new york times

Israel: Changing the Subject


The cover of Friday’s Washington Post Express reads “Israel positions troops for ground war as its deadly conflict with Palestinian militants escalates.” Israel acts, Palestinians are acted upon; headlines about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are often constructed this way.

Grammatically speaking, the subjects of this two-clause sentence are “Israel” and “deadly conflict.” The corresponding verbs are “positions” and “escalates.” The term “Palestinian militants” is an indirect object.

For Israel, this is a friendly sentence structure. The “camera” of our imagination is fixed on them. If this were a novel, our main character—our Harry Potter—would be the grammatical subject of the sentence. Don’t believe me? Try switching the subject and object:

Palestinians position troops for ground war as their deadly conflict with Israel escalates.

(That’s why the US Army’s “embedding” of reporters is such PR genius—it’s almost guaranteed to produce a narrative in which US troops are at the center.)

See the New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, or Fox News for other recent examples. This is an unscientific analysis, but my hunch is that Israel gets privileged subject/verb status in American headlines. Are Palestinians less frequently given the same standing, less frequently given the subjectivity that helps us see them as human?

Call It in The Air

Is Barack a heads or a tails type of guy? We would find out if Socrates (via Gary Gutting) had his way:

GUTTING: I see what you mean. It’s going to be nasty, brutish, and long — not to say immensely expensive — but of course if we want a democracy, there’s no alternative.

SOCRATES: I disagree. You shouldn’t hold the election at all. You should flip a coin instead.

G: You don’t see any difference between Obama and Romney?

S: Oh, I do. I’m very impressed with Obama, no question. He’s intelligent, courageous, self-controlled and has a good sense of justice. Just the sort of person I had in mind for my philosopher-rulers. But none of that’s going to make a difference to the American voters. The election’s likely to be close, and in any case the outcome will turn on the October unemployment report, the price of gas, an Israeli attack on Iran, who has the most money for attack ads in the last two weeks or some other rationally irrelevant factor that you don’t yet have any hint about.

After that, the dialog drifts in a different direction, pondering the pitfalls of democracy in a poorly informed and politically apathetic society. I’ve heard The Case Against Democracy before; I think that first point is far more interesting. Even if we conclude that democracy is desirable, our elections are in effect contests that produce winners at random. If you don’t believe Socrates, google “weather voter turnout.” They say rain on election day is good for Republicans.

I disagree with Gutting’s Socrates that democracy is bad. The issue here is that our current system is democratically impotent. If the outcome of our presidential election can be altered by the October jobs numbers and price of gas, how democratic are we really?

And lastly: Gutting and Socrates made one glaring omission. All of this matters only because our nation is so deeply polarized. Most years the presidential election is, statistically speaking, a tie. What we need is a system that can produce a more decisive winner.

A Tale of Two Cities


The thriving DC economy, in this Sunday’s New York Times:

For the city itself, the good times are a bit more complicated, given Washington’s place in the national psyche. But they’re no less striking. Washington may have the healthiest economy of any major metropolitan area in the country.

The unemployment rate was 5.7 percent in June, compared with 9.3 percent in Chicago, 9.6 percent in New York and 10.3 percent in Los Angeles. The average house price in the region is more than 10 percent above the 2009 nadir, while nationwide prices remain near a decade-long low.

And you can actually see the prosperity. Although much of the city itself remains poor, several neighborhoods are noticeably brighter, and the city’s population has been rising for more than a decade. Downtown Washington is full of cranes building City Center DC — a mix of apartments, stores, offices and a park scheduled to open next summer. In McLean, Va., and Potomac, Md., mansions continue to rise from the ground.

I wish the Times would make the distinction between “Washington” and “residents of Washington.” Even better would be the distinction between “residents of Washington” and “some residents of Washington.”

Yes, the city’s economy is doing well in aggregate; unemployment is low, and the median income is high. But aggregation can easily obscure what’s actually going on in different sectors of the economy. Construction is booming downtown, but unemployment in Ward 8 is still at 22 percent. The DC metro area is the nation’s richest, but east of the Anacostia River 30 percent of families live in poverty.  

This is about more than just inequality. Much of the prosperity described in the Times isn’t trickling down to the city’s poorer neighborhoods—and when it does spill over, it creates as many problems as it does solutions. Neighborhoods see economic resurgence, but the people who live there frequently don’t. The result? The rising cost of living pushes them out, often over the Maryland border.

So: Washington as a geographic unit is doing well, but why is that relevant? A region’s prosperity should only matter to the extent that it translates into success for actual people.

Photo: Northeast Washington, DC. 2010.