20 February 2018

What if? Questions About the Way the US Could Be

What if there were strict rules on gun purchases and gun ownership? And what if automatic weapons were banned? What if you had to be 21 to buy a gun and then only after an extensive background check that peeked into your medical (read: mental) history and whether you had a criminal record? What if you had to pass a test to own gun, like people have to to drive a car? What if you couldn't buy guns at gun shows or online? What if there were more restrictions put into place regarding where you could be in possession of a gun? What if there were limits on how many guns you could own and how much ammunition you could have? What if the NRA was labeled a terrorist organization and disbanded? If these things happened then wouldn't there be a significant drop in deaths caused by guns, particularly of the mass shooting variety?

What if there were less tax loopholes for big businesses, corporations and mega rich individuals to take advantage of? What if the recent tax cuts to the wealthy were taken away and that they instead got a tax increase while the middle and lower classes got a tax break? What if the military budget was slashed by 25%? Wouldn't that help reduce the deficit and allow for more spending on education, social programs and the infrastructure?

What if the United States got as serious about alternative energies and combatting global warming as the rest of the world? Wouldn't that help save, not the planet, but the people and animals living on the planet?

What if Citizens United was tossed away and a concerted efforts were made to take money out of politics and the influence of lobbyists was reduced? Wouldn't that reduce the influence that the rich have on our political process? Wouldn't then government really be for "the people?"

What if instead of continually arresting homeless people and moving them from place to place, we started building housing for them and tried to give them a leg up? What if we helped the ones with mental problems and drug addictions? Wouldn't that save us money in the long run and perhaps make them more productive members of society?

What if we took seriously the fact that Russians meddled in our last presidential election and are certainly planning similar disruptions in the future? What if  we did everything short of war to prevent this from happening again? Wouldn't that mean future elections would be fair and honest and that other countries would know not to mess with our democratic process?

What if we could find a way to stop Russian bots from bombarding twitter and other forms of social media? Wouldn't that make for more meaningful, representative dialogue?

What if we had leaders who forcefully denounced all racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic groups, speech and propaganda? Wouldn't that drive bigots back under the rocks where they belong?

What if we raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour nationwide with provisions to further increase in in the future as inflation necessitates? Wouldn't that pull a lot of working people out of poverty?

What if we drastically reduced the cost of higher education to what it cost (adjusted for inflation) in the 1960s and '70s? Wouldn't that make it more accessible to all Americans and mean that graduates didn't start their careers with crippling debt?

What if we sent less troops and less bombs into countries and sent more teachers, carpenters and doctors? What if instead of destroying and killing and maiming we built and healed? Wouldn't that make us more popular and hurt the cause of terrorists?

What if the federal government as well as all state and local governments guaranteed that gay and transgender people had the exact same rights as straight people? Wouldn't that mean we had a truly equitable society?

What if the dream act was maintained and we started to value those who want to live and work in the US and not try to send the home or build walls? Wouldn't we be a better country for it?

What if fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy food were cheaper and more accessible (particularly in low income areas) than fast food restaurants? What if school lunches were healthy like they are in many other countries? Wouldn't the obesity rate go down? Wouldn't there be less diabetes and heart failure?

What if prisons actually tried to reform inmates? What if sentencing were fairer? What if private prisons were abolished? What if sentences for victimless crimes were minuscule? Wouldn't our society be safer?

What if professional athletes and professional sports team owners all made 15% less money and the saved money would result in lower ticket prices? Wouldn't more people be able to afford to go to sports events?

What if we had single payer health insurance and prescription drugs were free? Wouldn't more people  be healthy and free of debt?

What if banks and business were more heavily regulated? Wouldn't we have less gouging of the middle class and less risk of recession and depression?

What if wages went up for middle income families and CEOs stopped making millions a year? Wouldn't that lead to a healthier economy and more equity?

What if more people were better informed and took the time to vote? What if elections were held on a Sunday and we made it easier rather than more difficult for people to vote? Wouldn't that make for a more representative democracy?

What if marijuana was legal throughout the country? What if we released everyone from prison convicted of selling or buying marijuana? Wouldn't that make more sense?

Just asking.

13 February 2018

Wherein the Author Seems to Suggest He Likes People But Really He's a Misanthrope We Also Hear More About Woody Allen, Twitter and The Patty Hearst Documentary

That's Patty Hearst Who's Discussed Below
I like people…in theory. As Eric Hoffer once said (not to me, don’t even know the bloke to be perfectly honest) “It is easier to love humanity as a whole than to love one's neighbor.” This is especially true when you are commuting, as I’ve whined about endlessly before (not really endlessly otherwise I’d still be going on, I’m merely resuming previous rants and diatribes). When you are commuting, humanity proves to be a rather big nuisance. They get in your way, bump you, take up seats, sit next to you, smell, make noise and give you the stink eye. But people are at their worst on social media. I was recently called a “scum” a “Roy Moore voter” and worst of all “a supporter of child rape.” It was further suggested that people like me are the reason that child rape happens. All this because I tweeted some facts related to the disproven allegations of child molestation leveled many years ago against Woody Allen.

People hate facts. Okay people do like facts if they support their previously held position. If they serve to contradict their opinions, notions and ideas, then facts are either to be ignored or twisted or the person presenting them is to be slandered. Still I have to wonder at what the end game is for someone once they’ve called you “scum?”
 They’ve established their lack of interest in a discussion, and that they hold anyone with viewpoint differing from their own as the enemy. What do they gain by name calling? And by the way, if you are lawyer for a person charged with murder does that mean you support homicide? Not by my reckoning.

The actress and — I guess she’s an activist of sorts too — Asia Argento tweeted about Quentin Tarantino after Uma Thurman alleged that he had risked her life and physically abused her during the filming of the Kill Bill movies. She said, “fuck Quentin Tarantino forever.” What the hell does that even mean? A literalist might suppose that she advocates someone engage in intercourse with him throughout eternity, but clearly she was, shall we say, casting aspersions at the director. She really wants you to know that she loathes the man and probably feels that you should do. To what point? I understand anger but I also understand that from our anger we should try to make something positive. “Better to light a candle than the curse the darkness,” as John F. Kennedy famously said, quoting, well I’m not sure who, there seems to be disagreement over who said it first although it wasn’t JFK.

The #metoo movement is a force for positive change in liberating women from the horrors of sexual harassment and sexual violence. But there is also a lot of disparate anger that is being directed at individuals such as Woody Allen who either are innocent of any wrongdoing or who have not had their day in court. Due process is a sacred right in civilized societies. But today woe betide those accused, they are cast to the pit of hell for eternity. There seems no chance at redemption.

The venom against Allen is particularly vexing as is the stubborn stupidity of so many who assail him. Separate investigations cleared him of any wrongdoing. Doctors said there was no physical evidence of molestation. He passed a lie detector test. The terrible violation described by his accuser could not have happened at the time or in the place described and her story was inconsistent from the beginning and of course investigators believe that she had been coached. Yet by bringing up these nettlesome facts one is vilified and put in the enemy camp. Enemy. One side against the other. There is no shading, no nuance, no negations, no discussion, no seeking common ground. We are moving inexorably into a binary world. Choose a side. It has already manifest in our politics where conservatives long ago dropped any pretext of practicing the age old art of political compromise.

Samantha Geimer (now an author but also known as the 13 year old raped by Roman Polanski) said it best in a recent interview with Quilette: “If you choose not to pursue a case, if you cannot prove your allegations, then deciding to try your case in the court of public opinion decades later is a cop out. Dylan Farrow is not alone in her circumstances. But we have a justice system and the rule of law in our country and that is more important than one person’s desire to be ‘believed’ or to exact revenge. What kind of example is that for those who have made peace with their decisions and experiences? That you must have the belief of strangers to heal? That you can never be whole if the person you believe to have wronged you is not punished? It’s simply not true. Most of the time, people can find the strength to recover and move on with their lives. How is it healthy to leave your emotional well-being in the hands of others, or to insist on their belief and attack those who decline? It’s a kind of emotional blackmail. Dylan did nothing wrong, but now she will be judge and jury, blaming others for her pain. I’m afraid I don’t like it.”

One of the problems with something like #metoo is that it spends a lot of time and energy in the easy task of directing vitriol on perpetrators and not enough on the more time-consuming and difficult jobs of healing the victims and educating and enlightening. Simply putting the fear of god into men — while useful — is only one step towards empowering women and keeping them safe. Real change will come only through teaching what is appropriate. Indeed we still need something of a cultural shift from objectifying women and treating them as less than. A major step in the right direction would be if we had national leaders who stopped apologizing for abusers and started condemning them.

Suffice to say I sidetracked myself from original topic which was my love/hate relationship with the human race and how the worst of people often comes out on the internet. Last night I caught up with parts one and two of CNN’s six-part documentary on the Patty Hearst kidnapping. It is a topic I am well-versed in and has been near and dear to my heart since the time it actually took place. One of the first published pieces I ever wrote was about my connections to the Patty Hearst case, and this was when she was still on the lam. For example my father built the apartment from which she was abducted and had warned the owners that the locks were not very secure (I subsequently worked within a two minute walk from said apartment for 20 years). Also a college roommate grew up next door to one of the SLA members, Nancy Ling Perry. I watched on TV with him and another roomie the night that Perry died in an inferno set off during a shoot out with the police.

Last night after watching the first third of the documentary I was on Twitter (maybe I should know better) when I decided to check into the Patty Hearst hashtag that was displayed during the program. I was surprised to see that the majority of comments were blasts at Bill Harris, one of two kidnappers still alive, whose present-day commentary on the case formed much of the documentary. Watching him on the show I was struck but what a lucky break it was to have one of the people “who was there” available to share memories, particularly given the fact that Ms. Hearst and the rest of her brood steadfastly refused to comment.

Mr. Harris was assailed for, among other things, not being in jail and seemingly living comfortably. (He did serve seven years so he in fact “did his time.”) Some even commented that he was well-dressed. I suppose viewers expected or wanted him to be living in a ditch wearing rags. These viewers also didn’t care for his attitude, he seemed to show no remorse and in fact delighted in relating what happened. Goodness. Did they expect him to mumble, head bowed, supplicating himself before the camera, interjecting apologies for his past actions? To me he was an old guy telling war stories. In fact, I thought he was rather good at it. I enjoyed the hell out of his accounts. You can’t please all the people…..

From time to time I vow to either quit twitter, or more realistically, reduce the time I spend on it. Even if you’re careful about who you follow and you block or mute the idiots and any jackass you can’t stand, you’re still going to come across know-nothing idiots who are sanctimonious, smarmy, self-righteous or all three. It’s magnified when they disagree with you and even more so when they aren’t interested in those damn annoying facts. I have been successful at steering clear of the comments sections of virtually any website I visit. Those areas can be fetid cesspools of bigotry, stupidity and ignorance. Twitter though still has its value and is an excellent way to stay informed, get a chuckle and find links to stories of interest. If it weren't for some of the damn annoying tweeters.

All the preceding taken into consideration I still like people — after a fashion.

07 February 2018

Minnesota School District Bans Books With Certain Words in Them, A Study in Cowardice

A Minnesota school district has dropped two classic novels from their library and classrooms, To Kill A Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Why? Because the books contain racial slurs.

And what is the problem with novels that use authentic language? Said the president of the local NAACP chapter: “There are a lot more authors out there with better literature that can do the same thing that does not degrade our people. I’m glad that they’re making the decision — and it’s long overdue, like 20 years overdue. Let’s move forward and work together to make school work for all of our kids — not just some, all of them.”

The district’s director of curriculum and instruction, added, “We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs.”

(No word on whether the district will also be looking to remove books with words such as “faggot, bitch, chink, spic, hebe, kike, dyke, Jap, wop, or redskin — if the latter they’d have to excise a lot of books and magazines about the NFL.)

If the district finds words offensive and hurtful, imagine how they feel about deeds. The horrors of slavery and the Jim Crow era far surpass the use of racial slurs. If a student can’t be expected to read a particular word — nigger (aka the “n” word) — how are they to withstand reading about the middle passage where African captives were shackled naked to the bottom of ships, left to wallow in their own filth? Won’t it be intolerable to hear of the degrading experience of slave auctions, not to mention the rape of slaves, the whippings, the punishments for escape attempts? How to teach these sensitive souls about the Black Codes, forced segregation and worst of all, lynchings? Will history be sanitized along with literature?

In my last few years as a public school history teacher, I increasingly got complaints from parents — usually African Americans — about teaching slavery. One Black student wrote on an essay about slavery that all this didn’t apply to her because she was the descendant of princes and princesses. Was I to believe that her royal ancestors immigrated willingly to America and never had to undergo chattel slavery?

Why this denial of history? Of reality and truth? My mother was a schizophrenic who emotionally abused me, I don’t pretend it never happened. I was permanently scarred by my experience but by facing the reality of my childhood have been able to heal and ultimately forgive my mother. I abused drugs and alcohol but I don’t now pretend it never happened, my recovery is a daily proposition.

There’s no sense pretending that racial slurs did not exist (nor for that matter still do) or that many of our brothers and sisters are the descendants of slaves. It may feel uncomfortable to people but it is often out of our discomforts that we learn and grow and heal.

Of course I’m also disturbed by the notion of banning books. Especially those that are such integral parts of our shared culture. Where does it stop? This is not so much a slippery slope as a greased precipice. Students need exposure to classical literature and thought in part to see how the world was interpreted at the time and how this literature has helped form the culture we live in today. Students need to be exposed to the worst — and of course the best — that humans have done. How horribly unsettling and offensive is the history of relations between whites and Native Americans in this country. What a terrible thing to read about. Should we ignore its awful truths? Should we sanitize it so it is more palatable, if less accurate?

What other words are going to be deemed inappropriate for young minds? Are we to ban all vulgarities? All racially insensitive language? All sexist, homophobic, agist, xenophobic references in every novel, non fiction book and text? If these are to be excised how can we justify the sexually explicit and often misogynistic language in many popular songs of the day. For the love of god how do we protect students from some of the repulsive words and deeds of Donald Trump?

We need to preserve our glories and our tragedies. We need to present the worst of our deeds in a full context. If you’re a teacher who wants to assign To Kill a Mockingbird, by god do it, but warn students about the language contained therein and explain why it is there. It’s imperative that we trust teachers not only warn students about unsettling language but use it as a teaching tool. We also need to trust students to understand.

I never found it easy to teach about the worst of humanity but I did find it absolutely necessary. How much better to celebrate, for example, the accomplishments of African Americans during Black History Month if we understand the incredible struggle required? By knowing what happened before we can better appreciate what has happened today. To know that racial slurs were once freely used by whites at blacks makes it so much more gratifying that we’ve reduced the worst of the words to a status that it dare not be uttered by a white person.

In 12 step meetings the stories people tell of their miraculous recoveries only have meaning if they first share their story — i.e., their experiences as practicing addicts. Context is everything. Don't assume students will feel humiliated by reading racial slurs, tell them why those words were so often used and of the successful struggle to eradicate their use. It can and should be empowering.

I hope the story out of Minnesota is not the start of a trend. I hope it is an isolated incident and that they soon reverse their decision. I close by adding the most bizarre — and troubling — aspect of this story. Who pressured the district to remove these books? Who complained? Who was offended? No one. They made the decision on their own. Jesus wept.