LET'S PRETEND WE'RE POOR!

Posted in Quick Hits on June 11th, 2014 by Ed

If I told you that a bar in Milwaukee has constructed a fake Brazilian "favela" (slum) in its rear alley to attract viewers of the World Cup you'd probably think I was kidding. Which is too bad, because a bar in Milwaukee has constructed a fake "favela" in its rear alley. It's really "authentic", with fake laundry strung across the fake windows. It will be just like being poor but with flat screens everywhere and $9 microbrews on tap.

The Nomad event includes the temporary construction of a courtyard viewing area inspired by the colors and spirit of the mountainside "favelas" of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The "Nomad Favela" takes over an adjacent parking lot and consists of a surfboard bar, a Belair Cantina taco shack, and large outdoor space to view all of the tournament's soccer matches on six large televisions. The unique space is the collaborative effort of a small group of volunteering artists and craftspeople and includes several from Makerspace.

The Nomad's own website, which I refuse to dignify with a link, refers to it as their "shanty town":

copa

No word yet on whether makeup for donning blackface will be provided or if any of the 99.99% of Brazil that is Not Favela will be represented in some way. This is one of those instances, not unlike when frat kids decide to have a "Pimps and Hoes Party" or something equally racist, in which I can't believe that a large number of people were involved in the planning and execution of this idea and not one of them said, "Hey maybe this is in poor taste." Then again, this is the city that birthed that stillborn homunculus Scott Walker into the political world. Maybe we shouldn't be shocked.

What should the Nomad do next? Fake ghetto for the NBA Finals? Faux trailer park for the Daytona 500? Replica igloos for the Stanley Cup? The possibilities for creativity in staggeringly poor taste are limitless!

MOTIVE FORCE

Posted in Rants on June 10th, 2014 by Ed

I've been resisting writing this for years because it is going to make me sound (potentially) like a crazy person, but now that we're doing a mass shooting per day here in the Land of Freedom it seems like it needs to be said.

Like millions of Americans, I had an unpleasant time in the K-12 educational system. By that I mean I got picked on a lot and "bullied" in the parlance of the 21st Century. This was by no means an experience that makes me unique. In hindsight, frankly, it makes perfect sense. I was an odd combination of extremely weird and not shy, so rather than keeping to myself I actively engaged with my peers even though I lacked the interpersonal skills to interact successfully. Nothing happened to me that was particularly scarring or that hasn't happened to lots of other people with no particular ill effects. Sure it made me dislike school a little more and it probably had some long term effect on the way I deal with people in social situations, but all in all I would say it fell within the range of Normal childhood experiences.

When you get picked on as a kid, especially as a male in a society in which you are strongly encouraged toward aggressive and violent forms of entertainment and behavior, I don't think it's all that unusual to throw the occasional Eight Year-Old Hissy Fit and think something like, (say in petulant child-voice) "I hate everyone and I'm gonna blow up the school!" Nor is it particularly odd to have a juvenile fantasy about going Bruce Willis on the people who pick on you on the playground. As a young male raised on a steady diet of action films, GI Joes, and video games where you kick and punch and stab and shoot everything in sight, there's nothing surprising about that. There were times when I had particularly bad days in middle school and junior high where I spent an afternoon at my desk thinking how fun it would be to get revenge. My best friend and I created a comic with a protagonist named, creatively, "Super Ninja" and drew strips that inevitably ended with the titular hero cutting the heads off of whoever had spent that lunch period making fun of us.

Today, school administrators would have lost their shit when they discovered our poorly-drawn little strips, but at the time it seemed perfectly harmless. It was understood – by me, by my friend, by everyone involved – that no one was actually going to do any of this. The line between fiction and reality was clearly demarcated. We all understood that two ten year-olds who got picked on a lot for being nerds were retreating into a harmless fantasy in which they didn't get picked on so much. The point is, at no point did it ever occur to me, or any of the other kids who got picked on, to actually blow up the school or shoot anybody. It wasn't even within the realm of possibility.

In short, I don't think it's particularly rare for young people who get picked on to have an imagination that creates revenge scenarios. And, as a kid whose dad took him to see RoboCop on opening night when he was nine years old, I don't think it was particularly odd that sometimes those thoughts involved cartoonish amounts of violence. I may be wrong about this, and in fact I am some kind of rare and dangerous psychopath. In any event I turned out alright, notwithstanding the poor career choice.

It's easy and quite fair to blame the constant and easy availability of guns for the increase in spree-type shootings in the US, particularly in schools. There are too goddamn many people who have too goddamn many guns available for acquisition with almost no effort. What that does not address, however, is why the line between thinking about something and doing it seems to have disappeared or at least retreated. Prior to the mid-1990s, school shootings were almost unheard of and usually perpetrated by disturbed adults rather than students. Yet I don't believe for a second that during that time period, school kids never thought about doing violent things. We watched violent movies and played violent video games and played football and listened to The Rock Music and all of the other supposed triggers and causes that purport to explain the waves of violence in the past two decades. Despite all of that, we managed to think "I hate everyone and I'm gonna blow up the school!" without actually trying to blow up the school. Somehow kids managed to think about going Terminator on grade school bullies without doing it.

I don't know what changed, when, and why. Blaming the media coverage or entertainment or shoddy parenting all feels lazy and unconvincing. Spree killers have always received heavy media attention. Entertainment has always glorified war, fighting, and violence (particularly of the Death Wish "revenge" variety). There have always been lots of bad, negligent, or abusive parents. This generation of kids, however, is noticeably different in how willing some of them – still a very small minority out of the whole, yet far too many overall – are to turn their normal reactions to normal juvenile and adolescent social problems into concrete plans for mass murder.

I have always been hesitant to write this because people do not readily admit to having ever harbored a violent thought. We're all supposed to say that when we got picked on as kids we had emotionally healthy, adult responses and we never thought about shooting things or blowing stuff up like the Good Guys did in every movie, game, comic, and TV show we saw. But I think that recognizing that this is not especially rare is an important part of being able to understand why the distinction between thought and action has weakened and devise some useful ideas about how to strengthen it again.

CRISIS OF FAITH

Posted in Rants on June 9th, 2014 by Ed

For as long as I can remember I've loved politics.

When I was in the first grade, my best friend and I would spend recess having "summits" on the playground. We bickered over who got to be Reagan and who had to be Gorbachev and eventually agreed to flip for it, freeing up considerably more time to hash out reductions in strategic nuclear weapons.

In October of 1984 my dad took me to the old Chicago Stadium, since demolished, to see a Ronald Reagan campaign rally shortly before the November election. It was, to a six year old, just about the coolest thing I could imagine. Reagan made his entrance atop a wailing fire truck, a fact that was sufficient to persuade me that being president was a goddamn cool job. In 1988 we waited outside in subzero weather for five hours to shake hands with George H. W. Bush.

By middle school and junior high I had the Senate and most of the relevant people in the House committed to memory; I can still tell you who was in the Senate in the late 80s and early 90s with useless accuracy. I watched the news for fun, mostly CNN despite its raging Liberal Bias. Whatever was happening in Congress or in the elections, I would tell anyone who would listen about it in great detail.

Finally I got to college where I could major in political science and spend every day talking about politics in great detail with like-minded people. It turned out that the other students didn't seem to care quite as much, or often at all, but at least the professors and grad students were usually willing to shoot the shit. That helped. But by the late 90s, something had started to change. The strategy of the Republican Party after the "revolution" of 1994 became to disassemble or otherwise ruin the government when in power and to be mindlessly obstructionist when in the minority. Oddly enough, government became less interesting when it wasn't doing anything. Or, after 2000, when everything it did was driven by ideology rather than reality.

Still, I loved politics. I started this blog mostly to talk about it, although never focusing on it exclusively. I used to write up quite a bit of armchair analysis of the elections; in particular there is a lot of election content in 2004, 2006, and 2008. It tapered off in the next two elections and now here we are halfway through 2014 and I haven't given the midterm elections a moment's thought.

I spent a good deal of time thinking about this while on vacation and it became apparent that, if I'm being honest, my name is Ed and I don't think I care about politics anymore.

The GOP has become a cargo cult of extremists, the white Christian American version of the Taliban. The Democrats, when in power, offer some improvements around the margins but on economic and defense issues essentially tow the same one-party line with a softer message. And more importantly, 90% of the time, nothing is happening. Elections have become bizarre spectacles that cost billions and take place in the intellectual sewer. And ultimately the GOP ends up doing better than it deserves because millions of people like you and I – people who occasionally read stuff and have better things to do than take a debate between Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid seriously – just give up. The GOP base, however, never gives up.

Yes, I'm being somewhat lazy and taking the easy way out. It's facile to say "These people are all the same, who cares who wins" because of course we know that there are instances in which it will matter. It is on some level important; I still vote and I still teach it well (teaching political science, unless you're a hack, involves very little of the day-to-day of politics). It just isn't interesting anymore. And I don't feel bad about that, because the process has changed more than I have. As the old school Republicans say, I didn't walk away from the Party; it walked away from me. Look at the ways in which doing business in the House and Senate have changed, or how the Supreme Court has changed, or how the media coverage of all things political has changed, and I feel justified in saying, yeah, this is stupid.

Maybe it will come back to me at some point. Maybe it won't. Maybe this was the plan all along, to make the political process so unbearably awful and uninteresting that people would stop paying attention to it altogether and the moneyed class could get away with literally anything. If that was the plan, then I feel the same way I feel when I realize an advertising jingle is stuck in my head: I'm mostly annoyed that such a cheap trick worked on me.

NPF: QUITE "ENTERTAINING"

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 5th, 2014 by Ed

A Facebook friend recently shared a link to this story about the supervisor at a cotton gin being recorded in an attempt to enforce some sort of Jim Crow policy in his workplace. He is heard telling black employees that certain items like the water fountain and microwave are "whites only" including the following cheerful exchange:

“Put your sign on the wall then, because I am feeling to drink it,” said Harris. “What would they do when they catch me drinking your water?”

“That`s when we hang you,” said the supervisor.

Once I recovered from the shock that a racist white man was employed in the cotton ginning industry, I noticed something odd about the headline on the original local news story:

racist

Why is "racist" in quotes? There appears to be no lack of clarity that the statements are the actual dictionary definition of racism, so the headline writer appears to be using the quotes unnecessarily. The alternative is that the quotes represent some sort of let's-hear-both-sides claim that the comments are merely alleged to be racist, which is just stupid. Then again, I find unnecessary quotes hilarious so perhaps I'm not exactly unbiased in evaluating their motives.

There is a wonderful blog devoted to Unnecessary Quotes, featuring hundreds of examples such as a sign inviting customers to ring a bell to receive "meat service":

meat

Maybe it's just me, but I find this endlessly entertaining. "Endlessly."

SHOW THOSE KIDS WHO'S BOSS

Posted in Quick Hits on June 4th, 2014 by Ed

If you've never lived in Wisconsin and therefore the name "Waukesha" means nothing to you, don't worry. Your state or urban area has a place just like it. It's a suburb where the whitest, most Jesus-loving upper middle class people congregate and attempt to insulate themselves from the wickedness (and darkness, wink!) of the Big City. If you hear the name of a particular locale and the first adjective that comes to mind in the free association game is "sanctimonious", that's your Waukesha.

Waukesha is Scott Walker territory, the place where everyone knows that the government is bad, Jesus is good, and the purpose of law enforcement is to keep the colored folk out. To anyone who has been there, be it once or for a lifetime, it is no surprise at all to hear that two 12 year old kids who stabbed a classmate 19 times because of something they read on the internet are going to be tried as adults. It is precisely the kind of place where everyone is so eager to prove their Tough on Crime and Personal Responsibility is #1 credentials that they would think such a thing appropriate. Never mind that the defendants are not only children, but children so naive that they would think something about a ghost on a website called "CreepyPasta Wiki" is real.

This is the kind of attitude toward crime and social issues that predominates in white America, the obviously overcompensating tough guy swagger that makes every crime a lock-and-throw-away-key offense. Judges, lawyers, and juries are unnecessary because everyone is guilty and the appropriate sentence is death or, when death cannot be plausibly argued, decades of hard labor and beatings. When the dick-measuring progresses to the point that literal children – not some 17 year old who just barely qualifies as a minor and has already established a criminal record – are being tried as adults without hesitation, most people would pause a moment or two and reflect. A reasonable person might ask a question like, "What the hell is wrong with us?" and "Can criminal agency even be established according to the law on defendants who are 12 and think ghosts are real?" But if you thought like that, you would have moved out of a place like Waukesha long ago. Or they've found some reason to lock you up.

In a community of assholes, the competition to prove oneself the biggest asshole is intense and unceasing.

WINDOW DRESSING

Posted in Rants on June 3rd, 2014 by Ed

Several months ago the world took great delight in a news report out of North Korea – a report that turned out to be bogus, predictably – that an uncle of the current dictator Kim Jong-Un was executed by the uniquely brutal method of being attacked by vicious dogs. Americans love stories of this type that allow our Enemies to be depicted as backward, subhuman savages. This gives us an opportunity for collective back-patting on account of being clearly the more civilized race.

Of course the collective laughter and feigned moral outrage encourages people to focus on the cartoonish evil of the North Korean regime and not, under any circumstances, to pause to reflect on the fact that the United States stands only with nations like North Korea and Iran in practicing capital punishment. I guess it makes us feel proud to tell ourselves that we do it…better? Nicer?

American voters and the people they elect love the death penalty because supporting it allows a bunch of soft, flabby-assed white guys to sound tough. But they're starting to run into some problems. The recent issues with lethal injection executions in Oklahoma and other states has the forces of capital punishment scrambling for alternatives here. One enterprising Utah legislator suggested bringing back the firing squad. On the political left there were the usual "Can you believe these savages" responses, focusing on the 8th Amendment's mandate against "cruel and unusual" punishment.

Here's the thing: why not bring back the firing squad? Or hanging? Or the guillotine? The act of state-sanctioned murder as the final step in a demonstrably imperfect and manipulable criminal justice system is itself cruel and, in the global sense, highly unusual. America abounds with that loathsome brand of Centrist that opposes the death penalty if it makes them feel bad and uncivilized about themselves but supports it if it is Nice and Humane (a word generally reserved for descriptions of the treatment of livestock). We need to abandon that delusion post-haste. Either we are killing people by act of the courts and legislatures or we are not. Once we have leaped the moral chasm to conclude that we're cool with legal murder based on the judgment of a twelve-yahoo jury and the testimony of law enforcement, the method hardly matters. So long as we're not actively and gratuitously torturing people to death, any reasonably quick method of causing death is as good as any other.

The focus on method, in other words, is an effort to take something awful and brutal and dress it up real pretty until it is acceptable fodder for dinner table conversations. Capital punishment suffers as a political issue for our tendency to argue about tangents. Is the death penalty "right"? Well who gives a shit about whether it is morally right or wrong when it and the entire justice system are demonstrably flawed in practice. Which method is the most humane? That's a red herring intended to condition people to accept the death penalty as inevitable by pushing the conversation forward to arguing style.

Is lethal injection cruel? Sure. So is the firing squad and the electric chair and every other method devised and put to use throughout our history. It is cruel inasmuch as capital punishment is cruel; our methods are barbaric inasmuch as the concept itself is barbaric. No amount of window dressing can make the act of killing the people least able to leverage social power and privilege over the justice system seem dignified. If all of our methods seem ugly it is because what we are doing is ugly.

STAND DOWN

Posted in Rants on June 2nd, 2014 by Ed

(Editor's note: I'm going to try updating at noon rather than midnight for a while. My hypothesis is that it will accommodate Summer Academic Schedule a bit better.)

It turns out that someone employed by the NRA has a basic grasp of the way a normal person reacts to seeing dangerously zealous and ignorant people walking into quasi-public establishments like malls and restaurants carrying loaded semiautomatic rifles. The organization's DC lobbying arm is asking Texas open carry advocates to stand down, explaining to people who need to have this explained to them that normal people whose lives do not revolve around fetishizing firearms find it "downright weird" and "scary." Most importantly, from the NRA's perspective, the more gun owners behave in such a fashion, the lower the odds that their cherished open/concealed carry laws will be enacted. It's the classic internal clash between the movement members who have half a brain and those whose thought process occurs mostly in the intestines and gonads.

HomeDepotOCT-3crop

(Side note: so when the "threat" materializes, is she going to drop the infants in order to use that rifle? I mean, the Gay Black Muslim Teenage Immigrant Union-Member Welfare Mother Assailant certainly isn't going to wait for her to set her children down in a stroller before blowing her away.)

And now for something completely different. Hold on, I'm going somewhere with this.

Regular readers know that I'm, if not "obsessed," at least very interested in the Cold War. I recently re-read Victor Sebestyen's 1989, an excellent take on the fall of non-Soviet communist regimes in Europe. In any book about the final years of the Cold War, several cliches and tropes are usually well-represented. One – and this is Sebestyen's biggest failing, I believe – is the "Pope John Paul II killed communism!" line that no actual historian takes seriously anymore. The second is the dynamic explanation for why the revolutions of Eastern Europe, Romania aside, unfolded bloodlessly. Once it became apparent that Gorbachev had no intention of using Soviet military power to intervene, the communist regimes of Europe were left with only one choice to retain their power: to use their own military and police forces to put down anti-government protests by force. The cliched explanation for failing to use that option is that those domestic security forces "would not be willing to fire on their own people." Whether this is entirely true is questionable, but if one reads enough books about the fall of communism this phrase will be encountered no less than several hundred times. In short, while Soviet tanks might be more than willing to roll through Prague shooting at Czechs, Czech tanks would not.

I often wonder how much the militarization of police and the "Us vs. Them, citizens are all the enemy" mentality of American law enforcement (coinciding with the War on Drugs, but that's another story) is responsible for the looniest aspects of gun culture in the US. After all, can any sentient observer be unclear on how ready and willing American police are to shoot "their own people", in the parlance of hacky Cold War prose? Left, right, black, white, old, young…pretty much everyone realizes that American law enforcement from the local patrolman to the ATF have proven themselves to be itching, or at least willing, to whip out their piece and start shooting at the slightest provocation – real or imagined.

It takes only passing attention to the news to see how easy it is to get cops to beat the shit out of unarmed public protesters en masse or that every couple of days some innocent and usually black pedestrian ends up dying in Mysterious Circumstances or that some kid gets beaten to a bloody pulp for daring to be insufficiently deferential to Officer Friendly. While old, white America may actively cheer the use of police power against Leftists, minorities, and Punk Teenagers, they're certainly coherent enough to connect the dots that police will basically do anything they're ordered to do, and a lot of things they're not, when it comes to inflicting violence on their fellow citizens.

How much, I wonder, of the armed-to-the-teeth culture on the far right is a reaction to the way law enforcement behaves in this country? Back in the 90s things like Waco and Ruby Ridge were rallying cries on the far right for the specter of the government coming to get law abiding gun owners, but even without reference to such extreme examples it isn't hard to make the connection between the police beating up Occupy protesters and poor black males today and those same police posing a threat to Responsible Gun Owners tomorrow.

Arguably, law enforcement suffers the most from the loosening of gun laws in the last thirty years, as they now face better and more lethally armed criminals with less reserve about shooting (or shooting back) at police than ever before. Maybe – just maybe – some parts of the American public that believe it is necessary to be so heavily armed might not feel it quite so necessary if police were not so goddamn violent, aggressive, and downright mean so often in this country. Sure, some people are nuts and would make all the same pro-gun arguments no matter how police behaved, and at the same time some cops are Good and don't treat every person they meet like The Enemy. It stands to reason, however, that the militarization of law enforcement and the drop-of-a-hat willingness to use force is not entirely unrelated to the increasing popularity of the idea that individuals must arm themselves as a bulwark against the power of the state.