Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Alms for the Pols

This was clipped from a fundraising e-mail that I received a couple of weeks back.

That would need to be a big jerry can...
The irony is that had I donated to the political campaign in question, it wouldn't have purchased any gasoline, infant child care, bus service or rent for anyone in North Carolina (let alone Washington, where I happen to live), except indirectly, when someone in an ad office somewhere spent it out of their paycheck.While the solicitation made a big deal out of "fighting for middle-class families," anyone concerned with helping the middle class would likely do much better by them through ponying up $9,000 and helping someone pay for infant child care than they would by cutting a check to a political campaign.

The money spent on politics isn't about directly helping people. It's about trying to influence policies by helping a specific candidate get their message out to people who otherwise don't really care about politics. (The motivated voters show up whether or not the mail and airwaves are blanketed with advertisements.) Trying to motivate people to open their wallets by implying that money spent to help the opposition get their message out would be better spent as charity seems like a double-edged sword. Maybe it's a problem that it apparently isn't.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Be For Real

I was in the car, listening to and interview about the need to change our economic model on the radio, and the interviewer asked the guest why so many people felt strapped for cash, and the guest chalked part of it up to the fact that people now pay other people do things that once were "free" (in that people did them for themselves) and that people personally own things that they don't use very often and thus could be shared among a number of people. As examples, he mentioned food preparation (restaurants and grocery store delicatessens) and ownership of power tools.

Now, I completely understand the idea that spending your own time to cook and sharing power tools with everyone in the neighborhood would save money. And my standard objection to this is not that there's anything wrong with it per se, but what then happens to the restaurant workers and the power tool makers? But I think I've flogged that horse enough, so I'm going to leave it alone and simply approach this from another angle.

Consumerism = Bad. I get it. No, seriously, I understand the concept. But - I don't think that consumerism is that bad. As in so bad that we need to do something about it right at this very second. And so we have time to do things in a way that's less likely to blow up in our faces. If you really think that people should be doing more of their own cooking, there's a simple answer to that - find the people who are willing to prepare food for money, and give them better jobs than food preparation. As the price of labor goes up, people will do more of their own cooking. It's what happened with the Dot Com Bubble was still in full swing. Restaurants needed to raised wages to compete with technology companies for workers, and some closed down (local take-and-bake pizza and causal dining places immediately come to mind) because they couldn't find enough people to staff the place at and stay competitive.

In the end, expecting people to take something that's inexpensive and treat it as if it were expensive doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense. If that's what we need to rely on to create a sustainable economy, then we're in trouble, because the approach artificially creates and exports poverty. A more organic shift in prices of goods and services seems to be more in order.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Monday, July 21, 2014

Horror Stories

It’s probably not the spooky supernatural variety to which he is referring but rather the slight-of-hand, illusion-based brand which tricks the audience into believing something happened or is happening but in reality it really isn’t… and never did… much like the ‘fish-to-men’ theory of evolution which is being thrust onto the innocent minds of a generation of victims of the worst form of child abuse to hit humanity.
PPSIMMONS "Science or Child Abuse? New Evolution Book Geared to Preschoolers Teaches Children They Evolved from Fish!"
About half a lifetime ago, I met a little boy. He was one of a number of siblings, few of whom shared a father. His mother loved babies. Toddlers, she was okay with. Children, she had no time for. When the father of her youngest child came to take his son for a while, she refused to allow him to take the child - unless he also took the little boy with him. Eventually, the state took her children, including the baby, away from her. She was, of course, remorseful, and promised, every time there was a family event, that she would come and spend time with the little boy. In the four -plus years that I knew the little boy, he became more acquainted with my mother, than I became with his. He met my mother once.

Around the same time, I met a little girl. She told me a story about how her neighbors shuttled her from house to house, via ground-floor windows and back doors, while her foster father tore up the neighborhood looking for her. He, you see, wanted to fool around a bit, and wasn't used to being denied. She told me this in the matter-of-fact way that a child might describe what had happened at school the day before. Enough time had passed that she was fuzzy on the details. By the time she related the story to me, it had been two, maybe three years since the events in question. When I met her, she wasn't yet nine.

Months pass. There are more children and more stories. One child was debated for intake. According to her case file, her mother, unemployed and desperate for money to supply her drug habit, sold the girl to men for sex. The reason her intake was debated was that the facility took in children from four to thirteen. The child wasn't quite old enough yet.

Three stories. Three out of I don't remember how many. Even at the time, several of them began to blend into an undifferentiated mass of pain, horror and sorrow. At first, I worked to be the a good clinician's assistant. I listened carefully, and was attentive to each child's tone, affect and body language. Once I had time, I would carefully write down what they had told me, and deliver it to the social workers, thinking that it would help in each child's therapy. I learned, fairly quickly, that these stories were well known. Those children who told them usually did so as a form of sympathy-seeking. All of the new people heard them. At first, I was too much the good clinician to respond emotionally. By the time I was able to set aside my clinical detachment, I was too jaded. When child-care workers from different facilities got together, a Misery Poker by Proxy game would nearly always ensue, with everyone vying to tell the most heart-rending story. The first time I encountered this phenomenon, I was horrified. The second time, I was sure I had a winning hand.

In a way, I envy this "PPSimmons" person. It must be nice, to live in a world where "the worst form of child abuse to hit humanity" consists of nothing more than teaching them that all terrestrial life evolved from creatures that lived in the oceans. I know of any number of children who would gladly live in a world where teaching them that the Genesis story is not literally true rates as the worst that adults would ever do to them. Even as an adult it seems immeasurably better than the world we have now, punctuated as it is with rare, horrific events that scar everyone they touch.

So I find myself hoping that they can stay in the world that their beliefs have created for them. The truth may set you free, but when it turns you out into the cold and dark, you realize that, sometimes, being set free isn't all it's cracked up to be.

P.S.: I get that PPSimmons is being intentionally hyperbolic - it would be ridiculous beyond all reason for him to suggest, say, that children be removed from their homes because a parent taught them evolution. And in a way, that's the issue. The casual belittling of horrific events simply so that he mock people with whom he has a sincere, but ultimately trivial, disagreement.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Acceptable Losses

On three separate occasions in my adult life I have looked into a woman's eyes, and been utterly surprised to find her looking back at me in what I can only describe as abject terror. I had done something that, when I did it, struck me as completely innocuous, let alone nonthreatening. But a moment later I realized that I had, without intending to, placed another human being at fear for her life. Or worse. On several other occasions, I have intimidated or worried someone without meaning to. Nothing major. There was no perceived threat of imminent violence. Just a unintended, if unintentional, reminder that I was bigger than they, stronger than they and apparently, ready, willing and able to use that against them. It's one of those things that always lives in the back of my mind, because it generates a certain sensitivity to where I am, and who might be inhabiting that space with me - whether I know it or not.

I mention this in the context of a Rolling Stone article about the growing popularity of gun clubs for women. Now, this being Rolling Stone, the piece has a distinct leftward tilt to it. But that's okay. Everyone has their biases, and when people (or publications) wear them on their sleeves, they're easy to correct for. Now, I'm something off a firearms buff myself, although I don't indulge myself very often, so I'm all for it. If women want to spend their time shooting, let them. There are worse things that people could be doing. What worries me is the strain of social media reaction to the article that celebrates this as a wonderful blow struck in the name of women's rights. To paraphrase: Nature made the genders, but Sam Colt made them equal.

I understand the impulse to see a firearm as a means of evening the odds against someone bigger and stronger than yourself. As someone who believes in winning much more than I believe in fair fights, I understand the appeal of firearms simply as a means of making sure that you're still around to believe in winning. But I also understand the risks that this line of thinking presents. It's fairly easy for me to imagine that the terrified look that I'd accidentally triggered in someone being the last thing that I ever saw.

One of the women that I know owns a handgun, given to her by her father, and I'm glad she has it. I know as well as anyone that when seconds count, the police are only minutes away, and I'd rather that she was able to defend herself. (I'm less than pleased with the fact that she seems to have zero interest in learning how to use it well, but she doesn't answer to me in such things, so I don't hound her.) But when she was having mental health issues, and I and some of the other people close to her realized that a weapon in the home was a liability. When I told her, "You're not in a good place right now, and it's a bad idea for you to keep a gun right now; you need to let me have it," I imagined for a moment the coroner listing my Cause of Death as "Poor choice of words." People are right when they point out that it doesn't matter how big or strong you are when the other person has a gun. But to that I'd add that sometimes, it doesn't matter how well-intentioned you are, either. You can be shot just as dead.

None of this changes one simple fact - my chances of being shot by a woman; lover, acquaintance or stranger, that I've unintentionally frightened half to death are vanishingly small, and made even more so by the fact that I live alone (and so don't have to contend with what might be the most "likely" scenario, being shot by a jumpy significant other). So slim that it's really worth making the trade off for them having an increased ability to defend themselves against people who are more deliberately scary. But it's worth keeping in mind that it's not zero. When the authors of the Second Amendment wrote it, they understood that the simple fact that they were establishing a right to the public availability of deadly force meant that some number of people would be shot whom no-one ever intended. Pretending that we've somehow risen above that is unwise.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Engines of Success

It was mentioned to me that some 60% of people in the United States believe that hard work and effort are the keys to success. It came up in the context of people being taken advantage of by unscrupulous politicians, who use their belief in the power of hard work against them. The degree to which hard work is a reliable indicator of one's degree of success is subject of constant debate, mainly because for most people "hard work" and "success" are something akin to "pornography" - something they can't define, but that they know on sight.

In my own experience, simply working hard at something, regardless of the amount of effort expended, is not considered "success." It's simply hard work. And that's where opportunity comes in. Opportunity is the engine that turns hard work into success. But not all engines are created equally. Some are built for speed, some are built for fuel efficiency, some are built for hauling heavy loads and some? Well, some simply aren't as good as others. Just as efficiency is not evenly distributed among mechanical engines, efficiency is not evenly distributed in opportunities - some grant much better economy than others. (And isn't that the point - to get as much productivity out of a given amount of work as possible?)

Simply assuming that as long as someone "worked hard enough" (something which is usually only determined in hindsight) that an opportunity of sufficient efficiency to raise them to a certain level of relative affluence will come along is, frankly, lazy. It's how we get out of actually needing to understand enough about people and situations to accurately evaluate them. But it's also a means of attempting to control the world, because it means that we don't have to think about the fact that some opportunities are going to be more productive than others - we simply assume that what we get out will be some fixed multiple of what we put in, and that is that. But that's an assumption with consequences.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

If You Can't Beat'em, Stop Trying

Playing In Peoria

One of the idioms that the Atomic Age has brought us is that of Critical Mass, the tipping point at which something happens. In the United States, issues tend to achieve critical mass when they trigger the fears of the "middle class" the somewhat amorphous group of people who are understood to inhabit the central place in American economic life, neither rich, nor poor. Generally speaking, the American middle class White and concentrated in "Suburbia." The partisan affiliation of the middle class varies - older members who live farther away from cities trend Republican, while younger people closer to the urban cores trend Democrat. But what makes the middle class politically central is that its fears move the political needle. Once the middle class becomes concerned with something, then it becomes Important.

David Dennis points this out in an article in the Guardian, where he describes the differences in American attitudes concerning the rare multiple homicides in areas that touch the middle class and the more common multiple killings that mainly afflict the urban poor and minorities.

The Mother's Day shooting [in New Orleans] is so irrelevant that politicians haven't even bothered to mention it to further their anti-gun agendas. If the shootings aren't even important enough for politicians to spin, then it's truly reached a black hole of irrelevance.
Gun violence in places like New Orleans, Chicago or, for that matter, Appalachia are politically irrelevant because, from the perspective of the middle class, they happen to Someone Else, living Someplace Else, and as long as those people don't come to middle class homes, schools, workplaces or recreational areas, they simply aren't a problem.

It's worth noting that this isn't the only issue that works out like this. Teen pregnancy and single motherhood have been issues in the United States for as long as there has been a United States. But when it was perceived as confined to poor and minority women, it wasn't an issue. It was only when the middle class became concerned that their children may have become sexually active that the issue really entered the national consciousness.

This is simply one of the issues that is baked into the American implementation of republicanism. Those issues that spur the middle class to political activity become important, because it's a large number of potential voters, and when things are going okay for them, they tend not to rock the boat. But when their concerns are not being dealt with to their satisfaction (or they feel that too many resources are going people other than themselves) politicians start losing their jobs.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


Reverend Nathanial Martin: Looks just like police brutality, you know, to use a hackneyed phrase - the old R word is definitely at play in this.

Shereen Marisol Meraji: The R word meaning race?

Reverend Martin: Meaning race, yeah, bigotry, bias, hatred - the whole nine yards.
NPR - Community Outraged Over Video Showing Officer Beating Woman
More than likely, you've heard of this case by now - a mentally ill African-American woman, barefoot, running into traffic, and a white California Highway Patrol officer throwing her to the ground and beating her.

All the hallmarks of a case of racially-motivated inappropriate use of force (which, it seems to me is becoming just as hackneyed as "police brutality"). There's only one problem. There's just the one hallmark. The officer was white, the person being beaten, black.

While the fact that the perpetrator is a member of the majority group and the target a member of a historically oppressed minority group may be necessary to sustain a charge of bigotry, bias and hatred, it is not sufficient. Because of a fact that, in keeping with the idea that this is the Internet, can be expressed as: Any single display of assholery, directed at someone of a different ethnic extraction than the asshole, is indistinguishable from racism. And right now, given the information that we have, all we can really determine is that, judging by the officer's actions, he was, with malice forethought or not, being a colossal asshole.

Given this, asking CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow if he thought the incident was racially motivated is really premature, despite how well the question plays, and the fact that Commissioner Farrow's answer seemed more like a non-answer. But what was the man supposed to say? He's Commissioner of the California Highway Patrol, not a mind-reader.

One of the things that I learned in my twenties is that the world seems a much less threatening place when I don't wrack my brain trying to determine if someone is an asshole and a racist, or simply an asshole, when I only have a sample size of one, and regardless of what conclusion I reach, they're still an asshole. Okay, if I have to deal with assholes, rather than racists, I lose some victim cred. There's a tragedy. If the slow-poking fruitnob who flipped me off in traffic the other day was doing his impression of a mobile roadblock because he was a dick, rather than because I was black, all I've lost is the specter of someone I'm unlikely to ever encounter again taking exception to the color of my skin.

Granted the California case is a bit more serious, but again, if the officer turns out to be simply overworked, have anger-management issues or a be an amateur sadist, rather than a racist, we still don't lose anything. There's no affirmative defense for what the officer has done that kicks in if, and only if, he's a racist asshole, rather than a run-of-the-mill asshole. And by the same token, a finding of racial animosity isn't going to make anything better for Marlene Pinnock. She's not going to be released from the hospital sooner, or be any less mentally it.

The United States has a history of racism. There's no getting around that. But the simple fact that some number of people were racists yesterday does not mean than every incident that happens today is directly traceable back to that history. Constantly seeking to make that connection isn't healthy for us. For any of us.

Blessed Are

It seems to have become fashionable to complain about American Christians having adopted a persecution complex. There's an article(http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2014/07/08/do_anti_gay_christians_really_face_employment_discrimination.html) over at Slate all about it. And I get it, it's really annoying when people who are legally members of a protected class of American citizens, and one that is an overwhelming majority, to boot, jump on the bandwagon on wailing about how everyone is out to get them. I'll admit that I'm not above snarking about it and rolling my eyes myself. But this is one of those things that should come as a surprise to precisely no-one with a working understanding of Christianity.

My freshman year in college was an introduction to the idea that being African-American could be considered something that more than skin deep, and there was a Right way, and a Wrong way to go about it. Being myself, I learned was the Wrong way. Having grown up in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood, I had the language and mannerisms of a White suburbanite. I also got along fairly well with many White people - and that was my real failing. To the degree that "Blackness" was often seen as being aggressively Not White, being the target of a certain amount of everyday racism became proof that one was being Black the Right way. To me, being "properly Black" often seemed a lot like picking unnecessary fights with people. But what did I know?

For me, Christian complaints about being society's new whipping boys fall into the same mold.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Matthew 5:10-12

Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
Luke 6:22-23

Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
Luke 6:26
Once one assumes a correlation between the opprobrium and condemnation of "people" and being righteous, akin to the prophets and due heavenly rewards, it becomes understandable how that same persecution becomes a positive. Because the more people are against you, the more likely you are to be doing it right. And, as Luke points out, vice versa, so if the broader society openly welcomes you then that would be just as much evidence that you're doing it wrong.

From the outside, of course, it does look ludicrous. People in the United States overwhelmingly identify as Christian. The largest non-Christian religions in the country only poll in single digit percentages. But from the inside, it's often a different story. In my own experience, many Christians, especially evangelicals, are aggressive gatekeepers of the faith, being keen to lock out anyone who fails to live up to this or that standard. And once the pruning is finished, one is left with a much smaller group, one small enough that it could make sense to see them as beset on all sides by a society threatened by their righteousness.

Of course, Christians and African-Americans aren't the only groups that fall into this sort of thinking. Conspiracy theorists are notorious for it. The idea that opposition is evidence of correctness is an old one, and unlikely to go anywhere soon. And this isn't an accusation of cynicism - rather, it's noting a logical progression. So I'm not sure that it does a lot of good to be put out by it, especially when the act of being put out by it can, itself, contribute to it.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Castles and Controversies

For a niche product, Dungeons and Dragons seems to garner much more than it's share of attention. The number of people who take exception to some aspect of the game seems infinite at times. The latest edition is no exception.

The main drivers of the coffeepot conflagration are, interestingly, sexuality. The authors included a short passage in a nod to the overlap between the gaming an LGBTQ communities.

This, I can kind of see starting a controversy. Kind of.
It was mostly well received. Of course, there were people on the far right who immediately took this to be an attempt to recruit children into a leftest agenda of sexual libertinism (because it just wouldn't be the United States without them), but most of the criticism came from LGBTQ gamers, who took exception to the language used.

And it turns out that this wasn't their only gripe with the game. It turns out that two of the people that Wizards of the Coast (the division of Hasbro that produces the game) consulted with were on the bad side of many LGBTQ gamers, enough so that the day after the rules were released, calls for a boycott were already echoing through social media.
This one, I never would have guessed.
Unlike the satanic panic of the 80s, with its focus on Dungeons and Dragons as a cause of suicides and occultism, none of this has risen to the level of being considered at all newsworthy. Mainstream America is likely completely unaware of what's going on with the grandfather of role-playing games. But still, I suspect that there's some poor guy in Wizards of the Coast's marketing department who is even now resolving to become more acquainted with alcohol this weekend.

Saturday, July 5, 2014


Another crack at boiling a long, wordy post into something short and to the point.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Oh, Say, You Must See

A couple of days ago, I was reminded of an argument that I'd allowed myself to be dragged into concerning the state of the nation. It went a little something like this: A self-described conservative made the point that until President Obama and his liberal agenda came along, that the country had been doing pretty well at protecting everyone's rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Foolishly allowing my Truth Reflex to kick in, I noted that the United States had never really manage to live up to it's ideals in the past, and noted three historical instances where we had failed to protect the rights of certain out groups to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. The response - "It's a shame that you hate your country."

Now to be sure, I wasn't being particularly critical of the United States, and this person and I both agreed that we were falling short on the whole "living up to our national ideals" thing. Yet I was being called out for hating my country because I saw American history as a process by which the United States was moving closer to living up to our ideals, as opposed to a halcyon age from which we had been forcibly, and recently, evicted by someone who was moving us away from them. And between then and now, I have encountered more examples of people seeing hostility, and even bigotry, in a failure or refusal to see people and institutions in a way other than they wish to be seen.

If we're going to claim to value honesty, then we have to be prepared for people to tell us things that we don't like, don't want to hear and potentially trigger us to feel badly about ourselves. We have to be prepared for the idea that when people see us differently than the way we see ourselves, that it's not simply due to them having an ax to grind, but may very well simply be an artifact of the different ways in which people understand the world around them. It's worth being on guard against an impulse to create a circular and self-reinforcing way of seeing the world where people are perceived as hostile because we perceive their observations of us as libelous, and we perceive their observations of us as libelous because the speakers are hostile.

"My country, right or wrong," is slipping out of the lexicon of the would-be patriot, precisely because it presupposes that the country can be wrong. And it is being replaced by an orthodoxy of perception that does not allow for error, and thus, for improvement, where everything other than a static perfection is seen as a unwarranted criticism, leveled by the traitorous. It's ego-preserving, but in the long run it sacrifices all else. Which seems a very steep price to pay.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Powers and Policies

No, wait... It was just before they talked about the Supreme Court allowing in television cameras, right?
They didn't say that, I was sure they did - wasn't it right after they said "Let's give the vote to every adult citizen of the United States?" Oh... wait.

Snarkiness about the cynicism of invoking the Founding Fathers only on things that they'd happen to agree with you aside, this plays into the conservative idea that the President is usurping their prerogatives.

But the President can't "bypass Congress and do whatever he wants" via Executive Order. If he could, does anyone honestly think that he would have farted around with Congress when it came to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act or raising the nation's debt ceiling? Or anything else the President finds important? This is just another example of the political reality that political parties would rather that executive offices be weaker when they don't control them. Eight years ago, it was the Democrats complaining about President Bush and his penchant for Signing Statements when bills passed by Congress were not to his liking, but he didn't want to veto them.

So, if you will forgive me the rather blatant tautology, the President can only do via Executive Order what the President can do via Executive Order - and expanding the scope presidential authority is not on the list.

Another point worth mentioning is that it isn't 1789 anymore. (Thankfully.) And in the intervening two-and-a-quarter centuries, the public's understanding of the office of the President has changed - with some assistance from Congress, who appear to rather like having a convenient scapegoat when things go wrong. While the President is both Head of State and Head of Government, we've also saddled the office with the role of Head of Getting Things Done. I don't recall the Founding Fathers ever putting forth the idea that the Presidency should be drafting laws and sending them over to Congress to have them passed But we've now come to see it as a failure when the President cannot convince Congress to adopt certain policies he favors - even though the job of the President is to _execute_ policies, not create them. That's what the Legislature was supposed to have been for in the first place. Still, we expect candidates for President to campaign on initiatives that they cannot exact solely on their own, and we judge their leadership by how well they sell that to ally and opposition alike - despite the fact that "leadership" and "salesmanship" are really different things.

This is often convenient for members of Congress, who are able to point to "a lack of leadership from the White House," especially when they need to explain a lack of progress on something that the public may find appealing, but that the Congressperson is dubious about. But I doubt that this was an intentional feature of the system.

In the end, President Obama and Congressional Republicans in the House and Senate are both playing the same game - they're attempting to advance their own ideas of what they feel is best for the country, and are accusing the other of sabotage. As for following the rules, they're each doing that mainly to the degree that they have to, or it benefits them to be seen doing so. And all of this is really just the way the game is played. It's a much a feature of Realpolitik as misrepresenting what the other side is up to.