Tag Archives: Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading


Moment of Reflection

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , ,

The face of equal opportunity in America.  Courtesy a website apparently doing a documentary of my old workplace, Glide.

The face of equal opportunity in America. Courtesy a website apparently doing a documentary of my old workplace, Glide.

Last night, I had a disquieting and somewhat absurd realization that most people think it’s fine for some people to be rich and other people to be poor. I was struck anew by how difficult I actually find that to believe.

I’m a debater at heart and can defend any proposition if I really need to for the sake of argument. And I know all the arguments and have been through them with people. I’ve been called naive and I’ve dealt with incentive arguments until the cows come home. I’m not sure I really want this post to be about that. Because I think, sometimes, we get lost in the analytical and it takes us away from the profound wrongness of the assumptions so often underlying our society.

It hit me when Alex was talking about a cruise she went on in childhood during a particular time in her upbringing when her family had more access than other times. And I just thought “gee, not everyone gets to go on a cruise when they’re young.” And it seemed obviously, fundamentally unfair. Not necessarily because cruises are the yardstick by which we ought measure a life, but because it’s just one of those things, like getting to go to Disneyland or having enough to eat at home or not being beaten, that is extremely unequally distributed among children. And even you hard-core right-wingers out there will have a hard time arguing that children truly deserve the fate they are born into. That the children of tycoons deserve hundreds of times the upbringing that the children of the homeless do, just for winning the lottery of birth or sharing genetic material with the already successful.

I’m not really trying to elicit an analytical reaction here, because I think that it gets in the way in this instance. Which brings up an interesting paradox, because the longer this post gets, the more our analytical brain takes over and starts opposing the initial thesis and coming up with justifications. Maybe I should just end it now and leave you with the image of a refugee fleeing their home in contrast to an heir lounging by the pool. But somehow even refugees miss the point, because as hard as their lives are, no one builds refugees into the plan. Pretty much everyone acknowledges that we should help refugees and try to prevent their need to flee. But it seems not so with poor kids. We’ve deliberately designed our society to generate poor kids.

It’s very popular these days to say “no excuses!” and to trot out examples of the few poor kids who overcome their hardships and make it to the top of the food chain as a demonstration that anyone can overcome any circumstance. But it’s rarer to ask why we have a food chain at all when designing a society. Animals have a food chain, but they lack flush toilets and libraries and the ability, perhaps, to ponder their place in the cosmos and to try to alter it profoundly. Aspiring to a system of incentives based on animal behavior seems too close to being able to justify slavery or endless war or eating one’s fellow person, literally or figuratively, if nature appears to call for it.

Which I think gets to the critique I most often am asked to wrestle with, which is just how radical or “out there” my arguments sound to the average person. The naturalistic fallacy, that what is innately is what ought to be, is still the predominant justification for war, torture, poverty, vast incarceration, and all the other ills plaguing our species. It’s actually a defter and more advanced rendition of the naturalistic fallacy, which is that what is is awfully close to what must be. It actually tends to leave “ought” out of the equation altogether. This is where I get into gradualism vs. radicalism debates with people, because the underlying assumption of most folks seems to be that radicalism is infeasible, so gradualism is just the best we can hope to do.

I find this unsettling because the only things keeping gradualism afloat are the boundaries of these underlying assumptions in the first place. It’s very circular. If one believes that we cannot quickly overhaul our systems to ditch things that reward abhorrent behavior because things will always be that way, then we cement the very mentality that makes it so. People have actually made this argument to fight the abolition of slavery, the equalization of rights for women and minority races, and gay marriage. None of which were achieved by gradualism and all of which represent sea-changes in the order of society for those who were oldest when they were enacted. And yet no one standing in 2015 can really comprehend the depravity of 1850s America and its treatment of all these oppressed groups or could imagine traveling there and putting up with it.

So why is contemplating that same level of change in the next century or so so difficult?

There is a certain hubris to being in the present. We assume that we are the terminal point in human understanding and achievement because we feel so much better than all those who came before us. We revel in the progress we’ve made since 1850, or 1550, and assume that we must be reaching a vanishing point of accomplishment. Because we’ve learned about radical change in history books, we assume those are the only radical changes that were necessary. And, more damningly, because they already happened, those changes feel inevitable. Because they happened, we lose sight of how radical and scary those changes were at the time and we assume they would have always conspired to take place. We feel pride in our institutions, our upbringing, our whereabouts, because this is a natural human bias. And everything in our society inculcates and reinforces this pride, not least of which is the endless stream of politicians telling us that contemporary America is the best that ever has been, that ever will be.

But some people still get to live their whole lives rich and others live their whole lives poor. Some people will suffer and struggle and face every possible obstacle, while others have advantages at every level of access and freedom. And all of this simply because of the design of our society, because we have chosen to structure the rules this way. How is this possibly a thing?

If you’re arguing against me right now, with something about natural order or the need for incentives, or the way things have been done or life being cold and cruel and unfair, that’s fine. But ask yourself if the same argument(s) could be used to justify slavery in 1850. Ask yourself if the same argument(s) could be used to justify feudalism, or divine-right monarchy, or the practice of pillaging and enslaving a conquered society. Ask yourself if the underlying assumptions you apply to 2015 were applied to generate imperialism. Because I have a funny feeling you will have a very hard time indeed making an argument that doesn’t apply to those past situations. And I bet you find those past states of being to be unthinkably abhorrent.

The only thing keeping us from a world of fairness, equality, and reasonability is ourselves. We imprison our own futures with the walls of “possibility”. We rule out what is morally necessary with the presumption of what is physically doable, not realizing that it is only those assumptive limits that set the parameters of what we can do. If we all decided tomorrow that being poor was simply an unacceptable burden to place on a child, we could implement the steps in society to make it so.

We have made this radical change time and again on so many other policies that seemed like they’d long been obvious as soon as they were finally implemented. Think about what 2150 humans will look back on with disgust and start believing that we can change that in 2016, not 2149.


Fire in a Crowded Theater

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

This, I predict, will be an unpopular post.

Yelling "fire!" into this microphone:  not free speech.

Yelling “fire!” into this microphone: not free speech.

Few events in recent memory have brought such universal calls of immediate condemnation as Wednesday’s massacre of cartoonists and staff from the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. As a pacifist, I join the world in condemning these horrible acts of violence and murder.

It is worth noting that the fact that people feel the need to open their articles and reflections on this event with such condemnation despite its universal obviousness speaks to a certain widely felt paranoia in the realm of journalism, blogging, and writing of all sorts. The presumption seems to be that anyone who would offer any perspective in addition to endless outrage or sadness about these events – offering up any nuance, lessons, or further reflections on the massacre and its origins – is a stone’s throw away from being lambasted as a closet terrorist. And indeed, our society is structured to be “with us or against us” in the post-9/11 rabbit hole, a deliberate tactic to stifle dissent or even critical thinking about an increasingly draconian state at war with its own shadow. I’m sure I will feel impelled several times throughout this post to remind everyone that I find the murders abhorrent, that I am not justifying the murder, that I do not believe in the death penalty for cartooning (or indeed, for anything, including murder and treason).

What I find discouraging about the response to the attack on Charlie Hebdo is how quick everyone has been to defend the magazine’s actions, even to stand with them to the point of saying that they are, literally, Charlie Hebdo. I know murder is galvanizing, even canonizing, to the victims, but it is a small vocal minority that points out that Hebdo and its cartooning staff in particular were crass and offensive, if not overtly racist. There certainly was a double-standard between criticizing Islam and criticizing Judaism, wherein people were fired for alleged anti-Semitism but allowed to flout the most holy standards surrounding the holiest person in Islam, using a blasphemous image to decry everyone in that religion. It’s hard to even imagine what the reaction would be were a similar level of insult levied at a Western-World-approved religion, especially Judaism. And say what you will about the history of anti-Semitism that France has to be guarded against – isn’t that kind of exactly the cultural context and sensitivity to offense that the proponents of so-called free speech are trying to guard against?

I say so-called free speech because the argument that has been lost in all of this, the argument that will be the central thesis of this post, is that Charlie Hebdo‘s offensive cartoons were not protected as free speech and should not be considered within the bounds of that most sacred of Western liberal democracy values. I feel like I may need to repeat this since nothing has been more universal than the repeated utterance of the idea that this magazine’s publication and the slaughter of its staff are free speech issues. They’re not. The cartoons went beyond the realm of free speech.

You see, free speech is not, and never has been, and really shouldn’t be, say whatever you want. Traditionally, that standard was called license, something reviled in traditional liberal democratic theory as something wanton, anarchic, and for those who don’t think about their principles very much. There are countless exceptions to free speech standards and statutes everywhere. The most famously touted, though possibly least significant in terms of actual practical exact application, is yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater. Free speech does not protect your ability to yell fire in a crowded theater because doing so is harmful to the society as a whole, likely to cause a stampede of theater patrons that results in unnecessary death. It is dishonest speech, manipulative speech, speech that predictably ends in violence and bitter resentment. I think you can see where I’m going with this argument. Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons were deliberately and wantonly inflammatory. They served no social good, no valid political message (unless hate-speech, something banned in many quarters of liberal democracies, is now considered valid political speech), and were intended to push the envelope for the pure sake of enraging a portion of the population.

Critical, vital reminder: people do not deserve to die for violating or overstepping free speech standards. They should not have been killed. The killings were abhorrent.

There are other myriad exceptions to free speech as well, speech that, when shouted from the rooftops, is not protected and is highly illegal. One can not advocate the violent overthrow of the standing government. One cannot make specific threats of violence against any person or group of people. One cannot publicly, with a wide audience, lie about the actions or behaviors of another person. One cannot willfully defame another person through the use of falsehoods or misleading statements. These are all universal or nearly universal exceptions to free speech that instead go by names like treason, threats, slander, and fraud. No one would stand up and defend people committing these acts and create the hashtag #IAmTheDeathThreatener or #IAmSlanderer. Even if they were killed, presumably. And yet defamation of a whole class of people through something misleading is pretty much exactly the standard upheld by Charlie Hebdo. The only reason that people are uniting with and defending this message, other than the rush to sanctify the recently murdered, is because it is seen as “okay” to bash Islam and its adherents in modern Western culture.

Which brings me to the other grossly misapplied use of the Free Speech Flag in recent Western culture and social media, so recently trotted out before this as to make the whole scene appear to have a surrealy orchestrated quality. Which, of course, is the film The Interview, a movie advocating the assassination of a sitting leader of a foreign country. Oh yes, sure, it’s an entertainment too, and a farce perhaps, and a vehicle for bad jokes and racism against all of North Korea and its people to boot. But none of this erases the fact that an actual current leader is depicted, by name and resemblance, as being assassinated and that much of the point of the movie is to get the audience to spend the whole movie rooting for and anticipating his eventual killing. These kinds of depictions are exactly why authors, disingenuously or not, put those little disclaimers at the beginning of books depicting horrible events to fictional characters, stating that no resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is intended. Why? Because it is not free speech to advocate the killing of other living human beings. That is outside the bounds of protected speech. That is punishable speech in all free societies.

And yet, when North Korean agents or bored teenage hackers or irate former employees, whichever it was, infiltrated Sony and hacked the daylights out of them, eventually threatening to bomb theaters if The Interview was released, Facebook’s masses and the media that influence them clamored to call this a free speech issue. The cancelling of The Interview was labeled the biggest calamity to befall free speech in the history of everything, at least until events less than a month later overshadowed them. I was a lone voice in the wilderness pointing out that the intent of the film was clearly to push the envelope as far as it would go and that sometimes, when you try to see exactly how much you can get away with, you don’t. You don’t get away with it. Because it actually tramples free speech and barges headlong into the territory of license, of saying wanton and destructive things just for the sake of that wanton destructiveness, just because you can. And that has never been included in anyone’s definition of free speech, beyond the most ardent libertarians and anarchists.

There are two key rebuttals to this set of arguments that I anticipate: one about satire and the other about making the difficult judgment on the nature of this speech. I really think the latter is super-weak, so let’s start with the one about satire.

It could be argued that both The Interview and Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons are satire and that satire’s business, by its very nature, is to go way beyond normally accepted bounds of speech, to delve into the absurd and outlandish and offensive in order to prove its point. And that, as such, the rules for satire should be bent way beyond those of normal, serious speech.

I have several arguments against this idea, but the first is by analogy. In working with students at Rutgers, I ran into a frequent phenomenon of people making racist remarks in the context of satire, supposedly making fun of those remarks by trotting out the exact same remarks in a sarcastic voice. An actual example was someone (fakely) rebutting an argument that a particular African-American was good at debate by saying “but all Black people are dumb,” voice dripping with sarcasm. I spent some time going on a mission to stamp out this kind of behavior, leading to some extensive and impassioned discussions and even arguments against what I’ve seen in some areas labeled as “hipster racism”. My argument is that no matter how sarcastic or allegedly satirical the speaker is when making that statement, no matter how absurd they think they’re being, they’re still uttering a racist remark that shouldn’t be part of the environment of that team (or, frankly, anywhere in society, but I couldn’t really police that). And that hearing those words, even ironically, does damage to people who have heard those same words not in jest. And that putting that out into society helps perpetuate the negative stereotypes, even if the alleged intent is to make fun of those same stereotypes.

Thus, I think a tremendous amount of supposed satire actually backfires, actually just perpetuates the myths and bigotry laden in whatever mythology or bigotry is allegedly being made fun of. We would be better off without that speech entirely, either through carefully rebutting it or simply disregarding it and making powerful counter-speech that does not attempt to carefully skewer the original speech. Yes, satire is sometimes, even often, an effective weapon against hypocrites and damaging forces in our society. But I think it also often misses the mark, sometimes horribly, and does damage to its original intent, and thus cannot be placed on a pedestal as speech more worthy of protection or immune to critique and censure than any other kind of speech. To be clear, my argument is not that satire should be banned, limited, or uniquely targeted – merely that it should not be deified into a separate, higher class than all other forms of speech.

Additionally, I would argue that The Interview is simply not a work of satire. Granted that I haven’t seen it, so my basis for judgment is somewhat limited, but I would argue that it’s a propaganda piece against North Korea and its leader. While it may not technically be an advocacy piece in favor of the assassination of its leader, I think it’s at least pretty close, and I doubt it does anything to make people sad about a world where Kim Jong-Un has been killed. It’s the kind of movie that, were it released in a Muslim country with the US President named and depicted as the target, would be the instant justification for drone-strikes and possibly full-scale invasion of the society that failed to ban it, with all the collateral deaths of children and innocents that come with it.

Which brings us back to the intent of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Were they mere satire with the aim of lampooning? Or was the intent slightly stronger, more sinister, more aggressive? It certainly seems like the point was to get people to view Muslims negatively, to see them all as hypocrites, to simultaneously blaspheme against their religion and inspire disrespect of followers. Where is the line between satire and hate-speech? And even if you don’t believe in laws against hate-speech, doesn’t it at least seem unwise to sponsor and uphold the vitriolic criticism of a religion when the nation where this stuff is published is bombing Syria and could easily already be considered to be in a culture war against Islam? I know France’s standards of freedom of religion are less robust than those in the United States, as exemplified by their banning of burqas in public, but it’s hard to imagine this being deemed acceptable in targeting any other religious group, cultural group, or race. (Yes, I know a lot has been made about Charlie Hebdo also skewering pedophile priests. That is making fun of specific criminals and their criminal acts, not all priests or all Catholics. It’s categorically different.) And if there’s only one group that’s “okay” to target, that’s not free speech, or at least not a form of it that seems right. It’s just bigotry. And arguably incitement to violence.

Which brings us to the second argument, about who makes the judgment. If there is a line between free speech and license, how do we guard it, how do we call it, who is responsible for putting things on one side of the line or the other? I will grant that this can be tricky, but it’s also interesting that no one seems to bring up this question when the accusation is of treason, slander, defamation, or anti-Semitism. And as much as people will accuse my advocacy in this piece of being illiberal in failing to defend unpleasant or even abhorrent speech, I would choose to turn the tables. I think that by decrying anti-Semitism but defending these Charlie Hebdo cartoons, it is you who is being illiberal in refusing to defend all groups equally. You are conveniently ignoring the power structures present in your society and that it willingly oppresses some groups while championing and defending others. It’s just racism and bias dressed up in the sheep’s clothing of free speech and erring on the side of caution. The history of oppression of the Jewish people in the past in Europe has combined with a handful of so-called terrorist incidents attributed to radical Muslims to make saying anything you want about one group be deemed free speech, while saying much of anything about another group is over the line.

Call me crazy, call me illiberal, but I don’t think the proper response to this is to have open season on Judaism as well. Rather, I think it’s to take a big step back and examine our norms and standards around how people speak about Islam and its adherents. Unfortunately, now that the massacre has happened, any efforts to rule out inflammatory speech against Muslims will be deemed “giving in” and “letting the terrorists win”. It is of paramount importance in contemporary Western societies that we refuse to change anything about our behavior after an attack other than increasing bombing and violence in response to it. This is hand-in-hand with the continual refusal to recognize that other people have reasons for their violence, while it is taken as given that Western societies have a monopoly on reason for using violence. I have gone over this particular argument so many times in my recent writing that it barely bears repeating, but I still am flummoxed by how often serious media outlets insist on saying that one cannot attempt to explain the reasons behind an attack by others or that any attempt to do so should be considered justification.

This is like saying there can never be a motive for a murder. Generally speaking, unless the person committing the crime is legally insane, motive is a key part of any case against any murderer. We all just spent three months of our lives obsessed with the Serial podcast, largely for its examination of motive and its apparent absence in a murder case. And yet, as soon as the murder is committed by someone we label as a “terrorist”, logic and motive flee the scene as though by divine mandate. Those who attempt to unpack the motive are brandished as “with the terrorists”, an act that would be precisely akin to someone in the jury standing up and accusing the prosecutor at a murder trial of being an accomplice for attempting to attribute a motive to the accused.

It’s totally nuts. But not only is it nuts, it’s extremely counter-productive. Because just as motive is necessary to understand a murder and even prevent future murders, so is understanding the intent behind “terrorism” and other killings or attacks essential to actually preventing them in the future. This is neither justification for the acts nor is it blaming the victims of the attacks. It is merely recognizing that those committing the acts are also human beings (something actually argued against in a frightening number of pieces attempting to dehumanize the “enemy”) and thus have reasons for their actions as well.

The dichotomy between France, the US, and other Western powers saying it is committing drone strikes for reasons, or keeping Gitmo open for reasons, while refusing to even engage discussion on the reasons of those opposing these actions and fighting back, is the single biggest impediment to the West making progress against those who would commit terrorism. As long as you think you’re just fighting animals, you will be a victim of your own propaganda and will never be able to engage in the changes necessary to actually bridge the divide of misunderstanding that ends in death.

But the West continues to dehumanize Islam and its adherents, continues to uphold Charlie Hebdo‘s grossly offensive cartoons as the gold standard of free speech and liberalism. It is thus terribly unsurprising that there would be ardent defenders of Islam who would react extremely negatively and violently to this. Not justified that they would do so, but unsurprising.

As societies, we need to choose free speech over license. We need to remember that minority rights are a key pillar of liberal democracies, in addition to the strong loud voice of majority rule. We need to rebuild a society where all people feel free, not just those with the traditional power. And we need to have the humility to recognize that changing how we act and choosing to respect others is not being intimidated, but is sometimes the ultimate act of courage.

Maybe if there had been voices in France decrying Charlie Hebdo as crossing a line, even censuring some of their cartoons as beyond the realm of free speech, then fewer adherents of Islam would believe the entire nation of France is unified in a culture war against their religion. And maybe that, in turn, would have saved the lives of those cartoonists. Which is not to blame France for what happened – the killings were abhorrent and were the fault of the murderers alone. But we still try to figure out how to prevent murders, even if our failure to do so beforehand does not make it our fault. I don’t see why this set of murders should be treated any differently just because the killers were Muslims.


Symmetrical Surveillance: Serial, the Panopticon, and Why Murder Rates Really Have Crashed

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , ,

The Panopticon!  Now in handy pocket size.

The Panopticon! Now in handy pocket size.

Two things seem to be really trendy these days, if you don’t count bashing Muslims (I’ll talk about that one and why it’s so wrong in a different post). Serial the podcast (which I discussed at length in November) and speculation on why murder rates have crashed all over urban America. Malcolm Gladwell discussed the latter in his latest pop-stats book, David and Goliath, which I read last year, it’s the front page story in one of the surviving New Orleans papers today, and I’m sure NYPD thinks they’re single-handedly going to reverse the trend by refusing to shoot any unarmed people for a whole week.

These things all seem pretty related to me, in a fairly intuitive way. And no, it’s not that people are not murdering people because they fear being analyzed in a 12-week podcast and having all their friends interviewed. If anything, that’s probably going to create a slight uptick in the interest in domestic murder.

People thought a lot of things while listening to Serial. Indeed, the fact that it prompted speculation of all kinds and thus inspired countless unending discussions and debates in homes all across America was a key ingredient of its immense popularity. I almost laughed aloud when Koenig dismissed her wildest thoughts and speculations in the waning minutes of the final episode by saying “So who are we to put this theory forward? This is the very obvious problem with speculation, especially of the emotional variety. You can’t prove it, so you have to drop it.” It’s like Facebook dismissing the opportunity for someone’s link to go viral on their site as not very important to their site. Are you kidding, Koenig? Speculation is everything that Serial was about and that made it great.

But one of the things I think people thought most about Serial is what it would have been like in their high school. For most of the people I know, that’s a time roughly contemporary to the murder depicted in Serial, and I think that made Serial really interesting to a lot of my friends and to me. I can’t imagine loaning my car to anyone, certainly not someone who wasn’t a close friend, so the idea that Jay and Adnan barely knew each other seems ridiculous. For some Serial listeners, an era of cell phones at school is incomprehensible, because cell phones came later. And for some Serial listeners, many who I know, they can’t imagine using a cell phone so little as Jay/Adnan used Adnan’s cell that fateful day in January 1999. There were only, what, 29 calls? Today, there may be no calls at all, or a couple, but there would be about 110 texts, plus Google searches, Angry Birds games, and other unending streams of data pinging away at those cell towers like a GPS tracker of the phone’s movements.

Which gets us to the reality of the panopticon that seems to exist in modern society. I don’t have a smartphone, but I acquiesced to get a cellphone in late 2010. And while I don’t interrupt live conversations to use it and I don’t play games on it or surf the web on it, I sure do text a lot and have it on me most all of the time. And I am considered one of the most luddite, anti-cell people anyone knows. My fellow hold-outs, Russ and Gris, now carry cells, and Russ’ at least is a smartphone too. Sure, my parents and a lot of other people in their generation still lack the cell trackers, but I think we can safely say we’re a couple decades from everyone in society having a perpetual GPS tracker in their pocket. And functionally, we’re just about there already.

Despite what some aspects of Serial may seem to imply, it’s hard to get away with murder. But it’s really hard to get away with if you have a device in your pocket constantly telling the world where you are. And it’s really hard to get away with when everyone has such a device in their pocket, a device they’re expected to use regularly to tell a wider swath of the world where they are specifically, to discuss their feelings, to respond to texts, and to dial 911 at the first sign of danger.

This is the biggest single reason why murder rates are falling everywhere in the country, regardless of whether they have a “three strikes” law or not, regardless of whether their police force is slaughtering innocents who brandish sticks and toy guns or not, regardless of whether there’s broken-windows enforcement in the district or virtually no enforcement. It’s because the technology let loose in the society is creating a community that is sufficiently integrated to police itself, or at least do so against the most dramatic of crimes. It’s made the task of abducting or killing someone vastly harder. And that’s a really good thing.

What it hasn’t prevented, however, is the kind of murder that has experienced a huge uptick during this time of generally crashing murder rates. Which are mass-murder sprees that end in the suicide of the person perpetrating them. Now there are a whole bunch of other reasons for that uptick that I’ve discussed previously in the wake of some of these mass-shootings, but I think it’s telling that basically no one, except I guess the Aurora shooter, even tries to get away with them. Mass-shootings almost universally end in suicide because the idea of getting away with it is totally ludicrous. (And also, notably, that a lot of these are committed by people who have given up on life for one or another reason already.) And it’s not just because a mass-shooting leaves a particularly large trail of evidence, though it does. It’s because any murder leaves behind enough instant evidence that it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone getting away with it, so why bother?

This is part of what has fueled so much outrage at the police officers who the state has failed to hold accountable for their murders of unarmed individuals. Because the same kind of evidence, of recording, of instant awareness of these murders has existed for police-committed crimes as well. But instead of being used by law enforcement to bring the perpetrators to justice, it is ignored in favor of solidarity among those in authority. I discussed this at length a month ago, so no need to review. But the particular outrage is so high because it contrasts so fully with what happens to other murder cases. The mountain of technological evidence is used to throw the book at regular citizens, but to protect and obfuscate when the perpetrators are the police.

Which brings us to the only real danger of the death of privacy: asymmetry. This is hackneyed territory for me at this point, but it bears repeating when people cite the panopticon as an agent of oppression rather than protection. The problem with publicity of information, whereabouts, etc. is when they are wielded asymmetrically. When wielded symmetrically, when there is a similar expectation of publicity among all citizens, whatever their status or rank, and all corporations, governments, and other operating entities in our society, then publicity and a lack of privacy is freeing. When it is wielded asymmetrically, it can easily be a tool of oppression, domination, and disaster.

We’re somewhere in the middle right now with a lot of this. Facebook, Twitter, phone records, and the constant-communication society are functionally pretty symmetrical. Sure, the companies running the systems have a bit more knowledge/power, but not grossly more so, perhaps not even meaningfully more so. And while there are certainly drawbacks and problems with the constant-communication world, it has knitted together a fabric of society that seems so interconnected that it is very hard to be very bad therein, at least if you care about what happens to you afterwards. I truly think this is a wonderful development that is saving tons of lives.

However, there are areas of asymmetry still lurking, bolstered by draconian punishments of whistleblowers levied by both governments and corporations. The police remain utterly immune, as do high-ranking government officials (except when Chelsea Manning or Wikileaks or Edward Snowden can occasionally sneak something out, and then those people have to not care what happens to them as well). And this is problematic and needs correcting. But the correction should not be to push us all back into the shadows where murderers can hide and no one knows where we went. The solution, rather, is to push everyone out into the sunlight where we can evaluate the quality of everyone’s actions. Those in power ought most closely be scrutinized. If we push for this rather than hand-wringing about a “privacy” that we couldn’t currently retrieve if we wanted to (without an irreversible knockout EMP, at least), then everyone might stop murdering people, even the police.


Password Protection and Self-Defeating Security

Categories: A Day in the Life, Know When to Fold 'Em, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

This country has a bit of a problem with a false sense of security.

This just in!  The US has been torturing people!

This just in! The US has been torturing people!

So-called revelations have been abounding this week over the extent and nature of some specific acts of torture enacted by the CIA during the Bush administration on behalf of the United States. The torture ranged from breaking limbs to making people pass out to threatening sexual violence against them and their families to threatening death to actually killing them. The country appears to be taking this as news, which itself is kind of news to me, but I guess when I can be chattily accosted by a fellow tournament player about how we “finally got some of those Democrats out” and “it’s crazy how many Socialists are still in government,” it’s pretty clear I have no fingers at all on the pulse of America. His unironic earnestness about what he assumed would be my shared opinion that Mary Landrieu, champion of the Keystone XL Pipeline, Big Energy, and all-around moderate conservative is a Socialist convinced me that I would actually give him a heart attack (he was of a certain vulnerable age) if I declared, honestly, that I am an actual Socialist the likes of which would make Bernie Sanders blush.

No one is really making much of a connection today between the CIA torture stories and the other news that I can only imagine they are trying to displace, namely the matter of the police slaughtering the unarmed (usually Black men) in our society. The connection seems obvious to me, but then the links between various instances of institutional violence always seem pretty clear and traceable from my vantage. We are a people become so obsessed with danger and threats that we have come to see everything as a threat. Or, far more to the point, everyone as a threat. With the increasingly vague excuse of PTSD from 9/11, we trot out our fear like some sort of endless warrant for the abuse and summary execution of anyone we find remotely disconcerting. So quickly forgetting that this is a narrative as old as nations themselves, that fear of the damage from the last war or major attack brought popular support to Hitler’s expansion, Stalin’s purges, Napoleon’s conquests, Robespierre’s terror, and probably every other significant abrogation of rights and life in history. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, and dehumanization are not the products of a society that feels comfortable or stable in itself. They are the products of a society desperate to establish a sense of security through any, preferably rabid, means necessary.

This is an already rutted road in my writing, the discussion of how fear can galvanize evil and how absurd our fears truly are. Even how a different kind of fear motivates our binary lose-lose party system. It’s hard to say how much is a product of American exceptionalism specifically as I have come to believe that no one nation has ever been so good at convincing people of its nobility while spreading iniquity. Or how much of it is just the innate exceptionalism that comes with being a temporal being stuck in a single place in the world, adopting the loyalties and perspectives so tightly bound to the country of one’s origin and rearing. Maybe German exceptionalism and Soviet exceptionalism and French exceptionalism and even Mongol exceptionalism or Hunnic exceptionalism (and certainly Roman exceptionalism) fueled all the atrocities of days gone by. Maybe we aren’t special at all, even in our ability to make ourselves feel more special than the rules of history and power.

But there is perhaps a lighter-hearted metaphor to be found mired in the literal torture and killing our country’s authorities daily enact on the alleged behalf of our safety. One that has also graced the news lately, with head-shaking denotations of the obvious incompetence it implies. Namely, the failure of several institutions to keep passwords in any way safe from hacking, often in the hilarious form of passwords being stored in easy-to-find files named “password”.

You can read all about the story, which was everywhere last week, here, for example.

The problem made most people immediately hit their heads into walls and rush to take part in the bashing of Sony, its IT department, and other gleeful pilings-on so common in our tear-down culture. But no one seemed to raise the issue that seemed more obvious to me, which itself is an issue I’ve been meaning to blog about already anyway. Which is that our current system of Internet security and its attendant passwords are completely unusable by people. They are decently well designed, I suppose, for computers, but as I learn a little bit more each day in the poker world, humans are not computers.

To do most anything on the Internet these days, you need a login for the specific site on which you will be doing that thing. Every site has a different requirement for username protocols, including especially the fact that each login must be unique for that site. And most every site has a different set of requirements for the length, diversity, and criteria of passwords which are handed out. For a clear example, some sites require that a symbol (any key other than a recognizable letter or number) be used at least once in the password, while many others disallow any use of such symbols in passwords. Many sites cap the password length at 12 characters while others require 12 characters as a minimum.

It's not quite this bad yet, but it's close.

It’s not quite this bad yet, but it’s close.

The result is something any even rudimentary Internet user is familiar with – the accumulation of a wide range of relatively diverse passwords. While one could get away with having a few variations on one basic theme as a default password, many stipulations make this practice of streamlining the variance in password requirements impossible. Many sites, especially academic e-mail addresses and an increasing number of more trivial sites, require periodic changing of one’s password and, more perniciously, the banishment of any past precise password after change. Rutgers required this every 3-6 months. Additionally, routine hacks at various retailers and larger threats like the Heartbleed virus render whole swaths of traditionally used username/password combinations void, or at least vulnerable. And thus end-users are constantly barraged by requests or requirements that they change their passwords at various sites while leaving the login screen and username unchanged.

This last bit is important because, in my experience, the only prayer a human actually has of remembering all the various username/password combinations for all their various sites is to have some sort of visual cue or trigger that one associates with that particular page. If I see the logo of a particular bank every time I’m typing some combination, I’m more likely to remember that when logging in as opposed to looking at my GMail login screen. But if I have to change these passwords, then my memory is actually working against me because I have multiple memories of multiple username/password combinations for the same site, meaning that chaos ensues and I end up not remembering my password.

Which wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t the additional “safety” feature of locking the account to most anything one is attempting to log in to after 3-5 failed attempts at memory. Something that I have triggered at almost every password-change-mandatory site ever, often multiple times. Which then requires the creation of a (wait for it) even newer unique never-before-at-that site password after one has copy/pasted the string of ridiculous alphanumerics generated by the corrective e-mail prompted by the little “Forgot Password” clicky.

There are basically three ways around this conundrum of modern living that do not involve avoiding the creation of Internet logins:
(1) Store a list of passwords somewhere.
(2) Have your browser memorize your passwords and keep them for you.
(3) Never log out.

The problems with all of these should be obvious. (1) is exactly what Sony did, the problem being that the computer was the easiest place to store the passwords since paper is a dying medium. And paper is vulnerable to loss, oversight, destruction, and theft, making a computer seem theoretically more secure, even if it is hackable. Is it more absurd to travel with one’s little piece of paper or to e-mail or text oneself information? All of these are vulnerable. Only one’s memory is truly secure, but that’s faulty, and I guess isn’t secure either if someone is willing to torture the few passwords you remember out of you.

(3) is impractical, though many people try this for a period of time. But both (2) and (3) have the fatal flaw that anyone successfully hacking your machine can not only steal your password, but could immediately change it and log you out, basically locking you out of that account forever. Which may seem far-fetched until you realize that the entire point of having a password system in the first place is to prevent just that outcome. So either they’re hacking you or they aren’t. Either you have to fear your password getting taken over and this leading to some level of identity theft via login, or it’s all overblown, in which case 1234 or password should suffice.

Granted, some sophisticated systems do prompt you via text or some other more direct means than the Internet if you suddenly change your password and your confirmation e-mail address, which is good. But there’s still a lot of damage that can be done pretty quickly there, especially if the account is for your bank holdings or a particularly high-profile Twitter feed. Thus, the entire process of having Internet passwords becomes a quixotic paradox much like voting. The only time it really matters, it can’t possibly matter. Unless you have the most sophisticated memory for passwords ever.

But then I got a password for CounterWallet so I could hold MepCoin, as discussed in my weekly podcast‘s 131st episode. And that was just a string of random, unmemorizable consecutive words that I was told would never be retrievable ever again if lost, stolen, damaged, or forgotten. Which required that I write it down somewhere, which pretty much had to be somewhere electronic to be really permanent in any way, which makes it perfectly vulnerable to hacking. And while I may have a mere one million MepCoin attached to it (real world value: $0 at the moment), people use this to store things like BitCoin and DogeCoin and things that are theoretically supposed to supplant the mighty dollar someday. Which just mandated that I fall into a basic security trap that proves the totally illusory nature of security.

I am tempted here to pivot to a rant against privacy, but passwords may be the last bastion where privacy actually seems to serve a reasonable purpose. In that, without privacy of passwords at a minimum, all bank information for everyone would become public, and we can’t exactly just trust each other. This is the rare instance where a total symmetry of information rewards the worst actors, not the best, and that seems problematic. Yeah, maybe we shouldn’t have private property unequally held at all (told you I’d make Bernie Sanders blush), but we should probably at least have the right to correctly identify our electronic correspondence with others as actually being from us.

In the meantime, it’s pretty clear that our false sense of security is the biggest thing keeping us unsafe. It’s bad enough to torture our alleged enemies into hating us all the more (or for the first time). But to truly believe our own lies about this stuff is as bad as posting our eponymous file called passwords publicly for all to see. We’re just making total fools of ourselves, as anyone outside the self-delusional exceptionalism we embrace can plainly see.


My Public Ballot, 2014 Louisiana Run-Off Edition

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Quick Updates, Tags: , ,

One of many reasons not to vote for Mary Landrieu.

One of many reasons not to vote for Mary Landrieu.

This is probably the most inconsequential election I’ve ever taken part in, especially given that my primary act was to abstain from the headline race because (a) it literally forced me to vote for a Democrat or a Republican and (b) Mary Landrieu is even more pathetic and right-wing than the average Democrat, which is saying something. I actually solicited advice from my Facebook friends this morning to see if they could come up with a reason I would find compelling to not abstain from the Senate run-off, but I was pretty skeptical to begin with and most advocates invoked the ever-trotted-out “lesser of two evils”. Bleh.

In any case, I had missed the initial election this cycle (with its 14 ballot referenda!) because Louisiana puts a 30-day waiting period on voting (but no waiting period at all on firearm purchases) after one has established residence. And I bothered to vote because there were still two down-ticket local run-offs and a bond issue for whatever is left of the public school system in New Orleans. So after a little online research (way easier than in New Jersey, a state that seems to do its best to suppress any possible voter knowledge whatsoever), I devised the following votes:

U.S. Senator: abstain
Judge Civil District Court, Domestic Section 2 For Reg. and Unexp. Term : Janet Ahern
Judge Juvenile Court, Section E: Desiree Cook-Calvin
PW School Board – 4.97 Mills – SB – 10 Yrs.: Yes

Honestly, all of the candidates for judge seemed really reasonable, but the opponent of the person I voted for in juvenile court talked a lot about spending less money on the system, which in Section E mostly concerns wards of the state, orphans, and the abused and neglected. Not exactly something I support skimping on. And Ahern just seemed like she had more of a coherent plan for her approach to divorce court than her opponent. Meanwhile, bond issues for schools are pretty much no-brainers, even though 4.97 mills is a whopping half a hundredth of a cent. (Yes, I know this gets multiplied by the value of the house to determine the property tax.)

When we have a referendum on an overhaul of police procedures, then I’ll really feel like voting matters.

Past Public Ballots:


Cop Immunity

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

Your law enforcement officials at work!

Your law enforcement officials at work!

When I was in high school, I devised a thought experiment that I discussed extensively with my friends. It was called “Cop Immunity”. My question was whether someone would take the deal of having total immunity to all interactions of all kinds with the police in the rest of their individual lives. Police as a general force would still exist in society and change the incentives of others, but if one took the Cop Immunity deal, then they would have no further positive or negative interaction with oneself. One could no longer call 911 or be arrested. This would be a one-shot, one-instance deal, just for the person being asked the question and would have zero impact on anyone else.

The results were roughly split. Even at my elite private high school which I attended on financial aid, a good number of people were willing to accept the trade-off. And it wasn’t so they could go on a spree of committing crimes, though certainly the ability to exceed the speed limit with impunity was discussed at length. We boiled the question down to whether a given individual had more to fear or dislike from police interactions than they did to gain from them, or to feel protected by them. I always said I would take Cop Immunity in a heartbeat.

This, of course, was years before Albuquerque became a shooting range for the local police. It was before the killings of Oscar Grant and Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It was before we had a consciousness that police were regularly doling out the death penalty for all manner of crimes or the mere suspicion of same. I can only imagine that re-running the Cop Immunity survey now would poll around 70% at the Academy and upwards of 95% in most racially diverse and/or non-white communities around the country. We, as a nation, are losing faith in the very notion of law enforcement officials as anything other than belligerents.

The reasons should be obvious, but the largest single factor completes the double-entrendre of this post’s title. If you Google the phrase cop immunity, you’ll turn up countless descriptions of the police themselves being immune to any sort of punishment or sanction which they feel obliged to regularly dole out. The police are not only the law, but they are above it, prompting the age-old query of “who guards the guardians?” The entire notion of police forces, especially armed and dangerous ones, is that the threat of accountability and enforcement will inspire better behavior than people relying on their own judgment. Yet this principle is immediately abandoned when it comes to police actions themselves. Those who decide the fate of police officers accused of wrongdoing are almost always on the same police force as those accused, or part of the same system which views itself as unified on the same team with the same goal. Decades of politicians styling themselves as “tough on crime” have corroded the checks and oversights necessary to create a sense of accountability within the police forces of America’s cities. And the cumulative result is that it is harder to be indicted for police actions than it is to get out of Gitmo. When the police take action, there is no external disincentive lingering in their mind about what might befall them if they cross the line of excessive force.

Now, yes, sure, there are probably good cops out there. My father always raised me with an awareness that those who became cops and those who became criminals were often cut from similar cloth and that it could sometimes be arbitrary which side of the line they wound up on. There are similar temptations of both positions – the hunger for freedom and power over others, the tendency toward violence, the comfort with tense situations and intimidation. Nonetheless, tons of cops are probably sincere and trying their best. But tons of people are too. The underlying assumption of a society with a police force is that this is not enough. We must also have hard and violent disincentives to bad behavior to convince everyone to abide by the principles we find acceptable in a just society, so our assumptions go. Yet the bias has gotten so extreme toward those enforcing this standard that no one (until this year’s eruption of protest and dissent) seems to care to apply that standard to those doing the enforcement. The point is that it is not an innate criticism of the police to say that they require the same disincentives to bad action that we burden the rest of society with. It is just an application of the same basic principle that got us to create a law enforcement infrastructure in the first place.

Indeed, though, given the power imbalances between police and normal citizens, it is easily arguable and possibly obvious that the police require greater disincentives to bad action and abuse than do the general public. Power corrupts, after all, and the feeling of imposing one’s will on mere lay people day after day seems to have the cumulative effect of encouraging abuses. Rather than the status quo of extreme protections and perpetual benefit-of-the-doubt being afforded police officers, it seems much more sensible that they should be subject to much stricter scrutiny and examination than those they are trying to police. After all, they enjoy every structural advantage. Unlike a scared suspect, they can call for backup. They have bulletproof vests and, often, tanks and armored vehicles. They will get the bias of the general public (possibly until now) in the retelling of the story. They are seen as representing the state, representing the “good guys”, having the legal and moral authority. Any system hoping to make these people capable of doing actual good in the world would consistently hold them to an incredibly high standard.

The counter-arguments I see to this most frequently, either among my few conservative friends on Facebook or in horrifically described terms by some Southern poker players, are about the rule of law. The assumption underlying all of these arguments is that if police are charged with enforcing the law, they are automatically right and that anyone who has run afoul of their enforcement must be a criminal. Like so many tough-on-crime politicians, they present the perspective that we have nothing to fear from those who are merely trying to keep society safe and orderly. And everything to fear from those hell-bent on disrupting this order.

There are numerous problems with this line of argumentation, but the biggest one is that it is a non sequitir for justifying the kinds of actions being defended by cop-supporters in 2014. I can grant every part of that argument – that everyone who gets shot or injured by the police is a willful active dangerous criminal (of course this is absurd, but go with me for a second) – and still find the police to be unforgivably corrupt and overly violent. Because to make this argument valid, you have to believe in the death penalty for shoplifting. You have to believe in the death penalty for selling individual cigarettes tax-free. You have to believe in applying the death penalty, or an extreme amount of physical pain and torment (something that actually isn’t a sanctioned punishment for anything in the theory of our society), to every single crime. And, of course, to meting out the death penalty on the grounds of suspicion of that crime, with the responding officer as judge, jury, executioner, and pardoner of the executioner.

Not only the mainstream media and rabid conservatives, but several moderate friends of mine (on Facebook) have offered discussions of Michael Brown that mitigate the death penalty enforced on him. He was “bad news” or a “thug” or “did wrong” or “wasn’t perfect”. I don’t know if we know enough about him to say any of that, but even if he was a serial robber at gunpoint and was raging around the neighborhood, show me where we justify an immediate and singly decided death penalty for that. Let’s assume he was a terrible criminal who had harmed thousands. Still not something any state in the union would exact the death penalty for. And having a publicly known standard that police have the right (through lack of criticism or formal sanction) to enforce the death penalty on suspects at will for any crime at all is to create and codify a police state.

The truth is, though, that we can’t even grant the basic arguments that still lead up to this shocking discovery that America is simply a police state. Because most of these people who run afoul of murderous police officers are not even criminals. And those who are tend to be criminals in the trivial way in which we are all criminals. The fact is that the United States of America has an utterly infinite and unknowable legal code, one that includes ignorance of the law being no defense. At any given moment, all of us, every single one of us, are violating countless statutes and aspects of these standards. Notable ones are obvious, like speeding and jaywalking, which are much more about protecting the safety and health of our community than, say, the prohibition on selling cigarettes without charging sales tax. But the house or apartment in which you live violates many aspects of code for which you have not reported it. Maybe you use the technically illegal drugs that everyone you know seems to use. Or you are aware of such use and have failed to report it. You are aware of illegal immigrants to the country and have failed to turn them in. You have given some change to the homeless panhandler on the street or fed the meter for someone who is about to get ticketed. You have let your own meter expire, or failed to pay it for five minutes. You have failed to report your Internet and out-of-state purchases in itemized detail on your state tax return.

These are all crimes. We are all criminals.

All of us. I defy one of you to search the last year of your life in America and declare it entirely free of criminal acts.

This is why so many people see this as a racial issue, in whole or in part, and why the African American community in particular is rightfully outraged. The fact that we are all criminals is trivial and should be obvious. There is no we/they dichotomy between those who uphold and skirt the law. That argument is the propaganda levied by those wishing to justify the actions of a police state. And the fact is that while whites and those in affluent neighborhoods tend to get a free pass for their criminality, minorities and those in poorer neighborhoods tend to get a rigid and thorough enforcement. Immunity to law enforcement is an extension of white privilege and wealth privilege, where people in the favored categories enjoy less scrutiny and far fewer instant death penalties if they do come under suspicion.

The reasons for this are manifold and complex, stemming from a variety of influences in our nation and its history. There is a lot of individual and institutional racism. There are heavily promoted narratives which the media and politicians extoll daily, narratives about who is dangerous and who is the “criminal element” and what parts of town are unsafe and the desperation of the poor and the underclass. There is just the tiniest bit of truth in the reality that property crimes are more likely to be committed by those without property and those who society has continually oppressed remain without property and little kernels of this reality create a massively inflated fuel for self-justification of the principle that informs bias and profiling. But this is also just one part of the story in the world in which we are all criminals. Minorities are imprisoned vastly more than others and a massive number of these incarcerations are due to drug crimes. Drug crimes are not disproportionately committed by minorities, but they are vastly disproportionately enforced on them. This suits a narrative that society likes to tell itself about justice and safety and danger, but it’s just the delusion of an unjust and biased system trying to get itself to sleep at night.

It’s not a coincidence that most of these cases of police murder with impunity have African American victims, any more than it is that such a vastly disproportionate portion of the prison population are African American men. We have a seemingly inexhaustible source of narratives for the “Scary Black Man” in American society, an endless appetite for this concept in the news, campus police reports, trials, courtroom dramas, movies, and nearly every other cultural influence that exists. Police exist in this world too and react accordingly. And even if a cop or his police department are not overtly racist (most of them do overtly profile and are overtly racist), when the standard that society gives that cop is “act with impunity, trust your fear, you will never face punishment for enforcing the death penalty on a suspect”, then the consequences are all too predictable.

I cannot sufficiently emphasize that it does not matter whether or not these people are criminals. We are all criminals. The extent to which we are subject to the whims of the police state depends on whether the police are trained to fear us as particular individuals. Every one of us could be arrested tomorrow for something and then face the rabbit hole of the state’s overwhelming bias and support of the enforcers.

Your legal standards do not matter. They need to be changed and rewritten. Just as law has been shifted to facilitate corporate greed and impunity to dominate individual citizens, it has similarly been written to codify a police state that will never hold cops accountable. That needs to be thrown out and revamped. And until it is, every single instance of a cop getting away with murder only emboldens the confidence of every other scared or malignant cop to enforce the instant death penalty at his or her will. For a democracy to function, it cannot be a police state. There must be police accountability. Until a high profile murderous police officer is not only charged, but actually punished, this will only escalate.

As will the justified outrage of the society falling under the police state’s bootheel. It is the consequence not only of this ongoing series of injustices, but also of creating a legal standard which criminalizes everyone and then selectively enforces the law based on fear and bias. If this doesn’t bother you, it’s only because you are lucky enough to somehow enjoy your own version of Cop Immunity. And you are too unfeeling to care for those who don’t.


Why No One is Voting

Categories: A Day in the Life, Call and Response, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

Get it?

Get it?

Turns out my Facebook feed is the exception. No one is voting in the United States. According to the New York Times, the elections earlier this month set a 72-year low for voter turnout, with 36.3% voting. (For context, Catalonia’s recent non-binding independence vote was widely disregarded as totally irrelevant because it garnered only 41.6% turnout.) The NYT excoriated this turnout in its Veteran’s Day editorial, concluding somewhat baselessly that “The reasons are apathy, anger and frustration at the relentlessly negative tone of the campaigns.”

Now I agree that the turnout is appallingly low. However, blaming negative ads is only a small part of the picture as to why voting seems utterly irrelevant to people these days. The much larger issue, which may be what they mean by “apathy [and] anger”, is that there are no real choices being offered in the elections. The two major parties are increasingly indistinguishable and care about their own careers and self-preservation far more than any sort of issue or agenda. And most people have been beaten into the belief that third-parties are irrelevant and a waste. So you know what saves you from all this frustration? Just not voting.

After all, as a Princeton study concluded earlier this year, the United States is no longer really a democracy. For all our self-aggrandizing hype about the principles this country was founded on, we no longer adhere to anything like a recognizable government of the people. So-called “special interests” are really the only interests that lawmakers find relevant and the only policies worth pursuing for all but a tiny handful are those which pave the path to further re-election.

There are manifold and complex proofs available of this reality. I already discussed last week how the referenda that passed in red states demonstrate a far more progressive electorate than is reflected in the Republican landslide. But most people are not thinking about going to the polls to support state-wide initiatives, so turnout remains low. Although, while the NYT editorial tries to draw a link between ballot access (e.g. vote-by-mail and other turnout-improving efforts) and turnout, there seems to be a stronger link between major initiatives and turnout.

Only seven states (Maine, Wisconsin, Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota, and Iowa) had turnout over 50%. Of them, three had huge, widely publicized statewide ballot initiatives. Oregon was voting on marijuana legalization (plus six other referenda), Colorado on a so-called personhood amendment (plus three other referenda), and Alaska on both marijuana and raising the minimum wage (plus an additional referendum). Maine had seven initiative referenda on the ballot, although six of them were standard-issue bonds and one was about (no kidding) bear hunting. Wisconsin had just one question, about creating a transportation fund. And, admittedly, the last two, Minnesota and Iowa had no referenda.

But South Dakota (10th in turnout, 44.6%) had 3 referenda, including the minimum wage question. North Dakota (12th, 44.1%) had 8 and Louisiana (13th, 43.9%) a whopping 14. Meanwhile, the seven states in turnout below 30% (Indiana, Texas, Utah, New York, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Oklahoma) averaged 2.1 referenda each, below the national average of 2.9. And none of them were particularly major or significant.

There’s certainly some correlation here, but I’ll admit it’s not an open-and-shut case. After all, there’s Minnesota and Iowa near the top of the charts with no referenda, plus New Hampshire (11th, 48.8%) with 0. Major referenda will definitely bring people out to the polls, but it doesn’t seem to be the only driver of voting interest. So what’s going on in these other states?

Let’s start with Maine, because it’s at the top of the charts. And while, yes, bear hunting is a pivotal issue and bond issues are always popular, the seven referenda here are a little weak in content compared to the hefty measures passed by Alaska and Oregon. Well the additional thing that stands out about Maine is that 8.4% of its gubernatorial vote went to an Independent, third only to Alaska (3rd, 55.3%, 3 referenda) and Wyoming (27th, 39.1%, 1 referendum), who split 8.6% of the vote among two third-party candidates. Alaska elected an Independent as Governor with 48.1%; an additional 5.5% went to even fringier Independent candidates. 4.7% went Independent in Colorado’s Governor race, 5.5% in Oregon, 5.4% in Minnesota, and 3.6% in Iowa.

Among those voting for Senate as well, the numbers are high for third-parties and Independents in the high-turnout states as well. While Maine didn’t have any third-party candidates, Alaska went 5.6% third-party, Colorado 5.5%, Oregon 6.8%, Minnesota 3.9%, and Iowa 4.1%. So there seems to be a decent correlation between strong independent voting and turnout, especially where it’s combined with referenda.

The big exceptions to this that stand out are Wisconsin (2nd, 56.9%, 1 referendum) and New Hampshire. Wisconsin notched just 1.2% for two third-party candidates in the gubernatorial race and didn’t run a Senate campaign. Granted, Wisconsin’s Governor race was perhaps the most talked-about in the nation with embattled and controversial incumbent Scott Walker defending his office. And New Hampshire had 0% for third parties (do they ban them from running in the general election?) in both their Governor and Senate races. But to be fair, they had both of those races and among the closest races across the nation in both, with the margins of each election below 5%. So their turnout seems explicable, if not following reasons for high turnout in other states. After all, Indiana (50th, 28.0%) had no state-wide offices on the ballot, nor any referenda.

So people like statewide referenda on major issues, they like third parties, and they like close races that seem to matter. Which helps explain why turnout is so low when the main thing we get to vote on every two years is our local representative in the 435-seat House of Representatives. This is the body that composes half of Congress, which is running at around 11% popularity in this country. And yet 96.4% of House incumbents were re-elected.

There was even a meme about this:

The Internet captures the essence of American voting flaws.

The Internet captures the essence of American voting flaws.

Politifact fact-checked this on Veteran’s Day (apparently that was the day to do political analysis this year) and found the claims largely true, even if Congress’ approval ratings might have surged to 14% just before the election. The re-election rate in the House appears to be even higher, at 96.6%.

This points to a well-known phenomenon that everyone hates the House in general, but kind of loves their representative. Something that I just learned has been dubbed Fenno’s paradox, for the original coiner in 1978. The main reason for this, obviously, is intensely gerrymandered districts that are shaped like all manner of absurdity in order to make safe districts for the major parties. These districts destroy voter interest because it’s a foregone conclusion who will win, incidentally making it easier for corporations in those districts to give to only one candidate because they know who’ll take the race. And in the two-party-or-bust belief structure, Democratic districts still like checking the D-box and Republican districts the R-box. After all, straight-party voting is still a literal time-saving checkbox in many states.

A secondary reason well below gerrymandering probably has to do with pork-barreling, that people remember the project that their Congressperson brought home to their district, like a manufacturing contract or a military base. This of course relies on the idea that voters are paying attention to the fine print of Congressional bills which is not bloody likely. But admittedly this is probably part of a re-election flyer that some House members mail out using their free-mail privilege from DC, so it probably influences some people.

Confoundingly, this is the New York Times’ solution in the wake of all this information about disastrously low turnout:

Showing up at the polls is the best way to counter the oversized influence of wealthy special interests, who dominate politics as never before. But to encourage participation, politicians need to stop suppressing the vote, make the process of voting as easy as possible, and run campaigns that stand for something.

The first sentence is one of the most willfully unaware statements I have ever read in American print. Yes, wealthy special interests dominate politics as never before. But what on Earth is showing up going to do to combat that? Unless an army of non-voters decide to show up and all support the same third-party candidate, no amount of voting is going to overturn special interests’ chokehold on American government. Both parties have been bought and paid for. Special interests donate extensively to both parties. If you show up to the polls with the intent to beat back special interests and then pull the lever for either a Democrat or a Republican, you’re just kidding yourself.

The second sentence is more tolerable, if a bit trite. Yes, voter suppression (by definition) lowers turnout. And making voting easier is a good idea, though we’re still a long way from people making Election Day a national holiday or anything like that which would actually help. But there’s something really insidious in that last part of the sentence. “campaigns that stand for something.” This is not the problem. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign stood for all sorts of things (and, notably, drove voter turnout way up). But his Presidency has stood for the exact opposite, most notably in continuing and expanding the most draconian of Bush militarism and deportation. So I guess the NYT is kind of right, that campaigns that make claims get people in the voting booth. But that seems like less than half the battle. The issue is having politicians who make their time in office stand for something, and that something being beyond what special interests want.

I don’t really think anything can save the American “democracy” at this point, realistically, which is why I think most people aren’t voting. But if you want to make recommendations for what will help, it seems more efforts at direct democracy through ballot initiatives that bypass elected officials are good. Stronger third-party candidates that people take seriously are good (can’t stress enough that Maine and Alaska were #1 and #3 in turnout, both above 55%, and both had their gubernatorial vote swung [or won] by an Independent). And making races close and contested helps.

There’s really not much point in increasing ballot access if the only people they’re going to vote for are the same major party candidates that have already been bought by a power with much more influence than the mere voter.


American Voters Actually Progressive: The Case Against Representative Democracy

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

None of these people would ever get elected to represent the people, even if their views actually do represent the people.  That appears to be the problem.

None of these people would ever get elected to represent the people, even if their views actually do represent the people. That appears to be the problem.

There has been a ton of negativity spewing out of the wake of Tuesday’s election, especially from all my liberal Democratic friends. I get it. My posts lately have been pretty negative, talking about how fear motivates voting and how there is a lot of unnecessary doom and gloom about the Republican Senate which will, ultimately, not change much, if anything.

But is that really the whole story? Is that what the midterm elections of 2014 have to tell this country?

This cartoon has been a really popular summation of the feelings of a lot of people I know:

The Internet loved this cartoon.  It also tells me it's by John Jonik.

The Internet loved this cartoon. It also tells me it’s by John Jonik.

The assumption here is that if people really understood the Republican agenda, they’d never vote for it. I think it also broadly misses the point that the Democratic agenda is largely similar. Issues like surveillance, Internet regulation, the deregulation of literally everything else, and a pro-corporate agenda (sometimes under the guise of “helping the economy”) find no or virtually no difference between the parties that comprise nearly all of our elected representatives. No one is speaking out for the poor, for the bombed, for the people who really need help.

And yet there is another story to the midterm elections. It is not just a sweeping Republican landslide that gives them control of both houses of Congress. It is the story of cities and states, some of them as liberal as Alaska, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Arkansas, who all overwhelmingly supported an increase in the minimum wage. This is not an issue that Democrats have traditionally championed or particularly endorsed, though some are coming around to it slowly. This is an issue that is to the left of both parties in the United States right now, yet enjoys overwhelming support in hard-core red conservative states.

Or then we have the legalization of marijuana passing in, again, Alaska, joining Oregon, DC, Washington, and Colorado. Yes, three of those places are extremely left-wing areas, but Colorado just turned their Democratic Senate seat red and nearly elected a Republican Governor as well. No major party nor any of its candidates are endorsing marijuana legalization – it is far to the left of even the most fringe Senator or Governor. (Okay, I guess one Oregonian Senator supports it officially. One. There’s also a Socialist in the Senate, so one is the loneliest number.) How can these red and reddish states be supporting something that is so radically leftist that no politician will touch it? Are American voters that stupid?

No, they’re just upset and don’t know what to do.

When people are upset, if they vote, they tend to go to the polls to try to protest, to vote against people as I discussed a couple days ago. This is why midterm elections in modern America always go against the sitting President, especially in their second term. This is why Hamas won the second round of parliamentary elections in Palestine. Everyone in the West freaked out and said everyone’s becoming a terrorist! Not so. There were two major parties – Fatah and Hamas – and people were upset with Fatah’s governance. So they tried the alternative. This is how two-party systems work (“work”): people see-saw back and forth between the parties when they’re unhappy with what’s going on.

And people are unhappy. They hate Obama, they really hate Congress, they feel extreme ennui with the fake recovery that’s only benefiting the corporate elites, they feel media-fueled fear of ridiculous things. Voter dissatisfaction is massive. Very few people even bothered with voting, an even larger expression of angst and disengagement. Where they did, third parties and outcasts did pretty well.

But for those who still believe in voting, the party machines have done a good job of convincing people that their only two choices are (D) and (R), no matter what the policies represented by those parties reflect. And enough people feel some loyalty to that system that they keep going out and slogging for their folks and against the others, no matter what the consequences may be. Even most of the youngest voters don’t believe third parties will ever be a credible threat to the party machines, so they go out and flip back and forth between them and wonder why they never get any happier.

The problem is the parties, sure, but it’s also the people. Not the voters, actually – what they are doing with extremely limited options truly makes sense. It’s the politicians. It’s the age-old reality that when you have people who choose to seek power and advancement, they are particularly ill-suited to wield it. And when you add corporate capitalism in the 21st century to the mix, plus Citizens United and the unbridled principles of corporate personhood and money as speech, you get a real disaster. You get a “representative” body that is completely beholden to the highest bidder, utterly for sale, and completely out of touch with the actual wishes of the average voter or real person in the society. It’s not a coincidence that most major corporations donate liberally to both sides of the aisle and have a tendency to pick winners, nor that Congress is unable to agree on any policy most of the time until it’s time for a corporate bailout or a new war, in which case everyone trips over each other to fall in line. The corporations are buying our government and the government’s policies, in both parties, have drifted far to the right of where the people actually stand.

So when you look at these results, it’s not schizophrenia or insanity that you are seeing among voters. When they have actual issues to vote on, they skew radical. When they are facing elected representatives, they usually just try to muddle through with the evil they’ve tried less recently. Or, if they like a dynamic and popular figure in their town, usually their House representative, they keep sending them back. After all, most polls show that everyone despises the House as a whole, but kinda loves their own personal representative. Not, mind you, because they actually represent their interests or views, usually, but because they’re familiar and personable and local.

It should also probably be noted (before I get angry rebuttals to my thesis) that staunchly social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion are subject to fundamentalist Christian rallying for popular referenda and probably skew the other way. Even California passed Prop 8 when I lived there and the fundamentalist base has a tendency to get really fired up about making social laws look more like the Old Testament, or whatever their current reading of it is that day. Although I’m not sure these referenda against same-sex marriage would even pass in five years – the majority of the American populous now supports same-sex marriage and as soon as the Millennials fully replace the WWII generation at the polls, I think that fate will be sealed. That said, thank goodness for courts in the system of checks-and-balances for constantly correcting extreme social conservatism.

What’s the overall point, though? It’s that representative democracy has failed us. Yes, I know the founding fathers intended representative democracy and the electoral college to save us from ourselves. You know, the founding fathers who owned slaves and didn’t think of women as people and denied even white men the franchise if they didn’t own land. Yeah, those guys were kind of elitist. And by “kind of,” I mean “completely.” This system has always been designed to deny the people what they want. That denial was just a lot less pernicious when representatives felt really accountable and beholden to voters, rather than to the corporations that paid for said voters.

You don’t need to look a lot further for evidence of the American hunger for strong progressive/radical leadership than the success of the two Obama campaigns. Despite no intention whatsoever to make good on leftist policies, Obama was handily elected twice on the back of staunchly progressive rhetoric. It wasn’t just Democrats who voted for him, either – he needed plenty of Republicans and Independents to champion his cause of hard-core radical change. It’s pretty well documented that his policies have been aligned with or slightly to the right of George W. Bush, especially on foreign policy, and his one allegedly grand progressive vision (Obamacare) used a model that was originally drafted by the Heritage Foundation and first implemented by Mitt Romney. Like so many Republican solutions, it utilized the market as the only mechanism, gave all the power to corporations, and just made it illegal not to have health insurance, a privately-sold product. As progressives who originally opposed individual mandates in healthcare pointed out (before many of them were quieted by having to get in line behind the allegedly leftist President), this is like solving hunger by making it illegal to not buy food on the open market.

Or how about the fact that most people, when surveyed, want foreign aid reduced to about 10% of the budget when it is actually only 1.4% of the budget to begin with. Or that people think wealth distribution should be far more even than even the most radical restructuring would create? Hopefully we’ve all seen this video by now:

16 million people have seen that video. About 42 million Americans voted two days ago. We should run one election cycle where all campaign advertising on television is replaced by showing that video.

The problem is, nothing would change, outside of ballot referenda. Because no politicians on the corporate dole are willing to even begin to discuss wealth distribution issues. No one will touch it, just like other widely popular things like the minimum wage or legalizing pot.

People always say “work within the system” and “change from within” when I bring up issues like this. The problem is that it’s the system itself that doesn’t work. It serves the elites. It was always meant to serve the elites, but even the founding fathers couldn’t have dreamt of corporate titans that would make the wealth of their contemporary kings look like amateur entrepreneurs. The nature of power is to consolidate and snowball and at the point where regulation is handled by a government that is for sale, there is nothing to stem the tide of that momentum.

The best hope we seem to have is for direct democracy. It wouldn’t fix all of our problems – there’s the social conservatism of denying rights to gay couples, women, and immigrants that I discussed above. And direct democracy would still be highly susceptible to a fear-mongering media that convinces us that the next terrorist threat is infinitely more vicious, bloodthirsty, and irrational than the last one, no matter how much American training and weaponry they were given by our previous administration. This wouldn’t solve everything.

But as far as our socio-economic issues, the fundamental structure of a society that is rapidly becoming a kleptocratic corporate slave-state, those would be held off by taking votes straight to the people and skipping the middleman. Because the middleman is always going to look out for himself first, especially as he becomes more powerful and more acclimated to life at the top of the food chain.

I guess there are things within the system we can do in some places. Heck, San Francisco, with the strong support of my old workplace, just passed $15/hour minimum wage! If you live in a place that allows ballot referenda, get radical ones put on the ballot. Honestly, the more radical the better. If you don’t, then work to try to open up more opportunities for direct democracy.

The people are not the problem. The politicians are the problem. And making more people into politicians, with very few rare exceptions, isn’t going to fix things. Nor is just voting out whoever happens to be in at the time, as satisfying as that might feel on Election Day. We need a more radical change to overhaul the direction of the nation and its policies. Fortunately, the people are already pretty radical, at least compared to the parties that allegedly represent us.


What am I Missing?

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

My best guess at what everyone is so worried about, with rebuttals that I find to be pretty clear.

My best guess at what everyone is so worried about, with rebuttals that I find to be pretty clear.

The graphic above is going to be most of what this post is about. So go ahead and peruse that. This is my best guess at the five things that Democrats, liberals, and the other people who mostly comprise the people I have regular contact with are most worried about. My Facebook feed today has been overwhelmed by claims about people wanting to move to Canada, giving up on the country, being depressed, etc. by the Republican Senate landslide that took place yesterday in the US. But I honestly just can’t tell what is actually going to happen that upsets people.

I know that I tend to be pretty radical on the political spectrum and have a tendency to be a single-issue voter/person on the subject of war and peace, which has been pretty much a disaster since I reached the age of majority (or really, since the Carter administration and maybe forever in this nation). But even if you don’t come with me on the “there’s not much difference between the two major parties” issue, what are you worried about? What are you so scared will happen? What liberal causes will fall now that there’s a Republican Senate?

People accuse my politics and support for third parties and “fringe” causes (like not perpetrating violence on other nations with impunity) to be impractical. So let’s talk pragmatics. What’s going to happen that’s so bad? What legislation is going to get passed, or not passed, or repealed that spells a turn for the more conservative as compared to the way things have been throughout the Obama administration?

I really honestly want to know. Because I just don’t see it. Near as I can tell, either party winning a majority in the Senate would have yielded pretty much the same policies that have been implemented for the last four years. Or honestly, not been implemented, because the only thing that the Congress can agree on right now is spending money on wars.

There will be wars. Forget death and taxes, unless we’re talking about the death of Iraqis and Syrians. The only thing we can count on these days is war.

Tell me what I’m missing.


Fear in the Box

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

Artist's rendering of the typical American voter exercising the franchise.

Artist’s rendering of the typical American voter exercising the franchise.

Maybe election day is just a little too soon after Halloween.

We’ve discussed American fear, its prevalence and perniciousness, quite recently. We are afraid of terrorists, even though what they are supposed to wield as a most scary object is, well, fear. We are afraid of a disease that has killed fewer Americans than lightning. We are afraid of our own shadow, ourselves, our neighbors, our government, our absence of government, pretty much anything that humans can biologically generate cortisone in response to and a goodly number of things they can’t. And we react to this fear by lashing out, spreading the fear, voting for people to sequester the diseased, strip rights from everybody, kill the foreign others who we don’t understand and claim to be crazy. Human reactions to fear are responsible for just about all the destruction in human history and most of the worst things we’ve ever done can be explained by fear and pretty much fear alone.

But perhaps nowhere is fear more pervasive in the American culture than in the ballot box. Every couple of years, a march of recently scared voters trudge off to their local community polling center to cram the little slitted box just full of fear, loathing, and terror. Not just by voting for people who will perpetrate such ills on the rest of the planet, though there’s plenty of that. But primarily by casting votes motivated primarily by their own fear.

Despite your gut reaction or your political leanings, no one group, party, or candidate has a monopoly on this perpetration of fear. Most all advertising these days is negative, making voters terrified to vote for someone and instead allowing them to cast votes only against evil worst-case scenarios. Political ads rarely promise anything these days, certainly not even any improvements, opting instead for telling you how horrible things will get if the other option is elected. And if you don’t see the election as having only one other option, your friends and cohorts will berate you with the rhetoric of fear that voting is not some idealistic exercise in making a choice, but instead merely damage control in picking the second worst person imaginable so that the worst person imaginable stays out of office.

And then even more people will cite how your ancestors fought and killed the Vietnamese so that you could exercise this right to pick the second-most-evil person ever and if you fail to exercise such rights, you might as well be napalming those children for nothing. Because how could it possibly seem like picking between two parties completely beholden to corporate interests who donate more money to each party than you will ever earn in your life is not some sacred bond of trust, some exalted and wonderful act? We have been stuffed so full of vainglorious gusto for the act of voting that we’ve failed to notice how much of a tired act of resigned fear it has become.

I just moved to Louisiana, which is the main reason I’m not voting, since I completed my voter registration a few days after the deadline (Louisiana makes you wait a month, I guess to think about what you’ve done, which is fun because there is no waiting period in the state to buy a firearm… talk about putting fear into voting!). In Louisiana, like much of the nation, all of the Republican ads are about how Mary Landrieu, the incumbent Senator, is closely tied to President Obama. You should fear Obama and what he’s doing to America! Which, near as I can tell, mostly consists of legislation that was passed in 2010 (Obamacare).

Meanwhile, Democratic campaigners and rhetoric offer fear of the Republicans controlling the Senate! There will be – get this – gridlock in Washington! Heavens to betsy, the horror. And then the specter rises of things like Supreme Court appointments, as though a Supreme Court in America would ever repeal Roe v. Wade. Or as though nine justices appointed by Elizabeth Warren would overturn Citizens United. People like to talk a lot about how the Supreme Court is going to do scary conservative things, but fail to explain how the Supreme Courts of several notoriously conservative red states have struck down laws banning same-sex marriage.

Like the fear of ebola, the fear of voting for the other party or – worse! – a third party – is empty words. It seems to motivate people consistently as people begrudgingly tromp off to the polls and keep sending Democrats and Republicans back into places where they enjoy less popularity than Ford Pintos, though, admittedly, roughly the same propensity for causing explosions.

In trying to sum up my thoughts on this Election Day in the face of a torrential downpour of voting enthusiasm from my Facebook feed, heavily populated with first- and second-time voters in college or freshly out, I posted this:

“Most Americans (at least, among those who vote at all) vote *against* people in elections, not for people. I think that may have never been more true than in 2014. It’s easy to see why this process would become disheartening and unrewarding. Basically all of our electoral and societal norms have driven us to this point, especially advertising and a culture of fear that pervades everyone’s public life.

If you’re going to vote this year, try voting FOR someone you really believe in. If you can’t find that person, write them in. After all, it’s not supposed to be a country of the people, by the people, against the people.”

And maybe I should have just reposted that simpler, slightly more positive view on all this fear and opposition instead of going into detail as I have in this post. After all, 26 people “liked” that post and no one even wrote some snarky counter about how the Green Party and the Libertarians and everyone you could write in are all ISIS agents in disguise.

But I am continually baffled, every day, by how much palpable dripping fear is filling this country. And my best explanation harkens back to another previous examination of fear, this being one about institutions and individuals feeling they have more to lose from the future than they do to gain.

I suppose that this nation, quickly slipping from its brief stand atop the pedestal of human political affairs, is in such a fear mode because we feel that the future is spelling our doom. Despite the mandated rhetoric from all the politicians about America being the best country anyone will ever be able to imagine forever, we all seem to know that we’re not going to be the latest and greatest and biggest and baddest forever. That other nations have surpassed us in quality of life, in economic standing, in education, and nearly in power. And yes, in democratic openness as well. Voter turnout below 50% is not a sign of an engaged and thriving model democracy. And that shortfall isn’t because young millennials want to watch the world burn and would rather play video games than exercise their God-given rights. It’s because of what I posted in the quote above – it’s exhausting to feel like something that should be special and vital and important is simply an exercise in voicing support for the second-worst person in every position.

Frankly, it’s exhausting to go through life with this much fear. Fear of decline, fear of dropping standards as a society and as people within it. Fear of the other party, the people who will vote for them or vote for no one or vote for the third party and thus screw things up for your perspective. Fear of apathy, of ebola, of ISIS, of Fox News, of MSNBC.

There were people who had few choices besides fear. They lived in something roughly akin to the so-called state of nature. They ran from saber-toothed tigers and ice floes and had to subsist on giant mammoths with tusks the size of people or they would die. It was cold and they were hungry and they huddled in caves against the dark of the unknown.

These people had a reasonable right to live in fear, though they confronted it remarkably well or we wouldn’t be here.

So how is that fear governs most of our key decisions when we have, for the most part, a relatively infinite supply of food, clothing, shelter, comfort, distractions, and fulfillment? Why do we live each day like we’re wrestling mammoths and tigers and the Ice Age incarnate?

Why do we vote like that?

I would post my public ballot here as I’ve done in the past, but like I said, Louisiana law kept me out of the vote. You can look at the 2012 and 2008 editions if you want to get a sense of how I would be, more or less, casting my votes here today.

If you’re going to vote, do so fearlessly. And if you don’t feel like voting, do that fearlessly too. Yes, it’s a right. A defining characteristic of a right is the option to choose not to exercise it. And that choice beats the pants off of voting out of fear.



Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , , ,

An average American, unable to determine whether ebola or ISIS will kill them first.

An average American, unable to determine whether ebola or ISIS will kill them first.

All anyone in the media can talk about anymore is ebola. Unless it’s ISIS. Or maybe, on slow days for ISIS and ebola, pretty white women going missing from college campuses. Never mind that far more people die from frat parties than any or all of these things combined, though that only makes news at Rutgers. Never mind the guns and the vehicle crashes and the medical errors and all the other dangerous things in our society. I’ve talked about this before about ebola and before that about ISIS. These things aren’t going to kill you. They’re not. Stop.

But everyone seems to continue to go on the media, be it on TV or online or in the newspapers, whatever those are anymore, and seriously discuss the idea of shutting down our society (or at the very least our bowling alleys) over the fear of a disease. I mean, I guess I thought Outbreak was a pretty good movie too, when it came out, when I was 15. I saw it on a plane to Russia. It was a pretty freaky context, I guess, and I definitely covered my mouth for a few minutes after the movie ended and looked askance to see if anyone sitting among us was actually, in fact, a rabid monkey escaped from a lab. None were. I was fine. We landed in Moscow. I moved on with one of the more interesting parts of my life.

You are not living in Outbreak. Step away from the television. Your life is not that exciting. The world is not about to end. Really. Promise.

Nor are irrational crazy ISIS commandos about to storm your farm or apartment building or place of business. Unless you possibly count a trick-or-treating teenager with a really sick sense of humor. Over-under on number of trick-or-treating teens brave/stupid/uncaring-about-spending-the-next-20-years-in-Gitmo enough to try an ISIS commando costume on their rounds in America: 3.

Just not gonna happen. Now, maybe, maybe, if you’re in the military and dispatched to a nation where ebola and/or ISIS are active, these things might impact you. Or if you voluntarily go to deal with one or the other. They may then have sufficient impact on your life that you can worry about these things. But you will not be in New York or New Jersey or Maine or anywhere else whose Governor has deigned to have a publicly spouted an analyzed opinion on these matters. You will be in, y’know, Liberia. Or Syria.

And I really really really don’t want my cavalier and frustrated attitude about American fear to be confused with American exceptionalism or a lack of concern for the people of Africa and/or the Middle East. These people matter and their lives matter, arguably more than and certainly as much as American lives. I care that ISIS, product of American foreign policy, is killing people in the Middle East. I care that ebola is ravaging Liberia and Sierra Leone. These things matter and should be discussed, though I really don’t think the American military is the answer and probably, given the histrionic nature of our nation, its media, and its leaders, American intervention of any kind is the answer. I am hard-pressed to think of an international crisis that we improved or even didn’t make worse in the last fifty years, maybe longer. Probably not American problems to put on our back and try to “solve” like we “solved” Iraq or Afghanistan or Latin American revolutions or Vietnam or malaria.

So the question becomes why (WHY) do Americans insist on being so doggone afraid of everything that doesn’t hurt them? While simultaneously being nonchalant about things that are really doing substantial damage like, say, cars. Or diabetes, the treatment of which now has whole two-aisle sections in your average neighborhood pharmacy because it is so rampant in our nation. (Though, admittedly, not directly contagious, I guess.) Or corporations that are trying to eliminate the practices of safety regulations and employment from their business models, with great success and the aid of Congress. Are we just beholden to whatever the media will give us?

And then comes the eternal conundrum which is that this, like many of the linked posts above, is basically just another ebola/ISIS post, albeit a frustrated one, so I am no better than the rest of the media in spitting out the same regurgitated nonsense that we are fed by our rather ruthless corporate-profit-fueled bird overlords. That every time I bring up one of these topics, if only to complain or vent about how frequently it’s discussed I am, in fact, merely discussing it myself and thus improving its Consciousness Rank for the rest of this terrified country. Such that it becomes almost impossible to even talk about the problems without being a part of them, which insidiously feels like it was somehow built in to the design as much as Obama announcing a new war on September 10th.

But seriously, why?

Did we just not go on enough roller coasters as children? Do we crave the fake drama and illusion of danger? Are we so complacent and in such a post-danger malaise that we feel a human need to be on the brink of losing our link to survival? Is this somehow ingrained in our animal nature that we lack such fight-or-flight experiences so as we generate a need to create them out of thin air? This last one seems really unlikely given the very real danger posed by tobacco and alcohol, or if you prefer violent and immediate death, cars and guns. But I guess we might believe our own rhetoric sufficiently so as to think that we’re so immune to danger that a sweeping danger that brings everyone down must be around the corner…? Maybe?

Or is just a fundamental profound unhappiness with our society and the basic nature of existence herein? America is notorious for being perhaps the unhappiest society of all-time, triply so when one contextualizes the material wealth and comfort enjoyed by all but the poorest in the society relative to the rest of the world and most of human history. And it’s a well-known trope that the end of the world and apocalyptic scenarios start looking appealing, exciting, even galvanizing to the chronically depressed, to those without hope. It’s a giant reset button, the chance to change your place in society or just outlive everyone else, or at least feel like your choices and decisions matter in a fundamental way that trips to the unemployment office or a dead-end job that keep you out of there don’t seem to have. That going down in a hemorrhagic fever while fighting off terrorists seems far more glorious an end than drowning in debt or having your used car break down and being unable to pay the repair bill.

Is that it? Are we just so dissatisfied that we need a dramatic and crazy broom to sweep away all our ennui?

Or are we being deliberately manipulated and misdirected? Do the powers that be, be they governments or shady entities behind the governments, or the corporations hiding in plain sight, just want us to be constantly afraid and hand-wringing and overwrought so that we can’t worry about anything else? So we don’t bring up the problems with the corporate state as it’s manifest, the problems with poverty or endless war, the things that actually pose a danger to our health and well-being? Surely the people who have manufactured the need for deodorant and toothpaste and Q-tips and dandruff shampoo (to say nothing of anorexia and bulimia!) are capable of manufacturing a little light fear to keep everyone sufficiently distracted and grease the profitable wheels of the fear industry, no?

Do we turn on the ebola coverage and the ISIS coverage because we want to feel the rush of fear and anger and go crazy and think that this might be the apocalypse? Or do we turn on whatever the coverage is and react accordingly? How culpable is the average viewer for what happens? Is the media responding to the highest bidder or the lowest denominator? Or just generating a narrative that they find exciting and then trying hard to out-outrage and out-sensationalize each other? Are we just enough of a movie culture that we all get sad if life doesn’t feel like a crisis movie, unfolding minute by minute? Or did movies and the media program us to be this way? If so, deliberately, or did it just kinda happen?

There is a contagious disease loose in our society, making us all rather sick. It’s not just fear, but totally baseless irrational fear. You could argue that we take a good look at the rates of cancer and obesity and preventable death and poverty in our nation and should get legitimately afraid, maybe even more afraid than the average American Governor now appears to be of ebola. But it’s the misdirection of these energies that is so problematic. Clearly we are capable of getting a lot done in a short period of time if we’re afraid enough. Especially if “getting a lot done” involves either killing foreign nationals or giving up civil liberties (or both!) – then we’re really top-notch. So why can’t we get comparably motivated to make an actually safer society, not just one that stops feeling paranoid about outside threats that have combined to kill 3 Americans all year?

Actually, strike that. I’d be excited about an energized movement to just stop us from being so afraid of things that aren’t a threat. That would suffice for now. We don’t need fear as a tool so long as it stops being such a self-inflicted weapon.

In the meantime, best hunker down this Halloween and not answer the door. No, not because an ISIS commando with ebola will show up. But because an American child who isn’t getting a decent education, is growing up in poverty, and is likely to be a victim of violence might be there. You know, something actually scary.


List of Things More Likely to Kill Americans than Ebola

Categories: A Day in the Life, From the Road, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,



Yesterday, all day, the “ebola outbreak” in Dallas, Texas, consisting of one sick Liberian who came to the US, was the top national news story in this rapidly deteriorating country. People almost everywhere were talking seriously about this as a threat to their health and safety.

This is not a news story. The ebola outbreak in Africa is probably a news story, though it still kills way fewer people than, say, starvation or civil war or actual seemingly intractable threats to health and safety in developing nations. But ebola in the United States is not a threat and should not be a news story. There have been three cases of people in America with ebola. Zero people have died. No one has contracted ebola in the US. The two Americans who contracted ebola abroad were cured. The Liberian in America with ebola is receiving the most intensive health care and scrutiny of any person in the history of hospitals.

Ebola in the US is not a news story. It is not an occurrence. It is a distraction and the needless generation of fear, much like, say ISIS.

But hey, at least ISIS did kill two Americans before we declared it the greatest threat to American security in world history.

So here is a non-comprehensive list of things more likely to kill Americans than ebola. It’s probably also viable for ISIS, though a couple of the more obscure ones maybe be only comparably dangerous to Americans as ISIS. That latter danger is also going to increase since we sent a bunch of Americans to try to kill every man, woman, and child in Iraq and Syria.

List of Things More Likely to Kill Americans than Ebola:

    Police Officers
    Falling Off of Ladders
    Drowning in the Bathtub
    Looking at Someone Else’s Gun
    Frat Parties
    Falling Off a Cliff while Hiking
    Dropping Electronics into the Sink
    Spontaneous Combustion
    Flesh-Eating Bacteria
    Lawn Mowers
    Autoerotic Asphyxiation
    Vending Machines
    Roller Coasters
    Falling Out of Bed

And this is to say nothing of, say, actually dangerous things, like motor vehicles or smoking or alcohol or starvation or hospital mistakes, let alone things like heart disease and cancer and diabetes. So please. Please. Stop talking about ebola in the US. You might do something truly dangerous, like give yourself high blood pressure worrying about it.


On Waiting

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Tags: , , , ,

It's rough when a 375-minute wait-time proves to be an underestimate.

It's rough when a 375-minute wait-time proves to be an underestimate.

Yesterday I went to the DMV to become an official resident of Louisiana, changing over the car registration and getting a new driver’s license. (I was allowed to smile this time, unlike in New Jersey.) It’s interesting, perhaps, that driving is such a ubiquitous expectation for members of our society that changing one’s vehicular status seems to be the really defining part of residency. I have often tried to discuss with people how strange it is that driving is a universally expected skill, even though it’s reasonably difficult and arbitrary and the consequences of this expectation kill 40,000 people a year in the nation (or, as I prefer to put such statistics, cause 13.3 9/11’s a year). When Alex and I went to Texas two of the last three weekends, we noticed these oddly disturbing but effective electronic roadside signs. In stark yellow letters across a black field, they announced that 2157 people had died on Texas roads this year so far, so we should drive safely.

I still think a more appropriate reaction might be that we should stop driving cars and find more efficient, safe, and communal ways of getting around the nation, but hey. One 9/11 can cause endless war, but 13 of them a year trigger only the exhortation that people should reduce the speedometer reading by 10%. USA!

While at the DMV, however, I was reminded of what a universal American experience said motor vehicle offices are. I had put this visit off till the penultimate possible day (the Prius’ Jersey plates expire tomorrow) in dread of the long lines, crabby employees, and overbearing fluorescence of the trip. None of these factors were any less potent in reality than they were in the anticipation of my mind. The office could have been straight out of Piscataway or Oakland or Albuquerque, replete with the red digital board announcing that one’s number was interminably far away, the absolutely least patient and considerate humans currently employed in customer service worldwide, and low hanging buzzing lights that augmented the shadows on the hangdog droop of one’s long-suffering plastic-chair-bound comrades.

Americans are not accustomed to waiting, as a general rule, and we do not handle it well. This is a society that complains like the bitterly oppressed and imprisoned when a webpage takes thirty seconds to load instead of two, when cars ahead do not simulate the squealing launch of a NASCAR race as soon as a streetlight turns green. It is not merely that waiting brings to mind the opportunity cost of precious seconds that could be spent in rapturous adoration of a television or smartphone, but that impatience is kind of drummed into us as a cultural virtue. We crave instant gratification, revere fast food, proliferate the drive-through because getting out of a car and walking across half a parking lot is just such an impediment to the immediacy of our needs. One shudders to think of this country being confronted with miles-long walks to fresh water or even Depression-era bread-lines. No doubt many red-blooded patriots would choose to defiantly expire of starvation, rather than participate in the self-abnegation incumbent in getting in such a queue.

It is worth noting, then, the exceptional circumstances that do lead to Americans voluntarily standing in lines. Much has been made lately of the kind of badge of honor that trendy New Yorkers wear by waiting, sometimes overnight, in lines for various hip New York experiences, e.g. cronuts, new iPhones, the experience of rain in an art museum, etc. And it is perhaps telling that our most line-prone urbanites have their own nomenclature for such waiting, being the only American sub-species who call such waiting “standing on line” as opposed to “in line”. Indeed, I have found that this slip of terminology is perhaps the best way for immediately rooting out a New Yorker from an otherwise sane batch of people – they are totally incapable of saying “in line” like the rest of the nation. And to anyone not raised in New York, “on line” sounds infinitely clunky and even misspoken. I have often wondered whether the NYC lingo for queues is responsible for the Internet being called “going online” – perhaps a New Yorker was the first person to complain of the bleeps and bloops of 1990s modem signatures and declared that this was like camping out for Yankees playoff tickets.

I have to believe that there is something about New Yorkers’ reputed impatience that makes line-waiting such a vital part of the New York experience for those who choose to partake in it. It’s like people who grew up poor flaunting their access to cash with some flashy unnecessary purchase. Look how much time I can waste amidst all this rush and bustle! Look how much and how passionately I care about the two new features of this portable telephone! And, as in all games and most of life, this patience is rewarded. If we can call the opportunity to spend too much money for something that’s probably not that great a reward.

It is this type of line-waiting that Alex and I engaged in over the summer in Orlando, Florida when, on 8 July 2014, we attended the official grand opening of Diagon Alley in Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter and rode the new ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. We spent a cumulative 10 hours waiting to ride one ride.

We had first considered heading down to Harry Potter World years ago and when it was announced that a whole new section of the park would be opened and dedicated to the boy wizard, it seemed like a no-brainer to try to go this summer. But Universal became especially cagey about when precisely the new part of the park and its new ride would open just as we were planning our trip to New Orleans, so it was basically after the plans had been made (though I rarely finalize plans fully, in part to capture just such opportunities as this) that they announced the new ride would open on one of the days we were already slated to be in Orlando.

Part of the problem is that the escape from Gringotts as a scene in both the 7th book and 8th movie of the Harry Potter series already seems like an amusement park ride. One can’t help thinking that J.K. Rowling herself wrote the imagery with something like Universal Studios in mind, so the craving to ride such a ride has long been patiently waiting inside every HP fan. The other problem is that we were able to waltz into Diagon Alley the day before it opened, in the evening of July 7th, during a “soft open” that it was doing, so we naively assumed that there would be no line for the same area on the official opening day.

It is worth noting here that if you like Harry Potter, you should do everything you can to go to the Wizarding World in Orlando. I simply can’t recommend it enough. Hogsmeade is really impressive and all but one of the rides there are great, but the attention to detail, craftsmanship, and just pure love that went into Diagon Alley are rarely matched in any theme park or place of American entertainment. It feels, for all the world, like visiting the place, like the Alley itself has been made manifest, giving it a sense of place usually exclusively reserved for, well, real places. And I know part of the whole HP themeology is the concept of blurring what is real from what is not and questioning the importance of such distinctions, but rarely is such a question asked so poignantly as in this location.

So not only did Alex and I not make an effort to get to the park as early as possible on the 8th of July, but we spent the first 10 minutes in the park bum-rushing for the entrance to Diagon Alley rather than trying to find the end of the line to get in. Having no idea there would be a line because we’d gotten in so easily the day before, we missed the chance to be probably 45 minutes earlier in the line as people streamed in, shortcutting directly to the entrance and then walking all the way back along the length of the line to find our place in it.

Despite dire warnings that the line could be upwards of six hours just to get into a place we’d gallivanted through in wonder the night before, the wait for the Alley itself only proved to be a little over two hours. At first, we were able to get in and out of line and I even walked onto the Simpsons ride, which proved quite fun, while Alex held our place. But soon they cracked down on such shenanigans and there was nothing to do but settle in, try to hydrate in the wake of the intense Florida sun, and get to know our line-neighbors, a pair of Australian young women who worked at Disney and were making a budding career as journeying theme park cast members.

Alex had also followed the absolute cardinal rule of line-waiting, which is Bring A Book. During most of my life, I wish I were reading more and I actually have grown to love mass transit and even some other opportunities to wait in line because they “force” me to read. There is probably something interesting in play about our screen-based and fast-paced society that makes reading something hard to choose over other, more exciting seeming options, even if what I really most want to be doing is reading. Part of the problem is that reading is often soporific by nature, especially since most people recline when reading, and thus big plans of a night spent reading for hours often yield a half-hour of reading followed by sleeping more than one wanted.* Which, for all its other foibles, makes the subway or the streetcar or even the fluorescent-drenched DMV office or auto repair waiting-room an excellent refuge for actually getting to read.

*I realize, of course, that “sleeping more than one wanted” is possibly a concept unique to me, especially as an adult American in his mid-thirties. This is the difficulty of trying to bridge one’s experience into more universal ones.

I honestly have no recollection of why I forgot a book that day. I may have assumed that the lines would comport to some reasonable standard of timeliness and that I would be bouncy and excited instead of bored while waiting. I may just have wanted to reduced the load in my backpack or I may have, incomprehensibly, left my backpack in the car and asked Alex to carry a couple things in her purse. There have been so many quick trips to places that somehow yielded unexpected waits, though, that I almost never violate the Bring A Book rule and am constantly admonishing myself to follow it, much like its equally important cousin rule (in my life), which is Bring A Layer. But for some reason, I had no books. Alex had brought Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

In the sun-soaked line for Diagon Alley, we joked idly about Alex making significant progress in said tome during line-standing. Shortly after stowing our stuff in the requisite lockers in Diagon Alley (the locker-line itself taking on the order of 40 minutes while Alex sat in Knockturn Alley’s dank to recover from the sun), we discovered that this progress might not be such a joke. When we entered the line for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, the sign warned us that 375 minutes of waiting (6.25 hours for those scoring at home) may, well, await us (see image atop this post). Since entering the Alley an hour prior, this number had steadily been increasing as I waited for a locker and we downed some cool refreshments and gawked at how well crafted the overall place was. The safe assumption seemed to be that the wait times would only increase, that if we waited another hour, the sign would say 500 and another hour after that might close the line altogether and deprive us of our chance to experience the ride. (We were leaving the next day for New Orleans, though we ended up going north up the coast for an amazing sea turtle experience instead that I may someday recall in a different post.)

So the only thing to do was to get in line.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to talk about the experience of waiting for what proved to be 8 hours in a line without a book.* I was trying to capture my observations and the different feelings during the experience, but nothing much stuck or was terribly salient, the probable result of the inevitable brain-scramble that comes of such experience. And while my waiting experience pales in comparison to the life of those in Guantanamo Bay or some other detainment facility, let alone the millions our society keeps incarcerated round the clock, it does have the counter-point that it was voluntarily chosen. And thus an experience for which I had no one to blame but myself. Which is probably not how DMV or auto-repair purgatories feel, but a little like cronut waits, I guess.

*Can you believe that they do not sell a single book in Diagon Alley? This is the place’s largest flaw, by far. One can acquire the entire Harry Potter series in Hogsmeade, but no book of any kind is available in Diagon Alley. I would have paid an exorbitant markup for just about any book some four hours into the wait.

It should be noted that we were allowed, by virtue of there being two of us, to get out of the line and return to our original position. We didn’t discover this fact for the first 3+ hours of the wait, when it first occurred to us that they had to let us go to the bathroom at some point in a 375-minute span. When assuming there was a bathroom somewhere in the swirling line matrix, I was told to simply proceed to the rest of the Alley and find a normal bathroom out there. Which opened up a new world of relief possibilities, including alternately going to get food, beverages, look at the cool things in this part of the theme park, and get cool in Knockturn Alley. Unfortunately, riding other rides or exploring the rest of the park was not an option as it would entail another 2-4 hour wait to return to Diagon Alley, so our options were still relatively limited.

The other issue in play was that the ride kept breaking down. Being a brand-new ride and one suddenly ramped up to the expectations of thousands of simultaneously descending American tourists, the attraction buckled under the weight of being asked to constantly run at capacity. Frankly, it probably wasn’t ready for an opening they’d already delayed and equivocated about. But engineering is no match for the advertising dollars of an announced opening, so there we were facing extended delays periodically announced in a fake British accent over the tinny loudspeaker. These would occasionally be refuted by a more joyous announcement that they were pleased to tell us either half or all of the ride was functioning once more and we would soon have the experience that we truly had all been waiting for.

How to capture the backflips one’s mind starts to do in hour five of a wait? How one grows tired of standing, gives up and just sits on the ground, grows tired of sitting on the ground, sits on the rails of the switchback line-holder, grows numb from that, starts dancing in place, thinks about something else. The biggest problem with waiting in line is how powerfully the act itself captures one’s imagination, how being in line makes one think so chronically about being in line. Sure, one’s mind is able to wander a bit to other things, but most of those are uses of time that one could spend that are not being in line, even those in the theme park itself, and the inevitable question of whether it was, in fact, worth it to get in this line in the first place and at one point it might have made sense to follow a handful of people seen leaving the line after 1, 2, 3 hours. After about 3 hours, no one leaves. That seems to be the tipping point at which one is “pot committed” to borrow a poker phrase, the point of proverbial no return.

Or how to illustrate the horror of looking back in line two hours deep and realizing how much shorter the aggregate line now is, that one could have saved the majority of the last two hours by simply doing something, anything else? That those things would have been active and fun and nothing like the fate that has not only befallen the last two, visibly wasted hours, but that one has two more sessions of two hours just like it ahead. The amount of palpable regret in the process is almost as painful as the feeling in one’s feet after four hours of mostly standing.

How to describe the elation of finally leaving the outdoor portion of the line, most of which was at least covered and had some industrial fans posted and blowing on the lucky few for a while, entering the hallowed halls of Gringotts and its pitch-perfect depiction of the solemn white marble entranceway, complete with surprisingly lifelike animatronic goblins who blink and stare in a quizzical way that one only thinks at this stage, hour 5, is meant to question one’s life choices at voluntarily being in this line so long?

How to explain the incredible effort it takes for a deeply introverted woman who is actually, horror of horrors, in this line alone (and without a book*) to start talking to me in hour 4.5 of the line? This person going on to explain that she is an annual local-pass holder and was here for the Hogsmeade opening as well, the last part making me question why we spent extra money on individual tickets to be here when there are some people who are doubtlessly here for free, save for the already much-thought-over opportunity-cost of being in this line instead of any of the other fun parts of the park which, no doubt, have almost no line since basically everyone who is in this park is here to be here, namely this interminable and constantly extending line.

*Worth noting, also, that the aforementioned lockers indicated that one is supposed to carry nothing onto this ride and thus, also, nothing into the line to wait for the ride either, except disposable things. We actually tested me pocketing Alex’s copy of Chamber of Secrets three times to ensure that we’d be able to keep it on the ride. Although, by hour 3, it’s pretty clear the value of the book and that we would be willing to buy a book that we’d be forced to dispose of three hours hence just to have those three hours with access to a book!

Or whether to bother with the bubbling resentment for the fourth member of the party of teenage girls that, unfortunately, can only be described as a “gaggle”? The one who, just before it was impossible to have return-to-line privileges, showed up for the first time all line, in hour 6, yes, hour 6, to join her friends after 6 carefree hours* running around the various empty rides and attractions of the park while the rest of us, her three cohorts included, toiled away in the psychological gymnastics of standing in this interminable line for three minutes of fun, albeit new fun, at the end.

*Admittedly some of these 6 hours must have been spent in the same 2-4 hour line that we all endured to get into Diagon Alley in the first place, though since we did that too, it is not a marginal harm of her avoiding the first 6 hours of the Gringotts line.

When I was in high school, we had to do various “experiential education” trips, which was just a codeword for hiking/camping as sponsored by the school. There was, at one point, an entire curriculum around it, but I think that had more or less died out by the time I got to the Academy, possibly because the department was chaired by my least favorite educator at the school of all-time and the one I was convinced was the least intelligent, which was something I used to be very mean about. This being the same guy who, in the nascent days of e-mail, my friends and I created a group e-mail chain relating the mistakes he made about American history in his two sections of AP US History, this being a daily occurrence, usually with multiple instances from each class. I kind of suspect he had just been too active in certain outdoorsy extracurricular activities popular in earlier decades, which were in no way part of the curriculum of so-called “experiential” education.

Regardless, we got to choose our sophomore-year trip and, traumatized from a Philmont trip in which it had rained torrentially for five solid days, I opted for a more minimalist venture, the Wilderness Solo, in which we did a brief group hike to a serene lakeside mountain spot, then hiked around a bit alone to scout out some spots for the next day, then embarked early in the morning for 24-36 hours of completely solo time in the woods.

The two trip chaperones of course checked on us twice, once actually having us acknowledge them directly, which I guess was necessary for liability, but it kind of spoiled the sheen of the event for me. What I didn’t realize, of course, is that a disproportionate portion of our trip’s cohort were drama types not just because this trip was less exhaustive than most but because it was the easiest to sneak alcohol and/or drugs into and most of the folks on the trip used the whole adventure as an excuse to get entirely wasted in the wilderness. I, of course, not being that type of person whatsoever, actually had taken the guides seriously the night before when they talked about getting us to refrain from reading or writing or other “distractions” and really trying to get into our “theta waves” of a totally meditative and relaxed state without normal stimuli.

I almost went crazy.

And it wasn’t just the typical camping crazy of late-night sounds and the “oh my, even though I’m normally not a fearful person, the realization that it is dark to the point of invisibility out there and I am protected by very thin nylon and a flimsy zipper and every gust of wind is surely a giant wildebeest with a craving for human meat” crazy. It was some serious crazy. Like “am I really a person?” crazy. Like “life is probably just a simulated illusion meant to inflict pain on us as some sort of trial” crazy.

I also distinctly remember that I spent a majority of my solo time with the Kinks’ song “Lola,” annoying in the best of times heard once, stuck in my head. A song which I only knew a small portion of the lyrics to, making the loop of the repetitive refrain of it being stuck internally shorter, making the entire feedback loop of having a song inexorably in one’s head that much more catastrophically frustrating. Doubtlessly, the perfection of contemplative nature-bound meditation is just no match for pop culture’s infectious rhythms in even the most introspective brain.

When I started to get too crazy, I just broke down and read, which had been my plan all along before the impressionable prior night of theta waves and the rapture/enlightenment that would surely come from simply doing nothing in the woods all day. As though I had briefly lost my mind and forgotten that doing nothing and boredom had been lifelong sworn enemies which I had created entire imaginary worlds to combat. I was pretty big on enlightenment in those days and the quest therefor.

I think the Wilderness Solo was the last time before 8 July 2014 that I felt so crazy and in my head, so self-doubting about an individual decision to sign up for nothingness. And, like the Wilderness Solo, the process of resurfacing to normal levels of stimulus was euphoric. Just entering the building and seeing adornment, the decorated hallways of Gringotts and its various winding vaults that still comprise about 90-120 minutes of line-waiting was a total thrill on the order of a first drink of water after days in a desert. There is this little small part of the ride that you get before the actual ride, that you think is the actual ride, which consists of an elevator into the deepest parts of the vaults as they go over safety procedures, and that felt like winning the World Series. Of course there was a commensurate letdown when we stepped out of that and not onto waiting minecarts but… more infinite line. Snaking through the fake-stone circuitousness to a spiral staircase that ostensibly led up to the real line.

We lost another 45 minutes in there, but this wasn’t by design. The ride broke down when we hit the steps and didn’t resume for a good long while and we all had to contemplate the possibility that our 7.25 hours thus far were all for absolute naught, that this really was a torture chamber and there wasn’t even an inkling of gold at the end of the rainbow. But this extra span gave Alex just enough time to charge through the last few chapters of the Chamber of Secrets, our subterranean time matching Harry and Ron’s, such that she completed the entire tome while in line that day.

The ride was amazing, for a ride. It was truly impressive and awesome and we even got to go again right away because it broke down at the very end and we didn’t get the full experience so they put us on 5 minutes later to start all over and that time it worked. The two-for-one (1.75-for-one?) experience was an extra elating bonus, but the deflation experienced right after exiting and hitting twilight in the expanse of the park made December 26th look like Christmas. It was, objectively, a crazy thing to have done. It seemed, altogether, a waste. Though something kind of cool to have experienced and gone through nonetheless, a fable for the children and grandchildren, though possibly when they are at an age to not so impressionably take the irrationality of the decision to heart.

If nothing else, we concluded, heading over to ride the Hogwarts Express, it would make a good story.

I’ll let you be the judge of that.

But there’s something in waiting, also, that I think is about the lack of knowing exactly how long you’ll be waiting. And I think, not to get too political at the end here, this is what distinguishes Guantanamo Bay from even an extraordinarily long prison sentence. While surely cynicism about ever leaving must be kicking in now for those who remain, those in Gitmo never know when they’re going to leave. Any day they wake up could be their last in that situation. But they don’t know. They have no way of knowing.

And I think waiting as a test of patience can be conquered if one has a definable sense, especially if it’s exact, of how long one has to wait. It can be counted down and quantified and realized. This is why they at least try to post a reasonable wait-time estimate at the gate to these amusement-park ride queues. It is the not knowing how long one is in purgatory that made last year so impossibly hard for me. And what makes Gitmo worse than a normal detention center. What makes being held without charge a universally reviled crime. And what makes getting in line the first day of a ride a very irrational decision.

One never makes good on the promises one makes to oneself in such a setting to savor every non-bored minute thereafter. But at least the remembering and the going through it again can be a bit of a start. You are not in Gitmo. Go out and do something awesome.

Or at least read a book.


US Announces Airstrikes to Target Ebola

Categories: Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Primary Sources, Tags: ,

ARLINGTON, Va. — Speaking at a press conference today at the Pentagon, President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a comprehensive plan to “degrade and eventually destroy ebola” through the use of targeted airstrikes.

Citing ebola’s willingness to kill indiscriminately and even target children, the very old, and the very weak, Obama and Hagel were unflinching in their insistence that ebola must be eradicated. “We cannot erase every trace of ebola from the world,” Obama admitted, “That’s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge.”

The plan will involve airstrikes on the nations hardest hit by the recent most deadly outbreak of ebola, including Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria. Airstrikes will target those currently with ebola, though those near them will also be impacted. Hagel noted in his statement that those nearby are likely to be infected anyway, so their deaths would be inevitable. “Those currently not suffering from ebola may soon become sympathetic to ebola,” he elaborated. “We must strike this disease at the root if we are to eradicate it.

“Even now, some Americans are infected with the deadly scourge of ebola,” Hagel went on. “They hold American passports. All they need do is get on a plane and they can bring ebola to our homeland’s shores. We must wipe them out before this is allowed to occur.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one White House aide admitted that the cost of the air campaign will exceed $100 billion and there are, as yet, no appropriations set aside for this spending. When questioned about this, Hagel retorted that “We cannot put a price on freedom. And make no mistake, ebola hates freedom. It destroys your organs, making you unable to move.”

A predator drone off the coast of Liberia launches an initial missile into an ebola-infected village.

A predator drone off the coast of Liberia launches an initial missile into an ebola-infected village.

Obama was quick to observe that this is not merely an African epidemic. “If left unchecked, this disease could pose a growing threat beyond that region — including to the United States,” he said.

Republicans were quick to criticize Obama’s plan as falling short of the decisive action necessary to deal with ebola. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell questioned the plan to only kill Liberians currently carrying the virus. “Shouldn’t we have a more comprehensive strategy to destroy the entire country?” he asked in a response statement issued following the President’s press conference. “After all, those in Liberia without ebola could someday get it. And then they will hate freedom. I question whether the President truly cares about homeland security.”

The rapid emergence of ebola has taken the country by storm, terrorizing Americans everywhere and capturing the nation’s horrified imagination. Shortly after the announcement, a poll showed that 94% of Americans favor the strikes to kill every man, woman, and child with ebola, and 55% say they do too little to stem the disease’s inexorable spread.

Obama promised that America would not be the only nation striking at those with ebola, noting that Somalia and North Korea had both pledged to send missiles for the war effort and that Myanmar was considering joining the fight as well.

Concluding his remarks, Obama noted that this mission would not be without danger to Americans abroad. “Now, it will take time to eradicate a cancer like ebola. And any time we take military action, there are risks involved — especially to the servicemen and women who carry out these missions. But I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ebola wherever it exists, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground.”


Revolving War

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Tags: , , ,

“And our own safety — our own security — depends upon our willingness to do what it takes to defend this nation, and uphold the values that we stand for — timeless ideals that will endure long after those who offer only hate and destruction have been vanquished from the Earth.”
-President Barack Obama, 10 September 2014

Obama, last night, with the flag of the eagle.  Please note that the arrows are all visible, while the olive branches are neatly tucked away.  Everything is just as carefully crafted as this flag to make you support endless war!

Obama, last night, with the flag of the eagle. Please note that the arrows are all visible, while the olive branches are neatly tucked away. Everything is just as carefully crafted as this flag to make you support endless war!

Last night, Barack Obama finally made me fully proud and vindicated that I did not vote for him in 2008. Yes, there have endless disappointments with his presidency and I’ve been glad that I didn’t give, say, his mandates a mandate, or the drone strikes my support. He is about as progressive as Reagan on most issues and has done a great job of cementing the political “divide” in this country between the right-center and the far-right, all the while making it look like some sort of actual historical left vs. right battle. Trust me, there’s been almost nothing I’ve been able to point to about his presidency and say “Yeah, I’m down with that.”

But last night he cemented himself as exactly what he’s been leaning toward all this time, George W. Bush II. The policy of endless war, revolving war, war without end or hope of end as the American Empire continues to try to prove itself to the world was reinvigorated. After years of winding down failed wars in failed states abroad, Obama finally found the war that he was willing to start, officially, after carrying on secret ongoing murder-raids for the duration of his six years in office. He took to the national airwaves on September 10th to make a Bush-like case for a war that will outlast his presidency so that we can ensure that every President comes into office a horse in midstream, a warrior with the same war to keep fighting. It’s always the same war.

Last time, it took an unprecedented terrorist attack on American soil to prompt the regeneration of war-without-end. Yes, there was a lot of fearmongering and sleight-of-hand to include Iraq in the war cycle, but both Afghanistan and Iraq were fundamentally prompted by 9/11. And whoever actually carried out 9/11, at least most people were convinced that it was people who were somehow associated with the countries that we were demolishing by air, land, and sea, so that seemed like a reasonable response.

This time, it’s two dead. Two. ISIS killed two Americans, albeit brutally and publicly, and they get the endless war treatment.

I look forward to the time when an American exchange student visiting a foreign country gets poked on the playground and the President takes to the airwaves next day to announce that all of the poker’s countrymen will die.

Look, I understand that the beheadings were shocking and appalling. We just went over this yesterday, how violence seen is infinitely more horrific than violence unseen. I am not defending beheadings, any more than I defend any violence at all by anyone. It’s all wrong and it’s all abhorrent. But, as I’ve discussed before, we created ISIS. The invasion of Iraq single-handedly created this organization and all of its nefarious deeds. To my surprise, the entire US mainstream media agrees with this assessment. Everyone understands this. And yet, when confronted with the exact same decision and the exact same mistake, no one seems to think it’s a good time to pause and wonder what new monster we might be creating by attacking this one.

It’s almost like there’s an ancient Greek myth we could turn to about a monster that kept getting stronger and regenerating no matter how much you attacked it. And as I explained, it’s not because the “monster” is innately monstrous, but mostly because it’s mourning all the family that the US killed last time and the time before that. Killing people makes their relatives angry. Then they want to kill. Repeat ad infinitum.

Why was the speech on September 10th? So that all the assessments and feedback about it could carry the date this post does: September 11th. Because we are a nation so in love with our own PTSD about the one day we were vulnerable in the last sixty years that we are committed to punishing the rest of the world for our suffering forever.

There were three absolutely shocking moments in the speech itself, which I watched live, that really shouldn’t shock me at all. But I watch little enough mainstream media news that it kind of floored me that Presidents can get away with this kind of hubris and be lauded by even people from their “opposite” party directly thereafter. But this is the Cowardly New World we live in.

“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

I almost choked when I heard this line. These secret wars, conducted throughout the Obama Presidency, are something that brought denial and refusal to comment for most of that term. These operations consist of the “kill list,” where Obama decides personally who should be assassinated in foreign countries through undeclared wars, obliterated from the air, often taking families, friends, neighbors, and strangers with them. There is no evidence that there is anything resembling “success” to this strategy. Somalia remains an anarchic failed state and both Somalia and Yemen remain hotbeds of people who hate the United States, most often because they live in a country constantly perused and bombed by anonymous unmanned killer planes from said nation. And yet we are expected to hold up these operations, which the administration denied for years, as models. It’s like if Nixon had held onto the presidency after Watergate, invaded Cuba, and touted our secret war in Cambodia as the example of successful action that proved this war would be unlike, uh, Vietnam.

“My fellow Americans, we live in a time of great change. Tomorrow marks 13 years since our country was attacked. Next week marks 6 years since our economy suffered its worst setback since the Great Depression.”

Using the “change” line here for any actual progressives still listening to this speech was such a low blow that I still feel like I’m physically recovering. I wasn’t on the front-lines of supporting Obama, didn’t even vote for him, but I sure understood the fervor and excitement he generated. I wanted to believe in it, even though I knew better. I got swept up at times, the person citing visionaries and progressives of the past, saying that we didn’t have to wait any longer because we were the people we had been waiting for. It was contagious and infectious. And just because I didn’t get the full-blown disease, I was sick enough with the fever to get my hopes up.

Here’s the thing that’s so insidious: there is no change at all in any of Obama’s actions. The things he cites, 9/11 and the Great Recession, existed before he took office. This is not change we can believe in or the change he was going to bring. This is regressive, retrograde, W. Bush stuff. Saying “Gee guys, did you know there were some planes in the towers a while back” and bailing out the banks were the last administration, the last war. The people who put Obama in office did so to get away from that kind of rhetoric, they believed there was a change from these kind of citations coming. But there is no change. There is the exact same policy and the exact same approach. We can quibble about whose boots are on what ground when, but the policy of war-without-end, bomb-em-all, let’s start a fight in Iraq, guys, is the exact same thing we’ve seen for most of my lifetime. This is the fourth straight President of the United States who announced to the country that what it most needs to do for “peace and security” is to drop explosives on the people of Iraq.

And we keep lapping it up. Every one of those campaigns has met with majority approval at the time of announcement. Every one of those campaigns has been a disaster for the US, let alone the long-suffering and infinitely war-torn people of Iraq. Do you think it’s a coincidence that every time we bomb Iraq, the enemy is more ferocious and angry than the last time? Do I have to walk you down the “Red Dawn” thought-experiment about if your nation had been bombed to oblivion by the same blunt idiotic foreign superpower for a quarter-century? Are we really this stupid?


“We cannot erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm.”

“…long after those who offer only hate and destruction have been vanquished from the Earth.”

At the outset, when he’s trying to be reasonable and build the case slowly, Obama recognizes the fundamental truth that I’ve been trying to express in different ways on this blog for years. You can’t just kill everyone who disagrees with you. That is not a successful strategy. The lesson of the arcade game whack-a-mole is that there are always more moles that will pop up and maybe, just maybe, the moles keep fighting you because you keep bashing their friends over the head. But by the end, it’s the old lie and the old myth. Our strategy is to vanquish. The American Empire subsists on the lie that we can bomb everyone and everything into submission, that if we just kill enough “enemies,” eventually everyone will agree with us. Even when in the same 15-minute speech, Obama acknowledges that we cannot do this. The failure is built right into the recipe. He’s telling you that this doesn’t work.

But he’s also telling you it will never end. He’s telling you that the policy is that small groups of killers will always exist and we will always fear them and always attack them. That the official stance of the United States of America in the world is that it must always be conducting these kinds of wars against anyone who harbors ill will toward the country. This is a game that has no end. There is no exit strategy, no strategy at all other than to play whack-a-mole forever while people commit themselves to a state that scares them and the industries and machineries of war make select Americans rich and the victim nations poor. Winning isn’t even the objective. As soon as we “destroy ISIL,” we’ll have new and scarier enemies to target.

In my teenage years, I used to lament that I’d been born thirty years too late, that the great moment of pacifist activism in the US had passed and that I’d missed out on the opportunity to show the ills of war to this country. Now, I just lament that we have been so fully manipulated and that the military-industrial complex has so thoroughly consolidated its power and abilities that the idea of protest or disagreement is somewhere between passe and ridiculed. I remember how depressed I was going into work in 2003 on the day that we invaded Iraq, how my boss told me the war would be over soon. The war will never be over, as long as this country persists with these kinds of policies. We will kill and kill and kill and enact the very horrors on other people that we so fear for ourselves, all in the name of safety.

We are, for a long time now, become our enemy. It’s almost like we’re all in it together. Do you think, for one second, that ISIS beheaded those journalists and thought the US would react in any way other than exactly as it has? If not, please explain why you think they conducted those actions. Your only viable alternatives are the American exceptionalism to believe that we do things for reasons, but all other people are barbaric animals who just act on impulse and instinct for no reason (discussed earlier) or that they are the most naive and stupid people ever to live on the planet. ISIS wants this war even more than Obama. They know it will be just as successful for the US as the last one and just as galvanizing to their cause.

The war is what ISIS wants. You think that attacking ISIS, that bombing Iraq is fighting ISIS. It is working with ISIS. It is doing exactly what they were trying to get us to do.

There is this section of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which I just finished, where the narrator struggles with the phrase “fighting with” and how sometimes that means fighting against and sometimes it means fighting alongside. And how context in language makes that same phrase useful for both purposes and that people seem to get the author’s meaning regardless. And how much of a struggle that makes for her in her efforts to be clear, which is pretty much the struggle of the whole book.

But it’s the perfect illustration for us today. We are fighting with ISIS. Both/and. Both meanings. By fighting against ISIS, we are supporting their goals and objectives and fighting on their side. Forever and ever, amen.


(Seeing) Violence is Shocking

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

Another Rutgers Rice is in the news for committing violence on camera, getting lightly punished, having the video leaked, and then getting the book thrown at him.  Left: Ray; Right: Mike

Another Rutgers Rice is in the news for committing violence on camera, getting lightly punished, having the video leaked, and then getting the book thrown at him. Left: Ray; Right: Mike

By now most of you have heard about Ray Rice, formerly of Rutgers, most recently of the Baltimore Ravens, being fired by the Ravens for punching his now wife, then fiancee, in an elevator. Or, more aptly, he was fired for the outcry created by this incident being caught on film and released to the public. When people saw him throw the punch that landed his fiancee unconscious, suddenly the vague words “domestic violence” became something unconscionable and the Ravens and NFL, both of whom had previously defended and knuckle-rapped Rice had to destroy him.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it so eerily parallels the Mike Rice (former basketball coach at Rutgers) situation, it’s uncanny. He chucked basketballs at his players, not his love interest, and none were quite knocked out, but all this was no biggie till the film hit the press and then everyone was outraged. The parallels run especially deep when we look at how top administrators deal with the idea that they had/had not seen the video and what that means for their accountability for the whole situation. Rutgers President Robert Barchi went as far as the rather far-fetched notion that he’d had the video of Rice hurling balls and obscenities at his team sitting around his office but hadn’t bothered to take a gander. The Commissioner of the NFL and the leaders of the Ravens are now making more or less the same claim, though theirs is slightly more plausible since some trashy tabloid held the rights to this video not, uh, the team/league itself.

The Onion got near-universal acclaim on Facebook and elsewhere for skewering this whole incident with its article entitled NFL Announces New Zero-Tolerance Policy On Videotaped Domestic Violence. As is par for The Onion, the title is the most amusing part of the piece and basically all you need to know. The idea here being that as long as you can avoid the videotape, things are hunky-dory, but as soon as the tape gets out, forget it.

While there is certainly some hypocrisy in the idea of punishing people harshly only once they’ve been publicly viewed by all and sundry doing whatever dastardly thing they were already known to have done, the fact that it happens is less about hypocrisy than we might think. Or perhaps it’s about a larger hypocrisy that we enact society-wide.

You see, violence is pretty shocking.

And seeing it is really the only way, short of, say, feeling it, to understand that.

When we actually see violence in front of us, be it a bombing or a beating or an attack or a chucked basketball or 9/11, we are immediately repelled by it. It fills us with disgust, rage, revulsion. This, I would contend, is because violence is antithetical to everything humanity is working toward. It is innately repugnant in all its forms and this is self-evident as soon as it’s displayed to us.

Unfortunately, as visual and rather concrete creatures, we have a really hard time abstracting this to violence we don’t see. Like, say, domestic violence that is not leaked to us publicly by a trashy tabloid. Or, perhaps, every American bombing of foreign countries ever. This violence is perfectly acceptable to us, or at worst a little unfortunate, precisely because we do not have to deal with it. It is not in our face or even close to our face. It is merely an ethereal concept that can be described with the anesthetic “domestic violence” or “collateral damage”. These offer us nothing of the visceral horror that grainy tape of someone being pummeled can offer.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at Rodney King, not unique among African-American men targeted unfairly and demolished by police officers in the United States. But uniquely caught on film and thus bringing a whole generation of outrage to the question of police beatings, racist cops, and injustice in America. Or perhaps you prefer the imagery of the planes hitting the World Trade Center, over and over and over again. You think it’s a coincidence that the American media offered you that spectacle approximately 12 times a minute for weeks after 9/11 but never once showed the results of American killings abroad? Violence has an immediate and powerful effect on us. We feel sympathy for the victim and rage at the perpetrator(s). And thus what we see is ultimately what we get. What we don’t see is hard to understand and can be dealt with more esoterically.

I don’t think it’s a mystery which of these is a better reaction for us to have. The fact that those who saw the Rodney King beating or Mike Rice or Ray Rice immediately knew that what was being done was wrong and should be stopped and dealt with harshly is probably a good indicator that these sorts of things are wrong, regardless of whether they happen publicly. And thus it would seem that a key tool for civil society would be ensuring that those who are subjected to violence have a chance of being filmed so that their perpetrators can be publicized and their misdeeds judged on their actual merits.

Increasingly in our society, this isn’t really becoming a debated proposition. It’s here and it’s live. Certainly the last few months have informed everyone that every elevator in the country, seemingly one of the most enclosed and vulnerable locations imaginable, is being taped constantly. Pretty much every business on the planet has a near-infinite number of cameras catching every angle, door, corner, and hallway. Police cameras are up on many corners in many cities. And every person over the age of 11 is walking around with a highly sophisticated video camera in their pocket, ready to use at a moment’s notice.

Now I know that for three generations of Americans raised on Orwell’s predictions, the idea of the perma-telescreen is scary. And I get it. And there are some very compelling arguments in The Circle, a fantastic recent book, for why we should be cautious about some of these developments. But I’m sorry, this is another great point for the death of privacy. As always, my primary caveat is that there has to be a level playing-field of information and that there cannot be information asymmetry. If we have universal video where the elites, the rich, the corporations, and/or the politicians are both immune and have greater access, then it’s trouble. But the reason it’s trouble is for the asymmetry, not for the information itself. Because that information is stuff that can both illustrate the real horrors of violence as it is enacted and, by extension, deter it better than a million threats of incarceration.

I’ll give you a thought experiment here and one that should probably come with a trigger-warning for those who like that sort of thing: Think about how hard it is to convict rape cases in status quo and how many people brush off rape allegations like so many gnats. Universities especially, as has been widely publicized in the last couple of years. Now imagine that one had video footage of a rape in progress. Surely the few efforts to depict something like this on film in a fictional setting have garnered some of the greatest terror, outrage, and bleakness of anything ever committed to film. The idea that the depiction is real and not fictitious would be transcendentally horrifying. Suddenly, it’s hard to imagine anyone using the vague and demeaning language so often thrown at rape victims in the wake of having to witness their violation on screen. And while the idea of publicizing such footage is itself a difficult ordeal for the rape victim in question, it does seem like it would make justice far more likely and, in turn, increase deterrence against this most heinous of crimes.

I have to ask again: what is so great about privacy? And even if there are things that we like about privacy, do we really like them enough to come with the baggage of enabling and allowing rape, domestic violence, and abuse by those in power? Again, I stress that if it’s just one group of people getting to watch another and not being watched in turn, that’s highly problematic and everything Orwell rightly warned against. But assuming we get to watch the watchers and everyone is playing each part equally, doesn’t this just make everyone a better person?

If you’re not willing to come with me that far, let’s at least agree that someone needs to start filming the results of American warfare, declared or undeclared, abroad and get that on some US media. There will be the occasional gung-ho nut who cheers for every house falling over and assumes the entire nation of Yemen is populated by terrorists and no one else, but I think the vast majority of people will react sanely and be appalled. Just as America and even the NFL, a sport dedicated to people tackling each other, was not largely defined by a couple fringe sexists who felt that Ray Rice’s actions were acceptable.

Violence needs witnesses to be stopped. Gandhi understood this, King understood this, and they probably would not have been successful were there not witnesses to their victimization. Ideally, we would all abhor it just as much in the abstract as we do in front of us. But realistically, I’d rather take my chances on getting more cameras out there than getting more people to find empathy without their eyes. And here, these men of Rutgers have something to teach us. The cameras are not the enemy so much as what some will do when they think no one is watching.


Let Me Be Clear

Categories: A Day in the Life, Metablogging, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

I didn't create this image.  I found it on a website.

I didn't create this image. I found it on a website.

After they read yesterday’s post, my parents called me repeatedly to suggest that I edit the post because they were afraid that the NSA was going to haul me off to an undisclosed location for my comment about Malia Obama.

To take a phrase from the elder Obama, let me be clear: I am not, have not, and will not be making threats against anyone at any time for any reason. There are no threats in this blog, nor will there ever be. I am a pacifist. I condemn all violence, anywhere, ever, in all forms, unlike this country and most of its inhabitants, who seem to increasingly be looking for reasons to justify violence, especially state-sponsored violence.

My comment about Malia and the associated writing was intended to hold up a mirror to this country, as most of my political discussion of the United States is trying to do. I have heard all these reports about Israel killing the young children of Hamas leaders, about the United States slaughtering infants and families and children of “militant” leaders in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, undisclosed locations beyond that. And so I wanted to explore a thought experiment of how we would feel in the United States about the relatives of our own militant leader. And obviously this struck a chord with at least my parents, especially my mother, who felt it was something that could get me in trouble.

For me, the troubling thing is not what I said. I think it’s pretty evident that the line “For surely we wouldn’t blame anyone for killing Malia Obama, wouldn’t call that terrorism,” was a sarcastic reflection of how American lives are understood to have value, but the lives of non-Americans are understood to be worthless in this country. I think this is clear to anyone with basic reading comprehension skills, which is not a criticism of the concern of my parents. My parents’ mission statement in regards to me is basically to keep me safe and has been for 34.5 years. This country doesn’t make that job easy when their son regularly expresses free speech in a public forum, I guess. But what does that say about us?

I mean, honestly, what does it say where we have a country with much-vaunted “free speech” rights where my parents spend most of yesterday fretting over whether I’ve used my free speech in such a way that I will be detained indefinitely without charge in an undisclosed location by agents of our increasingly police-y state?

I know a lot of you are saying that this is just a reflection that my parents are paranoid. And as I infamously said in my French Revolution CTY segment in the middle-90’s, “Paranoia is healthy in paranoid times.” But more to the point, maybe they aren’t being paranoid? There are issues like this guy, who was locked up for making an obviously sarcastic “threat” on Facebook wherein he was lampooning, albeit awkwardly, the idea of how crazy he was. These cases are increasingly common, it would appear, though most of them seem to involve teens talking about school shootings. And I guess these folks are all in disclosed locations, but then, you don’t hear about the ones in undisclosed locations, do you?

I mean, what are the limits of this? Is it reasonable for the average politically restive blogger to have to constantly be trying to read the worst possible interpretation of their comments in the worst possible way and wonder how the NSA will take that? And then to make amend(ment)s? Is that the implicit goal of stories like the above and the way people take everything so deathly seriously these days? Is the goal that free speech is sufficiently chilled that we don’t want to discuss any issue more controversial than how frequently we wave the flag and with what level of vigor? Isn’t this kind of self-checking and paranoia precisely what this country was allegedly founded to contrast with?

I’m increasingly thinking this is just paranoia. But here’s a reverse chilling effect for you: If I disappear and send only an awkwardly written text or e-mail saying that I’m okay and don’t go looking for me, then please go looking for me. I will never disappear with only this form of communication as my farewell.

Honestly, that should probably apply to everyone you know.

Some freedom that’s being protected right now.


The Consequences of “Intervention”

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

We don’t like the word “war” anymore. It’s so violent! It sounds so 20th century, so Web 1.0, so old-school. “Intervention” sounds like what you do with your alcoholic brother who’s gone off the rails and just won’t listen anymore, with all the condescension and superiority implied therein. Intervention is what you do with your suicidal friend, your buddy who just can’t face the divorce and the mortgage and the custody battle anymore. Intervention is what we do with foreign countries.

Oh yes, we kill just as many people with an intervention as we did with a war. Probably more, since we learned to stop counting bodies in Vietnam. We respun and reframed things so that the only bodies we cared about were the American ones and then we removed them to offices in Las Vegas instead of the front lines, made sure that the few boots left on the ground mostly faced getting severed rather than actually killed. It’s antiseptic and anesthetic, killing from long-range, the long bomb, only the occasional rogue news outlet willing to display the wailing mother to disrupt our peaceful tranquility. All those “schools” and “hospitals” just needed some good old-fashioned “intervention” after all – I mean, it’s the fault of them for having militants in and around, right? Just like it’s the fault of the infant child of the “militant” official. For surely we wouldn’t blame anyone for killing Malia Obama, wouldn’t call that terrorism. Her father’s a militant, after all.

People are really afraid of this new ISxx… ISIS, ISIL, IS, whatever it is. The comparisons have flown fast and furious to Nazis, to bin Laden, to the face of the “true evil” we’re so convinced exists outside of the American mirror. I caused a bit of a stir for a couple folks yesterday by posting this on the Blue Pyramid’s Facebook page:

American police departments have still killed a lot more unarmed innocent Americans than ISIS. #justsaying

People didn’t appreciate that I could compare the scared scared police departments in American cities gunning down unarmed teenagers to the “true evil” that was ISIS after they provocatively beheaded an American journalist. (Thought experiment: how would we treat someone in New York City taking notes and calling themselves an “ISIS journalist”? No, we wouldn’t publicly behead him, true… we prefer to do our torture and maiming far from the prying eyes of the world in Guantanamo Bay. But I do think America is sometimes naive about the double-standards we take for granted as the self-proclaimed “good guys”. Please note that I am not failing to condemn the beheading – it’s atrocious, of course – but saying we’re “so much better” or unworthy of condemnation is short-sighted and silly.)

But the fact is that Americans can’t measure threats very well. We’re all terrified of getting on planes that are something like a hundred times safer than the cars we cling to for every minor errand. We buy guns to protect us from robbers while those guns are vastly more likely to harm us than any intruder. We fear terrorism but love our local police officer. Our sense of danger is manipulated and crafted by the distortion of how we’re taught to fear things, which has nothing to do with true probability and reality.

But let’s set aside relative threat levels and my horrific implication that local police departments are more likely to gun down an unarmed American than a far-flung terrorist group. It’s deliberately provocative, I suppose, though I thought of more staunch things I could say and was considering at the time. Let’s assume, for the moment, that ISIS is the true face of evil incarnate on planet Earth.

Whose fault is that?

Scary scary!

Scary scary!

I mean, really, who made it possible for ISIS to gain a following in Iraq and Syria, to gain traction, to be able to recruit angry disaffected youth to their movement, to make people able to conduct such brutality (I mean, how easy can they make it for you, the biased American – they wear black and wave black flags!)?

Could it be… US?

When the United States embedded itself and its journalists in the war in Iraq 11 years ago, there were naysayers, just a handful, who warned of the consequences of this “intervention”. Who said that one of the greatest threats to the United States’ security came from those who had not yet even been born, not yet even cohered an ideology or a belief-set about the world, but who would grow up amongst the ruins of their country and the invasion that took whatever semblance of hope they might have had and replaced it with, at worst, rubble and dead relatives and, at best, corporate slavery to an invading state. That this next generation, like post-Versailles Germany, might just be a breeding ground for resentment, anger, and ferocity. That maybe, just maybe, killing your way out of the problem creates hundreds more people willing to kill and die to replace them because losing a relative to violent death is the most dramatically transformative, angering experience one can have in this life. And that no matter how big the drumbeat for war, how much tonnage of sheer destruction the US would drop, you just can’t kill everyone who disagrees with you, especially with this exponential increase that each death creates in the hatred felt.

So now we’re back on the brink, on more precipices, for there are always constantly renewing decisions. We have a media lining up to tell people that the devotees of ISIS eat their babies for breakfast and want to personally skewer the most sensitive parts of every man, woman, and child in the United States of America. Maybe they do, I don’t know. The amount of devastation and loss felt in the Middle East of the past decade sure would make most of us feel pretty apocalyptic and desperate and unreasonable and hateful. But everyone’s getting in line to say how demonically horrific these humans are and that the only solution is to kill them, kill them all, until they buckle and kneel and just recognize already that American corporate kleptocracy is the greatest system anyone will ever devise because it has such sheer force behind it.

Really? Are we really going to do this again?

Maybe at some point we have to just sit down and say that this kind of might-makes-right insanity, this devotion to violence as a solution is not only exactly what we claim to be fighting through the “War on Terror”, but is also something we would never tolerate from an unruly second-grader. Yes, that unruly second-grader truly believes that Bobby deserved to be pummeled on the playground. But pummeling Bobby doesn’t make Bobby like you! Even if you pummeled Bobby to death, there would be even more people who don’t like you after that. This is honestly the level on which the self-proclaimed “greatest country ever on the face of the Earth” is acting. Truly.

If you don’t believe me about this, there’s an object lesson happening just a few hundred miles away from ISIS in what most people considered to be the most sacred territory on Earth. Can we make this any clearer for you? Look how well just killing all the militarized people who disagree with you is working for Israel and Palestine. Look! Look. They have accomplished all their goals and made themselves safe by just killing all their enemies. It’s a great model for us to follow. Kill and kill and kill and no one will be left to oppose you.

I know it seems scary to just, I don’t know, not kill people for a while. This is what the police officers in Ferguson thought too. Our culture is steeped in violence and preaches daily, outside of grade schools at least, that violence is the answer to our problems, the way to solve things forever. If you don’t kill those people, they might hurt someone! Heavens to betsy! Let’s pre-emptively kill them all.

But I’ll turn again to David Foster Wallace’s prophetic essay because it’s so useful:

“Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, ‘sacrifices on the altar of freedom’? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?”
-David Foster Wallace, Just Asking, 1 November 2007

But vulnerability is the concept we fear the most. Admitting a weakness. Turning the other cheek. Letting someone else commit the violence. This notion is what is missing in everything in America today, in its bravado, its desperate clinging to a sense of superiority and exceptionalism. (We are so allergic to this concept that there are red squiggly “that’s not a word” lines under “exceptionalism” in my browser.) We cannot even comprehend a world in which we accepted periodic violence from those who would do us harm in exchange for living a life that does not ask everyone to constantly kill their way out of problems.

But that is the only world where we have a future. Because if you think ISIS is evil, just wait till you see what pops up after we’ve tried to slaughter all the ISIS people. And on and on and on. I know we’ve dressed it up and made it sound nice and tolerable and civilized with words like “intervention”. But it’s just butchering people because they disagree with you. That’s all it is. And somehow, with this species, that’s just not all that persuasive. Somehow killing someone’s whole family and then asking the lone survivor “Now do you agree with me?” yields poor results.

These lessons are far more remedial than those we should need to learn right now. But someone, somewhere, should be learning, or attempting to. Right? Power may corrupt, but it doesn’t destroy all reason and lead us to a path of unending destruction forever, does it?


Might Makes Right: America 50 Years After Freedom Summer

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

“When police come out and take a stand and wear and have equipment that makes it feel like somehow the people who are protesting are assumed to be the bad guys, I don’t think it helps take the tension out of the situation. I think it puts more tension in it.”
-Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), NPR Interview, 15 August 2014

Fifty years ago this summer, students from all over the United States traveled to the Jim Crow South to face down police and established government forces that were trying to quell the rights and privileges, few that there were, of the Blacks who comprised much, if not most, of the community in the South. They were trained in the tactics of non-violent protest, practiced taking beatings, prepared for and correctly anticipated the violent reaction that uniformed officers of the law would rain down upon them. The disappearance and eventual evidence of the murder of three young members of this protest movement is often credited as being the primary catalyst for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, arguably the last time that legislation in this country increased the rights and equality of the people of the United States.

Like the murders during Freedom Summer, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri was hardly the first time that an unarmed Black man was gunned down by uniformed officers of the law in an American city. I was living in the Bay Area when the BART police shot a man in handcuffs on New Year’s Day, an event now memorialized in the fantastic film Fruitvale Station. My home city of Albuquerque has been inundated by shootings of unarmed men by police, culminating in protests throughout the spring and even an attempted citizen’s arrest of the police chief. But like Freedom Summer’s murders, the events in Ferguson in the last week may serve as a catalyst for a reckoning long overdue in contemporary America. The question is certainly not limited to one of race, though race plays a key role. And it is not, in my opinion, limited to police, though police play a key role. The question, as I see it, is whether America will persist in being a culture of might-makes-right, where putting on a uniform of an established gun-wielding force in the United States gives one the privilege to do whatever one wants with impunity, or whether we will take a step back from this ledge of uniformed despotism and acknowledge that people are people, on equal footing, and that not wearing a uniform, much less being of a racial minority without a uniform, does not constitute being a “bad guy”.

What jarred me about Senator McCaskill’s quotation at the top of this piece when I heard it on NPR was not what has jarred so many people about the events of Ferguson, namely that the police have come out in full military regalia, thrown tear gas, shot at protestors, and are using military surplus gear. What jarred me is that she was describing our military operations in other countries as situations where other people are “assumed to be the bad guys”. This should be obvious, of course, if I think about how military operations work, but the fact is that the people of Kabul and Baghdad, let alone more far-flung remote towns in Afghanistan and Iraq, have faced what Ferguson is facing on a daily basis. When we see Ferguson on TV, we relate naturally to the people of Missouri and are horrified, but when we see Fallujah on TV, we relate to the American soldiers doing the perpetrating. We cling to this notion that somehow the people of Fallujah would greet these same standoffish fully uniformed agents of death as “liberators” or at least friends with a helping hand (like all the National Guard propaganda tells us), even though the evidence is overwhelming that this is the most fearsome, intimidating, and unfriendly stance that one set of humans could take toward another. Advancing on people or cities in riot gear with guns drawn somehow does not convince the targeted group that you are their friends. And yet failure to comply with their wishes and demands is met with violence and the underlying assumption that this violence is somehow “deserved” because compliance was offered as an option.

This is actually basically the definition of a Police State. Or, if you prefer, the state that Voldemort would construct as he attempts to during the brief moments he believes that Harry Potter is actually dead in the final book in the series. “Now is the time to declare yourself,” he says in the movie version. “Come forward and join us. Or die.” And you can see in the faces of the remaining defenders of Hogwarts the kind of defeated resignation they’re adopting, the exhaustion and fear that confronts this choice. Neville Longbottom offers a rousing speech about how Harry Potter is just one martyr among many and doesn’t signal the defeat of the movement, but we never get to see how that message would sink in without Harry’s apparent and immediate resurrection. Now we can look at this as an obvious metaphor because the dark hooded cloaks of the Death Eaters (and, well, the name Death Eaters) invert or understanding of order and what is right, demonstrating clearly that the Death Eaters are like Nazis, or that allegedly rare combination of power and wrongness. But what if Voldemort’s troops were dressed as American police officers? American military? Are the principles espoused actually that different?

Oh yes, yes, we have a Constitution and “rule of law” and sham elections and all that. But enforcement is kind of required to make any of that meaningful. After all, the Jim Crow South was a democracy. For that matter, so was Nazi Germany, at least for a while. Democracies carefully crafted to keep the less desirable parts of society on the bottom, just as modern America is. Does it really matter if disinterest and apathy or outright blocking are the means of prevention? We have plenty of both built into our current democratic structures. And when the choice of party is between one corporate sell-out and another, it really doesn’t matter whether you can vote at all. What matters, as in any might-makes-right society, is who carries the guns and who can get away with using them without consequence. And if you have a uniform on, that’s you. You can shoot unarmed people and wait for the “internal investigation” to clear you of wrongdoing, with all files sealed for another half-century until the next Freedom Summer. You can commit atrocities in foreign countries knowing that your nation has refused to submit to international law and treaties purely so they can keep you and your commanding officers out of The Hague. All for the love of power, the supremacy of this country, and the “safety” of its citizens. But not all of its citizens, of course. Not the poor, not the minorities, not the undesirables. Just the ones with the money and power to buy protection and expect their privileged lifestyle to continue at the expense of everyone else.

In his now-famous short essay “Just Asking“, David Foster Wallace examined the frightening implications of a country six years after September 11th, less than a year before he would take his own life on September 12, 2008. His conclusive sentences are explosively powerful and necessary for any serious American to consider at this juncture:

Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

The safety that the police and military of this country allegedly protect is completely illusory. No one had to fear for their lives or safety because Michael Brown was on the streets of Ferguson, any more than Saddam Hussein’s mythical weapons of mass-destruction were pointed at American cities. But both, like all declared enemies of the United States, were met with overwhelming force, as is the hallmark of a might-makes-right demonstration. Brown was not shot once in the leg to prevent him from harming officers. He was shot six times, including once in the head, which killed him immediately. How is it that we’ve come to live in a state where we think the citizenry is safer for having police officers shoot to kill unarmed individuals? Why is the training that people should be shot so many times?

The only answer to these questions is that we live in a society that still believes, fervently, in good guys and bad guys, just like Senator McCaskill said. Her issue wasn’t with this characterization of the world or even our society, but with lumping peaceful protestors in with the bad guys. And just as the Death Eaters wear black cloaks and look dark and menacing, our society has institutionally trained us to associate Black with fear, death, and antagonism. Local news and campus police reports barrage us with the message that young Black men are coming for our stuff, our health, our lives, our precious safety. And thus it is little wonder that the people who are told they are Right to put on the uniform of the Good Guys are all too willing to gun down the Bad Guys when they are abroad in the land.

In Mississippi in 1964, it was the uniform of the Ku Klux Klan, all white and all that implies, that the people put on and told themselves they were the good guys. And I am not saying that all police officers and military members of the United States might as well be in the KKK. But I am saying that the process of putting on a uniform to absolve you of your sins, transform you into a white knight, and hide your identity, is eerily similar. If it were up to the Ferguson Police Department, they still would not have released the name of Michael Brown’s shooter. Just like in the sixties, many of the police in Ferguson were hiding their badge numbers to avoid responsibility during recent crackdowns.

And people behave badly when they don’t think they’re going to be held accountable. We don’t need to rehash another sixties throwback, the Stanford Prison Experiment, to make this clear. When people act with the authority of their superior state, when they are agents of an institution rather than human people, they will do unspeakable things in the name of whatever order has imbued them with that apparent authority. And the results are terrifying and on display.

But the problem is that we attribute rationality to the side with the uniform and chaotic irrationality to anyone who stands in their way. This hearkens back to the ongoing discussion of reasons that I brought up in my last post. Anyone who is an “enemy of the state” must have no reason whatsoever for their actions because we are Right and they are Wrong. But of course people do have reasons, even for committing crimes (if in fact they are committing crimes, which most of the minorities gunned down by police of late have not been). They have reasons and we need to examine those and think about them and make changes based on what is really going on.

There are two conversations that I think we need to have in the wake of Ferguson:

1. Why do we live in a society where people feel so unsafe?
America, as a society, enjoys more material wealth and access than pretty much anywhere, ever. This is grossly unequally distributed for no particularly good reasons beyond greed and the laziness/selfishness of those at the top. Strangely, dangling incredible wealth and power in front of a bunch of people denied it for arbitrary reasons will upset those people. We have also constructed this society entirely on the basis of wealth and power meaning everything in the society and being the only determinants of a person’s value and worth, to themselves and others. On top of this, the requirement of having wealth extends to people literally having no food to eat and no roof over their head if they fail to accumulate it. The collective pressure this creates on people arbitrarily denied and/or placed at the bottom is overwhelming.

On top of this, we have gargantuan corporate interests designed to play on fear and rake money away from the wealthy and powerful by capitalizing, literally, on this fear. We have a security industry that is absolutely ballooning right now, not just in home security, but in private security forces everywhere that put on their own little corporate uniform and go intimidate their respective “bad guys” wherever they may crop up. We have a prison-industrial complex demanding a requisite number of bad guys (the ones who survive their shootings) to lock away and guard and intimidate for a requisite number of years, with more prisons to build to keep them away. America imprisons 44% more people than China, despite having 25% of the population and 0% of its Police State reputation, at least in our own eyes. Those numbers don’t look stark enough. We have 144% of China’s prisoners and China has 400% of our population. One quarter of the world’s prisoners are imprisoned in this country, but we have only 5% of the world’s population.

And part of our fear can probably be attributed to the good old institutional conservatism that comes with perceiving you have more to lose than you do to gain. It is precisely our wealth and power and privilege that makes us so afraid and makes us want to shoot and lock up anyone who would take our stuff, because who wouldn’t want our stuff, because we’re so great? So not only do the few people who would commit crimes probably have good sound structural reasons for doing so, defying the myth of “dangerous people” who would just commit crimes regardless, but our sense of fear is grossly inflated in comparison to the threat and danger that’s out there. But we keep passing harsher laws with harsher sentences to assuage our sense of burgeoning fear, but it’s really just feeding the insatiable monster of corporate fear and imprisonment that is making some of the highest profits in the land.

The distinction, by the way, between fear of safety from domestic crime and that from international terrorism, really starts to break down here. The only key distinction is that there is so much less of a threat from international terrorism and thus that threat is even more obviously grossly exaggerated. But the entire dynamic between people profiting off inflating our fears and us paying corporations for the illusion of safety pretty much works for both, right down to the overt racism of who we’re trained to fear and there being actual reasons for whatever limited threat there might be, etc.

2. Why does race continue to be the way people in this country, especially in authority, sort other people?
I know there’s a lot that sociologists or anthropologists might say here about this being innate to who we are and “hard-wired” into our fabric as people, but if we’re going to go there, rape and murder and urinating in the woods are equally deeply ingrained and yet we aspire to stop doing those things too. The whole point of society and human progress is to overcome the barbarity of human nature, so don’t tell me we can’t beat this one.

Race isn’t even real. It’s a racist white person’s view of how people look, which is how we can get “Asian” as a race representing the most diverse and largest continent in the world as a whole, but “Hispanic” is a race of white people that look a little darker than the other white people. So why does this busted sorting mechanism still hold so much thrall over how our authorities behave?

I don’t have a lot of answers for fixing this one, but I do know it pervades all institutions and, ultimately, all individuals. As individuals, I think we need to stop utilizing race as a descriptor in as many situations as we can, stop talking about it like it’s real except where we need to (as in identifying racism). Even things that are supposedly empowering, like talking about the “Black experience”, serve to make race more real and especially to make sweeping stereotypes and generalizations which are the root of racism in the first place. I am not saying that we can’t or shouldn’t discuss all aspects of prejudice and racism and problem that we can identify, but I think we need to get away from using this as a sort criterion in places where we can. And I know there are people who will think this is my White Privilege talking and that Whites can afford to not talk about race, but others can’t, but I think you’re misunderstanding what I’m saying. I’m saying that we should stop talking about other people primarily by their race. If it is helpful to you to identify with a race and talk about that experience in terms of that, fine. But other people shouldn’t be putting that on you and should stop as much as possible.

Part of the problem is that people, especially police, use race as their first sort criterion. And lots of people do it in casual conversation about people as well, though far more in New Jersey than they did in the Bay Area, I’ve noticed. And once you start describing someone by race first, even if it’s just as a way of separating them in a crowd, then all kinds of assumptions and stereotypes and garbage follow. And you’re not thinking about that person as an individual, but as a group. And not a group with actual characteristics, but literally a racists’ grouping of that group and everything that entails. And this makes things worse. Quadruply so when it’s in the context of reporting crimes or possible suspects of same.

And this gets into the institutional issues. And this is a really thorny problem. I think it would be better, holistically, if the SAT didn’t ask people their racial information. That said, doing so is considered the only way to catch institutional racism within the SAT. Most places where racial data is collected in the United States are using that to try to track issues of racism and racial inequality. But that process itself engenders more institutional racism. It is helpful to know that Black and Latino citizens are far more likely to be unemployed in our economy than Whites. However, this data itself is creating racist assumptions and understandings in our collective understanding of these artificial groups. And this becomes a self-perpetuating cycle throughout our institutions. Which is exactly how Ferguson can be happening fifty years after Freedom Summer and Freedom Summer happened one-hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

We need to track racial data to know that minorities are convicted and imprisoned at a vastly higher rate than Whites and this is likely because of racism. But this same data tells us that minorities commit far more crimes and thus justifies racial profiling in Police Departments all over the country, which creates Ferguson. And the only thing that I can identify for sure in all this is that talking about race like it’s real and not like it’s a social construct primarily used to justify racism is a big part of the problem.

Which is not to say that people can’t still identify with the parts of themselves that matter to them and their actual experience. Please don’t misunderstand me. It might be very important to a person we label as Black that they are of African descent and that their ancestors were slaves who were freed and all sorts of other things that we currently identify with the “Black experience”. But the race is just a way of saying “White people think you’re Black”. Which is helpful in discussing racism, which is perceptual, but not helpful in discussing the individual’s identity, which may have a long history of national origin and culture that they choose to embrace or not.

I think that element of choice is part of what’s essential. No one chooses race. And no one chooses their ancestry, either, but one can choose what’s important to their identity about it.

This becomes clearer, I think, when looking at mistaken racial identity. My debate team that I just coached had all sorts of people whose racial identity was wrongly identified all the time. A Dominican who was always perceived to be Black, Indians who were always seen as Hispanic, and so on. And in this, when people are looking at race, you are not your actual identity. You are your perceived identity, because that’s all race is, how someone looks. Functionally, those people were their mistaken race. And in a debate league, they may have time to correct the misunderstanding and identify their actual background. But in a dark alley facing police, no amount of clarification is going to do any good. They are what they are perceived to be and if the police are racist, by training or persuasion, then that’s that.

Even if you disagree with me vehemently and think that race as it is constructed can some day be a force for good, I think we can agree that a conversation about revamping how race is dealt with and seen in this country is necessary. And while I am uncertain as to the precise prescription for fixing this issue, I know it starts with that.

In the meantime, the buses of protesters will continue to roll toward Missouri as they did fifty years ago toward Mississippi. And Obama and the one Black police officer they can find to read prepared statements will continue to blame the protesters for causing a ruckus and being upset about the state of things, continue to advocate for law and order. But as long as law and order means putting on a uniform and believing you are a Good Guy out there to hunt down Bad Guys, then this kind of awfulness is going to continue. Only people dealing with people, flaws and all, working together, can solve this crisis. Hiding behind a uniform, an institution, a set of beliefs about your superiority, is only going to lead to more deaths.



My Reason for Reason

Categories: A Day in the Life, Metablogging, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

My friend Ariel isn’t on Facebook. Thus she was inevitably confused by my portrayal of a lot of the Robin Williams reactions in Wednesday’s post about suicide. To her mind, there weren’t a lot of people trying to stifle discussions of suicide and its real causes and she pointed me instead to this New Yorker article, their currently most popular online feature.

Of course, this article opens up a whole related but slightly different can of worms in the way people talk about suicide. Andrew Solomon takes the opportunity to use his piece to gently lampoon the notion that one could even have a reason for killing themselves. Consistently using quotation marks around the word “reason”, he states that an effort to explain why people take this very conscious, deliberate, and permanent act “seems to bring logic to the illogic of self-termination.” He takes as given that no one could have a reason, good or otherwise, for this action, and concludes the paragraph saying “as, indeed, most people who kill themselves have little ‘reason’ other than depression (unipolar or bipolar), which is at the base of most suicide.”

Not only is a lot of this exactly what I was railing against in my prior post, but it smacks of the insidious way that the US media talks about terrorism and other acts they find abhorrent, unrelatable, and thus, they conclude, must be inexplicable. I wrote about this in the context of coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings last year:

“This is why acts of terror are chronically called ‘senseless,’ ‘insane,’ ‘unfathomable,’ and other similar words. You may mistake all these synonyms for just being characterizations of duress and grief, but they are far more insidious than that. These words are carefully chosen to illustrate that the only cause for terrorism is not misused anger or understandable, if abhorrent, desire to stand up and kill for what someone thinks is right, but total incomprehensible craziness. Even though the news also begrudgingly (though decreasingly) reports our many actual crimes against humanity abroad (Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, drone strikes, civilian casualties, military rapes, etc.). Even though we use the exact same means as the terrorists in killing other people, often innocent people, for a broader self-interested cause. When we do it, it’s righteous. When someone else does it, we can’t even think about why.”
-18 July 2013

What Solomon clearly fails to see is how insulting this perspective is on suicide and how demeaning it is to those wrestling with it. He clearly should understand this. He says “Suicide is not a casual behavior; for all that it may entail impulsivity, it is also a profound and momentous step for which many people don’t have the force of will.” And he goes on to praise Robin Williams as intelligent and brilliant, at least via inference, without the slightest understanding that he is saying Williams’ most momentous decision of his life was made, literally, without thinking. That he could not possibly have had a reason.

But reason is behind everything we do in this life, including the decision to end that of our own or others. The increasing narrative abroad in the land seems to be that acts we don’t like should be branded as done without reason so as to disregard them and discredit their doers. No wonder mass-murderers are feeling compelled to leave multi-hundred-page manifestos before they go on shooting rampages and suicide bombers film videos of themselves making explanations. It’s almost like they wouldn’t do these things without the reasons that they find very compelling for doing them. Not only does saying that there can’t possibly be a reason ignore the blatant truth of reality, but it causes us to fail to engage with things that harm society in any way that could lead to fixing them. If the only thing we can do in the face of mass-shootings or terrorism or suicide is to throw up our hands and go “oh, people without reason, guess they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do!”, then we might as well not try to solve or do anything at all.

Which seems, recurrently, to be the point of the way so many people are talking about suicide and why I had tangible suggestions for those actually dealing with it in my last post. Because so many of the people writing about suicide have no earthly idea what contemplating it is actually like, people approach it like a rabid three-headed chinchilla that can’t be tamed but some professional must somehow be able to deal with, maybe, but gosh, that’s so illogical. And Mr. Solomon demonstrates his poor understanding profoundly, with this trite and pathetic conclusion: “Williams’s suicide demonstrates that none of us is immune. If you could be Robin Williams and still want to kill yourself, then all of us are prone to the same terrifying vulnerability.” No, sir. The way you write about suicide shows that you are thoroughly immune. Which is great, good for you. Now please stop talking about this so that people who actually struggle can speak about the actual experience and what it really feels like.

I am not criticizing my friend Ariel for sending me this article, but I also know that she and I are on opposite sides of the cup-fullness debate. And I think this article may help a lot of people who have no preliminary comprehension of suicidalism feel like they are getting an understanding of the phenomenon. But it is wrong-headed to say that rational, intelligent, suffering people have no reasons for the choice they make as though depression were some kind of Imperius Curse that just forced them to have no alternative. Thousands of suicidal people who don’t die every day are proof that there is a choice and thousands of suicide notes are proof that there are reasons.

I’m curious whether Mr. Solomon wrote his piece before or after the revelation that Robin Williams was facing a Parkinson’s diagnosis on top of his other struggles and had years of slow degeneration to look forward to. I wonder if that meets his “reason” criterion or if we could learn that Williams was terminal and experiencing massive trauma in every single nerve-ending and Solomon would still brazenly trudge on in the belief that self-termination is always the ultimate proof that people can act without reasons.

I’ve been trying to think of a way to tie this issue to the Ferguson, Missouri question and how people are discussing it, but I don’t think I can really get there. I’m honestly exhausted with defending the notion that suicidal people may have good reasons to be sad, upset, and yes, even consider ending their own lives. I would like to talk about happier topics, like the Mariners’ possible playoff run and more intricacies of New Orleans, but my anger about how people are discussing this topic is having trouble subsiding.

The reason that I want to understand is why people feel so much better if they can just say that something is totally unreasonable. Maybe it’s coming from a debate background where everything is on the table and anything can be defended in one way or another that makes this notion so alien to me, but the idea that one can just dismiss out-of-hand the idea that another person has reasons for what they’re doing is the definition of unobservant behavior to me. You may not like the reasons and the reasons may not make perfect sense or even be right. But there are reasons for everything a person does. It’s kind of what defines a person.

But I guess if we’re all allegedly just materialist machines, then the mainstream belief is that thought and reason don’t exist at all. There’s only the machine, whose goal is survival and procreation, and it is either working as intended or broken. And any action that interferes with the goal is defined as being broken, so please make sure you go to the mechanic to get tuned up if you’re broken! You may think this is an oversimplification, but it’s a lot like what the logic of this mentality sounds like to me. And it should scare you if you believe in free will or non-conformity or even just a notion of basic personal liberties, at least a little. People are people, not machines. Hopelessly more complicated and always acting with reasons. You don’t have to like the reasons or agree with them, but it is so doggone demeaning to say they aren’t there.

This is not a picture of a suicidal person.

This is not a picture of a suicidal person.

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