Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Downtown

The view from West Seattle.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Connected

One thing that I've noticed about politics is that the more out there something is, the more likely it seems that a candidate will be considered sincere in saying it. While appealing to "mainstream" sentiments is often considered to be dishonest pandering in the service of tricking people into voting, conventional wisdom states that when it comes to the fringes (no matter how many votes might reside in said fringes) the only people who will tell the true believers what they want to hear are other true believers.

But perhaps what's happening is that fringe politicians are simply expressing what Sally Kohn describes as "emotional correctness."

So someone who says they hate immigrants, I try to imagine how scared they must be that their community is changing from what they've always known. Or someone who says they don't like teachers' unions, I bet they're really devastated to see their kid's school going into the gutter, and they're just looking for someone to blame.
Sally Kohn "Let's try emotional correctness"
Earlier this month, BBC news published an article about Donald Trump, titled: "Donald Trump: 22 things the Republican believes." It lays out 22 talking points from the Trump campaign, referring to them as "his policies and beliefs." But when you read through them, it's not difficult to see them as the way the candidate has forged an emotional connection with a block of voters whose votes he is courting. The woman in the photograph who is holding up a handmade sign with "Build the WALL" written on it is likely one of the very people that Kohn was talking about - someone who sees the influx of migrants as not only lawless, but a force for changing her community into something that is unknown to her. Trumps assertion that he can build a "great, great wall" between the United States and Mexico (and, by extension, pretty much all of Latin America) and manage the mass deportation of the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally speaks to those fears. And in that sense, it doesn't matter whether or not Mr. Trump has any intention of following through on those points. He's speaking to the fears and desires of people who understand themselves to be marginalized within the country today - or will be marginalized within it tomorrow - and in doing so, displaying the emotional correctness that Ms. Kohn speaks of.
But liberals on my side, we can be self-righteous, we can be condescending, we can be dismissive of anyone who doesn't agree with us. In other words, we can be politically right but emotionally wrong. And incidentally, that means that people don't like us. Right?
Sally Kohn
In defense of the American Left, they are not the only ones who can be self-righteous, condescending and dismissive towards people who disagree with them. Plenty of people on the American Right value being correct (at least in their own eyes) on the politics and policies over being emotionally correct when dealing with others. Just about anyone who understands their viewpoint as being born of being intelligent, educated as to "the facts" or simply "common sense" is a prime candidate for sneering down their noses at anyone with the temerity to think differently.

But despite the fact that more of us may realize this than may be immediately obvious, we still find it difficult to believe that someone may deliberately chose to not take this path, because they recognize the benefits in doing so. When Sally Kohn sets out to be emotionally correct with someone who doesn't like teachers' unions, she's not suddenly in wholehearted agreement with the idea that the union properly deserves the blame for all of the problems at their kid's school. But in understanding that sentiment, and speaking to it, she is able to get people to listen to her. By the same token, when Donald Trump re-tweets what turns out to be falsified crime statistics cooked up by a neo-Nazi in the United Kingdom, that shouldn't be taken as a sign that he's ignorant of the fact that the numbers were suspect (as anyone who is aware of the fact that "about 80 percent of murder victims knew their killers" could have told you). Instead, he's speaking to fears among a segment of the White population who fears that crime is rising and that they might be victims. And a lot of people were of the impression that crime rates were rising - even some people that one would have suspected would know better. Why would we expect that no-one would speak to that?

It's easy, and, I think, emotionally satisfying, to hold up the things that Donald Trump says on the campaign trail and tell ourselves that we are seeing the real, unvarnished person. A person who happens to believe things that we find to be ludicrous, and thus us less intelligent than ourselves. But, for all of his foibles, Donald Trump has managed to amass a pretty good fortune for himself, even taking into account that he started off farther along the path that most of the rest of us could have hoped for. Idiots generally don't propel themselves into the ranks of billionaires. The ability to understand what other people want, and to connect with what motivates them is a central part of business acumen. We do well, I think, when we recognize it when we see it.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Just Because

So it's Christmas again, and that means, among other things, the annual ritual of people announcing to strangers on social media that Christmas has become too crassly commercial, and so they're opting out. While I understand the principles behind such proclamations, all in all they tend to strike me as being pedantic and posturing - indicative of the sort of thing that we do not because we understand the value in doing it, but because we want others to see us doing it.

But I get it. Thanksgiving is now the kick off of a competition for the money that people will spend on gifts, and the oversupply of goods and services places downward pressure on prices. And that price pressure also makes the holiday shopping season a good time to pick up things for yourself. Which has lead retailers to discount things that are unlikely to be given as gifts in order to draw people into stores. Add in the occasional trampling of a shopper or store employee in a mad rush to snag a "doorbuster" deal, and all of the elements are in place for someone to decide that a public show of hand-wringing is just what's needed to polish their counter-cultural bona fides.

At the root of this is a simple issue. Christmas has become the time of year that we think about, and buy gifts for, people that we've mostly ignored for the previous twelve months, with the possible exception of birthdays. This means that there may be a simple solution - don't wait until Christmas. My parents became Jehova's Witnesses when I was in my mid-twenties, and suddenly the standard gift-giving occasions, Christmas or birthdays or mother's and father's days, were off-limits as "not-biblical." Giving gifts "just because," however, was perfectly acceptable (so long as "just because" wasn't too close to a off-limits day - my father was strict about such things). Which required a change in thinking that I have yet to really manage to make. (In part because I became sensitive to times I needed to avoid, but didn't know all of them.)

The obligatory nature of gifting on Christmas, birthdays et cetera had created a habit of "banking" gifts. If I came across something that I thought my niece would like, I would buy it and set it aside for the next gift-giving occasion, so I would be sure to have something. But the nice thing about "just because" gifts is that you can give them (almost) whenever. And when released from the obligation to have gifts for particular days, it's easier to cover everyone - rather than needing to rack your brain over a few weeks to make sure you didn't forget anyone, you can pick something up for someone when they cross your mind, and then simply give it to them.

I am, at present, bad at "just because" gifting. But it seems a useful skill to have, because it provides a way out of the "commercial Christmas" issue, without going into full-on Scrooge mode. Maybe I should make a Resolution for the coming year.

Monday, December 21, 2015

On Being Aaron

Some time ago, I got together with some friends for Drinking and Shakespeare. (Although, since I don't drink, for me it was all about Shakespeare.) The time before, I was given the chance to pick the play that we would read, and knowing nothing more about it than the fact that a movie had been made and Anthony Hopkins was on the poster, I chose Titus Andronicus. (Clearly, this wasn't the smartest method by which to choose.) I also had first selection of characters. And, lo and behold, there was the character of "Aaron, a Moor, beloved by Tamora." Done and done. (Again, not the brightest move.)

Titus Andronicus, it turns out, is a tragedy. But when you've a bunch of people reading it over wine (many with funny voices) the unremitting horror cannot hold, and it eventually degenerates into blood-soaked farce.

But, being Aaron (whom I'll call "the Moor" after this, so I don't sound like I'm taking about myself in the third person) was really interesting and illuminating. Because, put simply, the Moor is Evil. And by this, I don't mean just someone who does bad things, or is bitter and spiteful towards others. The Moor is the sort of person that one simply never encounters in real life or in history - one who perfectly understands the difference between right and wrong, and does wrong not only intentionally, but specifically because it is wrong. The Moor's gleefully purposeless villainy is nearly unique in my literary experience and completely without precedent in my life experience. He murders, rapes and perjures, among other crimes, without a greater motivation or goal. He never admits to a wrong done to him that he seeks to revenge himself for - and in this sense is different from all of the other characters of the play, who are afflicted with varying levels of vengefulness, pride and self-pity triggered by real or imagined slights. He also understands conscience - and realizes that he completely lacks one. The Moor views this not only as a strength, but specifically as an advantage to be exploited with people who do have one, used to extract promises and vows with the expectation that they would be kept. The Moor, on the other hand, comes across as the sort of person who keeps his word if, and only if, it causes unwarranted injury to another. Interestingly, the Moor is both atheist and believer. While he professes to not believe in any gods, he does seem to allow for devils (if they are real, he wishes to be one) and Hell (he would like to continue tormenting others even there). He does, however, speak of his soul, professing it to be black as he is. (In this sense, the Moor's outer appearance, both black and ugly, mirrors his inner self in a particularly heavy-handed instance of being both bad, and drawn that way.) The closest thing to either a redeeming quality or feature that the Moor has is a fierce defensiveness for his son - but even that is the service of making the child into a weapon. Given that he is alive at the end of play (having dodged what seemed uncomfortably similar to a 20th century lynching), it's difficult to parse out if his efforts to save the child once he is in the power of those who will kill him are for the newborn's sake, or because he fully expects to cheat them of their revenge on him.

The fact that the Moor is black-skinned, impious and thoroughly wicked are never separated from one another. And this connection of what would seem to be unrelated traits is interesting in that it creates a link between Shakespeare's time and today. While racism in the United States can be thought of as mainly an economic caste system where one is born with one's mark, that economic hierarchy is often justified by attributing sometimes willful moral flaws to the lower castes that justify and/or explain their place. The idea of "Black cultural pathology" in the United States today being a low-hanging example. By the same token the idea that unbelief and willful evil can go hand in hand is still alive and well, with even members of the United States Congress on the record as having called out those who profess a non-belief in a higher power as being evil. This is not to say that these ideas are as common or as accepted today as they would have been in Shakespeare's time. Most Americans for instance, fully expect that any African-Americans they meet are going to be not only Christian, but quite conservative about it. But time and again we encounter the idea of "you're different, and that's bad" being driven by linking multiple traits that are considered "other," even when those traits are not directly linked - "Refugee from Syria" and "murderous Islamic radical" being a recent example.

The experience of portraying someone who is different in what one understands to be negative ways from everyone else gives an interesting perspective on being someone who is often different from the majority of the culture at large in ways that said majority culture perceives as negative. In part, because fictional people can be things that real people cannot, and in doing so, grant insight into the way that members of an in-group see members of out-groups. When I was younger, the ways in which many White people would respond to me and other Black people seemed strange and bizarre to the point of being disconnected from anything that resembled reality. Playing the over-the-top caricature of a villain that the Moor represented, however, allowed me to inhabit a person much closer to the one that those people were responding to, and thus to better understand the rationale behind their responses. It leads me to wonder what different groups of people would experience, if the play were re-cast with different ethnicities in the roles. I suspect that it would be educational.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Under Wraps

As the new Star Wars movie is reminding us, big-budget motion pictures can be a big deal. But there are other ways of distributing them than to big theaters. While it's unlikely that the theater experience is going away anytime soon, changes in the overall technology landscape may push moviemakers into exploring new ways to put their stories in front of audiences.

A large part of the general hubbub concerning The Force Awakens has to do with people not wanting to be exposed to anything that might be considered a spoiler. While The Force Awakens doesn't strike me as a movie that would be in that category, there are films for which a good portion of the dramatic and/or emotional punch comes from keeping the audience in the dark as to some important detail. But given that someone can now Tweet: "OMG, I can't believe that Kylo Rem is the secret love child of Princess Leia and Greedo!" to a worldwide audience seconds after exiting the theater, building a theatrical release around a big reveal seems less and less like a viable strategy and more like a recipe for trouble.

But audience misdirection and hidden information are too good to simply give up on, and so it seems that studios will have to start experimenting with ways of putting movies in front of audiences that don't require everyone to go to the theater. In-home streaming seems to be the obvious choice, although how this would work in practice remains to be seen - the current model allows for revenue on a per-person basis - something that will be difficult to make work with a streaming model. But new advances bring new opportunities, and so it will be interesting to see how movies continue to adapt to the changes.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

I'm Okay With It, When It's Them

The fact that Martin Shkreli has been charged with securities fraud has prompted a good number of comments on my social media feed - and no small amount of "screw due process - drop him in a pit and seal it up" sorts of sentiments. While we tend to be wary of governments when we fear that they might pick on people we like - we tend to cheer the very same actions when they target people we dislike. Which is why "when they came for..." recollections often start with people that the majority find unsympathetic.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Godwin Effect

The problem is not that Donald Trump is too much like Adolf Hitler. The problem is that there is a population of people in the modern United States whose lives are too much like those of the Germans of the Wiemar Republic. Hitler did not come to power by launching a coup against a popularly elected government. Hitler came to power by promising solutions to what a disaffected populace understood their problems to be.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Who Does That?

"These are my daughters. If you attack Middle Easterners fleeing persecution, you attack them."

When I read that, as part of a posting on Google+, my first thought was: "Who does that?"

I understand that we live in a world where there are people who see life as a zero-sum game, and everything that someone receives must necessarily come at the direct expense of someone else. But who looks at someone fleeing persecution and decides to attack them for that?

The coffeepot cataclysm that is our current argument over Syrian refugees isn't about whether or not we should be attacking people fleeing persecution in the Middle East. It's about a fear of "Islamic terrorism" and the fear that terrorists will hide themselves among the refugees. One can realize that the refugees are fleeing a terrible situation and want better lives for them without being willing to personally risk anything to have them among you. And that, in my opinion, is what's really at stake here. We are, again, in a state where there isn't enough. There isn't enough safety for some Americans to feel that they can share it with people from far away.

It's easy to denounce people who come off as grasping or greedy, once things get to a point where we are convinced that surely, now, they have enough. But for the people who feel themselves still in need, it's not enough. Left to their own devices, it may never be enough. Therefore, perhaps, the answer is to help them find more.

In the Details

Don't care for Robin and Marion as a happy couple? You're in luck.
I like graphic fiction (perhaps better known as comic books), and pick some up from time to time. My intake of them is limited by the fact that I don't typically go for super-hero comics, with a few rare exceptions, and the age-old adage that 99% of everything is crap. But sometimes, there are items of interest in that 99%.

Which brings us to Demons of Sherwood, a Robin Hood tale from a few years ago that I came across recently. Something gnawed at me as I read through it, and I couldn't really put my finger on what it was - the fact that the characters seemed more 21st century than 14th, the fallback on clichés, the odd relationships between the characters, the anachronisms that popped up, the idea of Robin as a bitter has-been or what.

But it finally occurred to me that what irked me the most was that the dynamic between Robin and Marion was one of fluctuating mutual antagonism throughout most of the story and the writing encouraged the reader to take a side. I can see that as a different take on the Robin Hood legend, and an interesting one. But that's something not entered into lightly, and what kills an otherwise interesting premise is the amateurish handling of what becomes the central conflict of the story.

I mention this because, in the end, most of what is wrong with Demons of Sherwood stems from the maladroit handling of the material, and in this, it is like a lot of things. It would be easy, if one chose, to read active dislike of characters and people into this book - there are a number of characters whose portrayals are negative, and to the degree that they can be enlisted as stand-ins for larger groups of people, those groups can come off in a negative light. But it all more or less makes sense within the confines of the story that is being told - even when it seems tangential or even unnecessary to the story overall.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

A Matter Of Trust

The same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you. And laws that defend free speech for bigots can be used to defend the rights of civil rights workers, anti-war protesters, lesbian and gay activists and others fighting for justice.
The Lessons of Bygone Free-Speech Fights
In his The Atlantic column where he quotes this, Conor Friedersdorf mainly makes the case that today's campus activism, with its focus on microaggressions and racial insensitivity, is a terrible thing, far removed from the free-speech cases of the past, because it goes overboard in its zeal to defend the marginalized from anything that might do them the slightest harm. The American Civil Liberties Union quote is deployed, and then forgotten.

Which is a shame, because it's really the important piece. We in the United States tend to have a cartoonish understanding of abuses of power. The idea is that a tyrannical government will suddenly launch a coup, and suddenly, everything goes from white picket fences to tanks and jackbooted soldiers in the streets at the behest of some hidden schemer sequestered in a bunker somewhere with a white cat in his lap. But while dictatorial generals and rebellious warlords overthrow tottering democracies now and again, in the developed world, things tend to slide into chaos as the well meaning implement policies that rely on every executive who comes after them being as well-meaning as they are.

Whenever a government is given a power, one is saying, in effect: "I trust that the people who run the government tomorrow will use this power in the manner, and within the limits, that I am envisioning today." But right and wrong are not objective characteristics of the Universe. Things change. We may have the understanding that all changes are progress, because the arc of history bends towards justice, but every generation has considered itself enlightened. We cannot rely on our opinion that we are doing the right thing to put things in place that we would object to were they done to us.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Boo You

I was reading an article about mass shootings in the United States, and made the mistake of reading some of the comments - one of the first ones was someone pointing out that, in their opinion, the focus on mass shootings carried out by Whites was to divert attention away from the high number of murders committed by Blacks in the United States - because to focus on the crimes of Black people would be "racist."

Not that long ago, I recalled, I'd read another comment on mass shootings - but this time the commentator was alleging that the focus on mass shootings in schools and community centers was designed to take the focus away from the thousand of Black people who die due to violence every year, and to focus on the problems of White people.

I had been directed to the article on mass shootings in the course of an internet "debate" over whether or not stricter gun control measures were needed in the United States, wherein one participant called for "the Left" to "be honest" and simply come out and state that nothing short of a full ban on personal firearms was their goal.

By the same token I have encountered accusations from gun control activists that "the Right" doesn't care about how many people are killed, so long as they can have their own guns.

Donald Trump is able to tell cheering crowds that Mexican immigrants are rejects effectively into exile in the United States and that New Jersey Moslems loudly cheered the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001.

Conversely, I can't count the number of times that Republican voters have been dismissed as "stupid" for following those people who have actually addressed their fears on the national political stage. And those who call them so vociferously defend their tendency to mock and ridicule other, justifying their behavior on the grounds that they're "educating" others.

In the end, it's all noise - but it illustrates an issue that I've come to think plagues the United States - we've become divided into mutually antagonistic factions - we're not fans of each other. Different groups throughout the United States have come see those who disagree with them as unintelligent, credulous or immoral - if not all of the above, and so our conflicts have become personal. And that tends to result in people not wanting to see others succeed - not just in the narrow arena where they have policy disagreements, but in life in general. I don't know how many times I've seen people wish hateful things on those with whom they disagree. And we won't even talk about the American propensity to lob death threats like ping-pong balls.

In the end, it's not enough to simply claim to be patriots, and to want what's best for the nation. We have to start cheering for each other, and want what's best for our neighbors as individuals. I understand that it's a tall order. But it's something that we're going to have to accomplish, if we are to thrive.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

None Shall Pass

While I understand the sentiment behind this cartoon, I have never actually encountered anyone claiming that it was unfair to blame pro-life murders on the killers Christianity. Instead, my experience has always been one of gatekeeping, with Christian apologists seeking not to distance themselves from the killer, but to distance the killer from Christianity by pointing out failures to abide by certain rules of conduct that are said to be integral to the religion.

By the same token, there seems to be little patience for that same sort of gatekeeping among Moslems, who are instead required to denounce attacks and attackers, rather than simply being allowed to disown them in the same way that American Christians do. Of course, this is a charge of institutional hypocrisy that notes inconsistencies in behavior across a diverse group of individuals, rather than any given person attempting to have things both ways. And in that regard, it's not a particularly useful critique.

But one does understand how the Moslem community in the United States can come to feel that Christians expect more from them than they do from themselves. The fact that it may not be any specific individual speaking from both sides of their mouth does little to lessen the impression of being unfairly put upon.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Show, Don't Tell

So I found this on LinkedIn. It's interesting in that it is willing to show someone double-flipping the bird, but at the same time is unwilling to simply spell out "fucking." It occurs to me that we're now in a situation where we seem to be actively maintaining "fuck" (and its derivatives) as inappropriate language, despite the fact that it's effectively entered into everyday language, and the concept behind it is apparently considered acceptable for a professional networking site.

I am given to understand that it was the Puritans who decided that sexual and scatological language be lumped into the same category as taking the Lord's name in vain. I think that they would be pleased to find that it has been coded into law, although I suspect that they would be more displeased that people are not routinely prosecuted for violations. But now that the Puritans are long dead, their hang-ups about language seem pointless.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Level Playing Field

It's a simple enough thing - a photograph of a group of Black Lives Matter protesters with the following caption written over it: "Has it occurred to anyone that if you're able to organize this many people for a protest you can organize this many people to clean up your community and get rid of the criminal element causing the problem?" I encountered it because the picture had been posted to Google Plus, along with a lengthy explanation of why it isn't so easy. Laying out some of the questions that had been asked of them about why Black Americans "condone the violence and criminal element," have "an issue with the value of life and respecting each other" and "black on black crime," the poster says "So, let’s take a second to get some education on these very valid thoughts/comments/questions."

And in so doing, is lost.

I'm always torn about attempts to educate people about certain aspects of the Black demographic in the United States, mainly because I think that they're often pointed in the wrong direction. During the conclusion of his piece, the poster notes:

Of course there are factors, both endogenous and exogenous, which contribute to the various maladies which allow these conditions to exist but to say “shame on them, they could just rise up and walk out of this problem,” belies a gross lack of understanding of the past and present forces acting on the black community.
For me, if people say "shame on them, they could just rise up and walk out of this problem,” it's evidence of a gross lack of understanding of the past and present forces acting on their own communities. Because people rarely, if ever, knowingly say: "here's something that no-one in the world has ever done before - simply go out do this thing." And that points to what I see as the real problem - a belief on the part of the persons who put together the image (and asked the questions) that, if it were their community in crisis, they could all simply decide one day to pull together, rise up and walk out of the problem. Easy-peasy.

And as long as people believe that, every reason given for why someone else doesn't do it becomes a) an excuse and/or b) a reason why that other group is simply inferior.

Life isn't a movie. Criminality, especially violent criminality, exists for reasons that have nothing to do with the desire of the people affected by it to be rid of it. The plucky heroine who rallies the townsfolk to stand up the local criminal establishment with the aid of the handsome stranger only wins after a heroic and inspiring (and short) struggle in dime novels and Hollywood. In reality, 9 times out of 10 she winds up in a shallow grave as a warning to the others. She's lucky if her death was quick and painless, and the townsfolk are lucky if a bunch of them don't wind up buried with her.

And that's why attempts to educate others about perceived shortcomings, while its heart is in the right place, don't speak to me. The Mafia, methamphetamine dealers and school shooters are all issues in various communities. Has organizing some number of people to clean up the communities and get rid of the criminal element made them go away? If not, why are we attempting to answer the charges against us rather than laying out how reality really works? Or better yet, simply ignoring the charges? Attempting to educate people with "the facts" is only helpful within an understood - and shared - framework of reality; and that's often missing in these discussions.

And this, to me, is where privilege enters the picture. In my own view, a person has privilege over another when they don't need to care what the other person thinks of them, but that other person cares about what the person with privilege thinks. This is the way in which privilege is granted. When we seek to answer the charge that we're not doing enough to root out the bad apples in our own community, and it is those bad apples that are placing the rest of as risk, we are responding to what other people think of us - when we should be challenging it. When we allow people to portray crime in the Black community to be some completely different sort of animal than crime in other communities, we are granting them the privilege of seeing themselves as able to exercise agency in a way that we are not. It's the same when we allow people to portray potential police abuse of Blacks to be the fault of crime in the Black community but the result of bad policing or poor choices on the part of the target when it happens to Whites.

A position of privilege in a society is not something that one community takes from the others - it is something that is given to them by the others. Taking charges laid at face value, treating them as "very valid," when, they are closer to completely nonsensical is part of that grant.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Ferguson Syndrome

Michel Martin: [...T]he question, though, Katie is does [the Black Friday Black Lives Matter protests] cause more resentment than it does - does it attract or does it repel? That's the question I would have, Katie. Do you have an opinion?

Katie Notopoulos: Hard to say - I'm sure that if I was there trying to get 40 percent off Kenneth Cole and I was barred from entering the store, I'd be very annoyed and upset. But, you know, that's also at the end of the day not very important. And the idea that you're stopping this mindless consumerism with something a little bit more mindful is I think a good thing net overall.

Michel Martin: All right, well, let me change gears now. [...]
Barbershop: Black Friday, Black Lives Matter And Social 'Cuffing'
And that, was that. A quick (and entirely clichéd) dig at "mindless consumerism," and it was off to the next topic. Which is a shame because I think that the question that Mrs. Martin was asking, whether or not the Black Lives Matter movement targeting Black Friday for protests aimed at disrupting people's lives will actually bring people around to the cause that Black Lives Matter seeks to promote is an important one.

A variation on the theme of "No Justice, No Peace," disruptive protests aimed at raising awareness and garnering support are, essentially, extortionist in nature. For the protesters, the current status quo is unacceptable, and so they seek to create a new one by introducing a crisis into people's lives, and that crisis offers two new options for the status quo - the first is that the crisis continues, and the second is that some sort of social change comes about that is more acceptable to the protesters. But for the targets of the protests, the second status quo is, at best, a disruptive change with some cost of implementation - were the benefits of the new status quo apparently greater than the costs, they would have started moving in that direction as soon as the new choice was pointed out to them. So, in effect, one could describe what Black Live Matter set out to do on Friday as seeking to push people towards a somewhat undesirable status quo by threatening them with an even worse one.

And from this perspective the question of do these tactics lead to more resentment than acceptance is an important one, even though it can be seen as an invitation to be unthinkingly critical of people who are standing up for what they believe is right. In "Why Terrorism Does Not Work" Max Abrams points out that the major shortcoming of terrorist acts is that the people that a terrorist is seeking to influence often lose sight of the fact that terror tactics are means, not ends, and come to see the negative effects of terrorism on their lives as being the terrorist's ultimate goal. It's worth understanding that protest movements can be subject to this same logic. And so to the degree that Black Lives Matter is seen as seeking the disruption of daily life for other people, their goal of a safer society for themselves and others will be forgotten.

If one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, target selection may be the determining factor in how people are viewed. Black Friday is an easy target, because it's become common to associate the day with brawls in the aisles of Wal-Mart for cheap flat-screen televisions or marked-down game consoles - luxuries that are nearly ubiquitous in modern American society, but that we still look down on people for wanting enough to take real risks to obtain. It's easy to want to have our cake of not needing to feel judged for lacking some common household item and eat it while judging those who feel the judgements of others most keenly. And so claiming that Black Lives Matter has done other people (and it's always other people) a favor by forcing them to be "more mindful" becomes a simple cop out.

But if enough people who profess Black Lives Matter are committed to the idea that only by disrupting the day-to-day lives of the people they understand have the power to call for change, the targets won't always be so easy. And in a society where walking back from even extreme positions is seen as a sign of weakness and defeat, it will be too late to ask if it's worth it.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Helping


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  AL.com'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

Hobgoblins

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

Unsheltered

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...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: 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.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Vortex

There is something in the more liberal, secular population of the United States that seeks out and responds to that thing in the more conservative, religious population of the United States that seeks out and responds to perceived slights against conservative ideals and religiosity. The latest example of this are the 2015 Starbucks Holiday cups, which are basically plain red cups with a Starbucks logo on them. A small handful of apparently hitherto unknown people took to Breitbart and Twitter to express their outrage grandstand in the name of religion. Hoping that the ceasefire in the always-good-for-some-pageviews "War On Christmas" had broken down, media outlets rushed to report the "story" that Christians were, once again, decrying the removal of "Christ" from "Christmas." Or, to be perhaps more accurate, expressing upset that a large corporation wasn't openly supporting and parroting their values and worldview. The teapot having been stirred, the tempest wasn't far behind, with people expressing outrage over the fact that people were expressing outrage over the fact that people were expressing outrage at the plain Starbucks cups.

The United States has, as a nation, spent nearly the entirely of its existence pushing one group of people to the margins of society for the benefit of the mainstream. This is more or less common knowledge - it's difficult to get though most American schools without learning this, despite the fact that teaching it is mildly controversial in some circles. Due in large part to their own aggressive gatekeeping, there is a segment of the American Christian community that believes that the increasing secularization of the country means that they are next in line to be the Oppressed Minority™, and that they are standing against a hypocritical majority that believes in a self-serving view of tolerance and acceptance that conspicuously excludes them. (Bear in mind, however, that they are not the only group that understands themselves to have the crosshairs on their foreheads. The line to be the next, or the one remaining, group in the United States that it's okay to discriminate against is a long one.) Falling back on that age-old canard of "if people are opposed to what you're doing, you must be doing it right," this mostly (but not exclusively) Evangelical group is constantly on the lookout for persecutory behavior trivial slights from only who can be (im)plausibly cast as "anti-Christian."

Again, to be fair, this isn't simply this self-selected group of religious conservatives who see otherwise random events as being directed at themselves - I recently read a piece in which American's suspicions of Big Pharma and the medical establishment were recast as trivializing/ignoring mental illness.

It's just that this particular bit of Christian paranoia has its own name - the badly mislabeled "War on Christmas," and so media outlets are always ready to pick up on it. It's pretty much a guarantee of at least a couple of overblown headlines (and the page-clicks that come with them) every year. And there are people in secular America who are ready to pounce on this annual holiday whine whenever someone decants a glass or two. So here we are, with a storm of silliness at the point where it's generated enough energy that it can, for the time being, anyway, feed on itself.

Part of this, admittedly, is that the bars for "outrage" and "controversy" have been lowered. The War on Christmas has gone from trope to shopworn cliché by this point. While it's possible that it gains traction again this year, I wouldn't bet on it. Yet, let what seems like fewer than a half-dozen people take to the internet with a new round of complaining, and you wind up with "Starbucks' Plain Red Holiday Cups Are Causing Outrage Among Christians" and "Starbucks' plain red holiday cups stir up controversy" for headlines. And the response to those headlines, rather than reading the articles to find out what's really going on, is: "Members of the majority religious group are 'outraged' that they can't force companies to bow to their outdated beliefs?! Must. Denounce. Now." And you quickly end up with what is honestly little more than a hail Mary pass for pageviews turning into an expanding swirl of people pointing fingers at one another.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Distinctions

What separates our heroes from our villains is not, in many cases, what they do - both heroes and villains tend to use violent means to their ends. Sometimes, we can distinguish them by what the ends are - but that tends to be more useful in fiction, where villainous characters tend to have overtly evil goals. Mostly, it occurs to me, the difference is in the targets. The more we identify and/or sympathize with those that violence is being done to, the more likely we are to consider the perpetrator a villain.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Fashionably Crazy

From the Counter Couture exhibit at the Bellevue Art Museum. A lot of the clothing that was displayed must have taken a lot of effort. I found myself wondering what today's fashions would be like if the wealthy and powerful of the 1960s had adopted clothing like this, which, in a lot of ways mirrors the sort of fashion that had attracted the upper classes - intricate (and thus likely very expensive), impractical for anything resembling work and difficult to keep clean.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Autumn


Monday, November 2, 2015

Mosaic

Every so often, I run into someone who decries the phenomenon of "hyphenated Americans" and considers politicians actively campaigning on issues important to ethnic communities to be "divisive." Which raises an interesting question. The United States of America have always had divisions - in fact, they're baked into the nation's Constitution - the individual states have separate governments, and they elect their own representatives to the national legislature. And people campaign all the time on what they are going to do for the people of their state. And in this era of Red states and Blue states, it's become common for politicians to contrast themselves against the way things are done in states they feel their constituents will dislike. So... why don't people who dislike the idea of hyphenated Americans see that as being problematic in the same way? What is it about the idea that, say, the Chinese populations of Maine and California may share traits that make them different from their European-heritaged neighbors that rankles people who are perfectly comfortable with the idea that Maine and California are different from one another?

Here in Washington state, we have the phenomenon of the Cascade Curtain, which is basically an understanding that the people on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains have different interests than us on the western side of the mountains - different enough that there is a general grumbling in some quarters that the two sides of Washington should be separate states. This is a somewhat small-scale understanding of a generally accepted characteristic of American politics - that people in different geographical areas have different interests. But what geographical differences in interests don't typically entail are obvious differences in culture. Sure, there are things in one part of the country that people in other parts of the country consider odd - like how people here in the Seattle area think of the South as a place were people will deep-fry anything edible, but that's considered an eccentricity more than anything else.

What differing, and potentially mutually exclusive, interests tend to bring up is the specter of non-assimilation, and therefore, real cultural change. There are some ways in which Black America, for instance, and White America simply do not meet in the middle in the things that they value and aspire to. And, in my experience, when people think that someone who should share their goals and values does not in fact share them, there is often a sense of rejection. Current demographic changes in the United States have raised the specter of a real cultural shift - but this time one driven by the idea that relative newcomers are bringing a new culture with them, and will supplant the culture that is already here.

One doesn't have to be a particularly careful student of American history to understand how previous culture clashes have ended in the past. And there is a part of me that believes that what is currently "Middle America," what we used to understand as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants when I was younger, is worried that they are going to have done unto them what previous generations of Americans had done unto a lot of other people. There was even a fear in some quarters - and not just Republican quarters - that the election of Barack Obama into the Presidency of the United States would be the start of Payback Time on a national scale. And that makes turning the part of the American story that says the United States represents a nation that has risen above racial and ethnic tribalism from a hopeful narrative into a concrete reality important.

But perhaps what's really missing is an understanding of the differences between tribalism and, well, difference. Different communities have different needs. True, the idea that a Black community had different needs than a White community makes it clear that those two communities have not integrated into each other, but in the end, that's not much difference than Florida having different needs than here in Washington. One size doesn't fit all, and it doesn't need to. That needn't be a wedge.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Unhumble

One thing that I learned from Ta-Nehisi Coates is that: "You should never judge yourself by the standards of the owner of the boot presently on your neck." Or, less dramatically, that you shouldn't judge yourself by the standards of your critics. When I first read it, it seemed like one of these sayings of deep wisdom that is worth filing away somewhere, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a simple admonition to be true to yourself as you experience yourself, and not as others do.

I do not believe in deities. I simply find no evidence for them in my world, in the same way that I find no evidence for ghosts, psychics or sorcerers. This does not mean that they do not exist, however. But if you left me with no other options, I would wager that none of them were real, and be confident that I'd be the one going home with the cash when it was all said and done.

But, as I noted, I do not stand firmly on the position that deities, et al must be fictional. In many circles, this is considered "humility" on my part. Which I understand. But I would note that when I speak to Christians and Moslems about their faiths, conceding that they may be incorrect in their understanding that God is real is not considered "humble." In the worst case scenario, that sort of doubt is considered sinful. Humility in faith means something completely different to them. In light of this, I suspect that praise for "humility" in non-believers is less about praising a virtue than it is about hoping to leave open an avenue of conversion.

My lack of belief in anything supernatural works for me. I can put together a workable understanding of how the world came to be and manage a viable system of ethics and justice without recourse to a controlling entity. I do not need my life to having anything that resembles, "meaning." (I think. I have never been exactly clear on what it means for life to have "meaning" in the first place.) If I need to understand myself to be part of something greater than myself, I need only look down at the Earth, or up into the sky. Neither of those things care one whit if I am here tomorrow or not, yet I would be very put out were either of them to go away.

But I know any number of people who believe in deities, several who believe in ghosts, some who believe in psychics and even a few who believe in sorcerers. And I like these people, and out of respect for them, I accept that they live in a world that is fundamentally different from my own. And out of respect, I let them stay in it. And so I have no interest in bringing them into my world. I understand the worldview that says that I am doing them a disservice by letting them live in a delusion, but my answer to that is that it works for them, and there is no harm in it. Religion may not make people good, but it doesn't make them dicks, either - we are all perfectly capable of being either of those things regardless of what faith we follow, or don't follow. The traits our species has are independent of such considerations.

Not feeling a need to undermine what works for other people is, like the understanding that the Universe is too vast a place to ever know either in its entirely or with certainty, in my estimation, different from humility. Likewise, the confidence that something one is unable to find any evidence of is not actually there, is different from faith.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Liberty State

In The Atlantic yesterday, David Frum turned comments from an Oxford Union discussion on liberty and security into a column, which I read. The basic jist of things is that compared to other factors that work to suppress free speech and expression in the United Kingdom (and, presumably, the United States) counter-terrorism powers are very low on the list.

It's interesting that Mr. Frum quotes Lincoln's “Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts—while I must not touch a hair of the wily agitator who induces him to desert?” in the defense of the security state, and then goes on to reference Roosevelt's four freedoms: freedom from fear, of speech, of worship and from want as the reasons why said security state should exist. After all, the "wily agitator" was exercising his freedom of speech. Lincoln's casting of the soldier boy as "simple-minded" was designed to shift a measure of culpability from the actor to a speaker. But the very concept of Freedom of Speech is that speech is neither control nor force - the choice to act as one will, which is not a guaranteed freedom, is always with the actor. Wily agitators, like terrorist recruiters, may frighten us, but when we then criminalize particular speech out of fear, we create as many problems as we solve.

Mr. Frum's argument comes down to this: When the government acts to curtail Terrorism, it is addressing a genuine source of fear. And since an essential component of functional liberty is to be free from fear, there is no trade-off between counter-terrorism and liberty.

But what about other fears? Whether you agree with them or not, many Americans find the threat posed by gun violence in the United States a legitimate worry. And, to be sure, there is no measure by which even the most dedicated radical terrorists on the planet do in anywhere near as many Americans as are shot every year by their countrymen, even after decades of decline in the overall homicide rate (and even the absolute numbers). Does this then mean that there is no trade-off between expansive government anti-firearms programs and liberty? (Many of Mr. Frum's fellow conservatives would certainly say that there is...) In areas where street crime is endemic, does the freedom from fear trump the right to Keep and Bear Arms? If not, why not? Why is the fear of street crime or mass shootings any less appropriate for government to act on than the fear of terrorism?

And when Mr. Frum references "mobs seeking to impose their definition of social justice by force," he conveniently ignores that these are people who are acting on a fear of injustices that "the dedicated police and intelligence professionals" and the government that employs them, have decided are not worth acting on. And in situations like this, when you have two groups linked by their mutual fears of each other, which group is entitles to freedom from their fear? Cue the "terror poker" games, as each side seeks to cast itself as the one more terrorized by the actions of the other, to justify seeking the intervention of the apparatus of the state. And as definitions and understandings of "justice" are neither indisputable, universal nor eternal, why should be there an assumption that governments and law enforcement are acting on ideas of justice shared across society? Or that, in the absence of shared ideas, that government should be given a free hand to choose which ideas to enforce?

Using a right to be free from fear as one basis for liberty, and expecting governments to act on that, introduces a level of subjectivity that one can argue that governments don't do very well with. But it also introduces a definition of liberty that involves freedom from any interference, not just that imposed by governments. Mr. Frum views the strident tone and threatening gestures of modern social justice movements as threats to liberty, but it doesn't take much to rouse Americans more broadly to death threats against people they find reprehensible for one reason or another - while I find complaints about the portrayals of women in video games to be trivial, for some people that rises to the level of a capital crime. And again, why should an often-abused right of anonymity on the internet be ignored if other fears call for expansive government powers and intrusive surveillance? And where does this leave more informal levers of social control? Are boycotts then threats to liberty?

Mr. Frum's point that a well-functioning security apparatus tends to seem pointless is well-taken. But in asking us to place blind trust in the people that operate it, he presumes that they are incapable of using the control that they must necessarily be given for their own ends. And if Mr. Frum sees disagreements between different factions of the citizenry as impinging on liberty, it seems odd to presume that the simple act of becoming a police or intelligence professional makes one immune to the misuse of that control.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Now, You Don't

Not long after I first arrived in the Seattle area, I made my way downtown, and just walked around to see what the place was like. One of the things that stood out for me was the number of homeless people that I encountered. After I thought about it for a bit, it made sense. I've spoken to homeless people who managed to travel significant distances after they became homeless, and if I had the choice between being homeless in Chicagoland and homeless in the Puget Sound area, I'd pick the Puget Sound, all other things being equal. (Of course, given the fact that a good portion of my immediate and extended family live in and around Chicago, they are not equal, but I digress.) The main reason being that the weather is a lot better here if you have no choice but to be out of doors. I've already mentioned our tendency to judge the severity of the seasons by how many people they killed when I lived in northern Illinois. Being homeless is hard enough as it is - the weather conspiring to do them in is a complication that the homeless don't need.

So I understand why the greater Seattle area gives me the impression of greater homelessness than Chicagoland does. And given that, I make no judgements about Seattle for the size of its homeless population. But it strikes me that a lot of people DO make those sorts of judgements, or, at least, places perceive themselves to be judged. And this, perhaps is what pushes places to embrace design aspects intended to make public spaces less hospitable to the homeless and/or to effectively criminalize the things that homeless people do to get by. Laws against public camping or park benches that can't be slept on don't move people from the streets and into housing. Rather, they move the homeless from the streets of inhospitable municipalities to more hospitable ones - giving politicians a platform to claim that they've made the streets safer (for the affluent and politically-engaged, anyway) and citizens the idea that their neighborhoods are cleaner of riffraff. And these, in turn become points that they make to outsiders and newcomers to show themselves as being good citizens.

Freeing people from concern over being judged by the number of homeless people who are visible in the streets is one thing that might prevent initiatives designed to conceal or shift the problem. Granted, withholding judgement doesn't directly do anything to solve the problem of homelessness either, but it doesn't incentivize pretending that it isn't there.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Faith in the System

“Workers’ compensation systems grew up at a time when employers did not care about their employees. If one got hurt, you cast him aside and brought in the next immigrant to fill that job. Now companies are competing to be a best place to work.”
Corporate America’s unforgivable new swindle: Leveling workers’ compensation to nothing
And I'll bet dollars to doughnuts that Bill Minick honestly believes that. In the end, I think, that's the issue. People like Minick sincerely believe that organizations like the Texas business chamber really either want to, or have to, look out for their employees, or risk making their businesses non-viable. And I’m sure that Minick really does think that his schemes - even the ones that allow for employers to force employees to sign waivers against their rights to legal redress, or bear their own medical costs, are better for employees in the end.

And, that is at the root of any number of issues, this being just one of them - the cynics shield themselves with the sincere. Want to cast yourself as an upstanding business beset by unaccountable employees and scheming personal injury lawyers? Someone out there has drunk deeply of that Flavor-Aid and will convince themselves that they're doing the Lord’s work by shifting the burden. The fact that they, and you, stand to cash in is purely coincidence. And when you manage to screw somebody?

They’ll pause reflectively, and tell critics: “This is a difficult situation, it sounds like. There’s no occupational injury system that we’ve found yet that will provide perfect results in a 100 percent of cases.”

But if I’m an employer, I don't really care about perfection - what I care about is that all of the errors result in care being denied when it is called for, rather than being paid for when it isn’t. And if that means calling in the wife of the anti-workers’ compensation campaigner, whom I’m fairly certain will declare that the worker doesn’t need treatment, I’ll do that. Because, you know, “The whole deal is just kind of silly, like most of these deals are — people looking for free money.”

Whether people being compensated for on-the-job injuries constitutes “free money” is a subject of intense debate. But it’s unlikely that someone who thinks so is honestly interested in seeing their employees made whole at their expense. In a market were labor is actually scarce, and therefore valuable, working people have the leverage to walk away from bad deals - or the bed deals that others have had to suffer through. And under such circumstances, companies would have compete on working conditions. But we don't live in a tight labor market. And so I suspect that Minick’s faith will turn out to be misplaced.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Complex Addition

When I see this, the first thing that comes to my mind is as follows: "This is what the lord says: 'Cursed is the one who trusts in the capabilities and talents that were given to them and to others by, well, me, and thinks those are enough'."

And I can't grok that. But not for lack of trying. And certainly not for lack of people attempting to explain it to me. And I think that this is part of what separates non-religious people from the believers - differences in how they order the world and the logical constructs they use to understand it. And I think that's why it's such a difficult chasm to bridge - when someone tells someone else something that, for all the world, seems like 2+2=5 it's hard for the listener to understand how the speaker arrived at so obviously suspect an answer - or how the speaker expects them to take it at face value.

For my own part, I can understand that 2+2 does, in fact, equal 5. For certain values of 2. Which really don't seem much like 2 to me. But since they seem to be exactly like 2 for other people, I get how they arrived at their conclusion. This is unsatisfying for some, who are of the opinion that 2 is a universal constant. (Which, to be honest it is - it's part of the problem using a mathematical analogy in a case like this.) And I understand that the inverse is also true. That when I lay out my own case for 2+2, there are people who understand me to be saying that 2+2=5. It just the way of things.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Choice

It it not possible to both judge others, and not judge yourself.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Give and Take

Somewhere along the way, people got the idea that maximizing investor return was the point. It shouldn't be. That's not what democracies ought to seek in chartering corporations to participate in our society.
Seth Godin, “What are corporations for?
What ought is rarely important when it doesn't line up with what is. Shareholder Primacy (or, one might even say Radical Shareholder Primacy) is the order of the day - and it is well-accepted enough that it's not going to go anywhere on its own. And we shouldn't expect it to.
There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.
Milton Friedman, “Capitalism and Freedom”
Now, it's important to not that Mr. Friedman was not advocating a society without social responsibility. But, and in this he is in line with most Libertarian thought, he was of the mind that this should be the prerogative of the shareholders of a business, not the managers of a business. You could look at it as a modern-day variation on the Parable of the Talents, as applied to business. The people who had put up the resources to build a business, and thus took the risk of it failing, are entitled to the best possible return on that investment, and corporate managers should not be diverting portions of that return away to activities that benefit parties other than the shareholders. Of course, Friedman caveats this with an admonition that the business remain within the rules of the game, and this creates a giant loophole - the legal framework that we currently have is not really considered conducive to "open and free competition," yet since certain anti-competitive (or even deceptive) practices are legal, they are considered "within the rules," allowing a certain level of having one's cake and eating it, too.

And this, in the end, becomes the issue, I think. We've created a legal and social framework that allows for a different set of rules than were originally envisioned. We do not simply charter corporations to participate in our society - instead, we allow them particular privileges that are not granted to other segments. For example - a corporation that decides that I owe them money can simply add fees and charges to that amount or report me to a credit agency without needing to resort to any outside agency, and condition my doing business with them on accepting this, and take the fact that I chose to do business with them as an acceptance - yet I may not do the same without receiving their explicit permission. And this "undemocratic" way of corporate participation is the issue - because it leaves the majority of us with no way to enforce the other side of the equation - the conditions that Friedman placed on corporations increasing their profits.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Lost Expedition

Hey - It beats having to find a way to move back to Europe.
Sometimes, the cynic in me is convinced that the movement to make the anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Central America into "Beat Up On a Long-Dead Italian Explorer Day" is less about working to undo "a racist legal and political legacy" (which I still don't understand why Columbus takes such a large share of the blame for) than it is about maintaining the pretense that fucks are actually given about what was done to the Native Americans.

In that, proclamations of "Indigenous People's Day" and the like strike me as a form of slacktivism - a way of "sticking it to the man" without dealing with the disruption to our lives and economy that, say, allowing Native American people to reclaim the lands they were forced from at gunpoint would entail.

Which I get. We like to think that injustice is perpetuated by continual acts of deliberate malice, but nine times out of ten, what's really going on is that people who see themselves as "the Good Guys" are too dependent on the fruits of someone else's wrongdoing to unwind that wrongdoing - even when it's something  they would never think to actually perpetrate upon another person themselves. But rather than see ourselves as, if not complicit in, beholden to the continued injustice suffered by other people for our own comfort, we create a historical whipping boy.

Cristoforo Colombo is long beyond caring what we think of him. And many of the people who did the actual legwork to enact the lasting "racist legal and political legacy" that supposedly started with his arrival in the Americas in 1492 are the same. Either they've passed on to whatever afterlife awaited them, their souls have been reborn into someone or something else or death permanently snuffed out their consciousnesses like candle flames. Either way, they're beyond our ability to injure them. And so a lot of this become posing - a way of displaying a commitment to Correct Thought to others, but one that doesn't actually remedy anything.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

UnEndemic

Yes. As a matter of fact we could. We could also regard them as the work of hostile extraterrestrials. Both would be equally accurate.

"Mass shootings" in the United States aren't "an endemic local health hazard." They're rare, but splashy events that capture both widespread media coverage and the public imagination, and in some sectors (especially the urban Left), spark moral panics. They garner nationwide attention precisely because they happen in places where "middle-class America" expect to be "safe," and this is what triggers the pearl-clutching and political grandstanding. The seemingly random nature of them, and the fact that the ones that attract the most media coverage are in places where such violence is unexpected by the middle-class public leads to a pervasive sense that lethal violence can happen anywhere and at any time. In other words - It could happen to you, and there is nothing you can do about it. And when outlets like The Economist describe this particular subset of gun violence (95% of homicides in the United States have only a single victim) as characteristic of or prevalent in the United States it enhances that sense of ubiquity. It the regularity of coverage of "gun massacres" (and the loaded terms used to describe them) that breeds familiarity. And this is not intended as a criticism of "the media" per se. The United States a large country - for me to drive from my apartment to the home I grew up in is a longer drive than Amsterdam to Ankara - and I'd still have half again as far to go to reach where I spent my Freshman year of college. It's impossible for me to familiar with what goes on the vast majority of the United States without people compiling and presenting that information in public fora.
If one uses the same definition for "mass shooting" as is commonly used for "mass murder" (four or more people) they're pretty rare. To be sure, this doesn't account for the number of people injured, but the numbers aren't as high as many people think they are. Source: http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/hus11.pdf.
To be sure, the United States has a very high homicide rate when compared to the rest of the developed world, being very near the top of the rankings. The third world, however, leaves us in the dust. And, as an aside, in those United States territories that have third world rates of homicide, killing seems to be purely a local matter - the broader national media rarely mentions it. And it is this comparison with the developed world that drives the expectation that the federal government could effectively eliminate the problem if only it had the political will to enact the correct curbs (or outright bans) on individual firearms ownership. While it's true that if one could eliminate all of the homicides carried out with firearms in the United States, that our homicide rate would look more like that of Great Britain, it's highly unlikely that even a 100% effective firearms removal scheme would leave people with violence on their minds with no other outlet to carry it out. Dedicated weapons may be frightening, but they are not the only possible way to kill someone.
But more commonly, many top police officials say they are seeing a growing willingness among disenchanted young men in poor neighborhoods to use violence to settle ordinary disputes.

“Maintaining one’s status and credibility and honor, if you will, within that peer community is literally a matter of life and death,” Milwaukee’s police chief, Edward A. Flynn, said. “And that’s coupled with a very harsh reality, which is the mental calculation of those who live in that strata that it is more dangerous to get caught without their gun than to get caught with their gun.”
Murder Rates Rising Sharply in Many U.S. Cities
It is unlikely that the honor culture that exists in the inner city would be short-circuited simply by curtailing access to firearms. And it's not the only driver of lethal violence in the United States. Compared to the everyday, mostly poverty-driven violence that claims about three dozen or so people in the United States on a daily basis, mass shootings are a blip - it's roughly comparable to the homicide rate from domestic violence for men, a statistic that most of feel is small enough this it's not worth paying any attention to. It's likely that we'd save many more lives with a more equal distribution of income/wealth and better access to support services. Given this, it's likely much more accurate to say that in the United States that poverty is the endemic local health hazard that the county is incapable of addressing.  (But somehow the regularity of poverty in America has apparently yet to breed familiarity with it.)

But since most of the people murdered in the United States are in poor and/or minority neighborhoods, they are out of sight and out of mind. Given the legal obstacles to the sort of sweeping restrictions on personal firearms ownership that people call for in the wake of these incidents, we're better off working to stop the constant everyday killing that happens in our society by addressing its causes, rather than its tools.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Event Horizon

One of the things about social media is that is broadens the range of people that one can easily interact with. Through my Google+ account, I can communicate with people all over the world. But it also allows me to communicate very freely with people of differing age cohorts than myself. And that, to a degree has spurred in me a feeling of being old.

Not in the sense that there are a million things that "the kids these days" are into that don't do it for me. Or, to quote Abe Simpson, that they changed what "it" was. But in the sense that I find myself dealing with people who are too young to understand the world that I exist in because the events and social structures that shaped it are literally before their time.

I can, for instance, describe to my niece the world that she lives in. Now, I'm not going to hit all of the finer points, and I'm likely to be way off if I have to describe how she interacts with that would via her inner perception of it, but the world that she lives in is one that I was there to watch form around her. I might not readily be able to grok how she goes about selecting what she's going to put on her YouTube channel, but I get YouTube, because I was there to watch it evolve. My niece, on the other hand, for all that she's a fairly bright kid, had difficulty describing the world that I live in. Because she simply wasn't there to see most of the factors that shaped it, and therefore, can only have second-hand knowledge of them. The best that she can do is understand the changes to the world that have happened in her own time, and extrapolate backwards. Where that extrapolation intersects with events that she may have heard of, it gives her an ability to relate - but outside of that, she had nothing concrete to go on.

For a number of people that I interact with on social media, events in my life are on the other side of an event horizon, just as they are for my niece. And that gives them a view of my world that is unrecognizable to me, yet perfectly consistent and self-evident to them.

It's a strange feeling to realize that formative events in your life are effectively inside a black hole for an increasing number of the world around you. I hadn't realized that this is what aging felt like.

Fold

This is a more difficult lesson to learn than it has any right to be.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Moo

Marketplace aired an interview between host Kai Ryssdal and candidate for the Republican nomination for President of the United States Dr. Ben Carson. Public radio host and would-be Republican politician - well, you can guess how it turned out. But there was one sentence in it all that stood out for me. Dr. Carson noted:

[...O]ne of the bugaboos that has kept us from reducing government in the past is sacred cows.
But he never actually mentioned what any of those cows were, other than the size of the Federal budget as a whole. (And, if you read the transcript, it wasn't because Kai Ryssdal didn't try to pry it out of him.) In part, I think because it's simply conservative orthodoxy that "government is bloated." That came across when Dr. Carson said, "You cannot convince me that there isn't any department that is completely 100 percent efficient and you can't find fat." To be sure, of course I could find fat in every government department - so long as I'm allowed to define "fat" as "anything that doesn't directly contribute to getting the job at hand done." I think that people would be amazed at what fits that definition.

In politics, one of the first rules of running for Butcher In Chief is that you never telegraph whose sacred cows you're planning to come after. This prevents those people from having a clear reason to mobilize against you. And perhaps the second rule of running for Butcher In Chief is that always work to convince people that someone else has a sacred cow you're bound and determined to serve up for dinner. Suffering is always better when someone else has to do it. And since things like this are always better in threes, maybe the third rule of running for Butcher In Chief is that once you've picked your favored constituency anything that's important to The Other Side is, in fact, a sacred cow that's only still alive due to the perfidy of the Butchers In Chief that came before, and their lack of "political courage." This time, the suffering the other side has coming will actually happen. There is an argument, I think, for political campaigns framing things this way as a matter of course.

But the country isn't in the state that it's in because people are unwilling to swing a cleaver. The country is in the state that it's in because every cow worth slaughtering has a cadre of voters protecting it. The sacred cows of American politics are the important interests of the American voters - or at least those things that they're willing to put people into office (or remove them from it) for. As the saying goes, for any given group of people in the United States, no matter how committed they are to small government - there's government spending, and then there's THEIR government spending. There is a reason why every state in the nation has defense contractors in it. And it's not to spread them out in case of an attack.

It's become a common political trope to pretend that this particular political reality doesn't exist - or that this time, the will to overcome it will suddenly emerge. It's a trope that exists because it serves people's interests. Just like the tropes that emerged in the comments after the interview: Kai Ryssdal as no-holds-barred journalist and Dr. Carson as honest Conservative picked on by an openly Liberal journalist, suit the interests of various constituencies that read and/or listened to the interview. But it's an expensive trope to maintain. Politicians have been talking about slaughtering other people's sacred cows ever since the thinly veiled criticism of Hinduism entered the political lexicon. The reasons they haven't done so - the political reality that says that in a representative government, large and/or well-connected groups are able to protect their interests and entitlements - haven't changed. And that's why the cows still contentedly wander the pasture.

One day, the butcher's cleaver will find some or all of them. The current path that we're on is unsustainable. But it's not going to be an easy task.