Sunday, November 19, 2017

Handed Over

The current sexual abuse/harassment scandal that is floating around the American entertainment, political and business establishments kind of reminds me of discussions that I used to have with people about race when I was younger. Both of them seem to be driven by an understanding of Power that allows Power to be unmoored from human choices.

I don't know when it first occurred to me, but one day I had the realization that the the Black community in the United States had abdicated a lot of control over its own destiny to other people - people who had their own lives and priorities to worry about. "We" (not that it was a unanimous decision) had done this because we had learned to be afraid of the power that the White community wielded. I feel that I sound like a broken record in this, but we learned to fear what White people thought of us, and never sought to have them be concerned with what we thought of them. Sometimes, the relationship between the genders seems the same way. Women fear the power that men wield, and this manifests itself in women fearing what men think of them, but men don't generally have that same concern.

You can see this, I think, in understandings that: "White people need to have conversations with White people about racism," or "Men need to have conversations with men about sexism and sexual harassment." But I've always been dubious about the idea that the best way for a group to advance itself is for other people to talk about them. Racism and sexism have always struck me as being, to some degree about incentives. And so racism will go away when it starts to cost more than it's worth, and the same with sexism. For me, as a Black person, we, as the Black community in the United States have to make racism cost more than its worth, because we're the ones who want that and will be major beneficiaries of it. We're the ones who are going to have to create the conditions that mean that not being a racist is more valuable than being a racist. The issue that I've always had with the idea that "White people need to have conversations with White people about racism," is that it presupposes that Black people don't have anything of value to bring to the conversation. It's that perceived lack of value, I think, that sustains racism.

I am of the opinion that our overall concern with the Power that White people wield, and our unwillingness and/or inability to see our own role in giving them that Power puts us into the role of supplicants. And supplicants, like suckers, never get an even break.

Sexism, I think, operates on a similar dynamic. And while gender issues may be having a moment in the light at the time, I'm unsure that it will last. And if it doesn't, we may see the same pattern play itself out again. Which would be a shame.

Friday, November 17, 2017


There is this picture of a wolfpack that's been making the rounds on the Internet. It's been floating around for the past couple of years, from what I understand, but I just encountered it earlier today. Somewhere along the line it acquired a description that makes it out to be a marvel of teamwork and leadership in the animal world, and, of course therefore a model that we humans should be emulating.

I found the picture, with its new description, on LinkedIn. Which doesn't surprise me. LinkedIn has something of a low-grade obsession with leadership. If someone can create a flashy graphic or pithy meme that claims to explain the secrets of leadership, it's a safe bet that someone will post it on LinkedIn. So of course, the wolfpack photo, with its description that was all about wonderful leadership, made it there.

As you may have already guessed, if you didn't already know, the new caption that the photograph had acquired was completely bogus. Someone had attached it to the the photograph along the way, and it bore no resemblance to the original caption that the photograph had been published with. I found this out fairly quickly - a former co-worker of mine had come along and posted the Snopes link to the debunking. But it had been posted, and reshared, by a couple of people before that. I tend to be dubious of the leadership tropes that finds their way onto LinkedIn. A lot of it looks suspiciously like virtue-signalling. And to be honest, this wolf photo caption did to. More than likely, if my old co-worker hadn't posted the Snopes link, I'd have simply gone right past it without a second thought. But if it had been something that I found more interesting, or more compelling, would I have been taken in? I like to think that when information that just happens to align with my prejudices and preconceptions finds me on the internet, that I tend to fact check it. After all, everyone's inclined to fact check the things they suspect (or want) to be false - it's the things that one wants to be true that get you. But I don't have time to fact-check everything, and a lot of things slide.

And so I wonder if that's the secret to how things spread on the internet - being seeing plausible, and not too good to be true. The internet is a deep well of information, and that very depth is what makes it unreliable - there's so much information that it's difficult to check the provenance of it all.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

To Do Right

Millions of Americans have, in recent weeks, discovered that their favorite movies and shows were made by men now accused of sexual assault or harassment. This presents a dilemma for those who would prefer to watch art by people who haven’t built their careers on the sexual exploitation of those around them. But how can moviegoers avoid supporting such institutions and individuals?
Is There Any Way to Be an Ethical Moviegoer in the Post-Weinstein Era?
That's easy. Make your own movies and television shows.

Because in the long run, if your ethics demand that your never support anyone who's done something that you find reprehensible, you're going to start having to do a lot of things yourself. Consider it a corollary to "If you want something done right..." If you want something done by someone who has never done anything you have ethical qualms with, well, sometimes, maybe even doing yourself won't cut it, but it's likely to be as close as you'll ever get. Because, for the most part, other people's lives are invisible to us. The surveillance apparatus that would be needed to ensure that the people who make the goods and services we use would be pretty much unacceptable to anyone who would have to live under it, and to a lot of people who wouldn't.

And pretty soon, the compromises would have to begin. Kevin Spacey has effectively had his career ended by a single drunken incident of propositioning an underage young man way back in the day. Not a trivial offense to be sure, but also, unlikely to be the worst thing that the people who run the businesses that supply us have done. There are likely much worse crimes hiding in the broad expanse of the corporate world. Given the rate at which new accusations of sexual misconduct come out, it's likely a very safe bet that some of the money that each of us is spending on a day-to-day basis is going into the pockets of someone who, were their life a completely open book, would have faced felony charges for something at some point along the way. There comes a point where "innocent until accused" may be a practical stance to take, but hardly an accurate one.

I think that part of the problem that society faces in looking for ranks of people with clean hands to run the world is that bad behavior isn't the exception. It's the rule. And it's the rule in part because there isn't a single objective standard of bad behavior. A decade or so ago, here in the Seattle area, a young entrepreneur managed to stir up a teapot tempest with a wonky scheme that came to be known as "bumvertising(" At it's core, it was simply a means of getting a message out by paying panhandlers a small amount to display a corporate message alongside their own. But for advocates for the poor and homeless, it was travesty. Bad enough that one wouldn't want to support any business that engaged in it? For some people yes, for others, not so much. And it's that subjectivity that means that businesses are going to have to be selective about who they appease and who they decide to ignore.

But bad behavior, I've come to think, is also the rule because behaving well often means doing without. Up and down the scale. One thing that I've noticed coming to the fore over the years is a greater focus on the idea that more of us than are willing to admit to it are living in poverty. And that mindset of deprivation is catching on. And I'd be willing to bet that some combination of "I want this," "I need this" and "I deserve this" is at the core of the vast majority of ethical compromises, small and large, that people make, whether or not the rest of us really understand what drives a given person to want, need or feel they deserve whatever it turns out to be. And this isn't to say that all transgressions are the same - it's to point out that our broader society, despite the fact that it often preaches doing without rather than doing wrong, does a really poor job of actually instilling that value in people.

And so, in the end, it's highly unlikely that the people who have risen to the top of the food chain are going to be the ethical paragons that people might want them to be. Few people anywhere else in the food chain would manage it, either.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

You Know You're Wrong

He could have confirmed that he harassed women, that he is sorry, and that he did it even though he knew at the time that it was wrong.
Wasted Reckonings
The article is subtitled, "What do we really want out of public apologies from alleged sexual harassers?" But I suspect that it could be applied to any form of apology for anything. Because I think that Ms. Waldman puts her finger on the one thing that people often want from those who they feel have transgressed against them - an admission of willful wrongdoing that reinforces the idea that whatever expectation was violated was, in fact, the way things were supposed to be. And in this, it becomes a reinforcement of the idea that good and bad, right and wrong, are objective and fixed qualities that everyone knows - and that everyone knows to obey.

I think that it may be especially important in situations like (but not perhaps limited to) sexual harassment and assault, where the survivors often spend a good deal of time wondering if they had done something wrong, but I suspect that this reaffirmation of a singular truth (and that we understand what it is) would be welcomed in any number of other circumstances.

From my own point of view, it's a difficult thing to obtain because people don't do things that they understand are wrong when they are doing them. They may understand that their behavior isn't acceptable or appreciated, but I don't think that the understand it to be ethically out-of-bounds. As much as I can't fathom what would possess someone like Louis C.K. to masturbate in front of a woman who would rather that he didn't, I do suspect that, at the time, he had some sort of sincerely-held justification for that action.

Ms. Waldman notes that, "Apologies are supposedly about acknowledging our mistakes, but in practice they can permit us to disown them." But is doing something that one understands to be wrong when you are doing it really a mistake? Perhaps in the broader theological sense, it can be ascribed to "error," but in everyday parlance a mistake is something that's done out of ignorance, carelessness, misperception et cetera. An act of deliberate wrongdoing is not a "mistake" in that sense.

And perhaps that's the fundamental problem; the difficulty of speaking to an action, or a group of actions, in two different ways that are at odds with one another at the same time. Acknowledging a mistake is a different beast than acknowledging a deliberate misdeed. And I think that society treats them differently. There is a tendency to ascribe mistakes to to a given figure when a person wants to forgive them. But when someone wanted to close the door to forgiveness for a figure, they tend to ascribe deliberate, and malicious, wrongdoing. You see this all the time in politics, where partisan divides tend to make the differences is reactions stark, but it's present in any number of other facets of society.

Regardless of how reasonable one might find such an admission, the expectation that someone will openly call themselves out as a bad person strikes me as a bit much to expect. But that's never stopped anyone before, and so I doubt it will now.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Too Young To Know

#MeAt14 Reminds Internet 14-Year-Olds Are Innocent, Immature, Unable To Consent. Sounds legit. But it's interesting in that when you read through the NPR article, you're presented with pictures of young white women; photos that are clearly selected to show them as childish. Well, it's interesting to me, anyway. Because it's a reminder of the children that I used to work with, in a past life. For them, being "innocent and immature" wasn't a fact of biology, it was a luxury that they didn't have. They needed to have a clear-eyed and practical understanding of how the adult world worked, because they couldn't rely on their parents to shield them well enough that they could manage to be unfamiliar with it.

And it left many of them in a difficult position, because they were legally unable to consent to anything. And this has nothing to do with sex. many of the children in the residential treatment center I worked in chafed under the rules there, but they had no legal right to chose anything else for themselves; the state had made the choice for them, and that's all she wrote. And this isn't to say that they should necessarily have been allowed free rein to determine what their living situations were going to be. It wasn't difficult to see how the choices that many of the kids would have made (or even had access to) would have ended badly. But that didn't erase from many of them the understanding that they'd been able to manage more or less for themselves for some time before state social workers had shown up and decreed that they were going to live in a big brick building miles away from their friends, communities and whatever family they still had.

And so, even though the youth in our center generally ranged from 5 to 14, to survive in the world, one had to understand that for many of them, innocence and immaturity were not their native state, but one that we were attempting to restore them to, despite the fact that those particular children were much more streetwise than most of us staffers and some even had better housekeeping skills. (In all honesty, some of the children I worked with were better cooks then than I am now, some two decades later.) This isn't to say that I would have condoned them being in relationships with adults twice their age or other. We didn't condone them being sexual at all. But many of them had needed to learn to navigate sexuality before they'd come to treatment, and they'd developed differing levels of skill at it. And again, our goal was, as much as we could, dehabituate them from using those skills.

In modern parlance, the fact that some teenagers can afford to be complete naïfs in a world where that carries such serious consequences for others is considered a privilege. When I was growing up, it simply made one lucky to one degree or another. I hadn't realized how fortunate I had been in my own childhood until I was faced with stories of how other childhoods had gone horribly and irreparably wrong. I don't know that those stories have a place in the narrative being woven by "#MeAt14." I suspect they don't, if for no other reason that they'd be seized upon by people looking to justify relationships we commonly consider to be some combination of criminal and perverse.

But I do think that it's important, at some point, to make sure that we remember that the extension of childhood through adolescence is not ordained. We worked to make it that way, and there are people who were missed in that work.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Or the Wrong Side

Postscript: GOP officer who'd vote [Alabama Republican Senate Candidate Roy] Moore even if he was a proven sex offender refused in 2015 to accept the legalization of gay marriage, saying "it's wrong."

"Other than being with an underage person - he didn't really force himself," Alabama Geneva County GOP chairman Riley Seibenhener tells me. "I know that's bad enough, but I don't know. If he withdraws, it's five weeks to the election...that would concede it to the Democrat."
'I Have Never Engaged In Sexual Misconduct,' Moore Says In Statement
To paraphrase from a comic book I once read, anyone can stand by a fellow party member when they're in the right; true partisanship is when you stand by someone when they're wrong. Although to be sure, a lot of people take exception to equating "legal/illegal" with "right/wrong." But while I understand that people (or at least NPR's target demographic) are intended to find the quotes that Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale Tweeted "shocking," the only thing that I find mildly surprising is that people openly admit to such nakedly partisan motivations in the face of a public piety that says one should always do otherwise.

And I'm starting to think that the "rally 'round the flag" response to the accusations against Roy Moore are showing that this particular piety is starting to fade. I'm also thinking that this is a good thing. Public peities that encourage us to lie about what we're thinking, or who we are, aren't very helpful in the long run; they simply legitimize deceit in the name of avoiding being punished for, well, saying out loud that the Emperor isn't wearing any clothes. And of course, the thing about sticking to the fiction that the Emperor is well-dressed is looking intelligent in front of other people, even though one's allowed themselves to buy into the fact that it's only the foolish who see the Emperor's nakedness. But if we're going to buy into the fact that, come a general election, the only thing that matters about a candidate is the letter after their name, let's own that. It's not like, as a society, we're fooling anyone. Gerrymandering specifically requires people's voting patterns to be predictable well into the future, when state legislators don't know who will run, only that a broad majority of voters will make their selection based, in the end, on partisan affiliation. And while it's true that partisan affiliation can tell you a lot about a person, one would think that there's still some room for genuine evaluation of positions in there. (Even though, clearly, there isn't.) So if the choice comes down to a proven sex offender who holds the right political positions and a person with a clean record who doesn't, why bother to even raise an eyebrow at the "wrong" choice?

Maybe if, as a society, the United States can more easily own up to forming opinions of right/wrong or good/bad based mostly on whether a candidate mirrors back the proper politics, it will be possible to dispense with the need to link mass shooters to politicians we don't like, or declare large swaths of people heroes based on their affiliations.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

On The Side

But [Attorney General] Sessions also voiced a concern expressed by many business leaders and politicians over the years: "You just simply can't have a situation in which your competitors pay bribes and you don't."
Trump Used To Disparage An Anti-Bribery Law; Will He Enforce It Now?
On the one hand, I get it. Following a rule that one's competitors don't follow is a voluntary disadvantage. No one likes to compete at a disadvantage when they feel that the stakes are high, and no one likes to feel that they're placing themselves at a disadvantage and not gaining anything for it. But on the other hand, there are no principles of good governance that countenance bribery and other forms of official corruption as a desirable thing.

And so this perhaps feeds into a common critique of the United States; that its businesses are concerned with profitability, and its citizens are concerned with cheap consumer goods, to the exclusion of other considerations. While the United States is thought of as a rich nation, there is the lingering understanding that it got there by screwing over other people. And being more concerned with a little more material wealth than taking a stand against corruption doesn't help that.

There is a feeling in the United States of poverty, and President Trump rode a wave of that feeling into the White House. And in much the same way that a stereotypical Trump supporter is seen to view the prosperity of others as an unwarranted threat to themselves, the Trump Administration seems to view the health of foreign governments as something that unjustly impoverishes the United States. But then again, who ever said that the perception of poverty and ethics were natural bedfellows?

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Fallen Star

I don't know if I'm any good at it, but I'm starting to enjoy found object photography.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Bad Geeks

One of the things that pops up in my Google+ stream now and again are complaints about "Geek Guys" (or, to be more precise, the jerks among them) and their treatment of women ("Geek Girls" in particular). My first response to something like this tends to be my standard one - no group large enough to have entered the social consciousness is small enough to not have any assholes in it, and geek culture now having made inroads into the mainstream, there are more than enough geeks out there for them to have a presence.

But with a little more thought, I've come to the conclusion that there's also a greater expectation of empathy and understanding from stereotypical geeks, and that it may not be warranted. Back in the days before personal computers were ubiquitous and programmers could be treated like "rock stars," being a geek (or a nerd) could be kind of sucky. It was, for a very long time, a ticket to being pushed around by the stereotypical "jocks," ignored by just about everyone else and being told to put down the books and pick up some weights. Granted, this behavior wasn't as common as movies made it out to be, but there was, to be sure, a certain amount of truth in entertainment.

And I still think that it's something of a truism that suffering breeds resentment far more often than it breeds empathy. And I think the resentments of geek culture have come to manifest themselves as doing unto others as someone else had once done unto them. Which, even though it seemed fairly predictable, is something of a shame. It would be nice for some group or another to break the cycle, rather than perpetuate it.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Birds of Autumn

What do you call a small group of crows?

An attempted murder.
Where would we be without kid jokes?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Moving Bodies

I understand the idea that when our friends don't live up to the standards of decency for the day, that we may decide to walk away from that relationship. This isn't a new concept. In "the brand new album for 1990," They Might Be Giants sang about the problematic nature of knowing you and "Your Racist Friend." There's nothing inherently wrong with deciding that one cannot be friends with someone due to something they believe about the world.

But that's a different thing from telling others that they must shun people who have been friends to them. Because often, that sort of connection blackmail that places a person in the position of having to chose doesn't bother to offer to replace what is lost, whether that is emotional and/or intellectual sustenance or help in moving bodies. Casting those that one is asking others to shun as hateful enough that they seem like sorry examples of humanity strikes me as something of a cop-out in this regard, because in the end, one presumes that they have earned the friendship.

I've been in the position of having someone ask (or demand) that I walk away from a friendship with someone else in order to retain their friendship, and on the occasions where I've assented, I've always come to realize (sometimes quite quickly) that I made the wrong choice, because the person who forced me into it was generally unconcerned with the consequences of it - after all, that was my problem, and not theirs. And this is not to say that they were bad people, or we attempting to injure me - they simply saw my friendship with the other person as a problem that I had an obligation to solve, rather than a favor that they were asking of me.

Rather than putting people in a position where they've been strong armed into what will seem like a lose-lose proposition, perhaps a better option would be to draw them into a new circle of friends; people who will be even better at offering emotional and/or intellectual sustenance and, for that matter, moving bodies. And were I to feel the need to ask someone to discard a friend, I would, instead, step up to be a better friend myself. People will do what they need to in order to look after their needs, and were I to ask someone to leave a need unmet, I would not expect them to agree unless I was offering to assist them with meeting that need myself.

Because that's what friends are for.

Friday, October 27, 2017


[Tom] Hanks, who spoke with David [Greene] during a tour stop for his book Uncommon Type, asserted that he did not feel complicit in the kind of climate that would allow for harassment of this kind.

"I'm sure there were people who knew exactly what was going on and didn't say anything," Hanks said. "The thing is, I've been involved in sets where there were shenanigans — but not sexual predatory behavior. That's the difference."
LISTEN: Tom Hanks On Weinstein Allegations: Some 'Think ... This Is How It Works'
My question, Mr. Hanks, is this: The distinguishing characteristics that separate "shenanigans" from "sexual predatory behavior" are what, exactly? After all, in my own experience, I've seen behavior that simply struck me as thoughtless, lonely and sad, quickly labeled as sexually predatory.

And I suspect that for many women, that's the issue. The issue with unwanted sexual advances or behavior isn't that it's sexual - it's that it's unwanted. And as with so many other things, the line between unwanted behavior that is simply distracting or annoying, and that qualifies as predatory depends on so many different, and subjective, variables that it's nearly impossible to predict in advance. One person may brush off something that strikes another person as bearing attention, a third person as clear cause for alarm but that a fourth person finds gratifying. And while it's highly unlikely that someone would do something overtly predatory in front of Tom Hanks (as this seems like a grade-A Career Limiting Move), it may also be unlikely that someone who felt genuinely threatened by something Mr. Hanks regarded as mere shenanigans, who decided that saying, "I find this to be predatory," might also very well count as a career limiting move.

I've told this story before, so I'm not going to detail it again, but I was simply walking to the grocery store one day in broad daylight, and encountered a woman who then felt so threatened by me that she took steps to ward off a possible assault. At the time, it seemed extreme, and prejudicial, and maybe it was, but here the point is that it doesn't matter how mundane someone thinks they're being. Other people's perceptions, and risk tolerances are their own.

And for some people, sexually predatory behavior starts with shenanigans. Whether it's a means of grooming a target or a way of gauging what will be tolerated, a touch here, a comment there, and then perhaps you're talking real sexual assault. And even then, you have differences of opinion.

I've been told, from time to time, that I'm intimidating. I've even been told that people had thought twice about telling me that I'd done something to bother or slight them because they were afraid of how I would react. Those, fortunately rare, occasions always came as a surprise to me, because I haven't deliberately set out to intimidate someone since I was 14. And even then, I hoped that my uniform would do the heavy lifting for me. I've never seen myself as particular intimidating; my mental picture of myself doesn't match up with my mental picture of a heavy. But I'm not sure how much that matters to someone who looks at me and simply sees someone who masses twice what they do. Under those circumstances, a wisecrack might come across as an order, or a threat. It's easier than one might think. Especially if you happen to have a somewhat morbid sense of humor.

And so while I understand where Mr. Hanks is coming from, I don't think that there's such a bright line between shenanigans and sexual predation. And in that, I think it's difficult to say that any one of us isn't complicit in it.

Part of the issue, I suspect, is that we tend to use complicit in much the same way that we use "accessory" or "accomplice;" someone who knowingly, or perhaps simply negligently, aids and/or abets bad behavior. The responsibility that's implied, perhaps, allows us to rest more easily when making judgments. But perhaps complicity is broader, much broader, than that. And if it is, it's difficult, because we then have to wonder if we're complicit in things that never cross our minds and that we know nothing about.

When I was in college, I took a creative writing class, and we had a short story assignment for Halloween. One young woman in the class wrote a story about a husband taking revenge on his wife for having an affair. My story was a man, with dogs and his rifle, turned out to be on a literal witch hunt. Both tales ended badly for the women involved. If another classmate later pressured a date into sleeping with him, did our stories, which made violence into entertainment, make us complicit in that? Could we claim that we were simply writing scary stories?

The point to this isn't self-flagellation now for something that I was completely oblivious to thirty years ago. It's simply to point out that the answers aren't so easy, aren't so cut-and-dried when we're talking about people's perceptions of the world. The world is not an objective place in any way that most of us can interact with, no matter how much it may seem so in the moment.

Thursday, October 26, 2017


Keeping a lookout.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Let It Fade Away

But once you insert black people into the situation, [sociolinguist Renee] Blake says, it's important to be more tactful.
This Halloween: What Does It Mean To Call Something 'Spooky'?
The context of this is that during World War Two, the Tuskegee Airmen were referred to as the "Spookwaffe," (who coined the term is unknown) and from there, according to NPR's Code Switch, "became a recognizable — if second-tier — slur." Now I've heard of the use of "spook" as a term for a black person, and, to be honest, I'd thought that it had gone out of style even before WW2. Given the fact that "nigger" is still alive and kicking, I've never had anyone attempt to slur me with "spook."

But by the end of the article, it's fairly clear that there is an expectation that spook, and words derived from it, like spooky or spooked, shouldn't be used within earshot of a Black person. The author of the Code Switch article says that other synonyms for "frightened" are "more fun." My first response to this was "Seriously?" But for all that I've grown weary of the sensitivity and brittleness that is supposed to be a common component of modern Blackness and the experience of being born African-American, I get it.

And there's a bigger issue than the ability to find racism, or at least racial insensitivity, under every rock and my irritation with the habit. Why is there an attempt being made to reinforce the idea of "spook" as a second-rate pejorative? What does anyone gain from the idea that spook should be considered offensive to black people because of its short-lived career as a racial epithet? It's like "niggardly," which Ms. Blake also notes as a term that should be avoided "front of a group of young students in a classroom," and, presumably, in front of Black people. But niggardly is not derived from nigger - so why imply that it is by tiptoeing around it? Why reinforce an idea that we have no really use for?

The power that words have is not in the words themselves. If someone walks up to be and calls me a nigger with all of the hate and disdain that they can muster, I won't suffer heart failure or a broken bone. The power is in the way we teach people to use and respond to words. At worst, I'll be afraid that they intend to follow up those words with violent action. And maybe even fatal action. But it's the action that will objectively injure me. And the fear that the words and the actions are linked is something I was taught. Were a co-worker to walk up to me and say "What up, my nigger," it would be an entirely different story, even though the syllables are the same. Now, when I was younger, I used to be quite put out when people would call me nigger to my face - especially when those same people would piously declare that racism was dead. But I was put out because well-meaning people in my family taught me to be put out. And I eventually realized that it was the fact that I was put out by being called nigger that prompted many of the people around me who used it.

And in that, I don't see the point of freighting "spook" with some or all of the same meaning. Why teach people to be the slightest bit put out by it? Because for spook to have any portion of the same currency as nigger, we would have to teach people to use it, and respond to it, that way. I cannot see how anyone is better off that way. If someone refers to something as spooky in my presence and I've learned to feel disrespected enough that language policing them seems like a reasonable response, I don't see any gain - except that we're telling a group of people that their coining of "Spookwaffe" is still alive and powerful today. And that group of people is almost entirely dead. We'd also be giving people who want to slur in public a means of doing so that comes with the plausible deniability of the other definitions of spook. Yay?

Given this, the formerly racist uses of spook shouldn't be dredged up and paraded around. We're better off letting them lie. We have enough weaponized words as it is. Who will care that we passed up the opportunity to add this one to the pile, other than the very people who most often seek out words to use as weapons? It does nothing for me, as a Black person, to have another word that someone might use in an attempt to put me out, and it does nothing for people who aren't Black to have yet another word that they have to do mental math before speaking. And while one could make the point that English is what happens when languages develop hoarding tendencies, there are better ways of housecleaning than this.

If I sneak up behind you and say "boo," feel free to say that I spooked you. That's what the word was designed for. The use of the word as a pejorative, even a second tier one, had largely come and gone by the time I was born. Let it stay dead. It will require active effort to revive it, and there has to be a better use for that work.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Intelligent Inquiry

As a way to encourage inquiry, even when they feel unsure of themselves, people often say: "There are no stupid questions." Not everyone agrees with this concept.

Peter Doocy, Fox News: “Has your relationship with the president frayed to the point that you are not going to support anything that he comes to you and asks for?”

Senator John McCain (R-AZ): “Why would you say something that stupid? Why would you ask something that dumb? Huh? My job as a United States senator, is a senator from Arizona, which I was just reelected to. You mean that I am somehow going to behave in a way that I’m going to block everything because of some personal disagreement? That’s a dumb question.”
Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't.
"I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up."
Senator John McCain, Monday, 17 October, 2016.
If the good Senator is willing to go on the record and effectively claim, out of little more than naked partisanship, that any person that Hillary Clinton would have nominated for the Supreme Court would be opposed, what's really so stupid about assuming that there is a level of partisanship between the Establishment and Populist wings of the Republican party that the Senator would decide that any policy advanced by President Trump is a bad one?

Where Mr. Doocy went wrong is in effectively asking Senator McCain to self-incriminate in front of the Fox News audience, who (generally speaking) back President Trump and, like the President himself, expect a certain level of loyalty and deference to him, even from the Establishment Republicans whom the President has no problem attacking when it suits him. Whether he'd hoped to catch the Senator off-guard or elicit an openly disingenuous-sounding answer, Mr. Doocy departed from standard procedure on this one, and Senator McCain verbally spanked him for it. There's a reason why the typical modus operandi in situations like this is to ask an innocuous-seeming question and then spin the answer later through manipulating the context (or leaving it out entirely).

Politicians, especially those who have served for long periods through shifting political circumstances, may think with their party affiliations more often that non-partisans would like, but they aren't stupid. Part of the problem with the common conspiratorial thinking that makes even high-level politicians out to be the bought and paid for puppets of showy wealthy Illuminati is that it allows one to write off as venal and unintelligent a group of people whose day-to-day job (and their longevity in that job) demands a remarkable level of political savvy. And sometimes, that political savvy demands making statements that cloak partisan considerations in ethical or practical ones. Even if the statements made in so doing have to be walked back later.

But there's another way one can look at Mr. Doocy's question, and that is as a veiled form of political research. For anyone reasonably intelligent to go on the record with the idea that they so oppose a sitting President of the United States that they would block initiatives simply because said President supports them, they would have to understand (correctly or not) that they have a strong enough constituency backing them that this is a viable policy. When talking across the Democratic-Republican divide, this is a pretty safe bet. There is a large enough cohort of anti-Tump voters that Democratic members of Congress in many parts of the country can pledge not to support anything that the President might come to them and ask them for and be reasonably assured that voters in their state or district will see that as a legitimate ethical or practical stance. Likewise, a large number of Republican members of Congress could rely on a staunch cohort of anti-Obama voters for the same. But there's an open question, and that concerns the existence of a large enough cohort of anti-Trump Republican voters that a personal stand makes sense.

The other typical Republican holdouts, such as Senator Susan Collins of Maine, while they might be viewed by the stereotypical Fix News viewer as traitorous, place their policy objections in terms of just that, policy. There may have been a lot of grousing from Republicans in other parts of the country about Senator Collins' lack of support for repealing and replacing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but it seems fairly clear that whatever her personal feelings on the subject, she was channeling her constituents in this. Because Senator McCain tends to also invoke Senate ideals in his opposition, it may be easier to cast him as using those as a cover for personal animosity, which would imply a voter base behind him that shares that animosity.

As people come to view American politics as a contest between Purity on one side and Perversity on the other, it's likely, whether its stated publicly or not, that this question of personal, rather than even partisan bias will become more and more prevalent. After all, calling people out as perverse is often a poor way of making friends, and there is an endless litany of angry screeds claiming that one or the other election was effectively decided by hurt feelings. And so it may be a stupid question, but it's not going anywhere anytime soon.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Looky Here

Apparently, my apartment sits underneath a remarkably large, but invisible slab of stone, because until I encountered the article "Why Men Force Women to Watch Them Masturbate" I'd been completely unaware that this was even a thing. It is yet another in the long list of behaviors that I just don't understand. I female friend asked me about masturbation once, and it was perhaps the most invasive question that anyone had ever asked me. She could have bankrolled a major-market sports team with the amount of money it would have taken her to actually get me into a conversation with her about the topic. So the idea that there are people who allow, let alone force, other people to watch them masturbate without some serious money being involved is utterly baffling to me. But then again, sex, of any sort, and I have never really gotten along.

Of course, this is all related to the whole Harvey Weinstein story, which is busily unraveling into a tale of a man who seems utterly unready, unwilling and/or unable to exercise any level of control over his sexuality - or to find someone who could assist him with that. And as much as I'm not terribly interested in yet more sordid details about Mr. Weinstein's transgressions, this was something that piqued a morbid fascination; the sort of thing that seemed too bizarre to be true, and was all the more interesting for it.

Until that is, I got to the actual body of the story. It's an interview, between the author, Angelina Chapin, and one Alexandra Katehakis, a sex therapist and clinical director of a practice in Los Angeles. And I knew that I'd made a mistake when I reached the third question: "What are the psychological motivations behind it?" Because the answer was: "I don’t know what it’s like to hold a penis and do that. But from what I know about men, it does make them feel powerful."

Okay, I get that Ms. Katehakis has never held a penis and forced a woman to watch her masturbate. Now, I'm guessing that "Ms." is an appropriate honorific to use here, but I suspect that I'm not too far off. But when she says, "But from what I know about men," a thought occurred to me: "Have you actually spoke to anyone who's done this?" Now, maybe she had, and it just didn't occur to her to say: "But from what I know about men who have done this," or "But from what I know about perpetrators of this activity." But the rest of article did nothing to give me any  indication that Ms. Katehakis actually had any information about the dynamics of the topic, outside of the standard psychological tropes of bullying and sexual assault. Any reasonably attentive and well-read psychology student could have given that interview. And this is not to knock Ms. Katehakis' credentials as a sex therapist, but she didn't come across as someone who'd actually researched the topic.

Which, in the end, is kind of a shame. Not because the topic is morbidly fascinating, but because really understanding what drives someone to expose themselves in so intimate, and vulnerable, a fashion seems that it would have value in understanding an aspect of our greater society that we clearly haven't spent enough time examining. Maybe it's just me, but this seems like an act that takes a lot of chutzpah to carry off, because despite Ms. Katehakis' view that the male penis is "the body part that is most threatening to a female," it's in close proximity to the testicles; one swift kick and it seems that “sexualized hostility” and “eroticized rage” would go right out the window in a world of pain. (Of course, maybe this is part of what I just don't get. Sure, Mr. Weinstein could file an assault complaint, but it still seems that he'd have some uncomfortable, if not incriminating, questions he'd have to answer.)

There is a sort of leering voyeurism that comes with these things. No argument there. But even with that, understanding what makes a person tick under these circumstances, and perhaps even how they came to be that person, can be useful in learning how to create a better future.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


"When someone disrespects you," the saying goes, "Beware the impulse to win their respect. For disrespect is not a valuation of your worth but a signal of their character."

I respectfully beg to differ. Although I understand the sentiment, the devil is always in the details and here, the details lie in the unstated assumptions that this seems to be built on. (And yes, I do appreciate the irony of speculating about someone else's assumptions.) What follows are those potential assumptions, in no particular order.

The feeling or perception of being disrespected is the same as being disrespected. This is always a tricky one, because it works under the idea that gestures of respect or disrespect are, firstly, both objective and universal and secondly, obvious enough that the observer is always right about them. In this, I fall back on a lesson my father taught me: "Obvious," he said, "refers to something so crystal-clear that you're the only person who sees it." It's possible to feel disrespected by someone who intends no disrespect, simply because the language they use to convey respect is different enough from the one you use to recognize it.

That respect (or at least neutrality), in ways that we recognize and respond to, is an entitlement. This, in my experience, is not a given. For some people. respect is a gift. For others, respect is something that others earn from them. And there are people for whom the way that they withhold the outward signs of respect that they have yet to give, comes off and being actively disrespectful.

That "worth" is synonymous with any other measure of esteem or regard, and thus, we are best people to measure our own "worth." I understand the idea behind making self-worth, self-value, self-esteem, self-regard and other concepts roughly equal to one another. But it is perhaps useful to take into account that these words can have very different contexts. I can value someone quite highly, yet hold them in relatively low esteem for other reasons. Likewise, I regard someone immensely, yet find that they don't bring much of tangible worth to the table. And those are my judgements to make. Someone can tell me all they like that I should view all people of equal worth, but there are going to be times when choices have to be made, and when they are, we may be better off divorcing their valuation of us in the moment from the valuation of ourselves that we carry with us every day.

Once someone has hurt your feelings, looking for their regard is a form of self-debasement. A reasonable position to take, but not always an accurate one, for some of the reasons I've already outlined. But also, sometimes, having a positive relationship with someone takes work. There will always be times when the work that one put into it turns out not to be worth it. That's true of anything. Chasing the respect of people who will withhold it from you just to boost their own egos is a drag. But sometimes, the risks that we take for connection, and yes, respect, pay off.

It's always about you. This is a variation on the idea that what feels like disrespect is always disrespect. Just because it feels like someone's disrespecting you doesn't mean that it has anything to do with you. One of the big things at my workplace is never, ever, EVER allow someone to tailgate you when you're passing through a secure door. And of course, that can mean that you literally wind up closing a door in someone's face, to force them to tap the card reader and unlock it again so that they can come in. But rules are rules, and I'm not up to being the guy on the unemployment line because I held the door open for someone who had no business being in the building. Or maybe someone doesn't respond to a greeting because they're 10 minutes late for that dressing down their boss is going to give them.

it's never about you, because you never have it coming. I know that I said that these were in no particular order, but I am placing this one last on the list. Sometimes, people disrespect us, because they understand that we've disrespected them. Maybe they're not the person in this situation with the flawed character - we are. And it's important to recognize that possibility. "Character," despite how we like to talk about it, isn't an absolute. Sometimes, we're on our manners and respect A game, and other times, we really need to go soak our heads for a while. When we make being disrespected into a reflection of the flawed character of everyone else, we walk right by a chance to stop and say: "Under what set of circumstances is what just happened a reasonable response to things?" Now, to be sure, there is a risk in this. We run the risk of always finding fault with ourselves and striving to be all things to all people, and losing our sense of self in an effort to please everyone around us. But there are more, and better, ways to avoid that fate than simply presuming that the other person is always wrong. Especially when we live in a society were people, for any number of reasons, won't always tell you that you've done something to injure them. Or if they're intimidated by you. Or if they think you don't like them. Or maybe you blew them off because you were already running 10 minutes late for that dressing down your boss was going to give you, and just wouldn't spare the time.

The idea that when someone disrespects us, we shouldn't consider winning their respect because they have a flawed character runs the risk of turning our subjective feeling of disrespect and possibly hurt at being judged badly into a judgement of the other person - one that we are often encouraged to take at face value and see as infallible. Yes, internalizing a negative external judgment and working to combat that by seeking the approval of others is dangerous. But rather than reverse that judgement onto the other person, withholding judgment in favor of questioning may be the better approach. We are not entitled to be seen as we wish to be seen, because not everyone can see us as we do. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Root Causes

What, one wonders, is the cause of sexual assault?

I ask this question because I'd heard about the negative reactions to part of Mayim Bialik's op-ed in the New York Times on Friday.

I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise. I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.
And this prompted what has become by now a standard response to pretty much any talk of taking precautions against sexual assault; charges of victim-blaming and/or slut shaming. If Ms. Bialik was in the least bit taken aback by this, I'm impressed that she could both resuscitate her acting career and live under a rock simultaneously.

And it occurs to me that the heart of this are two different narratives about the root cause of sexual misconduct among men. (While there is also criminal sexual misconduct among women, it's typically not viewed as either common enough or damaging enough to warrant much discussion.) As an outsider to the overall conversation, in that I only really interact with it when the media takes note of the more fiery aspects of it, I wonder if the way the conversation plays out actually gets in the way of the conversation itself, because the various narratives are never directly spoken of.

Of course, as an observer, rather than a participant, I'm conjecturing about what other people are thinking, so take what I'm going to say here with a grain (or a mine's worth) of salt. But, generally speaking, Ms. Bialik's self-protection policy makes sense if one thinks of sexual assault as, to some or another degree, as arising from a failure of control on the part of the attacker. So Jack sees Jill's sexual self on display, and lose some level of control of his own sexuality. It's worth noting that this doesn't automatically implicate Jill - after all, American society has no problem will labeling any number of other issues, obesity being a notable one, as being the result of failures of individual self control and personal responsibility. And it's worth pointing out that in my grandparents' time, were someone like myself, say, were to have any noticeable reaction of Ms. Bialik's sexual self, that could end very, very badly for that someone. And although for many young people, much of what one might reasonably consider recent history is beyond an event horizon, for the middle-aged and older, it's in living memory. And so we recall a time when as respected a source as _The Joy Of Sex_ could refer to "a man's rape instincts," and posit that those instincts responded to women in the vicinity, without being viewed as hopelessly regressive.

But there is a counter-argument, and one that claims that sexual assault isn't at all a matter of sexuality, and more about the way that men express their socially sanctioned (if not expected or even demanded) traits of power and aggression around women. By this logic, sexual self, flirtation and modest clothing be damned, if Jack sets himself to showing his dominance over Jill, he's going to assault or abuse her in some or another manner, and the only factors that make any difference are Jack's choices and the acceptance of the greater society of those choices. This view effectively makes Jill into a completely passive object of Jack's desire to demonstrate his masculinity, there's nothing that she can reasonably do in the way of taking precautions to either shift Jack's choices or the social reaction to those choices. Taking precautions against sexual assault may reinforce the perceived social order but they don't do anything to deter anyone but those unlikely to do the deed in the first place.

While these two views are not necessarily mutually exclusive, given the overall population of the planet and the differences between individuals, they've become pitted against each other. But in that, it seems to me that people don't discuss them directly. Rather, they debate the upshots of them. And in that respect the debate between "there are precautions one can take against rape," and "rape can only be prevented by men making other choices" are proxies for the differing world views that underlie those statements. And each sees the other as dangerous; naïve on the one hand, and victim-blaming on the other.

Of course, as I noted before, I'm basically a bystander in this whole situation. And being mostly disengaged, I could be missing a raging debate that I'm simply not a part of. But if it's there, perhaps it would benefit from being more open and more public.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Jar of Evils

Deities, as one learns from certain creation stories, can at times be right bastards, to the point where it makes sense to ask "Whose side are these guys on?" But it's also worth pointing out that ancient people were often sexist as all get-out, and the question one might put to them is "What have women ever done to you?

The story of Pandôra illustrates both of these concepts. Created by the Olympian gods at the command of Zeus for no other reason than to carry plagues to humanity (Zeus, like many deities worldwide, being both a bastard and loath to do his own dirty work directly), she was given a pithos (a large jar) and perhaps the world's first screamingly ironic name ("all-gifts," my foot). In any event, Pandôra's primary purpose in life was to open the jar, which contained a multitude of evil spirits. As intended, the evil spirits fled the jar, and proceeded to torment humanity, pretty much forever. Left in the jar was elpis, hope. The standard reading of the Pandôra legend is that elpis was intended as a single blessing for mankind, something slipped into the jar by some or another god who sympathized with Prometheus' notion that the gods were constantly abusing the mortal people they'd created. But there's another take on the story, one that says that hope is a spirit just as evil as pestilence or death.

Personally, I don't have much use for hope, which strikes me as a waiting for some outside factor one can't control to make a positive change in the world for you. Accordingly, I didn't find the slogan of then-candidate Senator Barack Obama, "Hope and Change," compelling. Rather than hope, I reasoned, what people need is the confidence to understand that they can effect the change they want to see in the world for themselves. Now to be sure, this does get me into trouble at times. American society (and others, too, but perhaps more on that later) tends to demand that one approach life with a certain amount of hope. When I was a child, I asked my mother why suicide was a sin. Given that the act of killing oneself conclusively precluded confession (and therefore absolution), it was understood to be a direct ticket to Hell. (A fact that I find a disturbing number of people seem to be perfectly happy with.) This struck me as grossly unfair. A person who murdered and stole their way through life could attain Heaven through a deathbed repentance, but the person who succumbed to despair was consigned to the fires. According to my mother, the sin was the loss of hope that God would make things better, somehow, if one only waited. I was not mollified by this answer. And throughout adulthood, I've found myself being called upon to answer for not taking the commonly accepted way out of certain ethical dilemmas, such as the case in which a warlord says he'll spare a group of captives provided that you shoot one yourself, because I refuse to predicate an action on the hope that someone I already understand to be dangerous and/or criminal will live up to their end of the bargain, once I've done their dirty work for them. Humans can be as duplicitous as Zeus.

But at the same time, I don't begrudge other people their hopes. When a charming pair of young women stopped by, doing missionary work for the Jehova's Witnesses, one told me that her faith gave her hope that the world we be a better place by the time the three-year old that accompanied them grew up. And I'm perfectly okay with this. But for a lot of people, it seems, hope is only a virtue to the degree that it aligns with their own hopes.

The Internet, if one isn't careful, can devolve into a cesspit of people criticizing one another in the name of advancing their own worldviews. And a lot of this seems to, mostly unintentionally (if rather roughly), involve trampling on other people's hopes. The news that the United Nations is relocating staff from two districts in Malawi after five people were killed in a vampire panic has triggered a certain amount of social media finger-waving over the ignorant and backwards people of the nation. But one can also see this as simple a very unfortunate way of people attempting to exercise some control over a world that seems largely beyond the scope of their powers to command. Attacking someone as a vampire is not (or not only) an act of malice, but an expression of a hope that direct action will protect them and/or those they care about from forces in the world that seem malevolent, because they aren't viewed as random. Closer to home, if farther in time, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin famously mocked the Obama campaign's motto. "This was all part of that hope and change and transparency. Now, a year later, I gotta ask the supporters of all that, 'How's that hopey, changey stuff working out'?" she sneered, before a cheering crowd at the first National Tea Party Convention. Closer to the present, House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi asked "President Trump, Where are the Jobs You Promised?" And while this is less directly an attack on people's hopes (and perhaps less openly sneering), the message to the audience that the President's supporters hope in vain is still clear. Shifting the focus away from American politics again, I recently encountered posts referring to traditional Chinese medicine as "not medicine," "quackery" and "superstitious nonsense." And while this narrative can be seen as one of the competition between fold remedies and evidence-based modern medicine, both of these things are extensively based on hope. Reliance on traditional medicine, especially in places were Western pharmaceuticals aren't readily available is just as much based on hope as taking a nondescript pill chocked full of unpronounceable chemical compounds.

But there's more to hope that ideas about the supernatural, politics and medicine. One of the things that allows bad behavior to persist is hope. And there are many different varieties of hope involved. From the outside, they may seem like a combination of self-delusion and wishful thinking, but from the inside, they offer a chance for a change. The person who abuses someone who wants a better life for themselves preys on their hopes and their unwillingness to let them go. I stumbled into a rabbit hole of marginally-attached entertainment industry people who talked about their own experiences on the inside, and how people like Harvey Weinstein, Bill O'Reilly, Bill Cosby et cetera, are able to go on for as long as they do, and they fairly quickly start to become saddening stories of how people work, and what they sacrifice, to maintain their hopes.

I've vacillated over the years on my stance concerning the elpis at the bottom of Pandôra's pithos. Hope strikes me as one of the evil spirits and the pitiless gods placed in the jar; it appears to cause as much pain and suffering as any plague. And perhaps this is simply a failing on my part, but I can't bring myself to undermine other people's hopes. (Well, not directly and openly, at least.) Maybe being honest with myself requires it. But self-deception has already fled the jar, and it's beyond me to put it back.

Friday, October 13, 2017


So former White House advisor and loyal Culture Wars footsoldier Sebastian Gorka has weighed in on the accusations surrounding Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Mr. Weinstein has become a popular topic among culture warriors because of the well known fact that two people who happened to have voted for the same politician are alike in all other ways, including their sexuality and how they express it.

In any event, Mr. Gorka says of the accusations against Mr. Weinstein:

If Weinstein had obeyed @VP Pence's rules for meeting with the opposite sex, none of those poor women would ever have been abused.
And that brings us to the word of the day: Accomplice. Which is defined by Merriam-Webster as: "one associated with another especially in wrongdoing." In other words the so-called "Pence Rule" under which the Vice President never allows himself to be alone with any woman who isn't his wife only protects said any woman if the other people present aren't in on whatever the Vice President likely doesn't have in mind. After all, if simply sequestering oneself we enough to put paid to a tendency for sexual predation, we'd likely see a lot less sexual predation. And given the fact that Vice President Pence is likely stable and on-the-level enough that he's not a sexual predator, what his Rule mainly does for him is avoid the appearance of impropriety. And if someone does accuse him of wrongdoing, he has alibi in the other person(s) present.

But alibis don't have to be honest. And this is part of the larger problem. Put simply, sometimes people work together for a common goal. Even when that goal is illegal or otherwise socially undesirable. Jane can decide that its safe to go to Dick's house, because Tom, Harry and/or Sally will be there, but nothing prevents any or all of them from being a party to Dick's designs.

There's nothing wrong with the Pence Rule, as far as avoiding the appearance of impropriety goes. (It has other disadvantages, but many social {and sexual} conservatives are unlikely to see any of them as problems.) But for it to really work, whoever fills the role of chaperone has to be opposed to whatever improprieties might take place. So it falls short as a real protection for the other party, in that it would allow them to spend time with an untrusted individual and be secure in the knowledge that nothing improper will occur.

And that why Mr. Gorka's tweet seemed more like a cheap pot-shot in the culture wars than anything of substance. Because to the degree that Mr. Weinstein was playing the role of intentional sexual predator, he likely easily (and more more easily than seems reasonable to me) could have found a number of people willing to play the role of intentional accomplice to his plans. (I can never understand how people like this find one another, but that's likely just me.) And likely in so doing, created even more trouble for the women that he targeted, because while he-said/she-said can be a tough hill for an accuser to climb, he and he and he-said versus she-said seems even steeper.

And in that sense the what would have stopped "those poor women" from being abused was a culture that was less ambivalent about such things. It's likely that warning bells went off for someone, if not multiple someones before Mr. Weinstein selected his first genuine target. While it's possible that he shrugged, said "Yolo," and dove right into the deep end, it makes more sense to me that he tested the environment around him to, so that he understood what he was getting himself into. Whether or not people pushing back and/or expressing concern would have stopped him is debatable, but it's likely that all of this would have come out a lot sooner, likely after the first one or two episodes. Or it could have actually lead to some sort of treatment or other intervention before anything happened to anyone. Of course, there's a downside to all of this. The Court of Public Opinion can be woefully capricious in its judgments, and it's likely that a non-trivial number of otherwise innocent people would have been caught up in all of this - a system that avoids all false negatives and false positives generally can't also be one administered by everyday people (or people at all, really).

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Turn of the Season

The arrival of Autumn in the Puget Sound area tends to strike me as abrupt. And this year was no exception - it went from unseasonable warm to quite cool in what seemed like a matter of minutes and the trees are changing colors and losing their foliage. What prevents local Autumns from being as spectacular as they are in other places is that the trees are out of sync. Rather than blankets of color, you wind up with a strange quilt of bare trees, those changing colors and those still fully green. One year there were trees that were green well into December, and that still had their leaves in February.

It doesn't make Autumn any less interesting, but you do have to keep your eyes out for it...

Monday, October 9, 2017


"How" the BBC would like to know, "Can [a] rapist win joint custody of victim's child?"

Said victim has a theory. “They (officials) never explained anything to me. I was receiving about $260 a month in food stamps for me and my son and health insurance for him. I guess they were trying to see how to get some of the money back.”

Or, to borrow a headline from an unrelated story I saw a couple of years ago "We are too broke to care about right and wrong."

When Sanilac County, Michigan, surveyed the mother, who had been receiving child support, they found that the child had a father: one Christopher Mirasolo. According to the mother's attorney, Mr. Mirasolo had abducted, held and raped the woman, her older sister and a friend in 2008, when the victim was 12 years old. That attack resulted in a pregnancy; DNA paternity testing shows that Mr. Mirasolo is the father of the now eight-year old child. On the basis of this, and after allegedy being told by an assistant prosecutor that the woman had consented to a continued relationship with the convicted rapist, despite her having moved to Florida, a circuit judge awarded joint custody to the man who was convicted of "attempted third-degree criminal sexual conduct" in the case and gave him her address in the bargain. And, according to her attorney, she's been ordered to return to Michigan to live or face contempt of court charges. And did I mention that Mr. Mirasolo was convicted again of sexually assaulting a minor a couple of years later?

This is, as the youngsters put it these days, "all sorts of fucked up."

But if we answer the BBC's question with the mother's theory, it all makes a certain amount of perverse sense. After all, he wasn't actually convicted of rape in the case - only "attempted third-degree criminal sexual conduct." (Although it seems to me that a pregnancy is pretty much dead certain proof that the "attempt" was successful...) And it will (supposedly) save the state money - after all they can always go after Mr. Mirasolo for the money. (Which I suspect will be a rousing success.) If that means forcing a woman into a relationship with the very stereotype of a sexual predator and forcing her to move halfway across the country to be close enough to him to share custody of the child, well, she's a sacrifice the county is willing to make.

And this is how civil societies end: With the understanding that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one, and so a different few decide that this few or that one can be thrown under the bus because its in the best interests of everyone else. Now, I know that I'm relying a lot on the victim's attorney here, and that she's likely to be a highly biased narrators of what went on, but bear with me one more time. The attorney, in explaining how Mr. Mirasolo was sentenced to county jail rather than prison, notes: “She (client) and her family was told first-time sex offenders weren’t sent to prison because people come out worse after they go there.” But you can also imagine in a situation like this that judges of cash-strapped jurisdictions might avoid sending first-time offenders to prison to avoid damaging their employment prospects, and thus their ability to pay child support, later in life.

(Although given that this case is making international headlines, it's hard to imagine Mr. Mirasolo staying gainfully employed long enough to come up with bus fare, let alone child support payments. And in that sense, Mr. Mirasolo might end up serving yet more time behind bars; this time for failure to pay court-ordered support payments.)

The issue isn't that the result of this case is, on its face, terrible. One could (perhaps with a bit of effort and a lot of alcohol) imagine that a reconciliation between victim and rapist had taken place, and she had consented to allow the father shared custody, and he had pledged to support the child financially. Stranger things have happened, and people believe much less plausible scenarios on a daily basis. But the victim's attorney's (admittedly biased) understanding of the case points to this being driven by something other than an act of forgiveness, as the victim herself suspects. And perhaps that's because the alternative, simply denying benefits, is unpalatable. Whether that's because it means letting Mr. Mirasolo off the hook for something that non-criminal fathers have to contend with, or it simply leaves a blameless child out in the cold is a matter of speculation, but this case points to a potential gap in Michigan law, one that doesn't allow the state to hold fathers accountable for the welfare of their children without allowing even the most reprehensible of them to involve themselves in their children's lives. And while there are many reasonable rationales for such a law, this is perhaps the problem with attempting to legislate everything. If “trying to see how to get some of the money back,” means trampling on a woman who, by age 24, will have a child who is half her age something really needs to change. And sure, the assistant prosecutor and the judge are not the people who put the rules that they operate under into place. But it is an abdication of perception to ignore an outcome in which no-one comes out looking good, because it's easier to do that than to say: "Hey, does this look broken to you?"

I know a decent number of people who describe themselves as anarchists, and these are the sorts of situations that become ammunition for them, because it's difficult to look at a legal system that produces this sort of outcome and say that it just kind of has to be that way. This sort of thing happens because not looking the other way has costs. Costs that it's perhaps too easy to convince oneself aren't really all that bad (mainly because they always seem to happen to other people). But avoiding looking at, and understanding the costs doesn't make them go away.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

We Sacrifice

I was listening to the Radio Atlantic episode on "What Are Public Schools For?," and I noticed an interesting formulation. When The Atlantic editor Alex Wagner talks about the choice of public versus private schools, she says: "There is this sense of: 'Ooooh, am I sacrificing my kid'?"

This idea, that for people with the resources to have a choice in the matter, sending their children to public school on the grounds that a diverse student body in public education benefits not only the other children in the school but society as a whole, represents such a gutting of those children's opportunities later in life that it can be regarded as a figurative form of human sacrifice (and as such, an abrogation of parental responsibility) points to a persistent problem that exists within the modern United States. (Not that this exists only with in the United States, but this is where I live, and so I will limit myself to that.) How does one create a society of diverse socioeconomic levels of wealth, income and opportunity without the people at the upper levels of the distribution feeling that they are simply feeding resources that they prefer to spend on them and theirs into the lower levels of the distribution to no tangible benefit?

It's worth noting that this is not necessarily "zero-sum" thinking. Imagine for a moment a group of 10 people, where 9 people have $1 each, and the 10th has $3. If Ten grants One through Nine 10¢ each, and by virtue of this, everyone is able to generate another 5¢, then the total pool of money between them increases from $12 to $12.50. "Everyone is better off" in that the average wealth has increased from $1.20 to $1.25 (and Ten is still in a better position than their peers), but this does not alter the fact that this cost Ten 85¢ when it's all said and done. And to the degree that Ten is sensitive to that loss, this seems like a bad deal for them if they aren't otherwise inclined to charity.

An argument can be made, and it often is, that in the face of a 3:1 disparity in circumstances, that Ten has a moral obligation to share some of what they have to benefit the group as a whole, even if that means becoming personally worse off in the bargain, but if Ten felt that obligation themselves, there would be no need to impose it upon them from without.

As I see it, the problem is this: our society, overall, is poor at articulating the benefits of bettering society as a whole will have for everyone in society and/or at demonstrating to people that the individual costs of bettering society as a whole are minimal. And if one cannot do either of these things well, then there will always be resistance (typically born of fear) from "them what has" to contributing to the overall pot. While the common rationale for this resistance is "greed," it's worth pointing out that a lot of people who one might reasonably view as well-off have been taught to see themselves as poor (where poor means having difficulty meeting their perceived needs or being unable to weather shocks). And to be sure, people are still teaching it. And once someone has learned to see themselves as poor, they're less likely to willingly give, as they see the risk to themselves as high. And lest I be accused of attempting to garner sympathy for the Devil, the less well-off also have this problem. While people tout globalization as being good for the nation as a whole, and thus worth sacrificing domestic jobs in industries that are cheaper abroad, a 25% reduction in the price of some consumer goods seems like a poor trade to someone who is forced into a 30% pay cut due to their skills being obsoleted out from under them. And in this, it's worth pointing out that sometimes, the costs of bettering society as a whole are not minimal - in fact they can be fairly substantial. And what tends to happen here is that our society fails to make it up to people. Rather they are left holding the bag for the windfall that others receive (and, seeing themselves as straited, are unwilling to share).

Once upon a time, the idea behind sacrifice was that it was a form of payment. The Gods have done things for the community, and the community repays that through returning to The Gods some of what they had gained as a result. (This leaves out propitiation, but that's a somewhat different topic.) But sacrifice has somewhat morphed in the intervening millennia, and is now often considered something that is given up or destroyed without a reciprocal benefit. And it's this idea that becomes toxic in the context of social benefits. People at all levels of a society are more likely to give willingly when they perceive that they are making an investment that will result in some sort of return that they care about, rather than simply making a transfer payment at their own expense. Whether that be in the area of education, social services or economics, a society that is regarded as a win-win is likely to work better than one that creates winners and losers.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Thursday, October 5, 2017


So it was holy crap below zero, and I was out walking through downtown Chicago, mainly as a result of being stupid. It was way, WAY too cold to be outside voluntarily, and I found myself ducking into building lobbies on occasion to warm up a bit. But as I walked past the IBM building, I noticed a bunch of people outside, shivering to death for the privilege of smoking a cigarette. And my first thought was, "Now THAT'S addiction." I actually had some things to do that day which I couldn't accomplish from home, but freezing my tail off just to avoid a few hours of withdrawal symptoms seemed crazy. That is, however, the point of addiction; the substance, whatever it is, becomes a necessity to the degree that it overrides other things.

And so, while I recognize that people have different levels of tolerance for the pain that goes along with being an addict, I'm always dubious about statements like this one:

If you make it easier for them to use drugs and more acceptable by society for them to use drugs, you're going to keep people from finding an exit strategy.
And that's even with understanding perfectly well where this guy is coming from. When I was growing up and we had drug education classes, for all of the talk that drug addiction was a disease, even in junior high school, it was understood that for many people, the disease theory of addiction with simply a cover for weak wills and poor "character." (Otherwise known as "not mirroring the right 'middle-class values' back at people.") Couple that with a general tendency to think that the best way to change someone's behavior is to make what they're currently doing more expensive (rather than making the desired alternative cheap), and it's pretty easy to arrive at the idea that what addicts need is less safety, and more suffering, to turn their lives around.

But that still leaves us in need of an answer for this:
"I was like, 'Oh my God, my life's gotten out of control'," she says, hands gripping her head. "I am getting raped, I'm overdosing on the regular, something's got to change."
But even with that, she couldn't compel herself to complete detox treatment. This is person who understands that in her current state, she has no good options. Either she goes looking for a high by herself, risking robbery or being sold phony drugs, or she teams up with a running partner who may demand sex; and simply take it if refused. (Not to mention the depredations of other random people on the street.) The idea that if only she had to endure that, day in and day out, for some indefinite amount of time, she'd come up with a viable "exit strategy," seems somewhere between deluded and openly disingenuous. However, it is true that some people "hit bottom," and then decide that they're gong to turn things around (at least for a while). When bottom is so far down that you can't see it from here, waiting on the impact seems counter-productive.

Part of the problem is that making the correct path less expensive, in terms of providing support for steady work, stable housing and a viable community around them, seems like "rewarding bad behavior." And that makes it a tough row to hoe. After all, there are plenty of people who are desperate need of those same things who haven't turned to illegal behavior. And so for many people, earmarking limited (if not scarce) resources for addicts at the expense of non-addicts has "perverse incentive" written all over it in red paint bright enough to be seen from orbit.

I understand the resistance to safe spaces for people to use drugs (along with a resistance to the idea of "safe spaces" in general). But hoping that a person's suffering will lead them to change their lives to something we approve of more has a set of perverse incentives of its own. Addiction has a way of pushing people to ignore punishments; and punishing conditions.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Optimist's Moon

90% full.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

On Point

While gun homicides, especially those carried out with semi-automatic rifles, receive almost all of the press around firearm deaths in the United States, suicide is the main driver of the death toll, with some two-thirds of firearm deaths in the country being self-inflicted. And this isn't a new phenomenon; despite the fact that for many people, especially in urban and denser suburban areas, fears of being shot by a stranger are rife, must gun owners are, in effect, a greater danger to themselves than they are to others.

The Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence released a report recently that dealt with this phenomenon, and NPR brought co-president Kris Brown on the air to talk about it. Weekend All Things Considered host Michel Martin asked what seemed like a straightforward question:

You say that: "The demographics of suicide-related gun violence overall skew heavily towards White men, who make up 79% of all firearms suicide victims, and about 60 of total gun deaths in the U.S." So, first of all, why is it that suicide is so much more prevalent than homicide, and that we don't talk about it that much? Is there a shame factor? Is it - why is that?
After, in effect, saying that Ms. Martin had answered her own question, Ms. Brown then went on to talk about how guns are highly effective tools for suicide. Which I understand to be true. When I was learning about suicide in college (to give you an idea of how long this has been a known issue) one of the points that was made was that the gender disparity in successfully committing suicide is that men tend to use more more effective tools for the task - they leave much less to chance. And the fact that suicide attempts using guns are overwhelmingly more likely to succeed is useful and interesting information. But it was not relevant to the question that was being asked.

After Ms. Brown had used this first question as a platform for a Brady Campaign talking point, Ms. Martin went on to her next question, which was also answered with a talking point, although one more on-topic than the last.

All of this left me with a question: Understanding that Ms. Martin had a reason for allowing Ms. Brown to effectively duck the question, what was it? It seems unlikely that the topic wouldn't turn to talking points about reducing the availability of firearms - the Brady Campaign is about reducing the availability of firearms, not suicide prevention. If 80% of suicides had been carried out by intentional carbon monoxide poisoning, while it likely that Brady Campaign employees would have been moved by that, it would have fallen far about outside of their mandate that they wouldn't have created a report on it and high-level executives wouldn't have made themselves available to the media to talk about it. So if you're dealing with an advocacy organization (and one notices this same trend with politicians) why ask questions that the subject will have to basically ignore in their quest to air their chosen talking points?

The question of why suicide is so common, and so rarely spoken of, is an interesting one; I was somewhat looking forward to the answer. But it seemed of little interest to Ms. Brown. And in dropping the question so quickly, Ms. Martin also seemed to be disinterested. And maybe that's part of the issue. In a four-minute segment, there isn't time for a long dissertation on the topic, and if dropping the topic allows for other talking points to be aired, then the topic is dropped. Ms. Martin's opening question wasn't suited to a firearms violence prevention advocate. It would have been better directed to a suicide prevention advocate. Or, better yet, someone who studies the causes, demographics and attitudes about suicide.

Thursday, September 28, 2017


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Monday, September 25, 2017

War of Words

Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Friday, September 22, 2017

Dream On

Representative Nancy Pelosi is drawing fire for appearing to be ready to compromise with President Trump and congressional  Republicans on immigration reform. The undocumented protestors are demanding that the laws of what is effectively a foreign nation be altered to suit their desires, and are protesting Representative Pelosi not because she disagrees with their ultimate goals, but because, as a person who will actually have to do the work of making immigration reform happen, she refuses to take a hard line that she has no leverage to buttress. Rather she is dealing with reality as it currently is, and not what an idealized (and perhaps ideological) reality would look like.

While this is unlikely to become a public relations faux pas on the level of people marching for immigration reform under the flags of their home nations from some years ago, it's unlikely to help their case. Whether or not the Dreamers, or anyone else from (mainly) Latin America, have a right to a life in the United States is not settled law. And if there is one thing that tends to rankle American Conservatives, it's treating issues as settled before they're done arguing them. And given that it's Conservatives who are the most opposed to the presence of people in the country illegally, they're likely to see the protests as simple lawlessness (aided and abetted by Democratic politicians looking for more voters).

The Dreamer's main issue is that they aren't in a position to demand anything. Whether they understand things that way or not, they're supplicants in this process. They lack the direct ability to punish anyone because although they may be sympathetic figures, they're non-voters by definition (and by law - and it's a safe bet that somewhere, there's a Republican operative who would like nothing better than to catch a Dreamer or ten engaged in voter fraud). That pretty much reduces their leverage to their ability to get other people to vote as they request, and it's unlikely that they could muster enough support to do in Minority Leader Pelosi on their own. Therefore, despite how just they understand their cause to be, they're in something of a bad position - feeling the need to advocate strongly on their own behalf, yet facing limits as to what they can actually do. After all, a sufficiently motivated Republican caucus in the House of Representatives can effectively deep-six the conversion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals into federal law. And given that the likelihood that the Trump Administration would defend the law in court is effectively zero, encoding it into law is more or less the only way it survives at the federal level. Representative Pelosi is not in a position to force the Republicans into concessions on this, they have a better hand than she does. While the very fact that some sort of compromise is even being considered is significant, it's not indicative of a groundswell of support for the sort of immigration regime that the protestors seem to want. They might not have to care about that, but if Representative Pelosi is going to have anything to show for this when it's all said and done, she can't afford not to care.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Why would [a mixed-race woman, Jane Manning James]—who is clearly full of incredible intelligence, skills, and perseverance—throw her lot in with a community that would not have her as a member?
When Mormons Aspired to Be a ‘White and Delightsome’ People
Because sometimes, that’s the only community to throw your lot in with.

Implicit in the question of why Jame Manning James would chose to stay with an early Mormon community that refused to see her as equal to them is the idea that she could simply have left, and found another (presumably Black) community that would have taken her in as an equal. Part of it is easy, as Max Perry Mueller notes in the interview. Answering his own question, he notes that Ms. James was a devout believer in Mormonism. And given this, the idea that she was willing to tolerate second-class status to be a part of the community that practiced it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

But that wasn’t the first thing that crossed my mind when I read the question. At one point in the book, according to Emma Green, Mr. Mueller quotes Ms. James as saying: “I’m white with the exception of the color of my skin.” And it’s worth noting that in the Black American community today, there are no positive words used to describe that state. “Oreo” is the one I suspect most often used today, but “confused” or even “brainwashed” were popular alternatives when I was young. And just as the modern Black community takes exception to people who are “Black on the outside, but White on the inside,” even if they are mixed-race, it wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Black communities back then shared at least some of that prejudice. And so it’s entirely possible that after a certain point, there wasn’t another accessible and accepting community for Ms. James to throw her lot in with, a state of affairs that we don’t often think about in the modern world.