Thursday, December 18, 2014

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

In a sustainable agriculture forum I follow on Linkedin, a farmer questioned whether food deserts actually exist and suggested that the problem may be exaggerated. The statistics he cited suggested, for example, that it takes poor people in low-access areas only 4.5 minutes longer to get to the grocery store than it takes wealthy people in well-served neighborhoods.

"Using the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), researchers found individuals in low-income low access areas spend an additional 4.5 minutes traveling to the grocers over the national average and average a trip every 8 days over the national average of 7 days."

The problem with this is that, as is typical in these kinds of studies, it's using averages. In most higher-income, higher access areas, almost all individuals will be traveling by the same means: privately-owned automobiles. This means respondents from such areas will all fall within a very narrow statistical band; whether they make $30K a year or $300K a year, their car still gets them to the grocery store in the same amount of time.

In poor, low-access areas, though, transportation methods used will be more diverse. Some will have automobiles. Some with a little money might take the bus. Those with slightly less money might ride a bicycle. Many will walk. Of the walkers, some will have backpacks, carts, or wagons; others will be able to carry only the grocery bags they can hold in their hands. Elderly and disabled people might pay for taxis or use publicly funded or non-profit taxi services, or they may rely on friends or relatives with cars to give them a ride. The statistical result is that you're going to have a really wide spectrum, with people on one end starving unless they walk several miles every day, and people on the other end whose numbers match those in the high-income neighborhoods. Neither the mean nor the median in that set will give us a clue of what the people at the bottom are going through unless we also know the percentage of households in the poor neighborhoods that have on-demand access to a functioning automobile.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Remembering the Louisiana Ambush

A Facebook friend recently posed the following challenge:
Name 1 white victim of violence who's been publicly degraded by 1000's of black folk online or by black journalists or newscasters.

My first thought was to say, "George Zimmerman," but he's not really all that young, and since nobody but him will ever really know who initiated the violence, and since many are of the opinion that, even if Martin did throw the first punch, Zimerman's following him was sufficient provocation to justify it, I'll leave that one alone.

I don't think Officer Darren Wilson really counts as all that young, either. Also, as with Zimmerman, a lot people may not consider him a victim since he managed to defeat the person trying to victimize him.

But there is one who comes to mind who fits that description. Justin Barker was a white teenager in Louisiana who got jumped by six black schoolmates. They knocked him out and then continued kicking his unconscious body, including kicks to the head--blows which obviously had the potential to be fatal.

Barker survived. He was treated at a local hospital and released after a few hours of observation...because that's what they usually do for concussions. Later that night, Barker went to a school dance, but left early due to pain. His face was swollen so badly that for three weeks, he couldn't see out of one eye, and he continued to have headaches and lapses in memory after the attack.

The young men who tried to kill Barker were charged with attempted murder. People nationwide expressed outrage at this. They said that the charges were excessive. Many, including a group called Color of Change, called not just for charges to be reduced, but for them to be dropped altogether...because...apparently it's okay to stomp and kick an unconscious boy if you're black, he's white, and other white people in the town are racists.

15,000-20,000 protesters, led by Al Shaprton, et al, converged on the town of 2,000 to oppose the "injustice" of charging the assailants with attempted murder when their attempt at murder failed to kill or permanently cripple the victim. (No wheelchair, no foul?)

Not only did these protesters show no concern for the victim, they blamed HIM for the attack. Reports were widely circulated in the media that Barker had made a racist comment to the other boys, provoking them to attack. The commonly held opinion was that 'the racist punk had it coming'--that he had a severe beat down by six people coming because he said words that hurt their feelings. The media and protesters further denounced Barker's credibility by saying that he had exaggerated the severity of his injuries They claimed that the fact that he had gone to the school dance later the same day was proof that he wasn't seriously hurt and had never been in any real danger...while lying unconscious getting stomped by six people.

But the alleged racist comment never happened. Witnesses who had initially reported that Barker made a racist remark later recanted. After the trial, the defendants' legal team--funded by generous donations from all these thousands of people who wanted to make the beating of Justin Barker legally permissible--read the following statement:

"To be clear, not one of us heard Justin use any slur or say anything that justified Mychal Bell attacking Justin nor did any of us see Justin do anything that would cause Mychal to react."

But to this day, if you read reports online about the "Jena Six" incident, the stories typically contain a litany of accounts of unrelated, racist actions by other white residents of Jena, the point being to cause the reader to sympathize with the attackers (at least four of whom have since been arrested for other violent offenses), and to suggest that the unprovoked ambush of a white boy was just a case of "turnabout is fair play."

Ultimately, the charges were reduced. They ranged from aggravated second-degree battery down to simple battery, and carried penalties ranging from 18 months in a juvenile facility (for Mychal Bell, a repeat violent offender who the media claimed had no criminal record) to $1,000 in fines and court costs and just seven days of unsupervised probation for each of the rest of the defendants.

In light of all this, I'd flip the question around:

When was the last time 20,000 people gathered in one place to justify the attempted murder of a black kid?

When was the last time that an unconscious black boy being beaten by several white people resulted in members of Congress calling for a governor to pardon the attackers?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

For, Because, and Over: the misattribution of motive

Tim walked into a grocery store and picked up a loaf of bread. When he paid for it, the cashier forgot to say, "You saved 24 cents today by using your loyalty card, and you earned 23 fuel points." She was supposed to say that. It's company policy. She could be disciplined for not saying that. It's in the employee handbook. There was a note posted right by the time clock and they mentioned it at the last managers meeting, but she still neglected to do it.

After that, Tim stepped out of the store, bread in hand, and got run over by a car in the parking lot.

If some of the people who have been covering the Eric Garner story were reporting on this event, the headline would read:

Cashier admits wrongdoing but avoids criminal charges

Good gods, y'all. I was really staying away from this one. I think I wanted this movement to have half a leg to stand on, so when I heard that the cops used a choke hold and that the suspect hadn't done anything (or had just broken up a fight between two other people, depending on which version you listen to), that was good enough for me. Choke holds were banned back in the 80s, and NYPD is widely known to be corrupt as hell. So that's all the more I really wanted to get into it.

But today, for some reason, I looked up the video. The link I clicked had it embedded in an article in a UK publication, so I read that, too. Regardless of what you think of New York's law against selling loose cigarettes, Garner did it repeatedly. He got busted for it over and over and over, yet every time, he'd go right back to doing it. Everybody knew where to find him selling these cigs for 50-cents apiece.

Like so many criminals, Eric Garner felt entitled to break the law, and saw the police as being the ones in the wrong for "harassing" him about selling the illegal cigarettes. He finally got fed up with it, and as he told the plainclothes police in the video, "This ends today." He was giving them an order--he was going to keep doing what he wanted, and they were to look the other way.

Anyone who hasn't been living under a rock could predict that this sort of thing was going to lead to an arrest. But he didn't submit and put his hands behind his back. He kept pulling away. Contrary to what appears to be popular belief about what's supposed to happen in such cases, that doesn't mean he doesn't have to go to jail. The cops don't just shrug and walk away because he doesn't feel like getting arrested.

They didn't shoot him. They didn't taze him--though they could have at that point, had they had Tasers. They didn't pepper spray him, and wisely so, as that wouldn't really have made him any easier to control. They put their hands on him...but they messed up in how they were supposed to do it.

The little guy who jumped up and wrapped an arm around Eric Garner's neck shouldn't have done that. It's not what killed Garner and probably wasn't even a contributing factor, but he still shouldn't have done it. He should have known better. He should be taken off the streets, disciplined, and retrained in open-hand compliance techniques before they let him back on patrol.

He could have jumped up and locked onto the pressure point under Garner's nose and dragged him down...but that doesn't always work. He could have jumped up and, instead of wrapping his arm around Garner's neck, he could have dug his elbow down into Garner's collarbone, or even wrapped his arm around Garner's forehead or eyes to drag him down just as effectively. He shouldn't have done what he did. Regardless, this improper and banned technique isn't what killed the man.

If the medical examiner said anything beyond "homicide" (meaning simply that it was a death caused by the actions of another person, as opposed to natural cause, suicide, or an accident not caused by another person), I haven't heard about it yet. But looking at the video, and reading what I have about Garner's physical condition (he was morbidly obese, had severe asthma, and was said to not be able to walk even a block without having to stop and rest), I'd guess that what we saw was an asthma attack, some other problem caused by the sudden exertion of fighting the police, or positional asphyxia.

Positional asphyxia is a real problem for the police. Basically, it's what happens when you lay down a person who's so freakin' fat that they can't breathe if they lie down because they suffocate under their own weight. Any pressure on the chest cavity (from the front or back--like a cop's knee between someone's shoulder blades) can also cause it. The reason it's a problem is that laying a person on the ground is the most effective way of controlling them so they can't fight while being handcuffed. So how do you handcuff a very large person who doesn't want to be handcuffed, without endangering that person or yourself, when that person might die if you just put them horizontal? I got out of law enforcement in 2007, and they still hadn't solved the problem by then. If there's been a recent development, I haven't heard it. The last time it was mentioned in my training, the advice at the time was just to not leave people on the ground longer than you had to. Once Garner was cuffed, they could have gotten him back up into a sitting or kneeling position. There's no telling, though, whether that would have saved him, or if it was simply the exertion of fighting that killed him.

But let's return to the video. We see an officer put Garner in a choke hold to pull him down...and then he lets go! After that, we see other officers grabbing other parts of Garner's body, notably one pushing down on his head. The whole time, Garner's yelling, "I can't breathe! I can't breathe!" There are two important things to note here: 1) nobody's choking him anymore by the time he's saying this, and 2) breathing is a prerequisite to being able to say anything, even, "I can't breathe!"

So, once again, just like most of these cases, a criminal with questionable judgment fought the police and died losing. Like so many of the other cases we've been hearing so much about, a witness--in this case the guy recording the video--lied through his teeth about the suspect's innocence to make the officers' actions seem even more egregious and unjustified. (You can hear him saying they're arresting Garner for breaking up a fight, when it's clear from the conversation between the officer and Garner that they're talking about him selling a cigarette to a man in a red shirt.)

While we're on the subject, let's get back to the issue of cause-and-effect that I alluded to in the example of the headline about Tim and the grocery store. When you see these headlines like "Police Shoot Couple for Speeding" or "Police Kill Man for Jaywalking" or "Officer Beats Man to Death for Refusing to Show Driver's License," you're being intentionally misled. There's a cause-and-effect relationship being suggested that simply doesn't exist. It's not like the police stop a person for speeding, the speeder pulls over and cooperates, and instead of handing the speeder a ticket, the cop says, "I find you guilty of speeding, and in this city, the penalty for that is death," and then shoots them. In every single case, from serious stuff like bank robbery on down to the pettiest of crimes, the police simply stop people to effect an arrest or to issue a summons or a warning. Then the suspect takes it upon himself or herself to resist. They try to tell the cop that the cop can't arrest them, or they try to run away, or worst of all, they actually attack the cop--as we saw in the Ferguson case.

If you start a fight with the police, the police are going to finish it. You aren't going to win. The two choices are to quit fighting while you're still alive (and hope it's not too late to stay that way), or to keep fighting until you're not. Very simply put, when the police justifiably kill someone (as opposed to the unjustified cases--and they do exist), it's either because they were defending themselves or others, or because the suspect fought back to the point that lethal force was needed to capture and subdue the suspect.

In the Garner case, though, the police didn't use lethal force. Except for the wrong-but-irrelevant choke hold, they used exactly the force that would typically be used to subdue a resisting man of Garner's size. They didn't do it wrong. He died because he was in no shape to be wrestling several police officers. At most, the police were reckless or negligent in Garner's death. I could have possibly seen an indictment for manslaughter, but not murder. The fact that nobody was indicted doesn't tell me that there was a gross miscarriage of justice so much as that the grand jury likely didn't blame the officers for Mr. Garner's poor health.

Nonetheless, we'll continue to hear both professional and amateur reporters and pundits saying that the police killed or harmed a person because of some minor infraction. At the same time, they'll completely omit the suspect's own role in the event. And that's because they're pushing a version of reality not supported by the facts. They want you to believe that the police routinely approach innocent people who are minding their own business, and mercilessly attack and murder them at the slightest provocation or no provocation at all, at least if the victims are black.


This narrative gets repeated again and again despite it bearing so little resemblance to reality. Why? Who stands to gain by having you believe that that's how the world works? In what way will things change for the better if we all believe that?

Understand that I'm not saying that police corruption, abuse, and brutality don't exist. They do, they're widespread, and they frequently go unpunished. But if an activist movement wants to protest police wrongdoing, they could pick better poster children. Instead of looking at cases where homeless people and the harmless mentally ill who weren't resisting have been killed by police, they've chosen to make martyrs of criminals who fight the police. Why? Well, one common theme I see is that the ones who get mentioned on protest signs are all black, while a lot of the victims of clear cases of unjustified brutality are not. There's been a conscious effort on the part of the people shaping and guiding this movement to keep the focus not so much on police error or misconduct, but to keep it on race and the idea that the cops have it out for black people. They want to present this as a sort of informal but systematic genocide, even though the totality of the facts really doesn't support that view.

I'll leave speculation on the motivations behind this bit of public opinion shaping to people better qualified to comment on it, but I will be addressing other aspects of the clash between police actions and public opinion in a series of future posts.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Myth that Kills

The funny thing about telling someone their whole life that people from Group X hate them and will kill them just for existing is that, even if it's not true, that person generally grows up to hate and fear the members of Group X. Every story that appears to confirm their bias will be taken as irrefutable proof of what monsters the members of Group X are, and every counter-example, even if vastly more numerous, will be disregarded as "the exception that proves the rule" or insufficient to mitigate the bias-confirming examples.

It doesn't matter who Group X is. If you tell a white child that black people are dangerous and that they hate her for her privilege and hold her responsible for slavery, that's the narrative that will frame her worldview. She'll either grow up to be an overt bigot, or she'll be afraid and feel anxiously compelled to please every black person she encounters to prove to them (and to herself) that she's not as bad as she thinks they think she is. She's going to be either hostile or nervous...or possibly both.

Now take that same dynamic, but make the child black and Group X the police. If a black child is immersed in a culture that tells him that the police hate him just for being black and that they'll shoot him if they can find any excuse to do so, he's going to grow up to either have a militant hatred of the police or to be deathly afraid any time he encounters a cop...maybe both.

Cops are trained to observe behavior, both to see cues that someone is about to harm them, and to see cues that a person is being evasive, possibly trying to hide evidence of a crime. So when such a person, whose first concern is staying alive and whose second concern is enforcing the law, encounters someone who a) immediately becomes combative and refuses to cooperate, b) quietly seethes with visible, murderous rage, or c) acts as nervous as someone who has a dead body stuffed full of cocaine stashed in the trunk, how do you think the cop is going to react?

I'll tell you. The threat level goes up, and they respond as they've been trained to when someone acts like that: they regard them as dangerous. So what might have been a smiling encounter and wishing a driver a nice day after warning them about wet roads gets escalated to a situation where orders are being barked and guns get drawn. But because the suspect has been programmed his whole life to believe that the police are doing this out of pure malice, he reacts in exactly the opposite of the way he should. He fights, or runs, or lies, or otherwise does any number of things that are perfectly justifiable to do when you think an all-powerful authority figure is about to murder you, but which are exactly the wrong thing to do when Officer Friendly just wants to see your driver's license.

Blacks get stopped and frisked at a higher rate than whites do because they live in poor, high-crime neighborhoods at higher rates than whites do--neighborhoods that are patrolled much more heavily because there are so many more 911 calls in those areas. And yes, that economic disparity is the result of racism. It's the lingering scar of centuries of economic apartheid. But it has nothing to do with whether or not a cop is a white bigot with a beef against black people. Agencies send units to where the crimes happen.

"Driving-while-black?" Try this experiment: Make a list of ten makes, models, and colors of cars and a random list of license plate numbers. We're going to pretend that this is a list of cars you've been told to be on the lookout for. Could be stolen vehicles, fleeing fugitives, Amber doesn't matter. Your job is to recognize them when you see them. Study this list. Stick it in your pocket. Now walk out onto an overpass that looks over a highway. Without taking out the list, look for any cars that match the ones on it. Also watch for anyone speeding, swerving, changing lanes erratically, following too closely, or anything else that might endanger others. If you can listen to a police scanner, keeping track of what's going on in the rest of the county while you do this, all the better.

A tan Honda Accord goes by. There was one of those on the list! Wasn't there? Take the list out of your pocket and check. Yep! Sure, it's one of the most common cars on the road, but at least you spotted it. Now...what was the plate number? In all likelihood, you couldn't read the plate. Maybe you didn't even see it. If you were in a patrol car, you might try to get close enough to read it and call it in for a check. But unless you're Rain Man, there's no way you read the plate on that car as it whizzed by while you were watching the traffic flow as a whole and focused on picking out makes and models.

But forget the plate. What color was the driver's face? Looking straight down into the windshield from above, you have a much better view than the typical road cop. From the road, mostly what you see when you try to see the driver is a glint of sunlight or street lights, or a dark silhouette. All the silhouettes are dark, even the ones of white people. The only thing you really know about the driver is that there is one.

So how, based on that, could you possibly target people of a particular race? You can't. Of course, this doesn't account for how a cop might treat a driver after she's pulled him over, approached the car, and discovered that he's black. What it does show us is that in most cases, police couldn't possibly pull people over based on the race of the driver even if they wanted to, because they can't tell until the stop has already been made. That inconvenient fact does nothing, however, to slow down the persecution complex of someone who's been raised on the idea that everything in life is rigged against him.

With notable exceptions like Ferguson, police departments openly discriminate in favor of women and minorities. I don't know if it's still the case, but ten years ago, if anybody, of any color, wanted to apply for a job as a cop at the Columbus Division of Police, they had to get the application from a place called the Office of Minority Recruitment. Agencies regularly mandate that their officers attend Cultural Sensitivity training, which is invariably aimed at helping officers learn to understand and sympathize with women and non-whites...regardless of the demographics of the officers attending. Useful as it would be to law enforcement, I've never heard of any agency sponsoring a Cultural Sensitivity training session focusing on understanding Christian fundamentalists or the honor culture of Appalachia or understanding the motivations and psychological makeup of Occupy protesters. When an altercation occurs between a man and a woman, most officers--of either sex--will presume that the male is the aggressor and the female is the victim. Even if the opposite is discovered to be true, they'll typically go easier on her than they would on him. If you don't speak English and you're arrested, police will usually go to some effort to locate a translator to make sure you fully understand your rights. If you speak English and you're just too ignorant to understand the Miranda warning, no special effort will be made to help you understand that confessing and pleading guilty is generally a bad idea.

So most police departments actively root out racism and have been pushing the pendulum in the direction of favoring minorities for over twenty years now, but we still have this persistent urban myth about racist police that's become an article of faith among African-Americans as well as among fearful white people who are eager to prove themselves worthy of black approval. It is this myth that trains young black people to have bad encounters with the police. When you perpetuate the lie that police want to kill black people, when you add your voice to the chorus of voices affirming that this lie is the gospel truth and everybody knows it, you're condemning more black youth to violent deaths and incarceration. It's not the 1950s anymore. The old wounds still hurt and are fresh in the minds of the victims of the racist police departments of ages past. But picking off scabs isn't helping those wounds heal. Passing this PTSD and culture of paranoia onto subsequent generations isn't helping them. If you care about the well-being of black children, give them the opportunity to see the police portrayed the way white children see them. Give them the opportunity to develop a healthy sense of what is and isn't actually dangerous. Quit rigging the game against them. Quit programming them to be victims.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Would You, Could You, in the Dark?

A question was posed on a Facebook page I follow:

"If we could successfully grow meat in a nutrient vat (which tasted exactly the same as normal meat and was the same price), would you eat it? Would you also stop eating normal meat?"

My answer:


Let's say I did. Let's say we all did. Demand for meat from living animals would decline until the industry went under entirely. With such an option available, arguments to ban the production and eating of meat from animals would not seem so unreasonable, and would probably gain enough traction in some places to become law. Barns would be torn down, pastures would be paved over. Breeds of livestock would go extinct. Entire species of livestock might become endangered.

So now we're committed. Not only are the animal farms gone, but nobody's growing feed for these now non-existent livestock. Those vast acres of prairies are now growing biofuels, or perhaps they've been paved over and turned into strip malls and housing subdivisions. Food now comes from high-tech laboratories. They use a lot of highly specialized chemicals that are manufactured specifically for that process. The conditions for growth are monitored and maintained by computers. The whole process consumes massive amounts of energy. There's demand for biotech engineers, but common farm workers are displaced.

And then, maybe generations later, something happens. Maybe bad weather causes a disruption in the supply chain. Maybe political turmoil causes a spike in energy costs, forcing food prices through the roof. Maybe someone hacks the software. Maybe a rare mineral used in the equipment becomes unavailable. The more complex the system, the more opportunities there are for failure.

The people can't rely on the factories to feed them anymore, so they decide to turn back to animals for meat...only they can't now. In this future, nobody knows how to hunt anymore. Nobody has any livestock. Even if they could obtain it, they'd have forgotten how to care for it, how to breed it, and how to butcher it. And even if all that knowledge was all archived in libraries or the Internet, nobody would have the stomach for it anymore. By then, every aspect of it would have been outlawed. The entire populace would be suffering such an extreme case of acorn tree syndrome that the very thought of killing an animal and cutting it into pieces for food would seem like cannibalism. Even if people got desperate enough to overcome their squeamishness, all the land for grazing the animals or growing their feed will have been reassigned to other purposes, and nobody's going to volunteer their house to get torn down to make pasture.

Earlier this evening, from a second-story window, I used a bow to shoot a groundhog that was going for my vegetable garden. I want to become proficient at making such weapons from materials that grow wild on my land, and teach my children to do the same. Those are skills we can count on to feed us. We can take them with us anywhere we have to go, no matter what happens in the Middle East or Washington or in the stock market.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Three Card Monte

Groups of white people sporting shaved heads and swastikas intimidate and harm people of color. But then when you get the leaders of those groups to talk about what they believe in, they'll tell you they don't believe in hurting anyone. They just want white people to be treated as equals and for whites to be able to preserve their culture rather than being taught to be ashamed of being white.

We see police officers beating and killing innocent people. We see them often held unaccountable for this, being protected from scrutiny by other officers. When an officer does try to blow the whistle on a colleague, we see other officers harass and intimidate the whistle blower. And yet, if you ask almost any cop about this brutality and the coverups, they'll say that they hate it as much as you do, that it's a handful of bad apples giving the whole profession a bad name. They'll tell you most cops get into the job because they want to protect people, not hurt them.

We've seen Muslim terrorists saying that Islam must dominate the world. We've heard them say that they are not bound by any law but sharia. We've even seen Shia and Sunnis killing each other. But go into almost any mosque in the world, and they'll tell you that Islam is a religion of peace, and that the Quran says that when you kill one innocent person, you kill all of humanity. They say those violent people aren't "real" Muslims.

We see the Westboro Baptist protesters yelling that God hates fags. We see the cross-wearing protesters outside abortion clinics intimidating staff and patients, sometimes doing physical violence against them. It seems every bigot in American government who wants to oppress others identifies as a very religious Christian. Christianity was spread through the world by force, and entire wars have been fought at the order of the Vatican. Protestants and Catholics have killed each other for hundreds of years. And yet if you ask them, they'll tell you that their Bible tells them to love and not kill, and that they should turn the other cheek and be endlessly forgiving and merciful.

We hear high-profile feminists throughout history denouncing men, regarding men as redundant, disposable, inferior, and as a threat to be eliminated. Feminists have rallied for equal pay, but not for equal financial obligations. They want women to have the agency that is afforded to men, but freedom from the responsibilities that go with it. They protest female--but not male--genital mutilation. They'll raise a stink about Boko Haram kidnapping a bunch of girls, but not even mention the same group murdering a bunch of boys.They elevate the emotional and sexual concerns of women above the literal life-and-death concerns of men.

But then if you denounce feminism on these grounds, someone will claim that feminism is simply about equality, and that to be against feminism is to be against equality.

Being against racism does not make you anti-white. Being against police brutality does not make you against protecting people. Being against terrorism doesn't make you against religions of peace. Being against worldwide repression doesn't make you against love and forgiveness. And being against elevating women above men does not make you anti-equality. Quite the opposite.

Frankly, I'm sick of the double-talk from the lot of them.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Radical Implosion & Radical Distillation

After long observation, I've come to a conclusion about something. The problem with any social movement aimed at remedying a perceived problem is that the leaders will tend to be the people most passionate about the cause. And the reason they tend to be the most passionate is because they're the ones who have been most harmed by whatever it is they're trying to change. The more vocal and committed the leader, the more likely they are to have been seriously traumatized by whatever it is they're fighting.

The problem is that they're also the people least capable of maintaining a sense of perspective about the problem. They become radical extremists who see the issue as black-or-white. They're difficult to reason with. They're nearly impossible to negotiate with. They're prone to making abusive statements about those who disagree with them.

When you've got loud, brash, unreasonable people leading a group and being the personalities the public associates with it, the group and its message tend to lose credibility (unless their views are widely accepted enough to become mainstream). Moderate people who would otherwise support the cause therefore feel alienated from it and make a point of identifying as not being "one of those crazy people over there." Moreover, if there is an opposing group, it will cite quotes or actions by those leaders to discredit the entire movement and its goals. In this way, the people who care most about the cause end up being the chief reason for its failure.

A wisely managed group, then, should be one where the radicals are put to work as foot soldiers, willing to sacrifice their reputations to the cause, but never allowed to ascend to positions of leadership or where they become the public face of the movement. The leaders can then maintain both an agreeable public image AND plausible deniability about the actions of their radical operators.

The problem is that if these people don't feel appreciated by the movement, they're highly motivated to go off and form their own organization, drawing all the radicals away from the more socially accepted parent organization. Call it "radical distillation." An example that comes to mind is the Tea Party. The GOP recognized the necessity of maintaining control of radical splinters like this, and to do so, you have to absorb them and offer them a sense of being more appreciated and more in control. That sense can be an illusion, but it must be present, or the radicals will continue to go their own way rather than serving the leadership of the larger organization.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Your Opinion Doesn't Negate My Experiences

Let's talk about a form of bullying that doesn't get much attention: dismissiveness. In the debate over gun policy in America, we generally see the antis taking a superior tone and assailing the sanity, maturity, or bravery of anyone who feels the need to be armed. Here's a recent example I encountered on Facebook:

I saw this image shared by someone who likened a fear of being the victim of violence to that of a child being afraid of monsters under the bed. When these folks fall into unison chanting the word "paranoid," the underlying message is that there is no threat. They're saying that you don't need to protect yourself from violence, because there is no such thing. It only exists in people's imaginations, or in Darfur or somewhere like that. Other than maybe a fist fight on the school yard, they've never seen one person harm another, so their normalcy bias tells them that physical safety is the norm. The violence they hear about on the news, they rationalize, is only news because it's so unusual--like a plane crash or someone getting hit by lightning.They think they're safe by default, and that if you think you're not, it's because you've got an anxiety disorder and an overactive imagination.

Allow me to illustrate how wrong they are.

When reading the following, remember, I'm not talking about events in East L.A. or the South Side of Chicago. This didn't take place in East St. Louis or any of the seedier neighborhoods in New York. It wasn't Detroit or Miami. It was Ohio, and not even Cleveland. Some of the events were in a little podunk town of about 22,000 people on the Kentucky border, and the others were in Columbus, a city known more for its college football team and corporate headquarters than for violent crime.

In 1991, I was out for a walk and saw a middle-aged man dragging his wife down the sidewalk by the hair. I mean this literally. The woman was on the ground, hands on her head, screaming, while the man, gripping her by her hair, walked down the sidewalk, dragging her along. I called the police, but otherwise felt helpless to do anything other than yell at him to stop. Why did I feel helpless? Because Ohio law at that time made self-defense (or defense of another) an "affirmative defense," meaning that if I had actually gone and put my hands on the guy, I not only risked being charged with attacking him, I'd also be guilty until I managed to prove myself innocent beyond any reasonable doubt. The woman endured a few more minutes of this torture before an off-duty cop arrived. We had to stand around waiting for an official rescuer to show up to stop the violence.

Around 1992, my girlfriend and I were living on the second-floor of a two-story house that had been divided into two apartments. The man who lived downstairs liked to beat his wife, and we naively called the police when he did so. This got us on his bad side. As a result, he started making a habit of getting drunk and yelling for me to come down and fight him. Sometimes he'd do this from his own apartment. Other times, he'd stand in the street and do it. Typically, we ignored it. One morning, though, we awoke to find the frame of our door broken and big, muddy footprints on the outside of the door. He had very nearly succeeded in kicking in our door while we were asleep, and we didn't even hear it. Had he given it just one more kick, there's no telling how far he might have gotten before we woke up, or what he'd have managed to do to us, as we were unarmed.

We called the police, but they said we'd have to go talk to the prosecutor. I took pictures of the footprints and the broken door frame, and went to the prosecutor's office. He did nothing, saying we couldn't reasonably say who did it. We complained to the landlord. He fixed the door frame, but the people downstairs remained.

Maybe a year or so after that, my girlfriend's crazy uncle (one of them) parked up the street and waited for me to leave for school. After I left, he knocked on the door. She opened the door a bit, and he tried to force his way in. She tried to shut him out, but he got one foot in the door and stopped it from closing. She sat on the floor leaning against the door to keep him out, and he kept trying to force his way in, yelling threats and obscenities the whole time. Eventually, she was able to reach a hammer I'd left at the bottom of the stairs, and used it to pound his foot. He withdrew it in pain, and she slammed the door shut and locked it.

He was gone by the time police arrived. To my knowledge, no warrant was ever issued for his arrest.

A few years after that, we were living in another upstairs apartment. Our downstairs neighbor apparently had an unpaid gambling debt, and his creditor showed up late one night, angry and too drunk to tell which door went to which apartment. My wife and I were woken by the sound of this man yelling and trying to kick in our door. As luck would have it, I had a .22 rifle I had borrowed from my father-in-law for use on my trap line. I grabbed the gun, took a position at the top of the stairs, and yelled to the man trying to break in. He heard me, saw me through the window, and ran away. We called the police. They found him hiding in our back yard.

In 2003, I was working nights as a police officer, so I was sleeping during the day. Across the street from my apartment was a car wash. One afternoon, I was woken by a loud argument at the car wash. I looked out the window and saw one car ram into another one. It looked deliberate. The first car started backing up, and I thought I was witnessing a hit-and-run, so I put on my glasses and tried to read the license plate. But instead of fleeing, the car was just backing up to ram a second time. I pulled on my jeans and duty belt, grabbed my wallet, and ran barefoot across the street. By the time I reached the driver, she had turned the car around and was trying to run down a pedestrian (her husband). I managed to pull her out of the car before she could hit him.

When I showed up for her trial, charges were dropped and she was referred for a psychiatric assessment. I don't recall any mention of her driver's license being revoked.

In 2004, three weeks after my wife and I moved into our first house, one of our neighbors tried to shoot another neighbor. I was still a police officer (in another jurisdiction), and a first responder as well by that time, so I went out to see if anyone needed medical attention while my wife called the local police. The bystanders were more freaked out seeing a cop with body armor and a shotgun on scene than they were about the shooting itself. About 15-20 minutes later, a township police car rolled by and I ran down the street waving at them to get them to stop. It was the last time in that neighborhood I bothered to report hearing shots fired.

This neighborhood has some wooded lots that were apparently popular places for criminals to hide, so the police helicopter pretty regularly buzzed over our house, circling the area looking for fleeing suspects. I can remember at least two different times when officers came through our back yard there searching for someone. It got to the point that whenever we heard the helicopter circling, we just locked the doors and turned on the outside lights. It was routine to have fugitives running loose in our neighborhood looking for a place to hide.

Sometime after this, I saw in the news that in the parking lot of the first apartment building I had lived in in Columbus, one man had hit another man in the head with a hatchet.

In 2010, our next-door neighbor called and said she saw some young men stashing something in the wood lot across the street from her. I checked it out and found what appeared to be stolen property. I contacted the owner of the lot, who lived just a couple doors up the street from us. He loaded the loot into his car and then turned it over to the police. The young men my neighbor saw in the woods came back to retrieve their stash. I went out to confront them and get their license plate number. They sped away. After that, my son and I left to run an errand. While we were gone, the thieves came back with reinforcements, knocking on our door. By the time my wife hid our baby daughter behind cover and got a gun, the thugs had moved on up the street. When they knocked on the door of the man who had turned the stuff over to the police, he answered it. The man knocking pulled a gun on my neighbor and demanded the loot. My neighbor then pulled out his concealed handgun and pistol whipped the assailant. The other thugs, who had been standing in the street holding sticks and rocks, dropped their weapons and ran...or tried to, anyway. The neighbor's sons grabbed a couple of the guys and beat the stuffing out of them before they got away.

We spent the rest of that day and much of the next couple days holed up in the house, worrying that the thieves would return with more men and better weapons. We had two young children to protect, and nowhere else to go. We had to be ready to fend off an attack if it came.

In 2012, animal rights activists started stealing my chickens and damaging my fences and chicken coops, but they didn't stop there. At one point, they used a ladder to climb into our house through a second-story window, and stole a bow, an axe, and arrows with broadheads. These are not things you want in the hands of someone who regards you as an enemy.

A few weeks after that, I caught some trespassers on my land, and one of them had stolen a knife out of my greenhouse. My phone was dead, so with a sledge hammer in one hand, I marched them next door and had a neighbor call the police. (I was hoping I had caught the chicken thieves.) While we were waiting for the police to arrive, one of the men said, "I'm not going back to jail," and walked away. I placed my free hand on the other guy's shoulder and he stayed. He had been very cooperative, returned my knife (which was broken and only worth $3.50 when it was new) without my even asking, and seemed to have been dragged into this by the troublemaker who ran away. When the prosecutor interviewed me, I spoke as strongly as I could in favor of showing the young man leniency. She was happy to hear it, but later called back and said he was in other trouble, too, and they were sending him to prison on felony charges instead.

I don't imagine that fellow is too happy with me. After he gets hardened in prison, I can't be certain that he'll be quite so agreeable when he gets out.

Also in 2012, a burglar broke into our house three days in a row. The first two days, he stole most of my tools and I filed a police report. The third day, I was waiting for him with a gun. When the police arrived, the burglar claimed he was just looking for some water because his car was overheating, and the sergeant let him go. Let me repeat that. The burglar had prior convictions for Receiving Stolen Property. He had a record of domestic violence. I had a report on file from just two days earlier. He came in the same way as the thief who had stolen my tools, but the police let him go...when he was caught in the act of a felony.

I had to go to the prosecutor's office myself to file charges. I was told that since a police officer didn't file the charges, they could only pursue misdemeanor charges against the burglar. He appeared on both the trespassing charge and a domestic violence charge, and got a suspended sentence of 30 days, with a warning not to contact me. Weeks later, as I was walking my son home from school, the burglar accosted me on the sidewalk. He asked if I knew who he was, and when I said that I didn't, he replied, "You stuck a gun in my face?" He then went on to tell me there were "no hard feelings," as though I were the one who had done something wrong. My son and I continued home, and I called the man's probation officer to report this violation. Then I went to court to get a protection order.

Last year, a man I know a couple blocks away needed some money and went to a neighbor's house to try to sell him a knife. The neighbor wasn't home, so after knocking a while, the man returned home and went to sleep. When the neighbor returned home, another neighbor (who has a well-known habit of making up lies about people just to start trouble), said that my friend had threatened to kill the family and cut off their heads with that knife. Neighbor #1 looked at his security camera video and saw footage of my friend standing on the porch with a knife in his hand. Rather than call the police right away or even investigate the matter further on his own, this neighbor decided to dispense some hillbilly justice. He rounded up his entire family, they strapped on their guns, and they went banging on my friend's door. They ordered his girlfriend to go wake him up and tell him to come out so they could beat him up. She refused, and they told her that if she didn't, they'd kill her, him, their other housemate, and the two dogs. To her credit, she stood firm and yelled at them to go away. As they left, they told her that she'd better find another place to live, because they'd be coming back to kill her if she didn't.

THEN the neighbor called the police. When the officer came around to interview the girlfriend who'd been threatened, she wanted to file a report. The officer wouldn't take one, instead saying, "I'd have done the same thing if I were them!"

There are two lessons I want you to take away from these stories: 1) at least in southern and central Ohio, the danger of violent crime is very real, and 2) you can't rely on the police to protect you from it. You can't even count on them after the fact to put the assailant away to keep it from happening again. As on a battlefield, there are people who will try to harm you, and it's up to you to stop them from succeeding. They might sometimes have guns, legal or not. Given these facts, what is the best way to deal with such a threat? Maybe you want to stick your head in the sand and imagine that you'll talk your way out of any threat that comes along. You're free to take that risk. But for the love of all that is good, don't try to impose that risk on others, and stop insisting that people who take rational measures to keep themselves alive are paranoid or childish for doing so.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

I Am Rubber, You Are Glue

Following is my reply to a left-wing blogger ranting about a right-wing author's claim that liberals are fascists:

I swear, it's like watching two teenaged boys, both straight, arguing about which one is gayer.

Both of you appear to be having a knee-jerk reaction against the word "fascist" because it's been reduced to a snarl word that generally means "stuff I oppose" rather than referring to an Italian political movement in the 1930s.

Being a 21st-century American leftist, you equate "fascism" principally with racism and also, to a lesser degree perhaps, with vigilantism. Your opponent, Goldberg, being a 21st-century American right-winger, equates the word with socialism and totalitarianism.

In that much, you're both right. The problem is that you each appear to think it means exclusively the definition you've assigned to it, so when he calls your ideological camp "fascist," meaning collectivist and favoring a domineering government, you hear "racist vigilante" and say, "Nuh-uh! YOU'RE the fascist!" He hears that as "Nuh-uh! YOU'RE the radical, nanny-state socialist!" and denies it right back at you. This could go on forever, and neither of you would benefit.

Let's clear up a couple things that should move this debate forward. In early 20th-century European politics, the term "conservative" referred to aristocratic landowners who favored protectionist policies and an agrarian-based economy. "Liberal" referred to their political opponents--the wealthy urban factory owners, bankers, etc. who favored free trade, military growth, and imperialism, and a system in which power and status went to the rich rather than to the well-born.

These were the two political camps in power at the time. As we see in our bicameral system today, they were only able to work together on things they agreed on. Where they opposed each other, there was gridlock. Neither group represented the common people, though.

The people had their own political movements--socialism, distributism, and various other schemes for giving common workers a voice, and there was disagreement within these movements. One of the socialist sects was the Bolsheviks, which grew to become the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Centered in Moscow, they wanted all other European socialists to pledge fealty to the Communists. The Fascists (in Italy) and the German Workers' Party (later the National Socialist German Workers' Party, a.k.a. "Nazis") resisted Moscow.

It was this division, not anti-socialist sentiments, that led to the Nazis persecuting German Bolsheviks. The Nazis didn't rise to power telling people they were going to murder millions of Jews. They promised--and delivered--a slew of social welfare programs like government-paid health care, education, and retirement, all to be funded by heavily taxing the rich.

Who have we heard promoting that kind of policy lately? The Republicans? The Tea Party?

"But the Nazis were racist, and the Republicans are racist, therefore Republicans, not Democrats, are Nazis! And fascist is just another word for Nazi, so Republicans are fascists! Q.E.D."

In Weimar Germany, antisemitism was at least as commonplace as animosity toward Wall Street bankers and one-percenters in general is in America today--and for similar reasons. It wasn't considered a shameful or taboo topic the way racism is seen in America today. The popular view in Germany (among gentiles, anyway) was that Jewish financiers were largely responsible for destroying Germany's economy. The actual Fascists (in Italy) weren't really all that troubled by Jews. It was at the insistence of their larger, more powerful ally, Nazi Germany, that they started persecuting Jews.

In America, we on the left enjoy this tale of Nixon's "Southern strategy" whereby all the Southern bigots used to be Democrats (Dixiecrats) and then moved en masse to the Republican Party in the 1960s. But do we also claim that all the previously non-racist Republicans likewise left the GOP for the Democrats, to get away from the racist newcomers? In truth, both parties were full of racists up until the mid-20th century when attitudes started to change--not unlike attitudes toward LGBT folk have been changing in recent years. Like antisemitism in the Weimar Republic, white racism against blacks was accepted as normal and proper among whites of both parties for a very long time.

So while American racists today are pretty heavily concentrated among the party of the right-wing, that doesn't make racism an inherently and exclusively right-wing trait. Was Kennedy a right-winger when the racists were Dixiecrats? Was FDR? What I'm saying is that today's Republicans are both right-wing AND racist, but that fact alone doesn't make racism a necessarily right-wing trait. Whether one is racist or not has nothing to do with being left- or right-wing. One can be a racist Hitler demonstrated.

At best, then, neither of you are fascists. At worst, you're both capable of becoming such. If a third-party candidate came along addressing exactly the issues that mattered to you, ones that both Republicans and Democrats routinely ignored, and that candidate had such massive support that it looked like he had a good chance at winning and delivering on his promises, it wouldn't be easy to say, "No, I can't vote for this guy because he might be unkind to the people I don't like."

Saturday, May 10, 2014

On Suppressing Dissent

It just occurred to me when reading about Sophie Scholl: governments that suppress dissenting speech are making a huge strategic error. I can see why they would have an interest in silencing people who want to publicize shameful things that the government prefers to keep secret, but making an example out of the person who says, "The Supreme Leader sucks! Down with the Supreme Leader!" is counterproductive.

Chilling everyone into silence isn't the same thing as gaining support. It just creates the illusion of a supportive populace, an illusion that fools no one but the leader himself. The people still resent the leader; they just do it silently. The leader doesn't really know who his true supporters are except by their deeds of valor and voluntary sacrifice, because they sound exactly the same as his opponents.

In a society that allows free (or mostly free) speech, the leader knows who his enemies are. The more overt you allow them to be, the easier they are to monitor and, if necessary, to locate. Also, by allowing people to speak their complaints freely (so long as the words don't lead to actions of consequence), you immediately dull the edge of those complaints. "The leader can't be as horrible a tyrant as that, or you wouldn't be allowed to speak those words. REAL tyrants kill people for saying stuff like you just said."

It's for this reason that a tyrant who wishes to be effective must maintain a distinction between the military and the police, unless the populace has long been accustomed to being policed by their army. Concentration camps and other military detention facilities are for enemies of the leader. But civilian prisons and jails are for bad people. Nobody wants to be seen as a bad person. Few are sympathetic to criminals. People will protest for the release of a political prisoner from a place like Guantanamo, but a person convicted in a court of law on charges of attempted murder and conspiring with terrorists will have few friends. In this way, a tyrant can dispose of huge numbers of people. Thousands die in American prisons and jails every year, but we don't call them death camps. Thinking of the American criminal justice system as a form of genocide is considered radical, despite the fact that the poor and minorities--African-American men, especially--are incarcerated at such a higher rate than everyone else. Does anyone doubt that when you're in prison, you're twice as likely to die as when you're free?

We can learn something from Milgram's experiment here. If an armored troop transport rolled down the street with loudspeakers blaring an announcement that all [choose a minority group] are being rounded up and should immediately surrender themselves for a merciful execution, there'd be a battle. Even people who aren't members of the group would be shooting from their windows. The soldiers or police would be regarded as invaders in that instance. But if it's done under the pretense that those people have done something wrong, it suddenly becomes more acceptable. That is, if a few police officers show up at the homes of all the members of a particular religion to arrest them on warrants of violating tax laws or some obscure ordinance about moral turpitude, nobody will interfere.

Likewise, if armed government agents went into a slum and ordered everyone to vacate their homes so the government could bulldoze them and build expensive homes for rich people who would pay more in taxes, there would be resistance. People would fight to keep from being removed. But if the government just raised the taxes on the slum properties enough, a lot of the residents would leave because they couldn't pay. Their homes would fail to sell, and eventually the government would seize the abandoned properties. Those who remained would fall behind in their tax payments. Nobody's going to bat an eye at a bunch of "tax protesters" or "deadbeats" or "slumlords" who were millions of dollars behind on their property taxes having their homes foreclosed on by the county. And then when those people are out on the street, nobody's going to bat an eye at them being arrested for vagrancy.

As such, the successful tyrant is one who can not only convince his people that they are free, but can convince his victims (or at least all witnesses to the victimization) that they got what they deserved. A successful tyrant convinces his people that tyranny is justice.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Getting Money Out of Politics

In McCutcheon v. FEC, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its opinion first stated in Citizens United v. FEC that campaign contributions are speech, and protected under the First Amendment. People call this "buying elections." Bernie Sanders called it "buying the political process."

I think we need to untangle this. I don't like the quid pro quo relationship established when politicians are allowed to accept money; that's bribery. That's purchasing policy. As long as that's allowed to continue, it doesn't matter who gets elected, so long as they have a price that some special interest will pay. Everyone who's elected will be for sale, and that's a problem.

Of course, doing that overtly IS illegal, so they get around it by taking advantage of the loophole that says you can make campaign donations. It's still bribery. It's still purchasing policy.

What bothers me in the discussion surrounding this is the oft-repeated claim that campaign contributors are "buying elections." And a lot of people--probably a lot of you reading this--believe it.

Can I point out the elephant in the room here? Commercials are not purchases. I've seen ads for LOTS of candidates I never voted for. There have been times that I was considering a candidate until I saw one of their ads, and it turned me against them. NEVER have I been persuaded to cast a vote for somebody based on how much they spend on commercials.

I'm not saying advertising doesn't influence people's opinions. Look at Coke and Pepsi. They're both fizzy brown sugar water and they cost about the same. They don't taste identical, but which one is better is entirely a matter of personal preference. There is no selling point for one over the other. It's not like one is more nutritious, or is manufactured in a more ecologically or socially responsible way. The only distinguishing factor is your own opinion about which one you like more. In that case, commercials that attempt to manipulate your emotional associations with the product are effective. If they can plant in your brain, even subconsciously, messages like, "All the cool people drink Coke, only dweebs and losers drink that lame other brand," then they can affect your behavior when you go to make a selection.

In the case of judges, specifically, I can see that working. A judge isn't supposed to have an agenda beyond interpreting the law correctly. They're not supposed to be pushing a political ideology in the courtroom. So what we're presented are these people in black robes who are supposed to be impartial and knowledgeable, but otherwise indistinct. The cola branding works in this case. Maybe the commercials make you think of one candidate as being more folksy and likeable, or tougher on crime, or more compassionate, or whatever it is that speaks to you.

But beyond that, when we get into the executive and legislative branches, it's a whole other ballgame. It's Coke vs. Orange Crush. Now, maybe you're in the mood for milk, or wine, or spring water, and you don't see a lot of difference between them because they're not speaking to your concerns. But the ways they distinguish themselves from each other are more tangible, less subjective.

Say the issue they're talking about is abortion. Jones says he wants to outlaw it. Smith says she wants it to be legal. If you think abortion should be illegal, no amount of money Smith spends to drive home her message that it should be legal is going to change your mind. To the contrary, each dollar she throws at the issue is just going to further entrench you in your decision to vote against her. And if you agree with her position, she's reached the point of diminishing returns as soon as she's made you aware of her position. You're not going to vote for her five more times if she spends five times as much money on ads.

And if you don't care about abortion one way or the other, all that noise is going to go in one ear and out the other. The more of it there is, the more bothersome it will become, and the more likely the ads are going to have the effect of making you irritable and causing you to associate that feeling with the candidates.

Republicans get this. They're masters at it. They have to be--they represent the interests of the fewest number of people, but generally have more money to throw at advertising. So how do they work around this dilemma? They don't push their issues. You have never once seen an ad by a Republican candidate saying, "Let's give away your hard-earned money to big businesses that already have billions of dollars in profits, and then let's take food away from starving children to give those big businesses even more." They'd never win that way. Instead, they do two things: 1) they sidestep the issues altogether and try cola branding to appeal to apathetic and low-information voters ("I'm the patriotic candidate"), and 2) they obfuscate issues to trick people into voting against their interests.

The first technique doesn't work on people who have an opinion, and the latter doesn't work on people who understand the issues.

That first one is just cola branding, and while it does have a measurable effect, its power is not limitless. While more people prefer Pepsi in blind taste tests, more people buy Coke. But if Coke quit running all TV, radio, and print ads for two weeks, and Pepsi doubled spending on theirs, you wouldn't see all those Coke drinkers abandon Coke and start buying Pepsi. It doesn't work that way. Likewise, there are only so many votes a candidate can win with cola branding commercials--images of the candidate fishing, hanging out with grandchildren, shaking hands with disabled veterans, etc. You hit a point of diminishing returns pretty quickly on that. Once you spend enough to win over the kind of voters who can be won over that way, you don't gain anything by spending more on the same kind of ad.

The second kind works, but only if there's no counter-message at all. We saw that in Ohio over the creation of a humane livestock care standards board. The point was to create a board to rule over issues of humane livestock care instead of letting the voters decide such matters for themselves. For example, instead of the general electorate voting to ban the caging of laying hens, the governor would appoint a board (mostly consisting of industry professionals), and that board would decide whether it would be legal to put hens in cages. Not creating the board would have given voters more power. Creating the board took the power out of voters' hands and gave it to the very people who were being regulated. In the election where this was decided, the factory farms and their organizations funded a massive campaign, even drawing in contributions from out of state, to send the message that if you care about animals, you should vote for the creation of the board--that is, vote to allow the industry to do whatever it wants to animals. They made it sound like a vote for the board was a vote for humane treatment of animals, when the opposite was the case.

If the opposition had put out one ad countering that message, it would have created confusion, and that confusion would have started discussions. But there was no opposition in a lot of areas. In all the population centers across the state, the only message people got was, "If you care about animals, vote YES." In the rural areas, the only message people got was, "If you don't want animal rights organizations telling you how to run your farm, vote YES." Sustainable, humane farmers were mostly telling folks at the farmers markets to vote NO, but there was no money to spread that message, so no ads.

But that was over an issue, not a candidate. Both parties had been bought in that case. Races between candidates are rarely so one-sided. So if Jones, who wants to penalize polluters, says "Vote for me if you care about clean air," and Smith, who wants to allow pollution, also says, "Vote for me if you care about clean air," that's not going to sway voters one way or the other. The tactic doesn't work when there's opposition.

A lot of people say the answer is to get private money out of politics by requiring campaigns to be publicly financed. That alone doesn't fix it. If you prevent private entities from donating to a candidate, they'll just run their own ads. A private entity can run a political ad as long as they're transparent about who's funding it. "Hi, this is Bob from Bob's Used Cars. We care about saving you money, and that means tax money, too. I'm voting for Jones to lower our taxes, and I hope you will, too." Instead of sending Jones a check, Bob just sends him a letter of support informing him that spent X number of dollars on and ad encouraging people to vote for Jones. It creates the same quid pro quo relationship as a campaign contribution. It just cuts out the middle man. We still have the corruption, and it has little impact on the results of the election.

What I think would help keep the elections fair would be if, when people went to vote, they were briefed on the candidates' platforms. On issues and tax levies, the text is available to read at the polls. I think we should allow for something similar with candidates. Each candidate could summarize their positions and ambitions in a couple hundred words or so. There'd be no framing, as when the League of Women Voters selects questions to ask. It would basically be a free text ad each candidate gets to run at the polls. No images, all the same font. Candidates who may not have had enough money to campaign in every area would have just as much chance to reach voters as candidates who had plastered the whole state with billboards for the past year. Candidates who base their campaigns on misinformation would have their allegations challenged. It would really level the playing field, and it would do it when it counts most: the moment before the voter casts his vote. With voters getting this kind of information right there at the polls, and with it not costing the candidate anything, I think we could drastically diminish the power that money has in deciding who gets elected.

To look at the effect this would have, let's return to our race between Jones and Smith. Bob's Used Autos alienated a lot of Smith supporters by running the pro-Jones ad. If anyone other than Jones wins, Bob screwed himself. (For that matter, even if Jones wins, if Bob's gains under the Jones administration aren't greater than his losses from alienating Smith supporters, Bob still loses.) Jones ran an ad saying if you care about freedom, vote for him. Smith said if you care about freedom of choice, vote for her. Then our voter gets to the polls and finds out three other people he'd never heard of are running. He gets to read an outline of each candidate's platform, and decides he likes Brown the best. All Smith's, Jones', and Bob's money has been wasted. Brown wins. Who owns him? Nobody. And how can anyone legally corrupt him now that he's in office? By donating money to his campaign? He won without a dime last time, and having money did his competitors no good. There's no motivation to accept the money, and a good deal of motivation to refuse it, if he wants to present a clean image.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Inherent Cultural Imperialism of Talking About What Poor People Eat

Wow, I was so hopeful reading "Chitlins, Tradition and Food Justice" by Carolyn Wysinger. When she started talking about tragedy-turned-tradition and how her aunt reacted to the news that she didn't like chitlins ("she informed me that 'I was a citified California kid who could eat weird stuff like hummus but not chitlins.' Then she 'told' on me to the rest of the family." ) I really thought I had finally found someone else who gets it...but she didn't.

The reason the Northern Lights Kroger has chitlins while the ones in richer, whiter neighborhoods have organic hummus isn't because "the man" is trying to keep us Northern Lights shoppers down and eating scraps. It's because the neighborhood is populated by people like her aunt. Stores want to make money, and you do that by selling the chitlins to people who demand chitlins, and organic hummus to people who demand organic hummus. You absolutely don't make money by trying to force food onto people that is so far removed from their cultural traditions and identity that they take offense. So Kroger isn't going to put goat meat or pig guts in Worthington or Bexley, and they're not gonna put any hoity-toity, zen yoga, California crap in the hood. There just aren't enough people who shop here regularly who want it--not because they're being forced, but because it's part of how they've come to see themselves.

You want to solve the obesity epidemic in food deserts? Then you need to change the very essence of the people who live there. Turn back the clock and make kale a comfort food for them instead of mac-and-cheese. Go back to the point in their childhood when a hamburger became an object of desire and replace it with steamed asparagus. Find the time when they learned to think of a cookie as a treat, and teach them instead to feel rewarded by a two-mile run.

We learn from older generations what to value, what feels good, what's worth pursuing and avoiding. Those communally-shared aspirations and aversions and the narrative we use to organize them into something coherent form our cultures. Culture is the matrix of our social bonding, and we are social creatures who need that bonding as much as we need anything. There's a reason people eat together when they gather for special occasions or to have fun. When you ask someone with a lifelong sweet tooth to stop liking sweets, you might as well be asking her to disown her family and change her name. It's not about "bad choices" so much as ranking other things like camaraderie and enjoyment as being more important than nutrition and fitness.

We can make apologies and say that the poor are obese because carbs are cheap--and we can point to a conspiracy between Big Ag and government to get us whipped up into a righteous indignation over this, with the likes of Michael Pollan and Jamie Oliver leading the charge--but you know what's even cheaper than high-calorie processed foods? Cabbage and dry beans. Nobody's going to get fat eating boiled beans and cabbage. But when's the last time anyone invited you to go watch the game and eat boiled cabbage at a sports bar? How many people are going to take a date out to eat beans? Who goes to a carnival looking forward to eating a cabbage leaf stuffed with lima beans unless it's also deep fried and covered with powdered sugar?

I like cabbage. I also like beans. And I can point to various cultures that value them as staples. I cannot, however, think of one culture that treats those two foods (without additional fats or carbs) as "fun" foods that serve as the center for social bonding. They're not. And if you tried to make cabbage and beans your mainstay because that's all you could afford, I bet you'd be miserable pretty quickly.

So what do we poor people, food desert or not, have to stave off the misery? Food stamps. We don't have vacations and concerts. We can't afford cruises and road trips. We don't go to music festivals or science fiction conventions. We don't hang out at gyms or craft shows or martial arts competitions. We don't do any of those spendy things middle-class people do outside of work that they think of as making their lives worth living.

What we do have--the only boon in our lives other than a once-a-year tax refund--is a balance at the beginning of every month saying we can buy several hundred dollars' worth of food. You can't pay your rent with food stamps. You can't use them to keep the electricity or gas turned on. You can't use them to get your car fixed or fueled or insured or registered. You can't use them to buy toothpaste or deodorant or toilet paper. You can't even use them to buy food if it's hot or served to eat on the spot. What you can do is buy groceries to take home and cook. Inevitably, you'll learn that cats will eat store-brand canned tuna and you can clean your house with vinegar or lemon juice. You might even fool around with trying to use baking soda as toothpaste and deodorant, or making Play-Doh and finger paint out of flour and food coloring. I remember one year for Christmas, I made ornaments out of dried apple slices and made braided breads to give people as gifts.

But most of that food is going to be eaten. You might not even have enough (with recent cuts, that's even more likely), but once a month, you can walk into a grocery store with the knowledge that you can have almost anything you want. You can fill an entire cart to overflowing, and as long as it's not all meat, you'll probably have enough to cover it all. You don't need to tally it in your head as you do with literally every single other expense in your life. For one day a month, you get to live and think and shop like a wealthy person. I mean, not really. It's still in the back of your mind that you've got to make this last all month, so you're going to be frugal, but if you want an apple or a pack of cookies, you can just grab it without thinking about how much it costs which is something you never get to do otherwise when you're poor. It's the only glut you know.

You've seen shoppers line up after Thanksgiving to get all those amazing discounts, right? The way they camp out and then battle each other for a half-price TV? Well, people on food stamps can't afford a new TV even at half-price, so that's an alien world. A sale means nothing when you're broke. But take that same sense of frenzy, that sense of being overwhelmed with rare, sudden, and momentary bounty, and you have some sense of what it's like to see your food stamp balance replenished at the beginning of the month.

When my family borrows a car to go on a big grocery shopping trip, the first thing we do when we get back to the car is start opening things up to eat them. The kids want a cookie or some candy. I want a soda. We might pass around some chips. It's a craving we've been feeling and unable to feed for maybe a week or two...or longer. For some people, it's heroine or weed or pills or alcohol that brings them relief. For us, it's a long-anticipated glucose rush. When the kids have a birthday party or we celebrate a holiday, there's nothing elegant about it. The meal isn't about exotic ingredients or preparation methods with French names. It's about whatever gets us that rush. (I prefer meat over sweets, myself, but price is a constraint, so you find work-arounds. I've eaten two packs of beef-flavored ramen noodles just while writing this.)

My point is that at the very root of it, we're dealing with strong, biological urges. Satisfying those urges feels good, so we make that satisfaction something we share with people we care about. It's something we do together. If you've ever gone out for sushi, think how you'd feel if a friend who came along with you brought a burger and fries along to eat while you have sushi. Or the other way--you and some friends grill burgers outside or go to a hamburger joint, but one of them packs a little bento box. By not joining in eating the same thing as the others, you're missing a major social aspect of the gathering. For this reason, when we eat with others as a form of social bonding, we eat what they're eating. When you buck the trend, you isolate yourself socially. This means we're talking about not just biological cravings, but psychological ones, too. We need acceptance.

What happens, then, when tragedy becomes tradition, as Carolyn Wysinger wrote about? What happens when the slave master throws the scraps of the pig carcass to his slaves, and the slaves' children grow up with that as their fond memory of  childhood? What happens when that slop becomes a part of your cultural identity? I'll tell you: it becomes a source of pride, because it's part of your identity as a member of a community that has survived hardship. When someone outside that community tries to exert their supremacy by devaluing the things that define you, you either let them, or you fight back, as Wysinger's aunt did. You devalue whatever they're holding up as supreme and declare your own thing to be supreme. That's how you assert your equality. "I don't want your fruity ol' couscous anyway. I got venison!"

In that situation, what would happen if Wysinger got her way...if the grocery store where her aunt shops stopped carrying chitlins and replaced them with hummus? Would her aunt feel liberated and empowered, now that the man is no longer forcing those slave scraps on her? Or is she more apt, as I think she would, to feel like an outsider was imposing his culture on her against her wishes? If she couldn't get what she wanted because a grocery store executive or public official made the decision that she should give it up her tradition and adopt a way he deems to be better, why on Earth would anybody think she'd be eager to embrace that?

It's an insult. When affluent white people decide that their taste in food is superior to the that of the poor brown people on the other side of town, and task themselves with the "merciful" mission of making those poor brown people give up their wretched ways and eat the way the affluent white people say is proper, that's the very definition of cultural imperialism. There are bigger hurdles here than just diabetes.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

What's good for the goose...

I saw a post on a liberal page on Facebook criticizing Republicans for thinking the nation would be better off if everyone had guns and nobody had health care. The Republicans don't have a monopoly on idiocy, though. To their credit, they haven't been applying anti-gun arguments to health care coverage. Imagine if they did:

"Nobody needs that!"

"What do you want it for? What kind of injury or disease are you planning to get?"

"You're paranoid! People only get sick in the movies."

"If you want to be in a hospital, go work in one."

"Have you been properly trained to handle this health care? You should have to take a class so you don't do something stupid like running out and getting your limbs amputated as soon as you get your health insurance."

"You shouldn't be allowed to have health insurance, because someone might steal it and use it illegally."

"You should have to go through intensive screening first to prove to society that you're not going to abuse this privilege: a criminal background check, a psychological test, character references, and a signed letter from the director of your local health department certifying you to use health insurance."

"Health insurance doesn't keep you from getting sick! It just puts more people in the hospital."

"Studies show that you're more likely to die in a hospital if you have health insurance than if you don't. You're safer not having it."

"You're a coward. Only pussies sit around worrying about getting sick."

"If you avoid risky behaviors and don't do things you're not supposed to, you won't get sick or injured in the first place."

"You think having health insurance will make you immortal. It won't!"

"I can see having insurance to cover sports injuries, but covering injuries from violence will just encourage more violence."

"Studies show that doctors, nurses, and pharmacists are more likely than the general population to abuse prescription drugs. That just proves they're not safe for anybody. We should end prescription drug coverage."

"I've got an idea: we let people go to the doctor, but we charge 'em $5,000 for an aspirin. That way, nobody will go unless they REALLY NEED to!"

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Goosebump Politics: Warriors and Worriers

My kids were watching "Goosebumps" for the first time tonight. For those not familiar, it was a TV show in the '90s made from a popular line of horror books for children. Watching a few episodes with them, I noted a heavy reliance on a standard trope in horror, a fear we all learn as children: being dependent on someone else to protect you, and then having that person dismiss or disbelieve in immediate threats to your safety. There's a monster under your bed, and only Mom or Dad can protect you from it, but they refuse to even come look under the bed because they don't believe there's anything there.

It occurred to me that there's a similar thing going on in the gun control debate, and that this is why it becomes such an emotional conflict. Observant people see that in instances of interpersonal violence, the police typically don't show up until after the fact. They're not there to head off the attack. They just snap the pictures and interview witnesses after the damage is done. Some folks react to this by preparing to fend off attacks themselves until the police arrive: arming themselves, training in martial arts, buying stronger locks, etc. Others simply call for better prevention—more police, more cameras, block watches, training in anger management and conflict resolution, etc. The first group doesn't necessarily rule out the methods of the second group, but the second group wants nothing to do with the methods of the first.

The first group is convinced of the inevitability of violence. They don't trust any prevention method to be 100% effective. When they ready themselves for an attack and other people dismiss their concerns or try to outlaw their solutions, they're experiencing what our monster-under-the-bed kid is experiencing when he screams for his parents to investigate the growling under his bed, only to be told he's going to be punished if he doesn't go to sleep.

The second group of people, who prefer preventative solutions rather than tackling threats head-on, feel that attackers cannot be defeated, only outwitted. To them, the only way to stay safe is to scour from their lives all potential for danger. It's like they're in a zombie movie where the zombies are unstoppable, so the only way to be safe is to prevent people from becoming zombies in the first place...and just to be safe, they chain up anyone who's at risk of becoming a zombie. Common rabble with guns are what are scaring these folks in the first place, so they see letting even more civilians have guns as being like trying to protect yourself from zombies by making more zombies.

These are both visceral fears, and people who are viscerally afraid tend not to think clearly. That's a bad engine for politics.We can never reach consensus if the only agreement possible looks to at least half the people like letting the zombies eat us.

As any thriller fan knows, there's another character who regularly appears in survival-horror flicks: the one who's paralyzed with fear. They either panic or go immediately into deep denial, and they invariably do something incredibly stupid that endangers all the other characters. These people exist in the real world, too. In the movies, they often act as a stand-in for the protector who won't do anything. In the real world, they tend to align themselves politically with the people who say prevention is enough. If you want to pretend a problem doesn't exist, you'll be able to maintain that illusion longer if you hide from the problem rather than locking horns with it. 

Some stories will have a pivotal moment where the panicker gets it together and turns into a warrior. Other times, he just get killed off--usually fairly early on--and viewers from the first group celebrate. Of course, these movies are made for them. I'm not sure what a movie made for the second group would look like, but you can be sure it wouldn't be at all exciting. The conflict would have to all be in the backstory. The film would open in Utopia, and we might hear a tale of how a noble visionary crafted an elegant solution that enabled her society to evolve into something like a cross between Pandora and Lothlórien...but without all the monsters and scary weapons.