Saturday, January 31, 2015

Risk Management

[The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] estimates that from the 1976-1977 season to the 2006-2007 flu season, flu-associated deaths ranged from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people.
Estimating Seasonal Influenza-Associated Deaths in the United States: CDC Study Confirms Variability of Flu
So if we go with that low number, it's likely that this flu season will kill about 3,000 people in the United States.
And judging from this chart, also from the CDC, it seems that most of us aren't vaccinated every year.

Which leads me to wonder: If we presume that some of the reasons people aren't vaccinated against influenza are roughly the same as the reasons why people don't partake of any other vaccine - too young, compromised immune system, allergies, et cetera, why don't we see the same level of interest in making sure that every has a flu shot as we are in making sure that all children receive measles shots?

My guess, this time a simple one, is that people simply aren't as afraid of the flu as they are of measles. Which makes sense. The flu, while a threat, is more or less a mundane and everyday sort of issue, seen by most people as a given. Which is a recognized confounding factor in most people's ability to accurately gauge the level of a threat.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Someone to Watch Over Us

When the big snowstorm that had been forecast to put the mid-Atlantic and New England states into a state resembling the North Pole failed to materialize, conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh were quick to hit the airwaves with warnings about how the liberal nanny state was strangling the life out of American freedom.

Yawn. Rush Limbaugh would blame liberal big government for people growing old if he could get away with it. There's no appeasing motivated skeptics, and the money that Limbaugh rakes in from people who want to advertise to his audience is plenty motivational. And it's likely that many of the other conservative commentators that mimic him are hoping for some of the same motivation themselves.

But this isn't to say that the United States hasn't taken on the role of public nanny. It's just that it's not big-government liberalism (despite its somewhat paternalistic outlook) that's the cause of it. Instead, I suspect, it's the never ending hunt for a good shepherd. Big snowstorms can be nasty - even deadly. And although the number of people who die in blizzards in the United States every year is fairly small - on the order of a couple of dozen, in a society that always looks for someone to blame for things that go wrong, you can bet that someone examined many, if not all of them carefully, looking for a way that someone with deep pockets could be sued into providing a payday. And while I know it reads like one, this really isn't a knock on lawyers - this is, after all, their job.

And so what we end up with is not just a government apparatus that seeks to protect the citizenry from bad things - it also seeks to protect itself from liability claims. Consider the landslide the decimated a chunk of Oso, Washington about 10 months ago - the state and county are now facing lawsuits claiming that government didn't do enough to protect people from the possibility of a slide. (But note that the state and county aren't being charged with concealing information. The complaint is that they should have done more to warn people.)

As long as a significant number of people believe that one of the primary purposes of government is to protect us from the vagaries of life, there will be a part of our government that devotes itself to that task - either because they believe it too, or to protect themselves from the consequences of failing to meet that expectation.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Just A Little Prick

The Measles, it seems, have come to Disneyland. A turn of events that's shining a light on people who don't believe in, and/or don't trust, vaccines.

"Anti-vaxxers," as they are called, are quickly on their way to becoming Public Enemy Number 1 - at least in the court of public opinion. Charged with threatening herd immunity, jeopardizing vulnerable people and ignoring science, they are seen as dangerously self-centered. For, it appears, actually acting on their distrust of an industry that's seen less positively than the Telecommunications sector, which people love to gripe about.

For all that the supposed links between vaccines and autism spectrum disorders have been discredited in the broader public eye (despite the celebrity of some of the theory's adherents), it takes more than that to actively build trust. Accordingly, you can't force people into it. In my own experience, it's fairly common for people to have faith that the people and institutions they want to do things will actually be able to accomplish them. People who, for instance, want the government to adopt a national single-payer health-care system, tend to have faith that the government can manage it. By the same token, people who want to see vaccination rates rise tend to trust that vaccine makers have created a safe and effective disease countermeasure. Whether or not this squares with or flies in the face of the facts, however, is a different issue.

I guess one heartening thing is that over the past couple of years, the vast majority of parents who do support vaccination and who do want their children and the people around them to be protected have realized that they really need to stand up and make their voices heard.
Seth Mnookin "Measles Outbreak Linked To Disneyland Hits Over 70 Cases"
People who opt-out of vaccinations for their children, also want those children to be protected - so the question becomes: "Protected from what?"

Two groups of people arguing over their competing self-interests is unlikely to resolve anything. Especially because the pro-vaccine group will effectively (whether they see it that way or not) be telling the anti-vaccine parents to place their children at risk for what those parents see as little or no benefit. What's really at stake is the perceived trustworthiness of the pharmaceutical industry - something that even industry insiders and boosters have admitted is shaky. Perhaps this means that the pro-vaccine parents should make sure that it's pharmaceutical makers, rather than anti-vaccine parents, who hear their voices.

People in the United States are quick to suspect that bug corporations are willing to cheat or injure them in the name of enhancing profitability. Those who understand their interests are best served by changing that are going to be the people with the best leverage to make it happen.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Threat Context

The Volokh Conspiracy blog has the news that in an Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics survey, 80% of respondents would support “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA.” Now, for a lot of people, this is the time to cue the laugh track, but “Conspiracy” author Ilya Somin is more charitable, noting that both political and scientific ignorance are not primarily the result of stupidity, but rather rational reactions to the sheer amount of information available.

But given this, I’m not sure that I agree with his statement that: “The most obvious explanation for the data is that most of these people don’t really understand what DNA is, and don’t realize that it is contained in almost all food.” I suspect that what’s really going on is that people who answered the survey didn’t, for the most part, make the connection between deoxyribonucleic acid as they’d encountered the term in the past, and as they were encountering it right at that moment. The term “deoxyribonucleic acid” is not part of my daily lexicon - I suspect that this blog post honestly represents the first time that I’ve used it in a sentence since the mid-1980s. And I’m pretty sure that if you stopped me on the street in the middle of searching Downtown Seattle for something photogenic, I couldn’t repeat it back to you, if you asked me what the initialism “DNA” stood for in biology. I’m not a chemist or a geneticist, and it’s not a term that comes up all that much in youth care, social work or software. And so it doesn’t surprise me that a large number of people, when encountering the term outside of it’s usual context, assumed that it was “some dangerous chemical inserted by greedy corporations for their own nefarious purposes.”

Because that context, of corporations being willing to use opaque processes and procedures to boost profitability at the direct expense of public health and safety, is very usual. Professor Somin leaves out a third area of public rational ignorance, and that’s what goes on behind the doors of corporate boardrooms (or, more likely, legal departments). While that body of knowledge may be just as vast and complicated as government or science, for most of us, the real problem is that it’s hidden. Somin’s warning against “excessive and unnecessary warning labels on food products could confuse consumers, and divert their limited attention from real dangers,” is well-taken. But for many people, what agricultural and food businesses may by using as ingredients in foods (and the nefarious purposes of those same businesses) are the real, and hidden, dangers that they are attempting to turning their finite attention to.

It can be misleading to presume that everyone understand as term, even one that spends a lot of time in the public eye, in the same way that we do. When encountered outside of their usual context, the correct understanding of terms that most of us use only rarely likely falls outside of the realm of the instrumentally useful. Given vast body of knowledge that is the human experience, I think that we underestimate the ease with which we can catch people out with gotchas that they’re unprepared for in the moment. Public ignorance may be both pervasive and dangerous, but seeing it under every rock will not help us combat it.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Thursday, January 22, 2015


In the end, the years are like sand. They have mass, they have weight, they have heft - but you cannot hold onto them. They pour through your fingers. And they extinguish. The fire that burned more brightly than a thousand suns and with a wrathful, intolerable heat - the years extinguished it. Sure, I can be annoyed, I can be irritated. But the anger has been buried, and it does not rekindle as it once did.

Of course, I wanted this. Anger is a sign that the world has trespassed against you, and I understand that the world owes me nothing - after all, it was here first - so what call do I have to be angry at its vagaries? And I know that anger changes nothing - that I can rage and storm with all the fury that I can muster and it will make no difference. And people have their own lives to lead and the way they lead those lives is not for me to say. They, too, owe me nothing. So of what use is anger?

But when I dig my fingers through the sand, and find cold soot and ashes there, I miss it. I miss the passion and the life and the energy - despite the burns and the scars that are all it has ever left me to show for its existence. When you take the fire into yourself it is a light that blinds and a heat that sears, but still I wish that I could gather it in and see and feel nothing else. Because things are always better in memory than they are in life, I remember the light and the heat as if they were friends rather than tormenters. It is wishful thinking, born of the idea that THIS time, I will master anger, rather than it mastering me. But in reality I know that it is nothing more than a wistful nostalgia for the clarity of being mastered. Because for all its faults, it somehow felt alive. It felt free and unburdened. And there was no sand.

But now it is all sand. And the sand has extinguished the flames that I never learned to master. And it feels gray and pallid and dead, but that is because I haven't yet given up trying to have it both ways. I haven't quite given up on wanting to have the fire rage around me, yet not be burned. Experience has yet to extinguish the last vestiges of wistfulness and a longing for youth and of the illusion that I was more alive then than I am now. Anger in youth is not better than calm in age. It is simply different. Fire is not better than sand. Only more familiar when misremembered. If sand is what I have then sand is what I will use. I may mourn the anger, but I know why I smothered it. The world is only as chill and dark as I make it out to be. I can warm and light it without recourse to the easy way out of emotional incandescence. I need only choose. We must all chose, and with that comes the specter or making the wrong choice. Stepping up and taking ownership, rather than letting the fire burn where and what it would, means not having anyone else to blame. Which means learning not to blame.

In the end, ownership is like the years. It has mass, it has weight, it has heft - but you cannot hold on to it. And taking ownership of oneself extinguishes the fire of anger and the other things that we allow to master us. But because it has mass, weight and heft, one can build with it. Like sand, however, ownership requires work to make it strong.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Better Them

If you've never read Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" or Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" - spoiler alert.

About a week and a half ago, the New York Times published an opinion piece by conservative commentator David Brooks about the Ursula K. Le Guin short story: "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." For those of you who haven't read it, the gist is that the impossibly idyllic town of Omelas owes its utopian nature of the suffering of a single child, kept locked in a windowless basement. Le Guin credits the idea as arising from the following quote by William James:

Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris's utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?
Brooks' contention is that most of us simply live "with all the tragic compromises built into modern life — all the children in the basements."
We tolerate exploitation, telling each other that [exploited workers'] misery is necessary for overall affluence, though maybe it’s not.
By the end of the column, though, Brooks seems to hint that it is, saying that people who reject the contract that demands the suffering of some for the affluence of others, like the people who gave Le Guin's story its title, "walk away from prosperity." Perhaps this is what allows him to be a forgiving soul - even though Brooks flat-out accuses those who would make the trade off of violating values that they (claim to) hold which explicitly prohibit such a bargain, he says that such people "aren’t bad; they just find it easier and easier to live with the misery they depend upon." Now, to be sure, I agree with Brooks in that assessment, but that is because I reject the idea of good and bad people outright - in the world I live in, there are only good and bad choices. I don't know that Mr. Brooks shares that view of humanity.

Unlike Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," (which, although mainly described today as a story about conformity, seems to presage the same theme of tragic trade-offs as "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas") in which the person chosen to suffer for the good of the community dies, the child in the basement lives there day after day. Which means that we have a third way; one between accepting the misery of others or walking into an unknown (and presumably unprosperous) darkness - one that neither Le Guin or Brooks seems to have thought of - self sacrifice. Even James' hypothesis doesn't stipulate that the "lost soul on the far off edge of things" who leads "a life of lonely torture" must always be the same person.

While one can make the case that the bad choice in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is to stay in Omelas, rather than brave the darkness of the world beyond, perhaps the problem is really that most of us are unwilling to brave the darkness of the basement - even for a short time. If a person lives to age seventy-five, their life still numbers fewer than 28,000 days. If Omelas were the size of the suburb of Seattle that I now live in, most of us would have to spend one day in the basement - and a few thousand lucky souls would escape it all together. Now, it's likely that the number of people in the real-world "basement" that we rely on for our perceptions of prosperity is significantly greater, perhaps so many that to spread the suffering equally, each of us would have to spend a week, or a month, or a season, or perhaps even a year in the basement.

Of course, most of us don't do it. Part of it is, I suspect, that it's hard to know, when they lock the door behind you, how long it will be before the next person comes along to let you out - and take your place. And, given the size of our communities, it's easy to conclude that you don't trust them to, if left to their own devices, ever come back for you. Maybe we realize that if it were our turn, we'd avoid reporting for duty, instead rationalizing how were not bad people - or making bad choices. Perhaps, we'd tell ourselves, we've suffered enough already for things that everyone else has, but we lack. After all, that's what everyone else would do...

But maybe it's because, in the end, if we lock someone else, some child, in the basement, there is no pressure on us to understand if their scapegoating and misery is required for our affluence, and if it isn't, to have a better understanding of what is. Prosperity, if you would wish to call it that, becomes less a matter of effort than it does of non-effort - all we have to do is keep the door locked, ignore the pleading and pretend that by numbly stumbling through life, we'll somehow make it up to them.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

What’s Done

An online discussion of this week's KAL cartoon eventually degenerated (as such things are wont to do) into a "debate" over whether or not Islam was an inherently violent religion. There were the typical claims that only Moslems kill in the name of religion (these days, anyway) and unsourced insistence that the Qu'ran openly calls for murder. If you've ever been in one of these discussions, I doubt that I have to describe this one to you any further - the script was the same.

But when I was at the grocery store, I saw a car with a bumper sticker that read "Christians aren't perfect - just forgiven." Thinking about that in the context of the online debate, something occurred to me. Another ubiquitous part of the script of debates over the role of religion and violence is the idea that "true Christians" are above using violence in the name of their faith. Which leads to an interesting irony. For many Christians, the vandal, the robber and the murderer are just a few of the billions of fallen human beings that populate this planet. All are proclaimed worthy of love and forgiveness, even from their enemies, and entitled, through returning to the fold, to a chance at grace and everlasting paradise. The world-be crusader, however, faces excommunication and opprobrium. Of course, this is far from universal - Christianity is a large and diverse group - and not all Christians hold to the same views.

What makes this particular form of gatekeeping interesting is it apparent purpose - protecting the idea that Christians are morally and ethically superior to other religions (but Islam in particular) on this one specific axis. As I've noted before, religiously-motivated violence in my own life is something that happens elsewhere. I suspect that I'd be hard pressed to find a violent religious extremist within a hundred miles of me. So, my own life might be more secure if the profession of Christianity rendered someone significantly less likely to be a burglar, mugger or murderer. While the idea that no true Christians will ever show up at my doorstep demanding that either I recant my apostasy or die is moderately comforting, it's also indistinguishable from the status quo.

In the end, the issue is really an attempt by some Christians to avoid being tarred with a broad brush of religious violence. Which is understandable. Religion, like any other human institution, has had its high and low points, and one of the lowest is the amount of blood that has been shed in the name of the divine. But sometimes it seems that the focus on "Out, damned spot! Out, I say!" is overdone. As Lady MacBeth notes, "All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand;" for critics of religion, the smell of blood will always remain. Throwing those it clings to under the bus will not change that.

Saturday, January 17, 2015


Over the past week or so, I've read a couple of articles that have been recommended to me by people on Google+. Both of them have to do with law enforcement and money. One was about police officials in New York cracking down on officers for the recent slowdown there - the author's speculation (without much basis, it turns out) was that the crackdown was motivated by a dropoff in revenue from tickets and whatnot, and the city was becoming antsy for money. The other was about Attorney General Eric Holder's recent actions to limit Equitable Sharing of funds seized by state and local police departments - often as a way for officers to get around the stringent requirements attached to Civil Asset Forfeiture - and the requirement that money go into the general fund, rather than directly to the police department.

What both of these things have in common is that they wind up being ways in which the government draws money out of poor communities. Fines and fees for non-payment of tickets and the like tend to escalate quickly for people who don't have the money to pay them off, and Civil Asset Forfietures arising from traffic stops tend to fall mainly on people who operate in the cash economy - who tend to be poor. On the other hand, they allow the rest of us to get by on a somewhat cheaper ride than we would otherwise get.

“There is some grave concern about the possible loss of significant funding while local police and state police are being asked to do more and more each year.”
Bill Johnson, executive director, National Association of Police Organizations
Holder limits seized-asset sharing process that split billions with local, state police
This is part of the reason why programs like this lasted for as long as they have - they allowed the police agencies that participated in them to increase their funding levels, without needing to ask for tax increases. And the people most often injured by the seizures were easily written off. As a nation, we need to be less willing to throw one another under the bus.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sticks and Stones

One of the things that I learned from working with Children is that Adults are liars. And even when they mean to be honest, they are often poor teachers.

Consider the following, which we often tell children.

Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But words will never hurt me.
It's often something that we tell children when we seek to unruffle their feathers after an incident of name-calling. But how often have your heard it said to the child who calls another names? In your experience, had anyone ever said to you: "Why on Earth are you calling Sam names? Don't you know that it's utterly ineffective? It doesn't make any sense."

Children, I've learned, are nowhere near as dim (or guileless) as we make them out to be, and they often come to very quick understandings of which side of a mixed message we really live on. No matter how often we tell children that words make for ineffective weapons when they're on the receiving end of them, when we are quick to punish or correct whenever a child is on the giving end, they come to understand that we don't really believe it. And that leaves aside the entire fact that we, as adults, despite telling children that words are ineffective weapons, are unlikely to forgo the use of them ourselves. Or be above responding to them.

And it's not always the simple stuff, like calling someone an "asshole" or a "bitch" that drives this home. Westboro Baptist Church has garnered international headlines through nothing more than verbal epithets and signs. The New York Police Department is in a dispute with the Mayor, and again, garnering international headlines, because they feel that two of their own were gunned down, not because a nationwide community of millions of people feels aggrieved by what they see as several examples of police officers getting away with behaving badly, but because the Mayor and the Attorney General of the United States have said the wrong words in relation to those situations.

And once we've established in the minds of children that words are, in fact, effective weapons, everything beyond that is only a matter of degree. Here in the United States, there is a shared understanding that words are only mildly effective as weapons. For the most part, anyway. But there are plenty of exceptions to that rule, and they are writ large every time someone seeks to shield themselves or others from words they find psychologically or emotionally damaging. Sometimes those exceptions are due to the nature of the words (You can't say that on television.) and other times they are due to the nature of the speaker (Injunction against Westboro Baptist, anyone?), but the effect is the same - the lesson is taught that some words are, as George Carlin put it, "really bad." And this leaves aside the cases of speech that we find illegal for other reasons, like conspiring to break the law. Which we may find more rational, but still amounts to the idea that some speech should be punishable as dangerous in and of itself. In other cultures, the lines are drawn in different places. Perhaps insulting the rules is beyond the pale. Or injuring the feelings of the religious. Or denying historical events important to one group or another.

And once we establish that speech should be punishable, then the punishments are also simply a matter of degree. After all, some places see some things as more harmful than others, and meriting stricter punishments. Societies and cultures are not all the same, so why would we expect their legal systems to be?

I think that you can see where I'm going with this. In the end, the idea that we should all be on the same page when it comes to matter of law, justice and fairness comes across as hopelessly utopian. And that is why people in different places, different cultures and even different families respond differently to matters of speech. But it's all built upon a groundwork that we lay every day in the way that we conduct ourselves. If we're going to teach our children that words cannot hurt, then we're first going to have to teach it to ourselves and start behaving as if it were true - regardless of how that winds up making us feel. We're going to have to make a concerted effort to break the cycle. It's unrealistic to think that we're ever going to completely do away with the idea that words, images or non-aggressive actions are weapon enough that sometimes, it's justified to take extreme measures in "self-defense." But even so, if we ever want to move in that direction, we have to start using more than childish platitudes.

Friday, January 9, 2015

On Satire

There is a thought-provoking piece in The Guardian by Joe Sacco. It is intended to push us into understanding our relationship to satire - and the deliberate giving of offense. So I worked to understand.

The first thing that I understood is that satire is not an objective term. An examination by a physicist will not inform you of whether something is satirical or not. Like offensive, it is in the eye of the beholder. Then I understood that Mr. Sacco had made some very interesting points. So I decided that I would speak to them.

Copied from The Guardian's website, so that you may see what it is to which I am referring.
Though tweaking the noses of Muslims might be as permissible as it is now perceived to be dangerous, it has never struck me as anything other than a vapid way to use the pen.
It strikes me as vapid, too. And? What difference does that make? What I find to be vapid and others find to be gravely offensive still others find to be clever. It is not my place to judge. I must defend the vapid along with the wise. I am stuck defending those (and given that this is the United States, there are a fair number of them) who would use their freedom of speech to denigrate me - and some who would hope to inspire others to be their cat's paws for violence against me, because as vapid as I find it, it is the nature of the beast. The freedom to use the pen in the ways that strike me as clever, uplifting or useful is not the same as the freedom to use the pen.

Bad ideas are sometimes dangerous. But history has shown us the the power to decide which ideas are good or bad (or, inspiring or vapid) and to back that with force - legitimized or otherwise - is nearly always dangerous. People who have been charged with the protection of others almost always come to find that it is in the best interests of the protected that the interests of the protector come first - especially when the protected have few means of enforcing accountability.
And what is it about Muslims in this time and place that makes them unable to laugh of a mere image?

There is nothing about Moslems, apart from those things that are necessary to be Moslem, that does not exist in any other group. I know many non-Moslems who claim they would resort to murder - not only to avenge themselves against those they feel have wronged them, but to show others the price of wrong action. True, those who act in the name of Abrahamic religions often look forward to an eternity of the gratitude of a bloody-minded (but strangely lazy) deity and this undermines the fear of punishment that restrains others, but in the end, they all have chosen a path for themselves based on what they believe that others owe - either to themselves directly, or to the world around them.

When I learned to laugh off a mere image, it was because I came to the understanding that I am not owed anything. The positive (or neutral) impressions of others towards me are not my birthright. I am not entitled to be ignorant of either the possibility or the reality of others' negative opinions of me, nor am I entitled to preventing the spread of same to those who do not currently share them. This is not to say that the opinions of others do not have consequences for me. They do, and if history is any guide, they can be severe in the extreme. But attempting to control people's speech in the hope that I can expunge consequential thoughts is, and was, a fool's game, regardless of the enthusiasm with which I once played.

In the end, the freedom to offend, regardless of how vapid we may find it in practice, may be the only tool we have with which to end offense. Because offense is not in the intent of the offender, but in the reception of the offended. In spite of this, we may not find it valuable. That is our choice to make, and there is nothing that demands we not make it. However, as the saying goes, there are no solutions, only trade-offs. The question is not if we will pay, but only if we will find what we have purchased worthwhile.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Brunch To Kill For

John Cardillo, Florida businessman and former New York City police officer, posted a picture that was described as "deliberately provocative but wasn't meant as an actual threat."

Because, you know, this is a perfectly rational response to having one's breakfast interrupted.
Here's some context - Cardillo is photographed pointing a gun at the camera and telling people to move along because he's enjoying his breakfast. This is in reaction to #blackbrunch, a protest movement in which African-American protesters interrupt meals at upscale restaurants - "claim[ing] space in areas that are predominantly non-black."
Now, in Cardillo's defense, I find this a pretty eye-roll worthy form of protest myself. And I'm already a firm believer in the idea that public protest is the last resort of the politically powerless. I'm not convinced that the mainstream culture will lend any of their political clout just because someone decides to have a chant-in in a steakhouse somewhere.

But what Cardillo doesn't seem to understand is that the very idea that pointing a handgun at people who are simply being legally obnoxious is part of the whole situation being protested. I've had meals interrupted by dimwits before - it never occurred to me that if only I had a handgun, I'd show them how annoyed I was. In what world are firearms anything close to a proportionate response to having brunch disrupted? A world where the people being disruptive are black, apparently.

And that what lies at the heart of this whole thing. Cardillo is ex-NYPD, and he feels that the #blackbrunch protesters weren't sufficiently vocal about the shootings of NYPD officers. So he takes a picture of himself that places the viewer in the position of staring down the barrel of a gun. But he doesn't mean it as threatening. He just wants to provoke people with the idea that if they interrupted HIS breakfast, he just might consider that a shooting offense. Because apparently, that ranks up there with other reasons to shoot people.

The problem that people have with the killings of people like Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin (Remember him?) isn't simply that they were killed - it's specifically that they were killed while doing things that one wouldn't otherwise think rose to the level of a capital offense. Regardless of what one thinks of selling loose cigarettes, disobeying the directives of a police officer or walking around at night in a hoodie, these aren't the sorts of things that we normally understand should be met with lethal force, but were in the case of Black men.

Cardillo's irritation is understandable. Whether or not he takes the anger of people at police officers (and the NYPD) personally, I can sympathize with his feeling that police are being picked on while the literal crimes of others are being ignored by protesters who cannot, or will not understand. But the means of expressing that - by implying that protests should be met with lethal force simply confirms the very mindset that created the protests in the first place - that some of us live in a nation where being killed by members of the majority over trivialities is a realistic threat. Whether that's due to animosity, fear or thoughtlessness doesn't make it any less frightening or random. Especially in a nation with a history of sanctioning murder specifically as a means of enforcing a set of asymmetrical social mores. A history, I might add, that was a present-day reality for people who are still alive.

Of course, in situations like this, people will often call for a view of a larger picture, looking to portray themselves as unprejudiced or their detractors as biased. But that misses the entire point - that in the moment - it's not about the world as a whole. It's about us as individuals, the people who are like us and the people we like. Because that's who it's always about. Whether he meant to or not, Cardillo decided, in order to be provocative, to telegraph the idea that it was okay for people like him to shoot people like them. Not because they threatened him, but because for them to bother him is so unconscionable that violence just might be warranted. In the middle of a whole series of events that can be honestly interpreted as saying the exact same thing.

Those must have been some really amazing Eggs Benedict.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Makeover Artist

Yesterday, I got together with some friends for Drinking and Shakespeare. The play we "performed" (complete with funny voices on the part of those of us that could manage them) was "The Taming of the Shrew." Now, until D+S came along, I hadn't done much with Shakespeare since I was in high school, were we routinely read plays in English class, and were treated to two professional performances a year by a theatrical troupe. And so, even though I remembered "The Taming of the Shrew," I found that I did not remember "The Taming of the Shrew." Sometime in the past 30 years, I had managed to completely mislay any memories of the abuse that poor Katharina suffers at Petruchio's hands, as he seeks to remake her from bitter "shrew" to Stepford Wife. I think, in part, it's because it seems difficult to understand the nature of what's going on, and how the beginning and end states line up.

The main point in the play that establishes Katharina as a "shrew" is Act II, set in the family home in Padua. The Act opens with Kate abusing her sister Bianca, and near the end of it, has her verbally (mostly) sparring with Petruchio, at which time he resolves that they will be wed on the following Sunday. At the end of the play, as the proof that she has been "tamed" she lectures, at the direct behest of Petruchio, Bianca and the Widow on: "What duty they do owe their lords and husbands." To the modern sensibility, these seem unrelated - in fact, the only aspect of Katharina's behavior that has been directly changed is that she appears to lose her shame at public displays of affection.

Perhaps it's because when I read the play now, it's hard to understand it as a comedy, but "The Taming of the Shrew" comes across mostly as a heartbreaking tale of domestic abuse. Petruchio's tactics are precisely the sort of thing that would trigger an intervention today, and the parallels to modern cult conditioning are stark. While much of Katharina's ire seems to be directed at her family, their exasperation with her has left her isolated, and thus she had no-one to defend her when Petruchio effectively turns their marriage into an abduction. And note that this is not addressed at the end of the play. Petruchio does not set out to repair Kate's relationships with her sister, father or any of the other people she knew. When she lectures the Widow, her monologue is really an acknowledgement of her own helplessness. To be allowed to eat, sleep, change clothing or leave Petruchio's home, Kate is forced to do and say whatever she is told, and to castigate herself when Petruchio insists that, in her subservience, she has misstated things. I suspect that one could do a lot with a rendition of the play in which Kate's closing is delivered in a flat, falsely cheerful monotone with a forced smile - the sort that inaudibly pleads, "Help me." In this, "The Taming of the Shrew" is a story of predation - Petruchio is a predator and in Kate, he has found the perfect victim - someone who has burned enough bridges that he may prey upon her with the open blessing of her family and acquaintances. Bianca, the sister who is the object of everyone's affections and desire, retains a modicum of freedom for herself by understanding the part expected of her. Katharina plays the game badly, and loses big.

One wonders if things would have been different if the play had circled back around to its opening, with the jest being played on Christopher Sly - the decision of the hunting Lord to "practise on this drunken man," and convince him that he's undergone a fugue for the past decade and a half. One wonders what would have happened had Sly attempted to play Petruchio to the poor Page who had been shanghaied into dressing in drag and pretending to be his wife. One can imagine it ending badly. Of course, the joke being perpetrated at Sly's expense seems cruel and mean itself - but in that it so happens that we are not shown the results of that cruelty. In "The Taming of the Shrew," cruelty being played out to the bitter end is a fate reserved only for Kate. I can't help but wonder if the frame was always left unclosed, as the play comes to us now, or if, at some point, there was a return to Christopher Sly and the Lord. If there was, it seems that there would have been some sort of meta-commentary on the "taming" as Sly had just witnessed it. Perhaps audiences didn't like it for some reason, or, if they play had been commissioned, the patron disapproved. In any event, its absence gives us the opportunity to invent it for ourselves. I'd like to think that poor Sly would have come away from things the wiser in the ways of the nobility, and perhaps sympathetic to Katharina.

Thursday, January 1, 2015


I think everybody needs to be educated. Just because a police officer contacts you, and asks for ID, it doesn't mean that you've done anything bad. It's just, you know, they're questioning for whatever reason. You know, a lot of people instantly think and get defensive, and, you know, feel like it's a bad engagement, when it could just be for something completely simple. You never know exactly what their reasoning is but, you know, I think that people just kind of need to follow through with that and, you know, just do what they're asking you to do, within reason.
Diane Langdon, pro-police march organizer. "Seattle Marchers Rally For 'Police Lives Matter'"
"Within reason." But who defines "within reason?" The officer? The citizen? The police department? A citizen review board? The courts? The media? The court of Public Opinion? Mrs. Langdon? It's tempting to use the term as if it were an objective description, something that never changes regardless of the circumstances at hand in the moment, or the history of the people in question.

And this becomes the issue at hand. Mrs. Langdon acknowledges that when a citizen is stopped by a police officer, that citizen may not know what the officer is thinking. In this regard it's worth noting that the officer not only doesn't have to explain themselves, but is allowed to lie. (Of course, lying to an officer is a crime.) Yet her advice is to keep an open mind. After all, the officer's interest could be "completely simple." And it's not like an officer can use anything suspicious or potentially incriminating against you. Oh, wait, they can. And so you have asymmetry in both information and power, the end result of which is a defacto requirement that a citizen trust police officers.

And that places citizens in a bad position, especially when they're dubious about the intent of the officer(s) they are interacting with. In such a case, how does one understand, in the moment, whether or not what an officer is asking is within reason? And it's worth keeping in mind that this isn't simply an academic question. Coming to the conclusion that an officer is being unreasonable, and therefore, resistance or disobedience is warranted can have potentially fatal consequences - especially in today's environment, where police officers have taken non-compliance to be tantamount to an active threat against them. For many people, active acquiescence is the rule of the day: simply submit to whatever the officer asks of you and determine to have it all sorted out later. But that requires a level of belief in two things - that the criminal justice system, at all levels a) acts in good faith and b) can reliably sort out the innocent from the guilty.

It's worth keeping in mind that an arrest record, regardless of how it turns out, can follow a person for life - and can be remarkably difficult to clear up, even in cases where no charges are ever filed. And once an arrest is entered into the FBI database (where it may remain for more than a century), the fact that a local police department may no longer have a record of the incident can make it even more difficult to have the record set straight. And this fact gives police officers a remarkable level of power. If a department submits even misdemeanor arrests to the FBI, something that appears not very serious on its face can result in a lifetime of stigmatization - especially given the fact even an arrest without a reported final disposition means, that as far as the federal government is concerned, a person now has a criminal record.

Being a police officer is a difficult, risky and often thankless job. I won't argue that. The murders of two officers in New York recently, and Seattle police officers being caught up in a rolling gunfight overnight are testaments to the dangers of the position. But the flip side of that is that the job comes with a remarkable amount of power and authority. And the issue that many people have with police today is a concern that there isn't the oversight to balance them. Supporters of the police who advocate simple obedience do nothing to alleviate those concerns. It's true that in a society prizes seeing everyone as an individual, allowing a few bad apples to spoil the barrel seems unfair. But unless an apple is visibly rotten, how does one know that the apple they have in hand is safe, within reason?