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 clich├ęs, 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.