PARING DOWN

Posted in Rants on December 8th, 2014 by Ed

Every year just before Halloween I give a mini "lecture" on costume decorum. Aside from knee-slappers like "Real nurse and police uniforms are actually quite baggy and unrevealing" I remind the young folks that despite what people did in the small town or all-white suburb from whence they came, racial and ethnic groups are not costumes. Moreso than any of the material I cover in my classes, I feel like this is important. I'm sure a lot of them roll their eyes and don their offensive costumes anyway. Getting through to one or two of them each semester, though, feels like a victory. If anybody thinks twice about doing something offensive on account of that brief reminder I consider it a win.

I rarely attend Halloween parties, but when I do I find that this rule is violated even among adults who should know better. In grad school I hosted the departmental party one year and, sure enough, a grad student showed up as an Illegal Immigrant. I'll let your imagination complete his costume. This year I attended the faculty Halloween party and another person showed up in similar Mexican Caricature garb. These are adults in their 30s and 40s. People with advanced degrees.

The reveler in question was a stranger to me, the new beau of one of the women I know through work. I asked her, "What is he supposed to be dressed as?" while he was elsewhere. Some sort of Mexican somethingorother, she replied. "Well that's kind of fucked up, isn't it?" said Drunk Ed. Six weeks later, this woman still has not spoken to me.

Now, I am a dick. I am used to having to apologize to people when I say things that I think are hilarious (They are.) but hurt someone else's feelings. I don't believe anyone should be afraid of apologizing. It's useful to humble yourself on occasion and admit that you aren't always right. So naturally, I felt like if this other person is angry then clearly I should apologize. Then a strange thing. I thought about it and I realized I wasn't sorry at all. The only thing worse than refusing to apologize is giving a fake apology. So, I decided, fuck it. If someone chooses to ostracize me because I pointed out that their friend's decision to wear a "Mexican" costume is not appropriate, then I can live with that.

After two weeks of reading and hearing everyone complain – with justification – about the things all of their Racist Friends say, I've been thinking hard about why anyone would want Racist Friends. This is an excellent time to listen to or read what people say, consider it along with what role if any this person plays in your life, and cut the cord. Ask yourself, "Why am I friends with this person?" and answer honestly. The way social networks work these days, people seem to have a vast network of "friends" who are actually near-strangers. People we knew in grade school. Some guy you met at a party once. That woman who worked at so and so with you back in 2004. And if these people are "real" friends or even relatives, what are you getting out of being friends with blatantly racist people?

I've heard the arguments. If we stop talking to each other over disagreements, our social circles become an echo chamber free of dissenting opinions! He's a good person, he's just really racist! These are not good points. At all. If you're not willing to say, "You know what, if you're going to insist on saying racist shit constantly I don't think I want to be friends," you may want to think about what is really important to you. If you're willing to tolerate people high-fiving over Thugs who Have it Coming getting gunned down because telling them to piss off would be inconvenient for you, that's telling.

Someone pointed out that black people, unlike white people, don't have the luxury of "unfriending" racism and having it go away. I disagree in the sense that it obviously doesn't go away. Everyone still has to live with it, with more consequences for some of us than for others. It won't be going away anytime soon, but we're not obligated to be pals with it and pretend like it's OK in the meantime.

ED-209

Posted in Rants on December 8th, 2014 by Ed

Looking back, one of the strangest experiences of my childhood was being taken by my dad to see Robocop in the theater on opening night. At the time I thought this was awesome; as an adult I wonder why anyone in their right mind would take a 9 year old child to see that movie. This is a movie that had to be re-cut several times and have several scenes of humor* added to get down to an R rating from NC-17. The movie includes, off the top of my head, a rape scene, a guy snorting coke off a prostitute's boobs, a man who explodes when hit by a speeding van, and about 700 grisly, dismembering deaths by firearm. When it comes to entertainment (and parenting, I suppose) my dad is just kind of a big kid, so I doubt he thought anything of it beyond "This is awesome!"

In hindsight, though, I'm glad I saw it when it came out. Being impressionable and imaginative, I couldn't stop wondering if the future was really going to be like that. For a tongue-in-cheek sci-fi movie, it turned out to predict a remarkably accurate vision of the future. That it was set in Detroit now looks like a stroke of brilliance, and that city's troubles have led to a revival of interest in the film (not to mention the obligatory, shitty remake). Despite being a patently silly film, it was also prescient in some ways.The basic functions of local government along with huge portions of its infrastructure are being sold off to private corporations. Violence and crime are rampant in some of the more sordid Rust Belt has-been cities. It wasn't a completely accurate vision, though. We don't have robot-police patrolling the cities.

So here's the thing, and bear with me: Should we? Is this an idea whose time has come?

robocop2

Recent events have cast in high relief the serious problems with law enforcement in this country. Since our social betters are constantly trying to replace the rest of us with technology – robots replacing factory workers, voice recognition software replacing the secretary, video screens replacing teachers – why not consider automating the police? Sure, they would make tons of mistakes, poorly investigate a lot of crimes, and kill innocent civilians more than a few times. It would hardly take any getting used to at all, in other words.

You think this is half-assed satire or sarcasm. But think about it: who would do a better job of taking a statement from a possible rape victim, a machine following a programmed script or a 55 year old guy who knows that all Bitches secretly Want It? And if we're going to live with cops using wildly excessive force, we should at least have "cops" who dole it out equally to all of us rather than treating certain groups (rich people, white people, rich white people) with kid gloves while brutalizing others.

This is a workable idea. It is so not because the technology of robotics and artificial intelligence are so advanced that we are close to creating perfect human analogues. It is workable because the police are so completely out of control right now that I can scarcely imagine an alternative that could be less effective at Serving and Protecting the public or following the law in their efforts to enforce it.

(*True story: Among the scenes added were the fake product commercials, the "I'd Buy That for a Dollar!" guy, and the person yelling "Someone call a paramedic!" after ED-209 malfunctions and shoots that guy about 100 times. The explicit purpose of these additions was to lighten the tone of the film and take the edge off of the grisly violence long enough to get it down to an R rating.)

NPF: BEST TRIP

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

Audience participation time. In an effort to give myself some reasons to live, I'm trying to plan some vacations for the medium-term future. Tell me about the best vacation you've ever taken. The best place you've ever been.

It doesn't matter if it counts as a practical suggestion – I can't afford your $25,000 grand tour of Europe but I'm sure we would all enjoy reading about it anyway. Similarly, I'm the "sleep in hostels and eat on $2/day" type but your Fancy Pants hotel experiences are still fun to read about. If you had to do your life over again and could only keep one of the trips you've taken, which one would it be?

TWIN BILL

Posted in Rants on December 4th, 2014 by Ed

In the interest of not depressing the living shit out of everyone by doing 10 straight days of Ferguson posts, grant me the liberty of combining two issues into one post.

1. Having read the grand jury testimony of Darren Wilson, plenty of commentators have already pointed out that there are some fairly obvious and basic questions about how plausible his version of events may be. I could go into similar detail pointing out the inconsistencies, factually inaccurate statements, and general eyebrow-raisers, but what jumps out most clearly is Wilson's account of Michael Brown's statements. When Wilson claims that he told Brown and his companion to clear the street, he reports Brown's response as, "Fuck what you have to say."

Does anyone on the planet honestly believe that this is what Brown said? Granted, during testimony one's recollections do not have to be 100% perfectly accurate to be credible. People are terrible, for example, at estimating – time, distance, size, crowd numbers, etc. – and a person might state something took 5 minutes when in reality it took 45 seconds without being a liar. Similarly, reports of what was said during a heated exchange can have some variance. So we assume that what Wilson really means here is, "Michael Brown said words to this effect." That is not uncommon in witness testimony. It is also a giant red flag. If Wilson is essentially ballparking it when recounting what Brown allegedly said, with what other facts was he playing fast and loose? We also know that he gave wildly inaccurate estimates of distance (the corpse being ~30 feet from the car instead of almost 150 feet). These two facts would suggest to any impartial observer that while Wilson's statements might not be false, they are at the very least imperfect. Subject to doubt. In need of additional investigation before they can be considered credible. You can't automatically assume he's a liar if his testimony isn't perfect. Nor can you assume he's being accurate.

The purpose of a trial is to resolve that issue.

2. The reason conservatives can't stop bringing up irrelevant details (He stole cigars! His socks had pot leaves on them! You know They use those cigars to smoke drugs, right?) about Michael Brown is that they see the world very differently than…well, than intelligent people. To them, the facts of the case – what was said, who did what, when things happened – are not very important. What is important, as always, is making the determination that is central to their black-and-white worldview: good people vs. bad people. It doesn't matter if Wilson's testimony is accurate or in what order the events happened. What matters is establishing that Michael Brown was a Bad Guy. Wilson is a cop and therefore Good, Brown is a Thug and therefore Bad. As long as the Good Guy wins and the Bad Guy loses, the details don't really matter. Liberals see the world as a series of questions that need to be answered; they see the world as science. Conservatives see it as good versus evil, as with religion. That's one of the main reasons that arguing is pointless. Brown is a Bad Guy, and therefore he got what he deserved in the end. Doesn't matter how.

That's one of the major reasons that it's so useless to argue about this with people who are eager to vilify the victim and saint the guy with the badge.

RICHARD STELLAR SOUNDS LIKE A FAKE PORN NAME, EARNS THE FJM TREATMENT

Posted in Rants on December 2nd, 2014 by Ed

It was only a matter of time.

You knew that if you were patient, some op-ed hack would describe the media's treatment of Bill Cosby as "rape." They might even, if they are particularly sophomoric and unoriginal, entitle a defense of The Cos "The Rape of Bill Cosby." It is the kind of thing so predictable that we would only be shocked if it didn't happen. The winner of the race to banal inevitability was some guy I've never heard of (Richard Stellar, or perhaps I should say "Richard Stellar") writing for some website I've never heard of. Due to reader outrage, the piece has now been renamed "In Defense of Bill Cosby" by the editors, garishly marked GUEST OPINION BLOG, and preceded by an apology/preamble in a rather heavy-handed attempt at damage control. Steel yourself for the eye-watering shit stench as we plow through this journalistic tour de force on America's most lovable pudding shill and perhaps serial rapist. I will say "alleged" only inasmuch as none of the allegations have yet been conclusively proven, but that is where any semblance of benefit of the doubt for the actor ends.

Bill Cosby raped me.

I bet he didn't, Richard. But if you said this in earnest, I bet it would feel pretty shitty if nobody took you seriously and you were accused by no-name fratboy raconteurs on the internet of being a publicity-seeking liar.

Now that I have your attention, consider this: the allegations of sexual misadventure and impropriety that have pummeled the Cos over the last few weeks is not the issue. The issue is the scurrilous environment where media outlets and journalists lie in wait, like aging corpulent prostitutes, their hair dyed flame red and their nails like elongated daggers — waiting to blow any John who dares to topple those who may be kings. It's once again an example of the TMZ-isation of journalism.

We learn a few things here, namely that Richard Stellar's image of a prostitute has not been updated since the early 70s. We also learn…well, I'm not quite sure. It appears to be the classic "Let's focus on the way This is being covered to deflect attention from It" concern trolling tactic. Is anybody arguing that the media don't relish celebrity scandals? Is anyone surprised that they like stories that drive ratings in a ratings-driven business?

The prized real estate that is the first screen view of news websites, or the much vied for leading news story content on the evening news has been hijacked for reports of the latest Cosby detractor, while issues like Ferguson, IS, immigration reform, and 46 abducted students in Mexico receive a momentary lapse of attention. Our focus shifts when a celebrity falls, and like extras in “Walking Dead,” our direction sharply turns, and our attention shifts to the exposed flesh of the fallen, and we grunt and drool, waiting to feast.

OK, this paragraph is hard to nitpick. Good job, Mr. Stellar (!!!) Certainly celebrity news, even if it involves a celebrity committing violent crimes, should not displace important news from the headlines. Even though we know in practice that it does. All the time.

The concept of justice is disregarded.

Oh, shit. You were doing so well.

The statute of limitations is ignored.

There's a statute of limitations on news? If I discovered tomorrow that Calvin Coolidge once beheaded a drifter as a party trick, I'm not allowed to write about it? When we learn new information about things that may have happened they are not newsworthy if they're in the past? None of this makes any sense. But it's the kind of argument you get when an author switches from one topic to another abruptly in the middle of a piece.

This is a very old tactic. Start with something uncontroversial to suck in the reader ("It's annoying how often airlines cancel flights, amirite?") then switch to the ax-grinding nonsense ("Speaking of, why don't we ban Muslims from flying?") He begins with something about the media that basically nobody disagrees with and now suddenly we're not talking about the media anymore. We're talking specifically about The Cos, the allegations, and the accusers.

Tricksy Hobbitses.

The recollections of events that happened as long as fifty years ago are dredged up

I bet if you got raped you would remember the events with an abundance of clarity, not a lack thereof. And it is pretty common in cases like this – sexual assault, sexual harassment, child abuse, etc. – for people to decline to come forward because they assume (for some wacky reason) that they will not be believed. Then when they realize that they are only one of many people who were victims, they come out and say, "Yes, me too."

by aging actresses who have one eye on the CNN camera, and the other on a book or reality show deal.

Ah, yes. The classic and rock solid "Fabricating allegations to enjoy all of the many benefits of being a woman who accuses a famous, rich, and powerful man or sex crimes" argument. Since rape victims / accusers are treated so well – personally vindicated, showered with material rewards, etc. – we can see why everyone would want to jump on that bandwagon. I often look at the way accusers are treated by the media and general public and think, "Wow, I'm jealous!"

If the statute of limitations was as long as the 15 minutes of fame that these lost souls are trying to recapture, then our prisons would be as vacant as the Holiday Inn in Acapulco (you probably have no idea what that means because you're not used to real news).

So…if the statute of limitations was as long as the 15 minutes of fame, the statute of limitations would be 15 minutes. And if the statute of limitations was 15 minutes, our prisons would be vacant.

His logic checks out, guys. He's right.

Thankfully, the statute of limitations was written to avoid exactly what this blog is about.

According to the opening paragraphs, it is about salacious media coverage. Now we're talking about rape allegations.

Also, while it is not an imminent threat to "Freedom of speech!" in the #1 slot, "statute of limitations" must be a solid #2 on the list of legal concepts lots of people appear to believe they understand but do not. At all.

There is no legitimacy to justice if there is no real evidence, and evidence has a way of vanishing as memories dim with the marching of time.

OK it's worth pointing out again at this juncture that this is not a trial and therefore the rules of evidence don't apply, but regardless: If these women are telling similar stories then one of three things must be true.

1. There is a tightly-knit conspiracy against Bill Cosby perpetrated by women with no apparent connection to one another
2. These women are chasing the fame, glory, and respect that come with accusing someone of rape in America – a beloved and famous man, no less
3. The allegations have some merit

Hmm.

A DNA swab on most of Cosby's detractors if done today would most likely come up exceedingly dry.

Ha ha ha you get it guys because they're old.

I'm not saying that what these woman claim happened, didn't happen.

"I'm a good guy! I'm not saying that this didn't happen. I'm just saying that the accusers are fabricating their stories for attention and that their memories of long ago events are unreliable."

I get it

This may be the most blatantly false statement Richard Stellar could write.

Cos was the campfire that parents would sit at with their children, and chuckle at his homespun humor and life lessons. When we all retreated back to our tents with our tummys full of S'mores and toasted marshmallows, Cos was back in his tent, banging the camp counselor after doping her with quaaludes. Yes, that could well have happened, and once those women realized the violation that they endured at the hands of Cosby, then they should have reported it then — not a generation later.

"should have" is the rhetorical crutch of the reactionary asshole – I swear I would totally believe and support you if only you had done X instead of Y, but since you didn't follow proper procedure we must reject your claim. This too is a common tactic, defending the accused by insisting we are not defending the accused but we are outraged that the accusers did not follow The Rules. It's a neat way to defend The Cos without defending The Cos. "I'm not saying he's a good guy, I'm saying his accusers are lying bitches" with a dose of "Ladies I swear I would have believed you if you had said this a few years ago." I have seen infomercials more credible than that last statement.

I wrote a blog recently taking Woody Allen down for his alleged abuse that was detailed in Dylan Farrow's op-ed in The New York Times. You might find it hypocritical that I suggested that we shun Woody Allen based on years-old testimony, and I'm giving the Cos a pass for his alleged abuse of women years ago.

I might find that.

There's a huge difference. Dylan Farrow had credibility.

Ah, right. Credibility is very easy for third parties like us to assess from a distance, in no way reflecting our own biases.

Child abuse in my estimation is on an equal par to murder. The uncomfortable truth that Dylan Farrow courageously revealed, to me, was undeniable — and that abuse had been reported to both social workers and to the courts. Not so with Bill Cosby.

*SOUND OF AIR ESCAPING RAPIDLY FROM BALLOON*

His detractors and accusers smack of something else than truth — they carry the faint aroma of deceit, selective memory, and blind ambition.

What happened to, "I'm not saying that what these woman claim happened, didn't happen"? It sounds very much like you are saying that.

This is what happens when people think they know everything, that they can Figure People Out just by glancing at them. The allegations if true would be horrible, but Richard Stellar can tell that the accusers are deceitful and attention-seeking. He can just tell, OK? It's amazing how often arguments from talking heads – usually but not exclusively old white male egotists in the O'Reilly / Hannity mold – boil down to this. We have conflicting information but I can tell which parts of it are true and which are false because reasons. Because I'm brilliant and never wrong. Because my shit doesn't stink. The rationalizations don't have to make any sense because they inevitably boil down to "I know a _______ when I see one."

If we're being honest, though, I do admit to claiming to know an asshole when I see one – or in this case, when I read his columns.

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FUNDAMENTAL ATTRIBUTION ERROR

Posted in Rants on December 1st, 2014 by Ed

A restaurant near my house went out of business recently. This is not at all an uncommon occurrence – turns out that it is very difficult to operate a small business profitably in a city where nobody has any disposable income. The owners announced the closure on social media and indicated that they may try to re-open across the river in East Peoria, a miasma of strip malls resulting from a "planning" strategy of handing out tax abatements to every national chain store and franchise restaurant on Earth.

The announcement degenerated into a rant about the unreasonable cost of doing business in the city; essentially, the owners were prevented from making a profit by the onerous licensing and sanitation requirements imposed by local laws. This is a very common complaint when businesses fail and, although this makes me kind of a terrible person, it always amuses me. It would seem to me, with all the ignorance of a non-business owner, that if other businesses are able to stay open with the same requirements and the failed business was making so little money that paying for licensing put it under, it probably wasn't a very well run business. The worse their business does, though, the more their rhetoric sounds like right wing anti-government boilerplate.

Perhaps it is the government's fault that this business failed. Or perhaps, as I humbly suggested to my friends who lamented its failure, one might consider:

1. The business opened right next to the university campus on May 1, exactly nine days before the summer break began and the entire campus emptied out. As the location – literally called "Campus Town" – is in an area of the city not regularly visited by the non-student population (As with most cities, white flight took most of the population and wealth to the outlying areas in the 80s). So, respectfully, that was pretty goddamn stupid.

2. Lunch specials (most of the business in this area is daytime, since the area gets stabby at night) ran about $10-14 with tip. This might not seem expensive to people in a real city but here it is a serious liability. Central Illinois is the land of the shitty chain buffet – people want to pay very little and eat like pigs. The food at this failed restaurant was excellent and far better than the other options in the area, but college kids and Central Illinoisans are cheap and it's hard to stay open when you're surrounded by a half-dozen other restaurants selling $5 lunches. Cheap shit does well here, whereas better but more expensive food struggles to sell. If the owners didn't realize that before opening (a nearby Indian restaurant just went under in the Spring) they didn't do much research.

3. The restaurant also made the mistake, usually fatal in Central Illinois, of serving "ethnic" food, in this case Middle Eastern-type cuisine. While falafel and shawarma are not particularly foreign in most of the country, these are not well known here in the mid-1990s. Successful ethnic restaurants here tend toward cheap, crappy Mexican and cheap, crappy Chinese takeout. I'm not saying that people in the city would be totally unwilling to try "new" kinds of food, but certainly the owners were taking a risk here in the land where Ranch Dressing and American Cheese On Everything is standard operating procedure.

4. The costs of doing business imposed by the city – taxes, licensing, fees, etc. – are not exactly a mystery. You don't have to answer three riddles from a mythical beast to learn about your fixed costs. If they were shocked to learn that they needed a license to operate a restaurant or how much it cost, that points to poor planning. I suppose local governments could spring surprise new requirements on businesses, this place was hardly open long enough.

5. It opened in the dreaded Place That is a New Restaurant Every Nine Months location. This is well recognized as a negative in the bar and restaurant industry.

I don't know the intimate details of the life and death of this business. All I am suggesting is that there are quite a few potential red flags, certainly enough to suggest that perhaps the biggest problem is not that the city charges too much for the necessary licenses. Small business owners and other Job Creators tend to be an anti-government lot, and there is no doubt some justification for that. I'm sure any business owner could cite examples of rules and requirements they consider burdensome or frivolous. That said, it certainly is disproportionately popular as an excuse for the failure of businesses to profit or profit as handsomely as the owners think they should. We all love having someone else to blame when things go down the shitter, but how often does that explanation hold up to scrutiny?