Posted in Rants on April 22nd, 2014 by Ed

You know my opinion of "crowdfunding" but I think I've finally stumbled upon a worthwhile creative project made possible by Kickstarter. I know, I know. I never thought we'd see the day either.

This documentary, "The Brainwashing of My Dad", explores a phenomenon that far too many of us know far too well – when a normal person capable of living a normal, happy life turns into a rage-spewing, hateful right wing reactionary thanks to a steady diet of talk radio and eight hours per day in front of Fox News. How many fathers, mothers, friends, husbands, children, and once-bearable uncles have gone from being welcome parts of our lives to nearly unbearable sources of bile and hate and pretty much non-stop bitching. How many of us, in short, have lost someone to the right-wing noise machine?

I have an old friend, a high school classmate, whose family I got to know back in the day. Her dad was one of the dopiest, sweetest, nicest people I've ever met. His life revolved around the White Sox and sitcom-level Dad Jokes. He had not, to the best of anyone's knowledge, uttered a word about a serious topic in his life. I did detect some underlying South Side racism, but that was so common among people in the area that it barely registered. Over the past twenty years he has slowly descended into the Fox/AM Radio cesspool and is now, from second-hand reports, your typical Angry Old Asshole. He rants about anyone and everything, refers to Obama solely as "the sand nigger," and blames everything from local traffic to the global economy on The Liberals. He is probably going to die alone in a nursing home because none of his family can stand being around him anymore.

Sadly, I'd be willing to bet that we all have similar anecdata. Getting crotchety with age is not new; people age, the world changes around them, and they grumble about it. Unfortunately there's nothing cute and Archie Bunker-ish about the Fox brand of senility. Is it fair, though, to use the term "brainwashing"? We could debate the semantics, but this much is certain for anyone who has watched Fox News for an hour or two or spent an entire afternoon on the AM talk part of the dial: there is no way that a person could be normal after hours and hours of daily exposure to this for an extended period of time. There's just no way. You could not listen to Rush Limbaugh every day for two years and come out on the other side undamaged. You could not watch Fox News all day, every day (as many of its elderly viewers do) without developing a fear-based, wildly inaccurate view of the world around you.

Surely some people are born wingnut assholes who need no help from Fox. It sure is unpleasant, though, to see a person capable of living a very normal life turning into a Dittohead…forwarding ridiculous emails, subjecting you to all the talking points, and going on rants that are as tired as they are offensive. Will we learn anything that most of us don't already know from experience in this film? Probably not. Perhaps it will help to know that we are not alone, and if we're lucky it might save a few people from wandering the same shrill, dumbed-down path.


Posted in Quick Hits on April 21st, 2014 by Ed

Short post today, working on a good long one for you tomorrow (giggle). Larry Bartels, one of the more visible and important political scientists of this generation, did a short write-up about how austerity and income inequality are uniquely linked in the United States. Whereas in most advanced industrial democracies preferences for spending cuts are relatively flat across income levels, American preferences are essentially a proxy for household income. While that should come as absolutely no surprise, the non-U.S. data are unexpected. With higher tax rates in much of Europe, one might expect to see some preference (however slight) for austerity among higher earners.

This is the latest in what seems like a daily burst of stories about income inequality, plutocracy, and oligarchy in the past few months. It's as though the Professional Writer Class just discovered that we have a problem that has been glaringly obvious for at least fifteen or twenty years. Should I be happy that it gets talked about or pissed off that it took so long that it's probably too late to do anything about it?


Posted in Rants on April 20th, 2014 by Ed

Having resisted the temptation to say anything about the latest right wing darling – militia nutcase Cliven Bundy and his Patriot Cattle – but the tie-in to last week's post about George Zimmerman hit me over the weekend. As any sober and literate review of the facts and history of the situation shows, Bundy has absolutely no legal argument whatsoever beyond ultra-right militia/survivalist/Tax Protester nonsense about refusing to recognize the authority of the federal government. The neat thing about the federal government is that it exists whether or not some mouthbreather thinks it does, and it has authority over him regardless of whether he thinks it does. To argue otherwise simply is to claim that each individual can decide which laws he chooses to follow and when, which is to say that there are no laws at all. A law isn't a law if it can't be enforced. A law that can't be enforced is a suggestion.

What reminded me of the Zimmerman post is the people who rushed to Bundy's defense, armed to the teeth with their well-regulated militia arsenal. These people, who are obviously more heavily armed than the average American, are precisely the kind of people who shouldn't have guns. These are people who stopped working (or perhaps they're unemployed welfare queens?) and drove hundreds of miles to "defend" a man who is absolutely, completely, and indisputably wrong – a grifter, in essence, who wants to use public resources without paying for them with his lunatic "patriot" beliefs as justification – because they are so enthusiastic about the chance to point a loaded rifle at an employee of the federal government. That is why they came, and that should be profoundly disturbing. They dropped everything and disrupted their lives for a week to jump on what might be their one big chance to get in a gun battle with the government.

We're supposed to arm ourselves, their logic goes, to resist the tyranny of the government. Unless the definition of tyranny now encompasses enforcing laws passed by elected officials, this does not appear to qualify. This would seem to be an effort to start a fight. These are people who grew up reading about Waco and Ruby Ridge and Timothy McVeigh and simply can't wait to live out their own fantasies – you know, the typical things boys fantasize about doing like killing ATF agents and blowing up courthouses.

There is great danger in indulging these people. There is great danger in acting like this guy has any sort of argument or that we should listen to Both Sides and keep an open mind. I didn't see Patriots rallying to keep borrowers from being railroaded out of their homes by an auto-penned foreclosure notices, not to mention their silence on thousands of other instances of unpopular or unfair laws being enforced. The government has put itself at risk by backing down and setting a precedent – if enough gun-toting lunatics show up, they'll back down. It's terrible. This guy is so, so far away from having any sort of relevant or valid argument to support his position that a zero-tolerance response is the best strategy. When this came up in my class, for the only time I can recall in 10 years of teaching I absolutely shut somebody down for expressing an opinion. "No, actually we don't get to decide which laws we follow or what authority the government has over us" was harsher than things I usually say in front of students, but I feel like people who support this guy need to be told unequivocally how ludicrous this line of logic truly is.

It's a sad day, despite it being obvious why the media would benefit from covering this, when a bunch of assholes spouting "sovereign citizen" gibberish and pointing guns at public officials get treated like a group of people whose ideas deserve to be heard and given due consideration.


Posted in No Politics Friday on April 18th, 2014 by Ed

This news story in the Peoria Journal-Star is the most Peoria thing that ever Peoriaed. From now on when anybody asks me to describe this place I am just going to send them the link.

The police – acting on a search warrant signed by a judge whose qualifications to be on the bench are immediately suspect – raided the home of a young man who made a fake Twitter account for the Mayor of Peoria. Aside from that, well, not being illegal, the news story 1) begins by explaining what Twitter is, as the median age of a Journal-Star reader is approximately 93 and 2) goes on to note that the fake Twitter account had…wait for it…fifty followers. It turns out that making a parody Twitter account for a podunk elected official about whom zero fucks are given it is not the ticket to internet fame.

A few gems:

“They said they had a search warrant and took all the electronic devices that had Internet access,” Pratt said. “They said there had been an Internet crime that occurred at this residence.”

Peoria Police Chief Steve Settingsgaard said officers were investigating the creator of the Twitter account for false impersonation of a public official. The offense is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,500 and up to a year in jail.

What exactly is an "internet crime"?

Do the dipshits that end up working for a city this pathetic understand that the crime of "impersonation of a public official" refers to, like, things other than setting up an obviously fake Twitter account?

By about March 10, the bio of the Twitter account was changed to indicate it was a parody account.
Settingsgaard, however, said the intent of the account was not clearly satirical.
“I don’t agree it was obvious, and in fact it appears that someone went to great lengths to make it appear it was actually from the mayor,” Settingsgaard said in an email response to questions.

Ladies and gentlemen, that's our Sheriff. I wonder which online degree mill he graduated from.

By late March, the @Peoriamayor account was suspended by Twitter. It had about 50 tweets and just as many followers.

Does something with 50 followers even register? Is that even a blip on the radar? Something that obscure would go completely unnoticed if not for the fact that the Mayor and police are calling attention to it in this manner. Basic Streisand Effect, people. Oh wait, nobody here has heard about that yet because it only happened ten years ago. The internet is still new to these people and they don't quite understand it yet.

Every time I hear a helicopter I get excited and think, maybe the Gin and Tacos readers have come to rescue me. Then I realize it's just another medevac flight to the regional burn center because a meth lab blows up in someone's face approximately every twelve hours here.


Posted in Quick Hits on April 17th, 2014 by Ed

Having done this for more than a decade and, at this point, thousands of posts I don't remember a lot of what I've written on here. But there are a few that I remember in detail, either because I thought they turned out particularly well or I had more fun than usual writing them. When someone reposted this Ezra Klein ode to Centrist Butthurt on Facebook yesterday – you remember the one, in which he realized that Evan Bayh was a big, bad liarface and a perfect example of all of the things he claimed were "wrong with Washington" when he retired and gave his famous jeremiad-interview with Klein – I remembered writing a response to it many moons ago with the unforgettable title, "Satisficing and Cocktail Wieners."

All of that could have been written today or twenty years ago or in 1875 and it would be equally relevant. There always have been and will be Evan Bayhs – sanctimonious charlatans who pose as crusaders to score points from decrying the system while embodying all of its worst excesses. What is more problematic in the modern context, though, is the endless supply of Ezra Kleins willing to take these people seriously and then act like jilted tweens when their heroes prove to be shallow hacks. Only the rosiest of lenses (or the most all-encompassing ignorance, which I will assume does not describe Klein) can allow a supposed journalist to look at a man as obviously full of shit as Evan Bayh, see a Good Man, and then be shocked when he's on his knees sucking paychecks out of News Corp and the Chamber of Commerce six months down the road.


Posted in Rants on April 14th, 2014 by Ed

One of the big problems with guns in the U.S. is the inability to come up with an accurate way to identify who shouldn't have them. It would be great if we could look at people and reliably conclude "Future school shooter" or "obviously gets shitty drunk on Pearl Beer and leaves loaded guns out in a house full of kids." Since this is impossible, we have to rely on proxy variables that our friends at the NRA are all too eager to remind us are imperfect. Plenty of people planning to commit crimes with guns have none of the red flags (felonies, psychiatric diagnoses) that our flimsy system of background checks is designed to catch.

My suggestion for reducing gun violence is to wait until concealed carry becomes legal in a given jurisdiction and then automatically reject the first 100-1000 applications. Because you know who society doesn't need running around armed? The guy who has been waiting his entire life to pack heat. He's so excited that he sprints down to the police station the first day concealed carry is allowed, not unlike a starry-eyed tween ecstatically racing to get One Direction tickets, to get his permit. The guy who simply cannot wait to be carrying a gun is precisely who we should be worried about.

Of course that is a half-kidding suggestion and no such system would be legal or workable. But there's a different group of people we really, really need to worry about being armed: people who want George Zimmerman's autograph. You know they're all gun owners. Most of them probably do concealed carry if they can qualify for the permit. They have guns and they're excited to have a chance to meet a guy who is famous because he shot a black teenager. Maybe shake his hand and congratulate him. Some of them brought their kids.

The folks over at Sociological Images, providers of the link, try to break down the psychology of someone who would actually put George Zimmerman on a pedestal (tl;dr – essentially a bad case of Just World Phenomenon in which everyone deserves whatever happens to them). It would be great, though, if we could take Zimmerman around the country and somehow mark the people who go out of their way to meet him, shake his hand, and ask for an autograph. Perhaps an invisible dye would do the trick, but I'm agnostic about the method. Assuming we can't pass any laws precluding them from owning guns, it would nonetheless be fascinating to see how much Ground-Standing and "self defense" shooting they end up involved with as a cohort.

It's not about what Zimmerman did – it's about the fantasy of one day doing the same. And that's terrifying.


Posted in Rants on April 13th, 2014 by Ed

Thomas Frank's latest is on the post-Great Recession resurgence of the McMansion. After falling briefly in 2009, the average square footage of new home construction in the U.S. has resumed its inexorable growth. It's a surprisingly bland offering from Frank, telling us little that we didn't already know. With no judgment – because god knows I've been there – it comes off as a piece one writes when unable to think of a topic on a deadline.

The main point is that new home construction is a kind of monument to American vacuousness, as our society place great value on living not only in large homes but in large homes of the dumbest and most ostentatious kind. One thing I think Frank misses, or misses a chance to emphasize, is that the Babbitt class has always valued size as a means of displaying wealth. This is not a new phenomenon. There are plenty of differences, though, between the Big Houses of yesterday and of today. The real issue is a little more subtle than his approach suggests.

I live in a home built in 1907. In fact the entire neighborhood consists of homes built between 1880 and 1910 (which, I believe, was the last time anything good happened to this city). To illustrate a few points, I wandered around with my camera for about a half hour on Sunday afternoon. Suffice it to say the homes here are not small. They border on giant. And these were homes occupied by bank managers, dentists, realtors…precisely the kind of new money middle class that flocks to McMansions today.

Single Home

It's not only big, it's adorned with a lot of the same gaudy ornamentation that characterizes today's suburban tract palaces. The nouveau riche of today appear to be startlingly similar to those of the turn of the 20th Century. That said, there are a number of respects in which I think Frank has a point that he didn't do enough to make.

1. Much of the difference can be seen in the quality of construction. The Middle Class Manses of 1900 were built like brick shithouses. That they are all still standing in cities all over the Midwest, despite having received minimal upkeep for decades or in some cases being outright abandoned for some time, is a testament to how they were constructed. The homes around here certainly look worse for wear, but they are structurally sound. McMansions, despite their enormous size and matching price tags, absolutely reek of cheapness. As Frank says, they are meant to be "flipped" in ten years. They are just enormous piles of pressed board, plain white paint, plain carpeting, and hollow doors set on flimsy Chinese hinges. With the possible exception of the de rigueur stone countertops in the kitchen, nothing in these homes is designed to last 30 years let alone 100. If you've been in one, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's hard to reconcile their high prices with the feeling that it's just a gigantic version of that duplex you rented for a year in college.

2. The old homes, despite being equally prone to show-off ornamentation, had an architectural style. It might not be one that many of us find pleasing or tasteful, but it was a style. McMansions, on the other hand, are stylistically illiterate collages of generations of tacky details: turrets, bay windows, cornices, gables, columns, dormers, chimneys, ornamental brickwork…you name it and the lowest bid contractor will slap it on the flimsy exterior. McMansions are the Michael Bay movies of architecture.

3. While the older homes were very large, they held larger families with more children. In the case of wealthier parts of society around 1900, there was domestic staff around the house as well. The size of the older homes had a functional purpose.

4. The older homes were vertically oriented and fit closely together. Here are a couple of (not great) pictures I snapped to try to illustrate the point. Note that all of the houses in both pictures are, by any definition, exceptionally large. Click to embiggen:

Row 1
Row 2

In the first picture in particular you can see that you can reach out a side window and high-five your neighbor in these houses. And here is where I think Frank really misses an important point. The McMansion is not merely stupid, big, and stupid-big, it is purposely designed to waste space. They're two stories to project size, but primarily horizontally oriented – in layman's terms, they sprawl idiotically in every direction. They sit on lots designed not only to set them back from the street but also to keep them a safe distance away from the neighbors. If they don't have moats it is only because zoning boards won't allow it.

5. Finally, the laughable sameness of today's megahomes represents a change. Turn-of-the-Century construction shows that buyers and developers at least bothered to hire a few different architects, build more than three floorplans per development, and paint the exteriors something other than white.

Anywhere in the declining Midwest you can get these old homes for a song. There are no longer enough well-to-do people here – actually, there just aren't enough people, full stop – to support the value of old homes in the city along with the new construction out in the suburbs. They're not always pretty on account of age and neglect, but they have what the cool kids call Charm. Charm is a way of saying that, unlike most of what is built today, every home does not look identical. They are made of actual building materials instead of compressed granite dust, plywood, and bricks you can crush with your hand. If the bankers' homes of 1900 were the expression of the stupidity of the era like McMansions are of today, then the inescapable conclusion is that American stupidity has gotten much more potent in the intervening decades.


Posted in Quick Hits on April 10th, 2014 by Ed

So this is what's going on over at Tea Party Nation. Mary Baker of "Conservative Moms for America" – Seriously, is there anything that makes you want to take someone seriously less than when they begin any statement that isn't about parenting a child (and a lot of statements that are) by identifying themselves as a mother? – shares some deeply thought provoking ideas about why the gays are like the KKK:

When white supremacy tried to make a mark in American history it was viciously attacked quickly put down by the people of our nation . But Gay Supremacy is becoming a monster that carries greater evils than white supremacy ever did. White Supremacy was focused on how a group of people felt about another group of people. They created various barriers for those they hated and their views about their superiority to others provided the frame work for the citizens of this nation to search their hearts and understand that God has created every person in His image. However Gay Supremacy's hate reaches much farther than a specific group of people. Their is no common ground that can be reached. Their is no searching of the heart or consideration of God's principles. Their hate is generated only by self centeredness and hate for anyone who disagrees with them.

Any person who disagrees with their evil beliefs will be viciously attacked and destroyed. I could disagree with the beliefs of white supremacist and still hold to Biblical views about life, marriage and sexuality. Many people in America fought against their own kind in order to rid us of this hateful group but Gay supremacist have bullied every sector of our nation and now sit as the giant bully against all Americans who disagree with their radical agenda. Christians are not bigots because we don't embrace immoral lifestyles. Currently gay supremacist point their anguish at Christians but anyone who stand opposed to the Gay supremacist is game for utter annihilation.

Our state government must now take the lead in protecting the religious freedoms and right of expression of the citizens of their state from this new enemy the Gay Supremacist.

I struggle to think of anything more historically ignorant and offensive that I have read. Oh, let's check out the first comment!

Both Conservatism and Christianity has no problem with the right to live the gay lifestyle, in accordance with religious freedom which all Christian churches promote, so long as the gay lifestyle is not sanctioned by the State.

You raise an interesting point about "White Supremacy vs. Gay Supremacy" – driving people out of corporations is just like the KKK driving black people out of town, and liberal bullying is just like KKK cross-burning.

Just like White Supremacism claimed "States' Rights" support their actions, "Gay Supremacism" claims "Equal Rights" support their actions.

As conservatives, we must fight both White Supremacism and "Gay Supremacism" and support freedom for all races and sexual orientations.

Yep, that's actually worse. Because the only way you can top the people who write for Tea Party Nation is by turning to the people whose days are spent posting comments on Tea Party Nation. Just remember, the Tea Party and the Republican Party are very different. No overlap whatsoever.


Posted in Quick Hits on April 8th, 2014 by Ed

Taking the night off to continue reading Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. It's not a self-help book, but I am learning some interesting things about psychology. I'm also learning what everyone who knows me already knows, namely that I am an extreme pessimist.


Posted in Quick Hits on April 7th, 2014 by Ed

There is precious little to add to what this piece over at Death & Taxes has already said, but I will make the effort nonetheless.

But Robert James Talbot, Jr. gets arrested for terrorism and I don’t see a thing about it until days later, until this weekend when I happened upon this article from the Southern Poverty Law Center. So weird! In fact, most of the other articles I’ve been able to find are from local Texas news sources. Very few national outlets have even bothered with the story.

Talbot is a white, radical right-wing conservative who was arrested by the FBI on charges of “attempted interference with commerce by robbery, solicitation to commit a crime of violence and possession of an explosive material.”

He set up a Facebook page, “American Insurgent Movement” in order to recruit five or six like-minded folks for what he called a “a Pre-Constitutionalist Community that offers those who seek True patriotism and are looking for absolute Freedom by doing the Will of God. Who want to restore America Pre- Constitutionally and look forward to stopping the Regime with action by bloodshed.” People, whom he said, must be willing to walk away from their lives to “stop the regime.” His plan was to rob banks to fund his revolution, and then also blow up mosques. He claimed to have already cased several Bank of Americas.

He wasn’t shy about his intentions, and even brazenly posted the following messages to the group’s Facebook page:

“Liberty movement starts this summer for those who are up for anything. Email the admin if your [sic] interested in walking away from your life (we have weapons if you need a weapon) to stop the Regime. We always will be recruiting. …You will be giving your life for a greater nation restoring liberty and the Lord himself. Stopping the New World Order and banking cartels.”

“That is exactly what I will have my men do during the heist. Same goes with the Muslims. Mosques are to be a blast! With three of my guys with FA [full automatic] AK’s [AK-47 semi-automatic rifles], we will send that white house worthless piece of dirt and his Muslim brotherhood a message they will never forget.”

And on March 15th…

“In a few weeks me and my team are going active for Operation Liberty. I will not be able to post no more. We will be the revolution, things will happen nationwide or in the states. They will call us many names and spin things around on media. Just remember we fight to stop Marxism, liberalism, Central banking Cartels and the New World Order.”

He was arrested after meeting with three undercover FBI agents who were pretending to be interested in helping him rob an armored car, and providing him with C-4 explosives. He also told the undercover agents that he planned to locate and kill a police officer who arrested him for drunk driving.

Now, call me crazy, but I have a feeling that if Talbot had been, instead, a Muslim man plotting to blow up Christian churches, that this is something that would have made the news cycle, in pretty heavy rotation. Despite the fact that two people with a similar ideology once committed one of the most tragic incidents of terrorism on U.S. soil, it is highly unlikely that other like-minded folks–like Larry Klayman and friends–will be put on the do-not-fly list anytime soon.

The if-he-was-Muslim point is almost too obvious to bother making – replace white with brown and Lord with Allah and we'd have a full-blown media circus on our hands. This raises two useful questions. First, is the problem that the media didn't pay enough attention to this jackass or that it pays far, far too much to other would-be terrorists? Realistically this guy posed a minimal threat to the public; anyone stupid enough to post stuff like this on Facebook is going to attract undercover FBI/ATF agents like a ham attracts starving dogs. This story isn't a big deal, and that's the point. Most of the Great Big Terrorism Scares involve bumbling dipshits who couldn't rob a liquor store without getting caught (e.g., the Fort Dix plotters in 2007) yet the media routinely turns every example into a 9/11 near miss. Lots of people plan things, yet it's only when white people do the planning that the media are able to distinguish between a plan and a realistic threat to the public. Strange.

Second, how much of the activity on the Militia/"Patriot"/Ultra-right in the U.S. is abetted by the indignant howling that conservatives do whenever law enforcement suggests that, you know, gun-toting lunatic McVeigh types pose a greater threat than Scary Foreign Muslims? Perhaps it has been too long since Oklahoma City and Americans forget what kind of people make up the survivalist Right. Maybe the terror acts perpetrated by non-U.S. citizens have simply been better executed and therefore more memorable. Or maybe a significant minority of American conservatives think that plotting to overthrow the government is a reasonable response to electing a moderate Democrat to the White House. Hmm.