Tuesday, November 06, 2012

My Worst Vote Ever

Today I voted, incredibly reluctantly, to re-elect Barack Obama. This is easily the worst vote I've ever cast. The sad part is that there were no good options.

Those of you who know me well know that I was all prepared to vote third-party. And in an ideal world, I would have. Rocky Anderson, Jill Stein, and Gary Johnson are all better than Obama on a lot - really, most - of the issues I care about. But at some point during this election cycle I realized something - you can't make a symbolic gesture if no one recognizes your symbolism. And because there's no real anti-war movement, and no real pro-civil liberties movement, a protest vote accomplishes exactly zilch.

The point, for those of us who care about Pakistani children and possibly innocent Americans getting blown up by robots, is this: we lost long, long ago. We lost when the anti-war movement, which was so strong during Bush's second term, lost its way. We lost when we let Obama get bullied into keeping Guantanamo open with nary a peep. We lost when there weren't massive marches in our cities about the kill list, or dead Pakistani wedding parties. And so we can't possibly win now.

We have to work to get back to the point where war and civil liberties are actual issues over which elections can be won and lost. Which means we have to do the hard work of convincing others that the drone war is cruel and counterproductive, that the kill list is unconstitutional and dangerous, and that Guantanamo is unnecessary. And when we've done that, and when we've organized ourselves into a bloc capable of swinging elections, we can actually have an effect.

(The anti-War on Drugs movement is getting there, as evidenced by the presence of pro-legalization ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington this year, so I'm not talking about that as much. A broader reform of the criminal justice system, however, is long overdue.)

To extend a metaphor Mike and I used to discuss this: it doesn't matter if the good party serves better beer - if no one else is there, you're still drinking alone.  I'd rather go to the bar with all the people in it and get everyone to bitch loudly about how the beer is so damn shitty, and then maybe they'll change the keg.

Now I have no idea how to go about doing this. I'm no political expert and have no idea how to start/grow a movement. But I know it needs to be done, and that there's no point in casting a protest vote until such a movement exists.

And one more thing. It's about high time we, as an electorate, stopped trying to imagine the president with powers befitting a mystical king. The president cannot pass laws on his (or eventually her) own. Congress still exists, and it will pass a law or a budget or whatever when it damn well feels like it. The president can't fix the economy - or ruin it. The president can't keep us safe from everyone who wants to hurt us, nor should we expect that. The most important governments in your life are your local and state government. The more we lose track of these facts, the worse our electoral process will be. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Ones Who Walk Away From Chick-Fil-A

How can I tell you about Chick-Fil-A? How to describe its chicken sandwiches, long considered the most excellent of all the fast-food chains; its waffle fries, its delicious lemonade. How it is a great (if a bit creepy) place to work, at least compared with other fast-food giants; how it attempts to do some good along the way...

But what about this: that charitable spirit has led Chick-Fil-A to give money to several unsavory characters, some of which are engaged in so-called "reparative therapy" for gay and lesbian folks - a practice which the British Medical Association has stated is harmful and which was described as psychological torture? If supporting the great system Chick-Fil-A built meant supporting a few torturers, could we still enjoy it?

If this all sounds familiar, it's because Ursula K. LeGuin kinda covered it already. In "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas", LeGuin describes a utopian society where everyone is happy and fulfilled - it tends more toward the John Lennon vision of utopia than the Thomas More one, but that's not an important detail. The point is that the happiness and idyll of this society are dependent upon the torture of a small child in some basement somewhere in the city. Everyone in the city is told about it, knows about it, but most accept it. Some, however, just walk away from the city, unable to deal with the fact that so much pleasure is dependent upon one person's pain.

The Chick-Fil-A saga seems similar to me. Here we have an organization that is widely -and justifiably - praised for being a positive model of a fast-food chain. They make great food, treat their employees well, and encourage giving back to the community. But the same values that lead them to set up this positive model are the very same ones that lead them to support torturers like Exodus International. So do we accept that the price of our model franchise is some suffering from some gay folks somewhere? Or do we, like the ones who walk away from Omelas, abandon Chick-Fil-A as irredeemably tainted?
I don't have the answers here. Presumably that was the point of the story - to ask readers to consider the point at which negative externalities outweigh the positives. And when we consider boycotting Chick-Fil-A, we have to ask ourselves if it's worth giving up all the good that they do because of the bad things they do.

I haven't eaten Chick-Fil-A in many months. I gave it up during the Amendment One fight - crossed LeGuin's mountains out of town - and haven't been back since. But that's easier for me to do than for many others. Sure, Chick-Fil-A's spicy chicken and waffle fries are great, but basically next door there's an excellent turkey and brie croissant with sweet potato fries that's just as good, if not better. It's as if there were another town across the mountains that was just as happy, but didn't involve child torture to keep it that way. Leaving town is a no-brainer at that point. But if giving up Chick-Fil-A meant running into the arms of the rest of Fast Food Nation? I don't know.

Perhaps, then, that's the way out of the dilemma here. We should use this Chick-Fil-A debacle as an opportunity to investigate the options that keep money closer to home, that concentrate less wealth in the hands of rich anti-gay people. Perhaps even if the Village Deli people are anti-gay, they won't be able to do as much damage as would a larger corporation. And who knows, you might find an place that leaves our homophobic Omelas in the dust.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dispatch from Beckistan

Oh, Glenn. You're just so adorable. Like a toddler who throws a fit upon being asked to come to the table for dinner, you can't take legitimate criticism without flipping out. I think you need to sit in time-out for a little bit, and then you need a hug.

Some rabbis from across the Jewish spectrum got mad at Beck - legitimately - for using anti-Semitic tropes in his criticism of George Soros. In response, Beck did this:
“When you talk about rabbis, understand that most -- most people who are not Jewish don't understand that there are the Orthodox rabbis, and then there are the reformed rabbis. Reformed rabbis are generally political in nature. It's almost like Islam, radicalized Islam in a way, to where it is just -- radicalized Islam is less about religion than it is about politics. When you look at the reform Judaism, it is more about politics.”

He then added: "It's not about terror or anything else, it's about politics, and so it becomes more about politics than it does about faith. Orthodox rabbis -- that is about faith. There's not a single Orthodox rabbi on this list. This is all reformed rabbis that were -- that made this list.”
Let's put aside the fact that he's wrong about there not being Orthodox rabbis on that list - rabbis from all four major branches of Judaism signed that letter. He just compared Jews who are unhappy about the way he addresses Judaism on his show to radical Muslims who like to blow shit up. I don't care why you make that comparison, that's just insane.

But let's even put that aside for a minute and look at the substance of his claim: that Reform Judaism - the largest branch of Judaism in America - is a political movement and not a religious one. The claim is absurd on its face, but so is the idea that political beliefs can't emanate from religious ones. Connecticut-based rabbi Rachel Gurevitz explains this:
What Judaism and Islam both have in common as faith traditions is that their codes of law and practices were never confined to ritual practice and belief. Both were conceived of, in their origins, as entire social systems. Jewish law from the earliest centuries speak of the obligations of a community providing a particular minimum of teacher/student ratio in the classroom. It speaks of the obligation of a communal pot to ensure that doctors are paid for their medical services even when an individual cannot themselves afford the medical care they need to keep them alive. It speaks of ethical business practices, ethical ways of collecting charitable funds, and how to figure out ways of distributing those funds when the community's need is greater than the contents of the fund.

While, as American Jews, we live in a country where there is a constitutional separation of church and State, Judaism as a faith tradition was not originally conceived with such a separation as part of the cultural context in which it operated. This means that when Jews talk about practicing Judaism, they might be talking about their Sabbath observance or their Passover Seder, but they might just as equally be talking about their social activism on behalf of the needy.
What's interesting, though, is that Christianity is often discussed in those very same terms, so much so that there's an eHow page on how to live the Christian lifestyle. There is no religion in the world that does not carry an ethical system with it, and those ethics always influence one's political system. Beck, who routinely uses Christian language and theology to illustrate his political views on his show, ought to know that better than anyone. So why don't Judaism and Islam look like "religions" to him?

The less charitable answer is that he just doesn't like Jews and Muslims (the latter of these, of course, is demonstrably true). But there's an alternative reason, and it's best illustrated by a story. When my father was converting to Judaism, he told the rabbi that, while he loved the Jewish traditions and system of ethics, he didn't really think that he believed in God.

"Well," the rabbi said, "do you believe in Jesus?"

"No," my father replied.

"You'll be fine," said the rabbi.

To a Jew, faith is secondary. When we talk about what it means to be Jewish, we talk about doing Jewish things, not believing Jewish things. Certainly for me, I'd probably go a good ten minutes listing things about Judaism before I got to faith in God - and I might not even list that. But in Christianity, faith is one of the most central - if not the most central - defining characteristic of the religion. So if you, like Beck, are used to the idea that having religion means having faith, Judaism and Islam, with their emphasis on ethical systems and traditions and accompanying lack of emphasis on faith, can be confusing. So when Beck says that Judaism doesn't look like a religion to him, it's because he has failed to expand his conceptualization of religion beyond Christianity.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Raising Concern Trolling To An Art Form

So there I am, minding my own business, idly checking my Twitter feed, when I should see this article pop into it:
Where Have The Good Men Gone?
Kay S. Hymowitz argues that too many men in their 20s are living in a new kind of extended adolescence.
Oh, this is gonna be awesome. I can hardly wait. Please, Ms. Hymowitz, tell me what is wrong with my gender.

So it begins:
Not so long ago, the average American man in his 20s had achieved most of the milestones of adulthood: a high-school diploma, financial independence, marriage and children. Today, most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. This "pre-adulthood" has much to recommend it, especially for the college-educated. But it's time to state what has become obvious to legions of frustrated young women: It doesn't bring out the best in men.
Okay, so men - like women - are settling down with a family later as their career choices firm up. But pray tell, why does this not "bring out the best in men"? Do you have any evidence to back that assertion up?
"We are sick of hooking up with guys," writes the comedian Julie Klausner, author of a touchingly funny 2010 book, "I Don't Care About Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux-Sensitive Hipsters and Other Guys I've Dated." What Ms. Klausner means by "guys" is males who are not boys or men but something in between. "Guys talk about 'Star Wars' like it's not a movie made for people half their age; a guy's idea of a perfect night is a hang around the PlayStation with his bandmates, or a trip to Vegas with his college friends.... They are more like the kids we babysat than the dads who drove us home." One female reviewer of Ms. Kausner's book wrote, "I had to stop several times while reading and think: Wait, did I date this same guy?"
So your proof for your assertion that men who don't get married straight out of college are generally jerks is... a few guys that a snooty comedian dated once? I think SMBC has a few words for you. And also, why the Playstation, "Star Wars," and vacation hate? So you dated men who - GASP - liked things that you don't like? Oh God, sound the alarm, some men don't have Julie Klausner's exact array of interests! They may - my God, how can you stand even reading this - like video games! And science fiction! And you know who invented video games and sci-fi? THE DEVIL, that's who.

Anyway, maybe this gets better. Let's see. After citing the obvious about demographic trends, Hymowitz goes here:
Still, for these women, one key question won't go away: Where have the good men gone? Their male peers often come across as aging frat boys, maladroit geeks or grubby slackers—a gender gap neatly crystallized by the director Judd Apatow in his hit 2007 movie "Knocked Up." The story's hero is 23-year-old Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), who has a drunken fling with Allison Scott (Katherine Heigl) and gets her pregnant. Ben lives in a Los Angeles crash pad with a group of grubby friends who spend their days playing videogames, smoking pot and unsuccessfully planning to launch a porn website. Allison, by contrast, is on her way up as a television reporter and lives in a neatly kept apartment with what appear to be clean sheets and towels. Once she decides to have the baby, she figures out what needs to be done and does it. Ben can only stumble his way toward being a responsible grownup.
Yeah, that Ben Stone seems like a real immature douche. Fortunately, he's... what's the word I'm looking for... oh, yeah, FICTIONAL. So in sum, Hymowitz's proof that 20-something single men are immature losers is a) a bunch of men a friend of hers dated and b) a man who doesn't, technically, exist.

Then she talks about career mobility, the time and money required to get the necessary education for said career, and how that affects life decisions - all interesting points. But that's not what she's trying to argue. She's trying to argue that our society has turned men in their 20s into immature jerks. So she takes a crack at pop culture:
In his disregard for domestic life, the [early 20th century era] playboy was prologue for today's pre-adult male. Unlike the playboy with his jazz and art-filled pad, however, our boy rebel is a creature of the animal house. In the 1990s, Maxim, the rude, lewd and hugely popular "lad" magazine arrived from England. Its philosophy and tone were so juvenile, so entirely undomesticated, that it made Playboy look like Camus.

At the same time, young men were tuning in to cable channels like Comedy Central, the Cartoon Network and Spike, whose shows reflected the adolescent male preferences of its targeted male audiences. They watched movies with overgrown boy actors like Steve Carell, Luke and Owen Wilson, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell and Seth Rogen, cheering their awesome car crashes, fart jokes, breast and crotch shots, beer pong competitions and other frat-boy pranks.
Entertainment filled with dick jokes? Fart jokes? Sex jokes? Drinking and fighting? This is supposedly new? Dude, have you ever read Chaucer? Or Aristophanes? You can't honestly tell me that the latest Will Ferrell movie is any more licentious than "The Miller's Tale" or "Lysistrata." We've found sex, drinking, and bodily functions highly entertaining for, like, the entirety of human history.

And then there's the obvious problem of trying to demonstrate the actual experience of young men from a bunch of art about young men. See, art is quite often allegorical, fantastical, or both. Comedies, especially, are exaggerated beyond any resemblance with reality. So, sorry, not buying this argument either. From there it's on to the conclusion, leaving us with the uncomfortable truth that we just read an article that purported to be about society creating immature men but utterly failing to prove that these immature men even exist in great numbers.

And there, of course, lie the problems with this article. One is the reductionism. Perhaps there are men out there who, like Rogen's character in "Knocked Up," prefer to live out their adolescent fantasies instead of growing up and taking responsibility for their own lives. But Hymowitz assumes that if you're over 25, male, and unmarried, you're "aging frat boys, maladroit geeks or grubby slackers." If you're a responsible young man who just hasn't met the right person yet, or who would rather focus on a career than a family, you don't exist. Hymowitz may have just rendered invisible the vast majority of young, single men. We can't know, since she didn't bother to prove anything.

The second problem is the loose definition of "immaturity." Let's look at some of those pejoratives Hymowitz uses here. "Aging frat boys, maladroit geeks, grubby slackers." What defines any of these categories? Are aging frat boys "immature" because they like to drink beer, hang out at bars, and hit on women? What makes that immature? And what about the geeks - are social awkwardness and technical knowledge signs of immaturity now? I'll concede the slackers - active avoidance of responsibility is a hallmark of immaturity - but even that's a stretch (to quote Michael Stipe quoting "Richard": "withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy").

Hymowitz's friend Julie Krausner's definition is even worse: "Guys talk about 'Star Wars' like it's not a movie made for people half their age; a guy's idea of a perfect night is a hang around the PlayStation with his bandmates, or a trip to Vegas with his college friends." So she doesn't like sci-fi, video games, or Vegas? Fine. But why is all of that stuff immature? Is there a reason why you're labeling it as such, or is it just that you don't find it appealing? Hymowitz and Krausner use "immature," it seems, as a shorthand for "people who do things the author doesn't like." Guess what - society isn't going to fall apart because some men have a different idea of fun than Kay Hymowitz and Julie Krausner. So can we quit with the self-absorbed concern trolling now?

Update: Also read Jill Filipovic's take, which goes more in-depth about social trends and points out a few things about Hymowitz's history as a conservative traditionalist that I didn't know.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Halftime: Plebes 21, Pharaohs 14

This season, my local Division 2 soccer team, the Carolina Railhawks, started out awful at home. I think we lost or tied five out of our first seven home games. Of course, the only two games that we won were the games I didn't go to. This, naturally, got me paranoid. Maybe I was the cause of the Hawks' home troubles? Maybe if I stayed away from the games, the Hawks would win? This is, of course, absurd. I had no more an effect on the outcome of the game than I did on the weather - the game was decided by the players on the field (and occasionally the $#@*!% referee). But I wanted the team to win, so I searched for anything at all that I could do to help out, refusing to accept that I was incapable of helping beyond the standard soccer fan's role of shouting obscenities in the opposing goalkeeper's ears.

And in such superstitious tendencies I am not alone. Baseball is famous for the superstitions of its fans and its players alike - one baseball manager, the story goes, refused to move even a millimeter while his team was getting hits (this caused quite the problem when his team got a hit while he was reaching down to pick up a hot dog - and then got eight more in a row). Witness Bill Simmons after Super Bowl XLII blaming his jersey, his pre-game column, and other assorted things for the Patriots' loss to the Giants. We want control. We crave control. But we don't have it.

For the past two weeks, we've been watching something far, far more consequential than a sporting event on television. We've been watching Egyptians rise up against their repressive dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who has been running the place since I was born (almost to the day). We watched as the protestors took over the main square in Cairo calling for Mubarak to resign and democracy to take hold. We watched as Mubarak struck back with goons on horses and camels carrying Molotov cocktails. We watched as the army intervened, keeping the protestors and the pro-Mubarak goons apart. We watched as the goons tried desperately to keep the media at bay, intimidating and attacking reporters. We watched Anderson Cooper get punched in the face. And now, we watch as the protestors set up camp in Tahrir Square while Mubarak tries desperately to cling to power for himself and his family. We feel for the oppressed Egyptians, and wish that they could enjoy the freedom we cherish here in America.

And we ask ourselves what we can do, what America can do. We wonder if Obama can put pressure on Mubarak, or if Hillary Clinton can talk him down. We wonder if we can withdraw aid, as if the thirty years worth of foreign aid we've given Mubarak already would just disappear overnight if we withdrew future gifts. Some on the right fret about the result of giving Egyptians democracy.

But at the end of the day, watching and wishing is all we can do. Because this isn't about us, this is about Egyptians wanting freedom, and Mubarak really not wanting to give it to them. This is a struggle between the unstoppable force and the immovable object, and the only thing we'd be capable of doing is getting in the way.

It's not every day that we can see a revolution unfold in real time, and most of us who were raised on the principle that everyone deserves life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness want to see it succeed. Moreover, we want to be a part of history as it unfolds before our eyes. But all our cheering and banner waving does nothing from this side of the Atlantic. So we have to be content with simply watching Egyptians write their own chapter in our history books. Meanwhile, we'll hope that when the final whistle blows on this revolution, Team Freedom will have won a famous victory.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Little Rant About City Planning

I'll be moving to a new apartment in April, and I've started the search now. One of the criteria I'm judging apartments on is their walkability - that is, how easy it is to walk to a grocery store, convenience store, restaurants, bars, parks, playgrounds, etc. I am hardly alone on this: according to a WSJ article, 88% of people in my age group want a walkable, urban setting.

Unfortunately, I live in Raleigh, where such things do not exist.

Come March 15, I will start work in the sprawling, low-density planning disaster known as Research Triangle Park, which is conveniently located some 15 miles from anything that could be reasonably called an "urban center." If I wanted true walkability - meaning I could walk to work every morning - I'd be screwed; the closest housing to my office, as far as I can tell, is located some two miles away. Not horrible - but there's nothing else anywhere near it. The reason for this is that RTP is set up as a collection of large corporate campuses - the closest one could put housing is on the edges of the Park. It'd be nice if RTP picked up and moved itself to either downtown Raleigh or downtown Durham, but that's not gonna happen. So if you want to live close to work, you have to live on the edge of the Park.

One development on the edge of the Park is called Brier Creek, located on the northeast edge of the Park and part of the city of Raleigh, and this is one of the neighborhoods I'm looking at. It is laid out along a two-mile stretch of Brier Creek Parkway. Apartments are at the south and north ends of Brier Creek Pkwy as well as along the west side; shopping is located east of the parkway. The neighborhood is split into three pieces by Glenwood Avenue and Lumley Road. There are two grocery stores, a standard Lowes Foods in the middle part and an Earth Fare in the southern third. There is a weirdly upscale Indian restaurant, a cool pizza place, and another entry in the Triangle's weird obsession with combining sushi and Thai restaurants* in the middle part. There's a great Irish pub and another Indian joint in the south part, and a sports bar in the more-useless northern part. There's an elementary school and a park at the extreme south end (complete with playground). In theory, this should be a fairly walkable neighborhood.

But as I noted earlier, residential areas are either south, north, or west of the main shopping area, meaning that to get to the central part of Brier Creek you have to cross a road. Which would be great, if the city of Raleigh had put so much as a crosswalk across either Glenwood or Lumley. It's not like these are roads you can just dart across, either - Glenwood is a six-lane highway, and Lumley is a four-lane freeway feeder. Crosswalks across the four-lane, relatively high-speed Brier Creek Parkway, for those who live on the west side, are also few and far-between.

So what kind of sadistic fuck puts together a reasonably walkable neighborhood, distance-wise, and then makes walking around it as inconvenient as possible? The only conclusion I can come to is that Raleigh's city planners, to paraphrase Kanye West, don't care about walking people.

It'd be one thing if this were limited to Brier Creek... but it's not. With the exception of Cameron Village, located just west of downtown, there's something about most Raleigh neighborhoods that prevents them from being completely walkable. Downtown Raleigh would be great, except that, for some unknown reason, there isn't a grocery store. North Hills is similarly split into three pieces, and while Lassiter Mill is easy to cross, Six Forks Road, which separates the grocery store and some residential areas from the rest of the neighborhood, isn't (it's a major four-lane road that's in the process of feeding onto the freeway at that point). Crabtree Valley has a big shopping mall, but not much in the way of residential, and there's no park. I'm also looking at Lynnwood, which has a nice neighborhood bar, a jazz club, and a locally managed movie theater, as well as a nearby park and grocery store... but the road to the grocery store is narrow and lacks a sidewalk, while the path to the park is a muddy, gooey mess.

Not all of this is the city's fault. The fact that a significant portion of the city's jobs are located on the city's outskirts immediately eliminates the feasibility of a high-density urban core around which everything is based. A multi-centric "Atlanta on steroids" model is probably inevitable at this point. Indeed, considering the location of the Park on the city's western edge, a higher-density, walkable "suburban downtown" in Brier Creek would be ideal from both a sustainability and convenience standpoint. (I've found that the two often go hand-in-hand.)

As such, though, Raleigh is doing a horrible job making outlying centers like Brier Creek look anything like compact, walkable neighborhoods that will attract young and mobile people to the area. I don't know of any plans for making pedestrian travel across Glenwood, Lumley, or Brier Creek Parkway any easier, for example. The rail plans on the city's comprehensive plan website completely ignores Crabtree Valley and Brier Creek, even though the Glenwood Avenue corridor seems like it would be an ideal one for rail transit. The city is to be commended for its work on downtown - however, if the city thinks that it can just keep developing downtown while ignoring density and convenience issues in the rest of the city, they're going to be stuck with sprawl and traffic-choked streets. As I mentioned earlier, the very existence of the Park makes a single-center model impossible.

Pedestrian bridges in Brier Creek, for example, would be ideal and would contribute to continued high-density growth in the neighborhood. Developing a park in Crabtree - there's some open space there - and expanding an existent greenway system in the area would help that neighborhood. Transit that hit all the main growth areas - the Glenwood corridor, the Capital Boulevard corridor, and West Raleigh - as well as the employment centers in the Park would also be great. (The current bus system has one bus line that ends in Brier Creek and peters out at Crabtree, only halfway to downtown. The city doesn't bus people into the Park, and the multi-city Triangle Transit Authority buses ignore Brier Creek altogether.)

But Raleigh seems stuck in the idea that everyone who doesn't live and work downtown is okay with driving everywhere. That's a shame. Many of the 88% of us who want high-density walkable neighborhoods are forced by circumstance to work - and thus, if we don't want twenty-minute drives every day, to live - in suburbia. It'd be nice if Raleigh would at least acknowledge our existence... and build some damn crosswalks and sidewalks for a change.

*Seriously, what the hell is up with that? Sushi and Thai food are not even remotely related, except that they both occasionally feature rice. The flavors and main ingredients are completely different. And yet the combination of the two is everywhere around here. I actually live across the street, right now, from a restaurant called Sushi-Thai. It's like going to Tokyo and finding a Cajun place that serves tacos.

Friday, January 14, 2011

In Which Astrology Fails Hilariously

So in the wake of the earth-shattering and Twitter-amusing news that the zodiac signs have changed in the 3000 years since astrology was invented, I figured I'd muck around with in the astrological world and see what I could find.

Incidentally, I went from being a Libra to being a Virgo. So I went from being diplomatic and graceful (har) to being analytical and observant. Wasn't aware those were mutually exclusive. Also, it cracks me up that Virgo's first weakness is being "skeptical." I guess that's a bad thing to astrologers.

(There's a group of people I do pity right now - those who believe in this stuff and suddenly find themselves in Ophiuchius. Ever seen a reading for Ophiuchius? Me neither. Fun to say though.)

Anyway, I decided I'd check on the January lunar astrology calendar and see what I could find. Here's what it says about January 3, 2011:
All traditions agree that this is an inauspicious day.
Well, if "all traditions agree," it can't be wrong!

So let's see, what happened on January 3, 2011... I went to work, came home, went to dinner with friends... what else... oh yeah, and I successfully defended my thesis and officially became a PhD. You know, definitely in the top 5 as far as days of my life are concerned.


Well, maybe other horoscopes were closer. Let's see what the specific sign readings say. Here's Libra:
Fear and indecision will cause you to shut down. The New Year starts you at a crossroads and you do not know which way to go. Indecision, confusion, and uncertainty are all catchwords for you this week. Things will not change much, nothing exciting will come your way.
Strike two.

Ok, wait, my sign isn't Libra anymore because of the Great Sign Shift, so let's look at Virgo:
This will be a very upsetting week for you. Unfortunately, disaster may have caught up to you. Be very careful during this week, do not take any foolish chances. Folly, misfortune, catastrophe are all very significant words for your week.
Crash. And. Burn.

But don't worry, stars. Sure, you suck at predicting things... but you're still really pretty to look at.

(Of course, the blind mouse does sometimes find the cheese: here's a Libra horoscope for February 2008 that says "I feel you will enjoy this month especially if your looking for love or want to have a child." My daughter was born on the 28th of that month... though I must note, grammatical expertise is clearly not a required skill for astrologers.)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Invisibility Cloak Activated

I don't blog about Sarah Palin much here, mainly because I don't find her pronouncements all that interesting. But she let one go today that was very revealing about the way our culture views Jews - or doesn't, as the case may be. Here's the interesting part:
Vigorous and spirited public debates during elections are among our most cherished traditions. And after the election, we shake hands and get back to work, and often both sides find common ground back in D.C. and elsewhere. If you don’t like a person’s vision for the country, you’re free to debate that vision. If you don’t like their ideas, you’re free to propose better ideas. But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.
She is referencing, of course, the admittedly unfair criticism directed at her and other right-wingers blaming their rhetoric for contributing to the environment that allowed the attack to occur. In what has to be the definitive proof of the Blind Mouse/Cheese Principle, Palin is finally, for once, right to play the victim here.

But, um... blood libel? You do know what that actually means, right?

The term "blood libel" refers to the macabre and frighteningly common (at least in the Middle Ages) myth that Jews killed Christian children and used their blood to make matzah. Jews were killed by the dozens because of this myth - it even contributed to the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 (they weren't allowed back until 1655). Needless to say, unwarranted criticism of harsh political rhetoric doesn't really compare.

Truth be told, though, Sarah Palin probably doesn't know this. She's probably just got the term from Glenn Reynolds, who in turn probably isn't entirely certain about its meaning because it has been used erroneously before. The comparison of criticism of right-wingers to destructive lies about Jews is offensive to Jews, of course, as are ridiculous Holocaust comparisons. But what are the chances that Palin and Reynolds actually know this? There are few Jews in Alaska, and not a whole lot of Jews in Knoxville, either. Jewish history just isn't likely to come up in conversation for either of them.

This incident is a reminder that Jews are still a small minority in a country dominated by Christian culture. Jewish culture is visible only in the sense that we're funny, we like bagels, and we celebrate some weird holiday with candles around Christmastime. Some people know that we often wear tiny hats, that some of us have lots of facial hair, and that we celebrate the Sabbath a day early. Also we have rabbis, which are kinda like preachers or priests. Some scroll might be involved. And really, that's it, unless you're friends with Jewish people and you talk to them a lot about their religion and culture.

But part of being a small minority is that people don't think about you when they're saying or doing things on an everyday basis. For example, people don't understand that crosses don't work as a memorial for non-Christian soldiers. And that's okay; I don't expect everyone to know everything about Judaism or understand the specific sensitivities of Jewish culture. I expect that, living in a Christian-dominated culture, I'm going to be wearing a cloak of invisibility most of the time. This isn't an admonition, just an observation.

So we accept that Christians will inevitably say things that get on Jews' nerves without really realizing it. (The inverse is probably true too.) But we should still point those things out when they happen. What I wonder, though, is if people like Palin and Reynolds would be willing to understand their error when it is pointed out to them. Their history suggests otherwise.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Bang and Blame

Let the recriminations begin.

In the wake of the tragic assassination attempt and mass shooting in Tucson, everyone seems to want to play the blame game. We've blamed Sarah Palin. We've blamed violent rhetoric in general. We've blamed liberals and conservatives. We've blamed the state of Arizona. We've blamed anxious masculinity. We've even blamed pot.

So what was the real motive behind the shooter? Why did he start shooting people? If you ask him, he'll say... grammar. Or maybe getting blown off after asking a stupid question at a political rally.

Screw Sarah Palin. Let's all go blame Strunk and White. There was also something about dreaming and reality in there, so we should probably also blame Christopher Nolan.

There is something within us that does not like to accept senselessness. We want to think that there's something we could have done, something we could do, to stop things like this from happening. We don't want to turn over control of the universe to the fates, so we pretend that we have control over something. If only we were more civil. If only we got rid of drugs. If only, if only, if only.

But the truth is that we don't have that kind of power. All the civility in the world from the Glenn Becks and Keith Olbermanns of the world wouldn't have prevented this tragedy, and deep down we know it. One person - and one person only - had the power to stop this from happening: the killer himself.

The question the killer asked Rep. Giffords at the rally that one time was about how words have no meaning. It's an idiotic question to ask a politician. But it's ironic that the killers actions have set off a frantic search for meaning in an event that is inherently meaningless. Humans don't like meaninglessness or chaos - we seek to ascribe a meaning to everything. But the meaning of this event is not in what led up to it, since we will never fully understand what led to this shooting. We are constructing the meaning of this event now, as we speak. And that's what's going on with this blame game. We all know, deep down, that the shooter alone is to blame. But we want to use the event for something positive, because otherwise it's meaningless, and we can't handle that.

So if we're going to use this tragedy for something, let's figure out what the best thing to use it for would be. I think Friedersdorf is the closest right now - it doesn't make sense to get rid of anger and overwrought rhetoric, but we should make sure our political debate is based on actual facts. Birthers, "creeping Sharia" nutters, death-panel cranks: we're looking at you. A little toning down wouldn't hurt - things like Sharron Angle's "Second Amendment remedies" crack should never, ever, ever occur - but basing things on facts would, I think, make our debate a lot more civil by definition.

It'd be stupid to blame falsehood in politics for this tragedy. It's not our responsibility to place blame. But if the meaning we ascribe to this tragedy is that it was an impetus for returning rationality to our political debates, I don't think that's a bad meaning at all.

Oh, and if you want a heartwarming story of a community pulling together after a similar senseless tragedy, go here.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Persistence of Memory

A few years ago I was traveling around a small pig-farming town in Bavaria. It was a weekend and the town was strangely deserted - there was a festival in the nearby town of Rothenburg (centered, awesomely, around the legendary chugging of a very large mug of beer), and I suspect that most of the small town's 1000 or so residents were over there. Anyway, this small town had a small memorial tucked away on one of its picturesque lanes. It was a plaque, about as tall as me, with a list of names. I don't read German, but I could tell that it was commemorating the German dead in both world wars. Which made me, as a Jew, feel... well, sort of uncomfortable. I don't begrudge the German regulars their courage in death, but I had to remember that these names were of people who were fighting, essentially, to maintain their country's right to kill people like me. How much respect could I pay such a memorial? And what should I think about people who remember fondly those who would, if alive, want to see me gassed to death?

Back home in Raleigh, there's a memorial at the end of Hillsborough Street where it dead-ends into Salisbury Street at the State Capitol. It is a tall, thin structure with a soldier on top, and in large letters, plainly visible to the cars across Salisbury waiting to turn, is written the following inscription: "To Our Confederate Dead." And now, each time I pass that memorial, I wonder if Raleigh's African-American population feels the way I felt at that memorial in Germany.

150 years ago, the Civil War began. On December 20, 1860, the state of South Carolina passed its secession declaration. Four days later, the denizens of the Palmetto State explained their reasons for doing so:
For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.
It is difficult for a serious student of history to deny that the direct cause of the Civil War was slavery, and the threat of its dissolution by the nascent Republican Party and its leader, Abraham Lincoln. You can claim that it was "states' rights," but it was the states' rights to allow slavery that was in question. You can claim that it was about economics, but the South's economy was based on slavery. There's just no way around it. You can claim - correctly - that the average Confederate soldier didn't give a rat's ass about slavery (only 25% of those who fought for the South came from slaveholding families), but they were led and encouraged by plantation owners and defenders of slavery.

Which puts the modern white Southerner in a tight spot. White Southerners, by and large, abhor racism and are disgusted by the idea of slavery, but have to deal with the fact that their ancestors fought and died for that very cause. Even folks like me who had nary an ancestor in the US during the Civil War but who grew up south of the Potomac have to deal with the fact that we call home a region of the country that once fought a war to keep the black man in chains, and then spent 100 years trying to reforge those chains out of laws and intimidation. And the decision that faces us is this: do we confront our history or try to rewrite it, ignore it, and hope it'll go away?

Unfortunately, anyone who has spent a lot of time down here knows which option we chose.

Southern food is famous for recipes born of necessity. Dishes like jambalaya and fried chicken arose out of the need to create good-tasting food out of whatever there was lying around, creating beauty from the unlikely, inconvenient situation of poverty. Cuisine, however, is not the only field where the Southern ability to make the best out of a bad situation surfaces. Today, of all days, a story broke which demonstrates this. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour got caught trying to sugarcoat the White Citizens' Councils that sprung up across the South in response to integration. Barbour credits the Citizens' Council of his hometown of Yazoo City for - of all things - ensuring that school integration was done peacefully. Never mind that this integration occurred in - wait for it - 1970, no doubt having been delayed by the actions of those very Citizens' Councils.

Barbour responded via a spokesperson, who claimed in an interview with TPM's Eric Kleefeld that Barbour isn't a racist. And you know what? I believe him. I'm sure that Barbour is as non-racist as possible. But like an old-time Cajun cook, Barbour is trying to make something delicious out of a less-than-desirable list of ingredients.

And Barbour is hardly alone - witness the South Carolinians holding a "Secession Ball" this evening, complete with period costumes and a re-enactment of the signing of the Ordinance of Secession. (No word on if black attendants would be required to wear shackles.) And if you aren't familiar with the "Lost Cause" mythology, the ability of Southerners to talk about the Civil War without once mentioning slavery - well, you just don't know enough Southerners.

The question, though, is why dp this? Why do we Southerners feel the need to turn the negative parts of our history into something good? My guess is that it's a pride thing - we don't want to admit that those who came before us did something wrong, that the region of the country that we love so much might be responsible for something so unequivocally awful. So we whitewash it. We pretend it wasn't that bad. Like Barbour, we tell stories of mixed-race crowds idly listening to Martin Luther King in small Southern towns, conveniently ignoring the tensions of the era.

The truly sad part is that we don't need to do this. Because racism isn't contained completely in the South, and it never has been. Malcolm X's autobiography is filled with awful instances of racial violence; Malcolm X grew up in Michigan. The swimming pool crowd who reacted to a group of black kids like they were diseased called Pennsylvania home. The region of the country most famous now for crazy white separatists isn't the South - it's North Idaho. And the state legislator who made national headlines for comparing a bill he didn't like to a black baby wasn't Southern - he was from Utah.

And the truth is that we don't need the Civil War and the mythology of the noble rebel to feel Southern pride. We don't need to ignore the things our grandfathers did during the civil rights era. The South is the region that gave the world the blues, jazz, and rock 'n' roll; jambalaya, gumbo, barbecue (with vinegar-based sauce, thank you very much), fried chicken, and collard greens; William Faulkner and Alice Walker; Jerry Rice and Bobby Jones; Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, and Robert Johnson; Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Martin Luther King; and an extremely useful second-person plural pronoun that is sorely lacking in mainstream English. And that's just scratching the surface. No other region has had anywhere near as much influence on American culture as the South. To all those non-Southerners who look at Southerners as a bunch of ignorant rednecks - until your region of the country produces a nowhere-near-exhaustive list like that, y'all can shut the hell up.

The difference between the two memorials, the one in Bavaria and the one in Raleigh, is that the Bavarians don't pretend like their fight was the good fight. They have learned how to honor their dead without honoring their cause. We can do the same. We can memorialize our Confederate dead without justifying their rebellion. We don't need to pretend like the stance of Southern state governments during secession and segregation was benign concern for "states' rights." Rather, we can stand up on all of our region's other contributions to America, and be justifiably proud.

150 years ago today, the Confederate States of America was born. It is long past time to put it to bed.

I'm Wishing That He'll Go Away

The only thing that can be said about this:
The Republican who will head the House committee that oversees domestic security is planning to open a Congressional inquiry into what he calls “the radicalization” of the Muslim community when his party takes over the House next year.

Representative Peter T. King of New York, who will become the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he was responding to what he has described as frequent concerns raised by law enforcement officials that Muslim leaders have been uncooperative in terror investigations.
is this:

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Lester Bangs Caucus

There's a new political group out there now called No Labels. They refer to themselves as putting aside hyper-partisanship in order to move the country forward. Nothing wrong with that. Compromise is a good thing. Take the tax cut package, for example. As much as I don't like the idea of extending the Bush tax cuts on the upper tax bracket, if we have to give that to get a bunch of other stuff Republicans don't want, I'll go along with it. In a country of 300 million people, you'll never get all of what you want. As long as the compromise isn't worse than the opposition's original position (and it isn't, mainly because the deficit problem requires long-term solutions that are unaffected by this short-term deal) and it's fairly even (and it is - unemployment benefit extension and a boost in other low-income tax credits offset the extension of the tax cuts for the rich), take it.

So compromise is how things get done, and a group that supports that is OK with me. Also, blind partisanship is bad news - a lot of bad policy and bad ideas are propagated out of an unwillingness to go against anyone perceived as being on the same "team." So if you want to put aside labels and have a policy discussion, cool.

And yet. Uneasiness remains.

See, the problem with being "non-ideological" is that it's impossible. We all have ideologies. No Labels, for instance, is actually rather ideological. Their statement of purpose describes what they find important:
  • Americans are entitled to a government and a political system that works – driven by shared purpose and common sense.
  • Americans deserve a government that makes the necessary choices to rein in runaway deficits, secure Social Security and Medicare, and put our country on a viable, sound path going forward. Americans support a government that works to spur employment and economic opportunity by encouraging free and open markets, tempered by sensible regulation.
  • Americans want a government that empowers people with the tools for success – from a world-class education to affordable healthcare – provided that it does so in a fiscally prudent way.
  • America should be free from discrimination and should embrace the principle of equal opportunity.
  • America must be strong and safe, ready and able to protect itself in a world of multiple dangers and uncertainties.
  • But what if you believe, like many libertarians, that Social Security and Medicare are bad programs, and that no regulation is "sensible"? What if you believe, like many leftists, that free and open markets are an invitation for corporate exploitation? What if you believe that government has no role in education or health care, or that it's more important to protect civil liberties than it is for America to be "strong and safe"? I guess "No Labels" has no use for such silliness.

    No Labels is short-circuiting our political process by assuming a consensus on our nation's direction that may or may not exist. In the name of civility and compromise, No Labels is actually treating the dissenters to their presumed consensus in the most uncivil way possible - pretending that they don't exist.

    Look, civility is great, and it should be practiced wherever possible. But this belies the fact that political issues deeply affect our lives, and as such they produce an outpouring of emotion that makes civility almost counterproductive. In the name of "civility," we ignore the passionate extremes who might have a good idea every now and then, and we temper our own impulses for fear of being ridiculed as "uncivil." And what purpose does that serve? How can we impress on someone the importance that we affix to, say, the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" or the use of the criminal justice system to try terror suspects if we're so concerned about being "civil"?

    Put differently, which is more important: being civil? Or being truthful?

    The big problem with our discourse is not that it is "uncivil." American discourse has always been kind of "uncivil," stretching all the way back to the days of Jefferson and Adams. Rather, it is that we allow lies to propagate unchecked. We have a significant portion of the population that thinks that Obama raised taxes on the middle class when, in fact, the opposite is true. And if someone attempts to call the liars on their lies, the center simply sniggers and calls the bullshit-callers "uncivil."

    So is there a better way of promoting policy debate that moves our country forward? Yes, and fellow devotees of the movie Almost Famous already know it. It's from the end of this scene:

    "Honest and unmerciful." Call me a member of the Lester Bangs caucus. Let's be passionate. Let's call the other guys out when we think they're wrong. Let's let people know when we think others want to take America in the wrong direction. Let's pursue justice tenaciously, and speak out against injustice convincingly. But let's make damn sure we're honest - both intellectually and factually - when we do so. Passion and emotion need to be backed up by facts and truth. And let's not address those who manipulate our emotions with lies and half-truths with kid gloves in the name of civility. Open, honest, no-holds-barred debate is what moves this country forward. It weeds out the weak ideas and policies based on false premises. It forms the basis of those compromises that No Labels fetishizes. If we want to be true friends to America, we need to be honest and unmerciful.

    Tuesday, December 07, 2010

    It's About Respect, People

    2010 has a lot of entries into the "Douche of the Year" contest, but Robert Stacy "The Other" McCain is making a late charge with this incredible column.

    Let's set the scene. For those of you who don't know, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is being charged in Sweden with two counts of some sexual assault-like crime. In the first case, Assange and a woman were having sex, and the condom Assange was wearing broke; when the woman asked Assange to stop, he kept going. In the second case, Assange didn't bother to wear a condom at all despite the fact that the woman expressly asked for one. Jill Filipovic of Feministe, in response, makes what should be a relatively non-controversial point:
    If you consent to having sex with someone and part of the way through you say to stop and the person you’re having sex with continues to have sex with you against your wishes, that’s rape.
    No shit, right? Kinda obvious... but apparently not to Mr. Other McCain:
    In an era when some 40% of U.S. births are to unmarried women, in a culture where “Girls Gone Wild” and “hook-ups” are normative, where threesomes, bisexual experimentation and amateur video-porn orgies have become a virtual rite of passage for many young Americans, where chlamydia and herpes are pandemic — in this era of rampant sexual decadence, I say, does Jill Filipovic (J.D., NYU) seriously expect horny strangers to negotiate consent calmly on an act-by-act basis while they’re knocking boots, making the beast with two backs, in flagrante delicto?

    Listen up, sweetheart: You buy the ticket, you take the ride.


    If you tumble into a random hook-up with no prior knowledge of the guy’s reputation and he turns out to be a selfish brute whose standard modus operandi is repulsive, dangerous or painful, in what sense are you a victim of anything except your own stupidity?

    Mr. McCain and Assange are two sides of the same coin. Both feel very little need to respect the decisions of women regarding their own bodies. Assange went ahead with whatever he wanted to do without paying any attention to what the women wanted; McCain thinks that women don't have a right to make decisions beyond a certain point. These are equally disgusting viewpoints. Assange's disrespect is likely a figment of his narcissism, so we can expect that. I'm at a loss to explain McCain, though. I have a hard time believing that, in this day and age, anyone can believe that there's a point where women lose the right to consent to sex. And I'm even more baffled that there are people out there like Mr. McCain that enjoy explicitly blaming women for their own rape.

    So it's a little startling that McCain, when he finally comes down from his victim-blaming high-horse, attempts to make something resembling a legitimate point in an update to his post:
    I am not endorsing, advocating or defending Julian Assange’s behavior. He is a bad person, what he did was clearly wrong, and whatever harm befalls him, he most certainly deserves. But Assange’s wrongs were perpetrated in an environment of casual promiscuity. It is in just such an environment that lowlifes like Assange thrive and flourish, and if we refuse to criticize promiscuity — if we never point out to women that, in sleeping around, they are playing a game in which they are vulnerable to exploitation — then we are not-so-innocent bystanders.
    Let's ignore the insulting paternalism here for a moment and address what might be the kernel of an actual reasonable thought. Perhaps McCain isn't really blaming Assange's victims here, but is rather blaming a culture of promiscuity for rape. This is an idea worth addressing, though I still think it's a wrongheaded idea.

    If we imagine a society where sex is reserved only for the most meaningful relationships, we can understand how sexual assault cases like this would be all but non-existent, since strangers wouldn't be having sex. But we cannot assume that this would eliminate sexual assault; partner rape is depressingly common. Furthermore, one could also easily imagine a culture where casual sex is the norm and where all sex is consensual and mutually wanted; one-night stands are quite often mutually wanted. So a "culture of promiscuity" clearly isn't responsible for sexual assault.

    So what is? McCain backs into the answer by using the crap "but they can't help it" defense: "in this era of rampant sexual decadence, I say, does Jill Filipovic (J.D., NYU) seriously expect horny strangers to negotiate consent calmly on an act-by-act basis while they’re knocking boots, making the beast with two backs, in flagrante delicto?" The answer, of course, is absolutely yes. I've dealt with previously. Despite all the sexual messages in our society, I somehow avoid going around raping people, and so do most of the men I know. This is because I was raised to respect women, and so were my friends.

    And that's the key. The prevalence of sexual assault against women is not correlated to the sexualization of our society; rather, it is correlated to the respect our society has for women. The lesson that Assange and McCain refuse to learn is that a woman's choice to not have sex or to stop having sex is one that must be respected if we are to consider ourselves moral beings. Furthermore, this respect cannot be conditional. If one partner doesn't want to continue having sex, the other partner should respect that and stop (regardless of whether or not he/she likes it). It really doesn't matter what happened before.

    You'd think this would be easy to grasp. Respecting the wishes of others isn't that hard. Right?

    Tuesday, November 30, 2010

    Bombin' Around the Christmas Tree

    So we've all heard about the Portland plot by now. Some crazy dude tried to blow up a Christmas tree lighting ceremony. And, of course, being a cynic, my first thought wasn't "thank heaven this plot was stopped," but rather, "this was totally a set-up by the FBI." That, in fact, is what defense attorneys are saying. And if we remember from a few years ago, the Rolling Stone reported that the FBI consistently invented terror plots in order to jail angry young Muslims.

    And there are a lot of things about this story that don't really pass the smell test, as Greenwald notes.

    It's clear that Mr. Mohamed isn't a particularly sympathetic character. Entrapment or not, if someone asks you to participate in a terror plot the answer should always be "fuck no." But was he really just going to haul off and blow stuff up if the FBI hadn't gotten involved? I mean, could a 19-year-old high-school graduate whose aspirations included a fishing job in Alaska hatch an elaborate bomb plot all on his lonesome? It requires money and know-how, two things that I doubt Mr. Mohamed really possessed.

    So it's interesting that this case formed the news backdrop when I read this Wilkinson piece over at the Economist's Democracy in America blog. Wilkinson notes that terrorism, for all our bluster about it, is exceedingly rare in this country. Indeed, a quick Wikipedia search finds that there have been 49 terror attacks or attempted attacks in the U.S. in my lifetime. And that counts each Unabomber and Eric Rudolph attack separately, it counts non-politically motivated attacks like the Beltway sniper, and it counts domestic crazy people with guns like Jim Adkisson (though interestingly, Wikipedia didn't include school shootings, which I guess it classifies separately). If we talk about terrorism the way we generally think of it - complex, politically motivated attack plots - we're talking maybe ten. And of those ten, only two - Oklahoma City and Sept. 11 - had large amounts of fatalities.

    If there were only two successful large-scale terrorist plots in the past 29 years, we can safely say that large-scale terrorism isn't particularly common in this country... but that allowing any terrorist plot to succeed is traumatic and unacceptable. So terrorism is something of an awkward law enforcement issue. It's cataclysmic but rare - so you need significant resources, but if you're just investigating already existing plots, those resources are probably lying dormant for years at a time. Leaving those resources just kinda sitting there isn't really viable politically - politicians like to see results. Which means that it's in the FBI's interest to not just pursue existing terrorists but potential terrorists as well.

    Which leads me back to the Portland case. What the FBI did with Mohamed was that they found an angry young Muslim man who they thought might turn into a terrorist one day, turned him into an active terrorist, then arrested him. The problem with this is that we don't know if Mohamed would have become a terrorist had the FBI not been involved. Sure, maybe he becomes the next Faisal Shahzad (the incompetent Times Square bomber). But maybe he grows out of it, like many angry young men, and becomes a productive member of society. Now we'll never know.

    So we're caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, we want terrorism to be investigated and thwarted. On the other hand, it's a bad idea to turn people into terrorists when they weren't terrorists already. So how do you walk that line? My answer would be to keep track of the "potential" terrorists, but not do anything until they actually show signs of wanting to start a plot. That's when you move in and arrest them. But I'm not comfortable having the FBI play the part of the precogs in "Minority Report."

    Thursday, November 04, 2010

    Some Post-Prop 19 Prohibition Thoughts

    Recently I've been reading Last Call, Daniel Okrent's excellent look at Prohibition, and the one thing that has struck me is how similar the alcohol prohibition movement is to the marijuana (and other drug) prohibition movement today. For example, both used official fake pseudoscience to make their case - the modern DARE program can be compared easily with Scientific Temperance Instruction, a pack of bullshit fed to pre-Prohibition schools that told of alcohol's many horrors in the same way the DARE program teaches kids a lot of half-truths about drug usage today. (Also, racism against blacks and Germans played a large part in Prohibition's passage, just as racism against Hispanics played a healthy role in the illegality of marijuana and racism against blacks produced the sentencing disparity between cocaine and crack.)

    What's most salient throughout the book, though, is the sheer impossibility of prohibiting the use of alcohol. In order to get Prohibition passed in the first place, Congress had to make exceptions for homemade hard ciders and wines. People were allowed to keep and consume liquor bought before January 17, 1920. Many members of Congress who voted for Prohibition were drinkers themselves. And, of course, criminal syndicates (the analogs of today's drug cartels) distributed liquor within the US rather easily. (For example, the Bronfman family of Canada, owners of the Seagram's empire, had a very profitable arrangement with mobster Meyer Lansky.) The result? If you wanted to drink, you could - in the same way that almost half of Americans have used illegal drugs.

    And if you think about it, prohibition of private behavior, especially a popular one, is a hell of a task. Government puts tons of money and effort into preventing something, only to see half of America engage in it anyway. Prohibition was beset by corrupt enforcement agencies and a general lack of concern with enforcement at the highest levels. But even with the huge enforcement apparatus set up today to combat illegal drugs - even with the erosion of civil liberties and legalized theft and activity approaching state-sponsored murder, half of Americans have used drugs.

    Laws, it is said, are a reflection of our morality. If this is so, our prohibition laws are a reflection of a very mixed morality that, in some ways, is uniquely American.

    We aspire to live lives free of vice. We idealize the rejection of intoxicants like marijuana, cocaine, even alcohol. We talk about how horrible drug use is. And so when the opportunity comes to pass laws against it, we register our disapproval with that private behavior by voting for prohibition. Yet we also understand that we live our lives in a liberal democracy, and we cherish our liberties handed down to us in the form of the Constitution and its myriad protections against government intrusion. We like our government distant, not ubiquitous - but ubiquity is necessary to truly enforce prohibition.

    So we pass these laws knowing full well that they are, for the most part, unenforceable. We give up some of our civil liberties, but never so much that the laws become viable. We look the other way as those with power and resources manipulate the system so that they get out of paying the full price for violating prohibition, allowing our laws to turn into a system of oppression against the underclasses. We have taken comfort in having our morality affirmed by laws only enforceable by oppression. Prohibition is a blanket, if you will, for our aspirational morality, protecting our vision of what a good society should look like from the harsh, cold reality of a world that never lives up to its lofty ideals.

    Eventually, we will understand that a blanket composed of SWAT teams and drug cartels and thievery and racism provides no true comfort, and we will have the courage to shed it. Medical marijuana laws were the first attempts, Prop 19 is the latest but it will not be the last. And when we do, we will realize that the harsh, cold reality isn't really as harsh and cold as it seems. The truth is that our aspirational morality will survive whether or not it is protected by the force of law. And when we come to that realization, we can give the American ideal of personal liberty the full embrace that it so richly deserves.

    Update: Jacob Sullum deals well with a similar argument.