Monday, December 12, 2016

From You, Alright! I Learned It By Watching You!

This is possibly the most iconic anti-drug ad of my youth (though not the best, that would unequivocally be this one), and it seems especially fitting for today's hysteria revolving around possible Russian interference in our most recent presidential election. The anonymous CIA leakers spreading the story have caused quite the uproar here, providing us another one of those odd spectacles when Leftists completely contradict everything they stand for and are simply aghast that anyone would question the word of the CIA!

Now, we can set aside the fact that there's no evidence any of the email leaks supposedly orchestrated by those nefarious Russian were falsified, which would mean that people are essentially throwing a fit over the fact that we finally saw behind the curtain and learned how high-level politicians and political operatives talk about us when they think no one's watching. Or we can set aside the fact that there's literally no evidence Russia had anything to do with this, other than the aforementioned anonymous leaks by anonymous CIA officials. And I don't mean to get too crazy here, but I feel like there's a reason or two to doubt the anonymous claims of CIA operatives. Because of, you know, weapons of mass destruction. Or the bay of pigs. Or...well pretty much anything the CIA has ever done.

So sure, we could ignore those two points. Of course we shouldn't, because those two points in and of themselves pretty much invalidate the story from the get-go, or at least turn it from a pressing matter of concern to something that we should maybe wait a minute or two for some form of evidence before losing our collective shit.

But just for funsies, let's say those two very compelling points can be ignored, and that the anonymous word of people whose very job by definition is to operate in secrecy to ends that aren't known to the public can be totally trusted and that those damn Ruskies are back up to their Soviet-era tactics.

Even if we do all that, it's pretty fucking rich for the United States of America to complain about interference in their elections from another nation. For one, we currently have literally thousands of soldiers continuing to occupy two nations we invaded and overthrew the governments of. Which is, you know, maybe even a bigger deal than releasing some emails to influence their election. For another, there are the literally dozens of governments we as a nation have either overthrown or attempted to overthrow. Or hell, we could point out that Hilary Clinton, the candidate said to be harmed by this Machiavellian interference of a foreign government in our elections, has directly supported a coup in a sovereign nation and argued we should have interfered in the elections of another.

But even more to the point, we can't even claim to have clean hands in this specific instance, as the US has been more than happy to intervene in Russian elections in the past. Or much like our mustachioed pot-head dad wondering where his kid learned to smoke weed, maybe we should check out the cover of Time magazine from July 15, 1996 and ponder where they night have learned this from:

Thursday, December 08, 2016

What To Do When The Fascists Come To Town

Last week the university I work for hosted a talk by a fascist cut-rate Kathy Griffin in which he personally attacked a member of my department for several minutes. I won't link to the video or even use the guy's name because a) he deserves neither the recognition nor the web traffic, b) he's probably the only openly-gay fascist currently on a college speaking tour, so you can figure it out yourself, and c) in many ways, the particulars of this individual are not the point. After all, this clown is a dime a dozen; he's one of those political performers you can tell doesn't even believe a large amount of what he says, he just knows that his entire appeal (and income) is based on being the person who says Ka-Raaaazy!!1!!1!11! shit and that if he doesn't keep it outlandish enough, he'll be discarded for someone who will say even more incendiary things (as will happen soon enough, anyway).

To be fair to the university, he wasn't part of a speakers series or endorsed by the university in any way other than being allowed to use campus space due to being invited by the Campus Republicans, a registered student group. His speaking fee, as far as anyone has been able to figure out so far, was most likely paid by a private, non-university-affiliated individual. That all being said, many in the campus community point out that delivering a talk on campus definitely gives the appearance of being sanctioned by the university, accurate or not. So, not too surprisingly, many are upset the talk was allowed to happen on campus.

In this case, the objections stem from much more than the usual opposition to someone coming to campus to deliver the empirical definition of hate speech -- this time, he singled out and abused a popular instructor in the department of sociology and anthropology (in which I also work). This instructor (whose name I'll also refrain from using, but in this instance because he's currently sifting through dozens of pieces of hate mail as a result of the talk), happens to be gay, so the speaker projected a picture of him with the caption "fat faggot" underneath it for several minutes of his talk. He also described the instructor with that and similar terms quite a few times while, irony apparently being a concept this speaker is unable to grasp, decrying how liberals bully people who don't agree with them.

Shortly after the speech, the university president released the typically milquetoast response administrators always release, noting that while the speaker has freedom of speech and the university doesn't hold any particular political views, the speaker clearly went beyond the pale with such personal attacks and vulgar language. He quite pointedly did not use any terms such as "hate speech" or "hate crime" or any other such language that would have required taking anything resembling a stance, but again, that's not surprising, as that's what high-ranking administrators do.

But needless to say, it's been quite the subject of discussion in our department as we try to figure out how we can more productively respond to what was a hate crime being committed against one of our own. And I think it's quite a testament to the times we live in that a group of people who quite literally study society for a living have been having a difficult time figuring out what to do.

Though to be fair, it's a pretty tricky question -- after all, the schtick of this guy and those like him is that conservatives are under attack from crusading liberal professors who won't allow them to express their viewpoints (again, the irony of saying this while literally standing in a university classroom delivering your thoughts completely without censorship or any challenge being completely lost on them). As such, pointing out the many times he made empirically false statements, or the many gaps in his logic, or challenging his right to come onto campus and commit a hate crime against a university employee plays right into that argument. But obviously we don't want to just ignore this, so much to the credit of my colleagues, we're having an on-going discussion of how to respond.

One possibility that keeps coming up is some sort of debate or dialogue with the Campus Republicans who sponsored the speech and more likely than not fed the speaker the information that led to him attacking my colleague*. But the problem I have with that is that there's nothing there to dialogue or debate about; as I argued in our faculty meeting yesterday, our colleague's fundamental humanity is not up for debate. There's no discussion to be had about the way in which he was slandered and insulted, or the wave of hate mail he's received as a result of being publicly threatened by this speaker and his followers.

Aptly enough, immediately after that meeting I read this great piece by the always reliable Damon Young. Although his argument is not completely analogous to this situation, I feel the same logic holds -- there's merit to finding compromise and common ground with people of different opinions, but there's no merit in legitimizing hate crimes by being polite to those who commit them. Pretending this kind of vile attack is a simple disagreement over which we should be able to overcome through finding mutual shared interests serves to do nothing other than accept that this kind of hate speech is a legitimate argument technique even if not the correct analysis of the facts.

All this is a long way of saying that this is why I feel that strongly condemning the speech and the group that sponsored it and refusing to entertain further discussion of any merit the speaker may have even theoretically had is not at all a refutation of open debate or a challenge to the First Amendment or any of these other incredibly specious claims to civility by those committing hate crimes themselves. Simply put, physical appearance and sexuality are not things that alter any person's right to being treated a human being. To not justify these arguments with any response beyond complete and unconditional condemnation is the same as a biologist responding to creationism or an astronomer responding to geocentrism -- not only is there no "moral" or "political" debate to be had about these topics, there is no empirical debate to be had about them. We should not pretend there is.

*The short version is that someone told the speaker that my colleague a) fails students who don't agree with him politically, and b) was giving students credit to go to a different even that night so they wound't be able to attend his speech. Both of those claims are, of course, completely false.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Revolution IS What It Managed To Be And Not What It Wished To Become

I was originally going to write a really long-winded obituary on Fidel, but it's that point in the semester when I'm typically just too tired to think straight (coming off of stuffing myself full of food for a week probably doesn't help).

There's very little I can add to the conversation that hasn't already been said. Castro was a hero to many, a villain to many others, with many more holding complicated feelings toward him. Regular readers of this blog will have little difficulty guessing where I fall on that spectrum (though for those having trouble, I tend to agree with Nelson Mandela, a man Castro defended while my own president called him a terrorist).

Really the only surprise to me in the aftermath of his death was finding out how many liberals and other shades of the left despised him. While I typically hate the hand-waving condescension of saying people have fallen for propaganda, I guess if you call someone a brutal dictator enough, most people will believe you. I personally was accused of falling for propaganda when I happened to mention the oft-cited statistic that even though Cuba is a tiny island nation under embargo from most of the world, they manage to have significantly lower infant mortality rate than the United States. And maybe my accuser was right; if anyone is going to be peddling pro-Cuba false stats, it's gotta be the CIA. I guess maybe the 639th assassination attempt is killing him with kindness?

But yeah, Castro had his worts, as does any world leader. But because he was considered an enemy of the US, his sins are foundational and unchanging, unlike the many sins of the US, which are accidental and non-consequential. This leads to the bizarre spectacle of President Obama condemning the human rights violations of the Cuban government while he runs a literally lawless torture prison on Cuban soil.

While I searched around for the words to capture the heights and lows of Fidel's life, as is usually the case, it turns out someone else already said it better. So rather than ramble on any further, I'll instead offer my official endorsement of the poetic words of Eduardo Galeano on Fidel's life and legacy:

His enemies say he was an uncrowned king who confused unity with unanimity.
And in that his enemies are right.

His enemies say that if Napoleon had a newspaper like Granma, no Frenchman would have learned of the disaster at Waterloo.
And in that his enemies are right.

His enemies say that he exercised power by talking a lot and listening little, because he was more used to hearing echoes than voices.
And in that his enemies are right.

But some things his enemies do not say: it was not to pose for the history books that he bared his breast to the invaders' bullets, he faced hurricanes as an equal, hurricane to hurricane, he survived 638 attempts on his life, his contagious energy was decisive in making a country out of a colony, and it was not by Lucifer's curse or God's miracle that the new country managed to outlive 10 US presidents, their napkins spread in their laps, ready to eat it with knife and fork.

And his enemies never mention that Cuba is one rare country that does not compete for the World Doormat Cup. And they do not say that the revolution, punished for the crime of dignity, is what it managed to be and not what it wished to become. Nor do they say that the wall separating desire from reality grew ever higher and wider thanks to the imperial blockade, which suffocated a Cuban-style democracy, militarized society, and gave the bureaucracy, always ready with a problem for every solution, the alibis it needed to justify and perpetuate itself.

And they do not say that in spite of all the sorrow, in spite of the external aggression and the internal high-handedness, this distressed and obstinate island has spawned the least unjust society in Latin America.

And his enemies do not say that this feat was the outcome of the sacrifice of its people, and also of the stubborn will and old-fashioned sense of honor of the knight who always fought on the side of the losers, like his famous colleague in the fields of Castile.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Mass Movements: The Silver Lining of The Trump Victory

I went to a large meeting last night centered on how we should respond to the election and how we can build movements and connections to resist what are most likely some terrible policies and laws coming our way in the next few years. The meeting itself was fairly useless, having obviously been thrown together last minute and with extremely little planning, but it was nonetheless nice that a hundred or so people showed up on such short notice. Better than nothing, etc.

But one speaker at the event enunciated a lot of what I've felt post-election, especially the way so many on the left have responded with their collective rendering of their garments and gnashing of their teeth. Not coincidentally, he was also the only person of color speaking at the event (again, pretty poorly organized, but that's not the point of this post).

He led off by talking about how he had joked before the election that he kinda wanted Trump to win, if only because it would make white people as nervous as Black people are every day in America. And as he pointed out, it sure does seem like a lot of white people just now realized America is a racist nation. It's not like Trump invented all of this; he capitalized off it, meaning it obviously predated him by quite a bit (I'd say by roughly 400 years, but that's a different conversation).

Perhaps the strongest point this speaker made, though, was in directly asking the assembled crowd how many of them would be attending an emergency anti-racist organizing meeting if Clinton had won the election. While a few in attendance sheepishly raised their hands, it was obvious his point hit home for many (as it damn well should). He went on to explain in much greater eloquence than I can recreate here that the upshot of Trump winning is that it forces white America to confront what Black American already knew -- that there is an incredibly strong current of racism in this nation which is barely concealed, but concealed enough so that comfortable people who don't want to notice it don't have to. But Trump's election removed what little cover this racism (and sexism, and homophobia, and nativism, etc.), forcing these same people to finally reckon with it.

While deserving of it's own post on another day, much of this is due to the blindness encouraged by the two-party system, in which anything done by their side is bad and anything done by my side is good, irrespective of what that action is. As Glenn Greenwald has exhaustively covered, the exact same policies and actions liberals condemned as borderline-fascist under Bush became ideas they cheered and defended under Obama. Hell, often times these liberals defended things Obama did that were objectively worse than those of Bush; while many were quick to denounce Bush granting himself the right to wiretap phones without warrant or any form of oversight, these same folks were conspicuously quiet (or even worse, in favor of it) when Obama granted himself the right to murder anyone he wanted without warrant or any form of oversight. Regardless of your politics, if you find warrantless wiretap a bigger cause for concern than warrantless murder, have a very inscrutable set of beliefs.

So a silver lining is that at least the terrible policies of the next four years won't have the cover of a putatively progressive president behind them, thus allowing people who would otherwise oppose them to actually oppose them. Take, for instance, immigration -- there is currently quite a bit of concern among liberal America that Trump's policies will lead to the deportation of upwards of 3 million people. And these folks are right to be concerned! That would be tragic and indefensible. But what these same folks seem to conveniently ignore is that is roughly the number of people the Obama administration has deported. In fact, the Obama administration has deported more people than any presidential administration in the history of our nation. And yet somehow that wasn't really concerning to these people who are now super concerned about the people Trump might deport (and if he's able to do so, it's only because Obama built such a massive deportation apparatus for him).

But the point of this isn't to make the argument that all presidents are the same so none of this matters or to chide liberals for conveniently forgetting their ideals whenever someone they like violates them (though they should be held accountable for that), but instead to again offer a sliver of hope in these dark times -- many of the people who would have stayed home during a Clinton presidency will be out in the streets during a Trump presidency. And as someone who firmly believes what happens in the streets is far more important and impactful than what happens in the Oval Office, that's actually some comfort.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

"Gramsci and Hope In Dark Times," or "Finally! A White Guy Weighs In On The Election"

The above quote has been bandied about a bunch on my face book feed today, because all of my friends are nerds. As an unabashed Gramsci fanboy (my first cat was named Gramsci), I obviously like it. And while it's appropriate in both it's bleak realism and the fact that Gramsci was specifically writing about an instance when fascism suddenly, and to many inexplicably, gained prominence in a nation many thought (and traditional Marxist theory held) would be primed and ready for socialist revolution. His conclusions were at once both bracingly negative and outlandishly hopeful (a famous saying of his is "Optimism of the Will, Pessimism of the Intellect"), and I think much the same conclusions can be drawn from the election of Trump.

I haven't blogged here for quite awhile now, about 4 or 5 months if memory serves correct. Part of it was that as a big boy with a big boy job, sometimes shit just gets busy and I don't have time for writing long-winded rants. But a part of it was the vitrolity of this election season; I don't just mean between Trump and Clinton supporters, but also among those on the Left more generally (I'm assuming the same can be said of the Right, but I'm not privy to those arguments). I'm not so naive as to suggest that previous presidential campaigns were all high-minded rhetoric and respectful debate, but this one felt qualitatively different. While I'm rarely reticent to share my political opinions (they are, after all, the central point of this blog), it got to be fucking exhausting debating and defending every aspect of my political views, which is something I'm assuming many others felt as well.

What got to me most in this election is the constant charge of stupidity -- that is, anyone supporting any different candidate from you (and I certainly do not except myself from this criticism) for any reason is not just wrong, but stupid. A moron. Someone who can't see that their actions are going to ruin the nation, and likely, the world. On the Left, this name-calling became inexplicably intertwined with identity politics, as everyone played the Oppression Olympics to prove that their position was not only correct, but the only morally defensible position that can be taken. You're privileged if you're voting for anyone other than Hilary, you're privileged if if you're voting for Hilary, you're privileged if you're not voting, you're privileged if you vote for anyone. Take your pick -- no matter your approach to the election, you can easily find a group of people who applaud your brave stand or who condemn your selfish shortsightedness. Whichever you support probably says significantly more about you than about any sort of larger argument. Why today alone I've already been thanked for my perspective on the election and condemned as a heartless bastard. That is how the Left treats its own.

The Left's attitude toward the right, however, has been much more uniform. The response of nearly all the Left toward the outcome of this election has been pretty uniformly "How could they be so stupid?!?" They of course being those people not like me and stupid being not voting how I voted. Those people were duped by a con man. I get it; I would be lying if I said the thought didn't cross my mind while watching election results pour in.

But, as Gramsci would remind us if he were here today, that is the exact wrong conclusion to draw. Many people have written eloquent post mortems on this race (I highly recommend Thomas Frank's and Glenn Greenwald's), but I want to address the notion of treating Trump voters as uniformly and solely stupid, uniformed, racist, xenophobic, etc. as if they have no actual reasons for having voted for the man (who, just to be clear, I think is a very bad person who will make for a very bad president). This kind of argument is not only overly reductive, but at a very basic level, it doesn't even jibe with the empirical data -- Trump outperformed Romney significantly among Latinx and Black voters, as well as getting the votes of hundreds of thousands who voted for Obama twice. If his support was entirely due to social prejudice, this simply would not have happened (and again, just to be clear, these social prejudices clearly contributed, it's just that they alone do not explain the election).

To be overly simplistic myself (and I highly recommend you read the articles link above that spell this out in detail), a large number of people have been left behind by the global economy and are desperate for some sort of meaningful change in their lives. Much like in Gramsci's Italy of 1930s, the predicted populist revolt did indeed materialize, but it came from the far right instead of the far left. And, again much like in Gramsci's Italy, even the bitter cynics like me didn't really see it coming, even if we thought Clinton was a candidate especially vulnerable to the kind of (faux) populist claims Trump was making. I mean, I was nervous enough about the outcome to shred what little radical street cred I have left and vote for Clinton, even though I didn't truly believe she could lose this thing. But lose she did, and now we have the guy who's been endorsed by the KKK, with many positions that are gleefully in violation of international law and the Geneva convention, and whose only consistent policy has been of hate.

But instead of dismissing this asshole's supporters are mere simpletons, now is the time to figure out how he was able to build such appeal and defeat someone whose rise to the presidency has seemed to be a foregone conclusion since 2008. Because simply turning up our noses and musing to ourselves how those people could be so stupid, we need to figure out how to make our message more appealing than Trump's message. And here's where the hope comes in -- I think we already know how to do that. Really, when you listen to Trump's speeches, the biggest applause lines were often for things like repealing NAFTA, stopping the offshoring of jobs, bucking the corrupt incestuous political beltway, returning power to working people -- these are all standard Leftist beliefs! We can find a way to make our message more appealing than that -- we've done it before and can do it again. A good first step would be to treat Trump supporters as future allies instead of enemies to be defeated.

Here's where Gramsci comes in with some hope. As he forcefully demonstrates, anyone that seeks to govern with any legitimacy at all (e.g. not be an out-and-out fascist dictator) must exercise leadership, which in Gramsci's parlance means operating with the consent of the governed. So now our political task becomes building a movement that lets Trump and his cabinet know they are not operating with our consent (after all, less than 1/4 of the American population actually voted for the guy).

Again, we've done this before and in fairly recent memory: one president established the EPA and OSHA, instituted price controls, initiated major missile treaties with the Soviet Union, and opened diplomatic relations with communist China. These actions would still be considered far-leftist today, and they were implemented by Richard M. Fucking Nixon. Nixon! Quite the opposite of a progressive leftist!

Ol' Tricky Dick didn't do these things because he was some bleeding heart softy, he did them because the Left mobilized civil society to make it clear that he had no legitimacy to govern without doing these things. And while it's obviously far too soon to know what sort of governing style Trump will have, it wouldn't be hard to build an argument that he would be especially susceptible to public pressure, what with his seemingly constant need for validation.

So yeah, today fucking sucks and seeing someone run on a campaign of such unmitigated hate being validated in such a way is impossible not to read as setback of some kind. But often the greatest lessons are learned in setbacks, and the silver lining is that we've been able to overcome this kind of setback before. Let's take a day or two to mourn and then get back to the hard work of building that movement.

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.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Do You Live In A Bubble? Why Not Let Some Asshole With An Agenda Decide For You!

Recently a friend, whom I otherwise respect, posted this link to face book exhorting his friends to take this test and see if they live in a bubble. This is exactly the kind of self-flagellating thing liberals love to do, wherein they mistake punching themselves repeatedly in the stomach for meaningful social action. "Oh no! Do I live in a bubble?" they ask themselves, as if this is a question that a) has any actual objective answer, or b) would mean anything if it did. But by engaging with such a stupid conservative straw man they can feel smugly self-satisfied with their commitment to open-minded bi-partisanship, again as if that means anything.

The test is designed to see how much of a sheltered bubble you live in versus how much you interact with other people. Which, in theory, is not such a bad idea. It's good to know people with different perspectives! It's not a particularly great thing to live in a tiny echo chamber!

But you can take one look at the author of this quiz and know exactly where it's going. It was created by Charles Murray, who works for the American Enterprise Institute. While the name sounds fairly neutral, it should more properly be labeled "Incredibly Regressive Billionaire Thinktank About How The Gubmit is Bad And Anything to the Left of Attila the Hun is Communism and Should Be Destroyed For the Sake of America's Future." But I guess that isn't as snappy and would probably lead to really expensive letterhead.

Anyway, I took the quiz myself and it would surprise anyone who knows me, and therefore knows how carefully I cull my circle of friends and avoid at all times interaction with anyone who doesn't agree 100% with me on every possible issue, that I actually have a pretty large bubble! Crazy, right?

Well, not really. Because of the many, many problems with this quiz, it assumes whomever is taking it is a big city liberal (which, given that it's being hosted on NPR's website, is probably a fairly safe guess, but it purports to be for everyone). So it doesn't actually measure how much you interact with people who are genuinely different than you in anyway, it measures how much you interact with working class people in small towns (who are assumed by this quiz, and the assholes who write these sorts of things, to be the exact opposite of big city liberals). The reason I supposedly have a much larger than average size bubble is because I grew up in a rural small town and have had my share of manual labor jobs over the years. That's it, that's why my bubble is so much bigger than most other people's.

Hell, if you live in a small town and have a working-class job, even if every person you knew was exactly like you, thought exactly like you, did all the exact same things you do, and were in every way what we would think of as living in a bubble, you would score as having a giant bubble. Which makes this a fucking terrible test from a measurement perspective, since it doesn't even come close at all to measuring what it purports to measure.

But an even bigger problem is the way this is just a gussied-up version of the "real America" versus...well, they never say what everyone else is living in. "Fake America?" "Unreal America?" "The Loose Federation of States Formerly Known as America?"*

I mean, they could have saved a lot of time and trouble if they just asked what they're clearly getting after. Instead of a 25 question quiz, Murray could have just written "When's the last time you left your vegan cafe and changed your own oil, homo?!?" and that would have just as thoroughly gotten to the point he's trying to make without wasting nearly as much time or involving nearly as much obfuscation.

To make it even funnier, it turns out the hypothetical all-white, working-class, small town, Reagan masturbation fantasy that Murray is using as his comparison point for real American is actually, statistically speaking, a terrible representation of "real America."

So in a turn no one could have predicted**, this quiz is not actually about encouraging people to examine their possibly-cloistered lives to see if they couldn't include more and different people in their social circles, but is instead just another completely-inaccurate fantasy of the right-wing culture wars. And while it's at it, it fails both in terms of science and ideology! What a great quiz! Take it right away!

*Unrelated fun story: whenever assholes go on about "real America" I always feel compelled to ask them if Manhattan is part of "real America." Of course it is not, they'll gladly let you know. NYC generally, but Manhattan specifically, is pretty much exactly what these assholes are trying to juxtapose "real America" against. Once that is established, I tell them I assume they must not be too upset about the September 11 attacks, since they didn't happen to America by that logic. This usually ends in that person getting very angry at me.

**Just kidding! Literally anyone with a functioning adult brain could have easily predicted that!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Lesson in Empathy

I grew up in Iowa, but have little warm feelings toward the place. It's not that I actively dislike it, I just don't really care about it. My parents moved away from the hometown where I grew up about 5 years ago, and I don't think I've so much driven through the state since then, and I can't for the life of me conceive of when I would ever end up back in my hometown for basically any reason. Again, I don't feel any over antipathy toward the place, I just don't feel any meaningful connection. Even though I spent the first 23 years of my life in Iowa, and it undoubtedly shaped me in many ways, I just don't really care about it.

I moved to Minneapolis shortly before my 23rd birthday and immediately felt at home. My dad hails from Northern MN, and trips to Minneapolis were often the most exciting part of my childhood growing up. For whatever ineffable reasons, I always felt much more connection to and affection toward Minnesota. I remember once having a talk with my brother over some beers about how it just made so much sense to move to Minneapolis as we both did, because we both always felt much more like Minnesotans than Iowans. And now that my folks have moved up to Minneapolis from my childhood home, pretty much all of my connections to Iowa are severed.

Which is all a long way of saying I consider Minnesota my home.

I've also never understood why people get so incredibly upset about celebrity deaths. I mean, I get why people are sad when some artist or performer they enjoy passes, but I never understood getting legitimately upset about it. After all, it's not like you've ever met. That celebrity doesn't know you,  doesn't know shit about you, and doesn't care about you. Getting upset over their death just seems...odd. In fact, I'm pretty certain I lost some friends for life when I gently suggested it was weird how upset people got over the death of David Bowie, someone they've never even met.

But then Prince died.

It hit me like a ton of bricks. Frankly, it was fairly confusing. I mean, I'd long been a Prince fan and appreciated everything about his musical genius. But it genuinely felt like a close relative had died. I don't know that I've ever been more homesick for the Twin Cities than I was seeing all the spontaneous dance parties and tributes and all other forms of collective mourning happening in the immediate wake of his death. It felt like I was missing a relative's funeral in that way that I felt like I should be there. Like I needed to be around friends and family just to process this.

In trying to figure out why the death of someone I've never met affected me so much, especially given my previous stance of thinking this was an insane way to react, I think I've settled on the fact that we shared a hometown.

Prince loved Minneapolis and Minneapolis loved Prince. Here's a pre-fame Prince in 1979 explaining that Minneapolis is his home and he'll always stay. And stay he did. Paisley Park right there out in the burbs. While pretty much every other famous person runs away to find their fame and fortune in more glamorous environs, Prince stayed. He could often be found at Vikings games. After the Lynx won their last WNBA championship, he brought them back to Paisley for a post-championship concert. He wasn't just a celebrity from Minnesota, he was a celebrity of Minnesota.

It's a pretty strong contrast to the state's other famous musical export. Dylan pretty famously got out of Minnesota fairly quickly, landing in the NY folk scene before he was out of his teens. And he never really came back, not in any meaningful sort of way. While there's a lot about him that clearly stamps him as being a Minnesota product, you get the feeling the place is no more than a tour stop to him. Minnesota seems to be to Dylan as Iowa is to me -- a place you're from, not too much more.

And I think that's what makes Prince's passing so intense. We both claim Minneapolis; I as an immigrant who fell in love with it and have more connection there than anywhere else, he as the most favorite native son. It's a pretty tenuous connection, sure, but I'm obviously not alone in feeling it, if the thousands who spontaneously poured into downtown last Thursday are any indication.

So now I get it. I get why people can be so saddened by the death of someone they don't know or ever met. I mean, I'm not a monster -- I understood the basic process of it. But as with so many things, actually experiencing it is a hell of a lot different than understanding it on an intellectual level.

So in addition to eating this big ol' slice of humble pie, I think I've got a little bit more empathy in my angry, withered heart. That's Prince for ya, still teaching us all valuable lessons we didn't even know we needed to learn.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Saying Goodbye to Minnesota's Patron Saint

Grief. Sadness. Heartbreak. The day sex died. It's hard to put it into proper words.

One of my greatest regrets in my short life is that I never got to see the Purple One perform live in person. The only Prince story I really have involves specifically not getting to see him play -- I was at some sort of showcase type show of local music (I want to say it was one of the Doomtree blowouts, but I honestly don't remember) and suddenly there was an insane buzz all through the venue. Now, I have to assume that anywhere in the world, if Prince is in the house, people start to go crazy. But when Prince is in the house in Minnesota, people go even crazier. But when Prince is in the house in Minnesota and furthermore it's in First Avenue, a place nearly synonymous with his funkness, it's truly insane. As soon as the first person sighted Prince lurking in the wings, every person in the place knew within moments. In the greatest tease I'll ever experience, Prince stood in the wings for awhile, before eventually strapping on a (unplugged) guitar and beginning to noodle around as if trying to figure out the songs. It was only a matter of moments before he would join the performers on stage, surely. But, as is his beguiling way, he instead simply took the guitar off and disappeared back into the ether of the wings.

Really, this might be the most fitting anecdote I could have. After all, Prince is one of the few people to ever exist where you repeatedly tell the story of the time you kinda sorta could see him offstage. That's the kind of presence the man had.

Yet through it all, Prince remained a fairly...well, normal guy, as much as you could ever apply that word to a pansexual little person funk god. After all, he was a huge Vikings fan and regularly attended games. He continued living in Minnesota most of his life, despite being a world-famous rock star. He beat the siblings of celebrities at basketball and made them pancakes.

This is one of those times when I really wish I was in Minneapolis to join in the collective mourning for the hometown boy done good. I've got nothing to say that will compare to the inevitable countless eulogies and obituaries penned for the man by writers much more insightful and loquacious than I. I just know that I, like a lot of folks right now, feel like I lost a family member and it'll take a good while to recover.

Good night, sweet Prince.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

What An Hilarious Failed Thievery Attempt Can Tell Us About Crime

Last night the weather was finally nice enough to sleep with the windows open for the first time this Spring, which is one of my favorite nights of the year (ahead of it on the list: the day we set clocks back and all sleep in, the night before Christmas, the night of my birthday, the night when Brigadoon comes out of the fog). Anyway, around midnight, as I was finally beginning to drift off to sleep, I heard a car door open and for some reason thought someone was breaking into my car. As I sat listening to the noise, I tried to somehow magically determine if it was just my neighbors coming home much later than usual, or if my paranoid first thought had indeed been correct. As I pondered whether I'd remembered to lock the car doors after bringing my groceries in, I had a trio of thoughts that prevented me from caring too much:

1) I leave nothing of value in my vehicle at any time. Mostly because I own nothing of value, but also because I've had my car broken into roughly 857,349 times and have learned my lesson (one of the few downsides to city life).
B) My car has a factory-installed CD player, which is both worthless and really difficult to remove. Given that non-factory CD players comprise the only things ever stolen from my vehicles, I could safely conclude there ain't nothing in there worth taking (or, just as accurately, that I would give a shit if it was taken).
III) What was I going to do? Hop up in the dark, throw some clothes on, find my glasses, run downstairs and then...I dunno, fight them? Yell at them? Explain in detail this is a prime factor in eroding the social trust networks that improve so many life outcomes? Plus, my bed is super comfy and I was super sleepy.

So I went to sleep and promptly forgot about the whole thing. Until I was walking the dog this morning when on the way home, about 50 or so feet from my car, I saw a little black object that looks exactly like my CD carrier. Which, unsurprisingly, turned out to be the CD carrier I keep in my car. Unrelated to the point I'm making, this is by far my favorite part of the story*. After taking the dog home and feeding her, I went out to assess the damage. Fortunately I had left the doors unlocked so they didn't break a window (more on that in a bit). They emptied out the glove box presumably looking to see if I had anything worth taking, but they left everything. Including the nice GPS unit an ex's rich parents had given me for Christmas several years ago. Much like the CDs, this stands as a comical aside of how quickly the value of certain things has deteriorated with the technological changes of the past decade or so.

But as I looked around the car, it became increasingly clear they had taking nothing. Not nothing of value, but just straight up nothing (though, again, I don't keep anything at all valuable in there). Until I remembered that last night after getting groceries, I didn't have a free hand to carry in some of the non-perishables, so I just left them in the trunk figuring I would grab them later. "But surely they didn't," I thought to myself. "Why would they even want that?" I wondered with increasing curiosity as I rounded the back of the car only to open the trunk and find a true horror scene. I had found the one thing they did take from my vehicle:

A 24-pack of Diet Pepsi.

Humorously enough, there are some things of minor value in the trunk -- tools and the like -- which would probably fetch zero dollars but have some utility. But none of that was taken, either. Just the Diet Pepsi. So I have been keeping my eye out for people who look like thieves who don't use tool sets and are watching their figure, but have yet to ID the culprits.

But the question remains -- what does this teach us about the reality of crime? Short answer: a shitload!

For one, this bears all the marks of the crime of convenience, by far the most common type of street crime. Unlike the super intelligent super criminals of the television world, or the clever and always-plotting criminals of bourgeois imagination that lead to ever-hilarious "how to avoid crime" pamphlets, most people who commit these kinds of property crimes don't really plan them out ahead of time. They may have a general plan of "let's test the handles of parked cars," but they don't case vehicles for days scoping out the choicest prize (after all, if they did, they would have known not to bother with my car).

Also, it's not like they broke a window to get in there -- that's probably a level more than this particular group of kids was willing to do. Had I remembered to lock my doors (which I do 99% of the time!), they more than likely would have just moved on down the street. And I say "kids" intentionally, because I can all but guarantee this was a group of teenagers. Not only because I'm now over 30 and therefore do not trust any teenagers for any reason, but because it's been well-documented that these kinds of street crimes are almost exclusively the domain of people in their mid-teens to early-20s, and more often than not, boys rather than girls.

All this speaks to the most important point, which is that people aren't "criminals," they're people. That is to say, I think a lot of folks who aren't criminologists (so, you know, everyone) view people who commit crimes as if that's like their 9-5 or something, like they wake up in the morning and punch the crime clock, trying to work their way up the crime ladder so they can get a big enough crime 401(C)** to retire early and raise some little criminals in the suburbs.

Instead, people who commit these types of property crimes (who most people are referring to when they use the term "criminal") turn out to be not terribly different from most people. Maybe these kids were out specifically trying to steal things from cars that night, but there's also a pretty decent chance this was on a complete whim. But in either case, it's not like they identify as people who occasionally steal things from cars, as if that's what is central to their sense of self. Instead, that's more than likely just one of many things they do during the copious amount of free time teenagers have.

Also fun and related -- this is why official crime stats are not very good. Or are often, pardon the highly-specific scientific jargon, pretty damn shitty. What's often referred to with the super-metal-sounding-for-a-fairly-boring-concept name of the Dark Figure of Crime is the notion that probably well less than half of all crimes committed are ever reported to the police (whether those crimes reported to police ever actually end up in official stats is a whole other story). This story is a prime example of one of the many types of crimes that goes unreported -- even if they had stolen anything of value, it would have to have been very valuable for me to bother reporting it to the police, and then I'd only do that because I assume my insurance would require me to. But in every previous case I've had my car broken into and things actually stolen from it, I never bothered reporting it, because I knew exactly what would happen -- eventually a very polite officer would stop by my house, listen to my story, write down a report, and that report would be filed away somewhere to never be seen again (which is a quite reasonable thing for the police to do, as there is less than zero point to searching for a stolen car CD player, at least of the kind I could afford).

So in the end, this is all just a no-harm, no-foul reminder to lock your car doors when parking on the street. But it taught us some valuable lessons about criminology, and I'd like to think, the importance of taking all the groceries directly inside and putting them away.

*Why is this my favorite part of the story? Because what explains not stealing my CDs, but simply moving them a bit down the road? Like seriously just moving them roughly 50 feet. None were missing, they weren't broken, it doesn't even appear like they were thrown. Just moved. So here's my current theory: one of the guys rooting through my car grabbed them against the protestations of the other fellas. "Come on, these have to be worth something!" he tried to argue, while they all just laughed at him for his naivety (this was his first attempted theft). Now just trying to save face, but having already snatched them up, he carries them for awhile, waiting until all the other guys aren't looking, and then gently sets them down so they don't hear anything and look at what he's doing. Now there are no more CDs, and he can claim he was just kidding the whole time and was, like, never planning on stealing them for real! Shut up, guys!

**The C is for Crime!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Social Forces Exist and People Are Sometimes Just Shitty People

Many people hate them for the wrong reasons,
others hate the for the right reason
As a young(ish) white man, I am constitutionally required to #feelthebern. As such, I find this tweet hilarious. Not hilarious in a "Rita Rudner funny" kind of way, but hilarious in a "US Government Simultaneously Lecturing Cuba About Political Prisoners While Literally Operating a Lawless Prison on Cuban Soil" kind of way.

I find this tweet endorsement so insanely apt because Courtney Love is the Hilary Clinton of popular music. The parallels are simply too many: for one, both have always been and seemingly will always be overshadowed by their more famous husbands (regardless of how undeserved it may be). They're also both regularly accused of being willing to discard and discredit anyone who stands in the way of what they want. But more what I'm getting at is how they're spoken about, regarded, and just generally understood by so many people.

Because, frankly, both have gotten so much shit their entire careers. In many cases, it has been completely undeserved and obviously only heaped upon them because they are women who dare to exist and be successful in what stubbornly remain male-dominated industries. And while both have plenty of examples of staunch and vocal defenders, even those who greatly dislike either or both of them simply have to admit they've also gotten a lot of shit for things that would not have been a problem if they were men. It's an argument so self-evidently obvious it doesn't even need to be made.

So to sum up: Courtney Love and Hilary Clinton both get a ton of undeserved shit exclusively because they are women. Pretty undeniable.

...and yet you can already hear the obvious and obnoxious "however," right? Well, in this case, the obnoxious however is that both Courtney Love and Hilary Clinton also have some pretty major faults. Like...really major faults. For instance, pretty much everyone who has ever met Courtney Love seems to very much dislike her. Heck, here's a collection of 11 Diss Tracks That Are Probably About Courtney Love and you can peruse the comments section for suggestions of dozens more songs that are varying degrees of being clearly about the songwriter's distaste for Love. These songs are all written by people who have interacted with Love, and the sheer number of them all coming to the same conclusion seems to strongly point to there being something about Love beyond her gender that is causing this reaction. After all, while plenty most all women in the music industry suffer ridiculous levels of sexism, few come anywhere close to the level of vitriol Love seems to inspire.

Similarly with Hilary Clinton -- there are many, many reasons to dislike her as a candidate for President that have nothing to do with her gender. For instance, the horrid things she's said about black youth, her support for the disastrous and illegal Iraq war, her continued hawkish stance on the entire Middle East, her completely uncritical support of Israel, the fact that she is "stalwart friend of of World's Worst Despots,"  her continual leading from behind such as when she conveniently forgets everything she previously said about the TPP or her convenient about-face on gay marriage, or hell, just her inability to correctly pour a beer. Again, the point is that none of these are gender-based issues (unless you were to excuse male politicians for these same behaviors, in which case, totally sexist).

So it makes a ton of sense that Love's and Clinton's supporters would view any and possible all criticisms of these two as motivated at least in part by sexism, and why their detractors would feel like they're being unfairly accused of sexism due to the fact there are many reasons they dislike one or the other (or probably for a lot of people, both) and none of those reasons are necessarily gender-related.

In the end, it simply had to be. How could Courtney Love Cobain endorse anyone other than Hillary Rodham Clinton when Courtney Love Cobain is Hillary Rodham Clinton?

Monday, March 14, 2016

A Prince Auction Is Exactly What You Think It Would Be

Would you pay a minimum of $1,500 for this?
What if you were assured someone ate lousy wedding
venue food off of it while making small talk with a stranger
and also Prince was somewhere in the building?
Apparently needing money and/or space in what I can only assume is a very ornate, very purple garage somewhere, Prince Nelson Rogers is having himself a good ol' fashioned yard sale. Well, less a yard sale and more a curated online auction, but that's about as close as Prince would ever get to a yard sale, I imagine.

While everything is ridiculously expensive, there is some interesting stuff for sale there. An old Gibson Prince wrote many of his early songs on would be pretty cool to own (if you have a spare 60 thousand dollars or so lying around). Ditto for some of his early masters and demo tapes. Hell, if you've got 6 figures to blow, you can have the engagement ring he used to propose to Mayte Garcia, as well as a series of notes comprising the handwritten marriage proposal that sealed the deal. In true Prince fashion, the person who pays over $100,000 for these items does not also get the right to reproduce or distribute the content of said notes. I would not be terribly surprised if they're not even allowed to let anyone else see them. Which is a shame, because I have to believe a Prince marriage proposal is either the most romantic or most fucking ridiculous (or both!) thing ever set to paper.

In addition to a lot of his old clothes and jewelry (you can own the scorpio necklace worn by Prince when he met Prince Charles for the low, low starting bid of $30,000!), by far the most interesting (and affordable) part of the auction is where you can buy various bits of the wedding china from Prince and Garcia's wedding. For $50,000 you can have a whole set, but for only $1,000 you can get a single plate. Granted, that's a shitload of money to spend on a single plate, but can you imagine the kind of conversation that would start? Well, it would most likely just be about why you spent so much money for a single plate. But you wouldn't care about your friends and their inability to understand why such a purchase is necessary, because you will be busy eating off of a plate someone who once was standing near Prince for a little while ate off of, and you can put a fucking price on that kind of history...

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Walking While Black and Why "Legality" Is a Poor Measure

Here's a pretty common occurrence made special only by the fact the victim had the wherewithal to film it: a man in Cincinnati walks down the street obviously not being disruptive in any way, correctly predicts he's about to be subject to police harassment, and is shortly violently arrested. Seriously, go watch the video -- it's almost like a gag how quickly he goes from predicting he's going to be harassed to the officer being on top of him.

This is an incident that serves as such a great example for how mundane it is. What it's an example of is how poor of a measure of any action the concept of "legality" is.

For one, as noted in the article, the police insist nothing illegal happened (note they don't say nothing wrong happened). And technically speaking, the police are right when they say officer violated no laws. Of course, this in large part stems from the fact that very little an officer is capable of doing is deemed illegal in practice, but that's another post for another day.

But the more important point is that the officer in the video was probably technically correct that the gentleman in the video had jaywalked (it's difficult to tell from the actual video). And jaywalking is indeed illegal! Well, in theory. In practice, it tends to only be illegal for certain groups of people.

These types of what I teach my students to know as "bullshit laws" are a key mechanism for maintaining racist policing outcomes in the face of apparently neutral laws. It's really quite simple -- all you need to do is take something everyone does (like jaywalking) and make it illegal. Then you can technically stop pretty much anyone you want. Obviously you can't stop everyone who is doing this illegal behavior, because then you would be stopping everyone. But you can use it as a pretext to stop someone you otherwise would have no legal right to. This allows the law to appear neutral (jaywalking is illegal for everyone!) while maintaining white supremacy. Or what we would call the "arbitrary and capricious" application of the law, which is supposed to be a bad thing.

And this is one you can study for yourself, boys and girls and people who don't identify with the gender binary! It's quite simple: go downtown and pick a busy intersection at random during a busy time of the day (if you don't live in a big city, I don't know...make better life choices, I guess). Stand at that intersection for 10 minutes and count the number of people who cross the street legally (while the walk sign is animated and within the painted lines indicating a pedestrian crossway) versus the number of people who cross illegally. I would gladly bet everything I own that the jaywalkers outnumber the legal crossers. Hell, I'd be willing to bet the jaywalkers outnumbers the legal crossers by greater than 10 to 1, but that's for you to find out!

Anyway, once you've done that and realized basically everyone jaywalks all the time, you'll be discomforted to learn that the Supreme Court has ruled that as long as someone is objectively breaking the law, the subjective motivations of the officer don't matter and thus are not subject to scrutiny. Which, as anyone with a basic understand of human behavior could tell you will happen (and as libraries of empirical data can tell you does happen), means that an officer just needs to find any minor law broken and then has carte blanche to harass.

Or to bring it back to jaywalking, this would be why one of the only studies I could find on jaywalking while Black found that in Champaign-Urbana, a full 88% of those cited for jaywalking were Black. If you honestly think Black people, who make up roughly 16% of the population there, somehow made up exactly 88% of the people actually jaywalking there during that time period...well, I've got this really sweet bridge I'm willing to sell you for a song...