30 August 2015

Committed people and Korman's Third Law

So there's a little aphorism I hate, attributed to Margaret Mead.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

On the face of it, it's a stirring message of hope. If you're like me, you picture Martin Luther King sitting around a kitchen table with Bayard Rustin and Ralph Abernathy and James Orange and Frederick Douglas Reese.

But looking at it closely, the aphorism rankles. It's vanguardist, almost anti-democratic: never mind most people and mass movements, it's the committed few who matter. It's Green Lanternism: will matters above all. And the romanticization of “changing the world”, which one sees a lot of in the tech industry, is not entirely wholesome. Change is inevitable and not all changes are good; I want to look to what will make a better world.

Plus, there's no evidence that Mead ever said it.

Plus — and this to my mind is most damning — thinking about who might draw inspiration from the thought of a small vanguard changing the world through he force of their will, and remembering Rhett's Law, I feel moved to offer Korman's Third Law:

If it makes a funny “Nazi-spiration” meme image, it's questionable motivational advice.

24 August 2015

SexyCyborg

A while ago I was charmed by the underlit skirt project of maker SexyCyborg that made the rounds thanks to a blurb on bOING bOING.

One of my favorite wearables is the Hikaru Skirt: http://hikaruskirt.tumblr.com

My problem with the existing design is— Limited external control (just responds to movement) and the ugly frilly skirt/tutu style is not suitable for anyone over 8 years old (or at least not Japanese).

Solution: Denim mini/micro skirt with control pack hidden in belt buckle. Skirt length is a matter of personal taste but with the LEDs off it passed for normal.

The project came to my attention because of a flurry of feminist internet commentators noting the predictable sexist dismissal of her as a maker because her outfit was revealing and her figure is so striking.

Having more recently gotten interested in infosec, she built herself some James Bondian shoes with hidden chambers in the high wedge heels.

A handbag would be suspicious and leaving cell phones at the gate would be standard practice in any reasonably secure facility. My typical clothing does not leave room to hide anything- but that’s all the more reason they would not be suspicious of me ....

So. She's doing clever projects, and she has a sense of wit about her Sexy Lady style:

Any women with questions about teaching themselves online should feel free to contact me on Reddit and I’d be delighted to offer any help I can. Remember ladies— if you are thinking about becoming a Maker, learning to code or doing hardware; if a girl who looks like me can do it, how hard can it really be?
:-p

Edit:

Normally I have to sort though about 50% identical replies to my posts on Reddit. For those flexing their fingers and getting ready to give me a hard time:

  • Yes, they are fake.
  • Yes, I feature them prominently and deliberately in everything I do.
  • No, most of my projects do not have all that much technical merit- they are 90% silicone and 10% silicon ;-)
  • No, if you point out the absolutely obvious no one will think you are insightful, edgy or cool. They will think you are 12.

It seems like it might be worth keeping track of her to see what other projects she gets up to, so to have them handy, links to her on Reddit and Imgur.

22 August 2015

The new Apple file system

A friend was just complaining about the elimination of Save As from Apple's OS X.

In partial defense of Apple, this is a tragically half-baked execution of a good idea.

Save-as with prompt-before-overwrite are the two primitives necessary to allow users to roll their own system for doing organization and version management of their files. But frankly most people are not sophisticated about how they do that.

What you should have is a system of automatic saving, versioning, milestoning, organizing, searching, and mirroring to backup.

OS X is obviously working toward this, but the current state of things is an annoying mixed bag of levels of maturity. The incompleteness and incoherence make it a less satisfactory answer than the old Directories-And-Save-As regime ... if you understood how to use the old regime well.

  • Automatic saving: OS X just does this, now. Which is good on the merits, but spooky if you have developed habits around saving explicitly. And since some applications have not yet integrated automatic saving in the new system, you cannot yet abandon those habits.
  • Versioning: Uh, there's time-based automatic versioning in Time Machine. If you use that. Which of course you don't, for a host of reasons, not least because the versions it creates are not made available in the context of your authoring applications. To get at past versions of a file, you have to leap out of your working context and into hyperspace, which is reïnforced by Time Machine actually looking like hyperspace.
  • Milestoning: There's no structural support for this. Except for the clumsy Duplicate function, which isn't smart enough to identify for you which is the copy you left alone and which you started modifying ....
  • Organizing: Someone at Apple knows that nonexclusive labels are a better solution for organizing large collections than the hierarchical directory tree ... but OS X assumes you only need half a dozen labels, and provides weak support for using them, which makes them no replacement for the tree in the Finder at all.
  • Searching: Text content search in OS X is astonishingly fast and complete in Spotlight in OS X, but it doesn't provide any structure, it just recognizes everything with the search string in it. There's no wisdom about metadata in the search at all.
  • Mirror to backup: iCloud supposedly does this. But the process is Not Very Transparent, and iCloud has other weirdnesses, so it's impossible to fully trust it.

If anything, this current state of things makes managing files even more dependent upon getting clever with your file naming conventions.

13 August 2015

Christian Reconstructionism

A really good interview with Julie Ingersoll, who has written a book on Christian Deconstructionism, an influential religious and cultural movement which has a complex relationship with the Christian right.

Reconstructionists do engage in explicitly political work but they claim that what they see as the religious right’s over-emphasis on the role of civil government is itself humanistic and therefore doomed to fail.

What Reconstructionists envision is a multi-generational transformation that starts in families: families need to be reconstructed in terms of biblical patriarchy. Women need to be in submission to men; children need to be educated in the home to fulfil their specific roles in terms of the exercise of dominion. Churches should be comprised of godly patriarchal families in submission to church authority.

I spent a lot of time thinking through how it is that Reconstructionists claim the religious right has failed while I maintain that the Reconstructionists have had more influence than has been recognized. It seems to me that our standards vary. Reconstructionists are looking for thoroughgoing consistent application of biblical law to Christian life and they do not see that happening.

There's also an interview on Salon:

One thing that emerges in your book is how different their concept of freedom is from what’s commonly assumed in America today, and how the opposite of freedom is defined so differently as well — majority rule, and democracy as tyranny. This has emerged particularly in the rhetoric of “religious freedom” against gay marriage. So where does this concept of freedom come from and? And what does it entail?

That’s a good one. Some of it, at least philosophically or theologically, goes right back to that division between submission to the authority of God — and claiming authority for our own rationality. It goes right back there. So, for these Christians, the way they understand it, the only true freedom is freedom in submission to God. The thing that we might think of as freedom is actually conceived of as bondage to sin. And in some ways, if you say “Where does that come from,” it says that in the New Testament, right? That’s what Paul says. Paul is working with all of those inversions: to live is to suffer, and to die is gain. And the leaders are the servants. He inverts all kinds of categories in that way.

You also see some of this in the discussions about slavery. And there’s a good bit about that in the book. To me, this is one of the more interesting developments over the last decade. Because, on the one hand, you do have this real minimization of the horrors of slavery, and the wrongness of slavery. You have people talking about, “It wasn’t so bad,” and “These are actually Christian families” and “People were well treated,” and “They were better treated than they were in Africa,” you get all that kind of stuff. So actual, literal slavery gets a little whitewashed, if you pardon the word, while being required by the federal government to fill out a tax form is considered involuntary servitude and slavery, and that’s appalling! I don’t feel like going out tax forms any more than anyone else, but I don’t really think of it as actual slavery. But they talk about it that way.

Mis-remembering Vietnam

You know those stories you hear about hippie Vietnam War protestors spitting on military veterans at airports, just as those vets were returning home from the war?

Lies.

A historian named Jerry Lembcke did some digging and was unable to find any contemporaneous documentation that this actually happened. Instead we have urban legends that start turning up about ten years later. He wrote a book about it, Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam.

It turns out that not only is the legend untrue, it turns out to be a funhouse-mirror mis-remembering of what did happen.

Lembcke uncovered a whole lot of spitting from the war years, but the published accounts always put the antiwar protester on the receiving side of a blast from a pro-Vietnam counterprotester. Surely, he contends, the news pages would have given equal treatment to a story about serviceman getting the treatment. Then why no stories in the newspaper morgues, he asks?

Rick Perlstein describes how there was a group who may not have spat on Vietnam vets but did systematically disrespect their service: other veterans.

Jerry Lembke established that the only actual documented examples of the frequently repeated canard that Americans spat upon returning Vietnam veterans came from the kind of World War II veterans who wouldn't let their brothers back from Vietnam join local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts beause they were seen as shameful, as polluted. (The New York Times reported on the phenomenon here.)

They were the kind of veterans who - Gerald Nicosia tells the story in his history of Vietnam Veterans Against the War - greeted the antiwar veterans who had marched 86 miles from Morristown, New Jersey to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, just like George Washington's army in 1777. The World War II veterans heckled them:

“Why don't you go to Hanoi?”

“We won our war, they didn't, and from the looks of them, they couldn't.”

A Vietnam vets hobbled by on crutches. One of the old men wondered whether he had been “shot with marijuana or shot in battle.”

Digby has a sharp commentary on Perlstein's article that garnered such surprising comments that I tucked them away, which is a good thing since the old comment system Digby used has been linkrotted away. Here are the two I saved:

When I returned from the Mekong Delta in 1972 (Navy, Binh Thuy) my dirty hippy friends were glad to see me. They welcomed me home and were very accepting of my hyper-vigilance and other quirks. I stopped in at an American Legion post just once. I had to leave before it was necessary for me to beat down those who told me that we, the troops, had lost Vietnam.

I never heard it from the hippies but, I sure as hell caught crap from any number of solid citizens with American flag pins in their lapels.

I have a close friend who served in the Vietnam war during Nixon's illegal invasion of Cambodia. He returned home on a chartered commerical flight that landed at a public airport. As the vets came into the airport they saw a small group from the VFW who they thought were there to welcome them home. Wrong. The VFW assholes were carrying signs that accused them of “losing the war” and being drug addicts. They shouted insults at the Vietnam vets. My friend responded in kind and one of the old farts spat on him. He is very fond of telling this story when some right wing barfly starts ranting about hippies spitting on troops.

I was reminded of all this because of something else from Rick Perlstein: The Story Behind the POW/MIA Flag, which reveals a similar kind of mis-telling of history.

.... Nixon invented the cult of the “POW/MIA” in order to justify the carnage in Vietnam in a way that rendered the United States as its sole victim. It began, as cultural historian H. Bruce Franklin has documented, with an opportunistic shift in terminology. Downed pilots whose bodies were not recovered—which, in the dense jungle of a place like Vietnam meant most pilots—had once been classified “Killed in Action/Body Unrecovered.” During the Nixon years, the Pentagon moved them into a newly invented “Missing in Action” column. That proved convenient, for, after years of playing down the existence of American prisoners in Vietnam, in 1969, the new president suddenly decided to play them up. He declared their treatment, and the enemy’s refusal to provide a list of their names, violations of the Geneva Conventions—the better to paint the North Vietnamese as uniquely cruel and inhumane. He also demanded the release of American prisoners as a precondition to ending the war.

This was bullshit four times over: first, because in every other conflict in human history, the release of prisoners had been something settled at the close of a war; second, because these prisoners only existed because of America’s antecedent violations of the Geneva Conventions in bombing civilians in an undeclared war; and third, because, as bad as their torture of prisoners was, rather than representing some species of Oriental despotism, the Vietnam Communists were only borrowing techniques practiced on them by their French colonists (and incidentally paid forward by us in places like Abu Ghraib): see this as-told-to memoir by POW and future senator Jeremiah Denton.

And finally, our South Vietnamese allies’ treatment of their prisoners, who lived manacled to the floors in crippling underground bamboo “tiger cages” in prison camps built by us, was far worse than the torture our personnel suffered. (Time magazine quoted one South Vietnamese official who was confronted with stories of released prisoners moving “like crabs, skittering across the floor on buttocks and palms,” and responded with incredulity that such survivors even existed: “No one ever comes from the tiger cages alive.”)

Be that as it may: it worked. American citizens enacted a bizarre psychic reversal.

Another false memory: during the Vietnam War, young people opposed it while older people supported it. Again, this turns out to be backwards.

There were many polls on public opinion during the war, and they show a consistent pattern by age. Young people were more likely to support the war at the beginning, when it was popular, and more likely to support it at the end, when it was not.

And of course, the greatest false memory of them all, the dolchstoƟlegende that the US lost the war because political opposition to it in the US somehow undermined military effectiveness, which I have written about repeatedly.

28 July 2015

The Difference

Robert “The Prince of Darkness” Novak says:

The difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats truly believe in governing, and Republicans just want power.

Just putting it here so I have it handy.

15 July 2015

Local government often sucks

I've been meaning to write something about this American political canard for years, and Jonathan Chait has finally done it for me so I don't have to: Why the Worst Governments in America Are Local Governments

The myth of localism is rooted deep in our political psyche. Left and right alike use small and local as terms of approbation, big and bureaucratic as terms of abuse. None of us is equipped to see that the government that actually oppresses us is that which is closest to us.

Greece & the EU

So I've been trying to get up to speed on what's really happening with Greece and the EU. My man Paul Krugman says:

The European project — a project I have always praised and supported — has just been dealt a terrible, perhaps fatal blow. And whatever you think of Syriza, or Greece, it wasn’t the Greeks who did it.

My favorite article so far about the situation is from Interfluidity, which lays out Krugman's case in clarifying detail. If you read nothing else, read that. Here's the heart of it:

The choice Europe’s leaders faced was to preserve the union or preserve the wealth, prestige, and status of the community of people who were their acquaintances and friends and selves but who are entirely unrepresentative of the European public. They chose themselves. The formal institutions of the EU endure, but European community is now failing fast.

It is difficult to overstate how deeply Europe’s leaders betrayed the ideals of European integration in their handing of the Greek crisis. The first and most fundamental goal of European integration was to blur the lines of national feeling and interest through commerce and interdependence, in order to prevent the fractures along ethnonational lines that made a charnel house of the continent, twice. That is the first thing, the main rule, that anyone who claims to represent the European project must abide: We solve problems as Europeans together, not as nations in conflict. Note that in the tale as told so far, there really was no meaningful national dimension. Regulatory mistakes and agency issues within banks encouraged poor credit decisions. Spanish banks lent into overpriced real estate, and German banks lent to a state they knew to be weak. Current account imbalances within the Eurozone — persistent and unlikely to reverse without policy attention — implied as a matter of arithmetic that there would be loan flows on a scale that might encourage a certain indifference to credit quality. These were European problems, not national problems. But they were European problems that festered while the continent’s leaders gloated and took credit for a phantom prosperity. When the levee broke, instead of acknowledging errors and working to address them as a community, Europe’s elites — its politicians and civil servants, its bankers and financiers — deflected the blame in the worst possible way. They turned a systemic problem of financial architecture into a dispute between European nations. They brought back the very ghosts their predecessors spent half a century trying to dispell. Shame. Shame. Shame. Shame.

Heartbreaking.

Gaius Publius writing at Hullabaloo, my favorite progressive blog, connects this to the neoliberal project of privatization of everything for the benefit of plutocrats, pointing to parallels between Greece and Ukraine.

The actual story is that the forces of privatization on the "liberal left" in Europe have found a nation in a great deal of economic trouble, thanks in large part to looting from outside, and they're offering a “helping” hand in order to further loot the country via those privatizing strings. In the minds of the looters (we'll call them “neo-liberals” below) every government-owned operation (Athens airport, say) is a missed profit opportunity for someone rich enough to buy it, and the world would be better if everything were made private.

But airports and other revenue opportunities don't privatize themselves; they have to be pried loose from government.

Greek journalist Michael Nevradakis and US investigative journalist Greg Palast make a similar case:

Here’s how it works. To join the Eurozone, nations must agree to keep their deficits to no more than 3% of GDP and total debt to no more than 60% of GDP. In a recession, that’s plain insane. By contrast, President Obama pulled the USA out of recession by increasing deficit spending to a staggering 9.8% of GDP, and he raised the nation’s debt to 101% from a pre-recession 62%. Republicans screamed, but it worked. The US has lower unemployment than any Eurozone nation.

As Obama scolded the European tormentors of Greece: “You cannot keep on squeezing countries that are in the midst of depression.” Cutting spending power only leads to less spending which leads to further cuts in spending power – a death spiral we see today in the Eurozone from Greece to Italy to Spain—but not in Germany.

“Not in Germany.” There’s the rub. Normally, a nation such as Greece can quickly recover from debt-induced recession by devaluing its currency. Greece would become a dirt cheap tourist destination once more and its lower-cost exports would zoom, instantly increasing competitiveness. And that’s what Germany can’t allow. Germany lured other European nations into the euro in order to keep them from undercutting Germany’s prices in export markets.

Restricted by the 3% deficit rule, the only recourse left for Eurozone debtors: pay the piper with “austerity” measures.

In Disinventing Democracy George Monbiot describes the anti-democratic, plutocratic nature of the process at work.

Consider the European Central Bank. Like most other central banks, it enjoys “political independence”. This does not mean that it is free from politics; only that it is free from democracy. It is ruled instead by the financial sector, whose interests it is constitutionally obliged to champion, through its inflation target of around 2%. Ever mindful of where power lies, it has exceeded this mandate, inflicting deflation and epic unemployment on poorer members of the eurozone.

The Maastricht treaty, establishing the European Union and the euro, was built on a lethal delusion: a belief that the ECB could provide the only common economic governance that monetary union required. It arose from an extreme version of market fundamentalism: if inflation was kept low, its authors imagined, the magic of the markets would resolve all other social and economic problems, making politics redundant. Those sober, suited, serious people, who now pronounce themselves the only adults in the room, turn out to be demented utopian fantasists, votaries of a fanatical economic cult.

The authors of this are not simply mustache-twirling villains. Ian Welsh outlines the cultures of the actors involved, and describes the architects of the EU this way:

In this worldview, it is only progress that national politics become increasingly devoid of content, and it is only necessary to build European-level democracy when the Europeans have finally, ironically, swallowed the medicine of their own mission civilisatrice. A case in point that is unfolding right now is the drama over refugees, specifically, how to settle them. Brussels had a perfectly reasonable and fair idea that refugees be allocated to countries in proportion to countries’ relative economic weight. This was met with absolute rejection, particularly by newer EU countries in Eastern Europe, who explicitly do not want even a small increase in the proportion of brown people who live there. Behind these countries hid some of the older, larger countries, whose national politics are already burdened by immigration-fatigue.

To EUians, this can only be confirmation that, at the national-political level, Europeans are only a hair’s breadth away from poking each other with sharp sticks in order to maintain ethnoreligious homogeneity. And they may be. But is it a sustainable solution to gradually dilute their democratic rights? To EUians, it is the only answer.

But as the Interfluidity article observes, these European elites have betrayed the good motivation of preventing European international conflict; in Welsh's words they have become functionally psychopathic.


I'll be adding more links and quotes here as I find them.

01 July 2015

Jane Austen's The Terminator

This may be my favorite literary mashup, and since the text is getting to be linkrotted away, I'm hosting it here.

“Indeed,” said the man (whom Patience could not help but think of as made of clockwork, though he manifestly was something far stranger), “I speak of these things not merely because of the way that I am made, though indeed a machine should do that which it is made to do, but because I have found that I have developed, through our many conversations, a feeling of that which is proper, both within the bounds of your society and without; and being that I am, here, a gentleman, I find that I am also bound to behave as a gentleman would, and indeed, Lady Patience, I must warn you that this Mr. Connor is a man of less than sterling character.”

Patience was quite taken aback by this sudden expression of personal concern, so unlike the measured rationality of the Mr. Terminus that she had come to know and depend upon, and so for several moments she sat quietly, simply looking upon his earnest, if overly regular, countenance, before she had quite decided upon her reply. “Sir, your concern for me is noted, and not entirely without my appreciation, but you are most forward and presumptuous to offer advice in such a matter, in which you cannot have any interest and which is, therefore, entirely between myself and Mr. Connor.”

At this moment the path through the shrubbery took a sharp dogleg to accommodate a stately lime tree. To Patience's discomfiture Mr. Connor was lounging on the bench around the bole, just striking a match on the sole of his boot. His glance at Mr. Terminus was distinctly cold. He drew on his pipe until the tobacco was well alight before saying, “My dear Patience, clockwork and machinery is properly the sphere of the lower orders. The delicately nurtured female can have no commerce with the denizen of a factory. May I escort you back to the terrace?”

Patience found this unexpected confrontation most distressing. Mr. Connor's wonted pleasant manner and courtesy were most shockingly lacking in this most recent speech. “Mr. Connor, I beg you, do not further ruin my heretofore pleasant impression of you by insulting my friend. Whatever lies between you and Mr. Terminus — for clearly there must be some further history than that of which I am aware — is not something which should be permitted to render impossible the simple courtesies of speech in front of a lady to which you but recently expressed several flattering pleasantries.”

Mr. Connor had smiled, in a way Patience did not find at all comforting, when in her speech she had mentioned “further history”. He rose, throwing back the unruly lock of wheat-colored hair which she had found so endearing, and turned his regard upon Mr. Terminus, whose expression was, if possible, more woodenly controlled than usual. “She knows something of what you are,” he began, almost entirely ignoring Patience in a manner which she found, if anything, even more annoying than his prior manner of address, “but it would seem, Mr. Terminus, that you have neglected at least some important aspects of ... history in your admissions. I confess to being somewhat at a loss to comprehend the precise reasoning behind your current course of action, yet even so you cannot deny the truth — that you were sent here to find Patience and to kill her.”

Patience felt the echoes of those last words pass through her as though they had, themselves, been fired from a pistol. She noted how very odd it was that she was turning towards Mr. Terminus to hear his reply, as though this were a simple conversation of the weather and doings about town. “Mr. Terminus?” she heard herself say, as though from a great distance. “Mr. Connor's words are so outré that I can scarce believe that I comprehend what is being said to me. Please tell me that my ears deceive me.”

Mr. Terminus' face seemed as controlled as ever, yet beneath it Patience could discern a great working of the emotion which the clockwork man had said were the great gift and curse of his time here. Then he bowed his head and said, “I would give anything to speak those words, Miss Patience, yet it is not in me to speak aught but truth in these matters. But believe also that I speak truth, when I say that I have come to know you in these weeks, and that any thought of harm to you is long gone, replaced by something of which I cannot even speak at this time." He stepped away, a slow movement that Patience realized was meant to keep from frightening her, as though she were a small animal which might flee if startled, and turned towards Mr. Connor. “Would you, then, risk everything for both of us, and have me explain all? The consequences to her if she is told the truth — the consequences to us — potentially we both face destruction even if we take this confrontation no farther. Yet a part of me says that she has the right to know the whole truth, as you have begun to reveal it.” Patience had understood his words until then, although they spoke implicitly of secrets yet unrevealed. She found his next sentence, however, quite opaque. “You could take no equipment with you, of course, while my CPU and auxiliary DPUs are fully functional; in truth, I can extrapolate the consequences on the spacetime continuum far more accurately than you would imagine, and they would surprise you.”

Patience did not understand, but as the initial shock wore off and she found — not without some surprise — that she had retained both her feet and her consciousness, Patience realized that something momentous was about to be decided, in this place, at this moment, and she turned towards Mr. Connor, to see what that decision would be. Little though she — as a properly raised young lady — knew of duels or the ways of soldiers — she still guessed, now, that both Mr. Terminus and Mr. Connor were capable of violence she had never before imagined, and she was not sure if, having had this realization, she would ever be the same again.

This work sometimes has been known to under the titles Terminators of Endearment or Pride and Extreme Prejudice. I would be indebted to any reader who can attribute its authorship.

03 May 2015

Weren't the Nazis National Socialists, and therefore leftists?

Over at Crooked Timber, a useful long post by John Holbo Were The Nazis Right-Wing? – or – Weimar Culture: The Insider As Outsider explains that yes, the Nazis really were a movement of the right, despite the confusing name.

The point of the long quotes I started with is this: the reason the Nazis are regarded by historians as right-wing isn’t so much that it ended with the Holocaust. It’s the way it began in party politics in Weimar Germany. If all we knew about Hitler was the inside of a German concentration camp, and all we knew about Stalin was the inside of a Russian Gulag camp, it would indeed be mysterious why the one was ‘right’ and the other ‘left’. But that isn’t all we know. It’s impossible to narrate the ins-and-outs of the story of how the Nazis came to power without regarding them as, basically, an extreme right-wing party. There are features of Weimar politics that complicated the left-right binary. There are ways in which the Nazis defy our left-right preconceptions. But basically we can tell left from right. We know which side the Nazis were on. Basically, the Nazis were a right-wing party that tried, and failed, to sell its brand of ‘socialism’ to the working-classes, which preferred left-wing versions courtesy of the Social Democrats or Communists. But it succeeded in allying with old-line conservatives, despite being too radical and revolutionary for their tastes. The Nazis used the conservatives to gain respectability; the conservatives used the Nazis to gain an energized, activist base. In the end, the Nazis came out on top.

Since this is Crooked Timber, for once it's actually good to read the comments.

17 February 2015

An open letter

To the Mysterious Author who writes the PantyCon schedule:


I have an unsolicited word of advice, in this moment when a lot of people are unhappy with you. I’m going to ask that you do something that probably runs counter to your instincts:

Apologize.

That's a strong suggestion, and both you and the community deserve a clear explanation for why I propose it. That means, I'm afraid, that I must get long-winded in the name of clarity.

(Update: PantyCon apologizes in the comments below this post.)


First, an important aside

As this is an open letter I have a responsibility not only to you but to the other people who may read this. So let me address them for a moment.

For the uninitiated: PantyCon is a faux convention schedule for the big indoor Pagan conference PantheaCon, which was just held last weekend. It is created not by the convention itself but rather by some unknown wag and consists mostly of listings for imaginary talks and classes in the same format as the real convention schedule. It's mostly composed of inside jokes about Pagan culture, ranging in tone from gentle teasing to biting criticism.

Also: I'm going to comment on the “class listing” which many Pagans of Color found hurtful. To do that properly I have to quote it and some other hurtful comments. So to be on the safe side, I want to flag that this means that this letter itself may be painful for People of Color to read. I believe in using trigger warnings sparingly, so much so that I have never used one on this blog before, but in this case I must say: trigger warning for racism.

Okay. That aside done, I return to addressing the Mysterious Author of PantyCon.


What I think you were doing

I’m pretty sure that the criticisms of PantyCon for being racist which some people have been making have surprised and frustrated you.

You’re an ironist, offering an exaggerated funhouse mirror version of Pagan culture’s moments of paradox and pomposity and hypocrisy. You're obviously hoping at least to wring a laugh out of these failings and at best to speak the unsaid, reminding us to try to do better. Irony is a magical technique, speaking words to create change. But it is a wild magic, and it can be hard to control who it burns.

It has slipped out of your control this week, Mysterious Author, and it burned the wrong people.

Let’s look at what you said:

Ignoring Racism: A Workshop for White Pagans
Large Umbrella Pagan Group

Isn’t all this talk of social justice and racism just tiring? Don’t you wish you could just ignore it and put out meaningless statements of pure pablum? We’ll discuss how to ignore requests for consideration by pagans of color, cover up racist actions of high-ranking members, and pretend that you don’t understand the resulting outrage. Remember, #AllLivesMatter, except when it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient.


Large Umbrella Pagan Group has been around for long enough that they think that they can get away with this stuff.

It is the ironist’s method not to say outright who they are criticizing. But I am not bound by that stricture, so when I read you mentioning “meaningless statements of pure pablum”, I think of the non-statement Perspectives on Racial Issues in the United States from The Troth and this bowl of mush from the Covenant of the Goddess, a large umbrella Pagan group who have been around for long enough:

We, the members of the Covenant, acknowledge and share the concern that many in our world and within our Pagan communities have voiced regarding inequalities in justice. We find that all life is sacred, and as such, all lives matter.

Today, we the members of the Covenant especially stand together with people who are not privileged by race and class and say to you: Your life matters. We stand with you and work alongside you in ending the systems that disenfranchise you. We encourage and support all efforts by those within our communities to explore the realities of racial inequality and to work to find ways to eliminate these injustices. We hope this will create a wave of introspection and reflection throughout our world, bringing about new levels of understanding and an appreciation for the unique expression of the Sacred we each embody. We stand together with communities seeking nonviolent means of safety and reform, for the unnecessary harm of any person is an affront to the Sacred and is in contrast to our central ethical tenet: An it harm none, do what ye will. May the work we do together today create a peaceful and just tomorrow.

CoG’s statement has received criticism from Pagan commentators like Terence P Ward and Caer for being a grossly inadequate response to the Black Lives Matter movement. I agree with those critics, and I imagine that you do too, Mysterious Author.

I read you as trying, in your “Ignoring Racism” faux talk listing, to add your voice to theirs, criticizing CoG and The Troth and other Pagans like them who have made anodyne statements “against racism” that are so inadequate for this moment that they are ignoring racism, not confronting it. But I'm a White guy, and that informs how I read it.


The problem

The faux class listing was hurtful to some Pagans of Color in several ways.

Whatever your intentions were, many didn't read you the way I did. In the context of a Pagan culture and a conference environment that is all too often unwelcoming at best and overtly hateful at worst, they were too raw and found your joking irony on the subject hurtfully insensitive to their situations and experiences. Some read you as making light of the need to stand up against racism, or mocking it outright.

Pagans of Color have cause to be wary of attention which creates chain reactions of overt racism, microaggressions, and other encounters that make the environment feel unsafe both physically and emotionally.

Some Pagans of Color (especially those new to PantheaCon) could all too easily stumble into reading the faux talk listing in a context that makes it look real.

And even for those who recognized the irony, we are in a moment when too many people have defended unfunny racist jokes as “ironic”, fatiguing patience with “irony” so much that even the clearest imaginable ironist simply cannot portray racism without participating in the machinery of racism themselves. I love the use of irony for critique, but in these times critics of racism must apply not irony but sincerity.


Having seen how deeply this pained people, I am heartbroken. Even if I am right that you intended to speak in the noble tradition of using humor to punch up (at the powerful like CoG and the Troth) rather than down (at Pagans of Color) the fact remains that you have wounded people in the Pagans of Color community, people who deserve a Pagan culture which is much more supportive than it is now.

Social justice practice rightly teaches us that we cannot dismiss responsibility for the effects of our words and actions by pointing to our good intentions.


What I ask of you

I dread a bizarre spectacle of the Pagan community engaged in a witch hunt, devoting more energy to looking for you than to examining the racism of people and institutions who have worse failings and a lot more power and influence than you do.

I doubly dread the prospect of White Pagans looking at what you said, reading it as I did, watching the reaction it has produced, seeing you criticized while CoG remains welcome at PantheaCon, and coming to the exact wrong conclusion — that they had best not engage in discussions of racism at all, lest a misstep make them a target of overwhelming criticism by the community. We need this moment not to chill White engagement in fighting racism in our community.

And worst of all, as someone who has fought to make PantheaCon a force for a more inclusive Pagan community both this year and in the past, I am horrified to see a lot of hard work being undone by your joke. There are a lot of Pagans of Color who see you as demonstrating that they are not welcome in Pagan spaces, demonstrating that their experiences of racism will not be taken seriously. We need in this moment to affirm that Pagans of Color are welcome and will receive the vigorous hospitality of a community dedicated to acting against racism.


You have the power to fix this, and thus you have a responsibility. Now is a moment when we have an opportunity to model the Pagan culture we want. So I encourage you to do the right thing:

Confess to writing the offending passage in PantyCon. Apologize to the community of Pagans of Color for having hurt some among them. Apologize to the Pagan community at large for having made it less welcoming to some among us.

I understand that it's counter to your instincts as an ironist to repudiate the joke, and that it's now risky for you to expose yourself. But you have an opportunity to take a mistake that has weakened our community and turn it into an example that will make us stronger.

Be brave.


My pledge to you

If you make a clear apology — accepting responsibility for harming Pagans of Color without dwelling on justifications — then I will be in your corner. Social justice activists have been clear that though we must work hard to avoid them, mistakes are inevitable, and so we must recover from them gracefully. Do that, and I will turn from your critic to your advocate.




Commentary on this blog post

I hope that other members of the Pagan community will co-sign this letter. Co-signatories need not agree with the letter in every particular, but should at least join me in my pledge. If any Pagans of Color co-sign, I ask that they identify themselves as such.

I am reserving the comment thread on this page for people to join me as co-signatories on this letter; any other comments on this page will be deleted.

But in the hope that this letter will garner comments and criticism, I have created a separate page on my blog for commentary and discussion. I will also try to index every discussion of the letter which I know about on that supplemental page. I encourage folks commenting elsewhere to contact me by email, so that my index can be as complete as possible.

I strongly encourage anyone to repost this letter, in whole and in part, but I ask that all re-posts link back to this page.

Commentary on my PantyCon open letter

I have reserved this page for comments on my long open letter to the author of the PantyCon faux convention schedule, so that the comment thread there can be a place for people to co-sign the letter if they wish. I invite comment here, and if commentators have posts elsewhere — in praise, comment, or criticism — they can email me and I will linkback to their comments on this page.


Commentaries:

09 February 2015

Who owns your children?

In the course of a good article about why Republicans seem to be pandering to anti-vaccination people over at the Weekly Sift, I was struck by this little quote from Rand Paul:

The state doesn’t own your children.

At the risk of over-interpreting a short quote, I see a lot going on in that little comment.

First there's the expression “the state”. An ordinary Republican would be more likely to say “the government”. Distrust of the government has been standard issue Republican rhetoric since Ronald “government is the problem” Reagan. Referring to “the state” means the same thing, but Republican politicians tend not to speak that way because of the confusion it generates over how here in the United States of America we have provinces called “states”. Senator Paul is sounding a bit like a political science professor in saying “the state” instead of “the government”, which is a bit odd since it clashes with Republican anti-intellectualism.

What's going on there? Who, other than political science academics, talks like that?

Libertarians.

Libertarians like to style themselves deep thinkers about the fundamentals of political theory. (I don't mean that as mockery; libertarians have an enthusiasm for thinking about the fundamentals behind their politics which I think is admirable. I'll get to the mockery in a moment.) So they talk a great deal about the state in the same way that thinkers like Locke and Hobbes talked about the state.

Senator Paul is commonly understood as a libertarian. Maybe he was deliberately trying to dog-whistle to his libertarian fans. But I imagine more likely that he's turned to this question at this fundamental level, using this language, because genuine libertarian thinking surfaces in the way he talks about any number of issues.

And we see that continued in what he says about the state here, that it doesn't “own your children”. There are a few things going on in there.

Who is saying that the state owns your children? Obviously it must be liberals, whom he opposes, suggesting that children should be vaccinated. How does he get there?

Libertarians talk a lot about property rights, who owns what. They generally hold that property rights are prior to government, and that government action is generally either unjustified violence or unjustified theft of something which someone else rightfully owns (which itself is another manifestation of violence, since if one refuses to give the government what it demands it will send people with guns to come get it). To most libertarians, as well as to many movement conservative Republicans influenced by libertarian ideas, “taxation is slavery” because it is the state stealing the fruit of your labor. By their lights, taxation makes us all slaves, owned by the state. So some imagined regulation compelling the vaccination of children is nothing other than slavery by the state advocated by liberals.

Anyone who has talked much with libertarians knows that they aren't just speaking metaphorically. They regard government taxation and regulation with the same moral disgust that chattel slavery deserves, because taxation and slavery are fundamentally the same. (That libertarians saying this have an overwhelming tendency to be White men has implications which I will leave as an exercise for the reader.)

But actually, all that that was not the thing that struck me. What got me was the next thing Senator Paul said.

The state doesn't own your children. Parents own their children.

Wait, what? Parents own their children?

Given what I just said about libertarian understanding of property rights and their horror of being “enslaved”, I would have found that turn surprising had I not read Corey Robin saying:

When these libertarians look out at society, they don’t always see isolated or autonomous individuals; they’re just as likely to see private hierarchies like the family or the workplace, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.

You will find Mr. Robin well-represented on my Understanding American Politics index, where there are links to a few of his articles expanding on this thesis that the conservative objection to exercise of power by the state in the public sphere ultimately reflects a protectiveness of the exercise of power in the private sphere.

09 January 2015

Propaganda about police use of force

Apropos of the horrifying video making the rounds on Twitter today, of a police officer shooting into a car full of passengers, a few days ago I was pointed at a Fox News segment including some police use-of-force training.

Check it out. It's a fascinating work of propaganda.

Consider what the exercise has Rev. Maupin do. Without any apparent training in preparation, Maupin is presented with a series of scenarios that are transparently designed to make him panic. First he encounters a possible car thief who surprisingly overreacts and suddenly shoots Maupin. It's startling, and primes him to be quicker to perceive threats. Then Maupin encounters an intimidating person who fearlessly advances on him despite him having his gun drawn. It's scary, and coming right after the previous scary exercise it inspires him to panic and shoot the unarmed man ... in a violation of police use-of-force rules.

I only know what I read on the internet about the police use of force continuum, but I strongly suspect that the exercises we see in the video are intended as the beginning of a responsible police training process, meant to demonstrate to cops how easy it is to do the wrong thing. “Those deadly mistakes you just made are why we are going to drill you hard in this training. So that when that confrontation comes on the street, you won't do what comes naturally, you will do what you've trained.”

This kind of preparation is one of the benefits of a police force, and part of why we respect good cops so much. They are skilled professionals who face stressful, dangerous situations that we know that ordinary citizens would screw up because of the preparatory training which they receive. In this, police are like firefighters and airline pilots and other people who need to be cool in the face of danger and surprises.

In the Fox News segment, the exercise is framed not as a cautionary tale but as a justification for police shootings.

Watching, one can easily sympathize with Maupin shooting an unarmed man in the exercise. The situation was scary, and it's easy to imagine doing the same thing. But Maupin is not a cop trained in multiple ways to handle a belligerent person, physically and otherwise, he's just a guy who was handed a fake gun and told to see how he would use it. So of course he reached for the obvious tool.

Notice how the exercise is chosen to reïnforce narratives conservatives have offered about the threats police face. Darren Wilson says that Michael Brown charged at him menacingly, despite being unarmed, and here we see that scenario portrayed as a situation which police are trained to handle. It helps to make the genre of Officer Wilson's bizarre narrative of his shooting of Michael Brown seem to make sense. I am well aware that cops have been shot at seemingly-routine stops like the first exercise, or that big scary guys advance on cops like in that second one ... but I also know that a cop is less likely to die on the job than a trucker, cab driver, farmer, or the guy who picks up your trash. On TV, cops get into gunfights every week, but in real life many police officers never have cause to fire their weapon.

Notice also how editing serves the narrative. Maupin says, “People need to comply with law enforcement officers for their own sake,” which sounds like he's endorsing the authoritarian view that I have heard from many commentators who say that if Black people who have been killed by police had just obeyed police orders, they would have been safe. But Maupin doesn't say that deference will ensure one's safety, or that deference is justified. He just says that it is prudent. I wonder what else he said. I wonder what he said immediately after that sound bite. “It's too easy for a trigger-happy cop to panic when you don't obey their orders”, maybe?

Fox News is, of course, propaganda. But it's chilling to see it work as propaganda not just for the Republican Party but for the idea of an authoritarian police state in which police are justified in shooting unarmed civilians.