THE SCOTTISH VERDICT

Posted in Rants on July 15th, 2013 by Ed

The Scottish legal system is unique in that it offers juries three verdicts: guilty, not guilty, and not proven. The third, often referred to in legal circles as a "Scottish verdict", implies that judge and jury are not convinced that the accused is not guilty but there is insufficient evidence to prove guilt. Given the paucity of eyewitnesses and the disputed nature of what little evidence existed aside from the defendant's statement, the Zimmerman trial appeared from the very beginning to be headed for a Scottish verdict. The state simply was unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the confrontation was initiated by Zimmerman and not Martin. In that sense, the verdict is unsurprising.

A great many proud centrists, Very Serious People, and secretly-elated observers on the right have sought refuge in the argument that "Everybody lost." While it is true that Mr. Zimmerman will suffer extrajudicial consequences, this statement is as insulting as it is facile. It is hardly splitting hairs to note that while everybody lost, the person who died lost quite a bit more than the one currently at home on his sofa.

In the larger sense this incident and trial are a glimpse into the endgame of the last four decades of gun politics, the logical result of a mindset that sees threats everywhere and believes that the Constitution guarantees each individual the right to respond to those threats, real or perceived, in any manner he sees fit. We insist not only that we have the right to be armed at all times in whatever manner we choose, but also, with the proliferation of "Stand Your Ground" laws, to be the sole judges of when using our arms is appropriate. In other words, the death of Trayvon Martin is exactly what is to be expected from a culture that arms every numbnuts who can afford a pawn shop pistol and believes that those same people are qualified as judges, juries, and executioners. "Feeling threatened" is the only requirement that must be met to justify a death sentence; if one happens to feel threatened whenever a black male is within 50 feet, so be it. We must allow each armed would-be vigilante to make that choice, because Freedom.

That, really, is at the heart of this incident: would a jury agree that being black, male, and hooded is sufficient to arouse suspicion? Even if that suspicion initiates a sequence of events that ends in death? If you weren't sure if the (all-white) jury would buy that argument, a refresher on the American judicial system might be in order. This has long been a society – including the courts – that considers some lives more valuable than others. The right to feel safe and secure in one's person and property has been particularly sensitive to the rankings of the social hierarchy over time.

That is why we create an ever-larger class of people walking around with guns – because our (mostly white, mostly male) courts and legislatures recognize how important it is for this (mostly white, mostly male) group to feel safe. If it so happens to make everyone else – black males, women, etc. – feel less safe, so be it. Every black male in America leaving his house wondering, "Is today the day I get shot for having my hand in my pocket?" is, legally and socially, a small and justified price to pay for the greater sense of security that carrying a concealed weapon provides insecure white people.

The biases of the legal system, like the society it reflects, are deeply ingrained. No one sits around rubbing his hands and chuckling, "Let's kill us some black guys!" like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon villain. It is a quiet, persistent, passive bias that enables things like this to continue to happen. It is every judge and jury that accepts without question that black male, especially when dressed In a Certain Way, is suspicious and threatening. It is every example of the benefit of doubt being given to the shooter in instances of self-defense, as though "self defense" is a well-defined concept independent of the judgment, prejudices, and irrationality of the shooter. It is everyone who insists that "It's not about race" to assuage their own guilt, irrespective of the fact that a similar verdict with the racial roles reversed could scarcely be imagined.

NPF: BY THE HAMMER OF THOR

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 12th, 2013 by Ed

My sixth sense is tingling, letting me know that this is one of those special Fridays wherein you feel like doing even less real work than usual. It would only be fair under those circumstances for me to provide as many amazing distractions as possible. In no particular order:

1. Here is a great "science for stupids" level video on how transistors work:

And now you know how transistors work. So that's cool, I guess.

2. Reuters posted a hilariously bad "travel postcard" on how to spend 48 hours in Minneapolis-St. Paul. This is not a joke, despite the fact that it details just about the worst two-day itinerary one could imagine. It advises readers to eat at chain restaurants, spend many hours at the Mall of America, and to take in a Twins game (helpfully noting that "matches normally last three-and-a-half hours but the possibility of overtime can mean a late finish."

3. In the category of "things in Ed's wheelhouse" we have a staggering gallery of 201 images of space art from the Soviet magazine "Tekhnika-Molodezhi" – roughly the equivalent of Popular Mechanics. The Russian title can be translated as "Technology of the Young Generation." The gallery includes both cover art and various illustrations from space-related articles.

Soviet

I was born in the wrong decade.

4. Read the tale of a family's quest to get Thor's Hammer on the military tombstones of their deceased loved ones as a symbol of Odinism. Oh, by the way, apparently Odinism is a thing that exists. Sure enough, the Veterans Administration now includes Thor's Hammer as one of the 58 approved religious/spiritual "symbols of belief" available on military tombstones:

hammer

That list is fascinating. I consider myself fairly well informed about religions, but there are at least 15 or 20 there that I've never heard of. I'm sure some are very small (it only takes one service member past or present to request adding a symbol, although not all requests are granted). So many unanswered questions. Why the sandhill crane? What the hell is Eckankar? When did atheism get a logo?

Enjoy.

NEW NORMAL

Posted in Uncategorized on July 10th, 2013 by Ed

Rolling Stone has a great piece on the new, ultraconservative state government in Kansas, from the legislature to the Governor's mansion. Don't worry, they're trying to fix it so that Brownback can appoint the judges himself, too. Two things that are particularly striking:

1. Though the author does not say so directly, this is where we see the real impact of Citizens United. The piece notes how mind-blowingly easy it is for Gov. Brownback to eliminate his political opposition, provided of course he remains in the good graces of his sponsors. 2012 showed us that throwing money into a presidential race – even an astronomical amount of money – has a marginal impact on the outcome because there are so many other factors at play in that race. Similarly, there is only so much a handful of loyal Koch-backed Senators can do in a body of 100. But in state legislative elections, the unlimited cash is decisive. In a race wherein both candidates might ordinarily spend a combined $50,000 it tends to be decisive when Koch Industries dumps a paltry (on their scale) $150,000 into the race. Most people don't even know who their state legislator is. Eighteen negative mailers in twenty days before a (low turnout) primary makes quite a difference. This is why we see so many state legislatures turning into circuses this year; with enough financial might, it really is possible to get just about any asshole elected to a state house. Comparatively, races for president, the Senate, or governor's mansions are hard to influence with similar brute force financial tactics.

2. The Lakoff argument has been fairly well beaten to death over the past decade. We know the benefits and limitations of "branding" and the use of purposive language to make a candidate or agenda more appealing. Personally, I think the GOP stranglehold on the agenda and discourse has loosened, if only a bit, since 2001. But there is one problem that refuses to go away:

"What bothers me is there are places in America that have gone so far to the left that they'd look at us as nutcases," he says pleasantly. "I consider us in Kansas mainstream America – normal, red-blooded Americans who believe in the Constitution of the United States. Yes, we're conservative, but we're not a bunch of gun-toting cowboys." A few moments later, he slides his chair back, and the wheel makes a loud cracking sound when it hits the plastic floor coaster. "That wasn't gunshots, by the way!" he cackles.

People on the left forever have to fight against this entrenched notion that mainstream America is an old, psychotically conservative white person / yeoman farmer. We see this still during elections, when the media frets endlessly over what working class whites and white rural people more generally think, despite the undeniable statistical evidence that 1) there aren't that many anymore and 2) they're an ever-shrinking portion of the electorate. It speaks to the larger obstacle wherein everything conservatives believe is normal, mainstream 'Murica and anything else is defined as the Other. Any competing argument is to be treated with skepticism and/or derision until it gets the OK from Real Americans – old, white ones.

OVERCOMPENSATING

Posted in Rants on July 9th, 2013 by Ed

If you've shopped for or purchased a new car, you notice that window stickers are a decent source of unintentional hilarity. In an effort to make each car seem as feature-laden and fully loaded as possible, manufacturers will often list items so basic that no car could be sold without them. Steering wheel. Bumpers (front and rear!) Radio. Windshield wipers. Cupholders. It's certainly fair to point out that the car has these amenities, but as a consumer, you're interested in what the car offers beyond the bleedingly obvious. So that's what car dealers emphasize. You already know it comes with seat belts and a dashboard, so the dealer is going to sell you on satellite radio and rear view cameras. To do otherwise would be suspicious. Let's put it this way: if their sales pitch is "This car has a windshield!", as a consumer you would assume (justifiably, no doubt) that this is a pretty lousy car.

I think of this example every time I receive a pay stub. My current and most recent former employer both embraced the new "management theory" trend of giving employees lengthy statements of benefits or "Total Compensation" figures. For example, the pay stub lists not only my salary and what I pay to get health insurance, but also what my employer contributes monthly to the cost of my insurance. As the cost of health plans is quite substantial, this adds many thousands of dollars in additional income. Er, "compensation."

In a sense, I think this is a great idea if for no reason other than to show Americans the behind-the-curtain costs of our ridiculous system of health care. In every other sense I find this practice somewhere between irritating and insulting.

When I say my employer gives me a list, I mean a list. There must be 30 things that I am told are part of my overall "compensation". This includes some items of real economic value – contributions to insurance and TIAA-CREF, for example – but is lengthened substantially by things of minimal value (discounted tickets to university sporting events?) or almost none (free notary service!) Most irritating are the things that one cannot avoid having on a university campus – e.g., use of the library or rec center. The university must have these facilities. Allowing me to use them costs my employer absolutely nothing. How does this constitute "compensation"?

I object to this practice because it is little more than a smoke-and-mirrors trick employers are now using because Americans have finally begun to notice that their wages – you know, the actual money we get paid – hasn't changed in the last few years. Statistically, adjusting for inflation real wages have actually fallen for most Americans since 1970. These statements of benefits are intended to (over) compensate for the semi-annual "By the way, unfortunately there is no money for raises this year" letters and emails. You're not getting a raise, but look at how much we already pay you. It's way more than just your salary – it's also free use of the university parking deck on weekends!

Stop complaining already, you ingrates. Look at how much we do for you. It's almost admirable, the amount of the balls it takes to pursue a strategy of telling employees, "You don't understand your own compensation" in salary negotiations, as if landlords and banks will accept free library checkout privileges in lieu of cash.

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

Posted in Quick Hits on July 8th, 2013 by Ed

Wherein the people of Kansas discover that passing a law allowing people to pack heat in schools has adverse effects on the cost of insuring school districts. It turns out that when all of the bullshit and rhetoric are stripped away and the matter is reduced to one of dollars, cents, and actuarial tables, having a bunch of armed yahoos doesn't really make anything safer.

On a side note, Kansas legislators and judges still haven't gotten around to making it legal to carry guns into courthouses or the State Legislature. An innocent oversight, I'm sure.

NPF: IS THIS REAL LIFE?

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 5th, 2013 by Ed

A few years ago I had the good fortune to attend the Super Bowl, which was being held in Tampa that year. Since the Cardinals lost – there is a certain Steelers linebacker whose name cannot be spoken among my family – there was no reason to stick around after the game to watch the victory celebration and the handing out of various trophies. As we (and the rest of the Cardinals fans in attendance) filed slowly and somewhat sadly out of the stadium, I noticed something very odd about the people who were sticking around. Of the Steelers fans remaining to watch the celebration, a good half of them were holding up a smartphone. That is, they were either snapping pictures or, more commonly, shooting video. So they were watching an LCD screen showing them events that were happening directly in front of them.

I've never forgotten that – the mental image of people who paid thousands of dollars to experience something in person and then not watching it so that they might have a terrible, shaky, low-quality video of it (I really question the watchability of a phone video taken from the third deck of an outdoor stadium at night). Don't get me wrong, I take pictures of things on occasion. But I have a strong preference for actually experiencing something that is happening around me rather than missing it because I'm trying to take a picture of it. Pictures are nice memories. You know what else is a nice memory? Actually seeing it happen and, you know, having a thing to remember.

Last week at a parade – for a certain Cup named after a certain Lord – I saw the exact same thing, only four years later and a thousand times worse. Every single person in attendance seemed to be holding a cameraphone, all of which were thrust skyward when the parade came near. So now everyone has a shitty picture of everyone else's hand holding up a phone. And no one actually saw the parade. Sounds like fun!

On Thursday evening I'm willing to bet that you saw more than a few people holding up phones trying to take pictures or videos of fireworks. Why? Why would anyone even consider doing that let alone actually do it? Even if your video turned out well (note: it won't), how is watching a cellphone video of fireworks going to be entertaining? Even if your pictures came out (note: they won't), are you going to look at pictures of fireworks? Are you going to reminisce about the one that went "BOOOOM!" with all your friends? Why? WHY? WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?

But by all means, keep distracting the rest of us by waving your bright screens around in our faces. It enhances the experience for everyone.

ON PRINCIPLE

Posted in Quick Hits on July 3rd, 2013 by Ed

There is a great phrase in the textbook I currently assign for Public Opinion that captures one of the most vexing problems with the American electorate – Americans "endorse, but do not demonstrate, democratic basics." That's an elegant way of saying that nearly every piece of evidence we have based on previous research suggests that Americans don't have principles, politically speaking, but tend to think they do. For example, they will state in interviews and on surveys that they are strong supporters of the 1st Amendment. And then they start listing off the exceptions – the people who should not have free speech, freedom of religion, etc. The idea of a principle as an abstract idea that we consider integral to our belief systems and guides our attitudes toward new information…that just doesn't exist. We trust the institutions of government (and believe they should be strengthened) based on which ones are controlled by our preferred faction. We oppose the Senate using the filibuster, until they do it to block something we don't like. We are staunch believers in free speech, except you shouldn't be able to criticize the government during wartime.

This phrase keeps coming to mind when I look at the puzzling public response to Edward Snowden, to re-hash yesterday's topic. Is he a hero? Is he a traitor? Should he be punished or feted? The pioneering work of Zaller and Feldman in public opinion stresses that reasonable people hold "competing considerations" on most subjects – in other words, depending on the context and how I phrase the question, you might reasonably tell me that he's a hero today and a traitor tomorrow. Part of our intense confusion with this NSA scandal – Who are we supposed to be mad at? Whose fault is it? When George W. Bush and Barack Obama agree, won't our heads explode? He did a good thing but he also broke the law! – is that we don't really believe in an underlying principle here. We're not mad that the government is spying; we're mad that the government is spying on us. We've recently all but begged the government to wipe its ass with the 4th Amendment…but to spy on them, not on us.

In short, violating other people's rights is totally cool with most Americans, pending the conditioning effect of which party controls the process at a given moment. We appear to be angry because the government has violated the implicit agreement we made in the wake of 9/11 – do whatever possible to make us feel safe, but do it to The Terrorists. Brown ones, especially. Nothing about the reaction to Snowden suggests that we think the government shouldn't be listening to phone calls or recording data about emails and internet usage. We're just outraged that it's happening to us. Conducting surveillance in a manner that ignores all basic constitutional rights is fine, as long as it isn't done to Hard Working Americans or whatever euphemism you prefer for old white people who vote.

Basically, SnowdenGate is the "Don't Touch My Junk!" guy writ large. How dare the government treat me, a good, loyal white person, the way I encourage it to treat others?

WILLY NILLY

Posted in Quick Hits on July 2nd, 2013 by Ed

Having said very little about it so far, I have to admit that I find it hard to root for Edward Snowden or feel any real affinity for him because of his apparent lack of planning. I'm a planner, a recipe-follower, and a control freak in remission. Watching someone run around the globe like a beheaded chicken is off-putting to me in the same way that a sink full of dirty dishes would put off someone with OCD. His most recent statement underscores that he decided to leak all of this stuff (which is good!) without any sort of plan for what to do next.

Which makes sense, right? Because why would you need any sort of escape plan after pissing off the entire U.S. government, military, and surveillance apparatus.

He appears to have put some forethought into his data collection, taking a large paycut to work for a private contractor in a position that would let him get more of the dirt he wanted. Yet other than "Fly to Hong Kong without securing any sort of asylum or coming up with a final destination" I think that's as far ahead as he planned. WTF, man.

Here are the three options confronting him as he prepared to leak the information, in (as I see it) descending order of preference.

1. Walk into an FBI office and turn himself in. Wait, wait. Hear me out. It's highly unlikely that they can successfully charge him with treason or espionage, as he doesn't work for any foreign power. Surrendering might also give him an important Patrick Henry-esque "Do your worst to me, King George" moral high ground that would have earned him both public and Congressional support. When the furor dies down, he's probably be out of prison in a couple of years at most. It would be a bold move and not for the risk averse, but…I'd rather take my chances here than to go hat-in-hand to the world's most repressive governments asking for help.

2. Hide. HIDE. Either hide in the U.S. – don't tell me someone like Snowden couldn't figure out how to communicate with the outside world without giving away his location – or make contact with the Assange/WikiLeaks types and secure some type of foreign hideout. Maybe he could have even been smart enough to leave the country and/or secure himself in a safe hiding place before leaking the information.

3. Drop a huge bombshell, rile up the U.S. government, and then fly around the world willy-nilly sitting on airport tarmacs and asking various governments to take him. Yeah, it sounds pretty stupid when it's put that way.

By the way, if you missed the "private contractor" aspect of the story mentioned earlier, do check out some of what has been written about Booz Allen since the story broke. The intelligence establishment has always been keen on farming out the dirty work, but recently it has been taken to a new level much as Private Military Contractors have become indispensable to the military.

Oh, and he's going to end up in Cuba. Russia derives no benefit from keeping him and we'll coerce/bribe Ecuador into refusing to take him. In the long run he may find a way into Iceland but right now, I don't see who else is going to take him.

PILE ON

Posted in Rants on July 1st, 2013 by Ed

White people across the nation spent the weekend resting their sore knees after a busy week of taking turns kicking Paula Deen in the ass to prove thoroughly, appropriately repulsed they are by the very idea of racism.

Before we go on, I have to admit that I hate Paula Deen in ways that defy description. Her fake-ass accent, her insufferable cokehead kids with their spinoff shows, her shameless hawking for labor/animal abuse superstars Smithfield, her "Ain't heart disease and obesity hilarious!" cooking style, and her paid shilling for a diabetes drug when her daily butter intake finally caught up with her…she's just a disgusting human being all around. That she apparently held and/or holds racist tendencies is neither surprising nor, in my case, a reason to think less of her. I really can't think less of her without getting to know her and adding some sort of personal component to my loathing.

That said, it's hard not to feel like we're going a bit overboard here. I would rather Food Network fire her because her show is an appalling trainwreck – like Divine from the John Waters films making a dessert buffet for a live in-studio meeting of the Daughters of the Confederacy. I would rather she lose endorsement contracts because the lifestyle she promotes is disgusting. I would rather her book contract be rescinded because her books are garbage aimed at morons. I would rather the public turn on her because she's a grating, cloying, parody of the worst things about America. All of these seem like worse offenses than an admission under oath that she used the word "nigger" thirty years ago.

Yes, I find that offensive too, and I have no sympathy for her. None. If it cost her a job, endorsements, and other opportunities, she has no one to blame but herself. But is it necessary for us to howl until she's burned at the stake for what happened? As Jimmy Carter said, "I think she has been punished, perhaps overly severely, for her honesty in admitting it and for the use of the word in the distant past." And as Jesse Jackson Sr. said, "She should be reclaimed rather than destroyed." Perhaps the problem is that Deen is so generally unlikeable that we're merely seizing on this as a reason to crap all over her. But it sure seems like some of us are using vehement, public condemnations of her actions as a means of allaying guilt – "I'm glad they got her and not me."

Screw Paula Deen. I'm glad to see her fail. Can any of us, though, say with a straight face that we've never thought or said things that are offensive? Racist? Homophobic? Sexist? We all like to say "Yes, but that was in the past, I've changed. If the rest of us can fall back on that, why not Deen? Maybe she used to talk like that but no longer does. Maybe she still does. Who knows. The point is that the Downfall of Paula Deen strikes me as a case of the right thing happening for the wrong reasons.