Monday, February 29, 2016


I don't really involve myself in the abortion debate, and so I'd grown accustomed to ignoring Prolife Across America's ubiquitous billboards when I drove past them. This one had initially caught my attention because it was the first of their billboards that I'd seen to feature so young a baby, a non-white child and an adult. But once the novelty had worn off, I fell back into my usual routine of not paying it any attention.

Until today, that is, when I noticed that the billboard had been vandalized. Vandalizing of political signage is a common occurrence around here - campaign season tends to escalate into tit-for-tat alteration (some of it quite creative) and destruction of candidate signs all over the place. But despite the fact that the PAA billboards were a regularly-recurring feature of the local landscape, this was the first time that I'd ever seen anyone target one.

My attention drawn back to the sign by the spray-painting of same, I started to consider the message. Originally, the billboard had read "Real men love babies." Now, I'm not a fan of using challenges to gender identity as leverage to alter people's behaviors, even for relatively unserious applications of it like this. But this struck me as a particularly blatant call to men to throw their weight around in their relationships. Sure, it takes two to tango, and I understand the idea that a potential father has something to say about whether or not a child is aborted, but the implication that the choice was ultimately in the hands of fathers struck me as misguided. And so the absence of the mother in the scene became all the more apparent. Especially given that the father and child in this billboard were Black, a first for the PAA billboards that I'd seen. Up until this point, the messages pretty much always showed smiling, happy, White toddlers, dressed up for their portraits and blandly pro-life messaging written from the child's POV, such as, "Daddy said I was an accident," or simply informative, such as "Heartbeat at 18 Days." (Prolife Across America loves to harp on that particular point; note the heart in the upper-left hand corner of this billboard.) So this was the first message that seemed to be aimed directly at the parents of unborn children, let alone fathers.

The replacement of "babies" with "choice" seems like an obvious idea. It works with the phrase, but it also works with the picture; after all, choice implies more than one possible outcome - having the choice to abort a fetus isn't the same as having an imperative to do so. It also has a more egalitarian vibe to it - you don't have to be the person making a choice to appreciate the idea that there is a choice.

I don't know how long the billboard will stay up, or how long it might be until someone replaces it with an unsullied one. I don't drive the stretch of road it stands on daily. But it made for some interesting thinking in its present state.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Good Things Come...

So it's Sunday morning, and for many people, that means church. Or perhaps, Church. In any event, Sunday is the traditional day to attend Christian worship services. I, on the other hand, am catching up on my reading. And so I've found an article on The Atlantic: "How the Church Helps Black Men Flourish in America." But it wasn't so much the title that caught my eye, but one of the authors, W. Bradford Wilcox, whom I've become familiar with from his other religion-based articles. Mr. Wilcox is the director of the University of Virginia's National Marriage Project, and something of a cheerleader for "traditional values," such as marriage over cohabitation, women working less and, unsurprisingly, being Christian. In fact, many of his articles are more interesting as a particularly erudite form of proselytization than they are as journalism, and so I was curious what tack he was going to take this time.

It was fairly straightforward stuff. There were a series of simple bar charts, with two groups: "Attends church frequently" and "Doesn't attend church frequently." Three of the charts talked about "Black Men, Aged 22-16" in the years 2001 and 2002, and considered whether they had reported committing a serious crime, being incarcerated and being unemployed yet not in school. In each case, the longer bar belonged to the "Doesn't attend church frequently" group. The fourth bar chart measured "Black Men Under 35 Who [Were] Married in 2012 or 2013." On this putatively positive measure, the "Attends church frequently" was the longer of the two.

In each case, the chart tells us: "*The effect of church attendance is statistically significant." Hmm... An asterisk. I wonder what that means? But I was unable to find out, as the links given with each chart, while calling out "Soul Mates and National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, Bureau of Labor Statistics," simply lead to what can only be described as an advertisement for the book that Wilcox collaborated on, Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love and Marriage Among African Americans and Latinos, and not to any numbers than can be crunched.

Studies showing that people who attend churches have better life outcomes by certain measures are common. They're a common tool for making the point that "You should really become a Christian," for people who don't use Pascal's Wager to that end. More neutral observers, however, often point out that while these studies show clear correlations, they don't do anything to establish causality. This, however, doesn't stop Mr. Wilcox and his co-author from implying just that.

A note that appears with each chart is as follows: "Analysis adjusts for religious affiliation, marital and cohabiting status, education, age, urban residence, region of residence, and whether respondents lived with their biological parents as teenagers." Missing from this is income, either of the individual themselves or of their family. Which struck me as a fairly major omission, since poverty is a major factor in crime, incarceration rates, being/remaining employed/in school and marriage. And, it wouldn't surprise me if it fed directly into church attendance - after all, middle-class and above jobs, the sort that pay relatively well, also tend to allow for weekends off - thus freeing up Sunday mornings to go to services.

All in all, the article was an interesting glimpse into how some religious people see the world and the effect of their religiosity on it. And how they see those effects as objective, causal relationships, even when some things may suggest otherwise. (For instance, while the article points out that "African American men attend church at rates notably above the national average," and then correlates church attendance with marriage rates, Blacks are much less likely to be married than Whites.) And it's valuable for that, because understanding how people see the world tells us a lot about how they understand their, and our, place in it.

If They Don't Ask

One of the primary obstacles to a greater understanding between people, as I see it, is a disdain for questions that imply (or display) a lack of understanding of another's experience.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Cash and Carcerality

There are problems with the way courts use financial punishments, like fines and restitution payments, with regards to people who don't have the ability to pay them (as opposed to willful non-payment) especially in jurisdictions that are cash-poor to the point that they rely on such means to plug holes in their budgets. (Which one would think creates a conflict of interest and/or incentives for abuse. Thought experiment: Everyone in such a jurisdiction scrupulously follows the exact letter of every law for a month, removing any reason to legitimately write anyone a ticket or charge a court fee for anything. What do you expect would happen? Cutbacks in services? "Creativity" on the part of the authorities and law enforcement when it comes to issuing citations? Creating new offenses to ensnare people?)

But a broken system is different from the historical practice of Debtors' Prisons, although there are similarities. Social justice advocates use the term because they feel that the modern system lacks appropriate safeguards to keep the truly indigent (those who legitimately cannot pay) from being considered scofflaws (or people who will not pay), and is thus a throwback to the 19th century practice of imprisoning people who did not pay court judgements against them, without considering whether they could not or willfully would not.

I think that many media outlets have adopted the term as a more upscale variety of click-bait than "One Weird Trick" or "What Happened Next Will Shock You," especially for sites that allow commenting; the specter of Debtors' Prison is almost invariably good for outrage mining, as people rant and rail against "the system" for "imprisoning people for the crime of being indigent." Often, it's clear that they didn't read the article beyond the headline, and maybe the opening hard-luck story of some poor unfortunate who finds themselves caught in a spiral of debt following some trivial infraction, like a parking ticket or dressing in a way that local leaders disapprove of. (No, seriously. In some places sagging pants, a fashion designed to mimic prison life and associated with urban gang culture, has been legislated against. It's easier than raising taxes.)

Part of the problem with the current "debate" over fines, court fees and the like is that the sides are, as often happens, talking past one another, as they make emotional appeals to people already on their side or who are ignorant of the situation. The system is broken, as any system would be, as it attempts to reconcile differing demands that, together, call for perfection. Social justice advocates call for a system that never punishes those who cannot pay, while promoters of law and order call for a system that never overlooks those who will not pay. Each side sees errors of indicative of fundamental injustices.

For all of the emotionality and hyperbole, it's worthwhile for use to understand how the system works and come to some conclusion (although it's unlikely to be a unanimous one) as to how the system should work. But the injection of the loaded term "Debtors' Prison" into the debate works against that.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Unknown Unknowns

I had one person ask me whether it was an advantage to be brown and female. And I was like, “No, it is not an advantage. How stupid do you have to be to think that that is an advantage in life?”

This was actually a very intelligent person. It was a wakeup call to me that a lot of people think that. It’s not just bigots.
Arwa Mahdawi
This quote is from an interview with Ms. Mahdawi about her website,, that appeared in The Atlantic. Interestingly, she’s arguably more charitable when she mentions the same interaction on NPR, there thinking that he interlocutor “must be living on a different planet,” rather than simply stupid.

But either way, that raises an interesting question. Why do we so often expect people who are not us to understand what our lives our like? Or put another way, why do we have the exception that other people are aware our subjective understanding of our own experiences? Part of it, at least as I see it, is the idea that we often think that we understand what it would be like to live other people’s lives - it would be the same as it is now, just that one or two things would be different.

Mary Ann Franks, in her paper “How to Feel Like a Woman, or Why Punishment Is a Drag,” notes that “[E]mpathy is the capacity to imaginatively put oneself in the place of another and attempt to feel as they feel.” It says nothing about one's imagination being correct, or the attempt being successful. And thus we should expect that people will get it wrong some percentage of the time. Now it’s possible that people will mis-imagine what it feels like to be another person because they are, deliberately or not, engaging in only superficial empathy, but it's important to expand the the act of empathizing with others beyond the bounds of accuracy; especially when we live in a society that often rejects the possibility of accurately empathizing with someone unlike oneself. When I was in college, the idea of “it’s a Black thing - you wouldn’t understand,” gained currency, and is a direct result of the idea that only someone who has lived an experience themselves can understand it. And it's still around; the Lady Gaga song “’Til It Happens to You,” being a recent example.

Casting people who ask questions that cast our experiences in a way that flies in the face of our own understanding as stupid, “living on a different planet” or even as only superficially empathetic encourages us to react to those questions in a way that, ultimately, discourages people from asking. And it’s difficult to educate people as to what our experiences are like if they’re unwilling to inquire.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Tuning In

In my Google+ stream today was a link to an article entitled "To Men I Love, About Men Who Scare Me." The point was a fairly straightforward one, and one that I've seen a thousand times before: "If a woman is frosty or standoffish or doesn’t laugh at your joke, consider the notion that maybe she is not an uptight, humorless bitch, but rather has had experiences that are outside your realm of understanding, and have adversely colored her perception of the world."

The original posting had a short discussion going in which people complained about how men "shouldn't act like dicks" or should be "gentlemen" around women. Standard fare; the sort of comments that people make to express sympathy and solidarity with someone who has had a difficult experience imposed on them by another person. I thought about those comments for a while, and then something occurred to me. When we tell someone "not to act like a dick," implicit in that is that person we're addressing isn't actually a dick. They're just engaging in behaviors that are outwardly similar.

Then there was the eureka moment. It's not about "being a dick," or "not being a gentleman." It's about, quite literally, impersonating a predator. Which is part of the problem. If you ask most guys to draw you a picture, literally or figuratively, of the sort of predatory man that women would and should be on the alert for, the result is unlikely to look like themselves, and possibly any of their friends. And to the degree that it looks like the sort of man that women are generally wary of, it's likely to be because a crocodile would be cautious under the same circumstances. The common understanding of "the ones you need to worry about" as being openly creepy, outwardly strange or otherwise clearly visible from low Earth orbit is at odds with the facts - namely, that like serial murderers, sexual predators often look just like everyone else. And so, at least as I understand the world to work, women don't walk around simply being on the lookout for obvious monsters. Instead, they looking for the subtle signs that a man might be predatory. And yes, that results in a lot of false positives. Welcome to evolution.

When people talk about the fear response in people, especially as regards loss aversion, a common example is an early human living out on a savanna. There's a rustling in the grass. Given this ambiguous signal, the human guesses that it could just be the wind, or it could be a hungry lion. In this case, a person who jumps to the false positive conclusion - that the rustle is a lion when it's actually the wind - makes a break for it, and lives to wander the grasslands another day. But if they guess the false negative, they're lunch. And we understand this. It makes sense to us that in an ambiguous situation, it's better to err on the side of caution. It's how we understand that we can scare people by impersonating dangerous animals.

Well, the same goes for people. If sexual predators or other abusive people are non-obvious, yet not completely hidden, people who understand themselves to be at risk are going to sensitive to cues about who they are dealing with. And in such a case it's better to take an ambiguous signal as a positive indicator that they're dealing with someone potentially dangerous. Demanding an unwilling woman's time and attention, hinting at violence as a show of dominance and commenting about her body isn't just "being a creep" or "acting thoughtlessly." It's signaling predatory intent, either honestly or dishonestly.

And that's what men really ought to be more aware of - the signals they are sending to the person that they're dealing with. Because what really sends a lot of interactions south. It's said that people who enter into interactions with people expecting to make a connection (or have sex) are actually "luckier" because they are more opportunistic, optimistic and willing to listen to their feelings. Which is all fine and good, but if it comes at the expense of noticing that the other person is actively sending signals of disinterest or even distress, maybe it's time to dial it back. Our inclination to conflate predatory with monstrous also does not serve us well in this venue. The sincere desire to just be friendly or strike up a conversation doesn't prevent one from sending much darker signals - and the failure to understand that is what leads to men bitterly calling women out as bitter or humorless, oblivious to the fact that they've dishonestly signaled themselves as dangerous.

I've rambled on about experiences that are not my own long enough, and so I'm going to end with one last point. Every person has their own understanding of what signals a predator. Behavior that strikes one person as eccentric and another as engaging may put a third person in fear for their life. And so the fact is, that outside of a few blatant examples, it can be hard to judge what signals one is sending. And this is where the real problem lies. Out of hopefulness, obliviousness or willful disbelief, men often ignore the signals that the women they are interacting with are sending, until those signals are so clear and unambiguous that they can't be overlooked. It shouldn't need to go that far. Being receptive to the negative signals someone is sending should be an expectation that we have of men, rather than being itself viewed as a signal of over-sensitivity or timidity.

Thursday, February 18, 2016


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Tug of War

In politics, if you demand a mile, you get a foot; demand a moderate inch, and at best, you get a centimeter.
Christopher D. Cook "The Pragmatic Case for Bernie Sanders"
This is, in a nutshell, the common knock against Hillary Clinton from supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders - that in not being willing to move very far left of where the nation currently stands, that Mrs. Clinton will be unable to move the needle against recalcitrant Republicans in Congress far enough to make things better for the public.

Fair enough.

But in the end, this isn't a discussion about the best way to engage in politics - it's a discussion of the best way to deal with the Republican Party. Those are different things. For supporters of Senator Sanders, the calculus is simple: pull as far away from the Republicans, policy-wise, as you possibly can, and the point where they meet you will be on the your side of the status quo. But for supporters of Mrs. Clinton, the calculus is just as simple, if you pull as far away from the Republicans as you can, they simply decide not to come to the table, and the status quo stays where it is. And so the question comes down to, if there are enough Republicans in Congress that they're going to be a serious obstacle to reform, do they have to make deals with any Democratic administration?

For the Senator Sanders camp's view to be correct, the answer to that has to be "Yes." So if a President Sanders demands a mile, the Republicans will have no option. While they'd rather not give him anything, a foot is the absolute minimum that they can offer. And so then that leaves you with a question - if the very voters who would put Senator Sanders (or Mrs. Clinton, for that matter) into office are going to leave Congress in Republican hands, or at least leave enough Republicans in the body that they could effectively block legislation that they didn't like, who is going to lever them into agreeing to give the foot?

And this, I think is what is driving Mrs. Clinton's camp to see incrementalism as the way to go. Not because it's desirable, but because asking for an inch and receiving a centimeter (which, incidentally, is much greater proportion of an inch than a foot is to a mile) allows for progress, but doesn't make it automatically better for the Republicans to simply walk away from the proposed legislation.

It's difficult to push through lasting change, even with persistent pressure, if you're opposed by someone who isn't answerable to you. And as American politics becomes more divided, politicians don't feel the need to answer to the other party's voters. This was one of the issues pointed out by Republican critics of Governor Mitt Romney's "47%" remark - the fact that he was openly saying that there was a vast swath of the American public that he was unconcerned with.

There is also a question of the Democratic electorate that Clinton V Sanders is hashing out. Which is larger: the coalition of the Left and the Center, or that of the Left and the Far Left? It's an important question, as either the Center or the Far Left will likely find the policy proposals that one of the Democratic contenders would put forth (should either of them become President) not to their liking. And of course, this plays into the question of Congressional Republicans as well - can the Far Left sweep enough of them from power to support their candidate, or can the Center actually pressure the Republicans to make concessions to their candidate?

Either way, arguing over whether Sanders' Radicalism or Clintonian Moderation will be the best policy without actively talking about what the Republicans will do - and what cards they will hold, is simply a variation on "Who would you rather have a beer with?" Because to really understand which policy is more likely to succeed, you have to understand the obstacles it will, or will not, face.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Bitter Angels

For many people in the United States, especially those on the more conservative side of the ledger, "Freedom of religion" is most commonly understood as "Freedom of Christianity." That conflation of religion and Christian virtue is dangerous, because it introduces a level of myopia that can have wide-ranging consequences.

Republican lawmakers in West Virginia are looking to advance the "West Virginia Freedom of Conscience Protection Act," the purposes of which are to: "(1) Ensure that in all cases where state action burdens the exercise of religion strict scrutiny is applied; and (2) Provide a claim or defense to a person or persons whose exercise of religion is burdened by state action." So far, so good. I get it. Personally, I think that American Christians have developed a persecution complex that is unwarranted by the facts on the ground, but a person's perceptions are their reality, and so I understand that they feel besieged by a secular government that seems to be in the hands of their enemies. And to the degree that there are Christians who feel that the entire point of secularism is to lead people away from righteousness, it makes sense that they would push back against that. But when you look at the definitions of things, it starts to become iffy:

"Exercise of religion" means the sincere practice or observance of religion or religious conscience.  It includes, but is not limited to, the ability to act or refuse to act in a manner substantially motivated by one's sincerely held religious beliefs or religious conscience, whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief.

"Person" means any individual, association, partnership, corporation, church, religious institution, estate, trust, foundation or other legal entity.
Slate Magazine quotes West Virginia House Majority Whip John O'Neal, in defending a similar bill, as saying that the Constitution “doesn’t guarantee anyone’s right to have any particular kind of lifestyle or behavior protected, but it guarantees the free exercise of religion. That freedom has been severely curtailed in recent years with the growth of gay rights and mandated contraception coverage under Obamacare, among other things.” Now, when I think of which religion in the United States is both openly hostile to gay rights and contraception, it's clear that, as far as this quote goes "religion" = "(evangelical/conservative) Christianity." But, the First Amendment prevents lawmakers from actually writing that conflation into law.

And so you wind up with a bill that effectively requires the government to defend each and every law it passes that any person or other legally-recognized entity claims any religious conscience-based objection to and to prove that the law is the "least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest." It seems to me that this is going to blow up in their faces. Because it subjects the entirety of West Virginia law to a test of burdening "the sincere practice or observance of religion or religious conscience" where the claim of burden is made simply by assertion of the person who claims the violation.

No perverse incentives there.

Of course, if the citizens of West Virginia are upstanding, right-thinking Christians who see the world in the same way that Majority Whip O'Neal does, this law will be simply a way of rolling the clock back a few decades here and there. (Which could be bad enough.) But that's a heck of an "if." And writing a law that presumes that men are not only angels, but angels of a particular denomination, seems like a recipe for disaster. I can think of a thousand ways to make mischief with this law without even having to stretch for it. Add in simple factors of human nature like prejudice and self-centeredness and this could really be a mess in the making.

P.S.: One also wonders how many new laws the legislature will pass that invoke the escape clause that this bill allows for. I can see any number of bills specifically targeting, say, Islam, in which the legislature specifically invokes an exception.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Let the Games Begin

The death of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia has already triggered political posturing and jockeying. Senator and Presidential Candidate Ted Cruz has come out and said that the Senate's job is now to make sure that any potential nomination is delayed until after a new (and presumably Republican) President is sworn in, while Senator Harry Reid claims that a delay would be and abdication of the Senate's duty.

All of this brings into sharp relief something that most people are keenly aware of - that the perceived job of a Supreme Court Justice is not to serve the Constitution of the United States, but to serve the specific political ideology of the party that places them on the court. In such an environment, why even have a Supreme Court? At best, it's an arm of the current political power structure and at worst it's a continuation of that power structure even after it has been removed from power - allowing it to obstruct the seated Executive and/or Legislative branches.

As Dahlia Lithwick noted some years past: "Nobody wants to hear how [United States Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor] got to a result. They want to know why she didn't get to their result. Time and again she is hectored for deciding the narrow issues before her. It's like a judicial-activism pep rally in here." The Supreme Court is moving from an institution of people whose job it is to be ultimate arbiters of the meaning of the Constitution to an institution of people whose job it is to agree that some current or former Congress has interpreted the document correctly. This, I suspect, will not end well.

Friday, February 12, 2016

A Bad Taste

It started with a question: “What’s with all the bitterness?”

At the risk of being accused of creating a false equivalency, there are angry people on the Left just as there are angry people on the Right, but when I deal with people who consider themselves mainstream Republicans, there seems to be a rage, not just at the system or at particular politicians, but at everyone who sees the world differently from themselves. And this expresses itself, at least as I see it, as a level of bitterness directed at people who aren't in line with them.

This being the technological future and all, I decided that I would ask Google for the answer. Google was more than happy to oblige me, but the first thing I noticed is that most of the voices that sought to speak to the roots of the anger on the political Right were not themselves, of the Right. But I found an article on the National Review called: “The Nasty GOP?” and subtitled: “For some conservatives, the labels ‘nasty’ and ‘mean’ are well earned.”

It was interesting, but it mainly concerned itself with the people who were very much the public face of the Republican Party at the time, Mitt Romney, Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santorum and Todd Akin, et cetera. And it didn't get to the heart of the matter. But, since it brought me to the National Review website, I poked around, and found another interesting piece, entitled: “Donald Trump, Ann Coulter, and ‘No Apologies’ Conservatism” One of the points that it made about the Donald Trump Show, as one can call it, is this: “A significant portion of the Republican base craves it, and a handful of pro-Trump conservative pundits does, too.”

The piece then goes on to describe Mr. Trump’s “model of conservative discourse” as 1) say something controversial, and then 2) refuse to apologize. As the article goes on, it digs a little deeper into this, raising the following points. Trump (and a number of other conservative talking heads) always believes that he's correct, and therefore has nothing to apologize for. Trump sees apologizing (but not whining, it should be noted) as a severe weakness.

When other candidates apologize, Trump describes it as weakness. After former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley apologized to the Black Lives Matter movement for pointing out that “all lives matter,” Trump pounced. “[O’Malley] apologized like a little baby,” the GOP front-runner complained. “Like a disgusting, little, weak, pathetic baby. And that’s the problem with our country.”
Finally, and here the article turns to its other subject, Ann Coulter, it is noted that part of this model of conservative discourse is intentional disrespect of people whose politics one disagrees with. The author, again Jim Geraghty, tries to hedge his bet with the observation that Mr. Trump has used this model to reach the top of the polls, “at least for now,” but that prompted me to think: “Wait a minute. Hasn't it been three years already since the last time you called the GOP out for being mean?”

Back in 2012, not long after Mitt Romney lost the election to President Obama, Mr. Geraghty listed out nasty things that Republican leaders had said about people who depend on government, Blacks, Hispanics, young voters, women, Moslems, gays and lesbians and noted: “In each one of these cases, the GOP and the Right have to think hard about whether this is the hill they want to die on.” Given the fact that it’s now the next Presidential election cycle and “A significant portion of the Republican base craves” more of the very same sort of language that leads people to believe that “Republicans don’t respect, understand, or welcome minorities,” or anyone else who doesn’t think as they do, it seems fairly evident to me that the answer is likely: “Yes,” if not “Hell, yes.”

In the end, this didn’t lead me to an answer to my initial question. I still don’t understand why the Republican/conservative view of the rest of the world is colored with raw contempt, and the idea that people who are not wholeheartedly on their side are somehow unworthy of even the most basic level of consideration. But I do think that I understand why it has come to run so deeply. Conservatives are no less enamored of criticism than the rest of us, and if there was one thing that I noted about the articles that I read was that they tended to pass the buck. Sure, Donald Trump was leading in the polls and Ann Coulter made herself wealthy by being nasty and mean-spirited, but Mr. Geraghty never says to the people who made this happen, the people who pledge support in polls or buy books and tickets to speaking engagements: “You need to be the ones to change this.” That hand-washing may be, in the end, at the root of the issue.

I’m not a pollster or a political analyst. So I have no insight into what’s going to happen for the rest of the election cycle. But it seems to me that if the one demographic who feels that your party respects them, and has their best interests at heart are older White men, and that the response to other people feeling shut out is to double down on the anger and contempt, you’re going to have a problem. Banking on the idea that people will lean more conservative as they age is one thing. But it only gets you those people who are now young. Women, minorities and the LGBT demographics are not going to become any more male, White or Straight as they get older. Hating on them seems to be the modern Republican Party busily signing it’s own death warrant.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


So, apparently, in response to Beyoncé Knowles-Carter's Super Bowl show, which I haven't seen for myself, this popped up today on LinkedIn.

It sparked a debate, which quickly descended into smug self-righteousness, accusations, threats to report to moderators and even a couple of invocations of innocent until proven guilty.

But for me, it was the text at the bottom of the picture that stood out. "Confidential for law enforcement use only." Now, I don't know what the rules are for releasing High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area information to the general public, but this profile dates back to 1999, so I don't think that Detective Erbis actually released classified information, in that I suspect that whatever classified status this had has long lapsed. And, one will note, the Social Security Number has been redacted and there doesn't seem to be anything else sensitive on the form. But a few people did mention the "Confidential" label at the bottom of the page.

Taken at face value, it certainly appears that Detective Erbis released confidential information about Jay-Z in order to discredit Beyoncé, apparently because he was upset that Beyoncé's halftime show was a show of support for Black Lives Matter. Now, whether or not Black Lives Matter is correct in their understanding of the interactions between the Black community in the United States and the institution of law enforcement, part of what motivates them is the idea of a double standard - that the rules of engagement with White people are one way, and the rules of engagement with Black people are another. And an officer appearing to flout confidentiality laws to take political potshots at a Black person in the public sphere plays into that. Taken at face value (which, again, I don't) it seems as though the detective simply doesn't care that the profile is labeled "Confidential." It's of use in making his point about hypocrisy, and so he posts it publicly.

Black Lives Matter isn't about beating up on law enforcement. It's a statement of fear that an institution specifically charged with protecting the public is selective about which segments of the public it wants to protect. Just as Deterctive Erbis takes Beyoncé's marriage to Jay-Z as an indicator that she's not serious about protecting the lives of other Black people, his public release of a document clearly marked "Confidential" can be taken as an indicator that he's not serious about the rule of law. Likely both sides will find their supporters. The court of public opinion, I have found, has lax standards for evidence, and doesn't guarantee a right to counsel.

Monday, February 8, 2016

He Did It

Counterclaims to civil suits are common. But this one seems to add insult to injury. In case you’re not familiar with the case, the family of Quintonio LeGrier is suing the city of Chicago over the death of their son at the hands of a police officer. What makes this case different is that the officer, Officer Robert Rialmo, is countersuing the LeGrier family, for “assault and infliction of emotional distress.” The officer is asking for $10 million in damages.

“LeGrier knew his actions toward Officer Rialmo were extreme and outrageous, and that his conduct was atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community,” the complaint states. It goes on to say that by “forc[ing] Officer Rialmo to end LeGrier’s life” and Jones’s innocent life as well, caused “Rialmo to suffer extreme emotional trauma.”


“There is no question that he suffered very extreme emotional trauma and stress as a result of what Quintonio LeGrier did,” said Joel Brodsky. “When I say he feels extremely horrible about her death, that’s an understatement. But the bottom line is that it was Quintonio LeGrier who forced him to shoot.”
Why the Officer Who Killed Quintonio LeGrier Is Suing Him
I'm not a lawyer, but I suspect that the case isn’t going to turn on whether or not LeGrier’s actions constituted “force” in the way we normally understand the term, even if we understand that Officer Rialmo felt that he had no other viable option than to pull the trigger. If the countersuit goes to trial, I expect that first and foremost on people’s minds will be whether or not it makes sense to sue the family of a person that the officer shot, or if it will just seem mean-spirited or the department going after people who stand up to it.

The idea that LeGrier forced Officer Rialmo to shoot is of more concern to me, because it represents the creeping influence of what I tend to call “terrorist logic.” It’s the sort of thing that you see all the time in the movies - the terrorist makes some demand, and when the authorities are slow in meeting it, kills or threatens to kill an innocent person, and lays the responsibility at the feet of whomever didn't do as they were told, saying, basically that they are being “forced” into an action they don’t want to take because their instructions aren't being carried out. It's a very common trope. And it’s seductive because it removes responsibility from the person who chooses to pull the trigger and places it elsewhere.

But there is always responsibility in choosing to pull the trigger, even in cases where it is decided that there is no culpability in having pulled the trigger. I’m not on the bandwagon that police officers in the United States have collectively decided that it’s open season on black men, so while I understand there are times when officers pull the trigger out of bias and times when they pull the trigger out of sloppiness, I realize that sometimes, pulling the trigger seemed like the best choice at the time. I know that if someone were coming after me with a baseball bat while I was armed with a pistol, I’d likely feel a pressing need to shoot them. But I’d also realize that I had other choices - including letting them hit me - which strikes me as an undesirable choice, but not an impossible one. And so if I decided that the other guy had erred in bringing a bat to a gunfight, I’d have to own that choice. In my own mind, an unwillingness to own that choice means that I have no business putting myself in a situation in which I would have to make it.

The line between responsibility and guilt, which I think should be fairly bright, is often blurry, sometimes to the point where it’s impossible to make out. That’s not good. We should work at making it clearer, so that people can make decisions and not feel the need to run away from them, or attribute them to others.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Bad Intentions

Mistreating bad people is still mistreating people; and the American system frequently does that.
Garrett Epps "The Nobility of Good Lawyers With Bad Clients"
And I think in that, it's doing exactly what we intend it to do. When Mr. Epps notes that Americans have lived with what describes as the myth that: "The solution to crime, social conflict, and persistent injustice is not reform, not increased democracy and equality, not social improvement—but police, courts, and prisons," he is touching on this. Who wants to make bad people more equal? Who wants to improve their lives? Who wants them to participate more fully in our democracy?

While public officials looking to downplay misconduct in their ranks have begun to alter what it means to have bad apples in one's barrel, the original saying reads as follows: "One bad apple spoils the whole bunch." While this was originally very good advice for keeping fruit fresh, it been taken as a prescription to do away with anyone who finds themselves labelled "bad," and we tend to do so with gusto.

Generally speaking, American society tends to divide lawbreakers, rather arbitrarily, into two broad categories. We can call one of them Robin Hood, and the other Jack the Ripper. Robin Hoods are, unsurprisingly, those people whose breaking of the law we agree with - either because we like that person well enough to give them a pass or because we disagree with the law that was broken to the point where we sanction people placing themselves above it. Jack the Rippers on the other hand, are people we have come to view as a threat. And, as I understand it, we view them as a threat because their breaking the law is not about economic incentives, unmet needs or mental illness, but out of a lack of respect and regard for the rest of us, and the rules that we have put in place. They are, in short, bad people. I've noted before the common refrain we use for young people that "There are no bad children, only bad decisions," and our unwillingness to apply that same logic to adults. And when we start to see people as bad, we don't see them as making bad choices - we often don't see them as capable of choosing at all - they're bad people, and so their default behaviors are going to be bad things. What more needs to be understood?

And once we understand people as bad, from there it's only a short step to "violence is the only language these people understand." Because remember, we've written them off as people who are incapable responding to conditions around them and making rational choices in favor of seeing them basically as animals.

Except for the fact that we tend to have qualms about (visibly) mistreating animals that we don't have about mistreating bad people. And that allows us to put in place a system that makes that mistreatment into a feature, rather than a bug.

Friday, February 5, 2016


I spend a lot of time writing about the things that people do that leave me scratching my head or get on my nerves, despite not wanting my blogging to be simply me complaining about things. So today I'm showing off some miniature painting work done by an acquaintance of mine. Enjoy.

Isn't it amazing what you can do with something only a couple of inches tall?

Monday, February 1, 2016


The following picture was posted to LinkedIn today.

Then I have some prime Montana oceanfront property to sell you - because I'm betting you don't remember the West Coast, either.
Fortunately, we don't have to remember, because Google sees all and knows all, and has plenty of pictures of President Obama hugging uniformed servicemembers. In fact, when you start typing "Obama hugging" into Google, before you even finish, "Obama hugging military" is suggested - even before "Obama hugging Michelle," as in Michelle Obama - the first lady.
The work of about two seconds.
But despite the fact that Google will offer up all of the pictures you could ever want of President Obama hugging men and women in uniform, the posting on LinedIn started attracting comments from people who were positive that the implied accusation, the President Obama didn't care about the military was accurate.

Now I know that for a lot of people, this is evidence of personal or racially-motivated animosity, but I see it simply being partisanship and the self-righteousness that goes with it - the "Everything I needed to know about you, I learned from your party affiliation" school of thought that has been on the rise in the United States over the past couple of decades or so. As it has progressed, this partisanship has become a means of removing moral ambiguity about an otherwise unknown person - in effect, since I know that [Insert Name Here] is a [Insert Opposing Party Affiliation Here], I can intuit from this that he shares none of my commitments to what is good and correct in the world, no matter how outlandish that intuition might be.

As the willingness to separate people into Good and Evil based on their perceived politics grows, it will interfere more and more with out ability to work together. Which is to be expected, and is perhaps inevitable - nations don't last forever, and the United States will be no exception. But the push to hurry the process along seems odd at times.