Current Affairs

Treating the University Like Just Another Corporation

ProtestorHere's what New Jersey's politicians and university presidents want to do with higher education in their state (from our union newsletter). Snide comments are entirely mine:

  • Salary freeze for all AFT [union] unit members for the next four years. (Because college professors are all earning such enormous salaries.)
  • Eliminate incremental salary increases after June 30, 2015. (And why should we got a cost of living increase just because Congress does?)
  • Eliminate tuition reimbursement for all employees. (Oh please. It's the only major perk we get.)
  • Eliminate career development for all employees. (Now, that makes so much sense! Why would you want your faculty to improve themselves?
  • Potentially eliminate or reduce the number of sabbatical leaves. (You slackers! Nobody else gets a year long paid vacation!)
  • Delete the clause requiring consistency in the quality of the benefits at no additional increase in cost to the employee.(You want something better? You pay for it, suckah.)
  • Increase the percent of faculty that management can hire on three, four and five year nonrenewable contracts from three to five percent. (Because they're so much cheaper than tenured faculty, of course.)
  • Eliminate the Union’s current right by contract to appoint one employee observer to each college/university-wide committee. (Why should you need to know what management is up to? Just trust us!)
  • Remove the Union’s right to challenge the removal of a chairperson or the appointment of an acting chairperson without a subsequent election. (Because why should department members know better than the management who should run their department?)
  • Increase the amount of money the local Union has to pay for its president’s release time.
  • Discourage librarian or professional staff from serving as Council or Local presidents.
  • Redefine the academic year as September 1 through June 30, requiring that faculty attend meetings and remain accessible to students and colleagues throughout that time period. (Because if we can't see you, you must not be working.)
  • Eliminate the requirement that the college/university President inform the Promotions Committee of the number of promotions available. (Make way for management's candidates! Stack that deck!)
  • Eliminate the obligation of the Presidents to provide the Promotion Committee reasons if there is disparity between the Committee’s recommendations and the president’s recommendations. (Father The President knows best!)
  • Reduce the amount of additional compensation provided to faculty working on external grants. (We don't care that you're bringing money into the University. Why should we pay you too when somebody else is?)
  • Eliminate the requirement for directors to hold periodic staff meetings that generally provide opportunity for professional staff input and discussion. (They're just staff. Who cares what they have to say?)
  • Compel professional staff to take vacation leave when the college/university implements a full or partial closure. (Tough luck if we have a hard winter. You'll get vacations next year.)
  • Impose a 6 month career limit on the use of Special Sick Leave. (Very humanitarian for a university.)
  • Remove clause that states a reasonable Special Sick Leave request shall not be denied.
  • Provide college/universities the right to reduce adjunct faculty pay rates during the duration of the Agreement. (Because, yanno, those adjuncts make so much already that they're obviously draining the university coffers, because they teach 60% of the classes. They should be grateful for the four jobs they're holding.)
  • Eliminate the ability for an employee to discuss potential grievances with his/her supervisor without filing a formal grievance. (There's a chilling effect for you.)
  • Eliminate the requirement that the administration send job announcements to the local before official posting. (We don't care how good you are, how loyal you've been, or how much you like it here.)
  • Rejected some of our most reasonable proposals related to reappointment rights, office space and compensation for cancellation of classes.

These demands place far too much power for the shape of the university into the hands of the (deeply paternalistic and very corporate) administration. Even more than a corporation, colleges and universities are their workers. Without us, there is no university. And the work that we do is not like middle management's or other white collar work that can just be trimmed back and streamlined. Why do we have to keep saying that it's not just hours spent in the classroom that make us professionals? If you can't afford to pay us, raises taxes on the people who benefitted from our work and made it big. Damn few of them got there without our help.


Be Subversive! Read!

LibrarianG It's Banned Books Week (Sept. 24th-Oct. 1st), again, and it's hard to believe that in a country based on free speech, we should even have such a thing. But we do. And this is why librarians have always been my heroes. Nobody protects our right to read whatever we want, no matter what age we are, more strenuously than librarians (independent booksellers are a close second). When, after 9/11, the FBI decided they wanted to see what books some people in America were checking out of the library, Connecticut librarians not only said, "no freakin' way," they filed a lawsuit to challenge that part of the Patriot Act—and won.

Banning books is a form of thought control, and thought control is an attempt to make people conform to one particular idea of social behavior. Seems obvious, right? Of course, when these protests are made, the protesters have hardly ever read the book in question in full, if at all. Someone has said this book is "obscene" or "subversive" or "anti-American" or "dangerous," and they've jumped on the bandwagon. What makes a book "dangerous"? Anything that challenges the status quo, whether it has to do with religion, sexual orientation, or political thought. So why do some people in the Land of the Free think they have the right to decide what I can read? How is that not "anti-American" in itself?

As an example of the kinds of books that are frequently challenged, there's this list of 46 of of the books on the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 novels of the 20th Century that have been banned or challenged at one time or another. Here's the list:

1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald ALA_BBW_Poster_2010_sm
2. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
3. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
4. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
5. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
6. Ulysses, by James Joyce
7. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
8. The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
9. 1984, by George Orwell
11. Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov
12. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
15. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
16. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
17. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
18. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
19. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
20. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
23. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
24. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
25. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
26. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
27. Native Son, by Richard Wright
28. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey
29. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
30. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
33. The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
36. Go Tell it on the Mountain, by James Baldwin
38. All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren
40. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
45. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
48. Lady Chatterley's Lover, by D.H. Lawrence
49. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
50. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin
53. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
55. The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie
57. Sophie's Choice, by William Styron
64. Sons and Lovers, by D.H. Lawrence
66. Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
67. A Separate Peace, by John Knowles
73. Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs
74. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
75. Women in Love, by D.H. Lawrence
80. The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer
84. Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
88. An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser
97. Rabbit, Run, by John Updike 

If books hold up a mirror to our society, some of us must not like what we see. But even if we don't, there's no sense killing the messenger.

Challenges to kids books are particularly galling to me. My parents never censored anything I read, though they would sometimes caution me that a book I'd chosen might be "too old" for me, and I might not like it, or might not "get" it. Sometimes they were right, but sometimes I wound up loving something they didn't think I would. Mom sometimes despaired of my love of comics, but basically, if I had a book or magazine in my hands, that was okay with them. I even read my dad's Playboys. And yeah, there was some good journalism in them. Seriously. Because my reading wasn't censored, guess who became the font of information on sex and reproduction and birth control for my friends in junior high and high school (and sometimes even college)? Not unusual for kids to get that information from each other, except that the information I had was actually accurate, not rumor.

According to the ALA, there were:

  • 1,536 challenges due to “sexually explicit” material;
  • 1,231 challenges due to “offensive language”;
  • 977 challenges due to material deemed “unsuited to age group”;
  • 553 challenges due to “violence”
  • 370 challenges due to “homosexuality”; and

Further, 121 materials were challenged because they were “anti-family,” and an additional 304 were challenged because of their “religious viewpoints.”

With kids, the fear at the heart of banning some books is that your children might somehow be harmed by being exposed to ideas about sex, gender, nonconformity, death, suicide, drugs, or actual cuss words. That's right: real, live cuss words. I'm sure they've never heard those before in movies, on TV, on the playground or at home. I'm insulted on behalf of children that parents like these think their kids are that dumb, or that mentally fragile, that they think their kids are incapable of telling fact from fiction, or have never let their pure minds wonder about sex, death, drugs or what life is all about. Honestly, grownups are so stupid sometimes.

 


Ten Years Later—Light and Shadow

9-11Moi So it's ten years ago today, as the media has been pounding home to us for at least a month. I know everyone has been thinking about it though, regardless of the media. Decades seem to have a special significance for us. Me, I'm avoiding all the commemorations like the plague. Not because I'm indifferent, but because this still bothers me a lot more than I thought it would, ten years later, and I don't like sobbing in public with strangers. So I'll stay home and write about it, instead.

Rubble-public domain-Michael RiegerIn the early days just after Ten Years Ago, the first thing I would do in the morning is open the curtains wide and pull up the shades to let in the light. The weather was glorious: mild and sunny and dry and the breeze carried the smell of burning electrical systems and worse things over the river and into my top floor apartment. My windows faced east and west then, so I couldn't see the smoke, but that didn't keep it out of my apartment. Ten years later, I wonder how many toxins I absorbed then, and how much of other people's DNA ended up in my lungs. Not enough to make me sick, like many of the people who worked at the site without respirators or even masks afterwards, but enough to make me, all of us who breathed that in, funerary vessels.

Letting in the light seemed so important to me that I was almost frantic to do so every morning. I think I knew even then we were heading for some dark times. Bush and Cheney et al were still unknown quantities, but the bumbled reaction and instant jingoism didn't bode well. Already there were stories of people beating up anyone who looked like they might be Muslim. I'd read enough history by then to know that the first thing people do in this kind of situation is look for scapegoats and someone to blame. And the more people to blame, the better. So hating Muslims was suddenly "in." All those windows in the Towers shattering suddenly sounded like a Kristallnacht for Muslims.

When I called my folks and let them know I was all right, my dad answered in a voice I seldom heard him use, unless he was telling unhappy war stories, the ones that didn't involve bars and Herman Caretta, his drinking buddy. I think he'd seen the handbasket arrive, too. Mom felt sure this was a preview of the Apocalypse and I had to be ready for it. I remember yelling at her, "You can't prepare for anything like this!" And you can't. Even if you know, rationally, that it might happen, that doesn't prepare you for the emotional response to it. Nothing can. It's purely visceral, glandular, the reactions of the lizard brain.

All you can do is search for the light, afterwards.

Unfortunately, there was a lot of darkness. Not just the knee-jerk bigotry, but an unscrupulous grab for unprecedented power by a few people in the government and trampled civil liberties: warrantless wiretapping, an attempt to get booksellers and librarians to spy on their customers and patrons, the other dangerous absurdities of the grossly misnamed Patriot Act, and worse. Guantanamo Bay. Extraordinary rendition. Water-boarding. Flouting the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. The U.S. sliding slowly into Fascism and hate. The invasion of a whole nation in a hunt for one man. Not to mention blind support for an ill-conceived war undertaken under false pretenses. That we started. We started a war.

Ten years later, we finally got the great thinker behind the act. And the terrorists have decided they'd like to mark the anniversary with another attack, so there are armed soldiers and police everywhere. But the "War on Terror" has become a permanent fixture, with no end in sight. The new normal. This all seems strangely familiar to a child who grew up in the 60s with a father working for the military.

What's missing this time around seems to be the outrage. At first, fear kept many of us going along with the government, doing exactly what Benjamin Franklin warned against when he said, "They who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Cops and firemen and Cantor Fitzgerald didn't die so the government could take away our rights to free speech, protest, assembly, and privacy. Why are we not more angry about that? Dissent is not treason or unpatriotic. Lack of dissent is. Blind patriotism is the tool of dictators.

Not only did our civil rights come under attack so a small group of ideologues could expand their powers, but those same ideologues outright lied to New Yorkers about the health risks of the aftermath. I was working at an environmental consulting firm (who later wrote the environmental impact statement for the rebuilding of the Towers), and by then I knew enough about what goes into buildings to know that air couldn't possibly be safe to breathe. The first thing our company did was hand out the respirators and masks we had to workers down at the Pile. The buildings were full of asbestos and dioxin. Even the concrete particulates in the dust was dangerous in such concentration. Here's how Scott Simon describes the air down there in his report for NPR:

The air downtown: thick, stinging, gritty, and filled with fragments of life still floating from the world as it was shortly before 9 a.m. on 9/11. Atomized smithereens of bricks, glass and steel, office papers, coffee cup lids, half-bagels with a schmear, Yankee hats, wedding bands, sugar packets, shoes and human slivers in a stinging, silvery vapor that made you cough and cry.

New documents are still surfacing that show the federal response to monitoring was disingenuous at best, and completely false at worst. You can search the original documents here, thanks to Pro Publica. Mother Jones points out that,

Within days of the twin towers' collapse, when the air was heaviest with asbestos and dioxin, a warning that office workers in New York's Financial District might be at risk if they returned to their workplaces was removed from public statements at the request of the Council on Environmental Quality.

Better to keep up a good image and hurt your own people than admit that the terrorists really fucked us over. This is something that dictatorships often do: they, like the Wizard of Oz, want to make the rest of the world think that they're infallible and all-powerful and they've got everything under control, even in a disaster. China and North Korea both do this on a regular basis. There, I suspect it's more about losing face as leaders than here, where it is an attempt to whitewash incompetency (cf. Hurricane Katrina). Before analyses could even be completed, Christie Whitman, then head of the EPA, was telling us the air was fine. Hard to backtrack later and say, "Whoops, we were wrong. You all inhaled a significant amount of toxins, carcinogens, and biological debris."

And we're still, despite having ushered in a new, more liberal president, illegally kidnapping, detaining, torturing, and in some cases, barring from returning home American citizens. You thought extraordinary rendition ended? Now we have "rendition lite." It's still American citizens being detained on foreign soil without access to lawyers, which ought to scare you. Because if our government can imprison any American citizen without cause, they can imprison all of us, for any reason, or none at all. You, too, can be "disappeared."

So is there any light?

There's always light. One of the most beautiful things that happened during 9/11 was the outpouring of sympathy and support from around the world. We've large spent that goodwill now, but it was fantastic while it lasted. Also beautiful, and somehow more heartening, was the way New Yorkers responded to each other: with compassion and kindness, with hard work and an overwhelming generosity. It didn't last at that initial intensity, as such things don't, but I think it made others look at us differently, and I think it made New Yorkers see each other a little differently. When the rest of the country was calling for an invasion of Afghanistan, the anti-war voice was loud here. We'd had a brief taste of what war was like and wanted none of it for anyone else, even our enemies. We wanted justice, not the slaughter of more innocents. I won't say it made us kinder or gentler—as a guy I conversed with on the bus Friday said, "We're not cold, we're busy." We're always going to be busy because that's what the city's like. But we're a little more forgiving, I think. A little calmer. And a little more proud of ourselves.

One thing that New York does, by and large, is get along. We've had some stupid moments over the last ten years, like the completely artificial brouhaha kicked up about the Ground Zero mosque that isn't a mosque or even on Ground Zero. (And I want to say to some of the victims' families: it is not always about you. This was a national tragedy, not just your personal tragedy. You don't have sole rights to framing it or interpreting it. Nobody does.) One of my first conscious reactions to the attack was to join the Southern Poverty Law Center's organization, Teaching Tolerance, which I continue to support. And a couple of years after the attacks, I moved from my largely Puerto Rican block in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to a neighborhood in the Bronx that's full of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis and Afghans. Not by design; it just happened that way. But I'm glad it did. Some are Hindu, but most are Muslims. There are women wearing the full black burqa and girls in just the hijab, and men in the long tunics and pants as well as western dress. There's an African Muslim center a couple of blocks away, near the synagogue and on the same street as the Baptist church. They're unfailingly nice people. But I see some wariness in their eyes that saddens me too, and makes videos like this necessary:

I don't know if 9/11 and the attacks elsewhere in the world have made us more aware of our foreign policy. I think it definitely made us feel less invulnerable, and that's never a bad thing. Invicibility leads to arrogance, and there's enough of that in the world. On the other hand, maybe our resilience, our insistence on plugging along with participatory democracy, as imperfect as it is, on continuing to voice our displeasure at our elected officials in the face of the drift toward fascism has given new urgency and heart to others. I'm excited by the Arab Spring. The hard work is still ahead, but so much of it was accomplished non-violently that that gives me hope too. It's a little light in the darkness too, when people start to take their governance into their own hands, and start thinking about human rights. There are going to be huge bumps in the road, maybe even some detours, but they've started on the journey to a more perfect union. We need to rethink the road we're on, too.

In the end, what it all boils down to is Kurt Vonnegut's words: "There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind." None of this shit would ever have happened if we were all kind to each other. If we learned nothing else from this event, it should be the need for unconditional love and compassion.

On today of all days, people, love your neighbors. And your enemies.


Memorial Day and Me

RadicalMoi I have an uneasy relationship with Memorial Day and Veterans Day. On the one hand, my dad, Louis, was a WWII vet who made a career of the armed forces. He joined the Army Air Corps, was a belly gunner in a bomber for a while, and served in the Berlin Airlift. He stayed in the service until the early 60s, then worked as a civilian mechanic for the Air Force for another 20 years until he retired. He was proud of his service, but he got out purposefully when Vietnam started heating up. I think he saw the writing on the wall and had had enough of fighting, much as he enjoyed the camaraderie and fixing airplanes.

Most the of the stories he told about the war were drinking stories, how he and Herman Kareta (whose last name I'm spelling phonetically) went out on the town and barely avoided the MPs, or didn't, quite. But every now and then, he'd let something slip that showed it hadn't been one big pub crawl: he and his buddies giving their rations away to the hungry kids in Berlin; watching a fellow belly gunner's remains being hosed out of the turret after an engagement. Sometimes it was stray remarks in response to the news, like wondering how Lt. Calley could look himself in the face in the morning. And he had a clear idea of why he'd joined up to fight Nazis, even though his family was German-Hungarian, and he spoke German. Like most first generation immigrants, he was fiercely loyal to the country he'd been born in, and an assimilationist. When my mother, a Jehovah's Witness, was browbeaten by nurses or doctors about taking blood transfusions, he stood by her and supported her decision, even when it meant he might be raising a newborn by himself or lose his wife to cancer. "That's what I fought for," he said, "the right to freedom of religion." When we opened the prison at Guantanamo Bay and started stuffing it full of "enemy combatants" and then torturing them for information, he was just as sure that that wasn't what he'd fought for. The trampling of civil rights infuriated him and he was willing to go to the wall to protect them.

On the other hand, I've been a believer in non-violence all my life. The men in the religion I grew up with went to prison rather than be forced to kill other people. I admired that conviction and the willingness to pay the price for it. During Vietnam, I had cousins who  worked as hospital orderlies at the order of the courts for resisting the draft. One of the elders in my congregation had spent time in prison for refusing to support in any way the same war my dad fought in. "Thou shalt not kill" was not a negotiable order, and it never seemed like a first choice for resolving political differences to me. Violence makes people fearful, and fear makes people act without empathy or compassion. And war is a great method of social control, as Orwell makes so evident in 1984.

But as I've gotten older, my pacifist position has acquired a lot of gray areas. I'm not sure that something like non-violent resistance would have worked with  the Nazis. Non-violence is great for effecting social change, for toppling tyrannical regimes, but not so much for stopping empire-makers with serious weapons. I still think our invasions of Vietnam and Iraq were wrong. I think we were foolish to get involved in the morass that is Afghanistan, though the alternative seems to be a failed state on par with Somalia. I'm divided about our intervention in Libya. If I could believe it was purely for the sake of the civilians who are being shelled by Qadaffi, I'd feel better about it, but there's oil involved and always is in the Middle East.

I don't much like even the idea of a standing army, and certainly not of a draft on par with what Israel now has and we used to. But if you're poor, the armed forces can be a great way to learn a skill and pull yourself up out of poverty, especially in peace time. But because of that, in war time, the casualties tend to be the working poor and minorities, too. And most wars now tend to be about money, somebody else's money, usually.

But fighting, as my dad did, to stop invading aggressors in land-grabs, to fight for principles you believe in—free speech, a free press, an equal chance for everyone, the inherent values of human life—that seems worth it. Dad certainly felt it was, and I'm grateful he and others did. But I'm bitterly opposed to the current wars we're in, and I wish people would stop signing up for these conflicts. I wish the rich people and the movers and shakers would stop expecting poor people to fight for their bank accounts, and I wish even those who just wish to serve their country would wise up and realize patriotism has nothing to do with supporting a corrupt government. Because sending people off to die in Iraq and Afghanistan is no better than organized crime sending its "soldiers" to hit another mob. Lives aren't dollars for businessmen to spend in pursuit of their bottom line.

So on this Memorial Day, thanks to Dad and his contemporaries and sympathy for the people fighting yet another commercial war devoid of principles. Get out while you can.

 

 


It's the End of the World as We Know It . . . And I Feel Fine. Sorta.

MissedChurchEvilDrm The hoopla this week about the May 21st Apocalypse (capital A) has shown me that you can take the girl outta the religion but ya can't take the religion outta the girl. Or at least outta her hindbrain. Having been a more than 20-year member of what I realize in retrospect is an apocalyptic religion, I've found it hard to shake those nasty little "but what if they're right?" voices every time I hear a doomsday prophecy.I spent so many years living with the idea that the World (not the planet, but the current systems of governments and societies) was going to one day cease to exist in a cataclysmic event, I still get a little frisson of terror whenever I hear mad prophets. Like the doctrine of hell (which was not part of our belief system), the Apocalypse is just another way to keep your followers towing the line and donating, and the core of that success is fear: fear of death, fear of rejection, fear of making the wrong choices.

The tragedy of living like this is that it stunts your life. People who leave my former religion (and other similar ones) are often embittered not just by their experiences, but by what they've missed. The emphasis in these religions, more than mainstream ones, is always on the world to come, whether it's heaven or a New World Order of some kind here on earth. You're told that your life here and now is just biding time, that you shouldn't invest too much in it, or make big plans, or try to get rich, or have any sort of ambition that doesn't involve serving God. If you do have desires outside that narrow focus, you're accused of being "worldly," i.e., heathen and ungodly, or just plain wicked. Serving God almost invariably involves not having a lot of money, or a good job, or a nice home. As a consequence, members spend a lot of time policing each other for their materialism and focus. But without ambition of some kind, without a desire to improve yourself, one's life remains stagnant and stunted, in more ways than one.

15-Leonhardt-popup-v3 For instance, according to data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life, Jehovah's Witnesses are among the poorest and the least-educated of religious groups. There's a reason for this. College attendance has, until lately, been actively discouraged. It's been seen as the quickest way to get your children to leave the faith, and there's some truth in that. A good college education gives people analytical abilities and exposes them to new sources of information. It's hard to swallow the party line hook, line, and sinker when you start asking questions. Absolute faith (though not spirituality) relies on unquestioning belief as well as the desire to belong. I'm not saying anything new here, but one of the ways to get people to not question your doctrine is to make them afraid of losing something precious, like their lives, their friends, their community. This is what apocalyptic dogma is all about. And fear is a really effective brainwashing tool, no matter how well-educated and analytical you are.

So most of the people I grew up with who were JWs got married young, didn't go to college, wound up working blue-collar jobs for not much money. But I went off to college, thanks to my mom's firm belief in education for women and the necessity of women's economic independence. For this, both of us were vilified as bad influences. Bad enough my mom was married to an unbeliever (though fellow traveler). Worse that she planned to send me off into the world, instead of making sure I ended up barefoot and pregnant, volunteering 20 hours a week to the door-to-door ministry. But I couldn't see myself staying in Northern Michigan for the rest of my life, and I had no desire to get married and have babies, and even less to proselytize. I was too intellectually hungry, and ironically enough, five hours of Bible study a week helped make me that way; that was were I got my first tastes of history and literary criticism, where I learned the rudiments of close reading, and the wondrous complexity of creation. So off I went to college, where I did, indeed, gradually "fall away" from the religion I'd been raised in, as I learned more about history, science, and biblical studies. But the fear of the Apocalypse, of making the wrong choices, never left me.

 When I was a kid, I used to love reading post-apocalyptic novels. One of my favorites was A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter Miller, published the year I was born. If you haven't read it, it's worth the effort, not so much for the view of life after nuclear war as for the big picture Miller paints of the cycles of history, the rise and fall of civilizations, and how religion creates its doctrines and saints. That long view is one of the ideas that influenced my interest in history, and the long view of its cycles I've always found so fascinating. In addition, I gobbled up Frank Herbert's The White Plague, Nevil Shute's On the Beach, Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, and a lot of J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick. Need I mention Blade Runner? This was sparked by the same impulse that makes people watch monster movies; everybody likes a good scare. Most of these apocalypses were death by nuclear war or natural disaster, not fire from heaven or the manifestation of God's power on earth, so they weren't frightening in the same way. What I was really fascinated by was the way society began to pick itself up and put itself together again afterwards, and what the critical mass of people to do this was. There were only 3 million JWs then; was that enough to repopulate the earth and maintain civilization? Or were we going to crash back into the Dark Ages? That seemed more and more likely the longer I ran the numbers and studied history. And that grew less and less attractive too.

2012 We Were WarnedAs I became more conscious and aware of the world around me, disasters didn't seem so interesting and the people I came in contact with didn't seem so horrible, for all their worldliness. And, I discovered, there were some amoral assholes inside my church too. The Apocalypse began to seem more horrible, more arbitrary, more malicious. My taste for post-apocalyptic fiction finally bottomed out with the AIDS crisis. The idea that a loving God would visit that kind of horror on decent people who didn't worship Him in this particular way became more and more abhorrent to me. That was not what I wanted in a god. After a while, I wasn't even sure I wanted a god at all. They seemed to be more of a pain in the ass than not. Now, when I watch the previews for something like the movie 2012, images of the wholesale slaughter of what Douglas Adams called "mostly harmless" people don't give me a cheap thrill, they nauseate me. But it still scares the crap out of me. There's nothing rational about it; it's completely visceral, a conditioned response. And that, I totally resent.

There are too many real problems in the real world that need to be fixed or at least mitigated for me to waste time being afraid of an imaginary disaster. I resent the way this dogma blinds people to the disasters that are going on around them right now and makes them think only God can fix these things, the way it strips away responsibility for crapping in our own back yard, the way it fosters learned helplessness. We've got a genuine apocalypse looming, one that's of our own making—climate change—that the same people who spout off about the Rapture are happy to ignore. Well, I got news for you folks, and it ain't Good News: nobody's going to save you or any of us when this natural disaster happens. Start scaring your people with the real thing. We need all the help we can get. Turn some of that money and effort into education and influence for saving the world we've got now, not waiting for someone else to destroy it.


The Road to Hell

RadicalMoi Many years ago before I'd left college, I read an article about the "Me" generation, questioning what kind of world this newly affluent, comfortable, coddled, self-centered group of people would make in the coming years. I'm at the tail-end of the Boomer generation and missed most of the stuff I would have liked to participate in: anti-war protests, Woodstock, feminist marches, in part because of my age, and in part because of who I was then. But I was lucky to grow up with the benefits of a generation who though that government should have more of a role in our lives than just providing for the protecton of the country. I went to good public schools. I benefitted from new highways built in our rural area, and the streetlights that came with it. I had decent food, safe medicines, buses to take me to school. We never needed it, but some of my friends made use of welfare programs that kept food on the table and clothes on their backs in one of the poorest counties in Michigan, one that had no industry and few jobs that weren't tied to farming or tourism. But as more of my generation joined politicis, there was a constant tug of war between those who felt some social responsibility toward their fellow humans, and those who just wanted to get everything they could for themselves. It's not entirely a clear-cut division along party lines but it's definitely a liberal-conservative split.

The current budget slashing is just an extreme example of it. And so much of it seems penny-wise and pound foolish. Out go funds for Planned Parenthood, which provides not just abortions (a small fraction of their service costs), but family planning which helps keep people from having too many kids that they can't support. Out goes funding for public broadcasting, which supports a number of educational programs for children that commercial TV wouldn't touch, giving them a boost up the ladder to help them succeed in school. Stripping the FCC of power to regulate the airwaves assures that only those who can pay for internet access will get it, leaving a huge number of rural and urban poor out of the greatest communication and information revolution in human history, and giving other countries a huge education advantage. South Korea has more people with broadband internet access than we do. This is not really a war about ideology. Or rather, it's a war about a different kind of ideology than we commonly think it is. Sad to say, it's really a war between compassion and privilege.

Say No to Government in Medicare I'm not even talking about the haves vs. the have-nots. A lot of the folks who are screaming bloody murder against what they call big government, are not particularly well-off themselves. Some of them are middle class folks who got screwed by Wall Street and are turning their anger on the government. Some of them are the working poor who feel that "other people" (read: minorities) are getting more of their share than they should be. But most of them feel put-upon in some way, and feel they're being taxed to death for things they don't use, or that the government is somehow interfering in their lives for no good reason. And yet many of them fail to realize they are recipients of that same government's investments in infrastructure (things as basic as sidewalks and highways) and the bare bones safety net of programs like Medicare. When you see protesters carrying signs against Big Government that say "Keep Govt. Out of my Medicare" the cognitive dissonance just boggles. Who do they think provides it in the first place? There's not some privately owned or publicly traded insurance company called Medicare.

There are very few people still alive who remember what it was like without any safety net at all, before Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and various welfare programs existed, or before government took a hand in regulating the safety of food, drugs, dangerous manufacturing industries, and enforced building codes, before unions helped guarantee a decent living wage for workers. If you want to see what that's like, spend some time in China, which is now undergoing its own early industrial period similar to the age of the Robber Barons here.

For example, take a look at coal mining, one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. According to the Dept. of Labor, a total of 71 miners died last year in the U.S.

In 2010, 19 coal miners in addition to the 29 who lost their lives at the Upper Big Branch mine were killed in mining accidents. Twenty-three miners in the metal and nonmetal mining industry also died in mining accidents – 45 percent were contractors. Not including the Upper Big Branch-related deaths, it appears that more than half of the 42 additional miners died in accidents involving violations of the Rules to Live By standards.

1907, the year the Bureau of Mines was created, saw the deaths of 362 miners in one disaster alone. By contrast, in 2008, 3,215 miners died in Chinese coal mine disasters alone (down from 5,986 in 2005), not including other mining disasters. China has a huge number of small coal mines, many illegal and under the radar, but even their large official mines do not have the safety regulations ours do. Our government decided that mine owners did not have their workers' best interests at heart and stepped in to regulate safety codes. Whenever those rules are disregarded, people die. That's one of the benefits of so-called Big Government. That's why we elect people: to represent our interests where we're powerless to do so.

Take away the govenrment's ability to regulate, to fund where market forces would not, to provide a safety net for the poor and powerless, and you would live in the country of snake-oil salesmen, company towns, disease epidemics, and grinding poverty, a country without decent highways, police, fire fighters, or health care for anyone who could not pay.We've experienced that in the Great Depression, in the Dust Bowl, in the Pinkerton strikes, in the years of labor organizing. Why would we want to go back to that? Are the people crying for the end of Big Government merely short-sighted or more selfish than even the Robber Barons?

What saddens me about this turn of events in American history is the utter lack of compassion it demonstrates. We've put such a high price on independence and self-reliance that we fail to see our obligations to each other and our interconnectedness. Social institutions that provide services for the poor have always been with us, whether private, religious, or governmental. Behind those institutions are people who are well-aware that not everyone is as lucky, capable, or healthy as they are, people who are privileged by class, income, intelligence, or race to be able to make it on their own. But with 45% of the wealth in this country concentrated in the hands of 1% of the population, do any of us really think private funding is going to pick up the slack? I don't see anyone stepping up to help cover health care costs for those who can't afford it. Oh, in individual cases, yes, but no one is stepping up to offer affordable health insurance for the 45 million of us who are unable to afford its currently exorbitant rates. I see new cell phone towers going up but not much in areas that don't have enough customers to recoup the cost. This is what government does: builds infrastructure and funds programs that are not all about the bottom line.

I'm all for austerity measures, and I'm willing to bite the bullet myself, but when you are already in the lower brackets of income, there's not much bullet left to bite. Austerity for the rich is not austerity for the poor. And when you ask the poor and the middle class to bear the brunt of the tax burden AND the austerity measures, you are risking exactly what's happening in the Middle East right now. People who are unemployed, unable to pay their bills, unable to put food on the table, afford a place to live or send their kids to school have nothing to lose, and the rich have everything. Spreading the wealth around via taxation and government sponsored social programs keeps everybody happy. If the rich are not going to help support the society in which they live, and from which they benefit, they deserve neither its privileges nor its protection, and certainly not its accolades.

That 1% of the wealthy are happy to make money off of the rest of us, but they don't give back much. This is not to say that all the wealthy are, by definition, greedy bastards. But it's interesting that FDR, one of our most socially conscious presidents, was considered "a traitor to his class" and that the Kennedys are so much more the exception than the rule. Even Andrew Carnegie must be ashamed of the current crop of super-rich. And the anti-government fools are happy to help them.

It's not your party that matters. It's not your religion. It's not how much money you have or don't have. It's how much empathy you have for the people around you: your next door neighbor, the people on your block, in your town, in your city, whether you know them personally or not. The new motto of this country seems to be "I"ve got mine. Fuck the rest of you." And that's just sad.


Sticks and Stones

Depressed Moi Sticks and stones/may break your bones/but [words] will never hurt you.

The news is pretty grim this week, after the shootings in Arizona, and there's a lot of rhetoric about rhetoric floating around as well, some of it on the left just as vituperative as on the right. It looks like the shooter was mentally unbalanced, but when can that not be said about any shooter of fellow humans? It takes a certain insanity to want to end another person's life for any other reason than self-defense (and I wonder if that impulse isn't just to get the person attacking you to stop, any way you can, rather than a conscious, specifically you-or-me life-and-death choice). Assassination, however, which is what this was, is particularly cold and calculating and abhorrent, even when mixed up with mental illness.

Palin Graffito The big question on everyone's mind is how much the current poisonous atmosphere of hate and recrimination and vitriol (a favorite word to fling around) contributed to the mindset of the shooter. He seemed to be fixated on Congresswoman Giffords, and the other casualties occurred mostly because he had more rounds in his gun. His own ramblings were, as has been pointed out, "straight out of the Right-Wing Insanity Handbook," as William Pitt says on Truthout, above. Loughner seems enamored of conspiracy theories and fringe ideas, but whether the crosshairs posted by Sarah Palin or her "don't retreat, reload" (half-)witticism influenced him to pull the trigger will be impossible to determine.

Motive is always murky, even when the actor is not mentally disturbed. Do any of us truly know why we do what we do? What things in our lives make us act the way we do? It's just handy but standard procedure to blame our parents, blame society, blame our siblings, blame our neighbors, but none of us, except the truly mentally incapacitated, can escape personal responsibility. How much Loughner's capacity is diminished hasn't yet been determined, so his amount of personal responsibility can't yet be apportioned.

But those of us who aren't of diminished mental capacity, who function just fine in the world, who get up every morning and go to work, take care of our kids, pay the mortgage, vote, complain about the government, volunteer, and think of ourselves as decent human beings, what kind of responsibility do we bear for others violence? When does a nation become . . . a mob?

It's very hard not to hate someone who threatens your way of life and your cherished personal beliefs, and hate is a catalyst for anger. The knee-jerk reaction is usually along the lines of "what the fuck is wrong with you? Are you crazy? You idiot!" We're defending our territory and some of that territory is very personal: health care, the apportionment of wealth, education, our personal pet hobbyhorses. I get a little crazed when people try to tell me vaccines are the cause of autism and a product of a government conspiracy, because I'd really rather not see the spread of things like small pox, measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, scarlet fever, chicken pox, shingles, pneumonia, and influenza kill or maim or even sicken anybody. It scares me on a visceral level, and that's never a good place from which to begin a reasonable discussion. Religious discussions tend to get heated for the same reason: the outcome, in believers' minds has to do with nothing less than life and death, not to mention the afterlife. When we are threatened on such a basic level, rationality and civility take a back seat.

But it's disingenuous to say that language that uses violence as a metaphor cannot be taken seriously. For Palin to claim “We know violence isn’t the answer. . . . When we take up our arms, we’re talking about our votes,” is worse than disingenuous, it's ignorant. Never mind that we don't know, really, who she means by that pronoun "we" and neither can she. One need only look at history for examples of how "coded" and seemingly innocent remarks  like the "second amendment solutions" and symbolic crosshairs can turn to violence. Anybody remember Thomas Becket?

Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century, when one of the major issues (as it continued to be through the reign of Henry VIII), was the power and rights of the Church in England. Becket claimed the papacy's primacy in trying clerics for anything up to and including murder; Henry, busily reforming England's legal structure, claimed that right for his civil courts. Though appointed by Henry, Becket's conscience dictated that his loyalties and best interests resided with the papacy. Henry found this rather annoying, to say the least.

Whether Henry actually made that peevish, offhand remark from his sickbed—"Will no one rid me of this turbulent (or "troublesome" or "meddlesome") priest?"—or whether it was a taunting annoyance with his own courtiers, as Becket's contemporary biographer (and witness to the assassination) claims (""What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?"), it led to the murder of a political figure struggling with Henry for the power of the kingdom. We'll never know if Henry made those remarks in a moment of frustration or calculatedly, knowing his word was law and that someone would take the hint and "get rid" of Becket for him. The point is, the words were said, and acted upon. When you let words loose in the world, whether spoken or written, in a place where others have access to them, you have lost control of not just their interpretation, but of their consequences.

In this country, we have the right to say whatever we like, if it's not like shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater when there isn't one. I posit that saying we should resort to "second amendment solutions" and similar rhetoric is the moral equivalent to that standard. Words like this are not just inflammatory but incendiary. In a country with slipshod regulation of guns, that's criminal behavior, too. There is such an offense as incitement. And while I believe that the purpose of the Second Amendment was to give the populace the means to protect itself from and, if necessary, rise up against a tyrannical government, picking off its representatives because you don't like what they say is not the best solution. I don't think we're in need of an armed insurrection. And that's not what this, or any other assassination we've experienced as a nation is.

We often exaggeratedly say "I could just kill X," or "So and so would be better off dead." because they frustrate or enrage us, and we know we don't really mean it. But sometimes, just for a moment, or maybe longer, we do. Worse, sometimes, somebody else thinks we mean it, and agrees, and has the means and will to make it so, and what we've said may be their tipping point or jusitification. Sometimes, that offhand remark is not much different than "get him!" That make us at the very least complicit, if not outright culpable.

Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.

Street art by Eddie Colla. HT to Towleroad and Dennis Kleinsmith on Facebook.


Remembering Nick Bucci on World AIDS Day

Precipitation

That spring, a cold one, not enough
years later,
the trees bloomed on St. Mark's
like reborn, slumming angels,
petals blowing in drifts
like the snow we never had that winter,
like the year before
         and the year before
and the year you died
when I could not see them
for what they were.

Your ashes, long scattered,
carried by soles and skin and air
through the five boroughs, Times Square,
the summer fire updrafts of L.A.,
ride the high atmospheric winds
across the world on new wings
or form the core of raindrops, ice crystals, cloud.

Outside: a warm October drizzle,
the leaves
just tinged with color, impossible
to think that it would ever snow
again,
that you would ever become
just a memory,
a film of dust, rain-streaked.



© Lee Kottner 2010


Dangerous Weirdness in Small-Town Mississippi

RadicalMoi I have a bunch of internet-only friends from my fanfic activities, and one of the things I love about them is that they will often do shit for each other that your local friends can't: start huge fund drives to help pay your rent or medical bills, or spread the word that something scary and dangerous is going on in your life that you can't fix and need help with. That's what this post is. I'm blogging about this situation in the hopes that if the word gets out everywhere, it will help protect the family involved. Caveat: this is a friend of friends, but to me, this sounds like way more than somebody just looking for attention. In a nutshell, here's the story. (And here it is in full, from the horse's mouth.)

Next door neighbors of Friend of Friends (FOF) show a sudden spate of late-night activity at a previously abandoned trailer that abuts FOF's property, accompanied by mysterious break-ins of FOF's house (some while she's in the house with her children), threats from local deputy (neighbor's nephew), strange phone messages, reporting of FOF to the local Child Protection Services (investigator is neighbor's relative) and an obvious effort to get FOF and her family out of their house, in which they've lived for 14 years. Move is in the works, but they have special requirements (they have livestock), so it's not going quickly. Meanwhile, the threatening behavior and harassment continues; no local lawyer will help them. County Attorney will not return their calls. This screams meth lab or local militia or some other kind of illicit activity to me.

FOF is now so scared that she's publishing her address on her LJ and asking others to do the same:

I currently live at

591 Hwy 41 E
Okolona, MS 38860

Catherine Young's old trailer is next door.

Someone probably thinks i saw something or someone over there I should not have.  Having me committed would discredit me as a witness.  Please circulate this post.

Pass this on to any contacts you may have at news outlets or federal law enforcement. Other friends have advised her to set up some surveillance via webcam (her phone and internet have both been sporadically cut at the relay), take photos and make copies of everything, including answering machine tapes (one has already been erased in another break-in, but there are other copies off-site), all of which she's doing. 


Year Nine: The Best Thing We Can Do

9-11Moi
is go on,
perhaps not just as we were
but remembering
all the fallen
and who they loved,
not just the heroes,
because there are no heroes
without those
in need of rescue,
and all of them
are sacred:
just ordinary people
until that moment.

So much of that
is chance:
Get up ten minutes late
and the maelstrom
passes over—
as though there were blood
on your doorposts—
but wipes out your
job, your company,
your colleagues, strangers,
everyone
more punctual than you.
Where you might have stood
the air fills with the dust
of the dead and destroyed,
crystalline and ash at once,
poisoning the future.

Who you pray to
if  you pray
did not protect you.
The flames that descended
from heaven that day
were not holy, but
made by someone
who just wants to watch
the world burn.

–Sept. 11, 2010, Da Bronx

© Lee Kottner, 2010


sexist self-righteousness a la mode

HotheadP Warning: just venting. Nothing really constructive here. Today in sexist self-righteousness, from the NY Times Ethicist column:

Our small nonprofit, the Opportunity Fund for Developing Countries, offers scholarships to African boys and girls who agree to keep up their grades, stay out of trouble and refrain from pregnancy. When a 20-year-old orphan we’ve supported for many years had a baby, we revoked her scholarship. (Significantly, we have never dropped a male’s scholarship for impregnating a female.) [Emphasis mine] Now she wants to return to school. We’d like to readmit her to our program, but won’t that set a precedent? DEB DAY OLIVIER, SALT LAKE CITY

To restore this girl’s scholarship may well set a precedent, and I think it should. As you seem to realize, to apply this rule only to one sex is strikingly unfair and violates your own agreement with the students. What’s needed is a new policy, one with a better response to young people’s lives than “just say no babies.”

By definition, nobody welcomes an unwanted pregnancy. As Cynthia Lloyd, an authority on population and education issues and a lead author of the book “Growing Up Global: The Changing Transitions to Adulthood in Developing Countries,” put it in an e-mail exchange, “Obviously in Africa, many young women who get pregnant have not necessarily made that choice willingly or with any control.” I admire your wish to help these students avoid obstacles to education, like too-early parenthood, but I admire even more your reluctance to let an imperfect policy inflexibly applied thwart a young woman’s desire for an education and a better life.

What form should that new policy take? Here I defer to educators and experts in family planning. Lloyd suggests one that you might consult: Codou Diaw, executive director of the Forum for African Women Educationalists, an N.G.O. operating throughout the continent from its headquarters in Nairobi.

When you restore this girl’s scholarship, as I hope you will, you can announce your intention to change course. It is commendable to gauge how effectively your policies serve your ends, and to amend or abandon those that are ineffectual.

UPDATE: Olivier told me by e-mail that they did not continue this girl’s scholarship but that she may reapply next year.

Fail. Fail. Fail.

Abstinence_by_jaig_1_ Not only the part about dropping this young woman's scholarship without considering how she got pregnant, whether she had access to birth control, or if she even wanted to get pregnant, but big ol' FAIL for never dropping a young man's scholarship for impregnating another young woman. Because, in case you hadn't noticed, it takes two people to get pregnant. If you are trying to enforce an abstinence only policy (which is what sounds like is going on here), then everybody has to abstain and everybody gets the same penalty. Not that I think abstinence only is a useful policy, but why punish only women for failing at the unworkable? If it's wrong to get pregnant, it's wrong to make someone pregnant too.

Beyond that, to enforce that policy on a 20 year old adult is completely unrealistic and unethical in itself, especially without offering alternatives. According to their own annual report, this organization provides no access to birth control, only HIV/AIDS "training," which I would bet consists of saying "don't have sex; you'll get HIV." If you don't want young women getting pregnant, it's a proven fact that just saying no doesn't work, especially in poor countries where women have fewer rights and resources than they do here. Not addressing the facts of violence (and just plain ol biological imperatives), and condemning women alone for the outcome is the worst kind of self-righteousness: do as I say, not as I do. Make my dogma work without the resources I have access to. It absolves men from taking responsibility for their own actions while condemning women, often, for being victims of male violence and at the least, of male irresponsibility. Why do people not get this?

I know: because it serves the patriarchy not to. But it particularly irks me when women don't get it and bind each other's feet.


Letter to the President: Torture

RadicalMoi Got my activist on and decided to write another letter to President Obama. It's so funny; I'm turning into my dad, who was a great writer of letters to politicians, newspaper editors, and other public figures he didn't agree with. It seems to be a Kottner trait; my grandmother did it too.

Here's a draft of my latest missive. I'm going to let it sit a couple of days before I send it, so any comments, typo spotting, corrections, suggestions, welcome.

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

20 April, 2009

Dear President Obama,

I’m a teacher, poet and artist living in New York City. I have been a disinterested non-voter for most of my life, but President Bush’s policies and actions—and your candidacy—galvanized me and changed my world-view. I’m writing first to thank you for the increased transparency you’ve brought to our government since taking office, and for striving to keep so many of your campaign promises. I applaud you especially for making the commitment to closing the unlawful prison at Guantanamo Bay. Since voting for you in the last national election, I’ve become increasingly involved in political and human rights activism, and I thank you also for that inspiration.

Which is why I’m also writing you today to ask you to reconsider your stance on forming a Truth Commission and the prosecution of interrogators who practiced and condoned waterboarding and other forms of torture under the aegis of the CIA and the Justice Department’s Orwellian definitions. I’m sure you’ve heard these arguments before, but I think it’s important that you know they’re also coming from some of the ordinary citizens who voted and campaigned for you, because we saw you as a new broom. I’m also writing to you because I need to be able to say I’ve done as much as I can to put an end to a practice which places the country I am a voting citizen of in the same category as benighted, tyrannical regimes.

I agree with you that this is a divisive issue, and I understand and sympathize with your desire not to create more divisions in this country. But I think it’s important to make a distinction between merely bowing to the demands of a group of people who have been newly restored to power and doing the right thing. If we deny our wrongdoing, that allows these wounds to fester. Witness the ill feelings regarding the denial of a Turkish massacre of Armenians just after World War I, and the Japanese denial of the enslavement of Korean women during World War II, for example. That denial thwarts the efficacy of diplomacy on many levels, as well as presenting a barrier to the social and political growth of the deniers. The Allies were able to bring the perpetrators of Nazi genocide and torture and Japanese atrocities to justice because Germany and Japan were conquered and occupied nations. Because we have no such pressure on us, it is even more imperative that we take steps to right our own wrongs and do so publically. Politically mature nations, like mature individuals, are able to admit their wrongs, take the consequences, and move on. South Africa has set a clear example in this area with its apartheid truth commission. It’s not a simple solution or an easy one, but it’s a necessary one, for a number of reasons.

Torture is one of the most heinous violations of human rights, whether it involves waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions, threats of rape or bodily harm, or fear for one’s life. Laws against intentionally harming a fellow human being are part and parcel of every civilized legal code on the planet. The difference between assault and torture is merely one of nomenclature and alleged purpose. Any argument of a real distinction between the two acts is sophistry, especially in light of the fact that torture produces so little—if any—useful information. As cartoonist Gary Trudeau pointed out in one of his Bush-era strips, it “used to be a given” that the U.S. did not torture its prisoners. We’ve lost the benefit of that moral high ground now. Sweeping the wrongdoing under the rug will not help us regain it.

A country which allows its agents to practice torture has no credibility in the world at large when it comes to speaking of human rights. How can we pressure countries like China to treat their prisoners humanely when torture is a part of our own repertoire? How can we condemn countries like Syria for their treatment of prisoners if we’re using them to do our dirty work? Hypocrisy like this taints everything we do on the world stage. If the U.S. is to be a true leader, we must face our errors, punish those responsible for them, and clean house. If we can’t clean our own house, Mr. President, we can’t ask others to do the same.

As signatories to the Geneva Conventions, this nation is bound by law to prosecute those officials who violate it. Article 131 says, “No High Contracting Party shall be allowed to absolve itself or any other High Contracting Party of any liability incurred by itself or by another High Contracting Party in respect of breaches referred to in the preceding Article.” We have clearly breached the rights of prisoners not to be tortured; prosecution of those responsible must follow if the rule of law is to be respected. In this country, without the rule of law, our experiment in democracy means nothing.

Finally, I know I don’t need to speak of the danger our policy of torturing prisoners places our troops in, but I will. My father, who died in 2005, was a WWII Army Air Corps, and later Air Force, veteran who was appalled by the existence of Guantanamo and the treatment the prisoners were subjected to. More than once, he told me this was not what he fought that war for. We need to repudiate that policy as strongly as possible to help ensure the humane treatment of our captured troops, as well as the humane treatment of everyone who comes to our shores. That sense of fairness was what my dad fought for.

For decades, the fact that American law, political philosophy, and foreign policy worked fairly well and were grounded in a strong sense of right and wrong allowed me to go along my complacent, non-involved way, confident that I lived in one of the best countries in the world. The Bush era’s egregious violations of the Constitution and American civil rights changed all that, so perhaps it wasn’t all bad in some senses. Now that our economy is struggling from unregulated greed, 48 million of us suffer from economic apartheid in health care, and our freedoms have been underhandedly undermined by the very people who are supposed to protect them, I can’t let myself stand by without saying something. I won’t ever be that complacent again, but I would like to regain that sense of confidence in the country I live in.

This is a long letter, and I’m not sure it will even reach you, Mr. President, through no fault of your own. But someone in your administration will read it and, I hope, pass on my sentiments, if not my letter, to you. I also know I’m not telling you anything new. You know these arguments, and you seem to me to be a reasonable, careful, and also moral person. I hope you will consider my words not as criticism, but as a call to action, the same call you gave that resounded in me. Thank you once again for the opportunity to express my views, and for doing the many good things you’ve already done.

Yours respectfully,

Etc.


corporate censorship

Rar!Moi In case you were under a rock or celebrating Easter or something today, and haven't heard about the AmazonFail brouhaha, here's what they're up to: Amazon has, ostensibly for the sake of their readers delicate constitutions, decided to strip the rankings from pretty much any book that has to do with anything related to the LGBT community, everything from textbooks to literature to scientific studies, whether those books include explicit descriptions of homosexual acts or not. This prevents those books from showing up in general searches and will ultimately hurt their sales figures. You know, the harder stuff is to find, the less likely people are to buy it? That kind of logic.

According to Mark Probst, who first noticed this a couple of days ago, and wrote to Amazon about it, a spokesperson from Amazon explained it this way:

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude "adult" material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

Among the books being stripped of their sales ranks and obscured in the search function are notable classics like James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle, E.M. Forester's Maurice, Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story, and Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, all of which I've read in English classes at some point. Oddly enough, both Lady Chatterley's Lover and Lolita have retained their sales ranks (Lolita is up around 2,000). Also stripped of their rankings are Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain and Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Even Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity has had its ranking stripped.

If you're unclear about what this means, go to Amazon and search books for "homosexuality." You'll notice that what comes up are largely Christian screeds against it, written by straight people, even when you click on "Gay and Lesbian" in the side search tabs. This made me feel physically sick. How awful to have decades of writing just erased from public viewing. I can only image how my LGBT friends feel watching their literature, history, and scientific studies disappear virtually overnight. This is censorship of the worst kind, and a really vile form of bigotry.

Horror aside, one of the interesting things about this event was how quickly it exploded onto the net. I saw a note about it from Charlie Anders of io9 over on Facebook this afternoon, toddled over to sign the petition after doing a little confirming research, and by 9:00 pm, it was racing across Twitter, LJ, and the blogs like wildfire. The Google search results went from two pages to 13.

So I'm urging you to boycott Amazon until they stop with censorship crap. Over at Publishing Talk, there's an excellent, excoriating open letter to Jeff Bezos, written with the kind of gentle viciousness the British do so well. There are Google bombs on the words "Amazon ranks" spreading (look! here's one now!), and numerous petitions. You can call Amazon's customer service: 1-866-216-1072 or if you're feeling particularly frisky, their board of directors. In the meantime, fuck 'em. Get your books from Powell's instead.

UPDATE: This is hitting the mainstream press now, with "Publisher's Weekly" and Salon reporting Amazon claims it's "just a glitch," which still does not explain Probst's and others reply from customer service, or the fact that this started several days ago. There's an interesting theory at the LJ of former SixApart employee who was around for the Great Strikethrough on LJ. He thinks is a trolling campaign. I'm reserving judgment. My natural suspicion makes me think that Amazon is just covering their ass with the "glitch" statement. I'd be pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

UPDATE 2: More information and sleuthing at Dear Author, which definitely makes it appear far more deliberate than glitchy. The evidence deals with the metadata entered by both publishers and Amazon and a filter applied to that data: "It appears that all the content that was filtered out had either “gay”,  ”lesbian”,  ”transgender”, “erotic”  or “sex” metadata categories.  Playboy Centerfold books were categorized as “nude” and “erotic photography”, both categories that apparently weren’t included in the filter." *rolls eyes*

FINAL UPDATE:So the word is out it was some Amazon employee in France who "broke" the system by flipping a database flag from false to true. Even if this was not a policy change, Amazon's PR needed to make that clear a lot sooner than they have (there's still no official statement, more than 4 days after this started happening). When the literature of an oppressed minority group starts to disappear without explanation, it makes people testy. And isn't spin control what PR people get paid for? Where are they? Where, for that matter, is Amazon's official explanation?

So did we all over-react? I don't think so. I think it's obvious that, thanks to the vocal activists in various movements, none of us have a real sense of trust in corporate America, or, after the last eight years, in the stability of our rights. I think it was heartening to see how fast the response moved, how vocal it was, and how much it seems to have freaked out a large corporate entity. I feel a little like the girl at the end of "V for Vendetta," taking off my Guy Fawkes mask.

If this were a real emergency . . .


verbing the teabag, or, more evidence the Republicans are clueless

LibrarianG Slang. Lord, I love it.

English users love to make verbs out of nouns: Impact. Sandbag. Gaslight. And now: teabag. Actually, this one has been around for a while, if not in general usage, since it's a little risque. And that is why it's good to stay current, to keep up with slang. YOu don't have to like it and you don't have to use it, but a little knowledge keeps one from looking like a complete, utter fool. It's not that hard. Just a little research goes a long way. Google. Wikipedia, even.

In this particular case, the irony quotient is just too high to pass up, as it was for Rachel Maddow. It's almost as if there were a mole planted in the Republicans' planning committee. If so, it's the best bit of sabotage I've seen in ages. You can hardly blame her for being on the verge of losing it, with or without the help of her offstage colleagues guffawing in the background. And I must say, this is one of the best use of, ahem, innuendo (no pun intended) that I've ever seen. There's nothing the censors would have found objectionable, but if you understand what the term means in its slang form, the implications are hilarious, and amazingly insulting, considering what a bunch of hypocritical prudes Republicans tend to be. It's genius.



a little activism

NYCMoi Okay, I've had enough. Here's what I sent off to my state senator and to the senator representing most of my students at CNR and here are their email addresses if you'd like to do the same:
diaz@senate.state.ny.us
and
serrano@senate.state.ny.us.
You can find your senator here.

Dear Senators Diaz and Serrano,

I'm currently an adjunct professor at the College of New Rochelle's South Bronx Campus. I live in Parkchester and commute by bus or subway three or four times a week to the campus at 149th Street and 3rd Avenue in the Bronx. I'm writing to you both about the looming MTA fare hike, but not just because it will increase my costs in the face of the meager pay that adjuncts make. I'm writing you both on behalf of my students, who live in your districts.

Many of my students are on public assistance. Some of them have overcome enormous obstacles to attend college: abusive relationships, drug addiction, extreme poverty, homelessness, alcoholism, AIDS, deaths in their families. Many of them are still confronted with these problems and keep coming to school anyway, because they know getting an education is a stepping stone to a better life. The thing that impresses me most about my students is their deep desire to improve themselves, to become contributing members of society, rather than victims of circumstance. They work so hard, juggling exhausting, low-paying work, the demands of children, and their school work. I admire them immensely.

Many of our college's classes meet once a week to minimize the amount students have to spend on transportation. If the MTA raises their fare as much as threatened, a large number of my students will not be able to afford to make the trip to school even once a week. This will short-circuit innumerable efforts by hard-working people to make something of themselves. The working poor have enough obstacles in their way. Please work with your fellow senators to keep the MTA fare hike from being another one. This is no time for dithering. Peoples' dreams are in your hands.

Yours sincerely,

Ann E. Kottner


poem a day: #6

BNFMoi I'm sort of cheating on this one because I actually wrote it last week just after Natasha Richardson's funeral. I was thinking then about how hard it is to come back to the empty house. I remember how awful it was after Dad died and Mom was already gone, and I was alone in a house that used to hold three people and snotty cat. At least Liam has his boys, which is both worse and better. Anyway, the prompt today was to write about what's missing, and this was far better than what I actually wrote. I found it in my teaching notebook when I was rewriting what I started this morning and I decided to swap them out, because this is actually a good poem, and still pretty new.

    After They’re Buried

The worst is when it’s over
and everyone else
goes home,
leaving you
with what’s
missing,
an absence, a lack:
one less
place at the table,
the vast space
in your bed.

Worse still, the superfluities—
the extra chair,
clothing you can’t wear,
books you would never read,
the hole filled in
with dirt, mounded up,
the urn heavy with ash.
And the undiminishing echo
of blood rushing
or spilled or, finally,
stopped.

© Lee Kottner, 2009


Hard Times

Depressed Moi A little story from the train that bears recording:

I took the No. 6 down to 86th St. to go to Staples for new toner and paper around noon today. The car was pretty empty; there were four or five of us: me, a middle aged Hispanic man, a youngish black woman, and across from me, a late middle aged white businessman with short hair, a dark suit, a long, black wool coat and a briefcase, nice looking but with a sad face. Around 116th a young couple got on with their chubby-faced little boy in a stroller. Dad was in scuffed Timberlands that looked like they'd been on a construction site, jeans, a light jacket. Mom was in jeans and boots too, and just a long-sleeved T-shirt, though their son was bundled up well. He started the pitch: they'd lost their house, he'd lost his job, couldn't get public assistance yet, never thought they'd be living in a shelter. He wanted work and a chance to go to college and instead they were asking for anything we could give them. It wasn't like the usual pitches. These two people were proud and embarrassed to be asking for money. Every single person in the car gave them something, including me. Afterwards, we all kind of looked at each other in a way New Yorkers on a train normally don't, shaking our heads, eyes a little too bright. The guy across from me in the suit really looked stricken and muttered something that sounded sympathetic and disgusted, not with them but with the situation. He'd given them several dollars.

Four people I know have lost jobs within the past couple of weeks. Another friend just lost one today. The safety net is frayed. And a neocon on Facebook tells me that capping the salaries of financial moguls whose companies take bailout money will somehow only hurt the economy more. All I can think is that those fuckers are lucky they still have jobs and it'll do their kids good to endure a couple of years in a public school and miss their skiing vacations. Let them sell their country houses.

Eat the rich, baby.


it's a beautiful day . . .

DreamingMoiI've always watched politics from a distance, convinced for a very long time that "it does not belong to man even to direct his own steps." Even in that distance though, the historian in me has watched the patterns develop with interest and horror, and the humanist in me has simmered in silent outrage at the amount of injustice in the world. Now, the possibility of God stepping in and not only saving us from ourselves but making us perfect seems far less likely to me, like a fairy tale of the Golden Age. I can thank George Bush for this, and George Orwell for that reconsideration. George B. scared the shit out of me and George O. taught me how to parse the propaganda. I don't think I've ever been as frightened by my own government as I was by the Bush years, and now that he and his cronies have brought us to the brink of collapse and disgrace as a nation by sewing hatred and fear and repression while raping and pillaging their own economic system, I'm deeply relieved to see someone with some vision and human decency at the helm. I'm glad I helped put him there. I'm glad I'm not on the sidelines anymore.

As a consequence, I feel like this is one of those days that everything should have ground to a halt for at least a couple of hours to observe the momentous shifting paradigm, at least in this country. I don't know about anyone else, but I feel like I can breathe again, like it might be possible to read the news and not be embarrassed and horrified and full of rage at the things my tax dollars are doing and at the perfidy of the people whose salaries they're helping to pay. However badly this incoming government fucks up, it won't be anywhere near the disaster for human rights, civil rights, science, the environment, and its own citizens that the outgoing one was. I'm not a nationalist, but I know that I live in one of the most powerful and influential countries in the world, and as a citizen, I'd like to not be ashamed and appalled by what it does on the world stage. You know, "with great power comes great responsibility" and all that. As one of my other friends said on her own blog, Obama's government can't possibly live up to the hype it's generated, but it will still be a far cry better than what we've had, simply by trying to. What a relief to have an intelligent, articulate, compassionate humanist in charge!

And what a pleasure to see somebody who's not white in the job! What a triumph for people of color everywhere in this country. I can't imagine what it must be like to have put up with the kind of shit they've put up with for the entire history of this country to finally see a reflection of themselves in the highest office, leading without rancor. Somewhere, Martin Luther King, Jr., is smiling. I hope this is the first step in learning to play nice with each other in the sandbox, because let's be real: this isn't anything but a beginning. It's not the end of racism just because a black man has been voted into the White House. But I think it's a hopeful indicator of a change in attitude. One of my students sent me (and a bunch of her friends) a text message today that said, "Do you know why there's a chill outside? Because people said it would be a cold day in hell before a black man became president. Bundle up, bitches." The note of glee and triumph was unmistakable. And how can I blame her for gloating? It is, after all, about damn time. 

It's about damn time that people in this country started to live up to the first lines of our Constitution, which, even though it was written in an era where people had slaves, offers a paradigm for equality that we should continue to strive for.  Because if not us, when it's written into the philosophy of our government, then who? And why not us? Why not now? Or as the new President said in his speech today, "because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace." (And isn't his rhetoric beautiful? Was that him or his speechwriter?)

It's about damn time we all start to realize that race, culture, gender, faith, language, or any of the other ways we seem different from one another really don't matter, that those differences are superficial at best, that it's fear that estranges us from one another, not anything real. Fear of the other, fear of something different, and an inability to accept another viewpoint not our own and let it co-exist.

Of all the things Obama said in his speech, this lightens my heart the most:

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

And the reason it does is that I know that no one can save us from ourselves but ourselves. So somebody has to get in front and show us how. I think Obama can. I think, if our best instincts are roused by a great leader, that we can save ourselves. Yes we can.


thought for the day

Badgirl Moi I thought maybe I'd start sharing some of my favorite quotations. I've amassed quite a few and what's the point if I don't share them? So probably once a week or so, I'll drop one of these in here. I'm sort of working my way backwards on the list, as this is one of the most recent ones, which I've taken from Neal Stephenson's most recent novel Anathem, strangely appropriate to the present economy:

Fraa Erasmus (a cosmologist): "I always tend to assume there's an infinite amount of money out there."

"There might as well be," [Fraa] Arsibalt said, "but most of it gets spent on pornography, sugar water, and bombs."


Ouch.