Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Not by intent

Brittney Cooper wrote about the Oscar Best Picture mixup for Cosmopolitan. This is the incident where La La Land was announced as the winner of this Oscar when Moonlight was the actual winner. PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting company that counts the ballots and handles the award envelopes, apologized for handing the wrong envelope to Warren Beatty.

Cooper understands no harm was intended, that everyone involved handled it gracefully. Even so, she says, the mess feeds the narrative that the white movie lost to the black movie, that gains in recognition of blacks comes at the expense of whites. Such a narrative wouldn’t be out there if Moonlight had been named properly from the start.

A great deal of racism happens not by intent. But it harms anyway.

We’ve come a long way

I watched the first episode of When We Rise last night. The story opens in 1972. I’ve known about Cleve Jones and his contributions to the LGBT rights struggles. In 1972 he is still living with his parents in Phoenix, his dad apparently a psychiatrist. Cleve got his start in anti-war protests. When Cleve comes out his father strongly condemns homosexuality and declares it can be fixed. Cleve flees to San Francisco.

Though San Francisco seems to be the place to which gay kids are fleeing (when they can) the mayor and cops have declared that to make the city more corporate friendly they will clean out the undesirables, such as the homeless and gay people.

Roma Guy is active in the National Organization of Women, working on getting the Equal Rights Amendment passed (which eventually didn’t). But Roma is also battling an organization that doesn’t like lesbians. In this first episode we see Roma attempt to reach out to Cleve, a member of another oppressed group. But so many in Roma’s group want nothing to do with men, even gay men as allies.

Roma asks the police for a permit to hold a protest. She is denied because a man isn’t making the request. The women assemble anyway and the police attack.

Cleve is homeless or, in the modern vernacular, couch surfing. He sometimes stays with older men in exchange for favors. Cleve calls his parents and his father urges him to come home to get this thing fixed.

Ken is a black man in the Navy in Vietnam. He is transferred to San Francisco to be a part of a group working on race relations in the military. A gay bar is raided by police and he flees the scene.

By the end of the episode Cleve tells a boyfriend he knows he must stay in San Francisco to make a difference. Roma asks the owner of a gay bar how do you manage to stay open if the mayor is against you? Ken returns to the bar and declares he won’t flee again.

My overall impression from this episode is that we’ve come a long way.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Acceptance of diversity

I watched the Oscars last night, all the way to the crazy mix-up for Best Picture. I’m delighted to see the Academy got over the Oscars So White thing from the last couple years with Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay going to Moonlight, a film about a gay black kid (double bonus!); both supporting actor awards going to black actors; best feature documentary going to the story of a black man (though since it is O.J. Simpson that may or may not be good); and the Best Animated Feature going to Zootopia, which is about the acceptance of difference.

My favorite for animated short won (you can probably find Piper on You Tube) and Sing, my second-favorite live action short, won. It is good because it is about standing up to misused authority.

This blog is setting a new record in page views this month with more than 4600. Recent months were 1508 for January, 2008 for December, and 2113 in July. The previous all-time high was 2790 in September 2013. February got a big boost with 843 page views on the 3rd, 1103 in the 4th, and 1278 on the 8th. I’ve previously gotten big spikes near the beginning of the month, but not this big. These previous spikes came from Russia. This one came from the United States.

Of course, I won’t know for a while whether this is a one-time spike or a continuing surge in readers. I also don’t know how accurate Blogger’s readership stats are.

A personal milestone: I retired from the auto industry 10 years ago. In that time I’ve done a lot of composing and had a five-year career in teaching which, I hope, I can continue sometime soon.

The beginning of Dustin Lance Black’s documentary When We Rise, a reenactment of the LGBT civil rights movement is this evening on TV. Black is gay and a prominent screenwriter. He wrote the movie Milk about the life of Harvey Milk and won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. He said he made this new show specifically for people like his kin – a family that is Christian, Southern, and military. The whole thing is 8 hours, or 2 hours each evening. I’m set to record this evening’s episode.

The series was originally slated to run Monday-Thursday this week. But it switched to Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday because the nasty guy will be addressing members of Congress on Tuesday evening to urge them to pass a religious freedom protection act, recognized as a license to discriminate against LGBT people, though it also includes provisions to encourage discrimination against unwed mothers.

Pardon me while I go turn off the irony alarm.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Vile and grotesque

The nasty guy rescinded Obama’s guidance on how schools should treat transgender students. Here are several reasons, many supplied by Melissa McEwan of Shakesville, why that executive order is vile.

* The argument that women need protection from trans women is wretched. There are no documented cases of a trans woman assaulting a woman.

* The original Obama guidance and this replacement do not have the force of law. However, its presence – and now absence – sends a signal to schools about what is acceptable in how to treat trans kids.

* Part of the press of this order was about states knowing best. Nope. The schools most inclined to torment trans kids are in the states where these kids are most vulnerable.

* What makes this order especially grotesque is the guy who signed it – a confessed sexual predator, one whose wife testified he sexually assaulted her, who sexualizes his daughters, and who threatened to sue the women who reported he sexually assaulted them.

Women need protection from trans kids?

Love in the modern age

I went to the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea yesterday to see the play Smart Love by Brian Letscher in its world premier production. Son Ben is devastated when he witnesses his father Ron die of a heart attack. Ben is a student at MIT and, overcome with grief, recreates his father in the lab, loading the new blend of man and machine (including internet connection) with material from his father’s journals. But mother Sandy isn’t pleased with Ron back in her life. Ben hadn’t known she had soured on the relationship and had very good reasons for that. The play is a modern exploration of the Frankenstein story and how it affects family relations. Is an artificial intelligence human? The play is fascinating with many funny spots, but mostly it is intense. Ben is described as having spent the seven months since his father’s death surviving on energy drinks while working 16 hour days. He’s more than a bit hyper and unstable.

The Purple Rose does more than put on plays. It also develops plays. The author can work with the director and the company of actors to try out scenes and incorporate suggestions. For this play the theater also hosted a gathering to discuss the latest in artificial intelligence (nearby Ann Arbor is an AI center). The gathering included researchers as well as theologians and ethicists. That discussion had an influence on the script. I learned this last bit during the talk-back session after the show.

This play runs for another week.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Too hot for you?

There has been lots of news about GOP Congresscritters not scheduling or scheduling and not showing at town hall meetings so they don’t have to face irate citizens. These are citizens who don’t want the Affordable Care Act overturned, don’t like the new immigrant restrictions, don’t want Medicare or Social Security touched, don’t like what the nasty guy is doing.

A citizens group in Kansas City saw four local GOP representatives were refusing to host town hall sessions, so scheduled their own and invited the lawmakers, who they know won’t show. So there will be four empty chairs with four portraits with the caption: Missing.

That has prompted Hillary Clinton to tweet:
If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the … Congress.

Seventeen Solutions – invent new tools for reform

Continuing my overview of Ralph Nader's book, The Seventeen Solutions. Click here to get the rest of the series.

13. Invent New Tools for Reform

Back in 1989 the Illinois legislature required Commonwealth Edison to periodically include am insert in its bills that was an invitation for its customers to join a Citizens Utility Board. Within 18 months 180,000 customers joined. The $5 annual dues hired a staff of lawyers, economists, and organizers to defend customer interests before the utility commission. The notice did not cost CE any money because the postage for bills did not go up. It also didn’t cost tax dollars.

It paid off. In 1993 the CUB caught Commonwealth Edison in overcharging its customers. The CUB case was so strong CE didn’t fight it and refunded $1.3 billion to its customers.
A CUB is one way to build democratic participation in decisions on choices of energy, pollution, pricing, zoning, handling of consumer complaints, billing practices, quality of services, and the overall management of our utilities, which generally enjoy cushy relationships with their state and federal regulators.
Where CUBs operate there is always consumer representation at public hearings and meetings between the utilities and their gov’t overseers. When that consumer representation isn’t there utilities almost always get their way.

Such citizen boards don’t have to be restricted to utilities. They could be used to advocate in insurance, banking, credit card, and lots of other businesses. Perhaps also citizen boards to oversee government agencies in the areas of taxes, fuel efficiency, environment, Social Security, Medicare, the social safety net, education, and more.

Of course, utilities and other agencies who would be watched by a CUB (as well as GOP politicians), don’t like this idea. A California utility refused to carry such inserts and the case went to the Supremes – where a conservative majority said corporate personhood has freedom of conscience to refuse such mail inserts. Since then states haven’t wanted to touch the issue.

It is time for citizens to tell their legislators about the CUB idea and push to make it happen.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

My values

Someone else’s blog post or comment (likely somewhere on Shakesville) suggested an exercise by asking what are your values? If an oppressive gov’t or institution asked (perhaps demanded) you to do something, do you know where that crosses one of your values? A related question: How strong are your values and would you refuse to deny them?

A hypothetical example from the East German Stasi of the Cold War years. An official says to you, “We have this evidence showing you are a threat to the state. That normally means time in prison. We’re willing to overlook your offense if you provide us with regular reports about your neighbors, such as when they come and go, who visits them, what they tell you about their activities.” What choice do yo make?

The purpose of this exercise is to explore your own values so that if you are presented with this choice you are able to come up with an answer and know why it is a good one for you.

Yes, this may seem gloomy and dire. Even so, I think it is important. I suggest you try the exercise, though you don’t need to share your list with me. So here are my critical values.

* I am opposed to ranking, to the pervasive idea that because of a person’s skin color, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality, or wealth one is supposed to be ranked higher or lower than another. This ranking implies privilege. Those who are of higher rank work to maintain their position by oppressing others. This is especially true when they are told they should have higher rank, yet the privileges don’t automatically come. A great deal of modern politics and gov’t policy is built to support ranking. I oppose it.

* I work to strengthen mental health. I am not a mental health worker, so my work isn’t about such things as diagnosing and treating depression and other mental illnesses. Rather this value is about wholeness, seeing the whole person. So this is a guide to evaluate my actions and those of others. Does an action improve mental health, or does the action make mental health worse?

My most prominent example is the typical Christian church’s treatment of LGBT people. Declaring a gay person to be incapable of entering heaven damages mental health. Forcing a gay person into reparative therapy that attempts the impossible task of denying their identity damages mental health.

This example is personal. For about 25 years after I realized I am gay I rarely heard my local church mention sexual orientation. The few times it was mentioned the words had a bit of condemnation. I figured, that’s OK, I can deal with it not being discussed. I can stay under the radar.

Then I went to my first Reconciling Ministries Convocation. What had been hidden was now celebrated. I was finally seen in my entirety. The experience was overwhelming. My mental healing began. I hadn’t realized during those 25 years of silence my mental health was being damaged.

* I work to build community. We are in this world together. We are stronger together (thanks Hillary!). We are responsible for one another. We are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. This is the opposite of ranking, the opposite of declaring someone as one of those people. Again, this value is about evaluating actions and policies of myself and others. Some examples:

A public library is about community, as is a public transportation system and a public school system, as are National Parks. These are things we all share, that benefit us all even if we don’t use them directly.

A policy to ban refugees damages community. A policy to intentionally underfund schools or force them to close (as is being done in Michigan) damages community. Policies that benefit the rich while impoverishing the poor damage community. Policies that make sure poor people can’t move to a sufficient and stable income damage community.

A few years ago a director of an agency helping military veterans came to my church and gave a presentation. Help a veteran recover from the trauma of war? Great! Help them get food, clothing, and housing? Wonderful! Help them get a job? Fantastic! Change the laws to prefer hiring veterans over others?


The first three are about healing the mental damage caused by sending them off to war and about integrating the veteran back into the community (I’ll leave aside for now that war is about ranking between countries and is about breaking community). The last is about ranking, about saying a veteran is more important than other people. (This ranking was more annoying when women and LGBT people were barred from most (or all) jobs in the military. It was a sneaky way of saying preferences in employment should be given to men over women and LGBT people.)

I’m pretty sure all of my values come from these three. Naturally, these values spill into all areas of my life. A love of music and the arts in general is a way of boosting mental health, both mine and of the society as a whole. Performing in a bell choir is all about community – I must rely on my colleagues to make the music complete. Delving into family history (of which I’m doing a lot as I clean out my father’s house, set aside old letters and journals, scan his huge collection of slides and photographs, and share family stories) is boosting mental health. This is both in coming to terms with what has happened to my family over the last two years and building up an understanding of who I am and where I and my ancestors came from.

On to the last part of the exercise. How strong are these values? They’re pretty strong.

At times their strength may not be apparent because I may not loudly challenge your values that oppose mine. That is because I don’t want to vanquish my challenger, I want to be reconciled, to reestablish community. Arguing over values has a good chance of damaging community had harming your mental health and mine.

The strength of these values play out in one more important way. As I work against the actions and policies of the nasty guy and his GOP cronies – which are all about enforcing a system of ranking and splintering the community – my actions must always be non-violent, to respect my adversary as I try to avoid damaging their mental health and my own, and invite them into community.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

A race

We’ve heard a lot in the news about Michael Flynn leaving the job of National Security Adviser under strange circumstances (you can find details elsewhere) and the job being offered to Robert Howard. But Howard turned down the job, saying the nasty guy wouldn’t let Howard pick his own staff.

Which leads to the important question: Why does the White House want control over what the National Security organizations have to say?

Melissa McEwan of Shakesville suggests that the intelligence community, as part of doing its job, is closing in on the nasty guy’s foreign business partners and his entanglements with them, perhaps the kind that make him choose between national security and protecting his wealth. The nasty guy may want to install his own people in the intelligence community to keep his business dealings secret.

We’re now in a race between the intelligence community trying to expose the corruption of the nasty guy and the nasty guy purging the intelligence community trying to shut down their investigation of him. Which leaves the question: How effective will a purged intelligence community be? Will his attempts to keep his entanglements secret allow him to miss coming attacks on Americans? Keep in mind he is waiting for an attack to allow him to shut down his political opponents.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Julius Caesar

My friend and debate partner sent me a link to an article by Maureen Dowd for the New York Times of the golden lining of the reign of Donald the First. Some of them:

* More Americans have come to appreciate Obamacare.

*More Millennials are showing interest in running for office.

* Ratings for Saturday Night Live get a boost every time the nasty guy tweets about them.

* There is high interest in and discussions about Senate hearings for cabinet positions.

* Because he lies so much we are on alert for alternative facts.

* We are ready and willing to protest any curtailment of women’s rights.

* The Museum of Modern Art added a display of art from Iran, Iraq, and Sudan.

* Shakespeare in the Park will start its season with “Julius Caesar,” about a populist seeking absolute power.

Institutions designed to check a president’s power and expose his scandals — from the courts to the comics to the press — are all at Defcon 1 except for the Republican Congress, which seems to be deaf.

When you don’t oppose, you support

I wrote yesterday that Timothy Snyder wrote an article for Slate that compared the rise of Hitler to the rise of Trump. I’ve now read that article. What Snyder did was to describe the period from the time Hitler seized power until he killed himself, but without using Hitler’s name. And, indeed, the first parts of the article sound like they could have been written about the nasty guy.

We know the article isn’t about the nasty guy at this paragraph, though this and what follows could be seen as a prediction.
The terrorist attack came as a surprise. It was unclear whether he planned this himself, but it hardly mattered. He blamed the left, banned its parties, and had its leaders put in camps. A state of emergency was declared and never lifted. A one-party state emerged. The division of powers vanished. The parliament became a rubber stamp. The bureaucracy proved loyal to him. Bright and ambitious men with law degrees were found. For many lawyers and judges, professional ethics were somehow submerged in an understanding of the greater good of the nation, state, or race. Intelligent people found ways to place their own intellectual and moral evolution within this or that philosophical or legal tradition. The legal stigmatization of a chosen minority had the political consequence of binding everyone else closer to the state. The moment citizens did not oppose this measure, they were in effect supporting it. The moment they took advantage of it (by enrolling their children in schools that suddenly had empty places, for example), they were co-opted by it.

I see four possibilities in America’s future. I can’t tell which is more likely.

1. The nasty guy shows himself to be so incompetent Americans protest with enough strength that the GOP held Congress pays attention and he and his lieutenant are removed from office.

2. Americans recognize the nasty guy’s attempts at authoritarian rule and protest with enough strength that he and his lieutenant are removed from office.

3. We muddle through the next couple years, managing to resist the nasty guy’s authoritarian ways until we can elect a Senate controlled by Democrats in 2018 and boot him out in 2020.

4. The nasty guy is able to implement authoritarian rule.

Note that in scenarios 1 and 2 it isn’t enough to boot the nasty guy. His lieutenant is just as much of an authoritarian and isn’t held back by incompetence.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

We have at most a year

Matthias Kolb interviewed Timothy Snyder for the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung (South German Times) for an article published February 7. Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University. His most recent book, out at the end of the month, is On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. No, I haven’t been scanning the English version of European news sources. This article was suggested by my regular sources as important. Some thoughts that caught my attention:

* We Americans, told ourselves that the nasty guy would be defeated or the process will mature him. That won’t save us.
He doesn’t seem to care about the institutions and the laws except insofar as they appear as barriers to the goal of permanent kleptocratic authoritarianism and immediate personal gratification. It is all about him all of time, it is not about the citizens and our political traditions.

* Snyder wrote an article for Slate that compared the rise of Hitler to the rise of Trump in hopes of educating Americans (something for another post). We tend to have short memories. We as a society don’t remember Stalin’s war of terror. We know something about six million Jews, but there is no context. We feel history has nothing to do with the present. When the nasty guy says “America First” we should have a series of associations with other political systems. This should set of warnings, but the media isn’t explaining the connections.

* The nasty guy and his cronies are clearly thinking about the 1930s, but in the sense of a redo – don’t build a welfare state, don’t intervene in Europe to stop fascism. This is their chance for that redo. “This inaugural address reeked of the 1930s.”

* America was created through a rebellion. We think it natural to rebel – in this case elect a guy who vowed to change things – every so often. But those who voted for the nasty guy don’t see the distinction between a rebellion against injustice and the destruction of the political system the Steve Bannon says he is working towards. We don’t understand what it means to destroy a government.

* When the nasty guy spoke on Holocaust Day Jews were intentionally not mentioned. This disassociates history and leaves only myth, allowing Americans to think they are the victims.

* On the travel ban:
And right now the comparison we need to ponder is between the treatment of Muslims and the treatment of Jews. It is obviously the case that the point of the Muslim ban is to instruct Americans that Muslims are an enemy: a small, well-assimilated minority that we are supposed to see not as our neighbors or as fellow citizens but as elements of an international threat. More than that, Trump’s policy is a provocation, which is probably meant to provoke an event like the assassination of the German diplomat Ernst Eduard vom Rath on November 7 1938.
I had to look up that reference. Vom Rath was a Nazi diplomat in Paris. He was shot by Herschel Grynszpan, a Jew. Hitler declared that the Jews had “fired the first shot” in a war against Germany. Kristallnacht was launched within hours of when vom Rath died on November 9.

* On attacking the media:
When I am a Republican and say the Democrats are the opposition, we talk about our system. If I say the government is one party and the press is the opposition, then I talk about an authoritarian state. This is regime change.

* Some in the GOP dismissed recent protests because they claimed they were being paid (see below). That is getting us used to the idea there should be no right to protest, that we’re being invited into the process of forming an authoritarian regime by having contempt for those who are defending the Republic. It is also getting us used to to permanent lying, to prefer fiction and inaction over reality and action, to teach people to just sit there and nod your head.

* Authoritarians try to overwhelm us with bad news, so we become resigned and feel we can do nothing. Antidote: limit the amount of news consumed, but act on what you do read. Then don’t obsess over it for the rest of the day.

* On turning points:
There is a playbook from the 1930s that some people in the presidential administration are following. This includes picking a minority in your country, associate it with a global threat and use the notion of a global struggle as a way to create national solidarity while neglecting the nation’s actual problems.
See Kristallnacht above. We can’t fall for the tricks of authoritarians.

* Our protests have two parts. First, when the gov’t tries to slice off a group, such as Muslims through the travel ban, respond immediately. This is not OK. We did this pretty well. Second, call ourselves patriots as we decry individual policies. It may take six months to a year, until we get beyond “just give him a chance,” to convince those who voted for the nasty guy that he isn’t working in their interest. Those voters had sensible reasons for their votes, and these reasons weren’t racist (many voted for Obama). We show them that what the nasty guy is doing isn’t meeting their concerns.

* Republicans have good reasons to defend the republic, but so far aren’t doing so.

Snyder’s closing:
I think things have tightened up very fast, we have at most a year to defend the Republic, perhaps less. What happens in the next few weeks is very important.

Yesterday I heard about the Indivisible movement. It is the progressive response to the Tea Party, rejecting their ideology, but using their tactics. Their guidebook is here. This is a loose association of local groups with reportedly over 50 within 25 miles of where I live. Alas, contact to most of them is either through Facebook or an email address. I’m reluctant to send my contact to an email address I can’t do research on, and I don’t do Facebook.

The basic component of Indivisible action is to pester your Congresscritters.

Speaking of which…
Those Congresscritters, especially from red states, are being hit by that pestering as they try to hold town hall meetings.

* Jason Cheffetz of Utah was repeatedly shouted down and left early (wimp – Hillary lasted 11 hours in a Bengazi hearing).

* Justin Amash of Michigan got yelled at for supporting Betsy DeVos.

* Diane Black of Tennessee got an earful about the Affordable Care Act – the protester said, “As a Christian, my whole philosophy in life is to pull up the unfortunate.” Thanks dear.

* Others are calling for more security or simply skipping such events, sometimes leaving hapless aids to record the complaints.

Steve King of Iowa said, “I think it’s going to be a demonstration a week until they run out of funding. They will incrementally die off.”

Yeah, the Tea Party was eventually well funded by the Koch Brothers. But progressives aren’t doing this for the pay. We really are mad as hell and we’re not going away any time soon.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Keep America safe

Melissa McEwan of Shakesville has been putting up daily list of appalling things being done by the nasty guy (or, as my friend and debate partner has decided, President Pants-on-Fire). In today’s list McEwan mentions a few items deeply troubling for a guy who says safety and national security are his top priority. To be sure, everything on McEwan’s list is deeply troubling. But most of it is him doing what he says are campaign promises. This isn’t. Most of this is just being stupid, or perhaps in over his head, or letting his ego rule his life.

* Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post: The nasty guy’s close ties to Russia, along with those of Rex Tillerson and Mike Flynn, has prompted the Pentagon to assume there are Russian ears in the White House, in particular Russian ears in the Situation Room. That has led intelligence personnel to withhold information from the Oval Office.

I’ve also heard that foreign intelligence services are becoming reluctant to share info with Washington because they assume Russia will hear about it if they do.

* Kevin Liptak of CNN: The nasty guy took Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, to a meal at his resort in Florida. Their table was in the middle of the dining room (as in: see who I’m dining with!) with various members of the club at tables around them. At the meal the nasty guy took a call, then he and Abe talked strategy about the situation – within hearing of the other diners.

Chelsea Clinton observed:
How many of Mar-a-Lago's new members will be (already are?) members of foreign intelligence agencies & media organizations?

* Mallory Shelbourne at The Hill: The nasty guy complained the media isn’t covering his enthusiastic supporters. He is concerned about getting enough attention, not about keeping the nation safe.

So, when the nasty guy rails against judges because they block his orders that he says will keep the nation safe, remember my friend’s new name for the guy.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Bootstraps are bunk

I listened to episode 3 of the series Busted: America’s Poverty Myths by Brooke Gladstone from WNYC and NPR. This episode is Rags to Riches.

We’ll start with physics and linguistics. The phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is a physical impossibility. One can’t defy gravity by tugging on one’s boots. The original meaning of the phrase was about this impossibility. But the meaning has been flipped and many poor people are exhorted to get busy and pull themselves up by their bootstraps to get out of poverty. It is still an impossibility.

This basic American myth of upward mobility was first promoted by Benjamin Franklin. He was indeed was born to poverty and became successful. One of his many enterprises was to buy rags, which he made into paper, including paper currency. The original “rags to riches.”

Franklin promotes the idea that anyone can do what he did through hard work, and does this through his autobiography. But the counterexample is near at hand – Ben’s sister Jane, who seems to be just as industrious yet remained stuck in poverty. Ben thrived and was able to tell his story. Jane didn’t thrive and her story isn’t told. That’s always the case. But the success of the few ignores the situation of the many.

The story of a successful person rising from humble beginnings is still used to great effect. See every presidential campaign for perhaps the last 20 years, and many before then.

If hard work and virtue don’t automatically mean breaking out of poverty, what does?


We hear the story of Natasha, who escaped from a poor town to the big city. She got a job and worked hard. An illness (with no pay) meant an eviction notice. A surprise gift from a church meant keeping the apartment and job a few more months. Sharing the apartment with a friend – who screwed her over – meant losing it all and moving back to the poor town. Good luck through the church, bad luck through the nasty roommate.

Virtue usually works against luck. A poor person who receives a windfall (such as that surprise gift from the church) usually shares it (usually expected to share it) with others in the community. That usually dilutes the windfall so it can no longer make a difference in pulling a person out of poverty.

Professor Robert Frank of Cornell University has studied luck in raising up a poor person. He had an exchange with Stuart Varney, a host with Fox News, about the narrative of the self-made man. Varney says he came to America with nothing and took the risk of trying to work in American TV in spite of speaking with a British accent. Frank replied coming to America with a degree from the London School of Economics is not nothing. And Americans love British accents!

As for taking risks… Merriam-Webster says “Risk is the possibility that something bad or unpleasant, such as injury or loss, will happen.” So if Varney risked and succeeded, that fits the definition of luck.

There is the luck of birth: Your parents have money. Your parents are college educated. Your parents are alumni of a fabulous school. Your parents and your school provide you with a network to tap to guide you to a fabulous job. Your parents loan you a couple million to start your first business.

The stories of the successful get told. We don’t hear the stories of those who aren’t successful, those who were born to poor parents, those whose parents didn’t go to college and don’t have the money to send them, those who had to drop out of college because of a family catastrophe.

When we develop our personal narratives we emphasize all the hard work (and attending that fabulous school or using daddy’s money to start a business is hard work) and ignore the luck. We know the struggle to do that work. The luck is fuzzy and corrodes our faith in free will.

But recognizing the luck is important. It helps us to feel gratitude. And that prompts us to be more generous to strangers.


Melissa McEwan of Shakesville notes that the nasty guy, as is routinely done by abusers, justifies his abuse by saying he needs to do it to “protect” America. To McEwan it is, of course, obvious that what is meant by “America” is straight, non-trans, able-bodied, white people. And everyone who doesn’t fit that category is someone who “America” needs protection from.

McEwan, a straight white woman, who fits into this “America” strongly objects:
Donald Trump: Stop using me. You do not have my permission to say I need your "protection." And you do not have my consent to use me to conceal that your "protective" measures are just rank white supremacy.

McEwan shows her Twitter feed on her blog. She has been complaining (again!) that another of her posts has been stripped of her name and reposted to Facebook. Along the way she asked that her name be spelled correctly. That prompted me to notice that for the last two years in most posts where I mention her I’ve been spelling it wrong.

I apologize.

Fun and cute

I saw the Academy Award Nominated Short Films yesterday at the Detroit Film Theater. Most of the animated films were under 8 minutes, only one at 35 minutes. All of those fit into the first hour. However, four of the live action films were 25 minutes or longer, so showing them all took 2¼ hours. Add in a 25 minute intermission (I had time to visit the DIA gift shop) and the evening didn’t end until almost 11:00.

My favorite animated film was Piper, one of the short ones. It was made by Disney and the notes say one reason for creating it was to test some new animation software. The story is about a baby bird, a sandpiper. Mother bird has decided it is time for baby to feed itself. We see baby’s first encounters with waves on the shore, the area where the birds feed. Fun and cute.

The long animated film is Pear Cider and Cigarettes, which came with a warning that it wasn’t suitable for children. The film ponders the situation of a friend in dire health who appears to be sabotaging attempts to get well.

All five of the live action films are worth mentioning.

Sing from Hungary features a children’s choir on the verge of winning a song competition. We learn the director will let all children join, but will ask some of them to simply mouth the words. The children have a great way to show their solidarity with each other.

Silent Nights from Denmark is the story of a refugee from Ghana trying to establish himself in Copenhagen.

Timecode from Spain is the short one at 15 minutes. Two employees at a parking garage in opposite shifts communicate with each other by letting a security camera film their message and leaving a note for which camera and timecode will show the message.

Enemies Within from France is about an Algerian applying for French citizenship. It is a battle of wills as the government officer says: You attended gatherings of other Muslims. Names, please.

The Lady and the TGV from Switzerland is my favorite. The TGV are the fast trains of Europe. The lady lives *right next* to the TGV lines. When her son was young they would wave to the train every morning and evening as it zoomed past. The son is now a successful man, but she continues greeting the train. The train engineer notices and sends her a note that he appreciates her wave. Thus begins a strange relationship. This one is based on real events.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Safety and support

Melissa McEwen of Shakesville, a longtime activist, reminds us, especially the women among us, that when we start resisting straight white male supremacy, we get blowback. And if these women aren’t silenced with a little bit of verbal abuse, a lot more is usually heaped on them. It can get to the point where the blowback can be overwhelming and we can think this isn’t worth it. McEwen highlights a few ways she deals with this abuse so she can keep fighting.

McEwen reported:
Leah McElrath, citing reporting by Rukmini Callimachi, a leading journalistic voice on Islamic extremism, reports that ISIS refers to Trump's Muslim ban as "the Blessed Ban," because "ISIS sees this as *their* doing. They succeeded in scaring the daylight out of America" and believe it's proof "their terror tactic worked. They frightened the most powerful man in the world."

McEwen posted about the video “Don’t Be a Bystander: 6 Tips for Responding to Racist Attacks.” It was put out by Project NIA and the Barnard Center for Research on Women. I’m sure the tips can be used for attacks on women and LGBT people as well. McEwen provides a transcript. I’ll just summarize:

1. Be more than a bystander. An example is to chat with the victim so the verbal tirade loses its target. Also good is just sit with the victim.

2. Document the incident, if it is safe to do so. This keeps track of the rise of such incidents and confirms the victim’s version of events.

3. Support the victim. Stick around, ask how to help with their consent. Help call a friend or help get them to a safe space.

4. Unless the victim asks, don’t call the police. The kinds of people who are usually the victims are frequently seen by police as perpetrators.

5. When not in a crisis talk to your white friends about white supremacy. Confront the culture without putting others in danger of immediate backlash.

6. Protest for justice in any way appropriate for you. This includes giving financial support to the groups who advocate for marginalized people.

The author of the blog Another Angry Woman offers online safety tips for people who oppose fascism.

Don’t sign online petitions because it may be a way for a fascist group to collect your email address. Even our allies tend to be unsecure with your data. Also don’t click “attend” on Facebook events.

When you must sign a petition don’t do it with your main email address. Create an address you only use for petitions.

Check your privacy settings. Alas, Facebook messes with their settings frequently.

Don’t tag yourself in photos and don’t tag your friends. Don’t post photos of your home that include identifying landmarks or street signs.

Who deserves to be poor

I listened to the second part of Busted: America’s Poverty Myths from NPR and WNYC. This episode is titled Who Deserves to be Poor. It is 40 minutes. The website has a complete transcript. Here are the major points.

It is a myth the poor are lazy. Most of them work really hard – or at least want to. They want to be responsible citizens. They want to take care of themselves and their families. They’ll earn money any way they can, even doing such things as selling their plasma, though that tires them out.

This episode goes through the history of welfare. The idea started after the Civil War to take care of all the widows and fatherless children. That ran out of money when the country as a whole did during the Great Depression.

As various programs, many with roots in the efforts of Franklin Roosevelt, were developed the caseworkers were given broad discretion about who qualified – and who didn’t. And that became a question of who *deserved* to be helped. Caseworkers mostly determined that black people and never-married mothers didn’t deserve help.

Keep in mind something I’ve mentioned in this blog about the way rich people think. They have money because they deserve to have money. The poor don’t have money because they don’t deserve it.

After Lyndon Johnson’s War of Poverty got established there developed the narrative that welfare saps initiative, that recipients are on it their whole lives. As women entered the workforce, women who were given welfare to stay home with their kids were scorned.

Bill Clinton had a pretty decent plan to reform welfare. Want to get people, especially the working poor, off welfare? Then offer them support to move up. But the GOP, which took over Congress in 1994, killed all the good features. And welfare as we know it died.

That leaves us with the modern reality. The poor are stuck in poverty because they don’t get enough support to get out of poverty. It is this support the GOP killed. The support needs to include living wages, affordable child care, health care insurance, meaningful chances of education, support when family members are ill, and support when a person experiences personal catastrophe (which can be as simple as an unbudgeted car repair). In this case meaningful education is more than a six month class in a trade. It needs to be support to earn a four-year degree.

In this episode we meet Carla. Though she is certified to work in a couple jobs she is currently unemployed and struggling. The reason is her daughter was born premature and is struggling to live. Carla needs to be able to dash to the hospital when called. Her boyfriend fled when he learned the extent of the baby’s problems. There isn’t enough support to help Carla through this crisis.

Speaking of the poor not getting support… Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) has introduced a bill calling for the termination of the Department of Education. The reason given: “Unelected bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. should not be in charge of our children's intellectual and moral development.” Don’t act surprised. Betsy DeVos had only two qualifications for Secretary of Education – her willingness to destroy public education in America and her willingness to destroy the Department of Education.

The astute reader understands what this means, though I’ll spell it out anyway. Every state with a GOP controlled legislature and GOP governor (if I remember right, there are 35 such states, including Michigan) are looking for ways to make sure certain groups of *undeserving* students don’t get an adequate education. Right now, the only thing standing in their way (though not doing all that great a job) is the Department of Education and the rules it enforces.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Seventeen Solutions – reengage with civic life

Continuing my overview of Ralph Nader's book, The Seventeen Solutions. Click here to get the rest of the series.

12. Reengage with Civic Life

There are a lot of articles written each year about the abuses of power (and with the nasty guy in office we’re either going to get a lot more or criticism or the media will be silenced). Many of these articles trumpet Something Must Be Done!

But these articles rarely spell out what must be done and how a citizen is to go about doing it.

That citizen has not done these kinds of things before (though that changed for a lot of them last month), so here come the excuses: “I don’t know what to do.” “I don’t have the time.” “I don’t want to risk the backlash.” (This is one reason why the best people refuse to run for office). “Would it really make a difference anyhow? The Big Boys will get whatever they want.”

These statements of apathy are a sign of powerlessness. And much of that is because we’re not used to civic engagement and not skilled in doing it. We have a democracy gap at the lowest level. If “Eternal vigilance is the price for liberty,” we’ve forgotten how to pay that price.

Start by getting people into small groups to talk. First to get to know one another, then to kvetch about what the various levels of gov’t are not doing or doing wrong, and the to listen to experienced citizen activists talk about how much these small groups have accomplished in the past.

As meetings continue, talk about what kind of world we want to live in now and what we want for our descendants. Then talk about the skills that are needed and who has which skills or is willing to learn them. Who can give practical advice? Who can review lawmaker voting records? Who can run meetings? Who can lobby? Fundraise?

There are plenty of places to take classes in cooking or yoga. But, in spite of the empty storefronts across America, there are no storefront classes in civic engagement. We’re a culture of self-improvement and instant gratification. But this work requires working for the improvement of others and a great deal of patience.

Si Kahn wrote a political memoir, Creative Community Organizing: A Guide for Rabble Rousers, Activists, and Quiet Lovers of Justice. A summary of some of his pointers:

* Look for common self-interests.

* If institutions or people of power won’t join your cause convince them it’s in their self-interest to stay out of the fight.

* Imagine the instant before victory. Work backward from there.

* Advocate for the positive as well as oppose the negative.

* You can ask a few people to do several complicated things. You can ask masses of people to do one simple thing.

* Citizens, no matter how much they hate each other, can find a common connection.

* Citizens are always partly united and partly divided. Reinforce the unity and compensate for the divisions.

* Demonstrations worked in the 1960s and will work again today.

* Fellow justice workers need to know the risks – what might go wrong and what loss they might suffer.

* Frame questions so that others will want to answer, but will need to think deeply to get that answer.

* Laughter really is therapeutic and hope does heal.

* Avoid the arrogance of thinking you know what is right for other people.

* When those who have been without power gain it, there is no guarantee that they will exercise it more democratically than those who have had it before.

* Use the power of culture to help others see beyond their own tribe.

* Accusing you of inciting violence is a tactic to discredit what you do. Driving an exploitative enterprise out of business is not violence, it is justice.

* Personal relations still count. When recruiting volunteers let them choose from a list of campaign needs.

* We can’t predict what we can accomplish, so never compromise with injustice.

* Dr. King’s Beloved Community is not in the future. It happens when we walk and work together.

Back to Nader’s suggestions…

Get the kids involved so they know as much about civic life as they do about their smartphone. Visit the local court, the city council meeting, the source of their drinking water, their emergency services. Help teachers do this by campaigning against evaluation of education through testing and for evaluation through understanding the community, through diligence, stamina, curiosity, creativity, and idealism.

That last one makes me consider that politicians want education defined through testing because it is a way to make the students ignorant of civic life – and less likely to challenge their control.

Parents can help fill that void (and prod teachers) through field trips (mentioned above) and books, such as The Kid’s Guide to Social Action. And when schools tackle civic action it need not be expensive. The laboratory is the community.

I think we might be back where we started – with the excuses. I’d be interested in being part of one of these citizen groups. But am I the one to go knocking on doors to invite neighbors to a meeting and then somehow lead the group? See the comment about who has what skills.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Keep up the resistance

The Atlantic put together a webpage of 45 photos from around the world of the Women’s March held last month.

Shortly after that march the issue of Net Neutrality came up again. Net Neutrality means an internet provider must treat all websites equally, they cannot favor one over another by slowing down or blocking a disfavored site. An example of that disfavor is a provider slowing down an internet video service because it has its own video service.

But the nasty guy has nominated Agit Pai for the Federal Communications Commission, a guy very much against Net Neutrality. Pai said “We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation.”

Melissa McEwen of Shakesville responds: “Get ready for the conservative talking points about how Net Neutrality crushes business and innovation, despite the fact the precise opposite is true.”

A part of ending Net Neutrality is that providers can not only slow down, but block sites the provider decides are objectionable, such as Planned Parenthood action alerts being blocked by ClearChannel.

That hugely successful Women’s March was organized on the internet. McEwen says it is a big reason for the quick resurfacing of Net Neutrality. The nasty guy’s minions are surely saying: A successful march? By women? Denouncing us? Can’t have that again.

We’ll need to vigorously defend Net Neutrality.

A couple weeks ago (and I’m just getting to it now) Sean Spicer, press secretary for the nasty guy, ranted about how his boss was demoralized by all the critical coverage.

McEwen says that is very good news. It means our continued resistance works. Keep it up.

Intentionally closed eyes

Brook Gladstone is the host of the NPR program On the Media which looks at how the media shapes the stories we hear. Before the election she did a five-part series on *Busted: America’s Poverty Myths*. I don’t listen to her show, so I didn’t learn about the series until Radiolab asked Gladstone to introduce the series on their program.

I’ve listened to the first part. This one is 25 minutes. I did so over a week ago, so some of the details (at least the ones not in the blurb on the website, alas no transcript) may be a bit off. This episode features a conversation with Jack Frech, who for decades has been the welfare director in Athens County, Ohio. That are is considered to be part of Appalachia and its poverty. So Frech has a pretty good idea about the causes of poverty and will discuss it with anyone who will listen.

Any time someone asks, Frech will do a poverty tour – show people around and meet his clients. The people who usually take this poverty tour are journalists. Sometimes these media people will go away and do nothing. Sometimes they will write compelling stories.

Back in the early 1990s (and this is where my memory is hazy, but I don’t want to listen to the 25 minutes again) a major TV network visited Frech and their well-respected evening news reporter did an excellent series of reports on poverty in America. Frech was delighted. The richest nation would finally revise its policies to help the poor. And …


The American public, and certainly its politicians, ignored the story. The few responses Frech heard about insisted things weren’t, couldn't be, that bad. The story must have been fabricated. A few years later there was the successful push to “redefine Welfare as we know it,” essentially ending it.

Frech’s conclusion: America does not want to know about the plight of its poor.

An exercise for the reader: Explain how this fits into a society that ranks one person more valuable than another.

Propaganda team

Rick Perlstein, writing for The Washington Spectator, considers the question how can the nasty guy thrive politically when his voters “discover that what he said on the campaign trail was categorical bullshit?” Perlstein says that depends on how good the propaganda team is. Will they rival Joseph Goebbels?

Yeah, that’s a comparison that normally disqualifies the argument. Not this year.

That success is also dependent on the willingness of the media to pass along that propaganda without commentary. So far they seem to be quite willing.

Perlstein continues by telling us about a video created by top strategist Steve Bannon back in 2012. It was shown behind the scenes at that year’s GOP convention, where one can see the true face of the party. The content blows linear logic out the window, but it would fit in quite well with George Orwell’s novel 1984.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

From the first speech

I’ve been to the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. It is a grim place showing what fascism is and does. Their message is: It did happen. Therefore it can happen again. There is a poster inside with this text:
Early warning signs of FASCISM
Powerful and continuing nationalism
Disdain for human rights
Identification of enemies as a unifying cause
Supremacy of the military
Rampant sexism
Controlled mass media
Obsession with national security
Religion and government intertwined
Corporate power protected
Labor power suppressed
Disdain for intellectuals & the arts
Obsession with crime & punishment
Rampant cronyism & corruption
Fraudulent elections
Now go through this list and think about what has happened since the inauguration or maybe the election. Are we there yet? Go through the list again and note that every item has to do with enforced ranking of one group of humans over another.

If you have any doubts about the last item in the list I have three words: gerrymandering, voter ID. That’s legalized fraud.

There are still many who would deny this is happening, that this is the nasty guy’s goal. Melissa McEwen of Shakesville says when a despot tells you something, believe it. McEwen reviews the speech in which the nasty guy announced he is running for president back in June of 2015 and she points out all the things he is doing now that have roots in that first speech.

Yes, I’ve been quoting McEwen a lot lately. Her blog is about the only news source I read.

Think your protests fall on deaf ears? That they’re empty gestures? John Schieber tweeted a story to urge us to stay involved. It is from a friend working with the United Nations in Iraq. Yes, the locals hear the nastiness in the nasty guy’s travel ban. They also hear the chants of the protesters, the ones saying “refugees welcome.” And that carries a lot more meaning

It’s not the jihadists

The nasty guy wants to rename the US gov’t program “Countering Violent Extremism” to “Countering Islamic Extremism.” No big deal? The name change would mean the program would no longer work against white supremacists, anti-choice terrorists, and other violent ideologies. These groups have caused a lot more harm and pain to Americans than jihadists have.

The program would also no longer look into violence against women. Since that is something the nasty guy has admitted to of course he would not want a federal program dealing with that.

Melissa McEwen of Shakesville points out that a huge number of the American acts of mass violence over the years have been perpetrated by men who had previously expressed, usually acted on, a hatred for women. This includes the guy who shot up the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando and the one who opened fire at the Sandy Hook School. Yet, say McEwen, authorities miss the common thread, or more chillingly, dismiss it because domestic violence is so prevalent.

Certainly unconstitutional

I start with the text of a tweet from Melissa McEwen of Shakesville (perhaps someday I’ll learn how to insert tweets):
Bannon is running foreign policy. Pence is running domestic policy. Kushner is the gatekeeper. Trump is free to watch TV and tweet garbage.
That reminds me of a comment from well before the election (alas, no easy way for me to find it) in which the speaker figured out that the nasty guy wanted to be president but didn’t want to do the work of president. It looks like that person was right.

We’ve heard comments that the nasty guy has said nice things about LGBT people. But with Pence in charge of domestic policy we get this: There is a leaked draft of an executive order titled “Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom.” Yes, it is exactly what those of us in familiar with this stuff would guess – government permission for anyone anywhere to discriminate against LGBT people, though this time we’re not alone – those engaging in premarital sex and those needing abortions are also included.

It is most certainly unconstitutional.

But, McEwen notes, the nasty guy has nominated a justice for the Supremes who would not find it unconstitutional, joining four other existing justices with the same opinion. In addition, there are more than 100 federal court vacancies, due to GOP blockade efforts over the last few year. The nasty guy and his minions in the Senate are poised to fill those 100 seats with (most certainly) straight white men who would also uphold the constitutionality of the order.

I hear Scotland is lovely.