Monday, October 02, 2017

Las Vegas and the Meaninglessness of "Terrorism"

The ol' blog has been silent for some time now, assuredly bringing great disappointment to its tens of readers. But I was overseas all summer and had more important shit to do. More important than rant on the internet? I know, crazy but true. Anyway, it's fitting to come back on something somewhat related to the work that kept me away for so long.

By now, you have of course heard of the shootings in Las Vegas. As per usual, we know the identity of the killer, but none of their motivations or much other reasoning.

But one thing we do know: this is definitely not an act of terrorism. Or it is obviously an act of terrorism, and not referring to it as such is an injustice. I'd be willing to wager I could predict which of these responses you'd chose if I asked you how you feel about Colin Kaepernick. My take? It's not an act of terrorism because there is no meaningful conception of what an act of terrorism is.

As many before me have thoroughly demonstrated, the term "terrorism" is completely meaningless. Well, actually it does have a meaning (which I'll get to in a minute), but it's not the meaning everyone is thinking of when they argue about whether the Vegas shootings are or are not examples of it.

Take a trip with me in ol' wayback machine to the heady days of late 2001. Truly, a simpler time: Donnie Darko gave college sophomores the rare opportunity to pretentiously espouse about the state of, like, the world man, Shaggy was instructing us in the ways of gas lighting our lovers, and of course, Joe Piscapo remained a national treasure. But they weren't all happy days, as the US government was busy readying a War on Terror.

Except there's a problem -- if you're going to declare war on an abstract concept, you need to define that concept in some way. So Top Men Of The Day set to work on what exactly "terrorism" is and they came up with something about using force or the threat of force to try to push people into following particular political/governmental dictates. Except these same folks were also busy reading the invasion of a sovereign nation in the event that nation's head of state didn't quit and leave the country. Which would pretty directly be the threat of force to push people into following our political dictates, which would be our literal definition of terrorism. So they worked it a bit more and added some stuff about the targeting of innocent people. Except the entire concept of Shock and Awe, which was going to guide this invasion of a sovereign nation, was premised entirely upon hitting civilian-heavy areas so the cowed people would do what you want them to. Which, again, was literally terrorism according to their own definition.

So long story short, they gave up on trying to define it and we went to war against a concept we couldn't even define. It is not going particularly well, in case you haven't had a chance to check the news in the last 14 or so years.

Because the problem in trying to define terrorism is that terrorism isn't really a thing that exists. War exists. Mass murder exists. But the concept of "terrorism" isn't a thing. Seriously, try it for yourself, I'll wait. In fact, take all the time you need, as I am not literally speaking to you, so I'm not actually waiting on you...

Are you back? Here's a test for your definition -- would any "legitimate" act of war not fall under your definition of terrorism? Because pretty much every definition I've ever seen of the word is something about using force or the threat of force to get some group of people to follow your political dictates. Which would describe every war ever. Which, if you want to go the super-radical route and declare all wars acts of terror, hellz yeah, I'm down for that. But that still makes the term rather useless, as it describes not only every war, but really the majority of acts of violence. And again, I'm totally down if you want to call all acts of violence terrorism, but that again renders the term pretty meaningless.

But I said earlier there is a meaning to the term. And that meaning is "violence committed by Brown People against white people." Think about that big act of terrorism that kicked all this off -- the 9/11 attacks. Remember the places they attacked? The World Trade Center, which housed various CIA offices, the Pentagon, the central command center of our armed forces, and reportedly the last plane was headed for the White House, the seat of our executive authority. The problem? Those pesky definitions again! According to our own military's guidelines for attacking other nations, those would all be considered legitimate military (not civilian!) targets. Which would mean that, again, by our own official definitions, the 9/11 attacks were not terror attacks. Well, they wouldn't have been if we had done it to someone else. Take, for instance, our ongoing drone wars (Thanks Obama!) -- the Pentagon fully admits that we don't know the identity of 90% of our drone strike victims. 90%! 9 out of 10 people we kill with a drone are likely innocent people.  If a suicide bomber killed 10 soldiers and 90 innocent people, we probably wouldn't consider that a justified act of legitimate warfare.

And therein lies the rub -- what distinguishes "terrorism" from acts of war or just regular ol' violence is that it is violence done to us by "them." And of course, the "them" in this equation is largely Arabs and/or Muslims, though it can be expanded to other Brown peoples as the situation warrants.

The point of the term is to heighten the "otherness" of the violence of brown people; that is, it serves to make their violence somehow different than our violence (which, of course, it is not). This allows you to drone innocent people all day and chalk it up to breaking freedom eggs for a democracy omelette, while at the same time locking up a child in an indefinite torture center for the "terrorist" crime of allegedly throwing your own grenade back at you.

So it's a super meaningless word, one that falls apart pretty much the second you put any thought into it. Why do so many people want it applied to the Vegas case?

My guess would be out of some sense of fairness -- if every time someone with any level of melanin above 0 kills someone it instantly gets labeled terrorist, well then it's only fair that when a white person kills a bunch of people we also reflexively label that terrorism. It strongly reeks of trying to bargain some benefit out of resigned acceptance of this horrid, racist term: "Sure, you created that term as an excuse for you to murder and torture by the thousands. We'll let you keep it as long as you let us call the people we don't like by it as well."

But where does that argument go? As in, what do we possibly gain from calling Vegas an act of terrorism? Are we going to secretly extradite the shooter to Bulgaria so he can be tortured in a secret location? Are we going to ban all white men from getting on planes? Are we going to launch a war on this guy's hometown? Because that's what happens when we successfully label something a terrorist act. In all seriousness, what do we gain other than a false sense of equality by getting a white guy called a terrorist on the news?

Because I submit that warm fuzzy of useless equality that comes from the (meaningless!) label of terrorism finally being applied to a white person for once is the only outcome of that. That's about it. Which not only is not a terribly gainful outcome in and of itself, but would serve to only further justify the use of the term, what with all these voices of people calling for the label to be used, even though I strongly suspect those same people would not be so happy to use this label in most other contexts.

What I humbly suggest would be a better tact would be to fight to get rid of that term. Vegas was certainly bad, but calling it terrorism does nothing to help us stop it from happening again. Just as the 9/11 attacks were very bad, but calling them terrorism has gotten us no closer to (and indeed, it could be argued, much further away from) preventing more instances of this particular form of violence.

Unless the term terrorism helps us understand and prevent further violence (and it most assuredly does not), then there's little utility in spreading its use.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Quick Follow Up

To follow up with the last post on the importance of recognizing the early stages of mass radicalizing violence, I stumbled upon this chart from the Anti-Defamation League and Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, a group of folks who probably know a little bit about the subject. Note all of the stages before the violence stage, and ponder how travel bans, list of crimes, and other early actions of the Trump administration might fit into the ol' Pyramid of Hate here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Godwin's Law and Trump's Fascist Cosplay

Probably everyone who has ever used the internet (at least in the English-speaking world) is familiar with Godwin's Law, if not by name than at least by experience. Godwin's Law, in full, is that the longer a conversation occurs on the internet, the likelihood that someone invokes Hitler or the Nazi party will approach 1 (on the classic statistical scale of 0-1). It's important to note that Godwin's law is descriptive and not proscriptive; that is, it doesn't say anything about whether it's a good idea or not, or whether it's relevant or not, or anything else about the invocation of Hitler or the Nazi party, other than that the longer the conversation goes on, the more likely it is to happen.

However, the rule has become greatly distorted (much to the dismay of Godwin himself) to now hold that anyone who ever invokes Hitler or the Nazi party is engaging in hyperbole and is automatically wrong.

This is not good! For many, many reasons. One of the biggest, of course, is that Hitler and the Nazi party were not magical monsters, but instead regular ol' human beings. So by keeping them to rarified air that no one else can ever approach for any other reason, we do ourselves quite a disservice, as plenty of other humans have proven themselves just as capable of enacting Nazi policies and actions. For instance, there have been multiple genocides since the Holocaust.

Another major reason is that plenty of people are happy to call themselves Nazis (or maybe not use the exact term due to its baggage, but otherwise hold all of the beliefs). In large part this blog post was inspired by me reading an article this morning in which Richard Spencer (he of the Nazi getting punched in the face memes) was referred to as a Nazi. One of the first comments on the article was someone chastising the author for using the term Nazi so cavalierly, arguing that it devalues it to apply it to just anyone you don't like.

But the problem is: Spencer's a Goddamned Nazi. He regularly quotes Nazi propaganda, denounces pretty much anything ever done by a Jewish person, and has refused to denounce Hitler or the holocaust any time he's been asked. He's done everything short of walking around carrying a comically-large sign reading "I AM A NAZI."

So if you can't call an active Nazi a Nazi, then whom can you call a Nazi? No one, I guess. And that's the very problem with how people abuse Godwin's law. Nazi is a very useful term to describe Nazis, and we shouldn't throw it out because people online occasionally engage in hyperbole.

For instance, today Trump unveiled his promised list of crimes committed by undocumented peoples, a list which will apparently be a weekly phenomenon.

You know who else published a regular list of supposed crimes committed by a group of people he didn't like and was actively trying to make others scared of? Hint: he had a funny little mustache.

This is important, because this isn't one of those "Hitler once said he didn't like bowties, so if you don't like bowties you're just like Hitler!!1!1!!1!" kind of ridiculousness that the people ruining Godwin's law think they're fighting against.

Rather, the regular publication of lists of "crimes" committed by Jewish people was an integral part of the necessary dehumanizing of Jewish people so that regular human beings could be goaded into killing them en masse. As plenty of people have pointed out, the Nazis didn't start with the Holocaust. Or any mention of the Final Solution. Or really, any sort of public pronouncement as to what was actually coming.

No, instead what they did was spend years spreading misinformation, falsehoods, and straight-up lies about Jewish people to dehumanize them. To get regular, otherwise good-natured people to see Jewish people as some kind of unique threat. You know, the kind of threat that means you need to build a giant wall to keep out of your nation.

And this is why we can't throw out the Nazi baby with the hyperbolic Nazi-accusations bath water. Because we've seen this exact thing before and we've seen exactly where it leads.

Is Trump Hitler? No. But is he quite literally enacting a centerpiece of Hitler's methods for dehumanizing a group of people? Yes, he is doing exactly that.

So we compare him to Hitler. Not because we don't like him, but because he is literally doing what Hitler did.

And remember how we had this whole big thing after the Nazis were defeated where we collectively as a world declared we wouldn't let this happen again? Well, it's happening again. Let's not let it.

Monday, March 06, 2017

The Free Market Is Only Free When It Does What I Want It To (Academia Version)

The American right wing loves the free market. Listen to literally any of them talk for more than three sentences, and it's all but guaranteed that not only will they mention the free market in glowing terms, they will have also suggested it as the solution to whatever you're discussing. Taxation? Free market. Income inequality? Free market. Hang nail? Free market.

Except when the free market doesn't do what they want it to, that is. This is, of course, why we have socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor. The actual consequences of an actually free market only apply to the lessers of the world.

Take, for instance, the latest in the cottage industry of "libruls are ruining universities!!11!1!!1!" pieces that seem to run in the Chronicle of Higher Education pretty much every day. (Don't judge: the Chronicle is my favorite hate read. It's like an slightly more sober but significantly more niche Breitbart).

This piece was written by one of the interchangeable jagoffs who writes these things, most of whom typically hold some sort of position with "freedom" in its name, and who are always ironically complaining that conservatives in academia are oppressed and never given a platform while never noticing the irony of themselves being a conservative academic with a prominent platform. But my point is not their individual hypocrisy (though there's plenty of it!), but the larger issue of them suddenly and completely abandoning the singular solution they offer to everything else.

Because if the professorate has been drifting ever leftward (though the evidence always offered for this is, to put it lightly, incredibly suspect, but again, not the point) despite the fact that students have not (as the linked article claims), and if this is truly a problem in that students are being denied the viewpoints they so desperately crave, then the question becomes obvious: why hasn't the free market stepped in and solved this?

After all, if our universities were truly dominated by a rigidly leftist ideology with little-to-no variety in thought, then shouldn't the market be supplying an alternative? Shouldn't there be a cadre of conservative professors rising through the ranks, with their classes swelling past capacity as students flock to the ideologies they've been so cruelly denied all these years? Shouldn't individual departments and colleges, not to mention entire universities, note this market inefficiency and recruit conservative faculty members so they can capitalize on this woefully underserved market?

I find this incredibly interesting because I hate-read pretty much every article I can find about how universities are the worst examples of rigid group think and ideological orthodoxy, and yet I've never once seen the argument made by conservatives that the free market will solve it. Which, again, is quite odd, as these same folks hold that the free market will cure literally everything. And yet, the free market has had literal decades to solve the "problem" of academic ideology, and yet according to these same people, the problem is actually getting "worse!"

Now, of course, you and I and every person who has the ability to reason beyond the level of 6 year old knows this is because markets don't and never have operated in such a simplistic manner. But then you and I and every person who has the ability to reason beyond the level of 6 year old have not suggested the market as the cure to every social ill.

Of course, none of this is to address the fact that said ideological orthodoxy does not actually exist, but even if it did, wouldn't that mean the market has spoken and said that this is what the people want? And who the fuck are we to disagree with the omnipotent brilliance of the free market?

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Holy Shit! Some Lady Put Her Feet On A Couch!

Look, I get it: you hate Trump. I hate Trump. Lots of people hate Trump. Hell, if we count the entire world, it's probably true that the majority of people hate Trump. Heck, I wouldn't be too surprised if a majority of Americans hate Trump. He's a white supremacist, a moron, and most definitely a jagoff.

But! That doesn't mean it's cool to just throw every possible negative thing about Trump and his cronies against the wall in the mad hope that something will stick.

This isn't coming from some misguided notion to respect the office of the Presidency or be fair to Trump or any of that other milquetoast centrist shit people keep coming up with. Rather, it's about strategy and recognizing the fact that opposing this dude will require some effort and discipline.

The current hubbub over Kellyanne Conway being photographed sitting with her feet tucked underneath her on a couch in the Oval Office is a perfect example of what I'm talking about here. People are freaking out like she murdered a baby and bathed in its blood, not sat awkwardly on some fancy furniture.

For one, here's literally dozens of pictures of Obama putting his feet up on the furniture in the Oval Office, which somehow did not draw the same level of condemnation from people freaking out right now. But more important than who has or who has not put their feet on furniture, this is not something to be concerned about. Because, and I genuinely cannot believe I have to point this out, the reason the Trump administration poses such a threat is not because of their disrespect for furniture. Making any criticism about Trump's team hinge on such a superficial (and come the fuck on, completely meaningless) action only serves to legitimate them.

This odd freakout is wrong-headed for the same reason it's completely moronic for people to reply to exhortations to give Trump a chance with some version of the faux-witty rejoinder of "Oh, just like you gave Obama a chance?" Because, again, opposition to Trump is not because the other side was mean to the Democratic president, so now we all get to be mean to the Republican president.

Engaging in petty squabbles like this serves to legitimate the Trump administration, because it gives credence to the notion that "both sides do it." Our opposition to Trump is nothing like the Tea Party's opposition to Obama -- they opposed him because he's Black and they think he's a Muslim, we oppose Trump because his cabinet is stuffed full of ardent white supremacists and he's openly courted a growing fascist movement.

Those two things are not equal.

But when you equate them by pointing out the Tea Party did the "same" thing, or focus on completely meaningless superficial things like the way a woman sat once, you're building a narrative that the opposition to Trump is due nothing more than the fact that he has the wrong party affiliation, and the demonstrations are nothing more than the predictable anger of the losing side of the election. This is what allows America's desperately-seeking-the-middle-and-objectivity media to normalize Trump's actions -- sure, they draw massive protests, but lots of people didn't like Obama, either. It's just the way shit goes!

I mean, look, if you want to clown on Conway for sitting awkwardly, fine whatever, I'm sure she's heard worse. But quit trying to make this out to be some giant scandal. This is like complaining that Hitler drank shitty beer. Yeah, drinking shitty beer is a dumb thing to do, but that's not what was bad about Hitler. We've got a woman happy to go on television while spouting obvious lies and framing them as "alternative facts" while giving cover to the closest America has had to a genuine fascist threat in decades if not ever, and we've got half the internet freaking out about how she sits on a couch.

I just...I mean...come on. I don't know how to end this post other than with a series of bewildered ellipses as I struggle to put into words how idiotic this whole "scandal" is. But for what it's worth, I've written this all while sitting politely in a desk chair with both of my feet planted firmly on the floor, so you can take my word for it...

Monday, January 23, 2017

Welcome! We've Been Waiting For You.

The Women's March on Washington, and affiliated marches throughout the nation, that took place this past Saturday were huge. Demonstrations took place on every continent on Earth and have been argued to be the biggest collection of protests in world history. I even saw on the social media this morning that a pair of political scientists had used crowd-size estimates to argue that roughly 1-2% of the entire US population was at a protest of some sort that day.

So needless to say, it was a pretty popular demonstration, the kind we haven't seen since the dawn of the Iraq war (and those demonstrators, it bears constant repetition, were pretty much right about everything).

The incredible popularity of this past weekend's actions put those of us regular demonstrators in an odd position, as we're not used to nearly this much attention nor support. And I have to admit, it's easy to feel like a demonstration hipster (indeed, in creating a back patch to wear to Saturday's rally, I cut up an old demonstration shirt I had made that read "I was against the war before it was cool").

To be fair, this isn't an entirely glib point about something niche suddenly becoming mainstream. As many have pointed out, none of the problems folks were discussing during Saturday's many speeches are new in any way, and while Trump is a terrifying specter indeed, it's not as if the election of Clinton would have made these problems go away. I'll admit that as much joy as I felt witnessing the thousands who were marching along side me and the many millions more marching elsewhere, more than once my mind returned to the speaker at an emergency post-election meeting I mentioned here before who pointed out that had Clinton won, these problems would still be here, but it's pretty unlikely everyone would be organizing emergency meetings and mass demonstrations to address them.

So yeah, there's definitely a sense that many of the people who showed up to the protests this past weekend were only doing so because they felt like all of the problems in the world might now start applying to them. I think the feeling is captured quite eloquently by this sign, which I've seen multiple versions of popping up in various photo collections from Saturday:

It raises a good point about participation, and less directly, about how these demonstrations were policed compared to many others; as more than a few people have pointed out, if there were Black Lives Matter rallies this big all over the nation, it's hard to believe police would be so polite and helpful, or that we would see so few pre-emptive riot police and tanks on the street.

These issues are real and important, and definitely should not be dismissed, but instead form a central part of the discussion on where to go from here.

But as important as these issues are, and as fun as it is to be holier than thou about such things (and it's very fun!), in my ongoing quest to learn some form of humility, I'm going to try my best to remember that everyone starts somewhere. And while people should be held to task for not caring about an issue until it effects them personally, I think it's also important to ask which is more important during these times -- excoriating those who didn't get to the movement soon enough, or building as massive a movement as possible to push back against the Trump agenda and toward social justice?

So in that vein, I'm going to do my best to try and welcome people to the resistance. Even if they didn't get here on time or in the right way, they got here, and it's a lot more important where they go from here than where they've been before. Because simply put, we need them. As ol' Leon Trotsky put it, "Without a guiding organization the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam."

Or for a bit more contemporary spin on that same though, I'll let Dr. Angela Davis have the final word: