Monday, May 13, 2013

Summer Is Neither A Vacation Nor Exciting

Summer break is here. Well, it's here for students. I've already complained plenty about the perception that we on this side of the college classroom get the same breaks as those in the seats, so I guess there's not much new to add to that.

It's just that today is the first official day of summer break here at the University, and I didn't actually realize that until a few minutes ago. Because it's not a break; I got up and got to doing the same damn thing I've done every Monday for the past 16 weeks or so -- get up, convince myself I'm going to get a bunch of writing done today, sit down to get to the writing, become frustrated and overwhelmed at how little I've written and how much I need to do, then eventually convincing myself I've put in enough work for the day while procrastinating on the internet.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

I Continue to Miss Minnesota, And IT Continues To Remain Cool

It's no secret here that I love Minnesota and wish I had never left (cure you, fortune of getting a good job in this economy!). But my homesickness only gets worse every time Minnesota decides to become even cooler than it was previously.

This week has been a pretty good one for people of conscience in the land o' lakes. First, earlier in the week the MN House gave the ok to the "Ban the Box" legislation, meaning it now only needs to be signed by Gov. Dayton, who has already promised to sign it. In short his bill will change employment law in Minnesota, most notably requiring public employers to wait to conduct criminal background checks until the interview stage of the process, and will not allow employers to discriminate based on crimes that have nothing to do with the job and/or for convicted persons who pose no risk to the public (that's way over-simplifying it, read the pdf attached above for details).

This is huge for many obvious reasons, but possibly the biggest is that it removes the permanent punishment many people receive for criminal convictions that happened years ago and bear no relevance to their current situation (statistically speaking, even ex-felons who have done prison stints are no more likely to offend than the general public after 7 years on the outside). It's also huge because, not too surprisingly, using criminal background checks as a filter has a strongly racialized affect. Both because of the racism of our criminal justice system (but that's an entire course, not something that fits into a blog), but also because of perceptions of criminality.

For example, here's a graph of results from Devah Pager's famous audit study of the impact of criminal records:

The graph measures how many people from the study received a call back after a job application. The only difference between the pairs of people who applied for a job was a (fictitious) criminal background; otherwise they dressed the same, answered questions the same, turned in identical resumes, etc. As you can see, not only does having a criminal record make on far, far less likely to get a call back, you can see that Black job applicants without a criminal record are less likely to get a call back than white applicants with one.

The other development is happening right now, as the MN legislature debates a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. Although the vote is yet to happen, it is widely believed there is more than enough support in the legislature, and again, Gov. Dayton has already publicly declared his willingness to sign it into law.

So in the span of one week, Minnesota will (likely) have dealt a strong blow to the dangerous ideologies of permanent punishment and homophobia.

Not too shabby, Minnesota.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Is This News Actual News?

The Sunlight Foundation recently unveiled a web tool they're calling "Churnalism," and it makes me both excited and sad.

It's a really awesome and simple concept -- if you suspect a news article sounds a bit too much like a press release, or like talking points which are a little too neatly delivered, you simply enter the url or paste the text into the churnalism machine and it quickly determines whether what you're reading is actually journalism or just some recycled pabulum.

On the one hand, this is super awesome -- if you pay attention at all, you definitely come across articles posing as news that sound suspiciously exactly like one of the people/organizations mentioned in the article would like it to sound. This gives you a quick and easy way to find out if it really is just repacked PR or is actually an independent opinion.

On the other hand, it's necessary that such a thing exist. Oh to live in a world where journalism actually means researching a subject and writing an original and informative take on it...

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

When Dealing Drugs Is Bad/When Dealing Drugs is Good

A recent news story has brought to light some ridiculous hypocrisy in the War on Terror. Normally, this is not a news worthy event, as the entire basis of the War on Terror is rank hypocrisy (remember, our definition of "terror" is using violence, or the threat thereof, to intimidate peoples in order to effect political outcomes. Which would also be the exact purpose of the Iraq and Afghan wars).

But sometimes the hypocrisy is so blatantly ridiculous it deserves some special attention, such as when the US literally gives bags of cash to corrupt Afghan drug lords. And I'm not abusing the word literally here; US officials actually gave large bags full of cash to Karzai and his associates in an attempt to purchase their favor (bonus level of hypocrisy: when Iran did the exact same thing, the US accused them of undermining international law by illegally bribing public officials.)

Many of the people receiving these bags of cash are known drug lords (most of the world's opium and heroin comes from Afghanistan, something the Taliban had actually curtailed to a great degree prior to the invasion). And no one in the State Department is naive or stupid enough to think for a minute that they're not directly funding large drug producers. They're just funding large drug producers in the name of Democracy, I guess. Well, to be technical about it, they're funding major drug producers in the name of establishing a proto-democratic dictatorial client state which will do our bidding in the region, but that doesn't flow off the tongue nearly as well.

Just as a reminder, if you fund the sale of heroin by purchasing even a small amount, you are due for at least a year in federal prison and a fine of up to $7,000. Our nation has more people in prison for drug offenses than the entire European Union has in prison or in jail for any charge. We imprison by far the most people in the world, whether measured in raw numbers or as proportion of the population, and most of that is due to drug-related arrests.

Yet at the same time our nation has been locking up millions drug users and dealers (well, poor drug users and dealers of color; white users and dealers face a significantly lower chance of arrest), we've also been providing millions of dollars in free money to people we know are using that money to produce illegal narcotics.

It's hard to make someone as cynical as me get upset about government shenanigans, but sometimes the "it's wrong for anyone else to do, but we can do it on a far larger and much more damaging scale for reasons we never have to explain or justify" (non)logic is just a little too on the nose...