Sunday, December 21, 2014

Kim Jong-Unimpressed

I've been following the North Korea/Sony Pictures hacking from a distance.  I'm interested partly because computer security is professionally important to me.  Not that my servers are likely to be targets of high-level, high-profile attacks, of course--but incidents like these show why things like strong passwords and security measures are important, which makes it easier to convince my clients of that.

But mostly this has been interesting because of the hackers' release of inside emails.  I'm a big fan of the Jeopardy! game show, so seeing that Alex Trebek wasn't happy about having to retape the end of a Kids Week episode because he made one of the contestants cry and run off stage with an insensitive comment--that was hilarious.1

1 Trebek is notably ham-handed, often cruel, in his contestant interviews and other comments through the game.  In fact, he's one of the ruder Canadians I've ever seen, or at least he comes across that way.

Of course, what seemed like a pleasant game got a bit more serious when the hackers began to threaten attacks on theaters that dared to show The Interview.  That's not something to mess around with, particularly in view of a fairly recent mass shooting at a movie theater.2

2 I'm referring, of course, to the July 20, 2012, shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., carried out by James Eagan Holmes.  Holmes is scheduled to go to trial in January in a case in which he offered to plead guilty to avoid the death penalty; the prosecutors declined the offer.

I think we can all agree that the North Koreans could stand to grow thicker skin.  This is not the first time a film has portrayed them in the crazy light they choose to throw on themselves, and it will almost certainly not be the last.  And I think we can all agree that threatening terror attacks on movie theaters isn't acceptable under any circumstances.

It was weak-willed of Sony to pull the picture from distribution, but I doubt very much this was an expression of fear so much as it was a calculated move to save money.  With none of the five major theater chains agreeing to screen the film, Sony would be left with the independent theater market (many of which would likely refuse to show the film as well) and direct-to-video option.  But Sony carries insurance on its major productions.  If the film is a total loss, Sony can file a claim.  If Sony simply has trouble selling the film in distribution, that's not a covered loss, and Sony gets nothing.

I support the right of these filmmakers to make whatever film they want.  There have certainly been films and other media about fictional assassination attempts on actual leaders.  One that comes to mind is "The Day of the Jackal," a brilliant 1973 film about an attempt on the life of Charles de Gaulle (based on an equally brilliant 1971 novel by Frederick Forsythe).  Of course, de Gaulle survives the attempt in the story, and there were elements of an actual attempt on de Gaulle's life that were adapted into the otherwise fictional story.

I wonder, however, whether The Interview isn't just a bit too much on the nose.  What would we think about a foreign film that depicts the grisly assassination of the actual American President?  While I'm certain there would be a small teabagging segment of our population that would cheer on such a film, it might well provoke outrage, and maybe even condemnation from our government.

For that reason, films that deal with the fictional assassination of a world leader usually fictionalize the leader as well.  Would The Interview have been a less funny, or less compelling, or less marketable film if the target of the assassination attempt were a different, fictional leader of North Korea?  I don't know.  I haven't even seen the film as it was made.  Maybe it's central to the film that it's Kim Jong-Un and not some other Kim who gets offed in the end.  Or maybe the North Koreans would be just as upset.  Maybe my raising this question is just an instance of victim-blaming.

My point, I suppose, is that it doesn't hurt to talk about these things, just as it doesn't hurt to expose even dangerous ideas to the marketplace.  As longtime readers know, I'm a big fan of Louis Brandeis, who told us famously that sunlight is the best disinfectant.3

3 Brandeis wrote that well after the introduction of Lysol, so I feel confident that he didn't mean it literally.

Moreover, this project had to get multiple green lights at Sony, from people who presumably were aware of the storyline, even if they hadn't read the script.  If you're going to make that decision, then you should have the courage to own it even when there's a stiff wind in your face.  So color me unimpressed by Sony's capitulation.  If North Korea can't take it, that's on them.  Beef up security, target a proportional response, whatever--but release the film and take your lumps.  North Korean censors don't get a say in what gets shown in American movie houses.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Torture: Why it matters

Yesterday in Peshawar, Pakistan, six gunmen, affiliates of the militant group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, stormed the Army Public School, a mixed-gender school mostly for the children of military officers, and killed at least 132 schoolchildren and nine staff members.  Some reports indicate that at least some of the staff members were burned alive.

This is a heinous act that has been met with nearly universal condemnation.

In response to this news, a man I respect a great deal--a prominent lawyer who has fought for the civil rights of disfavored minorities, a defender of progressive causes--offered a comment that juxtaposed this event with last week's report on American torture--er, "enhanced interrogation techniques"--during the Bush administration.

He asked--and I'll paraphrase him a bit here, just to keep it G-rated--why exactly he was supposed to care if some of these guys get tortured.

It's an interesting question.

It's an entirely human emotional reaction to regard with indifference, if not delight, when bad things happen to bad people.  When Jeffrey Dahmer, who raped, killed, dismembered, and in some cases ate 17 people, was beaten to death in prison, I don't recall there being much of an outcry for prison security reform.  So it's not surprising that people wouldn't much care that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was repeatedly waterboarded, considering that he was the organizational mastermind behind the 9/11/01 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.

If you take it a step further, there are lots of folks who believe that the CIA's torture program helped to keep the country safer by producing actionable intelligence against planned attacks.  I think that ship has sailed.  As the Senate report indicates, the imposition of torture techniques probably impeded the gathering of actionable intelligence by producing false information in some cases and by steeling the prisoners against cooperation in others.  John McCain, who would know about these things (having been a torture victim himself), says that torture doesn't work.  Unfortunately, there are lots of people whose opinions are shaped by a 24 fantasy of a ticking clock and an impending disaster being thwarted by torture.  That's not real.

If you start from a place where there are at least some people caught up in these techniques who deserved to suffer, and maybe die, it's easy to end up not caring about what happens to them.

I don't particularly care about the ones who have harmed us.

Just as I don't particularly care, per se, about the lives of the people whom we execute for crimes.

I find myself not caring about them at all. And I don't care what happens to the gunmen who killed schoolchildren in Peshawar.

And yet, it's not about what happens to them.

It is about what happens to us.  It is about what torture turns us into.  And that is something about which we ought to care a great deal.

I don't believe that this is a Christian nation.  (It's not.  It's a nation where persons of all religious beliefs, or of no belief, are welcome to worship or not worship as they choose, but where a clear majority adhere to some flavor of Christianity.)  But if we need guidance on how truly to be a Christian nation, we could easily start with the words of Jesus Christ:

27 But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Luke 6:27-36 (NIV).  You can go read the rest of that chapter, or the rest of Luke, to check if you like, but I assure you, nowhere did Jesus say, "Except where it's necessary to keep your fellow citizens safe."

(As you might imagine, though I generally agree with those words, an appeal to authority isn't enough for me.)

Why should we care?  Ultimately, it comes down to credibility.

I love this country.  This is a great nation for many reasons:  our freedom, our individuality, our diversity, our dedication to justice, our egalitarianism.  We have not always lived up to the standards we set for ourselves.  Sometimes our failures have been spectacular.  But we keep trying.  And in setting those standards, we provide light to humanity, showing that it is possible to be good and just, and to prosper in spite of, if not because of, our dedication to the principles that differentiate us from most other nations.

Torture is inconsistent with those principles. 

When we act unapologetically in ways that are inconsistent with our core values regarding human rights, we lose our credibility to speak about human rights.  If we allow exceptions to the principle that no one is above the law, we lose our credibility to urge other nations to establish justice for all of their citizens.

Even when we fail to live up to our high standards, we maintain credibility by taking corrective action.

Here are three basic truths.

First, what we did was torture, no matter what euphemisms we invented to justify our actions.  The specific acts we undertook constitute torture by any reasonable definition.  This is not a situation for technicalities or narrow legal constructions; our principles are at stake.

Second, torture is a wrongful act, regardless of the motives.  It is, of course, a violation of our obligations under the Geneva Conventions and under the UN Convention Against Torture.  But it's not just that it's a violation of international law.  Those treaties exist because of a greater truth, that civilization demands that we restrain ourselves from the worst human instincts.  Therefore, what we did was wrongful, and because it was wrongful, all of those responsible for it should be held accountable, regardless of position.  We have a reasonable mechanism for investigating these crimes and for bringing those responsible for them to justice. Our credibility to ourselves and to the world demands that this be done.  Moreover, our approach to this must be fearless in the face of complaints that doing so jeopardizes our national security or diminishes our prestige. To the contrary, our national security is jeopardized by not demanding justice; our prestige is tarnished by our failure to act.

Third, torture is a useless act.  Even if you believe that torture is "on the table" as an instrument of national defense, and somehow not a violation of our core principles and our treaty obligations, torture is nonetheless useless, because it does not produce actionable intelligence that cannot be obtained via other means.  This is something I've known for a long time, for the simple reason that if torture had produced actionable intelligence, those officials who have advocated for it--Dick Cheney, I'm looking at you in particular--would have fallen over themselves in a race to give all the details about how it worked where other techniques failed.*  We would know who talked, what they said, and how we acted based on that intelligence to stop an attack.  That never happened.

* I would wager money I couldn't afford to lose that if you caught these people in an honest moment--which is admittedly difficult--they would concede that they did it mostly because they wanted to do it, not because it was helpful to any particular objective other than self-gratification.

The good news is that it's not too late.  We can show that we are better than this.  These people can be brought to justice.  They can be charged and tried, and if convicted, they can be put in jail.  It is hard to think of anything that would be a more worthwhile use of our tax dollars, than to show that this is still the America we were promised.  But making it happen will take good people with the backbone for justice.  And on that point, though I'm hopeful, I'm not holding my breath.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Just who do you want to be?

Two pieces of news from earlier this week left me a bit discouraged.

As a liberal, I'm used to being discouraged by the pace of progress.  It's a hazard of the ideology.  Things never get better as quickly as I'd like.

But I've been particularly discouraged this week by the narrow victory of the bigoted campaign to repeal the Fayetteville civil rights ordinance that provided a small measure of protection to a greatly expanded range of disfavored minorities against discrimination in accommodations and commerce.

Some people don't like it when I call names, but I have to regard this campaign as being composed of bigots.  What else do we call it when a person--and I use that term loosely--wants to make it easier to deny people equal access to the marketplace solely because they are different from the majority?

The Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, led by Steve Clark, the disgraced former Arkansas attorney general whose political career ended when he was convicted of stealing money from the people of Arkansas by using his state credit card for personal expenses, was a staunch advocate for repeal.  The Chamber argued that regulations like this ordinance were burdensome to businesses and would make it less likely for new businesses to invest in Fayetteville.

The truth is that this sort of thing falls under what Lou Holtz referred to as the "do-right rule."  It's not burdensome to do the right thing by meeting your customers on their own terms.  To use one example, if you're a pastry chef who specializes in wedding cakes, and someone wants to buy one of your cakes, you sell them one of your cakes.  If they happen to be a gay couple, you sell them one of your cakes.  If your religious convictions are so significant to you that you feel compelled to try to control their behavior through not selling them a cake, you need to find a new line of work that doesn't involve discriminating against people because they don't fit your morality.

Of course, the Chamber wasn't the only group advancing bigotry.  Several conservative church groups went hysterical on the issue of bathroom access for transgendered people. 

Apparently these groups are concerned that people who are anatomically male but who dress or appear as female will use this ordinance gain access to female-only restrooms.  I have not spent much time in ladies' rooms, but the one thing that I perceive to differentiate ladies' rooms from men's rooms is that there don't seem to be many opportunities to inspect the genitals of people who visit ladies' rooms.  (Some, if not most, men's rooms include urinals that lack dividers between, so I suppose it's possible to sneak a peek if you're so motivated, but pretty much every ladies' room has stalls for privacy.)  In any event, I would expect that the authorities would have no problem addressing a situation in which someone wantonly displayed his/her naughty bits inappropriately.  Beyond that, how would you ever know what equipment a person in the restroom was sporting?

What this boils down to is a situation in which a narrow majority of voters thought it would be a good idea to leave disfavored minorities without any recourse against discrimination.  I can't imagine any motivation to take that position than that you want to be able to discriminate, and that makes you a bigot.

The other thing that disappointed me this week was the information released in the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA's so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques."  I will have more to say about that.  I'm still collecting my thoughts.  I will say that there is very little in the report that's qualitatively surprising (we knew they were doing this kind of thing, even if we didn't know how much or how bad).

These two things, which don't appear to have much to do with each other, really do force us to ask the same question.  Just who, exactly, do we want to be?  What kind of place do we want to live in?  What kind of country do we want?  We get to pick, which is a great thing, but boy, it's a scary thing when you see some of the choices we've made lately.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

I can't breathe

Eric Garner is dead.

On July 17 of this year, while he was standing on a sidewalk in Staten Island in New York City, Garner was approached by members of the New York Police Department and confronted with the accusation that he had been selling cigarettes without a license to do so--a charge that Garner repeatedly denied.

This was apparently not the first time police officers had confronted Garner with the charge, and as anyone might do, who believes he is being unfairly singled out for mistreatment by the authorities, Garner protested.

After Garner began resisting what he considered to be harassment, four NYPD officers moved to restrain him, pushing his arms behind his back.  One officer, Daniel Pantaleo, put Garner into a chokehold.  That is, he crooked his elbow around Garner's neck and squeezed in an effort to block Garner's ability to breathe.  Garner repeatedly cried, "I can't breathe! I can't breathe!" as he was being choked.  Together, the four officers bulldogged Garner to the ground, and one officer pressed Garner's face into the concrete.  Garner was handcuffed behind his back and made to lay on the ground, unconscious, while no one administered any sort of medical aid to the distressed man.  Eventually he was transported to a hospital.

An hour after the incident began, Eric Garner was dead.

We know all of these things are true because a bystander captured the entire incident on video. 

I am particularly sensitive to the mechanics of what happened to Eric Garner because, like Garner, I am a very large man.  Garner was reported to be over 350 pounds.  In the video, his body type is evident--he was muscular, but he was also very overweight, and he was not flexible.  When you have that body type--and I know this because I have that body type--if someone forces your arms behind you, the pain is excruciating.  Resistance to that act is completely involuntary.  You will summon whatever strength you have to stop your arms from being pushed backward.

Having your arms pinned behind your back, when you have that body type, makes breathing more difficult.

When you add in that Eric Garner was only marginally able to breathe under the best of circumstances, the chokehold that Officer Pantaleo administered became deadly.

The New York Penal Code, section 125.20, defines first-degree manslaughter as having occurred when, among other things, "With intent to cause serious physical injury to another person, [the accused] causes the death of such person or of a third person."

The medical examiner ruled that the cause of Eric Garner's death was "homicide by chokehold."

But what of the intent element of a manslaughter charge?  In 1985, the NYPD banned the use of chokeholds, allowing only a single exception, when the officer's life is in danger and the chokehold is the least dangerous alternative method of restraint.

In 1993, the NYPD removed the exception.

And what was the NYPD's justification for the chokehold ban?  The fact that chokeholds, which cut off oxygen and blood flow to the brain, sometimes cause serious physical injury or death.

When Pantaleo put Eric Garner in a chokehold, he did so intentionally.  In other words, he chose to use that technique.  He had to know that what he was doing carried a significant likelihood that Eric Garner would die or be seriously injured as a result.  An intentional act plus knowledge of its potential consequences implies the intent to cause those consequences.

But even if you disagree what that view of intent, when you add in that Garner repeatedly told Pantaleo that he couldn't breathe--indicating that serious injury was imminent--and Pantaleo continued to choke him, surely you can't disagree that intent was there.

Or if that's not enough, surely you can't disagree that an intentional act plus knowledge of its potential consequences implies recklessness.  In second-degree manslaughter, recklessness is substituted for the intent element.

The grand jury disagreed, voting for "no true bill," i.e., no indictment.

I don't know what happened in the grand jury that was investigating Eric Garner's death.

But what I do know is that twice in the last week, state-level procedures have proven wholly inadequate to protect the rights of citizens of color against out-of-control police officers.

In Garner's case, the video is indisputable.  Garner did not commit a violent crime.  He was not accused or even suspected of having committed a violent crime.  The NYPD's treatment of him was unreasonable and brutal, and he died.

Our Constitution guarantees to all of us the equal protection of the laws.  It guarantees to all of us that our civil rights may not be infringed without the due process of law.

Eric Garner's death was mostly indistinguishable from an extrajudicial execution.

The Justice Department needs to step in.  Because the State of New York has proven unwilling to do so, the officers responsible for Garner's death must be held to account in the only way that's left:  with federal civil rights charges.

Until that happens, I can't breathe.

None of us can breathe.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Race to the bottom

I spent many of my formative years in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.  The Pine Bluff of my 1980s youth was already in a state of decline and decay, but it had not yet been abandoned by a white population seeking opportunity in other locations.

Although I grew up a white person in a city with a large black population, looking back, I have to admit that it was a partially segregated experience.  There were black kids in my classes at school, although the persistence of "neighborhood schools"--Pine Bluff somehow avoided the busing program that marked desegregation efforts in larger cities--meant that the schools I attended there, Southwood Elementary and Oak Park Elementary, were majority-white in a city that was barely so, if at all.  These schools stood in start contrast to Carver and Indiana Street, which served the "black side of town" and had few white students.

The churches, of course, were almost completely segregated.  (Martin Luther King famously referred to 11 a.m. on Sunday morning as the "most segregated hour in American life.")  Near the end of my tenure in Pine Bluff, there were a handful of black folks who attended the church where we were members, not without some controversy, but it was unusual.

The other social aspect of my life in Pine Bluff centered around sports.  Most of the time, I played sports through the Seabrook Youth Center--which we referred to as the Boys' Club--which was expressly a white-only organization.1  As a kid I didn't understand that, but when you're a kid, when people tell you what the rules are, you tend to follow them, or at least respect them.  As an adult, I'm embarrassed to have been a part of it, but the truth is that it was the only opportunity in town, to my knowledge, so I have to be careful in my criticism.

1 At some point after I left, the club became a YMCA, which I assume ended the formal racial restrictions, but it also moved to the predominantly white southern part of town.  I believe it has now dropped the YMCA affiliation.

Little League Baseball was big in Pine Bluff, and while the organization divided Greater Pine Bluff into leagues that were partially segregated in the same manner as the schools, there were black kids on my teams, and we routinely played against teams that had black players--or in some cases were all-black.  I don't remember anyone ever making a big deal of any of that.  The closest I ever heard anyone come to mentioning race was when a biracial boy, whose skin was brown but who had a white mother, was the target of some questions from another boy about how he could be black when his mother was white.

In 1988, when I was 12, we moved to Sheridan, which was at that time lily-white, and which still is, more or less.  Sheridan differed from Pine Bluff in some important ways, but it mostly did not differ in my experience with black people, despite the fact that Sheridan is much whiter than Pine Bluff.  There were a handful of black kids in the Sheridan schools, but they lived elsewhere in the geographically large district.

A few months ago, a white friend from Pine Bluff remarked about how people--like us--who have lived in a racially diverse place tend to be more able to talk intelligently about racial matters.  I've turned her comments over in my mind over the last week or so.  I'm not sure that my experience in Pine Bluff was particularly eye-opening as regards the lives led by black people in the same city, but there was a sort of proximity that someone who grew up in a mostly white area would not have had.

One of the most famous lines from To Kill a Mockingbird, and maybe the whole point of the story, is when Atticus Finch tells Scout that "you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb in his skin and walk around in it." That's a difficult thing for a white person to do, to see what it's really like to be black.  Being white has advantages that white people often can't see and therefore don't acknowledge.  

As an example from my own life, I can tell you that I benefited enormously from the opportunity to play sports at the Boys' Club--I developed physical skills, decision-making abilities, teamwork skills, and lifelong friendships from those experiences.  There were lots of black kids who were denied those opportunities because of a racist policy.  

I also went to schools that were newer and nicer than the schools most black kids in Pine Bluff went to.

The truth is that I don't have enough time to commit to writing all of the advantages and privileges I've had because I'm white.  Even contemplating it is difficult, as it's been a lifetime of privileges piled on each other, each one springing from the previous one.

The other day, the actor/comedian Chris Rock gave an interview in which he discussed race in America.  He made a point that I haven't been able to get out of my mind--something I hadn't considered until he said it.

The election of Barack Obama, he said, wasn't a sign of black progress.  It was a sign of white progress.  There were many black people qualified to be President before Obama.  There wasn't anything different about black people in 2008 than at any time before that.  What changed was that white people were ready to vote for a black man for President.  That's white progress.  To say it represented black progress implies that there weren't any black folks qualified to be President before Obama.

It's a subtle thing, but it's an important distinction.  What makes it important is this:  To the extent that the election of Barack Obama represents progress for white people, it's a gain that can easily be yielded by slipping into old ways.  As the experience in Ferguson, Mo., shows, we're dangerously close to that.

I'll be honest--I believe only one thing that Darren Wilson has said about his actions on the day he killed Michael Brown.  His story doesn't make sense--or, more to the point, it only makes sense if you believe that Michael Brown was a raging animal, rather than a human being, who, being unarmed and on foot, would challenge an armed police officer in an SUV for no apparent reason.  But I believe Darren Wilson when he says he was scared, because when you believe that someone like Michael Brown is subhuman, capable of anything, you're going to be scared no matter what, and you'll have no problem putting that dangerous animal down.

I've seen far too many white people writing off Michael Brown's life by saying that he was "just a thug," implying that Darren Wilson did the right thing by ending his life.  Those people haven't even tried to put themselves in Michael Brown's skin, to see things from his point of view.  They haven't considered that Michael Brown has a mother and father who loved him, who are pained by a loss of life that did not have to happen.  They haven't considered that this is, for black people, yet another instance of white privilege that leaves black people dead with no consequences for the white killer.

Well, one consequence.  Between the funds raised for his benefit and the half-million-dollar paycheck from ABC for his interview, Darren Wilson is now a millionaire.

The St. Louis Police Officers' Association complained to the NFL, demanding discipline, when five St. Louis Rams players exhibited the "Hand up, don't shoot" pose that has come to symbolize solidarity with the nationwide protests against police overreach, racial profiling, and legalized murder.

Apparently, in the views of the SLPA, speaking out against racially motivated police violence is conduct that demands sanctions, while that racially motivated police violence is itself met with a shrug, an excuse, and support. 

And as I try to see it from the perspective of the black community, I cannot help but see this whole situation as brazenly and openly motivated by the belief that black lives don't matter.

But black lives do matter.  If we want to make progress, we've got to accept--and live--that simple truth.

Black lives matter.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The language of the unheard

It is not my intention to write about rioting, looting, and other criminal mischief that occurred last night in Ferguson, Mo., after the decision of the grand jury empaneled to investigate the death of Michael Brown was announced.

Neither is it my intention to write about that decision, the "no bill" result, that means that for now Darren Wilson will face no charges in connection with that death.

As to the latter, as I wrote last night on Facebook, there was a process followed.  Process produces justice, whether or not we like the result.  In any criminal matter, no matter who is being investigated or accused, the process, when followed, produces justice.  Injustice results from the failure to follow process.

As to the former, to the extent that those actions were taken in actual protest of the grand jury's decision, those actions are wrong and should be prosecuted as criminal acts.  To the extent that those were the actions of opportunistic criminals, they are irrelevant to our purposes here.

Everything that has occurred in connection with this case--the riots, the protests, the candlelight vigils, the political entanglements, the efforts of the police to discredit Michael Brown, the racial disparity between the Ferguson police force and the community it serves, the handling of the long-term investigation, the handling of the grand jury, the prosecutor's half-hearted presentation of the case to the grand jury, the handling of the immediate investigation, the statements of the witnesses, and so on, up to and including the killing of Michael Brown, are symptoms of a much larger problem.

Symptoms, not the problem.

This problem is one that few people want to discuss honestly, because they are so entrenched, so dedicated to the idea that they must prevail in the controversy, that they cannot recognize the problem.

A quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., from a 1966 interview with Mike Wallace has gotten considerable exposure in recent days.  In that interview, King was seeking to explain the context of race riots across the United States, most famously in the Watts district of Los Angeles but elsewhere as well, where the "Black Power" movement pushed back against King's advocacy of nonviolent resistance.  He said:

I will agree that there is a group in the Negro community advocating violence now. I happen to feel that this group represents a numerical minority. Surveys have revealed this. The vast majority of Negroes still feel that the best way to deal with the dilemma that we face in this country is through non-violent resistance, and I don't think this vocal group will be able to make a real dent in the Negro community in terms of swaying 22 million Negroes to this particular point of view. And I contend that the cry of "black power" is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we've got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.
In the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11/01, when American jingoism hit a fever pitch, we engaged in very little self-examination and focused the entirety of our attention upon striking back at our enemies.  Those attacks were given a status in American lore equal to that of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941--namely, that the terrorists who attacked us had unfairly and unreasonably targeted a nation entirely innocent of wrongdoing against them, that it was an unprovoked attack, undertaken from pure hatred of Americans for who we are.

Maybe all of that is true.  But few Americans were interested in testing the hypothesis.

The problem with the quintessential jingoist battle cry--"My country, right or wrong!"--is that it excludes the real possibility that we can be wrong.

Do not misunderstand me:  The 9/11 attacks were wrong and utterly unjustifiable.  I am not suggesting in any way that we deserved those attacks.  But as humans we have to live in the world.  We have to deal with other humans as they come to us, not as we would like for them to be.  To be the most effective at protecting ourselves, and in a broader sense to execute our morality,1 we must seek to understand those who hate us, and why, and if we can reasonably modify our behavior to neutralize that hatred, we owe it to ourselves at least to consider doing so.  This is true regardless of the merits of that hatred.  Even if it is entirely irrational, we must first seek to reform ourselves.

1 Regular readers of this blog know that I do not equate morality and religion at all, but I am reminded of this passage from the Sermon on the Mount that I find particularly instructive as one of the keys to being a good human:  
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." 
(Matt. 5:43-48 (NIV).)

Qualitatively, the problem we as Americans must face today is the same.2  There is a seething hatred and resentment for law enforcement among minorities.  We can treat that hatred as a disqualifying condition.  The result of that will be more of the same thing we have seen for the last fifty years (or maybe for much longer).  Racial minorities will continue to live in a peculiar combination of a lawless community and a police state.  Genuine criminals will continue to act with impunity to persecute those in their communities who are less willing to pursue violence as an economic tool, while law enforcement will continue to treat members of those communities uniformly as subhuman predators.

2 I am not equating racial minorities with radical terrorists.  This is merely a question of the normative approach to an intractable problem, not a value judgment about the participants.

In the last day, I have read a great deal of commentary from law enforcement sources who seek to justify Darren Wilson's actions, to uphold the decision of the grand jury as not only a just result but a proper one, and to focus upon building up the law enforcement community as a great bulwark against the lawlessness of minority communities.

What I have yet to see is a single person ask the question:  Why do black people hate cops so much?
Or, at least, when the question is asked, the focus is on what might be the defect in black people that causes them to hate the brave, honest, and true police officers who are only there to help the community.

Never is the question asked:  What, if anything, is it that cops are doing that creates distrust in the black community?

Even if you believe that Darren Wilson's actions were justifiable, have you stopped to ask yourself, is it possible that a cop in his position could be trained to handle that situation better than it was handled?

If you refuse to ask that question, isn't that really the same as saying that we want a cop in Wilson's position to kill Michael Brown?

What the law enforcement community has done over the last few months since Brown was killed has been entirely focused on justification for the killing.  Apart from the use of body cameras,3 there has been no real talk among law enforcement about what to do to make that kind of situation more rare, to improve the professionalism of police officers, not only through the improvement of their policing skills but also by teaching them to defuse controversies and to resort less often to deadly force.

3 While I think body cameras are a good idea, law enforcement officials should not need to be scared by the possibility of scrutiny into doing the right thing.

Can we legitimately say that the Ferguson community got the best outcome it could reasonably expect on August 9?  And as this scenario plays out time and again on our American soil, are we as Americans getting the best outcomes we could reasonably expect?

I don't think so.  I think we can do better.  In fact, I know we can. And it starts with holding those who have power responsible for the way they exercise it, maybe not in a criminal sense, but through the improvement and professionalism that can only come from introspection and correction.

It is time to stop apologizing for Darren Wilson.

Even if you believe that Michael Brown was a thug whose death has left this world a better place, it is time to stop apologizing for Darren Wilson.

It is time to stop using the violence that has resulted as an excuse for inaction or, worse, as an excuse for what has occurred.

Likewise, it is time to stop using the inaction that has occurred as an excuse for violence.

I am not nearly as concerned with what happens to Darren Wilson, or to those who have burned stores and cars, as I am with what happens to Ferguson's police department, or to the broader law enforcement community, or to our nation as a whole.  Wilson is one man, and the problem is far bigger than him.

We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by what happens, or doesn't happen, to him.

We have bigger problems to deal with.

But, why law enforcement, you ask?  Why shouldn't the black community go first with introspection and reform?  The reason is simple:  We need to start with law enforcement because law enforcement has the power.

No meaningful reform has even been undertaken that did not begin with the decision of those in power to relinquish that power in some respect.

Just now, as if on cue, one of my closest friends texted me that she had been crying all day.  Her commentary shows where her heart is--right where I expected it to be.  "I'm afraid the place I want to leave for my children will never happen," she wrote.  "I hate to be that way but until people learn that events don't happen in a vacuum and [no longer] refuse to have open and truly honest discussions, we will keep reliving this nightmare over and over."

This is true, of course.  We have to start somewhere, so let's start here.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Exploding your heroes

I've been thinking for several days about what to write about Bill Cosby.  Writing about the subject of his recent public relations troubles presents several challenges for me.

It's a story that involves the tearing down of a black American icon.  As a white guy, albeit a very progressive one, especially on racial matters, I believe it's necessary to proceed with caution.  There are too many white folks who are eager to tear down black icons whenever the opportunity presents itself.

It's a story that involves rape.  As a man, albeit a very progressive one, especially on matters relating to women's empowerment, I believe it's necessary to proceed with caution.  There are too many men who are eager to cast doubt upon claims of rape, if not to excuse rape outright, whenever the opportunity presents itself.

It's a story that involves allegations of criminal conduct from long ago.  As a lawyer, and as one who believes strongly in the Constitutional protections afforded to the accused, I believe it's necessary to proceed with caution.  There are too many people who are eager to convict people, or acquit them, in the court of public opinion, whenever the opportunity presents itself.

It's like a subway where all three of the rails are electrified.  But I have something to say about all of this, after a lot of careful thought.

I have always viewed Bill Cosby as a comedian first and foremost.  I watched the Cosby Show because it was popular and funny and seemed culturally significant.  I watched his later sitcom (the underappreciated Cosby, with Phylicia Rashād, Madeline Kahn, and Doug E. Doug) mostly because it was funny.  His stand-up comedy--or, really, sit-down, as he mostly told stories from a chair--was and is brilliant.  Like the best comedians of his era--Bob Newhart in particular comes to mind--he has an exquisite sense of timing.  If you want to learn to tell jokes and stories in a comedic way, study him.

Aside from being a comedian, he's a highly educated man.  He holds an earned doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.  When he speaks on serious matters, people listen to what he has to say.

Psychologically, it's hard for me to square my mental image of this man who's made me laugh for so long a time with the very ugly accusations against him.

It is, in a very real sense, the same as the very ugly accusations against Stephen Collins.  I have been a Stephen Collins fan since he starred in Tales of the Gold Monkey--another underappreciated show--and while I thought 7th Heaven was a treacly mess of bad writing and worse acting,* he was my favorite character.

* - Despite that, I have seen every episode, because one makes concessions when one's wife likes things that one doesn't.

And yet during that time he was apparently forcing a young girl to touch his penis.  It's just hard to square the one image with the other.

Unlike the allegations against Stephen Collins (who admitted to his criminal conduct on tape), the allegations against Bill Cosby are of a nature that they probably can't be fully substantiated, and Cosby isn't talking.  It's of course possible, though extremely unlikely, that the women (or some of them) who have come forward to accuse him of forcible rape have done so in hope of getting something for themselves.  But the truth is that there has long been a trail of whispered accusations of affairs and such, and the oldest contemporaneous allegation of rape is nearly fifteen years old.

There is a tendency for people to hold celebrities up as heroes.  I've never been one of those people, but even I have to admit that until recently if you were going to pick a celebrity to be a personal hero, Cosby wouldn't have been a bad choice.  There are a lot of people, especially white people, who, upon seeing the Cosby Show, came to view black people--especially black professionals--in a different light...namely, as people, rather than black people.  It was a watershed moment in American television and American culture.

The problem is that when you pick humans to be your heroes, they have an annoying tendency to blow up in the face of your hero worship by being human.  Humans do bad things.  They make mistakes.  Sometimes those mistakes are tragic.  Sometimes those mistakes are crimes, repeated many, many times, and sometimes those crimes affect the victims for the rest of their lives.

I don't know whether the allegations against Cosby are true or not, but there is an awful lot of smoke for there not to be any fire. I do know that even the possibility that it could be true has left me profoundly disappointed and sad.  And that's not something I ever expected out of this guy.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Turning the tide

It's an important day in Arkansas today.  This morning, the Arkansas Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the state's appeal from Judge Chris Piazza's decision earlier this year invalidating that portion of the Arkansas Constitution that restricts marriage to one man and one woman.  And as I type this, a federal district judge is hearing arguments in a similar case that seeks the same result.

The good guys in both cases are represented by Jack Wagoner, a talented Arkansas trial attorney who brought these cases to vindicate a simple principle:  That we ought to treat that committed relationships of homosexual couples with the same force and dignity with which we treat the committed relationships of heterosexual couples.

A lifelong friend of mine is one of the plaintiffs in the federal case.  She and her wife have been married for quite some time, and they have children together.  They have built a life of love and a family together in exactly the same way as any other married couple does.  What had been missing until Judge Piazza's ruling was the legal recognition of their marriage.  They were able to get that legal recognition--and corrected birth certificates for their children, reflecting both parents' names--during the short window between the ruling and the issuance by the Arkansas Supreme Court of a stay of that ruling a few days later.

I have heard all of the arguments why my friend and her wife don't deserve the same thing as my wife and I got when we married.

It has been argued that their relationship is immoral and sexually deviant.

It has been argued that their relationship is detrimental to their children.

It has been argued that the people of Arkansas voted by an overwhelming majority to keep marriage restricted to opposite-sex couples.

It has been argued that Arkansas has a compelling interest in promoting heterosexual marriage for the protection and benefit of children.

It has been argued that recognition of same-sex marriages will degrade the value of opposite-sex marriage.

It has been argued, by persons who appear to be serious in their argument, that recognition of same-sex marriage will lead to incest and bestiality.

It has been argued that only opposite-sex marriage carries the tradition of millennia.

It has been argued that the Bible commands us to sanction only those marriages that are between one man and one woman.

These arguments are not real arguments.  They are pretexts.

These arguments, no matter how sincerely felt by those who advance them, constitute the moral bankruptcy of prejudice and hatred.  Those who advance them are bigots, whether or not they clothe themselves in the flag or the cross.  As loath as I am to call ugly names, there is no other name that fits.

We are at a place where people of good conscience can no longer disagree about this subject, not today, not knowing what we know, and especially not in our Constitutional Republic.

Others have noted, and I echo, that each of those arguments, modified only as to the subject, was lodged against what states referred to as "miscegenation," the marriage of members of different races.  More than forty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court saved us from the bigoted instincts that led to those kinds of laws.  The reasoning of the unanimous Court was a beautiful and powerful statement of equality before the law:

The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men. Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival. ... To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law.
Just as not one person--other than Mildred and Richard Loving and their family, and the different-race couples who became free to marry--was affected by the invalidation of the anti-miscegenation laws, no individual in our society who is not gay will be negatively affected by the full equality of same-sex marriages before the law.

If you don't believe that same-sex marriages are right, you are perfectly free not to enter into one.

But how can you dare to tell my friend that she is less than you, less American, less worthy than you are of making a dignified commitment to the person she loves and wants to spend the rest of her life with?

Could you look her in the eye, in person, and say to her that she is not your equal?  That she is not entitled as entitled to the happiness she seeks as you are to the happiness you seek?

I could not, even if I were motivated by some irrational hatred to think those things.

But I would be lying if I said that marriage equality won't change Arkansas.  It will change us, for certain.  It will bring us closer to the promise of freedom that so many have fought to achieve.  We Americans have not always been the best people we could be.  Slavery, Jim Crow, the internment of Japanese-Americans, 100% Americanism, the denial of equal rights to women, the removal of Native Americans from their lands--these are but a few of our moral transgressions, of our failure to honor our highest principles.  Sometimes it seems that we have gotten it wrong more often than we've gotten it right.  But at every turning point, at every time when we have been faced with the opportunity to turn away from the old ways and toward our greater promise, there have been brave men and women to show us the way.  They have rarely constituted a numerical majority, but they have always been a moral majority, operating with truth and logic and above all principle on their side.

In the coming days and weeks, the seven justices of the Arkansas Supreme Court, and the district judge and (most likely) three appellate judges, and maybe even the U.S. Supreme Court will decide these issues.  I'm hoping for the triumph of love over hatred, of equality over prejudice.  The tide will turn.  It's easy to be impatient, but we'll get there eventually.  We always do.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Enough with platitudes and poppy-wearing

I've spent most of the day thinking about this blog entry.

This is Veterans Day.

Ninety-six years ago today, World War I ended, so this day has been variously marked as Armistice Day and Remembrance Day, especially among the Allies who won that war.  As that conflict receded from our collective memory, the day came to be the day on which we honor all of those who served in the American military, in wartime or not.

This is a day that makes me angry.

It's not that I have a problem with honoring veterans.  Much to the contrary, in fact.  Regardless of the circumstances, the veterans we honor today pledged themselves to a purpose greater than themselves, to the defense of this nation.  There aren't enough words in the English language to describe the meaning of such a selfless act.

But there are several aspects of the behavior of Americans on this day, and on all the other days, that anger me, or at least disappoint me.

It is a small thing to say thank you to veterans on this day.  In fact, it's such a small thing that it might literally be the least we could do.  That doesn't mean it's not important--it is. 

When our country goes to war, a debt of honor accumulates.  It's absolutely true that "freedom isn't free," as the sign in front of Sam's Club this morning read.  These men and women have agreed to pay that cost for us as a whole.  But in the great ledger of life, that creates a credit balance.  To the ones who return from war, we owe special consideration in education and job training and jobs and housing and health care.  We owe it to the ones who return from war with physical and psychological injuries to restore them to health as best we can, and if we can't, then we are obligated to give them the care we can give them.  And to the ones who don't return, well, we owe them our respect, and we owe their families the support that has been taken from them.

But we owe an even greater debt still.  We owe it to our veterans to create as few of them as are necessary to the survival of the Republic.  For most of my adult life the cost has been too great.  The leaders who decide to go to war have been altogether too cavalier about that cost, and they have been cruelly reluctant to pay for the consequences of those decisions.  It is as though they have some mental block about what it means to lose 4,425 American servicemembers and to expose 32,223 more to the wounds of war, all in a war of choice in Iraq.

It is no criticism, no diminishment, no derogation of their service to say that the casualties these Americans experienced in our name were founded on a lie.

More than ten years on, it still angers me that no one who lied to advance us into war with Iraq has been called to account for it.

George W. Bush happily paints pictures fraught with subconscious symbolism and hawks his revisionist-history books.

Dick Cheney remains a sought-after political commentator.

Condoleezza Rice gets to help pick the football playoffs and golf at Augusta National, and is mentioned on the short list for when Roger Goodell either retires or is fired as NFL commissioner.

In a just world these people, and others, would be in jail, doing a small part to pay the debt they incurred without reason.

They won't be called to account, because no one is brave enough to do so, no matter how much the wound on our American soul gapes and bleeds.

Most Americans have heard the saying, "My country, right or wrong."  We are conditioned almost from birth to believe that we live in the greatest country in the world.  In some respects that's true, but not always.  I would not trade my American citizenship for any other, but it does us no good to believe that we are great when we are not great, that we can do no wrong when we so obviously do wrong every day.

We are not the greatest nation on earth.

But we can be.

When in the early days of the Republic Stephen Decatur, one of those days' great and daring naval heroes, raised his glass to toast America, this is what he said:

Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.
We cannot help but be Americans.

But is it too much to ask that we do what we can to recognize where we fall short and to put it right?

Can't we insist that together we bring more light than heat to the world?

In my mind, that starts with making this holiday mean something real.  Enough with the platitudes and poppy-wearing.  Let's set about the work of making this country something worth fighting for.  That's how we repay that debt.

Friday, October 31, 2014

That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard

(Not really. The competition is stiff.  But it's close.)

I live in Arkansas House of Representatives District 35, an area that covers my own Cammack Village as well as The Heights, Riverdale, and some other neighborhoods of Little Rock.  In this election, the candidates are Clarke Tucker for the Democrats and Stacy Hurst for the Republicans.

As I indicated Monday, I planned to vote for Clarke Tucker--and later that day, I actually made good on my threat by early voting.  As the three or four of you who read this blog* know, Stacy Hurst had virtually no chance of getting my vote, so this was more of an academic exercise from the beginning. You can think of these comments as sort of a coda.

* - Hey, I said "read," not "enjoy."

Consistent with this district's left-leaning reputation, Hurst has run a campaign that emphasizes how moderate she is--sort of.  She has certainly cultivated a reputation as an independent politician, which I suppose is kind of refreshing, coming from a Republican.  I quickly reviewed her campaign materials, and they tend to be long on platitudes and short on detail.  In fact, her campaign website is utterly devoid of any substantive discussion of what she's planning to do.

I probably would have left well enough alone if I hadn't gotten this letter in the mail on Tuesday.

(Click on the images for a larger view.)

Now, let's be clear:  Stacy Hurst has no shot at winning the election unless she gets votes from some Democrats.  There just aren't enough Republicans in the district for her to win if she runs the kind of hard-right campaign that has characterized the mainstream GOP over the last 10 years or so.  So it's unsurprising that she would put this kind of letter out.

To summarize:  The author, Chris McNeal, claims to be a Democrat and speaks highly of Clarke Tucker.  But McNeal says he voted instead for Stacy Hurst.  Why?
  • In his opinion, she's a fantastic candidate who as "served well as a city director" for 10 years, with associations with lots of non-profit organizations.
  • She supports the "private option" implementation of Medicaid expansion.
  • She supports pre-K expansion.
  • She "has expressed to me personally a number of refreshingly progressive stances on some social issues."  No real word on what those are; for all we know, she could be against the "no abortions after 12 weeks" law but in favor of the "no abortions after 20 weeks" law, which would be progressive for a Republican.

McNeal then concedes that Clarke Tucker more accurately represents his views.

Turns out that the real reason McNeal supports Hurst is because Republicans are "unwilling to compromise with Democrats"--which means, in his view, that we need to elect a Republican.  His theory is that electing Clarke Tucker will lock our district "out of the room" because the Republicans won't work with him.  (McNeal assumes that Republicans are going to be in control.)  Instead, if we're going to have any hope of influencing the Legislature, we need to elect a Republican.  And his choice is Stacy Hurst, because she's willing to stand up to her fellow Republicans.

As the post title indicates, that's one of the dumbest, most self-contradictory things I've ever heard.

Here's the real story:

The last edition of the House of Representatives featured 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats, and one Green.  Because of the extraordinarily short 3-term limit, the makeup of the House turns over frequently.  Because few organizations poll state house races, we simply don't know what the makeup of the House will be come January.

Let's say the GOP does retain control of the House and Hurst wins.  If they have more than a one-vote margin, who will be the first Republican they ignore?  Stacy Hurst--because the more conservative Republicans are professionals at shutting out those who disagree with them, which will almost certainly include Hurst on any issue that McNeal thinks is important.

Meanwhile, since we know little about how Hurst would vote in the House (aside from her support for the private option, which passed a Republican-led General Assembly to begin with, so Representative Hurst wouldn't be unique), it's entirely possible that as a functional matter Hurst will be a reliable GOP vote on most issues.

Which means that her votes would, in most cases, not reflect anything that is broadly representative of her district.

I have little tolerance for Democrats who whine that we need to elect Republicans because the Republicans are so mean.

If electing Clarke Tucker means he's "out of the room," so be it.  But what happens if we elect Hurst, and the Democrats somehow end up controlling the House?

Well, I suppose it's a fair point that the Democrats would work with Hurst, because Democrats are interested in good ideas no matter where they come from.

I don't agree with McNeal that the "glory days of the Democratic Party of Arkansas are probably over."  True, there aren't any liberals left with the stature of a McMath, a Clinton, a Bumpers, or a (David) Pryor.**  But you can't fight demographics.  There will be a time in the near future when the Republicans find themselves locked out of the majority, even in Arkansas, by their relentless anti-minority programme.  How do we profit as Arkansans by rewarding the Republicans for that agenda at a time when it doesn't quite cost them elections?

** - There were plenty of Democrats in those "glory days" who weren't so progressively glorious, either. **cough** Faubus **cough** As the pre-eminent political scientist V.O. Key, Jr., observed back in 1949, the one-party (Democratic) system in the South was really a "no-party" system--everyone, conservative to liberal, was a Democrat, so the party label meant nothing about actual politics.

The Republicans have spent a lot of energy and money over the last decade or so to purify their party into an arch-conservative theocracy-loving economy-wrecking machine.  It's a terrible thing, but it has happened.  When you put the R by your name, you're signing up for that legacy.  Stacy Hurst doesn't get to throw us a few bones and pretend that legacy doesn't apply to her.

If you're in District 35, and you haven't voted yet, please consider voting for Clarke Tucker.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Why I'm voting for the Democrats

I've been voting in elections for 21 years now, and in all that time, I can count on one finger the number of Republicans I've voted for--and still have a finger left over.

It's true.  I've never voted for a Republican, and unless something changes drastically, I'm not likely ever to do so.

If you want to dismiss me as a partisan hack, then just stop reading here, and go read something else.  I won't mind.

But those of you who care to know why, keep reading.

It's not that I'm on Team D.  I'm moderately interested in politics, but I've never given a campaign contribution.  I rarely put out yard signs.  I don't go door-to-door canvassing for my candidates.  I haven't phone-banked.  There was a time in my life when I imagined I would do these kinds of things, and more--even maybe running for office one day.  I won't rule it out, but it's not really on my bucket list.

To be honest, I'm less than enthusiastic about most of the candidates this year--on both sides.  Mike Ross is a nice guy, a good guy, but he's far more conservative than I like.  Mark Pryor...what to say about him?  I loved being represented by his father.  Let's just say Mark is no David Pryor. And his commercials have been incredibly uninspiring.  I'm not sure what to make of John Burkhalter, the Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor.

For reasons I'll discuss below, I'm voting for them anyway.  But before I explain why, I'd like to relay a bit of insight I gained into what most people seem to feel.  Many times, the comment is that voting is choosing the lesser of two evils (or, variantly, the lesser of two lessers).  In the city where I live, Cammack Village, there is a contested non-partisan race for alderman.  The two candidates are the incumbent, whom I don't really know, and a challenger whose principal motivation in running for alderman is that he owns several rental properties and doesn't like a new ordinance that requires rental properties to undergo extensive inspections.

I know the challenger.  On a personal level, I like him a lot.  Politically, he's a hard-core Republican.  I would never vote for him for high office.  But I don't like the ordinance that was passed any more than he does.  (I'm all for holding landlords to reasonable standards, but this ordinance goes too far, and it seems plain that the primary purpose is to reduce the number of rental properties in this town.)  So our interests are aligned on that issue, and beyond that and the rates the city is able to negotiate for utilities, I really don't care what the city council does.

The problem is that at least until recently, he didn't live here.  He owns several properties here, and he's supposedly occupying one now, but I think it's a stretch to say he lives here.

The incumbent is also a Republican (judging, at least, from the signs in her yard).  She voted for the ordinance, and her campaign literature doesn't give the slightest clue as to what she stands for.  She did put out a letter that engaged in a lot of mudslinging against her challenger, which I could have respected except that she didn't explain anything about what she wanted to do if re-elected.

To me, negative campaigning is often necessary, but negative campaigning without a positive counterpoint is worse than useless.

So I have come to understand why it is that a lot of people just can't stand either candidate, or either party, and can't bring themselves to vote.  I can't make a decision on the known merits of either candidate, and I refuse to vote for someone just because I know him (or don't know her).

I'm going to vote.  In that race, I probably won't make a decision until I'm in the booth.  On the rest of the races, though, I'm decided.

Why for the Democrats?

There are three reasons.

First, the quality of the Republican candidates is poorer than I've seen in a long time.  As the GOP gets pulled to the radical right, the nominations process is only attracting people who care very little about making the government function well and very much about being combative against the things they are against.

Asa! Hutchinson (I think borrowed the apostrophe from Lamar! Alexander for this race) has run for governor four times and lost three times (pending this election).  He's a hyperpartisan Republican who's served in whatever radical role the GOP has thrown at him for twenty years.  And he borrowed his economic plan from Sam Brownback, who's run Kansas so far into the ground economically it might never climb out of the hole it's in.  No thanks.

Tom Cotton wants to be the Senator from Kochland.  He claims to be in favor of making tough choices--but sometimes those choices are tough because they're economically stupid.  What he prescribes will be great for the billionaires and horrible for everybody else.  He strikes me as a sociopath.  No thanks.

French Hill, banker, running for Congress.  My mind about him was made up when he put out an ad talking about how ordinary people don't spend money they don't have, so the government shouldn't either.  It's not true.  Ordinary people spend money they don't have all the time.  They buy houses and cars on credit.  They use credit cards.  If people didn't spend money they don't have, our economy would grind to a halt.  But, even more importantly, French Hill is a banker.  His entire business model is based on people borrowing money because they don't have enough to do what they want to do.  Either he is that dumb, or he thinks we are.  No thanks.

(On the other hand, I'm a big fan of Hill's opponent, Patrick Henry Hays, and will cast my vote for him enthusiastically.)

Leslie Rutledge, running for Attorney General.  Matt Campbell over at Blue Hog Report* has done yeoman's work in exposing her for the fraud she is.  This is a woman who worked as an attorney for DHS, who used her state email account to send and/or forward racist, lewd, and otherwise inappropriate messages, and who committed misconduct gross enough for her DHS bosses to mark her file "DO NOT REHIRE."  (We still don't know what the misconduct was; she refuses to have her personnel file released.)  No thanks.

* - One of my favorite blogs.  Matt is an attorney, he knows how to use the Freedom of Information Act, and he applies his considerable analytical skills to hold his targets' feet to the fire.  I wouldn't want to get crosswise with him as several Republicans have done recently.

Mark Martin, running for re-election as Secretary of State.  He's not the famous NASCAR driver.  He's rarely in the office; he doesn't live in Little Rock (even though he's required to do so by law); he makes few public appearances.  And all of that's fine.  There have been some other issues, like spending $100,000 of state money to hire attorneys in violation of a court order, that are less fine.  But when his opponent set up a section on her webpage where people could check their voter registration status--using a technology that is perfectly legal to use, which linked to the Secretary of State's official website lookup--he sent a State Capitol police officer to her campaign office to hand-deliver a letter demanding that she take the section down.  The purpose was clear:  To use the prerogatives of his office and taxpayer dollars to intimidate his opponent for political purposes.  No thanks.

Stacy Hurst, running for state representative in my district (35).  Engineered, with some allies in the Little Rock School District, a scheme whereby her opponent's four-year-old would be denied admission to the pre-K school her opponent and his wife preferred, while simultaneously attempting to bait them into accepting special consideration for acceptance into a different school (ahead of other applicants). No thanks.

These are genuinely scummy people.  These are, by far, not the only Republicans who meet that definition.  (Jason Rapert is one, but he's not on my ballot.)  Not all Republicans are scummy, of course.  One who's not is John Thurston, who's running for re-election as Commissioner of State Lands.  I've known John for a long time, and he's a good man.  But by being a Republican, he aligns himself with these scummy people, so I'm voting for his opponent, Mark Robertson.

Second, the Republicans can't seem to articulate what it is they're for.  Each of the Republicans is running, in some measure, against Barack Obama.  I'm hardly Obama's biggest fan.  I did vote for him three times (2008 primary, 2008 general, 2012 general) and I don't regret any of those votes.  It's probably politically smart to run against him, given how irrationally unpopular he is in this state.  But gee whiz, he's not on the ballot.

What I don't hear a lot of from the Republicans is what they are for.  Being against Obamacare isn't being for anything.  Other than that, virtually nothing.  Asa!, for example, is vowing to "hit the ground running and never look back."  What does that mean?

Apparently it means he wants to cut income taxes on the wealthiest Arkansans.  We've tried that before on the national level.  It doesn't work.  All it does is hamstring the ability of the state government to function.

I don't view any of the candidates I noted before as seeking to serve the people of Arkansas. What they seem to be interested in doing is gaining the powers and prerogatives of the office, mostly in order to institute radical policies, like abortion restrictions, that have little to do with the quality of life in Arkansas but much to do with imposing their moral views on everyone, regardless of rights or merits.

Third, there is a difference between the parties.  I know there are a lot of people who don't see much difference between the Democrats and the Republicans.  Sometimes that's true.  But there's a big difference that might be the most important of all.

There are lots of things I'd like to see the General Assembly take on--ideas that aren't partisan, just good ideas about how to bring good jobs and a better economy to this state.  For example, broadband access in rural Arkansas is non-existent or prohibitively expensive.  I know how having access to broadband has changed the way I work and play.  I'd like to see the state government make a special effort to spend money to improve broadband access statewide.  Eighty years ago, FDR brought us the Rural Electrification Administration, which financed the wiring of rural America, such that mostly reliable electricity is available everywhere people live.  How much better could life be if we could do the same to bring broadband to rural Arkansas?

I have no confidence that a Republican-led state government would ever give that idea any consideration at all--at least, unless they could funnel the money to wealthy people.

For the last thirty years, if not longer, the Republican Party has been animated by the guiding principle that the government is incapable of doing anything right.  When you believe that the government can't do anything right, what is a government that you head going to look like?  Will it ever do anything right?  Of course not. 

The truth is that the government gets a lot of what it does right.  Sometimes the government does things that interfere with what you want to do.  The police officer writes you a ticket for exceeding the speed limit.  The EPA regulates the toxic waste you want to dump rather than disposing of properly.  The IRS requires your business to keep detailed records to make sure that you're paying taxes at the legal rate.  The city building inspector holds you to the fire code.  These are things that we really need the government to do because they affect all of us. 

What I want is a government that will step in to protect the public interest and to protect individual rights, that will use its weight to make life easier here, and that will foster an economic environment that is both fair and free.  I think of it like a baseball game.  On the sandlot, there are no coaches and no umpires, and there are a lot of fights and the winner tends to be whoever's the biggest bully.  I want our experience with government to be more like the World Series, where there are umpires to make sure everybody plays fair and where there are coaches to help us players make decisions about how to play.

Of course, the analogy breaks down, as all analogies eventually do.  But the larger lesson is that the GOP seems dedicated to making certain that the government works as poorly as possible.

If you owned a business, would you hire employees who hope the company fails?

Of course not.

So why would you ever put people in office who think the government is bad and needs to be destroyed?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Much ado about something

Annise Parker is the openly gay mayor of the City of Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city.  At her urging, earlier this year, Houston's city council enacted a broad anti-discrimination ordinance, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy, genetic information, family or marital status, military status, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

These last two categories have proven controversial--particularly the "gender identity" category.  The ordinance prohibits discrimination against persons who are anatomically or genetically one sex but who identify with the other sex. For some reason, protecting people who fall into that category engenders (if you'll pardon the pun) a great deal of hatred and histrionics among conservatives.  

The City of Fayetteville recently enacted a similar ordinance.

I suppose that the people who oppose this measure are uncomfortable with being unable, legally, to express their hatred and intolerance of differences by deliberately causing unnecessary pain in those who are different.  In some cases, they clothe this hatred, this desire to treat others inhumanly, in the mantle of "traditional values."  Traditional values, they argue, prohibit us from giving societal approval to gender-bending.  Hate may indeed be a traditional value among that crowd, but traditional does not necessarily mean "good."

In other cases, opposition to this ordinance is driven by what they term a desire to protect innocent citizens from sexual predators.  The argument is that an ordinance that prohibits discrimination against men who dress and live as women requires businesses and organizations to allow men to enter women's bathrooms in order to engage in various types of sexual deviancy, up to and including sexual assault.

The theory is that in order to assault women and children who are using a women's bathroom, men will pretend to be women, dressing as women for the purpose of lurking, undetected, until they can execute the planned assault.

The truth is that this ordinance will make it illegal to bar anatomical men who live as women from using women's facilities.  But to suggest that it will somehow leave us without recourse to prohibit sexual assault, or that sexual predators will be emboldened by this ordinance, is simply foolish.

I've been in probably thousands of public restrooms in my lifetime.  Never once has anyone checked my genitals at the door to determine whether I could enter or not.  Men who want to commit this kind of sexual assault are no freer to do so than they have always been.  A man who makes a practice of gratuitously exposing his genitals in the women's restroom--or worse--could be reported and could, even under this ordinance, be arrested and charged.

Like so many conservative attacks on progressive legislation, this one is also ridiculous.  HERO is the law in Houston, and in time I believe it will properly become the law everywhere.

Several Houston-area megachurches, conservative in theology, have launched a challenge to the ordinance.  Unsatisfied with representative democracy in which their position is no longer dominant, these churches have led the charge to subject HERO to a citywide referendum.  They gathered more than 50,000 signatures on petitions to force a vote, but because of numerous errors in the signature-gathering process, there were only about 17,000 valid signatures, not enough to call for a referendum.  So they have sued the city, seeking to have their invalid signatures counted.

And that's where things get sticky.  As part of that suit, the city issued civil subpoenas to the churches, demanding that the churches turn over sermons and other communications with parishioners regarding HERO, the mayor, the petition drive, and other related topics.  As you might imagine, that act has been met with howls of derision, complaining that Houston is now seeking to make it illegal to preach against homosexuality, and that this is merely the first (or latest) step toward interning conservative Christians in concentration camps.

These complaints, as far as they go, are rooted in ignorance.  Houston is not seeking to outlaw speech against homosexuality.  It claims it is not even interested in assessing whether these churches violated their obligation not to engage in political activities based upon their tax exemption.  Rather, Houston is attempting to determine whether the churches gave instructions to their parishioners regarding how to fill out a petition, in order to show that the advocates were aware of the requirements for petitions but deliberately disregarded them.  That might be relevant to the lawsuit, depending upon what arguments the advocates make in support of their lawsuit.

But probably not.  It was a bad idea to issue these subpoenas.  Communications between a religious leader and his or her congregants are essential to the exercise of religious freedom.  Creating a situation where religious leaders believe their statements can be subpoenaed by the government and used against them in a proceeding creates a chilling effect on those statements.  The government has no business inquiring into the content of those statements.  I can see only two reasonable exceptions to that policy--one being the situation in which a religious leader incites followers to violence, the other being political activities that violate the requirements for tax-exempt status.  Even the second makes me uncomfortable; instead, I would prefer that we simply repeal the tax exemption.

Less importantly but with more impact, the city miscalculated, or forgot about, the extreme sensitivity of many Christians to any real or imagined attack on their privileges.  For that reason, it was a bad political maneuver.  Nothing motivates many Christians into a tantrum more quickly than suggesting that they aren't above being questioned.

Somehow I doubt that many of the people who are so outraged by the subpoenas because of the loss of rights those subpoenas represent would be equally outraged if the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity were taken away by a majority vote. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Journamalism: School Lunch Edition

I hardly spend my time clanging around right-wing websites, mostly because I can feel myself losing IQ points when I do.  But sometimes a story just grabs the imagination, and I have to follow it where it goes.

My journalism experience is limited to high school sports reporting, which I undertook mainly to get in free to all the high school sporting events.  But I believe I may be a better journalist than the fashion plates at Fox News, because it took me almost no time to get to the bottom of this story with some original reporting.

The right wing outrage machine is perpetually turned up to 11, but lately one of the prime targets has been the new school lunch nutrition standards, for which Michelle Obama has been the most vocal advocate.

Childhood obesity is an epidemic in this country (as is adult obesity).  Now, I'm not the poster child for healthy weight.  I have more room than just about anyone for improvement.  But I support what Michelle Obama is advocating for (and what the USDA, which is responsible for setting standards for school lunches, is requiring).

Earlier this week, a photograph began circulating.  The photo, which appears at the right, purportedly shows the school lunch offered on Monday, October 13, 2014, in the Chickasha, Oklahoma Public Schools.  Chickasha student Kaytlin Shelton took the photo; she and her parents are complaining about the low quality and minimal caloric value offered.  Miss Shelton, 17, is particularly miffed because she is pregnant and therefore "eating for two."

Now, I don't find that lunch to be particularly appetizing, and I question whether the person who designs the district's menus has a firm understanding of what school lunches ought to look like, if that is considered an appropriate lunch.

So it's not surprising that the outrage machine is whirring at close to maximum capacity.  Here are a couple of the links carrying this story:

Fox & Friends

EAGNews (Educational Action Group)

Several local news outlets also covered the story.

The photograph, it turns out, is pretty misleading. 

The school lunch guidelines, which came into force in 2012, require schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program to provide lunches to high school students that are, on average, between 750-850 calories.  That amount is consistent with government recommendations for daily food intake.  School breakfasts, which are also regulated, are supposed to provide 450-600 calories to high school students.  So that's 1200-1450 calories provided in two meals at school, and for the standard 2000-2200 calorie recommended diet, that leaves 550-1000 calories for snacks and dinner.

The regulations also specify balanced food selections, promoting vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean meats, and so forth.

The picture shows about four slices of ham, a couple of slices of American cheese, four wheat crackers, two pieces of cauliflower, and about a tablespoon of ranch dressing.

Four slices of ham contain about 90 calories.  Two slices of American cheese have about 140 calories. Four wheat crackers have about 90 calories.  That amount of cauliflower has about 5 calories. A tablespoon of ranch dressing has about 75 calories. 

Adding it up brings us to 400 calories.

So, when EAGNews, or Fox, or whoever, tells you that this lunch meets "Michelle Obama's" guidelines, they are lying.  That amount of food is about half of what is required to meet the guidelines.  It's not even enough to meet the minimum requirement for breakfast.

But it turns out that there's more to the story.  I went to the Chickasha Public Schools website to see if they publish the lunch menu--and they do.  With a little digging, I found the actual lunch menu [PDF] Chickasha published for last Monday.  Here is what it says:

Ham&Cheese Munchables
Wheat Crackers
Ranch Dressing
Baked Beans
Pears, Red
Milk, 1%White, LF
Milk, Chocolate FF

It didn't take much to get this information--certainly nothing a journalist wouldn't be expected to do.  And it's easy to see how the additional items would get the lunch up to the required minimum number of calories--a normal serving of baked beans is about 200 calories; pears are about 100; and a cup of 1% milk adds 100.  Those additional items would also turn what looks like a very bland lunch into something reasonably tasty.

Incredibly, the Oklahoma official responsible for school lunches defended the lunch in the photo rather than pointing out the facts that took me only a few minutes to uncover: 
"We have a meat-meat alternate, we have a bread grain, we have vegetable," said Asst. State Superintendent for Child Nutrition Joanie Hildenbrand, looking at the photo she received from Fox 25, "it's the student's choice of what they want to take."

Unfortunately, this kind of "reporting," which is focused on making a political statement rather than informing the discussion about nutrition, is a standard tactic from right-wing "news" sources.

The tactic is this:  Put up something that looks true but is misleading and therefore false, then blame some government official for it.

And those on the right who can't seem to get the hang of critical thinking--they just lap it up, because it fuels their hatred.  For people like me, who tend toward the left, it is utterly unbelievable how these people accept what they're told, uncritically, without doing even the barest bit of checking.  I have to conclude that these people don't have any real criticisms of the Obamas, because every last one of their complaints is based on falsehoods.