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.

07 January 2015

Pentagram of the Good Life

This admirable and recondite spell from T. Thorn Coyle can be cast whenever friends gather. Tradition calls for all present to raise a glass of spirits while joyfully intoning the names of the Five Points in call-and-response, then sealing the spell with a sip of the spirits.

Love! Health! Prosperity! Knowledge! And Great Sex!

06 January 2015

Interventions

A long digression from a characteristically long post at Slate Star Codex, The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories, which I'd like to keep handy because it's just so great.

I’ve made this argument before and gotten a reply something like this:

“Transgender is a psychiatric disorder. When people have psychiatric disorders, certainly it’s right to sympathize and feel sorry for them and want to help them. But the way we try to help them is by treating their disorder, not by indulging them in their delusion.”

I think these people expect me to argue that transgender “isn’t really a psychiatric disorder” or something. But “psychiatric disorder” is just another category boundary dispute, and one that I’ve already written enough about elsewhere. At this point, I don’t care enough to say much more than “If it’s a psychiatric disorder, then attempts to help transgender people get covered by health insurance, and most of the ones I know seem to want that, so sure, gender dysphoria is a psychiatric disorder.”

And then I think of the Hair Dryer Incident.

The Hair Dryer Incident was probably the biggest dispute I’ve seen in the mental hospital where I work. Most of the time all the psychiatrists get along and have pretty much the same opinion about important things, but people were at each other’s throats about the Hair Dryer Incident.

Basically, this one obsessive compulsive woman would drive to work every morning and worry she had left the hair dryer on and it was going to burn down her house. So she’d drive back home to check that the hair dryer was off, then drive back to work, then worry that maybe she hadn’t really checked well enough, then drive back, and so on ten or twenty times a day.

It’s a pretty typical case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it was really interfering with her life. She worked some high-powered job – I think a lawyer – and she was constantly late to everything because of this driving back and forth, to the point where her career was in a downspin and she thought she would have to quit and go on disability. She wasn’t able to go out with friends, she wasn’t even able to go to restaurants because she would keep fretting she left the hair dryer on at home and have to rush back. She’d seen countless psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors, she’d done all sorts of therapy, she’d taken every medication in the book, and none of them had helped.

So she came to my hospital and was seen by a colleague of mine, who told her “Hey, have you thought about just bringing the hair dryer with you?”

And it worked.

She would be driving to work in the morning, and she’d start worrying she’d left the hair dryer on and it was going to burn down her house, and so she’d look at the seat next to her, and there would be the hair dryer, right there. And she only had the one hair dryer, which was now accounted for. So she would let out a sigh of relief and keep driving to work.

And approximately half the psychiatrists at my hospital thought this was absolutely scandalous, and This Is Not How One Treats Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and what if it got out to the broader psychiatric community that instead of giving all of these high-tech medications and sophisticated therapies we were just telling people to put their hair dryers on the front seat of their car?

I, on the other hand, thought it was the best fricking story I had ever heard and the guy deserved a medal. Here’s someone who was totally untreatable by the normal methods, with a debilitating condition, and a drop-dead simple intervention that nobody else had thought of gave her her life back. If one day I open up my own psychiatric practice, I am half-seriously considering using a picture of a hair dryer as the logo, just to let everyone know where I stand on this issue.

Miyamoto Musashi is quoted as saying:

The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him.

Likewise, the primary thing in psychiatry is to help the patient, whatever the means. Someone can concern-troll that the hair dryer technique leaves something to be desired in that it might have prevented the patient from seeking a more thorough cure that would prevent her from having to bring the hair dryer with her. But compared to the alternative of “nothing else works” it seems clearly superior.

And that’s the position from which I think a psychiatrist should approach gender dysphoria, too.

Imagine if we could give depressed people a much higher quality of life merely by giving them cheap natural hormones. I don’t think there’s a psychiatrist in the world who wouldn’t celebrate that as one of the biggest mental health advances in a generation. Imagine if we could ameliorate schizophrenia with one safe simple surgery, just snip snip you’re not schizophrenic anymore. Pretty sure that would win all of the Nobel prizes. Imagine that we could make a serious dent in bipolar disorder just by calling people different pronouns. I’m pretty sure the entire mental health field would join together in bludgeoning anybody who refused to do that. We would bludgeon them over the head with big books about the side effects of lithium.

Really, are you sure you want your opposition to accepting transgender people to be “I think it’s a mental disorder”?

03 January 2015

Discussion

I keep needing to explain the terms by which I manage discussion in comments on my Facebook feed, which I have tried to keep lively without being raucous. This is always challenging, and doubly so given my strong interests in cultural politics and politics politics. I like to think that I mostly do pretty well. (I use the same principle in managing comments on this blog, though the discussion rarely gets going here.)

For convenience, and for the benefit of others who find this useful, I'm posting it here.


Long experience has taught me that fruitful online discussion requires the attentions of a dictatorial moderator who mostly manages dicussion through thoughtful comment, but who will ruthlessly and unilaterally seize control on rare necessary occasions. This is not the open internet, this is my space. If you want free speech, go somewhere else.

That said, I like to let out a lot of rope. I cultivate the participation of people I disagree with, even disagree with vigorously. I like debate: to better clarify for myself what I think, to open me to possibilities I had not considered, and for the pleasures of debate itself. But understand, my purpose is to have discussion which offers participants information, entertainment, and the sharpening of our wits. Which means this is not a level playing field: people I disagree with have to be at least informative, entertaining, witty, or polite. People I agree with need not necessarily obey those same injunctions when debating folks I disagree with, as their rude dismissiveness may qualify as good sport for me.

Though I insist that everybody speak in good faith. Bad-faith arguments are poison.

So you know, my cultural politics and politics politics mostly align with the hard left with strong sympathies for the radical left, and my friends tend to orbit the same locus ... though I have many idiosyncrasies. If you like to challenge that, great. But bring your A game: it's a fair bet that I've heard all the basic arguments before, and if I haven't, likely someone among my Friends has.

There is an added dimension to these principles when discussing questions of social justice. This is not meant to be a safe space. If you need that, you have my respect but not my support here. But I do want this to be a welcoming and supportive space for folks on the sharp end of various sticks, so I give folks in privileged positions less rope than I give to folks in oppressed positions. I might well side with someone whom I disagree with who is Black and rude when discussing racism over someone who I agree with who is White and polite. The reasons for doing this should be familiar.

Plus, since Facebook includes a mix of folks who do and do not play a part in my meatspace social network, FB Friends who are realworld friends also get more deference.


This is my house. Play nice.

31 December 2014

Why I insist that I am a feminist

To explain my commitment to being a proponent of feminism in the face of a number of objections, I need to offer a distinction I make between feminism and what I refer to as “feminist culture”.

Feminism can be tricky to define, but it refers to a bundle of political and intellectual approaches to understanding and objecting to injustices faced by women. Feminism is an outlook, a toolkit, a history.

Feminist culture is the range of things that feminists do.

When people complain about “feminism”, very often they are objecting to a particular thing that some feminists have done. They are criticizing feminist culture, not feminism itself.

I can respectfully disagree with a range of different responses to feminist culture, including criticisms harsher than I would make. So when one objects to, say, the unmeasured rhetoric of “Tumblr feminism”, one may be criticizing a part feminist culture without rejecting feminism. And I have objections of my own to feminist culture.

That is not to say that everyone who “rejects feminism” is really just making fair critiques of feminist culture. There are a great many people who really do reject feminism. They may say that women face no inequities, which is factually untrue. They may say that the inequities women experience are just, which is morally wrong.

With that distinction made, I can be clear about why I insist that I am a feminist. I am not a “feminist sort-of”. I am not a “feminist but”. I am a feminist, period. I may have my criticisms of feminist culture, but I support feminism itself 100%.

I say that despite my position as a cis man, which I recognize disqualifies me as a feminist in some eyes. I say that despite social justice objections to parts of the feminist tradition that have failed lesbians, women of color, trans women, sex workers, and others. And I say that despite disagreement with some ideas from the feminist tradition. (Feminism has offered so many ideas that of course a few of them are dumb.) And naturally I have my own criticisms of feminist culture.

But to let those deterrents prevent me from calling myself a feminist would not just be mistaken, it would be dishonest. I have a deep commitment to the feminist outlook: women face terrible injustices, and they can and must be corrected. I employ the feminist toolkit: I grew up reading feminist theory and I apply its intellectual toolkit to everything, as I think any responsible citizen should. I am heir to the history of feminism: the person I am and the way I see the world owe an incalculable debt to the work of over a century of feminist thinkers and activists. Feminism is integral to how I see the world, to how I try to operate in the world. I cannot not call myself a feminist.


This post has been reproduced at The Isocracy Network


In another forum, a commenter challenged this post, saying:

The question that needs to be answered is: what is the need for men to identify using the word “feminist”, when many women feminists object to the usage and other less contentious usages are available?

The only successful feminist movement will be one led by women.

There are two questions there. Why is it desirable for men to call themselves feminists? And why should those reasons outweigh the objections of some women?

I've answered the first question. So the question on the table is whether the objections of some women should negate other arguments.

A comparison to the taboo against Whites using The N Word is instructive. I respect the spirit of the prohibition, but I also have reasons why I ardently believe that it's actively bad for society that I should have to use asterisks to say, “It is offensive for White people to say ‘n****r’.” I could present a whole argument about why. But there is a strong (if not quite universal) consensus among Black commentators that the rule has to be that absolute, and I think it is so important to signal my respect for them that it does negate my arguments. So I do this rhetorical thing which I think is silly and counterproductive because in the White position, signaling respect to Black people is more important.

But with the word “feminist”, there is no such strong consensus. There is lively disagreement among feminist women (and women in general). One cannot simply follow the lead of women in this as one can follow the lead of Black people in the use of The N Word.

So how am I to decide?

Defaulting to not using the word is not just making the cautious choice. It is taking sides in a dispute within feminist culture. This makes the comment that “the only successful feminist movement will be one led by women” false in its implication that if I don't follow the lead of the women the commenter agrees with, I am arrogating leadership of the feminist movement to myself. I call shenanigans. That is a non-sequitur at best and disingenuous at worst. But it presents a clue that answers an important question.

Who these women are who object to men calling themselves feminists? I know them well, and recognize their rhetoric in my critic's comment. They come from what I would call the “identity politics school” of feminism. In alluding to the need for the feminist movement to be “led by women”, I find a hint pointing to what I would call the totalizing identity politics school: the strain which thinks that the identity politics toolkit is the only valid approach to feminism, dismissing all others.

The identity politics school looks to understand sexism (and other social injustices) in terms of the power relationships between the socially-imposed identity categories of men and women (and other categories like race and sexual orientation and so forth). A proper discussion of this school and the toolkit it offers will have to wait for another blog post. (I'm working on it!) In brief, I think that every citizen needs to know and use the analytical tools of identity politics, but I vigorously disagree with the totalizing form of the school which rejects all other kinds of analysis.

I can point to a key example which should inform the question at hand.

Identity politics tells us that the identity group membership of a speaker informs how we should read their comments, and a corollary to that is that we should regard privileged speakers comments about injustices with a certain wariness. We are all familiar with men who will loudly proclaim, “Let me tell you who's really sexist. Look at these sexist women!” This pattern presents some obvious problems, so we do well to resist it.

The totalizing identity politics school says that identity positioning doesn't just inform the meaning of a commenter's statements, it actually is the only thing meaningful about them. I have had a totalizing identity politics feminist tell me that I should not have called Cathy Guisewite's newspaper comic Cathy sexist, because I am a man and Guisewite is a woman, which means that I am placing myself over all women as the arbiter of what is sexist. This casts the content of her strip as irrelevant to whether I am justified in my comment on it.

I think this is stupid and counterproductive.

If I avoid calling myself a feminist and instead use some clumsy language saying that I am “pro-feminist” or “working to be an ally to feminists” or whatever, I implicitly declare my allegiance to that school in the discussion taking place within feminist culture. So no, I won't be doing that.

29 December 2014

Not a source of information

I've been meaning for some time to write about an important form of informational hygiene one must practice when reading things on the Web: learning to recognize untrustworthy sources. There are websites that I file in my mind as Not A Source Of Information because I once saw an article on that site that was false or deceptive.

On the face of it, that seems a little unfair. One is tempted to say that sure, maybe one article there was bad, but one should evaluate each article on its own merits. But that's a serious mistake. You don't have time to properly vet everything you read. You have to rely on the trustworthiness of your sources. If the source is either deceitful enough to deliberately serve up BS or sloppy enough to do it accidentally, then everything offered by that source is suspect.

You may say, “Well, even if I cannot trust that source, this article is interesting, and might be worth following up.” But one must be wary even of that. Something one follows up from an untrusted source is research starting not from a useful clue but from zero; it doesn't become a real lead until you find something from a trustworthy source. If you take “reported lots of places” as a positive indicator you'll end up believing BS re-reported by lots of BS sources and accept “Elvis' UFO alien love child” stuff eventually.

RationalWiki maintains a pretty good index of websites with credibility questions examining their credibility. Here's my own little index, which I hope to build out over time. Links, where I have them, lead to demonstrations of why the site is not credible.

These sites purport to publish news, but they are sources of BS:

It turns out we need a section just for health-related pseudoscience:

These sites are aggregators which take no responsibility for the sources they republish:

  • Huffington Post
  • Forbes
  • Business Insider

These sites are publishing platforms which take no responsibility for the people who publish on them:

  • dKos diaries

A friend points out that we have a proliferation of parodic fake-news sites in the style of The Onion, some of which are so deadpan that their less clever efforts are sometimes mistaken for real news:

Note also that it's important to distinguish reporting of fact from commentary. On this blog I have several posts linking to dKos diary entries with analysis about politics which I have found instructive or at least interesting. But I would not trust dKos with news; if a credible-looking news item shows up there, I confirm it elsewhere before taking it seriously.


Update: Discussion over on Facebook brings up the trickiness of the comparison to more respectable news media. On points of fact, the mainstream media are not as bad as most of the sources I've pointed to here, but their failings can be severe.

The New York Times provided very misleading reporting in the run-up to the Iraq war, and has expressed some bizarre ideas about their responsibility to report the truth. A friend offers an example of the kind of misleading reporting he has seen at the UK Guardian. And the Wall Street Journal trades on its deserved good reputation for journalism to lend credence to lies and deceit on the editorial page.

04 December 2014

Oath Keepers

In the last few days, I have noticed some puzzled people on social media circulating the story about “Oath Keepers” in Ferguson standing on rooftops, “protecting businesses against looters”. The story has been picked up by major news media. (And yes, in case you're wondering, it really is them: the OathKeepers.org website says so.)

Who are these guys?

Lefties like me have been looking at them a fair bit lately, and I have been watching related movements for quite some time. They are a loose organization of people in (and retired from) government service as military, police, and first responders who take their name from the oath government employees take to “protect and defend the Constitution”.

To understand what they are about, consider one of their key founding documents, a list of Orders We Will Not Obey:

10. We will NOT obey any orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.

As someone who has reposted on this blog a reminder that it is a soldier's duty to refuse an illegal order, I confess that this is a seductive rallying point. It is thus tempting to read them as at least theoretically allied with Ferguson protestors.

But that would be a terrible misunderstanding. Dig this other item on the list:

8. We will NOT obey orders to assist or support the use of any foreign troops on U.S. soil against the American people to “keep the peace” or to “maintain control” during any emergency, or under any other pretext. We will consider such use of foreign troops against our people to be an invasion and an act of war.

Wait, whaaaat? Foreign troops?

This strange statement reflects where these guys are coming from. They sincerely believe that the Federal government is gearing up to suspend the Constitution, disarm the American people, hand over control of the government to the evil forces of the United Nations, and put people who object into FEMA concentration camps. They are conspiracy-theory crackpots, direct descendents of the Clinton-era militia movement which Timothy McVeigh conceived of himself as being a part of when he murdered hundreds of people in a strike against the “oppressive Federal government”. Similar movements crop up whenever there's a Democrat in the White House. (I notice that the list of orders is dated March 2009. What new signs of encroaching government tyranny moved them to write it at that time, I wonder. What could it be?)

These guys expect that within the next few years, they will be fighting in a bloody domestic insurrection against the evil Federal government conspiracy. Consider this post from them last year:

Oath Keepers is Going “Operational” by Forming Special “Civilization Preservation” Teams

....

Like SF [Special Forces], all Oath Keepers will be expected to learn light infantry skills. They will all be encouraged to attend an Appleseed Rifle Program and shoot to “Rifleman” standards. Just as the Marines say that every Marine is a Rifleman (even the cooks) so will every Oath Keeper be a rifleman. After learning solid rifle marksmanship, they will learn individual movement and tactics, then buddy team, fire-team, and squad movement and tactics (shoot, move, communicate). All of you infantry veterans need to step up and teach these skills to everyone else.

....

It starts with you, your family, your small circle of most trusted friends, then your neighborhood, your church, your veterans halls in your town, the Sheriff’s posse, the local search and rescue, volunteer fire, etc., and then out to your county and state.

Why we are doing this:

In addition to this being part of our mission anyway, we feel like we are flat running out of time and we need to get as prepared as possible as fast as possible. The Oath Keepers national Board of Directors war-gamed what we think is the most likely move by our enemies to scrap the Constitution.

Their wariness of Federal government power, which they frame as “strict adherence to the Constitution”, can look a lot like a kind of libertarianism. But like other folks on the far right, the appearance of libertarianism is illusory: their problem is with the Federal government, not with government. These are guys who come from government service, and talk a lot about supporting state, county, and city government power against the Federal government.

5. We will NOT obey orders to invade and subjugate any state that asserts its sovereignty.

You are reading that right. Their unorthodox anti-Federalist reading of the Constitution has them siding with the Confederacy against the Union.

That doesn't make these guys Klansmen by another name. Racial bigotry is not foundational to their project, and I am confident that most Oath Keepers would be disgusted to hear that kind of overt racism expressed in their ranks. It's my understanding that they have more than a few people of color among them.

But. This tradition of radical “Constitutionalism” is most relevant to us today for reasons that students of the Civil Rights Era will recognize.

'The Problem We All Live With' by Norman Rockwell

In that struggle, it was Federal authorities which (eventually) stood up for the rights of Black citizens when local Whites and local authorities lined up against them, and it was that fight during that era which revived the school of anti-Federalism found on the American right today which is characteristic of the Oath Keepers. So the Oath Keepers' conception of “proper Constitutional authority” points toward support for institutional racism.

It's not hard to see how that rhymes with the local authorities' unaccountability to the Black population of Ferguson.

So while one might be tempted to imagine from their rhetoric that they would be in Ferguson to protect protestors from harassment by the oppression of government cops ...

10. We will NOT obey any orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.
... it turns out that no, they are in Ferguson to protect property from “looters”. Reading the events in Ferguson as “rioting” and “looting” which presents a threat to people's safety and property connects to a credulousness about racist conservative media lies about the Ferguson protests.

Having already developed some familiarity with the Oath Keepers, I was not surprised to learn that a contingent of them had showed up there. I read it as representing a confluence of several aspects of their worldview. They lean toward supporting government, even authoritarian government, when it's local. They are preparing for fighting in the streets of the US, so for them the “rioting” in the streets of Ferguson is a bellwether of the crisis they were founded to handle. Their pseudo-libertarianism is enthusiastic about government as the guarantor of property rights ... but they don't see government as the only agent protecting property, which connects to their gun nut logic justifying vigilante-ism.

Now when I say “gun nut logic” I want to be careful not to tar all gun owners and gun rights advocates as “nuts”. (While I'm generally unpersuaded by those folks' arguments I'm also wary of being too dismissive of them.) I want, instead, to connect the Oath Keepers to a particular strain of pseudo-libertarian pro-gun thought which holds that private gun ownership is not just a right but vitally important to society because “the police cannot be everywhere”, and so the primary means by which one's safety and property is secured is not through government policing but through an armed citizenry. That argument drifts from gun rights advocacy to nuttiness in ultimately endorsing vigilantes.

Vigilante-ism in the US is entangled in our history of racism. Remember who the biggest vigilante organization in American history were. Remember the lynchings of the Jim Crow era. That should give us pause when we hear citizens claiming a responsibility to take up arms to keep the peace. Again, I do not read the Oath Keepers as committed to racial bigotry, but they are engaging in vigilante-ism in Ferguson, which carries the weight of history with it.

David Neiwert, the best journalist working the far-right beat, calls them “Potentially The Most Lethal And Dangerous Of All The New ‘Patriot’ Groups”. Which brings me to the point that my distaste for the Oath Keepers is just from their implicit support for some of the machinery of institutional racism, though that is bad enough. It is that they are a movement who believe that the democratically-elected government is illiegitimate because it has been corrupted by a conspiracy of foreigners and traitors, that the true spirit of the nation needs to be revived through inevitable bloody conflict, which calls for a vigilante movement inspired by martial virtue. As I said about Cliven Bundy, whose cause the Oath Keepers supported, students of history recognize why we should be wary of that kind of politics.

17 November 2014

Lost American institutions

Today I tweeted Jason Segedy's manifesto The Rising Tide, which calls for Generation X to step up as we enter our middle years and reclaim the American public institutions which were destroyed when we arrived on the scene.

My generation has never known an America that had much in the way of authentic community.

We came of age at a time when things were atomizing and fragmenting — our cities, our corporations, our public institutions, and even our very own families.

....

Now we are becoming middle-aged. And slowly but surely, we are learning that for good or for bad, we are the leaders. We are the system. We are “The Man”.

We still fear that no one is going to come help us. But we also now know that we are on the hook. We know that if we break it, we buy it. We know that if we do break it, we will have no one else to blame but ourselves.

In a Twitter reply, Stacy Lawless calls shenanigans on the age before our own.

That togetherness culture we lost? Was white. Wealthy. Post-WWII. Always been many Americas. What Gen-X lost was not really worth keeping imho — Leave it to Beaver hegemony.

I agree with Lawless about the hollowness of the lost shared institutions of American life because they excluded people of color (and others).

But that's why we need to return to those institutions, and include everybody.

What killed that (White) “togetherness culture” that Segedy describes in America before the era of Generation X? We dismantled it because of White bigotry.

An apocryphal story says that Lyndon Johnson said that signing the Civil Rights Act cost the Democratic Party the South for a generation. Though almost certainly not factual, the story is true. When American liberalism declared itself dedicated to racial equity at public institutions, movement conservatism figured out that it could sell the destruction of public institutions by hinting that Black people benefitted too much from them. And so even Whites who hunger for a stronger public sphere turned against it out of bigotry: if they couldn't keep Black people out of public institutions, then they would rather not have them at all.

Generation X and Millenials like to imagine that we have overcome the bigotry of previous generations, but that's a fantasy: we have plenty of bigotry ourselves. But we are better than previous generations, and the demographics of Xers and Millenials are Blacker and Browner, and we are hungry for a vital public sphere. The time has come for another bite at the apple. We can build public institutions better than the ones we had before, not least in including everyone.

The alternative is give in to the “fear that no one is going to come help us”, that public institutions are impossible, and walk into the neo-feudal neoliberal nightmare that is being prepared for us, thinking that no alternative is possible. But I remain hopeful that we will choose otherwise.

Misreading a story

Yesterday I tweeted a link to a post on Bill Murray Stories. I said:

Bill Murray: the only person in the world who is truly free

I said that because I've long been fascinated by the legend of Pablo Picasso. Late in his career, the story goes, Picasso realized that his fame meant that he could stop handling money. He would go to a fancy restaurant, and when the cheque came, rather than pay it he would draw a little doodle on it and sign it. The restauranteur would be able to sell the cheque with the doodle for much more money than the meal cost ... and likely wouldn't even sell it, but keep it as a memento and curiosity.

It is widely reported that Bill Murray is among the few people who have entered into a similar space, traveling around having little adventures enabled by his fame. This is connected to Murray's eccentric, funny, unthreatening persona.

That persona affected how I read the story, and helped me miss something really important.

Bill said, “Look a wedding — I think we’re all invited”. So we all followed Bill over to the wedding.

That's a setup for a classic Bill Murray Surprise story. He's gatecrashing a wedding. Now here's the bit that I misread:

Bill walks right over to the bride and groom, takes the bride in his hands, leans her over and sorta kisses her, stands her back up and says, “There, now she’s all warmed up for you.”

Picturing Murray, I imagined all this as a quiet, surreal, silly moment. Most of Murray's performances as an actor have him delivering a kind of deadpan calm at his own nuttiness that still winks at us that he knows that we think his behavior is bizarre. And he moves slowly, letting other actors react. So I saw Murray approaching the Bride, her bemusedly accepting his lead into a little faux dancer's dip, him feigning a light kiss on the cheek. When he declared her “all warmed up”, it was funny in my mind because I imagined the joke as being that the “kiss” was deliberately awkward and sexless, making “warmed up” the furthest description possible from the truth. Sweet and silly.

But that reading of the story is not a safe assumption at all. If heard this story about Not Bill Murray, maybe some big dudebro, that story is skeevy as hell. It is, in fact, sexual harassment and assault. He grabbed her and kissed her and declared her “all warmed up for you”? Ugh.

Now Murray is not a big dudebro, he's a slight, scruffy-looking old guy. But picturing Not Bill Murray primes one to think of all the ways that this scene could have been ugly. Real Bill Murray isn't Movie Bill Murray. He doesn't have rehearsals and multiple takes and a director's eye to help him get to the version of this scene that reads as safe and goofy. So while I submit that there are ways that we might imagine that scene which are innocent, there are a lot more ways that are creepy and wrong. And they're a lot more likely.

I don't mean this exegesis as an indictment of Bill Murray. I'm not even certain that any of this took place; there's a very good chance that the story on the website is a misrepresentation, or even an outright fabrication.

I mean this exegesis as an indictment of me. I was bewitched by the legend of Murray's adventures and his persona into being able to conceive of the innocent version of this encounter. And since the author of the post wasn't horrified, I subconsciously presumed that it wasn't horrifying, taking the innocent version as the obvious way to imagine the story. But that's not a safe presumption at all. Why didn't I see it? In large part because I'm a fella and don't need to worry about it, and it took Facebook comments from a couple of women to bring it up for me.

So that's my unhappy reminder of rape culture for the day.

Interstellar

F*%&ing Nolan.

Interstellar stinks. It stinks as only something created by an army of capable people can stink.

It is not a noble failure. It is wrongheaded root and branch. It indicts all of Nolan's films which I have enjoyed as strokes of luck.

It invites comparison to other space films like Sunshine and Soderbergh's Solaris and Mission To Mars and Gravity and — of course — 2001 and it suffers next to each of them.

I left the theater angry.


Mild spoilers ahead.


This was one of those bad movies with a lot of good things in it, so I can confess to a number of things that I liked:

  • Nolan's use of practical effects as much as possible. He is a champ about using practicals — I think my favorite thing about Batman Begins is the palpably real Batmobile. There's still a lot of computer graphics in this picture, but only when really necessary. A lot of stuff was done with models and puppets and real sets, and it makes a difference.
  • Good actors did their level best to sell the script they'd been given.
  • Cooper's reply to the nose-pinching schoolteacher who has a problem with his daughter is delicious. My cinema companion said, “good parenting” because McConaughey delivered it so convincingly.
  • The chase after the drone was fun and quietly science-fictional.
  • Looking into the wormhole and seeing the other side gravitationally lensed through it was cool for a physics nerd like me.
  • Romilly's face when he sees his crewmates again after a long wait tells a lot of story in a silent moment.
  • The first scene when we see Mann is cool. We can smell it coming that this will be an uncredited actor who will give us the character with their persona just by showing up, and sure enough we get the exact right actor.
  • The robot's spinning run is nifty. Really, all the stuff with the robots is nifty; I wanted more of them.
  • The look of the Borges Thing Inside The Wormhole is flat gorgeous. A friend commented that it would make a good setting for a Japanese horror film.
  • The look of the black hole was gorgeous, and the story behind it is pretty great.
  • The use of relativistic time dilation as a plot device on Miller's planet was some proper science fiction.
  • Sound cutting out for the exteriors in space was often really affecting. An old trick, but still a good one.
  • TARS' line “I'll see you on the other side,” is cool in itself, and then pays off a little later in the film.
  • Michael Caine is great.
  • Jessica Chastain's cheekbones. Zowie.

But.

The main problem is that I simply didn't believe the characters. The worst thing about them is we get several people too wrapped up in their own selfish BS. It kept making me think of Sunshine, a movie I love despite the catastrophic misfire of a third act. In Sunshine we have people on a mission for The Only Chance To Save The Earth and they are — as people who would undertake that mission would be — quietly aware of the stakes. They are prepared to make whatever sacrifices they need to for that purpose — compared to the fate of the Earth, their own lives are unimportant — and they've already come to terms with that before we even meet them. They don't even discuss it, it's just part of the silent background, so the movie lets us in the audience do the math and find it noble and tragic.

Even Michael Bey's Armageddon understood this.

But the characters in Interstellar are wrapped up in themselves and do dumb things because of it. It's obviously supposed to be heartbreakingly human, but it read to me as implausible and inhuman. It takes Mann to a place that feels not like honest characterization but absurdly unrealistic behavior which is just there to move things in the way Nolan wants to set up an effects sequence and the next round of plot machinery. I flat did not believe it. Nolan is a chilly filmmaker, and that can be okay, but in this picture I felt like I was in the hands of an alien trying to manipulate my Strange Hu-Man Emotions.

The other big problem is that the film is just not well-crafted on a technical level. There are some striking images, but Nolan doesn't know how to assemble the elements into good cinema. Here's Tony “Every Frame A Painting” Zhou (* * *):

Interstellar confirmed many things I’ve felt about Chris Nolan: he is who he is, I am who I am, and this is where we respectfully part ways.
I’m honestly just not feeling it anymore. I don’t wanna sit through 169 mins of shot — reverse shot, handheld, lazy staging, and loud music.
I wasn’t moved emotionally. I couldn’t soak in the majesty of space. I wasn’t inspired by a single shot. I thought the editing was rly bad.

More particular gripes:

  • There's a heck of a lot of exposition in the movie. Despite it, I still had to work hard to figure out what was going on, supporting it with some outside knowledge of physics, and even with all that I felt lost some of the time.
  • That effects sequence with all the spinning? I sure would have been impressed by it ... had I not already seen Gravity.
  • In fact, Gravity showed what was wrong with a lot of the exterior shots in space in Interstellar. The frame in Gravity always felt like it contained more than I could take in, but in truth it was just a little more than I could process because it never kept me from following the main thing that was happening. In Interstellar there are many shots and sequences that are so busy that I got entirely lost.
  • Speaking of visual noise, the movie is also full of audible noise. Loud music. Loud background sounds. Sometimes the dialogue was inaudible. After the half-inaudible villain in The Dark Knight Rises, you would think Nolan would learn.
  • I do not believe that lady astronauts have time to keep their eyebrows that well groomed.
  • Given Plan B, why did they only bring one lady astronaut? Why were there any boy astronauts at all, in fact?
  • What was up with Topher Grace showing up out of nowhere? Obviously something wound up on the cutting room floor, because I think we were supposed to care about him. Or at least know who he was.
  • The Power Of Love? Really?
  • That amount of forced Closure is M Night Shalaman's signature move. We enjoyed it that one time with The Sixth Sense, but we do not admire him for it.

03 November 2014

Apple

Stanislav, eccentric operating system designer of Loper OS, points out the obvious about Apple's unique position in the tech industry.

I argue that Apple now has not one but two monopolies:
  1. A nearly-total monopoly on computer (and pocket computer) systems designed with good taste.
  2. A total monopoly on the Microsoft-free, hassle-free personal computer.

It goes on to say that Apple's exceptionally good and coherent design depends upon Steve Jobs magic, which I don't think is true. Other companies could deliver good and coherent design — in fact, there's a lot of room to do categorically better design than Apple's — but other companies don't. It's not that they don't know how, it's that they don't understand what design is.

02 November 2014

2014 California ballot endorsements

Some friends have asked how I'm voting in the California election on Tuesday, since there are a number of tricky ballot initiatives. So these are my endorsements. I drew a lot on the voting guides from KQED and the reliably-progressive SF Bay Guardian. (Update: After posting this, Peter Merholz pointed me to Pete Rates The Propositions, which makes the surprising and surprisingly persuasive argument that one should vote Yes on every proposition right here. If nothing else, you should check out his discussion of 48 as a witty piece of writing.)

It's worth noting that as a general rule, I'm hesitant to support California ballot propositions, because they create changes in the law that are very difficult to update. This is especially true for propositions which affect taxation and funding. A big part of why California has a budget crisis almost every year is because the accretion of rules and set-asides from past ballot initiatives has made budgeting into a kind of unwinnable Jenga game.


Water infrastructure bond

Proposition 1 — Yes

I think we don't spend enough on infrastructure, and this year's drought is a reminder of California's dependence on complex water infrastructure. One can certainly conceive of a better policy, and better mechanisms for funding it. But politics is the art of the possible, not the art of the conceivable. Without this bond, California water infrastructure will suffer.

Why might one vote No instead?

If you want to strike a symbolic blow against bond issues because you are stupid and think the state should never take on debt, or because you want to strike a symbolic blow against California's water management infrastructure because you read Cadillac Desert, you might want to consider voting No.


State rainy day fund

Proposition 2 — No

This looks likely to pass. I understand the appeal of the idea, nobody serious seems to oppose it, and the legislation seems reasonably well-crafted. But as I'm a crank who is opposed to this budget-by-proposition process, I'm voting No.

Why might one vote Yes instead?

It is an improvement to the ineffectual old law, and the Rainy Day Fund is not a bad idea.


Health insurance rate regulation

Proposition 45 — No

This initiative to tweak California's health insurance regulatory apparatus gives more power to the Commissioner, which might be a good idea. Or might not. It's hard to say.

Again, when in doubt, I vote No.

Why might one vote Yes instead?

Health insurance companies are spending a lot of money to fight this proposition. When it comes to health insurance regulation, you could do a lot worse than run the opposite direction from where insurers are pointing.


Medical malpractice regulation

Proposition 46 — No

This is a bundle of several forms of regulation, including drug testing of doctors.

There's stuff in here to like, but making doctors pee in a cup offends me. And there's a lot going on in the proposition, which spooks me. If part of the policy is good and part of it is bad, it's going to be difficult to dislodge if it passes.

Why might one vote Yes instead?

The core element of this proposition — raising the malpractice suit award limit — is probably a good idea.


Reduced criminal sentencing

Proposition 47 — YES YES YES

This is the key item which I feel excited about. It turns a lot of minor property and drug crimes that are now felonies into misdemeanors. If you're reading me, then you're probably familiar with all the reasons why I would say that the criminal justice system is harsh in the wrong ways, which makes this a welcome change.

Why might one vote No instead?

If you're a vindictive person who supports the racist prison-industrial complex, you might vote against this proposition.


Off-reservation tribal casino

Proposition 48 — No

Allowing casinos is bad policy: there's no stopping people from gambling, but creating a wealthy, powerful corporate entity with an interest in encouraging gambling is asking for trouble. Despite that, I support casinos on Indian reservations because I'm adamant in support of the independence of governance of reservations. But this casino is not on a reservation.

The arguments in favor of this proposition are such weak tea that looking at the official pro-48 website actually made me less sympathetic to the initiative. So again: when in doubt, I vote No.

Why might one vote Yes instead?

Given a horrific history of genocide and oppression, at this point it's a good idea to try to err in favor of giving Native Americans what they want.


State offices — The Democrats

If you know me, you know that I'm a believer in “partisanship”. Saying “I don't vote for the party, I vote for the candidate” isn't a demonstration that you're above bonehead politics, it's a demonstration that you're naïve. Given the options, I'm voting for all Democratic candidates on the slate.


Superintendent of Schools — Torlakson

My trusted informant on school policy tells me, “Tom Torlakson is doing a good job, and Marshall Tuck is a charter school asshole.”

I've been following the charter school movement for some time now. I'm sympathetic to a hunger for serious school reform in the US, but like a lot of progressives I've become very critical of the charter school movement, which reflects not reform-minded educators but rather meddling amateurs motivated by neoliberal ideology.

Gems of Netflix Instant

For now, this is a short list, but I'm putting up this post as a place to keep short reviews of surprisingly-good obscure films available on Netflix Instant View.

Resolution

I hesitate to say too much, because I saw it on Max Landis' advice ...

go in knowing nothing. no trailer. not even genre.
... which proved to be wise. But my mission here is to provide a review which tells you whether you want to see the movie. It's not for everyone, but it's a terrific little film in its way.

It's sort of a psychological horror film. That is a somewhat misleading genre description, but serves well enough to tell you if you don't want to see the film.

There are no jump scares. No frightening or disturbing images. There isn't even spooky music. Just some scary ideas that the film admirably takes its time setting up for us.

A big part of the charm is its zero-budget cleverness. It was obviously made on a shoestring, very simply shot and assembled using the simple tricks of post-production that a filmmaker on a budget can achieve with cheap software on their laptop. It asks very little of its actors other than being not-awkward on screen, though it gets quietly good performances out of all of its major players. Being able to achieve so much with so little makes it a treat for a cinephile.

Equilibrium

A perfect mid-budget science fiction action movie. I've been meaning to write a long post about it for years, but a short review will suffice for my purposes here.

The film is a weird cocktail. Like a good pop song, it revisits a bunch of familiar moves but makes that familiarity not tired but part of its satisfactions. There's dystopian imagery lifted from 1984 and Ira Levin's This Perfect Day, including some great use of location shooting in ugly concrete Eastern European buildings. There's preposterous fight scenes featuring a martial art called “gun-kata” which is exactly what it sounds like, but they work in the context of the film.

Fun to watch, and just smart enough.

The Trip

Part food-porn travel movie, part windy comic actor's showcase, this movie mostly exists to give the wonderful Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon an opportunity to banter, though there's also an affecting core of character drama that sneaks up on you. The bit where they argue over who does the best Michael Caine impression is one of the funniest things I've ever seen.

The Believer

This scary, compelling little film emerged from the director reading about an American neo-Nazi who was Jewish. What could possibly motivate such a person? The film offers a plausible-feeling answer in its protagonist, played by a magnetic and not-yet-famous Ryan Gosling.

The Station Agent

A charming, odd little character study that is the kind of thing one hopes for when going to see a “quirky” independent film. It's full of funny, human performances, low-key humor and drama, and inventive little bits of cinematic storytelling. Seeing it made me smug about knowing what a terrific actor Peter Dinklage is before Game of Thrones made him into a celebrity.

Punch-Drunk Love

Director Paul Thomas Anderson describes this film as his own entry into the genre of “Adam Sandler movies”. And it does star Sandler and it does hit all the notes of Sandler's personal mini-genre ... only it's shot as if by David Lynch, surreal and disjointed and horrifying. Small wonder that few people have seen it.

It's not entertaining, and I'm not sure I even could claim to have liked it, but it surprised and amazed me at every turn, so that I sure am glad I saw it.

30 October 2014

Policy violations

A friend who is a nurse just told me this little story:

Medical Records of a hospital in another city
We require a signed form to release patient data.

Me
But this is for continuing medical care. A signed form isn't required by law.

Medical Records
We require it anyway.

Me
I need these records. It's important. You really want me to have an 89 year old patient rush here to sign a form?

Medical Records
Yes.

I hang up, call the LA hospital main number and request to talk with the charge nurse at the cath lab.

Me
So, I need these reports and I can't get a patient release, can you FedEx me a CD with the echo and cath studies?

Other hospital's charge nurse
You bet! I'll get that out to you today.

Healthcare in this country seriously wouldn't work without the magical-nurse-to-nurse network!

This reminds me of another story, told to me by an occupational psychologist I once interviewed for a project. He told me about how he was doing an project about the housekeepers that work at super-luxury hotels. So he was interviewing one of these super-housekeepers, and he described this dialogue:

Psych
So what is the last thing you do before you leave the room?

Housekeeper
Um. You said that you won't be telling my boss about what I say in this interview. Is that really true?

Psych
That's right. My report will go to people on the executive team, not your boss, and will combine what I learn from you with several other people I interview. Nothing will be attributed to you.

Housekeeper
Can you promise that?

Psych
Yes.

Housekeeper
Because I could lose my job.

Psych
I promise. It's part of my professional ethics and my agreement with your employer.

Housekeeper
Okay. The last thing I do is I lie down on the bed.

Psych
That's interesting. Why?

Housekeeper
Because there are things you see from there which you don't see from anywhere else. And it's often one of the first things the guest will do when they get into the room after a long trip.

Psych
I see. How is your boss knowing about this a threat to your job?

Housekeeper
I'm not allowed to lie on the bed! There's an explicit rule about that: no employee may ever lie on a guest's bed.

Psych
But you do it anyway.

Housekeeper
If I don't, I cannot be sure that the room is clean!

Doing design for business process software, I am often told by the sponsors of those projects that the advantage of those systems will be that policies can be strictly enforced. But every organization works, in part, because people violate policy out of their sense of professionalism.

20 October 2014

Allusions

We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

You can get that image as a t-shirt. It seems that most people know that quote as Willy Wonka, from the 1971 film adaptation with Gene Wilder.




Through a turn of fate, I never saw the film as a kid. I only discovered it when I was a teenager, the year I was taking English Literature, and I noticed that a lot of Wonka's poetic asides are allusions. Via Christina Wodke, I learn that Thomas M. Brodhead tells us that this did not come from Roald Dahl, but from a script doctor who wrote the screenplay.

When Quaker Oats (yes, the Quaker Oats company!) decided to adapt Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for film, Roald Dahl was asked to write the screenplay. Dahl produced a fairly literal translation of his book that was deemed unacceptable by the studio executives. The young writer and script doctor David Seltzer was then asked to “improve” Dahl's script. The result was a recalibration of Dahl's story with many significant changes (e.g. rival chocolatier Slugworth became a central character in the film as a tempter of the children, etc.) More importantly, Wonka was cast in a darker light, with an ambiguous stance toward the children (as opposed to the sprightly and somewhat avuncular candyman of Dahl's conception.)

In the finished script, Wonka's dialogue is peppered with literary quotations and allusions not found in Dahl's book. They were all introduced by David Seltzer as part of his rewrite of Dahl's screenplay.

Brodhead has tracked down sources for the allusions (including Arthur O'Shaughnessy's Ode, which gives us “we are the music makers”).