Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Gun Bill Also Contains Potassium Benzoate

For the 5 of you who don't get the reference

In an effort to be slightly less cynical about life and the state of the world, I'm trying to look more often for the best in situations and people. Well...I'm not straying that far from cynicism. So I guess I should say I'm looking for situations and people?

Which brings us to the unprecedented sit in being lead by House Democrats in an effort to force a vote on some gun control bills. In trying not to be completely cynical about the world, I'll note it's fairly cool that some elected officials are at least trying to make some changes in how we respond to the repeated mass murders plaguing our nation. But as is so often the case, hoping for meaningful change from the two-party system is like buying a cursed doll and receiving a free cursed frogurt, in that any positive you can find is almost immediately tempered by an extreme negative.

In this case, we have a bunch of elected officials taking drastic action to begin to address our nation's gun violence epidemic (that's good!). But their offered solution rests upon racism and scapegoating of an already embattled minority group (that's bad). This could signal a long-overdue shift in elected officials repeatedly caving to every demand of the gun lobby (that's good!). But this particular action is to call a vote on bills that are already doomed to be voted down and wouldn't meaningfully address the problem in any way (...can I go now?).

While those linked readings explain why these bills are trash on the larger level of political and human rights (short version: the very same no-fly list that was decried by Democrats as a racist Orwellian invasion of our rights when it was introduced by the Bush administration is now being trumpeted as the solution to our problem by those very same Democrats), there's also the obvious problem I've not seen addressed by anyone: only Homer Simpson would buy a cursed doll.

Which is my way of saying it is insanely naive to think justifying gun control by saying that terrorists are snatching up legally-available guns is going to change the opinion of anyone who was already opposed to gun control. "Terrorists are going to come here to take advantage of our lax gun laws!" is not going to result in gun-control opponents suddenly thinking "Ok! We definitely need to restrict access to guns." Instead, given everything we have witnessed in the past 20 or so years of how gun-huggers respond to any hint of gun control, I can pretty much guarantee they'll respond with "HOLY SHIT! TERRORISTS ARE BUYING GUNS! I NEED EVEN MORE GUNS TO DEFEND MYSELF FROM THESE HEAVILY-ARMED TERRORISTS! PEW PEW PEW!"*

And that more than anything if why I feel like Homer at the curious oddities shop -- any possible good that's going to come from this is more than washed out by the fact that the doll is actually a cursed, murderous spirit hellbent on killing me. Or maybe the problem is just that someone set the NRA to evil?

*Ok, maybe not that last part, but I like to imagine that every sentence of gun-humpers ends with them aiming finger pistols in the air and pretending to fire a gun. I can't say for certain that's true, but I'm pretty confident it is.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Whose Lives Matter? (Hint: Not Brown People's!)

By now you're obviously aware of the horrible attack on Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which has as of this writing, left 50 people dead and another 50+ injured. It's a horrible attack on innocent people, and while we're still parsing the killer's motivation, the fact that he targeted queer people of color is not a simple coincidence. Whether it turns out he is an ISIS wannabe, a deeply-conflicted closeted man, or having a psychotic break (all theories I've seen floating around the media), it's obvious he was targeting that club because of the presence of queer people of color.

It was a heinous crime, and has been rightfully condemned by pretty much everyone alive, even people who otherwise really seem to hate queer people who haven't murdered. But one person's condemnation of the attack really stood out as hypocritical, even more hypocritical than the condemnation of a woman who has argued in court that gay marriage would do irreparable harm to the people of Florida.

And that super hypocritical person is President Obama, who had this to say on the attacks:
Today as americans we grieve the brutal murder, horrific massacre of dozens of innocent people. We pray for their families who are grasping for answers.
We stand with the people of Orlando who have endured a terrible attack on their city. Although it’s still early in the investigation, we know enough to say that this was an act of terror and an act of hate.
Big words. Strong words. Who could disagree? Seriously, who could possibly disagree with condemning this attack as a terrorist attack and calling for the utmost compassion for the victims and their families? Who?

Well, if this had happened in Iraq or Afghanistan, I know one person who would strongly disagree with that statement.

It would be President Obama.

Because in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Syria, and Libya, and Pakistan, and on, and on), these kind of indiscriminate attacks are not tragic matters, but instead official policy. After all, we remain completely unaware of who 90% of people killed by our drone attacks are. They could be bad people, or they could (much more likely), be completely innocent people, like those killed in the Pulse shooting. And instead of being killed for any defensible reason, much like the people in Pulse, they are killed simply because of who they are. Indeed, even the most conservative estimates put it at hundreds of people killed by US done attacks.

But surely Obama feels just as bad when the drone strikes he orders and approves kill innocent people, right? I mean, he just delivered a rousing speech in which he said we need to end such senseless mass killing. Obviously he would be especially upset if he was personally responsible for multiple mass killings, right?

Nah, he's not upset at all. In fact, he denies killing any innocent people (despite not knowing who he's killing), because every male of "military age" (generously defined as 15-60 years old) is assumed to be a terrorist unless it is posthumously proven they are not. So, you know, the ol' "Guilty Until Proven Innocent After We've Murdered You For No Reason" level of evidence. So when Obama's drones murder a bunch of innocent people at weddings or at funerals or yes, even clubs, everyone there who has a penis is officially considered a terrorist. No muss no fuss for a man who has the second most inexplicable Nobel Peace Prize ever awarded.

So to put it in Obama's reasoning, had the club been hit by a drone instead of a guy with an AR-15, there would have been 50 dead terrorists instead of 50 dead innocent people. Instead of sad press conference mourning the loss of lives, there would have been a triumphant press conference celebrating another win in the War on Terror. Even though, in both cases, there's no evidence there are any terrorists there (except for the ones doing the killing).

Perhaps the most disgusting part of this spectacle is how Obama has the absolute gall to deliver a press conference in which he claims to be "tired" of all this violence and imploring us to find a way to put an end to mass killings. Well, hey, here's a novel idea: if you're tired of the mass killings of innocent people, why don't you try to set a good example by not repeatedly doing it yourself? It rings just a little bit more than hollow for someone responsible for the death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people to give a teary press conference about how bad it is to kill people.

But don't worry, the hypocrisy will gladly continue, as even though he's on his way out, both of the people with a viable chance of taking over his job have already confirmed their commitment to keep on killing innocent people to make sure that everyone knows how wrong it is to kill innocent people.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

That Shitty Rapist, Leftist Bloodlust, and a Failure of Imagination

By now you're likely aware of the case of Brock Turner, the asshole who raped an unconscious woman and blamed it on drinking and hookup culture and who received an incredibly slight punishment, largely because he's a rich white kid who's good at swimming. You're probably also aware of the ludicrous defenses offered on his behalf, such as this one from his father claiming he shouldn't be punished for "20 minutes of action" (as if the length of time it takes to commit a crime is a central concern) or this one from his childhood friend/member of a super shitty band claiming he's only being punished because of "pc culture" (as if stultifying liberal discourse is what caused him to rape someone). His statement, his father's statement, and his friend's statement are all...well, "infuriating" barely begins to cover it. Blood boiling? The purest possible distillation of rape culture? The stupidest things said in a long time? It's hard to accurately convey in words.

But what's got me most interested in following the fallout from this case and his incredibly lenient sentence is the reaction of progressive folks to this news, specifically two central arguments I keep seeing come up: 1) that his mugshot should be plastered everywhere, and 2) that his punishment should be significantly harsher.

In context, both of these arguments are very easy to understand -- there's obviously extreme amounts of rich white kid privilege playing into the fact that the photo used with nearly every story on the case for the first several days after the trial was of the perpetrator smiling broadly in a suit and tie instead of the much more traditional mug shot which usually accompanies such stories. And he very much did receive a sentence that is incredibly lenient for this kind of crime, especially one which had multiple witnesses; while I haven't read the actual sentencing decision, as I understand it he's sentenced to 6 months in county, with the likelihood of release at 3 on good behavior. That is pretty light for being convicted of three felonies. So the complaints, at least to me, seem to be pretty rightly justified.

But taken out of this specific context, you have a bunch of leftists calling for promoting and distributing the mugshot of someone, calling for a significantly harsher prison sentence for someone, and calling for using social media to brand a person as a criminal for life, to make sure this person is never able to go anywhere or do anything without everyone knowing of his criminal past. Heck, here's one fairly representative example which literally brands itself as calling for pitchforks.

This is a bit incongruous, as these are not usually things lefties call for. 

In fact, they are typically things lefties strongly oppose, and for good reason. For instance, here's a great piece written by my smart friend Sarah on the significant problems with mugshots floating around social media. I could link to about a billion pieces about how harsher punishments don't do much of anything to deter future crime, but I'm lazy and the point is pretty much self-explanatory to anyone who has watched our nation's "get tough on crime!" obsession for the past 50 or 60 years have basically no effect on crime rates in either direction (turns out the factors which lead to crime are a wee bit more complicated than such approaches imply).

The reaction to this story reminds me quite a bit of the reaction of much of the left to those assholes who took over a bird-watching sanctuary out in Oregon; leftists are usually pretty big fans of people who try to challenge state power through collective action, resisting police intrusions into their social movements, and attempting to replace hierarchical government with a more collectivist orientation. And yet here we had so many on the left asking on a daily basis why the cops were being cautious with them and attempting to negotiate rather than just shooting them all like the dogs they are. Again, if you didn't pay attention the the specifics of the case, these folks (and I'm just as guilty of it as anyone else) sounded much more like law-and-order conservatives in the 1950s than progressive radicals in the 21st century.

While pondering why this is, I remembered this little bit from my prelim exams way back in the day. Since no one other than my PhD committee ever read it (and to be frank, I'm not entirely certain they gave it much of a read, either), I figured this is a good excuse to expose my hard work for the world to see. Here's a little bit where I'm talking about the work of prominent criminology scholars Jonathan Simon and Marie Gottschalk:
Simon (2007) argues that much of this is due to the fact that since the early 1960s crime has become the model problem through which other problems are defined and acted upon. This “governing through crime” means that not only is crime a dominant strategic issue for multiple actors and institutions (as well as a fail-safe electoral strategy), but that the metaphor of crime prevention can be extended to a number of non-criminal problems as a clear moral narrative. Given the righteous anger provoked by the category criminal, the crime metaphor serves as a powerful archetype for drawing stark moral divisions in a number of contentious cultural battles.           Gottschalk (2006) extends this concept historically as well as broadening the view of what caused this shift to the carceral state. She argues that unlike other great shifts in the governing philosophy of the United States, such as the New Deal or the Great Society plans, the carceral state was never presented as a set of policies up for public debate, but rather was a “largely invisible feature of American political development” (19) that came about in unplanned spurts and starts. Although she identifies the carceral state as a top-down elite-led process, she notes that while the public hasn’t necessarily always supported tough-on-crime measures, rhetoric of supporting victims by punishing criminals has found favor with not only conservatives but also women’s groups seeking the recognition and punishment of domestic abuse, LGBT groups supporting the advent of hate crime laws, and other progressive social movements.
It's that last bit that sticks out to me when thinking about this case and others like it that makes me feel like ultimately the problem is a lack of imagination; that is, we don't really have any other way to conceive of how to deal with the Oregon militia idiots or that asshole rapist other than the state coming down on them with full force and administering brutally-harsh punishment.

Because really, the way the Oregon people were treated (cautious discussions with the police rather than police coming in guns a-blazing, ask-questions-later style) and the way the asshole rapist is being treated (thinking about what purpose a harsh punishment really serves, and bearing in mind the ramifications punishment itself has) are much more in line with how I wish all criminal suspects and those convicted of crimes were dealt with. Obviously much of the outrage is that such considerate action only happens when the accused/convicted are privileged white guys, but again, stripped of the exact particulars, isn't this how most progressives and radicals want criminal cases to be handled?

And this is why I pin what appears to be a fairly contradictory reaction from the left on a lack of imagination -- all Americans of all political orientations have become so conditioned to see a harsh state response as the only meaningful reaction to crime that even those of us who oppose such harsh penal measures can't seem to come up with any other way to deal with this stuff. As such, we end up with the bizarre spectacle of radical leftists demanding to know why the state is not locking someone up and throwing away the key.

This is the sort of perniciousness Gottschalk and Simon identify in the carceral state -- even those of us who strongly oppose it are quite easily sucked into its regressive viewpoint of harsh, reactionary punishments when we feel so deeply offended by someone's behavior, as we do with this asshole rapist. But if we truly want to dismantle mass incarceration and the many problems which go along with it, we can't keep pointing to it as the solution to our problems when it suits us. Much easier said than done, yes, but a move away from mass incarceration will never happen as long as its harshest critics are willing to ditch their insightful criticisms when it suits them...

Friday, June 03, 2016

Follow Up to Previous Post

So in what could either be a coincidence or more evidence of the horrid nature of bit-time collegiate athletics, watch Mississippi State's Athletic Director get taken to task for giving an athlete who savagely beat a woman on video a one game suspension. For context, this same school had an athlete that was impermissibly using a loaner car from a local car dealer. That athlete was suspended seven games.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

In Which I, and Most Other Sports Fans, are Rank Hypocrites

I've written a fair amount about sports in this space, as well as about how I feel somewhat hypocritical for my love of big time sports. Basically, high-level sports are cool and fun because they feature the world's most athletically-talented people routinely performing near super-human feats. But they are also shitty horrid cartels that drain public coffers, drain resources away from academic departments at universities, and at all levels seem to regularly cover-up sexual assaults committed by their coaches and players, often including nauseating tales of victim intimidation and harassment.

The most recent instance of this horrid trend is playing out right now at Baylor (I highly suggest Deadspin's excellent on-going coverage of it), where it's been alleged that university officials would routinely ignore sexual assaults committed by their players, as well as cover for them, suppress information from the authorities, and intimidate the victims. It's all pretty shitty, and a bunch of people are rightly losing their jobs, including Ken Starr, the man who thought it prudent to spend $10 million on investigating consensual sex between two adults but thought it not at all worth it to look into repeated claims of sexual assault.

Though despite the cosmetic changes, a lot of commentators don't believe much is being done to change the institutional culture that lead to these problem. Other, more optimistic voices, however, seem to think this is a watershed moment. I don't think I buy that line of thinking, and I present to you this screenshot I took the other day of the front page of Sports on Earth, an otherwise pretty good read:

In case you don't follow sports terribly closely, the lower picture is of James Winston, who very famously narrowly avoided charges for sexual assault due to the complicity of basically the entirety of Florida State University and the Tallahassee Police Department, who famously yukked it up and laughed their way through the press conference announcing he would not be charged. In other words, he is the virtual poster boy for major athletics organizations doing everything just short of actively facilitating their player's many sexual assaults.

The juxtaposition of these two pictures and articles is why I don't have much optimism the revelations about the many abuses at Baylor will go down as anything more than just yet another entry in this disturbing, on-going saga. Because putting them back-to-back like that is pretty much equivalent to just having a headline saying:

Baylor Case Raises Important Questions About Major Sports Teams Shielding Star Players Who Have Committed Horrible Crimes, But Fuck That: Let's Talk About The Upcoming Season!

Monday, May 30, 2016

A Memorial Day Reminder

As always, Uncle Kurt says it best (from Cat's Cradle):
 I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays. 
But they are murdered children all same. 
And I propose to you that if we are to pay our sincere respects to the hundred lost children of San Lorenzo, that we might best spend the day despising what killed them; which is to say, the stupidity and viciousness of all mankind. 
Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns. ... If today is really in honor of a hundred children murdered in war ... is today a day for a thrilling show? The answer is yes, on one condition: that we, the celebrants, are working consciously and tirelessly to reduce the stupidity and viciousness of all mankind.

So today, as you remember fallen veterans of military service, don't forget to remember the many, many people who have worked consciously and tirelessly to reduce the stupidity and viciousness of all mankind, in the hopes that someday we won't need to have veterans or a memorial day for them.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Someone Else Wrote It Better: On the Magic of Numbers and Subservience

I had planned to pen an overly-long blog post on this, but then I stumbled across an article here that makes the point I was getting after far more eloquently and with significantly more documentation. It's super and interesting and very much worth your time. So here's a short blog post getting at why I think it's so interesting and worth your time:

Not too long ago I was at a sociology conference on a panel with a well-known (well, for a sociologist) old timer making an argument about why economics is more influential than sociology (as evidenced by the number of times either is cited in the New York Times, a terrible metric for measuring such things, but that's a different argument). To drastically over-simplify his argument, he pointed out that while pretty much all sociologists are liberals (as measured by their affiliation to or ideological closeness to the Democratic party, a similarly terrible metric for measuring such things), while economics departments have a decent number of Republicans (though they'll still heavily outnumbered by Democratic-identifying peoples). As such, sociologists come across as partisan and biased, while economists appear to be objective and balanced, with a much greater diversity of thought.

To put it politely, I think this argument is dumb and wrong for many, many reasons, but two in particular stand out: 1) "right" and "popular" are often very different things!, and B) a major reason economists are granted more mainstream coverage than sociologists is that they've been better at cloaking themselves in the mantle of "pure" science. Mainly because they use more math than sociologists do (as a whole; plenty of sociologists rely solely on math in their research).

And this largely comes down to the fact that: A) math eduction in America is terrible, so B) most Americans don't understand basic math, so C) anything that has even slightly complicated math in it impresses most Americans, as they confuse complexity for meaningful knowledge or understanding.

You can see this in political horse race coverage: while all pundits are generally wrong in their predictions (and hilariously so!), those that use math, like 538, are seen as not just speculating, but scientifically predicting outcomes. Of course, 538 is just as hilariously wrong as everyone else, but look at all the complicated models they use! So complex! So many different letters and numbers! As such, 538 tends to be seen as sober political scientists rationally examining empirical evidence, other than just another set of political pundits spinning shit out of their ass.

And this is more-or-less how the field of economics has bamboozled so many, or in the words of this philosopher (which, again, you should really just go read): "world history tells a story of mathematical models masquerading as science and a public eager to buy them, mistaking elegant equations for empirical accuracy."

In this fascinating piece, we learn that apparently astrologers used to use this very same model of complicated mathematical bullshit signifying nothing to spin themselves as a legitimate scientific enterprise. At the turn of the previous century, many top leaders in politics and business used astrologers to "scientifically" plan their investments, production rates, etc. To make another snotty point about how much I disagreed with that presentation mentioned above, I bet astrologers outnumbered sociologists in the pages of the NYT during that period as well, but I also don't see that as a terribly big problem.

But in addition to the fact that this math-humping "imbues economic theory with unearned empirical authority," this article does touch upon the other problem I noted in that argument when it quotes a tenured economics prof on what influences the models he develops:
‘In economics and finance, if I’m trying to decide whether I’m going to write something favourable or unfavourable to bankers, well, if it’s favourable that might get me a dinner in Manhattan with movers and shakers,’ Pfleiderer said to me. ‘I’ve written articles that wouldn’t curry favour with bankers but I did that when I had tenure.’
And this, to me, is the real heart of the matter: basically, whatever a sociologist writes is not going to win them much political esteem or favor in the business world. However, an economist can add several hundred thousand a year to their bank account if their models just happen to be pleasing to those with a lot of money. Now, I'm not saying they simply invent complicated mathematical models that have no connection to empirical reality solely to please those in positions of wealth and influence, making them little more than modern court jesters, but...well, I guess I'm more or less saying that. But Dr. Levinovitz says it much better, so go read that.