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


Sunday, November 22, 2015

Affluenza Nervosa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

h/t: Jamie Crisalli.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


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

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Vote

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

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

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

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Force of Arms

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 9, 2015


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


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


Monday, November 2, 2015


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