Monday, August 29, 2011

Nested Wrestling

I've always found there to be a fascinating tangle in the right-wing apology festivities surrounding environmental regulation.

There are the two claims generally put forth, almost always in tandem, in such a way as to gain strength from each other, like two orbiting bodies. The first is the idea that the environmental/human impact is not real. The second is that the ensuing regulation would be far worse - more disruptive, expensive, etc., if not an outright immoral taking.

There's an odd parallel to the tax-rate debate, where a primary, more empirical claim is wrapped within a seemingly impenetrable layer of subjective and unproven nebulousness. The testable environmental claim sits upon a throne-claim
of philosophical piety in the form of policy dithering, back-peddling and weak appeals to property right. There is a great deal of empirical data on the leveraging of human and social capital into financial success (i.e. the scaffolding of privilege), yet it too gets nestled in a tangled web of high-minded appeal to pseudo-developmental philosophy and - just as magical - supply-side kabuki.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Limits of Rhetoric

The left wing base of the Democratic party has been growing increasingly frustrated with Obama for most of his presidency, the perception being that Obama hasn't turned out to be the kind of "fighter" they wished him to be.  This seemed to have reached its zenith in a piece by Drew Westen in the NY Times, entitled "What Happened to Obama?".  Yet Jonathan Chait offered what I consider to be a powerful response,
Westen's op-ed rests upon a model of American politics in which the president in the not only the most important figure, but his most powerful weapon is rhetoric. The argument appears calculated to infuriate anybody with a passing familiarity with the basics of political science. In Westen's telling, every known impediment to legislative progress -- special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion -- are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech. The impediment to an era of total an uncompromising liberal success is Obama's failure to properly deploy this awesome weapon. 
What’s odd to me about this phenomenon Chait identifies (I think correctly) of the left’s infatuation with rhetoric, is that it doesn’t seem to really exist on the right. Sure, they speak in powerful language, but I think that power resides as much as anything in pure ideological simplicity and intransigence. It would be the equivalent of Obama saying he doesn’t want any spending cuts, only tax increases, period.

Yet this is why we call the right crazy. Aside from substantive incoherence, they are simply taking positions that literally threaten the economy on a massive scale. This isn’t a function of Republican rhetoric, but the composition of the Republican electorate and the conservative movement in general.

So, to try and match this phenomenon on the left, to try and drum up something similar within the voting left merely through rhetoric – through one man! – seems quite silly. At best it is cynical political posturing. Maybe it would be a good thing to be able to muster such a united front on the left. But doing so would likely come at great cost. Political unity and passion is one thing, but we don’t want the left to go go crazy. We don’t want ideology to trump reality and evidence. We don’t want an authoritarian mind-set that bristles at nuance, that is unable to reach across the aisle, that is only interested in demagoguery and simplistic fear-mongering.

I don’t presume to have any answer to how to best respond to what seems such a frustratingly successful parade of right-wing dullardry. But I’ll gladly take the liberal-friendly principles of free thought and measured truth-seeking over authoritarianism’s blockheaded success.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What We Get For Our Taxes

A common criticism on the right of Warren Buffet's recent plea for higher taxes on the rich was basically, "You like taxes so much, you pay 'em!"  One is reminded of the infamous government-off-my-medicare sign.

People so ready to complain about taxes seem to forget how important the government is to almost every area of our lives.  If you don't like taxes, you should probably be ready to do without medicare and social security.

Not only that, but they should also opt out of libraries, parks, public schools, police services, etc. They should probably also avoid out of businesses who employ people who depend on such services, or depend on them themselves. They should stop eating food that has been inspected, living near natural hazards that have been guarded against, using drugs that have benefited from government research, or using technology that has been supported and developed by the government.

They did some silly news show recently where they asked a family to remove everything in their house that was made outside the US. Maybe they should do a similar show about people who have to live without direct or indirect government assistance. After (hopefully)surviving a few weeks, an actor playing Ronald Reagan could show up and introduce himself: “Hi. I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Probably won’t sound so scary then.

The Persecution of Subjectivity

Sarah Palin uses the term "lamestream media".  Climate change skeptics routinely refer to "climategate", the theory that global warming is nothing but a conspiracy invented by climate scientists in order to obtain more research funding.  The media in general is repeatedly accused of merely being a mouthpiece of liberal bias.

What’s weird about this dynamic, is that it sets up a terribly circular kind of cognition. What gets published is assumed to be wrong, and thus exists as a sort of evidence of the truth of one’s own position. In fact, the more reporting the media does, the more research, evidence, etc. it presents, the more evidence of its own falsity.

This is a classic hallmark of denialism. One or more established channels of authority are denied legitimacy, paving the way for essentially any suitably convenient counter-narrative. Another troublesome area of authority increasingly distrusted by conservatives is academia. And with academia and journalism largely slain, or at least hobbled to the point where their legitimacy is deemed unreliable enough to dismiss at whim, reality itself becomes enormously subjective.

Interestingly, this bears striking resemblance to moral relativism, a traditional critique of the left by the right. Yet where moral relativism is about denying all external moral authority, here we have a denial of external factual authority. Truth and fact is merely what one witnesses with one’s own eyes.

There is one other difference, however. While moral relativism tends to eschew all external moral authority, this kind of factual relativism, rooted in individual factual authority, is amenable to specific, non-traditional, non-establishment figureheads of factual authority. These would be the strong leader types who through a reinforcement of individual factual understanding, are able to exact an obedience to their own factual authority. The right has an especial fondness for leaders who are able to command their own individual fact universes. Yet their authority does not come from expertise or as representatives of any body of scientific or journalistic research. It largely draws its strength from the degree to which it mirrors the follower’s own preconceptions.

One of the classic techniques of public speaking and persuasion is to make the audience feel like you “are one of them”. Audiences are routinely praised, never insulted, and information is presented in a non-threatening manner. Yet a special feature of this kind of conservative leadership has to do with individual authority. The common feature among these leaders is that their position demands absolute righteousness and inerrancy. After all, as their authority is almost entirely rooted in their own cognition, in their limitless conviction and assumption of total knowledge, they cannot appear to be susceptible to error or lack of prior knowledge. This would call into question their very authority itself, and – having no outside authority upon which to rely – all authority would be lost.

So, you can see how the circular trap has been set: external factual authority dismissed, individual factual authority remains. Yet rudderless on its own – and no doubt prey to feelings of self-doubt and, likely, alienation, it finds comfort in leadership. But that leadership must also dismiss external authority, and so becomes a sort of super-individual factual authority.

In many ways, what we are talking about here is populism, defined by the emphasis on the individual, en masse, and away from established authority. A mass of individuals rootless in a sea of distrust naturally seeks coherence and support. To the extent that liberalism embraces traditional factual authority (journalism, academia), it will have nothing to offer an individual intent on limiting his factual authority to his own personal experience. To the extent that conservatism dismisses traditional factual authority, it will find great success in offering leaders who remain fact-independent, tethered to the realities as experienced by the anecdotal experiences of individuals, their factual authority based in what their audiences already believe.

People often claim to love Sarah Palin because her opponents hate her so. What they are really saying is that in her opponents hatred of her, they see a hatred of themselves. She is merely a projection of themselves after all. She is a political figure, concerned with political ideas, but at the same time a representation, an embodiment of her followers’ own factual authority. So while her opponents may attack her ideas, and even her claim of factual authority itself, her followers feel as though they are being attacked, as well as their claim to factual authority.

This sense of persecution has been long felt by the right. Never more so it would seem than today, when distrust of the media and academia seems to have reached an all-time high, reinforced no doubt by the rise of FOX news as a network devoted to presenting the individual-as-factual-authority, as well as an increasingly fragmented internet media that takes factual relativism to new extremes. Yet journalism and academia are nothing without factual authority. Their mere existence actually presents a sustained threat the the notion of individual factual authority. In some sense, they do represent a kind of persecution, in the sense that their authority represents the persecution of ignorance and individual bias and anecdote, the persecution of subjectivity.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Choice and Hofstadter's Envelopes

Keith Humphreys writes about an important distinction to be made regarding addiction, and the fact that it represents a fundamental altering of the brain.  However, he reminds us, there is a difference between addiction being a lasting disease that someone has no control over, and one that the individual can fight, albeit with great difficulty.
It is reasonable to say to someone who is not addicted “Please be more responsible about your substance use — you are choosing to act in a fashion that may eventually get you addicted.” It is equally reasonable to say to someone who is addicted “Are you being responsible in the management of your addiction, are you attending your AA meetings, staying out of bars, etc?.” But it is not logically reasonable to say “Why don’t you stop being addicted?”. They would if they could, but they can’t, and that should I think evoke some sympathy, which is in no way contradictory with expectations that the person will be responsible about how they manage their disorder.

Our difficulty getting our heads around (no pun intended) consciousness, action and responsibility once again makes it all so difficult.

For this reason, I’ve found it important to work out as best I can whether or not I have free will. There is just so much in life that is riding on whether I answer a yes or no to that question.

In my opinion, we don’t have contra-causal free will. What this means is that we will never have been able to do anything other than what we had done. Yet we can choose to do things differently in the future. Here’s why that isn’t paradoxical. Our thoughts always exist in the past, in the sense that even our projections of the future are based on recollections of the past. So everything is filtered through our past; My thoughts as I type this are nothing more than the sum of everything I have ever learned. I can choose to do anything I like, but that choice will only have ever been the sum of what I had previously known.
I think the thing that tricks us up, and fools us into feeling like we have more control than we really do, is the simple fact that we are only ever conscious of the tiniest portion of what we are, of what is driving us. Even when we try and be as rational as possible, we routinely fail because our very ability to be rational and logical is dependent on what exists in the unconscious.

What addiction seems to add to this is that we have more limited control over what we choose to do when we have become addicted. This would explain the fact that addiction can be a spectrum, and work in tandem with many other areas of our ability to choose.

Speaking of that “ability to choose”, whatever the heck it is, I have to bring up Douglas Hofstadter’s conception of it (as I follow it). He describes the way in which a stack of envelopes, to the blind eye, can feel as though it has a large, round lump in the center. This is the area in which a slightly larger mass of paper forms at the tip of the fold. Yet individually, each envelope seems perfectly flat. So too are we limited by our cognitive faculties to only ever seeing or feeling either one thought at a time, or what feels like a solid mass, or consciousness.

The question of blame then seems quite difficult. It would be like blaming that sensation of there being a large, round mass in a stack of envelopes. We can feel it, we can even measure it and blame it for something that really did occur, but the closer we inspect it, it sort of unravels into nothingness.

So instead of blaming, I propose, we simply do our best to reflect upon what happened in the past and try to make any adjustments we can so that the same course does not get taken again. In terms of the envelope, since we don’t have access to the entire shape, we can make educated guesses about each separate envelope and try to adjust them so that hopefully when they assemble into that whole it will be the shape we approve of.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Kicking and Screaming

I've written about this before, but I'm always struck by the sense of antipathy conservatives have towards discussions of race or hatred.  I know conservatism is nuanced. But it is a movement nonetheless, with standard talking points and rhetoric that act as stand-ins for large assumptions and intuitions.

It's an empirical claim, too (I'm sure someone has done the research).  Do a Google search and you will come up with very little in the way of conservative thoughts on race that aren't merely about defending perceived liberal critiques.  I mean real, good-faith attempts to try and understand what racism (and hate, for that mater) is. 

It seems a subject better left alone. Yet it is a problem - the "other" - that rears its ugly head again and again. The more we know about it, the more we can keep from falling into old patterns of thought. Far from being some thing that is "over", it is all around us.

There is a narrative about power imbalances, out groups, etc. that I embrace, as do most liberals. That's how we can see a deep resemblance between racism and antipathy of homosexuality by religious followers, and consider the embrace of a hateful textual interpretation as rooted in larger historical oppression. Of course, we don't stone people to death, as it says to do in the bible. Yet why don't we apply the same "intuition" to its homophobic passages, dispensing with them as needed (along with all the other idiotic biblical "teachings")? Because we have yet to truly call homophobia out as the hate it is, just like sexism or racism.

As far as I can tell, it is a fact that conservatism isn't interested in connecting these dots. Whereas literally thousands of books, magazine articles, academic papers and studies have been written by the left on these dynamics, inspired by and in turn inspiring progressive cultural protest movements.

It makes sense. Conservatism in general has always been interested in maintaining the cultural status quo. The fact that this has often meant maintaining racial, sexual, gender, class dynamics seems at best (to the more liberal right) a sort of unpleasant sacrifice, at worst (to the far right) a happy constant.

Modern conservatism is of course much more enlightened and comfortable with the cultural change that has unfolded, with people like Sarah Palin calling themselves feminists - a concept that only a decade ago would have had Phyllis Schlafly pissing her pants. (I'm not sure, does Limbaugh still talk about "feminazis"?). And thankfully most of us can agree that interracial marriage is OK, and that diversity is important in the workplace.

So Glenn Beck has his rally and honors Martin Luther King, which is wonderful because the attendees genuinely honor his memory. However the irony is lost that conservatism was brought kicking and screaming onto the right side of history (that the whole notion of a conservative rally actually honoring a black leader seeming odd speaks volumes about current racial make-up of the Republican party). Conservatism still seems largely about whites talking to whites about whites. When minorities are mentioned, they tend to be cast as "the other", whether it's illegals, Muslims, gays or other non-conformist whites.

I mentioned "thousands" of books being written by the left that explore dynamics of race, identity, etc. Obviously the vast majority of people on the left haven't read them. But they have been influenced by those who have, and identified with the story being told. Something in them responded to these ideas. As they looked at the world, these ideas resonated with what they saw.

So what is it about the liberal impulse that sees black, latino or gay pride and is moved, not just to re-examine their own preconceived ideas, but to go out and try and convince others? Because all of this cultural progress doesn't happen by magic. It takes sustained effort, by thousands, millions to push new ideas and ways of thinking.

And what is it about the conservative impulse that recoils from this kind of progress, feels threatened by it? When conservatism began to push back against "political correctness", or "multiculturalism", it was a direct response to liberal advocacy of social change. Sure, some of it was about perceived over-reach, but it was rarely couched in sympathy with the larger project of cultural progress. It was defensive of what it felt was a direct attack on it itself.

Again, this goes back to a lack of openness to exploration of the roots of oppressive cultural dynamics. Political correctness was always about critically examining preconceived cultural assumptions and biases. It was a direct outgrowth of the liberal impulse to look at out-groups and the historically disempowered and find leverage points in society from which fundamentally hateful and oppressive ideas, cognitive failings, were perpetuated. Why do presidents have to be male? Why do the important voices in literature need to be white? Why are jokes about out-groups funny? Why aren't there more minorities in ads? Etc., etc. The conservative response to this, to the extent that there was one in the media, was relentlessly negative.

Something about cultural conservatism seems to be in a permanent state of timelessness. The now is always now. Things seem taken for granted that had to be fought for relentlessly. Sure, we all agree that racism is wrong. But that obvious assertion didn't happen over night and took vast amounts of work to overcome. The same with sexism. We're getting there with homophobia. Go back 20 years and conservatism was virulently anti-gay. I imagine in a decade conservatives will take it for granted that homosexuality is perfectly natural. Heck, they might even hold a rally and honor Harvey Milk!

That'll be the day.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Thinking about "The Help"

The movie The Help is out and stimulating discussions of issues of race and class.  Harold Pollack remembers a painful event from his childhood:

"....our family was close to our neighbors. Their children were cared for by a young black woman whose name I’m embarrassed to say I’ve forgotten. She slept in their basement. My dad did a lot of work around the house, and happened to have some extra moveable partitions. He gave one to her, so that she could have some extra privacy.

That night, the neighbors stormed over. They informed my parents that if they had wanted her to have a partition, they would have bought her one, and that my father had made an inexcusable intrusion into their home. There were some harsh words. Our families maintained polite but frosty relations from that moment forward."
 Things have certainly changed.  But in many ways, they have not.  Millions of people still work for poverty wages.  And taken broadly as a class of worker, there are distinct disadvantages they face that are not entirely dissimilar to what was so starkly a racial matter a few decades ago.  In fact, I wonder as I type this, whether the racial differences are still as stark.  We took a vacation up the California coast this summer and witnessed many fieldworkers who were all Hispanic, as far as I could tell, and likely undocumented.  We're used to the lowest forms of labor - in status, difficulty and pay - being done by minorities.

While we can I think agree that most overt racism has all but disappeared, at least as a primary factor in employment, structural problems remain in which large sectors of society are disenfranchised and almost destined from birth to lives of poverty and desperation.  And to the extent that any of us partake in the economy, certainly when we purchase services that directly require the labor of minimum-wage employees, we are exploiting their lack of empowerment.  The notion that they are all completely free individuals who could easily have decided to go to school and become lawyers or highly skilled workers is a convenient fantasy.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Mistakes of Anger

Burning of Sodoma - Alexander Bida
Retribution is sneaky business.  It hides in the shadows, waiting for a crime vicious enough to warrant it, brazen enough to distract us momentarily so that it may rise up and plant itself in our feeble minds.

I came across a terrible case of a young girl "in special ed" who wasn't listened to by school officials when she accused a boy of raping her.
Following instructions from the school, the girl wrote an apology to the boy she accused of raping her and had to personally give it to him, according to the lawsuit. She was then expelled for the remainder of the 2008-09 school year. The school also told "juvenile authorities" that she filed a false report.
The girl returned to the middle school for the 2009-10 school year and tried to avoid the boy, according to the lawsuit. It didn't work. She was sexually assaulted again but didn't tell anyone because she was afraid of being expelled again, her lawyers wrote in the lawsuit. She was allegedly raped a second time Feb. 16, 2010.
School officials were notified of the incident and allegedly doubted the girl's claim, saying they'd "already been through this," according to the lawsuit. The girl was also examined and found to have been sexually assaulted. However, she was suspended from school for "disrespectful conduct" and "public display of affection," her lawyers wrote in the lawsuit.

Who would be blamed for expressing outrage, disgust, and anger upon hearing of such a case.  Yet I was reminded of a grave mistake we allow ourselves to make, when I read the following commentary on the story (of which a great number of other commenters expressed approval).
"The officials responsible for the girl's plight will rot in hell. They should get a second term in hell for blaming the hapless victim -- a special ed middle school girl."
It is so important that we remember that while what these people did was (assumedly) wrong, there are very strong causal mechanisms driving people to make decisions like this.  Blaming the victim is common in rape cases, as is a likelihood of bias against those in special ed (whether cognitively or behaviorally challenged).  There is also the bias against transparency and accountability.

So, there are social and cultural power dynamics at play, as well as no doubt everything that goes into that in a persons' development that allows a person to "do the right thing" in situations where their conscience might be tested.  This could be any number of things - possibly their ability to stand up to a more dominant co-worker or boss, especially if there are gender, racial or class dynamics there, not to mention the interaction of temperamental components.

Without a more detailed investigation, we'll never know what lead the district officials to make what appears a terribly wrong-headed decision.  But from what we know about human development, culture, society and history, we can make reliable predictions about what may or may not have gone on behind closed doors.

What we don't really know, however, is how it could have been possible for the officials not to have had their decisions determined by larger social factors as well as their own individual life histories.  In fact, I submit it is impossible to imagine how they could simply *choose* on their own to make an immoral decision; that is, to make a decision that was removed from any prior emotional or rational causality.

Thus, to suggest anything like their deserving eternal damning punishment - or even any retributive punishment at all - would be a poor trick to play on what amount to tragic individuals caught up in a web of causality that began long before their birth, gave rise to their limited consciousnesses, and caused them to take the actions they did.

It has been suggested that the original biblical story of Sodom was written not in sexual condemnation, but merely as a response to a perceived inhospitality of the inhabitants of the city.  In either case, sexual or no, would not God's wrath having rained down on the souls within, burning them alive for nothing more than rudeness  at best, sexual impropriety at worst, be a prime example of over-reaction's bloodlust being paraded as "justice"?  Maybe the better lesson ought to be that all of us continually be searching to quell our own silly desire for retribution, deserved as we might think it in the heat of the moment?

Instead, let us mourn the sad events that unfolded, let us help the victim, let us take steps to hold the officials accountable so as to maintain the integrity of their office as well to deter similar future behavior, let us chastise them with an appropriate sanction so that they may find some measure of rehabilitation in their wrong-doing.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Shaming Homphobia, P.II

A response to my original post asked whether or not it is fair to call the conviction that homosexuality is a sin "hatred", or compare it to racism. 

Let’s look at the similarities. Both involve determinations that a group of people are fundamentally flawed with zero evidence, any claims based on totally bogus, discredited pseudoscience designed to prop up prejudices. Both involve out-groups that have historically been discriminated against violently. Both contribute to continued discrimination and oppression commensurate with the degree to which they are socially accepted and practiced.

In fact, the only real difference is that religious homophobia can be claimed to be based in holy writ. We can all thank our lucky stars that other minorities weren’t libeled so brutally in religious text – although anti-semitism comes pretty darn close.

“Hey, I really do think Blacks are decent people. But they are inferior to whites, and unless they die their skin they will be living in sin.” How is that for an exact parallel?

Look, a lot of nice people were racists. They didn’t know any better. They were merely following old traditions of hatred that invaded their cognition in ways that they couldn’t have understood. But at a certain point there was simply no longer any excuse.

That time is now for homophobia. We need to call it what it is: hatred.

That is where is originally comes from, just like any other misinformed and oppressive prejudice. You can dress it up any way you like, but if you think your religious interpretation leads you to believe such horribly cruel, hurtful things, even if you’d rather not, then you need to wake up. There is no excuse for the Taliban. There is no excuse for modern Christians or anyone else.

Shaming Homophobia

Mark Kleiman reminds us just who Michele Bachmann really is.  She
thinks that loving other people of the same sex is “sexual dysfunction” and “bondage” and “slavery,” and that anyone who thinks otherwise is “part of Satan.” And of course their families aren’t really, y’know, families.

Amazing. The only thing dysfunctional, enslaving or despairing thing about it is how she and people like her treat gays. If her hateful, intolerant and ugly views didn’t exist, everyone would indeed be perfectly “gay”. Especially, no doubt, her husband.

And if I hear one more time about “love the sinner, hate the sin”, I’m going to puke. It’s nothing more than the religious codification of ancient hatreds – malevolent judgements upon a people’s fundamental existence, with no basis *whatsoever* in reality. Homophobia needs to be called out for the bigoted hatred it is, no different than racism, no matter what religious BS it gets wrapped up in. Again, and again, and again these people need to be shamed until such speech is no longer accepted in polite society.

To paraphrase the Specials: “If you have a homophobic friend, now is the time for that friendship to end.”

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Friend Request

The Pageant of Childhood - Thomas Cooper Gotch
My family and I have just returned from a family vacation up the coast.  I took them to my hometown.  I think at some point I was reminded to search again on facebook for an old childhood friend whom I haven't spoken to in 20 years.  His profile appeared in the search results.  I sent him a friend request.  I was 12 when the family moved up north to Seattle.  I soon lost touch with everyone I had known.  Leaving was the most difficult thing I'd ever done at the time.  Looking back was just too painful.

But returning with my family - I hadn't been to the place in 10 years - jarred loose a desire to regain contact that had never left.  So many years have passed.  I'm so much different today than I was back then.  Or am I really?  How much does one change.  I've been through a lot in my life.  I've made a lot of mistakes, learned a lot of lessons.  Loved, lost, loved again.  For Christs' sake I almost died there for a minute.

My friend accepted my friend request.  I scanned his profile more deeply, but there wasn't much to go on.  His face is older, of course, but it's the face I recognize.  He has a beautiful wife and lovely daughter.  He's handsome and fit.  He's apparently interested in riding his mountain bike.  But there isn't much else to gather. 

I began to write him a note, hoping to get his number and speak with him over the phone.  Trepidation but intrigue.  What is it like to talk to someone with whom you were once so close, but only as children, so long ago?  As I filled in the vagaries of my adult life, I began to go into greater detail, offering up insights into my own self-perception, trying to imagine what I might look like from a great distance.  And yet, in some ways a distance who knows how close?  The following is what I wrote:

Hey - looks like things have turned out well for you. Your wife is pretty and your daughter is adorable. Man, so many years. Almost another lifetime. But I still recognize that friendly face. Well, give me a call. My number is (xxx)-xxx-xxx. I'd like to hear what's gone on in your world for the last 20 years. We just got back from a trip up to Santa Cruz.

Maybe that's why I searched your name again - I hadn't found you before. Years ago I spoke with our old friend on the phone - I was in Portland, OR - and we were supposed to meet up but I... I may have been too depressed. He called me early in the morning and I never picked up the phone. I felt bad about it.

I'm sure you and the rest of our friends have gone somewhat separate ways, to varying degrees. But for me I think you're all sort of time-capsulized in a hazy, nostalgic vision of the "Santa Cruz" part of my life. It seems strange to reckon that with who you might be now. I'm sure you think of me similarly!

Anyway, yeah, give me a call. I have two gorgeous girls and an amazing wife. I have struggled these 20 years with growing pain/depression from that neck injury I got at Pleasure Point. I was really into skating but had to stop and am pretty limited to simple, low-impact movement. The pain is chronic and dull. Its been a beast that drove me to depression and suicide in 2005 - a few months after my first daughter was born. I was caring for her while my wife taught. She was colicky and there might have been some post-partum stuff going on. But I've recovered well and have made a reasonable piece with it.

We live out here in the Coachella Valley. We've just finished doing a huge addition on our house - God, it took forever! But we're very fortunate. I teach at a continuation high school. The students are really screwed up. But I really want to help them. I've basically been doing social services work since I graduated high school. People with AIDS, brain injuries, schizophrenia - now childhoods of poverty and substance abuse. I was in college for ten years and finally got my degrees in social sciences and education.

I learned to play guitar and sing. I wrote indie acoustic songs and made little albums. I made a ridiculous rap album under the "alias" Brim Venereal. I'm interested in politics, philosophy, science, education and social justice. I write about it on my blog: (I think I'll post this there. I hope you don't mind. Like many of my creative endeavors, it has been epic, although mainly in my own mind; relatively few people read it.)

I'm a cranky, rational person with a wry sense of humor and an inner silliness trying to escape. I wonder if that is how you remember me? My biggest regret thus far in life is maybe my lack of forming more lasting friendships (ironic, writing to you!). But I've moved around a lot. That explains some of it. We were in Pennsylvania - Amish country - for two years before moving here, six years ago. A courageous but bone-headed move, it turned out to be. We were more isolated than ever there.

And yet meeting people in the desert has been slow-going. I suppose it doesn't help that we've had kids. I'm sure you can understand how much that changes things. We love doing things together. Speaking of which, my daughter (4) is asking to play Zelda with me so I'd better go!

Glad to see your face. Take care,
Super Vidoqo

A Reason to Riot

People are asking what is driving the London riots.  A point contrary to the notion that it is mainly mainly about poverty, is that apparently many of the looters were middle or upper class.

But what percentage are we talking about here? Certainly the location of the riots puts them squarely in working class neighborhoods.

I don’t want to jump to conclusions either, but riots in the US have been about race with a strong helping of class. I work with poor, troubled teens and there is nothing many of them would enjoy more than getting in on the action of a riot. As it stands, one of their main entertainments is getting drunk/high and looking for trouble out in the streets. Why is this?

Roughly, many of them have poor role models at home, for a variety of reasons. Single parents struggling to maintain control. Parents whose work hours leave them unattended for much of the day. No hobbies – no sense of purposeful behavior. Substance abuse and anger management problems in the family. Little education among parents and a sense of frustration at perceived life-options available. Nihilism about their role in larger society and its institutions.

This is a lot to untangle. Every case is different, yet themes emerge. But I’ve been incredibly frustrated by the language that some in the conservative British government have used to frame the riots.

David Cameron: “if you are old enough to commit these crimes you are old enough to face the punishment.”
Home Secretary Theresa May: “This is sheer criminality, and let’s make no bones about it.”
London Mayor Boris Johnson: “It is time that people who are engaged in looting and violence stopped hearing economic and social justification for what happened.”

I understand the frustration, and the need to reiterate the rule of law. But “sheer criminality” is not an explanation; pretending it is one is an excuse to not do the reflection that social problems require. We don’t need to pretend we know the exact cause of the problem. But we do need to discuss it. We need to form hypotheses and debate their validity. When we resort to explanations that are nothing more than descriptions of behavior, we learn nothing about ourselves and our society, and we miss an opportunity to avoid such problems in the future.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Flat Tax Society

I wish I could claim credit for the title of this post.  That goes (as far as I can tell) to Michael Kinsley, writing about the phenomenon in the New Yorker in 1995.  As true then as it is now, conservatives embraced the concept of cutting taxes for the rich, for corporations - in the name of "fairness".  I suppose what has changed since then is the degree to which the Republican party has shifted even further right.  But when House Majority leader Dick Armey drafted flat tax legislation in 1995, this very right-wing idea was front and center.

Today people are talking about Mitt Romney's statement that "corporations are people too".  Jonathan Chait points out that a favorable interpretation would be that he is actually correct.  While there is a legal implication for corporate personhood,
That is not the point Romney was making.  Romney was saying that taxes on corporations are in fact borne by people. Romney probably wouldn't admit that these are people who partially or completely own corporations, and thus far richer in the aggregate than the general public. But the fact is that they are people. Raising taxes on corporations is simply raising taxes on a certain category of people.
It was further pointed out to me that a significant portion of corporate shareholders are indeed middle class pensioners, 401k holders, etc., and that taxes on corporations come at the expense of these people, not the "fat cats" we tend to think of when we think of the wealthy CEOs, managers and large individual stockholders.

The original heckled response was that corporations ought to be taxed to pay our bills.  And Romney put his foot in his mouth before he was even able to make the inevitable supply-side case that not only should we not tax corporations, but that we shouldn't be taxing anyone.  By which of course, he means the rich - the "job creators", etc.  This is now the standard Republican answer to every problem.

Because taxes are no longer an important civic responsibility, to be shared especially by those who most can afford to.  Teachers, police, medicare and social security are expenses that a decent society is willing to pay.  It does so through taxes.  The regressive, "flat tax" idea assumes these expenses will be paid for by because we'll get enough revenue from the increased growth unleashed by having flattened our tax base.

We did a slight form of this with the Bush tax cuts 10 years ago, and the growth never appeared.  There never has been evidence of this so called supply-side miracle.  Yet people still call for cutting taxes on the rich.  Like members of the Flat Earth Society, they continue to deny evidence in favor of ideological fantasy.  Either that, or they cynically promise that growth will pay our bills, while secretly knowing that a future collapse is inevitable.