Sunday, November 22, 2015

Affluenza Nervosa

The revelation that one of the participants in the November 2015 Paris attacks may have gained entry to the European Union by posing as a refugee from Syria has lead to growing calls for the United States to suspend any and all plans to bring displaced Syrians into the country, mainly from the political right. Republican lawmakers from all levels of the political hierarchy are calling out the program as a threat to the homeland, despite the fact that it involves extensive vetting or prospective entrants to the country and takes nearly two years to resettle a person. When it was pointed out that it was much easier, and far, far, far faster to simply purchase a visa waiver than to pose as a refugee, Congress decided to go after that program as well.

And while many people, especially those in majority Republican districts, have applauded the bunker mentality that is being engendered, it has started to generate some heartfelt pushback from Americans who feel that our rush to throw loudly proclaimed ideals overboard in the face of a potential, but nebulous, threat challenges our claim to be "The home of the brave." And it's not just citizens who feel that it's an over-reaction.

While the United States does not always rise to the very top in such considerations, it is a wealthy and safe nation, with a high level of productivity and personal income. Yet, it is not difficult to find people who feel that the wolf is always at the door. Part of this is legitimate, depending on one's outlook; I know people who can make a persuasive argument that people in America's "middle class" are objectively poor, based on the relationship of their income to the prices of certain commodities, like housing and medical care. (Yet at the same time, luxury items are cheap enough that even absolutely poor Americans can access a lifestyle that would have seemed utterly fantastic to some of the wealthiest people of ages past.) But part of this is purely a matter of perception - and it is a perception that is endlessly played up by our political classes. To borrow from H. L. Mencken (yes, I know that I just quoted this in my previous post): "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed at its own deprivation (and hence clamorous to be led to prosperity) by menacing it with an endless series of illusory threats to both the individual and the general welfare, each hobgoblin a little different from the last." And as's John Archibald points out, when people understand themselves to be broke, they stop caring about their sense of right and wrong.

The United States is in a phase where it is one of the most affluent nations on the planet (although, as I noted, how you determine this matters) yet enough of the populace feels do deprived of basic necessities that they have lost all sense of the values that they claim the country to be about. (Well, until a criticism is leveled, anyway.) Human beings are not typically brave unto the point of needless destruction - and we live in a media and political environment that is eager to tell us that said destruction is always just around the corner. Rather than say: "Where we are is good, but I have a plan to make it better," the common political message is one of: "We stand at the brink of destruction, and I will do what needs to be done to save us." And that ethos of "doing what needs to be done" often drives us to ignore what we claim to stand for. Because while ideals are all fine and good, the moment they threaten to become a "suicide pact," they must be abandoned. And we are quick to see other people living up to their ideals as a knife poised to slit our own throats.

One thing that I have noticed from all corners of the political spectrum is a lack of faith in the power of creation. Everyone who I have encountered who feels that Americans live at an unacceptable level of deprivation espouses a solution that calls for finding the people who have what we need, and taking it from them - whether it's redistributing the ill-gotten gains of the very wealthy, locking the world's poor out of domestic markets to protect jobs (and extract higher prices from captive customers) or "fighting terrorists there so we don't have to fight them here," we understand that it easier to take wealth, opportunities for employment and even peace from others rather than work to create more of these things for ourselves. We are at a level were we have just enough to realize that we want so much more, and are at a loss to know where to find it.

Freedom requires, to a degree, that one see the best things in life as effectively infinite. Accordingly, we cannot be free in all things - some resources have limits, and pretending that they don't is a recipe for disaster. But living in a world in which we view everything as critically constrained can be just as catastrophic - because we loose sight of not only how to create enough for ourselves, but we lose any willingness we had to share what we have with others. And whether it's Latin Americans risking their lives to cross the border for work, Russia looking to carve up the Ukraine or Islamic radicals resorting to mass murder for a nation of their own many of the problems that we see coming from outside of our own borders are caused by others' sense of their own critical deprivation.

Yes, I understand that I'm asking the United States to be better than others are. Call that bigotry, privilege or whatever you will. But it can also be called walking the walk, since we talk the talk.

Friday, November 20, 2015


Ever since I first encountered it, this quote from H. L. Mencken has spoken to me: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."

We have no vetting process in place. We have no reliable way to determine who is an innocent refugee and who is a terrorist, who wants to use those freedoms against us.
Washington State Representative Jay Rodne. R-Snoqualmie
Our current process for bringing in refugees takes 18 to 24 months to complete. Refugees are vetted by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, and the Departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security which includes having their fingerprints taken and biographical information collected. Then every single refugee is individually interviewed by people trained to look for deceit. And if the refugees are from Syria, they aren't done yet - as United States officials check out their stories. All of this happens, mind you, before any refugees are allowed to set foot on American soil.

When I think of "affluenza," what comes to my mind is fear. A fear of someone coming along and taking all of the stuff that the affluent rightfully deserve, because they're better and more moral (more Christian, really given that this is the United States) and more hardworking than everyone else on Earth, so of course everyone envies us and hates us, and we have to keep them at bay because otherwise they'll come and get us. And that's what people like Representative Rodne are playing on. That fear that everyone in the world who isn't like us is a threat to us - and a threat so powerful that even one person who might do us harm is completely unacceptable. Only absolute safety can be tolerated.

Unless of course, absolute safety means doing anything about the American tendency to use violence, including murder, to solve problems.

"If there had been a concealed carry in that theater in Paris; if there had been individuals there that had been concealed carry like we enjoy in this country; had there been individuals there that were properly concealing, maybe we wouldn't have 100 dead hostages," Rodne said. "People of France have been disarmed."
But people in the United States carry guns just to go to Starbucks. And have been shown to be quick to attack anyone who looks suspiciously Middle Eastern. Because it would be un-American to start screening people for severe mental illnesses before allowing them to purchase weapons, or expand background checks. So I don't see what the good representative is worried about. Certainly if terrorists attack Key Arena or The Gorge, surely they'll be met with a hail of gunfire from all of the music lovers with concealed carry licenses.

What I hear from Representative Rodne are little more than Republican talking points, designed to use a stereotypical fear of Islam and disdain for the Obama Administration to allow him to present himself as a defender of a vulnerable and ill-served America. And conservatives who want to see themselves as vulnerable and ill-served (rather than simply admit to a partisan dislike of the President) flock to the message, precisely because it tells them what they want to hear about themselves.

h/t: Jamie Crisalli.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


And then came the winds, the rain and the cold of Autumn.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Vote

The point behind universal suffrage is not that the majority is somehow more enlightened than a given minority. Universal suffrage is intended as a protection. Autocrats and ruling minorities rarely see themselves a oppressive and corrupt. Instead they see the people they are keeping down as unfit, due to their lack of enlightenment, to govern themselves. They live in a world where the masses need them more than they need the masses - and so when they see to their own needs and comforts, they are doing the masses a favor.

While it is true that in a system where everyone is allowed to vote that the majority may advance itself at the expense of minorities, this is a known imperfection in the system, and one that is considered more palatable than the reverse, in which a minority advances itself at the expense of the rest of the society. It is easy to trust in the enlightenment and benevolence of those people who think like we do, and conclude that there is no danger in subordinating the desires of the public at large to the guiding hand of those who know best.

But this is one of the problems with our current understanding of Evil. We view the historical occurrences where unaccountability to the greater society as being born of the inherent moral bankruptcy of those who rose to power, rather than the intrinsic danger that a conviction that one objectively knows right and wrong entails.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Force of Arms

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Step back. And I'm not speaking on anybody's behalf. I'm speaking on my behalf.

SABLE-SMITH: The demonstrator telling us to back up was a white man. So was the other reporter, a grad student from Denmark. Then two more demonstrators who were black women called for more people to come help move us away from them.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Can a black man please come over here please? Thank you. Black men...

Bram Sable-Smith, Demonstrators Clash With Journalists At The University Of Missouri
If the desire is to place some distance between student demonstrators and the media reporters attempting to cover the protests, why call a "black man" specifically?

One of the downsides of being a Black man in the United States today is that it carries a connotation of violence and intimidation - something that I've tripped over from time to time in my own experiences with people, and not just people I don't know. It's a weight that can be unpleasant to carry, and it being a job doesn't make it any less so. Part of the reason why I quit working with children back in the 1990s was that being a man in a profession dominated by women, I was often called upon to be "the heavy." Some kid is completely out of control, and needs to be restrained? Okay. One of the older boys getting in your face and realizing that he's at eye level to you making you nervous? Handled. Going to the park with the group, and there's a kid who's decided that they're going to act out because they can't go? Sure. Then comes the day that you notice that the kids don't speak to you as openly as they used to. And then, you walk into a room, and everyone goes silent. Because you're the guy who shows up when it's about to get real.

Now, when I worked with kids, the gradual deterioration of my relationships with them had nothing to do with the fact that I was black - it was more than I was the disciplinarian, because I had the mass to carry it off. But when we're dealing with the public at large, it's a different story. Harvard's "'Weapons - Harmless Objects' Implicit Association Test" measures (to the extent that the tests are accurate) the degree to which the test-taker automatically associates ethnicity and weaponry. Using Black men as weapons certainly can't help that.