Saturday, August 1, 2009

I've Moved!!!!!

Please go to the new location at:


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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Conflict Resolution as Core Curriculum

When I tell people that I am an anarchist, that I imagine a world without hierarchy, they often dismiss me as naive. They cannot imagine how government would function without a dude in charge. They seem to find it even harder to imagine workplaces functioning without hierarchy.

If the skeptics provide any reasons, they generally point out conflicts that we currently resolve through coercion. Two people have a dispute at work, the boss makes a determination and coerces the parties to comply. Two countries have a dispute, and the more powerful country coerces the other.

The essential obstacle to a society based on cooperation is not that people have disputes, it is that we have so few tools to resolve our disputes peacefully. It isn't entirely our fault. And it isn't some malfunctioning human gene. It is that we have no training in dispute resolution or peaceful conflict management.

Amazingly, it is only in the last fifty years that conflict resolution has been brought into schools. And it is only since the 1980s that organizations like Educators for Social Responsibility have been promoting conflict resolution as core curriculum.

Despite the fact that conflict resolution has been shown to increase academic achievement and cooperation and to decrease violence and drop-out rates, too few schools have implemented conflict resolution into their programs.

Imagine if every school child (from kindergarden forward) had problem solving and peaceful conflict resolution as core curriculum. Imagine if it were given the importance of math and language. How much better equipped would we be for our relationships later in life?

It isn't that people are hopelessly unable to resolve conflicts without violence or coersion. It is that we are not learning the skills we need.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Clothing Mandatory, From Burqas to Bandanas

We have too many damn laws, rules, regulations and customs dictating what people can and cannot wear.

Schools require kids to wear uniforms. Work - from military personnel to the nearly identical suits most desk sitters wear - requires uniforms. Clubs have dress codes. Restaurants have dress codes. Cities and even countries have laws governing what their citizens can and cannot wear in public. Why?

Admittedly, it's easier to pick out a cop if she is wearing a uniform. And you could probably make a case for health issues when it comes to wearing some kind of covering in a restaurant kitchen. But mostly, clothing rules are about social control. We want to be able to identify people. We want to know whether or not they subscribe to the dominant culture's attitudes, prejudices, gender roles, and power structure.

Schools support school uniforms for the same reason the military requires them, because uniforms denote obedience and conformity. Clubs have dress codes to enforce dominance by class and race, from country clubs that require a suit and tie to dive bars like Kokoamos (sued for refusing entry to people with dreadlocks).

Cities also get in on the action. Riviera Beach, Florida is arresting people for baggy pants. Other cities have ordinances against your underwear showing. In New York, you can get arrested for covering your face during a protest. Why? Because minorities wear baggy pants. Because political dissidents cover their faces during protests.

Of course, the most stringent codes and social norms relate to gender. It starts with the first pink or blue onesie someone gives you at the baby shower. For the rest of your life, what you can wear safely in public is determined largely by whether or not you were born with a penis.

School uniforms are uniform only by gender. One school in South Carolina has said a girl will not be able to graduate if she wears pants to her graduation. Prom means wearing a dress for girls or a suit for boys. Transgressors will be denied.

And while most (if not all) laws against cross-dressing have been taken off the books, that doesn't stop harassment. One man is suing the New Orleans police department for threatening to arrest him for wearing a kilt in public. (Note to self: Naked breasts strewn with plastic beads, no problem; wearing traditional and mildly gender-bending Scottish garb, not so much.)

Transgender people cross the gender line and face discrimination at every turn. Most workplaces in the U.S. can legally discriminate against transgendered people, as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act does not protect them. Far worse, at least one transgender person is murdered on average each month of the year. And the murders of transgender people all too often remain unsolved.

Most cisgender women have a little more leeway in the choice between pants and skirts. (Although, Conservative Christian group Focus on the Family just started allowing women to wear pants this year.) But women have to worry about "modesty." Women must walk that fine line between whore and oppressed. Wear too little material on your body and people will say you are asking to be attacked. Wear too much clothing on your body, a burqa for instance, and people will say you are oppressed.

Islam isn't the only religion to dictate dress. Orthodox Jewish women must cover their elbows, knees and head in the name of modesty. Sometimes they wear scarves. Other times they cover up their hair with wigs. Meanwhile, Hasidic Jewish men, in 90 degree Miami heat, dress in wool outfits meant for winter in the Polish ghetto.

Monks and nuns wear robes not very different from a burqa. Certainly, they are equally desexualizing. True, nuns no longer wear the restrictive habits of the middle ages, some even wear no habits at all. The Catholic Church; however, isn't happy about that and is reportedly conducting an investigation into nuns' lapses.

How are any of these regulations legitimate?

The idea that women must dress modestly holds women responsible for mens' behavior, as though men are wild animals who can't be expected to have self control. Assigning clothing by gender is only an attempt to clearly delineate who gets what privilege in society. Forcing minority groups to dress like the majority is just the majority exerting its dominance. And requiring protesters to be identifiable just makes it easier for authorities to find and intimidate them.

During the holocaust, Jews were forced to wear yellow stars and homosexuals forced to wear pink triangles. Slaves in the United States wore tags. Indigenous people in colonial Guatemala wore intricate patterns that told Spaniards what village they came from (clothing used in the civil war of the 80s to identify "subversives"). In Iran today, women are forced to wear headscarves, but Laila Al-Marayati and Semeen Issa, of the Muslim Women's League, remind us that in 1979 veils were prohibited in Iran.

Whether the society is marking people for oppression or forcing them to conform, it all amounts to coercion. And coercion is wrong.

Dominant groups often make claims that their rules are for some higher purpose. French President Sarkozy says the burqa is a symbol of oppression and a barrier which makes women "prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity." He claims that his burqa ban is about the rights of women, despite the fact that many women who wear the burqa say that it is a personal choice.

But does Sarkozy's claim hold up to closer inspection?

Are not burqa wearing French women still French women with all the rights of French women. Isn't it the job of the French government to make sure their citizens know their rights and are able to exercise those rights?

Sarkozy would be more believable if he started a campaign to advise all French women of their rights. According to Amnesty International, France falls far short when it comes to protecting the rights of domestic violence victims. If Sarkozy is so interested in protecting women, wouldn't making sure French women know their rights (and fully funding programs for victims of domestic the violence) be a more appropriate priority?

The burqa ban is not about the rights of women, any more than forcing women to wear skirts at work is about the rights of women. It is about symbolism. The French government does not like the symbolism of a people setting themselves apart. Many feminists do not like the symbolism of the burqa. But if we are going to start banning symbolism, we can't stop just there. How about banning $60,000 French couture dresses - symbol of the criminal disparities in wealth in this world.

There may be some cases where requirements about what people put on their bodies are necessary. But life and death cases are few and far between. Anyone trying to impose their will on others better have much better reasons than the ones they've come up with so far.

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Depraved or Deluded?

What is the essential character of humanity?

I thought about that question as I followed an argument recently. The argument was about why the media covered celebrity deaths, but ignored the millions of children who die from hunger every year.

Does the media neglect reporting on hunger because people don't want to hear it? Or does the media not report on hunger because they avoid subjects that might make their sponsors look bad?

Are we good people being led astray by the powerful? Or are we selfish people just getting what we want?


And neither.

People are not heartless. More than a quarter of all Americans volunteer in any given year. Charitable giving in the U.S. exceeded $300 billion last year, even with the economic crisis. Millions of us work for nonprofits, prioritizing a meaningful career over one that brings in loads of cash. Everyday people do extraordinary things, like the guy who jumped onto subway tracks to rescue a complete stranger.

So despite the horrible things people do to each other, we can't claim that people are rotten.

But people are not idiots either. We can't blame our failings on programming by the more powerful. The idea that we have no agency is insulting. The inference, when someone says that, is that they are smart enough to find out the truth, but other people aren't. Just because people don't act the way you think they should does not mean that they are sheep.

So despite the pulpit that some powerful people have, we can't claim that people are blameless because they are deceived.

There is no essential character of humanity. We are all capable of all things. We can be as peace loving as Gandhi or as violent as Hitler.

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Little Conversations

Little Conversations by Concrete Blonde was something of an anthem for me growing up.

The little conversations
On me are very rough
They leave me all in pieces
You know there's never time enough
Like a book with missing pages
Like a story incomplete
Like a painting left unfinished
It feels like not enough to eat.
I was never able to do small talk. Part of me envied the people who were. The other part of me dismissed it as shallow and pointless. How could people be talking about sitcoms and celebrities when there was tragedy all over the world?

As I've gotten older, having meaningful conversations has become both easier and more difficult. They are easier because I know more now and because I am more open to other points of view. They are harder because the farther I have gotten from home and childhood, the more other points of view I have encountered.

As an adult, serious conversations have a lot more minefields and potential for the kind of conflict that costs. If you offend someone you go to school with, you just stop talking to each other. If you offend someone you work with, you could have a very miserable working experience.

Some subjects, like racism, are particularly difficult to talk about. Attorney General Eric Holder was right, we are cowards when it comes to talking about race. But we have some reason to be wary. Mistrust is high. And if you look on the comments section of any website dealing with race, you will probably see why.

That's where the little conversations come in. Talking about sitcoms and celebrities gives you the chance to build a relationship. Next thing you know you're talking about your family or bitching about your boss. All these little conversations allow you to get to know a person and build some trust.

And any conversation that builds trust, builds bridges, and builds relationships is meaningful.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Obama, Friend or Foe?

President Obama has been getting his share of criticism lately. And it isn't just coming from Fox News or the crazies who are still searching for his Kenyan birth certificate. Much of the criticism has been coming from his supporters.

The gay community and its allies are furious about the recent brief defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Particularly infuriating was the inference that gay marriage equates with incest.

Those of us who think that torture should be fully investigated are upset about Obama's unwillingness to pursue the matter. The u-turn he took regarding the release of torture photographs was frustrating to say the least.

Some of the reaction has been nasty. I've seen "f-you Obama" posts. I've read a litany of articles on how the gay community needs to dump Obama and the democrats. One writer even went so far as to wax nostalgic for the Bush administration - at least we knew they were going to screw us.

Then there are Obama's unwavering defenders. When Bill Maher criticized Obama for not pushing hard enough for health care and cutting carbon emissions, he received a barrage of calls from Obama supporters.

In response, Bill Maher said "He's your president, not your boyfriend."

Which reminded me of the part in Sexaholix, where John Leguizamo talks about falling in love with his girlfriend. He fell in love with her because she "calls me on my bullshit, but is sweet about it."

Real support means calling people on their bullshit, not blindly supporting every stupid thing they do.

More importantly, we don't need to chose friend or foe. It doesn't make you a foe if you criticize the president. It doesn't make you a friend if you don't. In fact, Obama needs us to be vocal and pushy. The people who don't want to see his promises fulfilled certainly will be.

We have a tendency to be unhappy with one action and extrapolate that to mean that the person is bad or failing or selling out. Life is not that simple. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out:

In general, how much one criticizes Obama is largely a function of the areas on which one tends to focus. If I had spent the week writing about Iran, I would be largely defending -- and praising -- Obama's very wise restraint, even in the face of bipartisan political pressure, when it comes to interfering in Iran's internal political disputes. His private and public refusal to cheer on all of Israel's policies is also commendable. Conversely, those who focus on gay issues have been understandably furious with the administration, and in the areas of civil liberties, secrecy, and his Justice Department generally, the administration has been nothing short of abysmal.
Finally, I'd like to respond to those people who are unhappy with some of Obama's actions, but feel we haven't given him a chance and so should keep quiet. Or maybe they think he needs to spend his political capital on health care and so can't waste it on prosecuting torturers or following through on promises to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell. Or maybe they are just afraid he won't get reelected if he pisses off too many homophobes and torture supporters.

I might accept that criticism was coming too soon if it was simply a matter of not proactively following through on certain promises he made. But this is much more than that. He is actually defending the very policies he claims to be against, from the Defense of Marriage Act to indefinite detention of "suspected" terrorists.

It is not just our right, but our responsibility to point out the hypocrisy and failures of the Obama administration. That doesn't mean we are being too hard on him. It means we believe he can (and should) be who he said he was.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Significance of 'Blood Relations'

I was listening to a podcast a bit ago when one of the guests said something about her "blood," meaning her family. Every time I hear people talk about their family or ethnic group as their blood, it makes me cringe.

As someone who was adopted, I can tell you unequivocally that blood does not mean a thing. There are plenty of biological parents out there who have not done anything for their children. There are plenty of lovers out there whose bond is stronger than the bonds they have with their biological family, whether they had lifelong relationships with that family or not.

And truly, it's a bit insensitive to speak in terms that make the relationship between this country's 1.6 million adopted children and their parents seem less connected and less real.

Another thing I find truly offensive about talk of "blood" is where the talk stems from. Using the word blood to refer to relationships started in the middle ages. Talk of blood was talk of inheritance, aristocracy, and hereditary privilege.

As Benedict Anderson points out in Imagined Communities, Europeans believed that a persons stature in life was related to their blood. They brought these ideas of aristocracy and supremacy to all the lands they colonized.

European ideas about blood continue to saturate the minds of people in this country. Many people still believe in the one-drop rule, the blood of an African being so powerful that the tiniest amount makes them black (and inferior).

And talk of blood to denote family is a culturally centric notion of family. Many cultures have defined family as only those connected through the mother. Some trace lineage by the father. In some groups, children belong to everyone.

I know there are people whose only close relationships are biologically related to them. So I can understand how they might believe biology is the source of that bond. But it would be nice if people took a step back and thought about what they are really saying.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Submissive Education

In one of Maggie Anderson's interviews about the Empowerment Experiment (her effort to buy from black owned businesses for a year), she talks about how hard it is to find black owned businesses. She felt that, black people having been in this country for so long, it shouldn't be so hard to find black entrepreneurs.

Which got me thinking. Maybe it is in part because of being from this country that African Americans entrepreneurs are harder to find. Is our education and socialization system creating workers that obey rather than entrepreneurs that innovate?

When I was a kid, my father had a little office supply business. He used to leave the house every morning to go out and "make" a living. Today, you only hear people talk in terms of "earning" a living.

Education, as William Astore wrote in his article Selling Education, Manufacturing Technocrats, Torturing Souls: The Tyranny of Being Practical, has become about "a better job, higher salary, more marketable skills, and more impressive credentials."

Note the focus on others opinions. Focusing on "marketable skills" means finding out what some employer wants and then learning it. (Convenient for them as they no longer have to provide training before they start making money off of you.) "Impressive credentials" means focusing on looking good to the powers that be, rather than contributing something useful to society.

Interestingly, immigrants are 30% more likely to start a business. Perhaps the type of people who immigrate are naturally more comfortable with risk. Maybe they can't find good work elsewhere. Or maybe, some of these immigrants have not been trained to be compliant workers by our educational system.

Just a thought.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Jewish Racism and the Perils of Assimilation

Some time ago, a friend of mine told me about an interview she listened to where a Muslim American was talking about integrating into U.S. society. He said that Jews were a model of how a group can overcome the prejudices against them and integrate.

My friend thought it was interesting given the animosity between Jews and Muslims. I thought it was interesting because I don't believe Jews necessarily represent a model of integration that new immigrants should follow.

I thought about that interview after I watched Joseph Dana and Max Blumenthal's appalling video of white supremacist American Jews in Jerusalem. (Warning: This video is offensive in the extreme and not work safe.)

I was shocked when I watched the video, not because I deceived myself into thinking there were no racist Jews. I've certainly met some. I was shocked because the young adults in the video so willingly and brazenly adopted the stereotypes, language, and threats of white supremacists (with the ubiquitous appropriated blackness of American youth to boot).

Had I exhibited this KKK-like behavior, my father would have kicked my ass. It isn't so much because he thought racism was wrong (although he did). It would have been more because of his sense of self. I don't believe he thought of himself as white, at least not completely. Most Jews of his era didn't.

He was born in 1929. He was 29 when the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple was bombed by white separatists. He was 35 when Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were found dead. He may not have been marching with Martin Luther King or identifying with the people who did, but he certainly wasn't identifying with white supremacists either.

So what happened?

The people in that video clearly spent much of their lives in the United States, Somewhere along the way they became white. They embraced the worst aspects of the United States - the racism, the hatred, the violence.

The video was posted on many websites. Granted, many of the websites were focused on Israeli issues, but these kids clearly had many years in the states. People commented on what the video meant about Israel. Almost nobody commented on what the video meant about the United States.

One commenter on the Atlantic did get to the heart of the matter:

This is not really about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is about American bigotry, for us Americans to think about and deal with. While these Jews too often move to Israel and contribute to the problems there, it's a fundamentally American problem that needs to be thought about and dealt with by Americans. What about America is making this happen? How is the rubric of classic American racism changing? How do we deal with it differently? What does it mean when a historically marginalized group produces bigots who migrate to the right wing?"
What it means is, they assimilated.

This week a violent anti-semitic and racist walked into the Washington DC holocaust museum and killed an African American security guard. Does anyone believe the shooter cared whether or not he was shooting a Jew or a black person?

So sadly ironic for that act of terrorism to happen the same week as this video of white supremacist Jews shows up on the internet. So sadly ironic for that act of terrorism to happen the same week as responses to that video like this one from 50 cent's website:
where were good all days when hitler ruled the world all theses pig jews should b dead now
That is assimilation we do not need.

Another thing we do not need is low expectations. So many of the comments to the video were along the lines of "that's how drunk kids act" or some such bullshit.


That's how thoughtless, heartless, little monsters act. And if they are old enough to be out at a bar drinking, they are old enough for us to stop calling them kids and start expecting them to act right.

We don't need immigrants to assimilate. We don't need more Americans to identify with the worst aspects of the dominant culture. And we don't need such low expectations for ourselves that we blow these things off. We need immigrants (and native born) to challenge the dominant culture. We need people who challenge the hierarchy, racism, classism, and violence.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

White People Lose it Over Buy Black Experiment

One of the people I follow on twitter linked to this story with the comment that it was racist. The article is about an African American couple in Chicago (John and Maggie Anderson) who have decided to only buy from black owned businesses for one year. It's called the Empowerment Experiment and WOW do some white people have their panties in a bunch over it.

A typical comment goes something like this - If a white person said they were going to buy only from white owned businesses, then it would be racist. So the other way around is racist too.


Newsflash. Most white people do only buy from white owned businesses. In fact, a whole lot of non-white people buy from only white owned businesses. In fact, even the woman who started the buy black experiment, who lives in a predominantly white suburb, said in her NPR interview "none of my money went to black businesses last year."

I lived in Santa Cruz, California for six years. Santa Cruz residents have a very strong preference for supporting locally owned businesses and keeping money in the Santa Cruz community. Santa Cruz is 90% white.

The number of black owned businesses is so small that the U.S. Census Bureau doesn't even put down a percentage. It just says "S: Suppressed; does not meet publication standards." Hispanic owned firms also get the big "Suppressed." In other words, those "Buy Local" bumper stickers around town may as well say "Buy White."

Does that mean I think people in Santa Cruz are wrong to support local businesses? No. Because, like the couple that decided to buy only from black owned businesses for a year, the intent is to spend money in a way that supports a more just world.

Does that mean there should be no discussion about those kinds of choices? No, because the local store may be owned by the grand puba of the KKK. And a black entrepreneur could be selling products made in a sweatshop.

But those are thoughtful discussions that reasonable people ought to be having. Instead, what we get are comments like this gem over on the Famuan:

Hey bmc if you told 10 white people about this stupid ebony experiment, 10 out of 10 would boycott anything black. weather be shoes of shaq, or golf clubs of tiger, stupid music of kanye. And obviously because of your childish fatherless culture way of thinking your missing the point, by the way because of this story I have boycotted anything black, Look the black community needs to stop acting like thoughtless neanderthals, stop acting childish and at least pretend you have a daddy, As someone has said made a very great valid point.. get off this Hip Hop prison jail metality culture, dont cry about what white people say, and change your so called black communitys flaws
I know I've been around too long to be surprised at this kind of shit, but I can't help it. You'd think people would at least have the sense to be ashamed of their ignorance.

The irony is that addressing what the Anderson's see as a flaw in the black community is exactly what they are trying to do with the Ebony Experiment. As well-off black people who "made it" and left their blighted inner-city neighborhoods behind, they felt they were part of the problem. Their experiment is about seeing if, by spending their money in the black community, they can help those struggling black communities.

They aren't advocating that every black person buy only from black people. In fact, they repeatedly call their commitment "extreme." Their extreme measure is meant, not only to start a conversation, but to collect real data that shows how individuals can make a difference by changing their spending habits

One commenter on the Wall Street Journal said
Right now I buy based on convienence and price. I know nothing of the owner and nor do I really want to concern myself with this issue of his color his politics or his lifestyle.
That's the real problem. If we all just buy based on convenience and price then we support some truly heinous things, all in the name of saving a few minutes or a few bucks. What if that cheap thing was made by children or slaves? What if the company who grew your bananas poisoned its workers? What if that Coca Cola you love so much is only cheap because goons beat labor organizers to death?

What if our not paying attention to who we buy from ensures a large portion of Americans remain in perpetual poverty?

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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Arrested for Posession....of Condoms

Think twice before you come home with that value pack of condoms. Police from San Francisco to Tel Aviv use condoms as evidence of prostitution.

San Francisco police continue to use condoms as evidence in prostitution cases.

In Tel Aviv, massage parlors are raided by police and, if there are condoms on the premises, they are assumed to be "brothels."

A prostitutes organization in the United Kingdom, where condoms have also been used as evidence, wrote an open letter to the home secretary decrying the practice.

According to a 2004 Human Rights Watch report, arresting women for carrying condoms is prevalent in the Philappines as well.

In a moment of sanity, and in an effort to control the spread of HIV, the Chinese government recently decided to end the practice of using condoms as evidence of prostitution.

Presumably the anti-prostitution police are taking action based on their supposed concern for prostitutes, or at least for public health. So explain to me why they do something that makes prostitutes less likely to use condoms? Stupidity? Hypocrisy? Worse?

* Thanks to Audacia Ray and Stacy Swimme who brought this up at their session on Sex Work in the Time of Obama at Sex 2.0 this weekend.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Vibrators and Test Tube Babies Destroy the World

This morning my fax machine spit out a flier from the Utah based group America Forever. The title was, ironically, Do Not Be Ignorant! The purpose of the flier is to stop the "homosexual movement" from enacting hate crime legislation, which they refer to as "a crime of the century against children."

Apparently, homosexuals (whose "Homosexual Declaration of War" was read to congress back in 1987) are trying to convert all children to "unnatural" homosexuality. Once we've all been converted, only test tube babies will be born. Those test tube children are going to take over the country and "stifle free speech and religious freedom."

I'm fairly certain this group is affiliated with the one the Dead Milkmen told us about, ya know those queers working with the aliens to poison the soil

The most interesting part of the whole fax is how upset these people are about "unnatural" stimulation of any kind. They claim that homosexuality should be in the "same class as hookers (and) pornography since this sexual conduct uses toys of stimulation to fulfil nature's sexual desires in an unnatural way."

I know people think vibrators and dildos are embarrassing. I had no idea people think they are a source of evil. Kind of makes you want to do a humanitarian vibrator drop over the state of Utah. Somebody needs to help those poor women.

Who is with me?

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Monday, April 27, 2009

The Other Torture Memos: Secrets and Complicity in Guatemala

The Bush administration's repugnant torture instructions were not the only declassified documents to come to light recently.

The National Security Archive has been posting formerly classified documents related to Guatemala's dirty war of the 1980s. The documents show that the United State's government was well aware of the kidnappings, murder, and torture of political dissidents in Guatemala.

The dirty war in Guatemala lasted 36 years. Two hundred thousand Guatemalans were killed or disappeared. More than one million Guatemalans were displaced. Hundreds of villages were wiped off the map.

Guatemalan officials denied that these atrocities occurred and many still deny them to this day. General Otto Pérez Molina, who has been linked to massacres and executions, continued his denials during his recent presidential campaign.

Pérez Molina isn't the only Guatemalan who remains unconfronted by the law. Most of those responsible for the human rights abuses and genocidal war have suffered no consequences for their actions.

Why did we keep them secret for so long?

If I knew about a crime and did not report what I knew to authorities, I would be an accessory. That same rule should apply to governments as well.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Heritage Indignant that Obama Enforces the Law

I received an amusing email from the Heritage Foundation the other day. (Yes, I'm on their list. I'm keeping an eye on them.)

The email was about President Obama's recent call for $100 million in administrative cuts to federal programs. The Heritage Foundation pointed out that it is a bit disingenuous to call for massive stimulus spending to get the economy back on track and to simultaneously call for cuts somewhere else. The email says,

The Department of Veterans Affairs canceled or delayed 26 conferences (lost jobs for the airline, rental car, food service, and hotel industries). The Education Department is no longer allowing employees to have both laptop and desktop computers (lost jobs for retail and technology manufacturing companies. The Agriculture Department is terminating leases and doing more to verify the income of recipients of farm subsidies (lost jobs for agriculture). And the Department of Homeland Security is going to start buying its office supplies in bulk(lost jobs for Office Depot).
I must grudgingly admit they have a small point about the conferences and computers and office supplies. If the goal is to get that rampant consumerism going again, you'd think the cuts could wait a bit.

But that's not what I want to talk about here. What I want to bring your attention to is that blurb about the agriculture department "doing more to verify the income of recipients of farm subsidies." That isn't just a random cut to spending. It is asking the ag department to enforce the law.

A little background - We taxpayers spend tens of billions of dollars each year in farm subsidies. These subsidies aren't going to help small family farmers. The top ten percent of recipients receive the vast majority of that money. Aside from the general atrociousness of redistributing wealth from your average taxpayer to agribusiness, the subsidy programs are prone to all sorts of abuse.

According to a report by Cato, the GAO estimated that up to half a billion dollars of our money is received by people who shouldn't be getting it. So now Obama wants to enforce the law. You would think that enforcing the law would be something we could all agree on.

You would think.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Carnival of the Liberals Time

Carnival of the Liberals just came out. This issue is hosted by Johnny Pez. I particularly enjoyed American Nihilist's...uh...encouragement of Joe Scarborough. And the Barefoot Badger's story got me wondering why the hell we are saving the car companies anyway.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

American Violet Shows the Violence and Racism of the Drug War

Based on the true story of Regina Kelly, American Violet portrays the violence, racism, and institutionalized injustices perpetrated by drug warriors.

African American communities in a small Texas town were being terrorized by a drug task force led by the local district attorney. Texas law allowed for people to be indicted based on the word of one confidential informant. Those indicted were picked up in drug sweeps and were pressured to plead guilty.

Dee Roberts (the character based on Regina Kelly) was one of those picked up. Innocent, she refused to plead. She became the lead plaintiff in an ACLU racial bias case against the district attorney and others.

The film is compelling in its own right. More importantly, it conveys the violence, racism, injustice, and institutional bias of our justice system. It does it with accuracy and without getting preachy.

It shows how poor African Americans are easy targets for a monstrous bureaucracy with perverse incentives to keep arrests high. It shows the violence of the drug war, not the violence of cartels and gangs that we normally see in the media, but the everyday violence police perpetrate on communities.

The drug war doesn't just take the freedom of those convicted. Poor people who are forced to plead guilty become felons who cannot find jobs, cannot receive public assistance, cannot live in public housing, and cannot vote. Children lose their parents. Communities are torn apart.

American Violet is a film everyone needs to see.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Homeland Security's Power on US Mexico Border Challenged

* Update Below

You have undoubtedly heard about the border fence being built on the U.S. Mexico border. You may not have heard what is being done in order to get it built.

When congress enacted the the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, they gave the head of Homeland Security absolute and unreviewable authority to violate any state or local laws in order to get the border fence up.

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Secretary of Homeland Security shall have the authority to waive all legal requirements such Secretary, in such Secretary’s sole discretion, determines necessary to ensure expeditious construction of the barriers and roads under this section.
Just to be clear, the head of Homeland Security gets to define what the law means. She can do whatever she wants. Her decisions cannot be challenged by a court unless the challenge is directly related to a violation of the constitution.

In this case, the former Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, decided that his mandate was to do whatever was necessary to build the fence and maintain the fence. Expanding his mandate from building to maintaining means this power goes on into perpetuity. He refused to state what laws he was violating (simply that he was violating a bunch) and never clarified how far this legal no mans land extended.

The federal government was sued by the County of El Paso, Frontera Audubon Society and others. Lower courts ordered that the government did have the authority to wave all local laws in carrying out the instructions of congress - problems with water services or endangered species be damned.

There are many who don't give a hoot whether or not U.S. citizens have their property taken away or get caught on the wrong side of the fence. And there are many who don't care whether those citizens can receive water and other basic services or whether or not endangered species die. But even those people should surely be concerned if congress can give one person or agency carte blanche to ignore whatever laws they see fit, at their discretion, with no check on their power.

This unprecedented infringement on private, local government, and state rights is coming before the Supreme Court for review tomorrow. The petitioners argue that judicial review should be a requirement. Let's hope they hear it.

For links to all the relevant documents in the case, check out Turtle Talk.

* The Supreme Court is refusing to hear the case. Looks like Homeland Security can do whatever it wants.

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Monday, April 6, 2009

Should Drug Users Lose Their Right to Vote?

More than five million Americans could not vote in the last election because they were convicted of a felony. Only two states allow felons to vote. In many states, former felons are barred permanently from voting. In others, felons can get their voting rights back, but the process is so arduous that few do.

I doubt many people are losing sleep over whether Charles Manson can vote. I'm guessing many people would approve of the idea that criminals lose their rights as citizens after acting against the citizenry. But we aren't talking about Charles Manson here. More than half of federal prisoners are in prison for drug crimes.

Let's take a state like California. California has the nations largest prison population and an overcrowding problem so bad that federal judges have ordered the prison population decreased. While Prop 36 has caused a decrease in the percentage of prisoners incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses, they still constitute more than 20% of the prison population in California.

Recent polling shows that more than 50% of California voters are in favor of marijuana legalization. A vote would be close. All those people barred from voting, the very people who lost their freedom and civil rights due to drug prohibition, could tip the scales.

Drug laws have been broken at least once by 40% of Americans. If that many people are breaking the law, there is something wrong with the law. Would we strip 40% of Americans of their voting rights? What kind of democracy is that?

Sheila Jackson Lee has introduced a House bill intended to restore voting rights to all ex felons within thirty days of being released from prison. The bill is languishing in committee right now. If your representative is on the House Committee on the Judiciary, call and tell them you want to see that bill move.

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Individual Effort vs? Collective Action

Andrew Sullivan wrote in a recent blog post that conservativism needs to "recover its core sense of itself as the movement that values...individual effort over collective action." The Washington Post also snubbed the idea of collective action when it described how Obama "yields to 'collective action'" by the G20. So what is collective action? Is it really a bad thing? Why are conservatives so against it? Are individual effort and collective action mutually exclusive?

Collective action is people working together to do things they cannot do alone. It is organizing to build infrastructure. It's pooling resources to help farmers in a drought or hurricane victims after a storm. It is the march of the military and the march on Washington. It is the Chamber of Commerce and the slimiest group of lobbyists. It can be a lynching or a sit in. It isn't inherently good or bad. Collective action is neutral.

What Sullivan seems to be saying is that collective action protects the unworthy, the lazy, the moochers. That idea rests on an assumption that defies logic, that individual effort and collective action are mutually exclusive. Collective action requires individual effort. Anyone who has ever tried to do anything collectively can confirm that it's a lot more work than going it alone.

In fact, collective action often protects individual effort. A farmer can work all year tilling fields and that individual effort may be for nothing if a drought comes and there is no collective action to help. An employee may give 80 hours a week of amazingly productive work to an employer and have nothing to show for it because of their manager's personal prejudices. We are at the mercy of powerful forces throughout our lives - nature and human nature. Collective action can help to ensure that all our work is not wasted because of some whim beyond our control.

In the conservative worldview personal responsibility became code for black and brown people taking advantage of you. Selfishness is a given. The ideal is a cowboy (always a man) out on his own - no family, no community to restrict his selfish desires. Conservatives resent having to show consideration for other people. If anyone is in need, according to this worldview, it must be their own fault.

To be fair, Sullivan expressly says that he is not talking about "welfare queens," although he shouldn't be surprised that people assumed he was. And he is not attacking a basic social safety net. In fact he defends it. For him, "it's about those who contribute their labor to produce something of value, and those who primarily rely on government, directly and indirectly, to get them through their lives." The moochers he cites include corporate welfare recipients and teachers unions.

I'm all for getting rid of corporate welfare, but is the problem too much collective action or not enough? Where are the citizens collectively screaming from the rooftops when they hear about Archer Daniels Midland getting billions in tax dollars. Where are the citizens screaming from the rooftops when a bad teacher continues to teach. Better yet, where are they when good teachers are fired for political reasons or when horrible administration makes good teachers quit.

It is not collective action that is to blame for corporate welfare and lobbyists and obstructionist unions. It is abuse of power on the part of a few and a lack of collective action on the part of the many. What Sullivan should be asking himself is how the very conservative values that Sullivan is pining for are part of the problem.

Democracy is collective action.

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Friday, April 3, 2009

Portugal Proves that Decriminalization Does Not Increase Drug Problems

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized drug use. Much like in the U.S., the naysayers claimed that decriminalization would lead to increased drug use and drug tourism. Glenn Greenwald went to Portugal to find out if the dire predictions were true. They weren't.

Portugal in the 1990s was experiencing an increase in drug abuse and related problems. A commission was convened to decide what to do about it. Drug legalization was taken off the table because international treaties force countries to keep drugs illegal. Barring legalization, the commission was tasked with looking at the evidence and making a rational decision. The commission decided that the best way to get the drug problem under control was decriminalization.

They had identified two obstacles that decriminalization would help them to overcome. The first was that criminalization made people hesitant to go to the state for help with their drug problem. Fear of jail, a criminal record, or simple stigma kept people away. By removing those obstacles, they reasoned, people would be more willing to get help.

Additionally, they were pouring money into the criminal justice system to prosecute drug users. Portugal, as one of the poorest European countries, didn't have money to waste. Decriminalization freed up resources to be used for treatment and education instead of for the criminal justice system.

As Greenwald pointed out in his conference at the Cato Institute on Friday, supporters of prohibition use scare tactics to justify their position. They will grudgingly acknowledge that our efforts have not resulted in less drug abuse or related problems, but they always claim that legalization or decriminalization would make matters worse. For Greenwald, the central question is "is this assumption accurate."

All the evidence from Portugal shows that it is not. According to his report Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies, drug use in the 13 - 15 year old and 16 - 18 year old groups has decreased for most drugs. Newly reported HIV and AIDS cases related to drug use have declined. Drug related deaths have declined. In fact, "in virtually every category of any significance, Portugal, since decriminalization, has outperformed the vast majority of other states that continue to adhere to a criminalization regime."

Greenwald sent a draft of his report to the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy asking why, given higher drug use here than in Portugal, we continue to pursue criminalization. They didn't respond.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

How Do We Get Good Governance?

Suddenly I'm being bombarded with talk of good and bad governance.

The Stiglitz Commission blames, among other things, bad corporate governance for the economic disaster we are in. Madeleine Bunting credits good governance with Singapore's economic turnaround since the 1950s. My weekend movie, Life After the Fall, showed how a total lack of governance turned Iraqis from hopeful to dejected in just four years.

All of which got me thinking about what good governance is.

Systems for

  • making decisions about issues that effect the group
  • resolving disputes
  • coordinating projects that no person can do on their own (highways, bridges...)
  • preventing one person's greed and selfishness from sabotaging the lives of everyone else
  • enforcing consequences for actions that adversely effect others
  • responding to emergencies
  • keeping people safe
I think few people would disagree that we need those things, although many would disagree about what each of those things involves. Keeping people safe could be anything from an army to helmet laws - and you'll find people in favor and against both of those things.

But I don't want to argue about those definitions right now. That's the purpose of having a system that allows for group decision-making. What I want to ask is how do we get good governance?

Elections certainly don't lead to good governance. Elections in Iraq didn't do anything to stop the violence or get the electricity working. The election of Dubya certainly didn't lead to good governance. Any post Katrina New Orleans resident will attest to that. In fact, if having elections leads people to believe that voting once every few years is all that is required of them, elections may leave us worse off. Everyone just pushes the button on their local Diebold machine and then goes home to bitch about what the politicians they voted for are doing.

The corporations that led us into this financial disaster also have a farcical version of democracy. They talk about responding to shareholders the same way politicians talk about responding to constituents. And shareholders have abdicated their responsibilities even more than citizens have. How many of us own mutual funds and don't know what they are invested in, much less how our fund manager is voting at shareholder meetings.

This lack of participation by most of us suits the politicians and CEOs just fine. Quarterly reports, legislation, contracts, and financials are purposely confusing, unclear, complicated, and absurdly long. Combine that with working too many hours and the sad state of our media and most of us just give up trying to figure things out.

So what would I like to see? We could start with
  • A compensation system that enables people to work less so they have more time to participate in governance
  • A universal unwillingness to give money or votes to anything not understood
  • Accepting representative governance as a fallback position, a necessary evil sometimes, but not the be all and end all
Anyone else?

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Bailout: Sacrificing Justice for Temporary Stability

I've been thinking a lot about justice lately. Specifically, I've been thinking about how often people try to convince those seeking justice to set aside that desire. I've been thinking about how often we are told that holding people responsible for their actions would cause more suffering.

The economic disaster is a perfect example. Billions of dollars are being lost into the ether as we bail out the scoundrels who got us into this mess. We are told the vacuuming up of our present and future resources is necessary in order to mitigate short-term suffering and instability.

People are less and less inclined to believe bailout justifications, in large part because we see that those responsible are not suffering any consequences for their actions. After reading Matt Taibbi's recent article, it's hard not to believe that the bailout is just a scam to transfer our resources into the grubby hands of Goldman Sachs and friends. So long as our government shows no signs of bringing the people who caused this mess to justice, our distrust will grow.

Let's take this out of a financial context for a minute. This past weekend I watched The Reckoning. The film is about efforts to get the International Criminal Court (ICC) up and running. The film highlighted the situations in Uganda and Sudan, but it could easily apply to hundreds of other situations in the world. Whenever the leaders responsible for genocide, rape, and crimes against humanity faced prosecution; they used the threat of more suffering to defend themselves.

In Uganda, the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) went on a campaign to convince Ugandans that the ICC warrants for LRA leaders' arrests were an obstacle to the peace process. (Never mind that there was no peace process before the warrants.) The LRA presented the people a choice between peace and justice. When a warrant was issued for the president of Sudan for human rights violations, he retaliated by kicking out humanitarian organizations and putting millions of Sudanese without the assistance they desperately need.

The case of Sudan is clear. There are people who will suffer in the short term because of the warrant issued. It's possible that the other cases, including our financial disaster, also present a choice between mitigating short term suffering and pursuing justice. But if we keep sacrificing justice for short term needs, won't we just ensure that we will keep dealing with the same problems over and over? If people without morals see that they can get away with abusing their power, why would they ever stop?

One final observation. When I was in Guatemala I was struck by how defeated the people seemed. Nobody believed in the system. Time and again powerful people got away with outrageous crimes. Military leaders responsible for mass atrocities don't just walk free, but run for president. Former presidents who absconded with the people's money live like royalty in other countries. The more people see impunity, the more hopeless the situation seems. The more hopeless the situation seems, the less agency they feel. The less they participate in political life, the more power the abusers have. It is a downward spiral and we can't afford to allow that to happen to us.

Justice is not an obstacle to stability and peace, it is a prerequisite. People who don't want to face justice are using our fear - fear of violence, fear of starvation, fear of financial collapse - but it is by caving in that we assure all of those things will go on forever.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How Are We A Christian Nation?

People may dispute that the United States is a "Christian nation," but nobody disputes that the majority of the people living here identify as Christian. When Columbus stumbled upon the Americas, there weren't any Christians here. So how did it happen that the most common religion in the country became Christianity?

On the west coast of what is now the United States, Spanish priests set up a string of missions. Natives were forcefully converted and used as slave labor. On the east coast, the Puritans had far less luck converting natives. Devastating European diseases, a constant influx of new Christians from Europe, and violent competition for land soon made the non-Christian, native populations tiny and powerless.

It wasn't just Europeans that wanted to come here. Asian immigrants also came in huge numbers to work on railroads, mining, and lumber. In 1852, about 10% of the population of California was of Chinese descent. The Chinese population decreased exponentially after California residents pushed for our first anti-immigrant law, The Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinese were barred from coming here and ineligible to become citizens until the 1940s. Had it not been for that, we would have many more Taoists, Buddhists, and Confucians in our midst.

Jews were also a target of immigration laws. The Immigration Act of 1891 aimed to stem the tide of Russian and Eastern European Jews that had been coming to the U.S. in large numbers. The House of Representatives also tried to require literacy tests for any immigrants, mostly to restrict access to undereducated, Yiddish speaking Jews from Europe. Even when Jews were dying by the millions during World War II, the U.S. continued to block Jewish immigrants.

Until 1965, when President Johnson signed into law sweeping immigration reform, our immigration laws were intended to keep the United States as white and Christian as possible. If we are a nation of mostly Christians, it is because of systematic discrimination supported by the very un-Christian, Christians who designed U.S. laws.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

U.S. Government Kidnapped Japanese Latin Americans

During World War II, the United States government rounded up Americans of Japanese descent and put them in camps. Hopefully, this is not news to you. What you may not know is that some of the people imprisoned were actually residents of Latin American countries.

Apparently, someone in our government had the idea of trading these Latin Americans of Japanese descent in prisoner exchanges. According to the Campaign for Justice, 2,264 people were kidnapped from various countries in Latin America, forcibly taken to the United States, stripped of their passports, and imprisoned (with no legal recourse).

Some of these kidnapped Latin Americans were traded. Others were deported after the war. Since many of the Latin American countries refused to take them back, many were deported to Japan - a country devastated by war.

Despite the fact that they were brought to the U.S. against their will, these prisoners were treated as illegal entrants. So when Japanese Americans received compensation for what they went through, Latin Americans of Japanese descent were ineligible.

There are currently two bills making their way through congress (H.R. 42 and S. 69) which call for an investigation into this truly repugnant time in U.S. history. I'll be following this one.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Time for a Maximum Wage

We've been having the wrong argument.

Liberals have been arguing that we should tax the rich more (as we used to). Conservatives say that taxes (any taxes) retard growth and remove incentives.

I say they are both wrong.

The conservative argument is based on the idea that only the possibility of obscene amounts of money is an incentive for work and creativity. Bull. Ask most nonprofit employees, nuns, or fire fighters if their primary incentive is cash.

What if the entire world worked on the principle of politicians, Wall Street brokers, and CEOs? We would be screwed. As far as I'm concerned, if owning a gold plated yacht is the only thing that motivates you, you need to do some serious soul searching.

Meanwhile the liberals operate from an equally objectionable principle. Suggesting that we just increase taxes on the rich requires an acceptance of the glaring income inequality behind all this mess.

The Tax Justice Network has a fascinating and disturbing quote from former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers:

If the income distribution in the United States were the same today as it was in 1979, the bottom 80 percent of the population would have about $670 billion more, or about $8,000 per family. And the top one percent would have about $670 billion less, or about $500,000 per family.
$8,000 per family! How much more comfortable would your life be with an extra $8,000 a year?

Does anyone really need to make $54 million a year? How can we accept a society where some Wall Street schmuck makes $54 million while your average teaching assistant makes $22,820? The person who grows your food is lucky to bring in $22,640. The person who serves your food makes $16,700. The person who takes care of your child brings in $19,670.

We need to close that gap.

I'm not suggesting that we give everyone the same amount of income. People should receive extra compensation for long years of education, for extra responsibility, for doing the kinds of jobs that other people don't want to do, and for doing the kinds of jobs most essential to our survival. And people should receive compensation for outstanding efforts. But that doesn't mean that the difference has to be as vast as it is.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Greedy Whiners and Misleading Statistics

The March 7th issue of the National Journal asks the question:

President Obama has announced plans to raise income taxes on the wealthy and curb various tax breaks for upper-income Americans. What percentage of income taxes is now being paid by this group, compared with 1986?
According to them, the percentage of income taxes paid by the top 1 percent of earners jumped from 25.75% to 39.4%. The percentage of income taxes paid by the top 25 percent jumped from 76% to 86%. When you put it like that, it sounds like the rich have had some serious tax hikes in the last couple decades.

Before you start sending sympathy cards to Donald Trump, let's take a look at those figures a little more closely.

Tax is a percentage of your income. More income means more tax. And the richest Americans have been taking a larger slice of the income pie. In 1986, the richest one percent earned only 11% of all income. By 2005 they were earning 21% of all income. The top 25% went from collecting 59% of all income to collecting 67.5% of all income.

Let's break that down into numbers that a person like me can wrap their heads around. Let's say that America consisted of 100 people and the gross income pie was 1 million dollars for both years. What would that have looked like in 1986 and 2005?

In 1986
  • 1 person would have earned $110,000 for the year
  • 24 people would have received about $20,000 each
  • 75 people would have received about $5,466.67 each
In 2005
  • 1 person would have earned $210,000 for the year
  • 24 people would have received about $19,375 each
  • 75 people would have received about $4,333.33 each
In this (admittedly over-simplified) example, in 1986 one person lived well on $110,000 a year while 75 people scraped by on $5,466.67. By 2005, that one wealthy person nearly doubled their income by skimming a little off the top of those who could least afford it.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Why Are We Afraid of Mobs?

There is a fascinating article in the February 28th issue of The Economist. The article describes a research project by Lancaster university social psychologist Mark Levine.

Levine is trying to understand how a crowd may effect whether or not situations become violent. His research has shown that larger crowds actually may decrease the chance of violence. Apparently, the larger the crowd, the more people may intervene to keep the peace.

The article goes on to say

His work could have practical consequences, since police generally aim to break crowds up. If he is right, that approach may unintentionally lead to more fights. It sounds counter-intuitive, but many of the best ideas are.
But is it "counter-intuitive"? Why do we assume that more people means more danger? And why do we assume that the police tactics are meant to decrease violence?

The real issue here is control. When police break up a large group of people it is not about preventing violence, it is about crowd control. Police methods for crowd control are often incredibly violent.

The worst atrocities are not those committed by unruly crowds, but those committed by organized, authoritarian structures. Nazis did what they did under the full force and protection of the law and of German authority, not in a disorganized frenzy.

According to the etymology dictionary, the word mob is "slang shortening of mobile, mobility 'common people, populace, rabble.'" One of the meanings for mob is still just a group of people, but we most often use it to mean a group that is out of control or violent - a product of certain people associating all of us "common people" with scary chaos.

So who do you trust, your fellow rabble or the people who want to control you?

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Would Legalizing Drugs Increase Drug Use?

One of the main arguments used by supporters of drug prohibition is that legalizing drugs would increase drug use. Is that really a logical conclusion? Is there any evidence to support it?

To those who make that argument I ask - if drug use were legal, would you start doing drugs? I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that the answer is no. In which case, these people believe that, while they have the mental faculties to see that drug use has other negative consequences besides the threat of prison, a large portion of the rest of us do not. It's a little insulting. Do we really think that someone who hits the gym every morning and drinks wheat grass is going to turn around and start shooting up heroin because it is legal?

Of course the flip side of that argument is that the illegality of drugs prevents people from using them. Let's take marijuana. About 40% of all adults have smoked marijuana at least once in their lives. If marijuana's illegality is keeping people from smoking it, how many people are we talking about? Do prohibition supporters think another 30% of the population would smoke pot if it were legal? If 70% of the population wants to do something, something that causes no direct physical harm to others, why is a minority being allowed to dictate what we put in our bodies?

Occasionally, supporters of drug prohibition will provide examples that they say prove that legality would increase drug use. According to the Department of Justice, "Legalization has been tried before—and failed miserably. Alaska’s experiment with Legalization in the 1970s led to the state’s teens using marijuana at more than twice the rate of other youths nationally. This led Alaska’s residents to vote to re-criminalize marijuana in 1990."

The DOJ, however, does not back up the assertion on their website with evidence. On the other hand, in a report by the Cato Institute titled Thinking About Drug Legalization, James Ostrowski sites statistics for Alaska that show just the opposite. In fact, Alaska may have had less teen drug use that other states. And while the DOJ asserts that The Netherlands drug policy has tripled heroin addiction levels, studies show that The Netherlands has a lower rate of drug use than the United States.

I recently attended a drug policy conference. One of the speakers, Vanda Felbab-Brown, asserted that legalization would increase drug use. The example she presented was the high rates of addiction in China when opiates were legal there.

One estimate of Chinese opium smoking in 1890 (in Jonathan D. Spence's book Chinese Roundabout) puts the rate of use at about 10% of the population, with 3 to 5% excessively smoking. According to the National Institute on Drug Policy, heroin use in the United States is only about 1.5%. But are we really comparing like things here?

In China, opium use was not just culturally acceptable, but in some cases promoted by local and colonial governments. In contrast, heroin may be one of the least socially acceptable drugs in the United States today. Growing up I knew many people who would happily snort cocaine, but would not do heroin as that was reserved for "junkies." If we compare opium use in China to a more socially acceptable drug like marijuana, then 10% is exactly the same figure for adults who have used marijuana in the last month.

Drug prohibition in the United States is nearly 100 years old. The drug war has been actively fought since the Nixon presidency. It isn't working. The main argument for continuing drug prohibition just doesn't hold water.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

What's Curious About Benjamin Button is Who Takes Care of Him

Benjamin Button lived free and died young, very young. Here I am less interested in the young than in the free. He worked out on the ocean, traveling from port to port. Later, he hopped on a motorcycle and traveled the world.

The movie makes a point of showing that it is not money that prevents people from being able to do that. Button leaves Daisy all of his money before he takes off on his bike. What the movie does not look at is how an individual is able to pursue their interests so freely when the world is full of people (young and old) requiring care.

As a child, Benjamin's father walked away from his responsibility to his son. It was a woman who took him in and brought him up. When Benjamin had his own child, he left that child to another woman (the child's mother) to be cared for. When Benjamin ages, it is Daisy who takes care of him until his death. When Daisy dies in the hospital, it is her daughter and a female nurse that take care of her until her death.

Art imitates life.

Somewhere between 59% and 75% of all family caregivers are women. Even where men are providing family care, it is generally for less time than women. And the women who provide this care often have to juggle work with caring for children and aging parents.

Rich women have the option of pawning off this responsibility to poorer women, women like Queenie. Not only did Queenie take care of Benjamin, she took care of a house full of elderly people. Many of those people never had so much as a visit from their families. Rich women have options for taking care of their children as well. They can hire a nanny or fly in an Au Pair. They can afford expensive daycare.

And while the cost of daycare for a child or the cost of a home health care worker for an aging parent is astronomical, the workers themselves don't make a living wage. The average nanny or daycare worker makes about $24,000 a year. The median wage of a home health care worker is $9.62 an hour and nearly half are far enough below the poverty line to be eligible for medicaid. Even worse, home health care workers are exempt from basic wage and overtime laws.

I wonder who is taking care of poor people's children and elderly while they take care of everyone else?

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Immorality of Having Children

I received two emails this morning that really got me going. The first was from Planned Parenthood letting me know that it is National Condom Week. The second was from Alternet and contained a posting by Vanessa Richmond called Is Breeding a Sin?.

Nadya Suleman has received a shitstorm of criticism for using fertility treatments to have 14 children with no visible means of financial support. Richmond's article infers that it is wrong to criticize Nadya and applaud Brangelina for having a similar-sized litter. For Richmond, the only difference between the two cases is the amount of money they have.

While I see her point, nobody can possibly believe that the ability to support your children shouldn't be a factor in whether or not you have them. More importantly, not only is there a very big difference between 14 children and 6, much of the Brangelina crew is adopted. And that makes a huge difference.

Any public discussions about breeding in our country always revolve around the abortion controversy. The discussions never focus on the amount of children who are neglected, abused, and lost in the system. In fact, a common argument from anti-choice people is that all these unwanted children will be adopted into loving homes. Even John McCain said it in one of the presidential debates.

At least McCain had an adopted child when he said it, which is more than I can say for most anti-choice people I've encountered. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, there were nearly half a million kids in foster care as of September 30, 2007. And, according to a study by Mary I. Benedict and Susan Zuravin, kids who live in group homes are 10 times more likely to be physically abused and 28 times more likely to be sexually abused than kids in the general population.

But at least those kids have a roof over their heads and food on the table. According to World Vision, every day "nearly 25,000 children under age 5 will die from preventable or treatable causes". Basic nutrition, re-hydration therapy, immunizations, and antibiotics could save most of them.

If there was a starving baby on the threshold of your house, would you step over it on your way inside to go get knocked up? If you had been thinking about having a baby and that starving child showed up on your doorstep, would you take that baby in? If you could only afford one child, would you forgo having "your own" in order to take care of that baby?

I think a decent person would take that child in, even if it meant not having a biological child. And I think people who have children make that choice every time they bring a child into the world. They are choosing to give their love, and their resources, to a new creation rather than giving them to people already on this earth who desperately need it.

What is the only reason people can possibly offer as to why they insist on bringing more people into the world, a world where so many here are not being taken care of? Biology. As someone who was adopted, I find that repugnant. Implied is that my parents (and the parents of millions of adopted children) loved their children less. It's insulting.

Given the amount of children suffering and dying in the world, having children should be controversial. People who selfishly bring children into the world without thought to whether or not they can provide for them, nurture them, and raise them to be productive members of society are immoral. People who encourage people to have children they are not prepared to take care of (anti-choice activists and the pope included) are immoral. People who want only "their own" child and close their eyes to the suffering of other children are immoral.

It's time we started acknowledging that we all have a stake in the health and well-being of others. A child neglected or abused today becomes the mess that society has to deal with tomorrow. This is not a personal issue only. It is a social issue.

So the next time someone you know gets pregnant, don't just provide a knee-jerk congratulations. The next time some anti-choice person goes marching around with pictures of a fetus, make them stare at a photo of a starving child for a while. The next time some religious zealot says birth control is evil, read this story about a man who beat his toddler to death on the side of a road and tell me that man shouldn't have used birth control.

So yes. Sometimes breeding is a sin.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Freedom to Marry Week: Whose Marriage does the Church Approve?

join the conversationMost of the objection to gay marriage comes from religious people. As I've mentioned before, regular church attendance is the most telling factor when looking at who will be for or against gay marriage.

These people believe that marriage is a union before god. So if marriage is a joining of two people before god, do all gods count? If you are a christian, do you accept a marriage before Allah? Do you accept a marriage before the Buddha? Do you accept a pagan marriage? Do you accept a marriage between two people who don't believe in god at all?

If I were to start a religion (let's call it snarkism) whose main tenet was that only people of the same sex should get married, would that be an acceptable marriage before god? Even if it was christian in every other sense of the word?

Let's get real here. The objections to gay marriage come largely from people who think they can impose their particular idea of morality on the rest of us. And it doesn't matter if they get that morality from their religion or they use their religion as a shield for their prejudices. Enough already.

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Monday, February 9, 2009

The Wrestler: Selling Sex and Violence

Randy "the Ram" Robinson sells his body for a living. He is a wrestler. For decades he has been going out into a ring and punishing himself and others for public entertainment.

He is old and broken. He's living on pain medication and steroids. He's been punched, kicked, and (in a more gruesome scene) stapled. But even though he has no money, lives in a trailer, and is long past his prime, within his world he receives respect from his fellow wrestlers and admiration from his fans. He's a legend.

Cassidy also sells her body for a living. She is a stripper. She has also, presumably, been earning money that way for a long time. She is older than your average stripper, but not broken. Yet Cassidy does not get respect or admiration. She is looked down upon. She is dismissed by many of the patrons in her strip club. Even Randy, who treats her decently, seems surprised that she looks "clean" in her street clothes.

It isn't as though Randy wasn't also selling sex. He has coked up sex in a public bathroom with some girl who remembered his hot poster on her brother's wall. He does all the things a stripper would do to keep up appearances. He works out. He bleaches his hair. He hits the tanning bed and shaves all his body hair off.

Strippers and other sex workers are seen as beneath other people, even by (perhaps especially by) supposedly feminist women. I went out with some women from my work the other day. They were relating a story about how they had some drinks with a couple the night before. The husband was an attorney for the Department of Justice. The wife was a stripper.

One of my coworkers seemed quite proud of herself for treating stripping as though it was just another occupation - at least to the stripper's face. She didn't believe that the couple was really husband and wife, because she didn't believe an attorney with the DOJ would be married to a stripper.

The implication is that a stripper is "below" a DOJ attorney in our societal hierarchy. It's a pretty outrageous statement when you think about it. We recently learned that members of the justice department wrote memos justifying torture.

And we know that the justice department illegally fired attorneys for their political affiliation. Yet I am supposed to believe that former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, a man who had to resign due to criminal allegations, is somehow "above" a stripper?

There is a hilarious line in one of Chris Rock's stand-ups about a father's job being to keep his daughter off the pole. Is stripping really the worst thing that could happen to someone? Would you rather have your daughter writing memos condoning torture? Would you rather have your daughter beaten up every night in a ring?

Why is the way Randy "the Ram" sold himself more acceptable? Why is selling violence (with a little sex on the side) more respectable than selling sex? Why is sex dirtier than violence?

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Remembering vs. Forgetting

What’s more important, revenge for your ancestors or peace for your children?

When there is tragedy, be it personal or social, there is a tension between the need to remember and the need to let go. At best, we want to remember so that we can avoid future tragedies, so that we do not make the same mistakes over and over.

But remembering does not guarantee that the same mistakes are not made. I've heard "never again" used to justify the Israeli government's "self defense" and as a rallying cry for human rights activists fighting against those same actions.

At worst, people remember out of anger. They remember because they want revenge, although they would almost certainly couch that revenge in terms of wanting justice. Revenge is an understandable emotion, especially if you have suffered greatly at the hands of another.

Forgetting doesn't work out so great either, especially if not everyone forgets. When we invaded Iraq, the Muslim world had visions of crusades and colonialism. They have been invaded by western christians many times. The western christians seem to have forgotten.

But the remembering that comes with violence and anger condemns future generations to the same fate. Retribution will never bring peace. What if letting go would ensure that future generations would not have to suffer the same fate? Isn't that worth the price?

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Feminism and Work: Where Things Went Wrong

The 1950s ideal was a nuclear family where the father worked, the mother stayed home to take care of the kids, and everything looked like Leave it to Beaver. Many people still hold onto that ideal and there may even be people who live it and love it.

For others that ideal was anything but idyllic. Women who craved intellectual pursuits felt stunted. Those who worked, out of desire or necessity, were relegated to the least interesting jobs at half the pay. Women were dependent on men and sometimes financially trapped in abusive situations.

But women's lack of opportunities for employment, financial freedom, intellectual stimulation, and positions of prestige were not the only problem with that system. And in their zeal to correct the injustices that women were experiencing, many feminists do not appear to have taken the time to examine the bigger picture.

The system was flawed in fundamental ways for men as well. Men were expected to be providers. They were valued for their purchasing power alone. They were, and often still are, treated like automatons with no ability to fulfill emotional needs.

Having worked for many years for divorce attorneys, I saw first hand how these societal roles played out in the worst situations. Yes, I saw women who gave twenty years of their lives to husband and family and then got dumped for a younger woman. And I saw deadbeat dads who refused to pay child support and flitted around the world living like kings while their ex wives waited tables to pay the rent.

I also saw cases where men were assumed to be of little value in child rearing and where the wife received preferential treatment in deciding where the kids would live. And I saw many wives keep children away from their fathers out of spite.

But the problem was more fundamental than how people were stunted by the gender rolls they were playing. What women should have been doing is questioning the hierarchy that we are all serving. They should have been questioning the assumption that only paid work is deserving of admiration. They should have been questioning how much of ourselves we are giving to our employers and how much is left over for ourselves.

A middle class family could once support itself on the wages of one decently paid man. Now most families have two wage earners and struggle. That isn't news to anyone. Rarely, however, do I hear that issue couched in terms of how many family hours we are giving to someone else. If a family used to give 40 hours a week to the company and is now giving 80, 100, or more, we went terribly wrong somewhere.

In fairness, we should have split that working week with men. We could have had some of that intellectual stimulation and income, and they could have become more a part of the emotional lives of their children and the civic lives of their communities. Even more importantly, we would not be relying on poor women to clean the homes and take care of the children of the more privileged.

The people who have benefited the most from the gender wars are our employers. They have been able to get more and more out of us and we have received less and less in return. It's time we stopped battling each other and started working together to bring that family work contribution back down to forty hours.

Then men and women can go back to fighting over who is going to do the dishes.

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