make sure you never get rid of the comic they liked when they were eight. For some people, and for some length of time, this worked out great. Jim Davis owes his very existence to nostalgia formed in childhood transforming into marketing opportunities instead of dissipating.

But for many people, that market was awful. The comics they wrote were too niche-audience, or too adult, or were mature and sophisticated while not being boring, or characters had things like opinions or politics. These comics creators went online, and if you check back at the early news posts of webcomics starting from 1997 to 2003, there is a lot of hope expressed that the comic could jump from the internet to print. Scott Kurtz of iconic PvP famously campaigned for entrance into the privileged halls of print comics. For his trouble, in 2004 he was mocked by one of the lesser mainstays of print comicdom for being "internet famous" and thus irrelevant to the real world. There's foreshadowing here.

Then, in 2007, webcomic Diesel Sweeties actually made the jump. The creator opted to create a separate print version, so as to keep his main comic and main revenue stream separate from the confines of print. Read that sentence again. This guy, who's job primarily (though certainly not exclusively) consists of making a comic and putting it online, was making more from that than he was going to make from the previous holy-grail of webcartoonists: syndication. And in late 2008, he canceled his print comic. Too much work, his primary income was suffering, he was actually losing money, and it just wasn't worth it to him. That club which Scotty had been kept out of four years prior? Totally not cool anymore.

In the space of their existence online, some webcomics (not all, and certainly not most), managed to flourish and create independent revenue streams. They could appeal to niche audiences, they could address more mature issues, they could afford to be actually interesting, and they were free to do this all without any restrictions placed upon them by a syndicate. And for those who succeeded, they created a successful business model in an environment whose challenges syndicate cartoonists are just now facing.

Jeph Jacques of the fantastic Questionable Content has a great takedown of a newspaper comic writer looking tentatively at the internet, and being afraid to take the plunge. It's fitting that the post being responded to is titled "The End of Alternative Comics" - being alternative comics is what drove webcomics into an awkward sort-of genre. Really, it's the end of comics sold as part of newsprint, and that's a death worth mourning. It overlooks, however, the whole world of comics that exists outside of print. And that world is huge, dynamic, and populated.

Which is really just to say: Print Media may be dying, but comics are going strong. It's not much, but it certainly is something.