Politics

Plague Poems #24

PandemicMoi

And Then

As if things weren’t bad enough already
with us jobless and hungry, threat of ruin hanging over our heads
while our Great Leader does nothing,
locked in together like felons in a national jail
serving an interminable sentence
for nothing more than being vulnerable,
the damn cops killed a Black man. Again.

And it was finally just too fucking much for people to bear,
too fucking much death,
too fucking much brutality,
too fucking much anguish,
too fucking much fear.
Too. Fucking. Much.

So the streets are filled with the masked and marching,
braving the threat of one disease we cannot now stop
to obliterate one we can,
because to do anything else is to bend the neck
and bow the head to the claim
that some of you
are better than some of us
and deserve more air.

And the deaths are still rising,
rising like smoke from the crematoria
and the stench from the mass graves
and the wails of grief from the mourners still locked in our houses
rising in the streets like the shouted insistence that Black lives matter
and demands for justice
and warnings that without it there is no peace,
rising like the gas—again with the goddamn gas!—
burning eyes and throats and choking as sure as
a knee on the throat and lungs filled with fluid
and veins blocked with clots
until there is no difference
between the meanings of I can’t breathe.

‒June 8, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020


Plague Poems #23

PandemicMoi

Rising

Like the sourdough on our pandemic counters
fed and nurtured, punched down, cast off and culled,
rage is a heady medium.
Stir in incipient poverty, hunger and homelessness
with the fear of a weaponized strangling disease and
grief for the 100,000 and more it has already been allowed to kill,
add the seasoning of a white man kneeling on a Black man’s neck, and soon
we are all eating the hard, dark bread of the poor, the unseen,
of the Human Capital spent on cake for the few,
that bread made with the wild yeast of
yearning to breathe free,
without mask or shackle,
that bread made in ovens backed against the wall,
those ovens with fires that light torches
and Molotov cocktails.

—O and the ovens some of us were fed to
in other days, to purify the whitewash—

these are not those ovens,
this flame not those flames,
this smoke a sweeter smoke of the Old Way
burning,
this bread
the last bread made of ashes.

‒May 30, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020


Plague Poems #19

PandemicMoi\

Your Gun

Your gun
will not change the necessity of masks and gloves,
or make anyone want to stand closer to you again,
or cut your hair, or buy you a drink at the bar,
or serve you a meal in a restaurant,
or bag your groceries in any store.

Your gun
does not make you a patriot, and taking it into the statehouse
is still sedition, when there is no army at your back.

Your gun
will not save you
no matter how much you wave it around
or point it at others
or clutch it to your bosom
or use it to intimidate government officials trying
to save the rest of us.

Your gun
is—No, that one’s too easy, too obvious.
Never mind. Let’s just say

Your gun
does not make you a man, or even a grown up.

Your gun
will not bring back your children, or your wife,
or your job, or your home, or a meaningful life,
or give you any dignity in the eyes of beholders
or earn you a slot in either the Army or the cops.

Your gun
is powerless against this virus
but feel free to shoot as many holes in yourself as you’d like,
to test the theory.

‒May 12, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020


Plague Poems #18

PandemicMoi

Abyss

We used to go for months—
sometimes years
—without seeing each other,
without speaking, even,
picking right up where we left off
over dinner and drinks
when one of us flew into town.
These are the best friendships,
we insisted, then, the strongest, when
you’re not in each others’ pockets
all the time.

And now we can’t be.

At best, we must,
for the sake of love,
stand six feet away,
air hugging and blowing kisses while masked,
handing off gifts and supplies
(which have become the same thing:
yeast, flour, bleach)
like a ransom drop,
latex or nitrile between us,
shouting down the street a muffled
Goodbye! Goodbye!
thinking, I hope that’s not the last.

Even letting that thought
seep up into consciousness
feels like a betrayal, a jinx,
like asking for it.

I always thought
I’d be good at this,
being thrown into solitary
in some imaginary place
where I am persecuted for my beliefs,
whatever they are,

until I discovered I’m not,

even here in my own comfortable home.
Perhaps if it were involuntary, or
something more radical,
something more righteous,
an enemy less invisible and
more political, an act more heroic
than saving somebody else’s life
with a piece of cloth and shouting distance,
than saving my friends and loved ones,
than merely keeping the abyss
from devouring us.

‒May 13, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020


Plague Poems #17

PandemicMoi

Classified

While we are counting and grieving the lives we have lost—
each someone loved, each life valuable, so many unnecessarily gone,
unable to even say goodbye before death, to hold funerals, to bury them,
instead filing them away in coffins in refrigerated trucks
against the time, if ever, when we can hold the proper rites and ceremonies
—our dear leaders are classifying those lives lost for us:

Not regular people: the folks who slaughter and pack your meat
(send them back to work!)

Lazy, cowardly takers: anyone afraid to go back to work
before we have treatments or vaccines

Fortuitous collateral damage: Black people and other minorities, the
majority of the deaths (Hey! Worth keeping this plague thing going for, right?

People who will make our Dear Leader or his sidekick boy wonder
 look weak to wear a mask around:
WWII Vets
factory workers making those masks
patients and health care workers at the Mayo Clinic
personal staff
Secret Service members (just another kind of a bullet!)
the entire West Wing (until it’s too late)
their own children

The minions follow suit, threatening anyone who calls them out
for standing too close, not wearing a mask, or menacing others
with guns and germs.
Anyone who disagrees with them is unAmerican.

Billionaires and shareholders and financiers agree:
Arbeit macht frei, especially when it is free
of liability, protection, or any care for your workers’ welfare.
We are just sacrifices for the growth of their portfolios.

If there is an actual war against this disease, in this country,
(and how our Dear Leader, the coward, likes that metaphor)
the front lines are hospitals and labs
and the real designated Heroes are there, toiling,
weeping, inadequately protected for the sake of our Dear Leader’s ego,
laying down their own lives for fellow citizens and other humans.
Meanwhile, Doctors Without Borders flies in
from some other third world country
to lend aid to Native Americans
who are not real Americans,
and should go back where they came from, after all.

There are not enough tests for all of us, but our dear leaders
get one or more every week.

We are not worthy.

‒May 12, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020


Plague Poems #14

PandemicMoi

Disillusionment

Not that kind, where everything you thought was good
is revealed as vile and evil.
Well, not exactly.
More like the scales falling from our eyes,
the idea that we will simply
Go Back To The Way It Was
When This Is Over,
slowly dissolving like hoarfrost on a window
under the warm, even breath of our enforced slowdown.

What if
you are trying to teach your own kids while
holding down a full-time job in a room less home office
than bare spot on the kitchen table
gaming the food deliveries twice a day or
scuttling out for groceries and meds like a cockroach into the light
and cooking at least one full meal every single day
while trying to keep the house from becoming
an unlivable sty with your kids and mate always underfoot
in a space far too small for 24 hours of that—and
what happens when your job is gone
and there are no other jobs,
only real work?
What happens if school is forever remote
or tailored tutoring for each student?
What if you are forced to sleep a little later,
eat a leisurely breakfast
while you read the news,
then take the dog out for a walk
and nod at your neighbors through the mask
and from six feet away exchange greetings and gossip
before you settle down to power through the tasks
that must be done instead of just looking busy?
What if you can pay to have your groceries or meals delivered
by people whose choices are more than risking their health
for a pittance or never working again? Like you.

There has to be something different.
There is something different, now, between
the false extremes of ever-working and the total collapse
of unmitigated and unfettered rampant cancerous greed.
Easier to imagine the dystopia than the utopia. But try.

First, we need to ask ourselves
how we lived before
in the daily commute, the road rage
that wore us out before we even arrived,
the time we spent trying to fill eight hours
with work because we were stuck there stuck there stuck there
because our boss is a control freak who must see us
with our head down every single moment of the day
while we’re eating at our desk or daydreaming or actually
working. Why did we put up with that when

in this moment, with no one watching, we begin to unfurl?
We let the tension ooze out like matter from a lanced boil
and stop poisoning us and our relationships.
We let the dog, the kids distract us
and get up from the table or the new desk
to peel an orange and separate the sections one by one
savoring the bright flavor like the captured sunlight it is,
pour the tea from the pot with a Zen focus.
Slowly, slowly, the nightmares and uneasy sleep pass
and we wake when we need to, as quickly as we need to,
diving right in or stumbling toward caffeine and toast.
We stay up late, late or rise absurdly early,
time zones irrelevant, the word “deadline” becoming a shifty thing,
robbed of urgency. Is anyone dying? No? Not so pressing, then.
And the people who make this possible—warehouse workers,
stockers, delivery drivers, cooks, cashiers, tellers—
their importance should transform them too,
from disposable cogs in the Amazonian behemoth
to stones in the foundation because is it not clear now
that nothing happens without them? That you cannot
sit in your kitchen and compose economic forecasts, or
sociological studies, or environmental impact statements, or
papers on the physics of space-time, or poems
without their care in their duty to all things that
you have learned to take for granted?

So many things becoming clearer now, so many
lies we have lived by falling away.

Don’t pick them up again.

‒May 6, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020


Plague Poems #9

PandemicMoi
Cassandra

Sometimes, knowledge is a comfort,
sometimes, a weapon. Sometimes
it brings its own tortures in reminders
of lessons unlearned,
whether you are oracle or prophetess,
historian or social scientist.
You see the previous, familiar patterns,
the churning and the change
but not the outcome.

Knowing how contagion and immunity works
tells me that this is the fabled New Normal.
How long it lasts
depends upon the character
of the wee vicious beastie
that jumped the genetic wall
between humans and animals,
if it’s constantly mutating, seasonal
and recurring,
or mostly a one-off, stopped dead by vaccines.
We won’t know for months yet,
or longer. But it’s not
disappearing. Learn to live with it
if possible.

And too many books about the Black Plague
and the decades after it
tell me this will be a Turning Point
to a New Society,
though of what kind I cannot say.
(I predict
masks will become fashionable,
handshakes fall from favor.
Kidding. Sort of.
Those are mere customs, not
social structures.)
Even now, though, the voices of laborers
forced to throw themselves into the maw
of an economy that already eats them alive
are growing louder as they balk
at being counted expendable
on the balance sheet.
Upheaval is coming.
There will be no going back to Normal.

Welcome to Interesting Times.
Buckle up.
That’s the best I can tell you.

‒May 1, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner, 2020


Quarantine Thoughts, Part 1: Reshaping the World

PandemicMoi

"Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate."

–Michael O. Leavitt, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 2007

 

Soooooo many thoughts. So many.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about the Big Picture lately, and that's where I want to go right now. I'm not all that detail-oriented as a person but I'm good at pulling back and seeing patterns in events. If I could parlay that into working the stock market, or cared enough to, I'd be rich. But I'm more interested in the ebb and flow of history and social trends. Fascinated by it, really. William Gibson's book Pattern Recognition really spoke to me. I think I may have to re-read it. Anyway, I fear this will be one of a multi-part series. If the pandemic goes on long enough, I'll have my own collection of plague letters.

Because you realize that's what this is right? It's a plague, like the Black Death. A plague, but not The Plague. Not as virulent, thank goodness, but potentially able to wipe out a significant percent of the total population. And the Black Death, when it swept through the world in the Middle Ages, changed everything, in a way the last great pandemic, the Spanish Flu, did not. I'll append some links to useful information and science-geek sources on Covid-19 (the disease vs. the virus) at the end, but I've been doing a lot of that at my Facebook page (yes, I caved and went back; more on that in another post), where you can search the #covid19 hashtag, but that's not where I'm heading right now.

Right now, I'm seeing this as a watershed moment not just in the US, but the world. We are at a tipping point of many consequences, one that has the possibility to change the way we work, the way we interact socially, our political systems, our economics. Even how we arrange our lives. I don't think it will be long before most of the U.S. is forced into quarantine like China, because our response has been so woefully inadequate from the git-go. Americans don't obey orders well, and the last several years have seen us inundated with scientifically illiterate talking heads, poor scientific education for the masses, and most recently, a demagogue who is a moron and a fool who believes only in what he knows, which ain't much. So this is unlikely to be the orderly quarantine of China or Europe.

As an example, there's "Katie Williams, a former Ms. Nevada who was stripped of her title for putting pro-Trump postings on the non-political Ms. America social media accounts [responding to AOC's call for people under 40 to stay the hell home:] 'I just went to a crowded Red Robin and I’m 30. It was delicious, and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America. And I’ll do what I want,'” cited by the indispensable Heather Cox Richardson. I had an argument just last night with a young college-age idiot who repeated the "this is just a media hoax to weaken the president" party line from Fox (the perpetrator of which has since been put on leave, to Fox's credit). Assholes like that, and like a well-educated Facebook acquaintance—who insists on traveling because he's old, and he's got a zillion frequent-flyer miles to use up, and doesn't care what happens to him—are what make pandemics what they are. Quarantines only work if people have no physical contact with infected people or surfaces. It's not about you getting it, dumbasses, it's about you spreading it. This is why I'm at home right now.

I've been a little under the weather since about last Thursday (March 4th). The symptoms have been so mild that I didn't think much of it: a teeny fever I didn't know I had until I bothered to take my temperature; an almost-sore throat; a cough I attributed to seasonal allergies, though my nose isn't running much. By the time I had the information and presence of mind to think I might have been infected, it's possible that I'd been spreading it for at least a week, if I've got it. I'm not happy about that. I'm not sick enough to warrant going anywhere for treatment, and I couldn't get tested if I did, because our government has fucked this up so royally that we may never get a good count of how many people this virus infected, unlike China or Korea, who will have tested hundreds of thousands if not millions of people to get accurate data. But the idea that I've possibly been infecting other people really bothers me.

But this post is not about me. This is not me virtue-signaling either. This is me trying to model what the right thing to do is because so many people don't understand how serious this is. Stay home if you can. If you must go out, keep your distance, wash your hands, cover your mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough and throw the tissue away, wear gloves you can either throw out or wash. Stay. Home. I've been self-quarantining now for a week, and will continue to do so. My office asked us all to work at home if we could on March 5th, the day after I decided to stay home and take a sick day. Yesterday, our CEO announced that it seemed likely we would be working at home beyond the initial projection of March 23rd. I think we're likely to be doing it for a long time.

A looooooong time. Like, months. (A friend who was on a CDC conference call today said they are predicting ongoing infections into next year.)

And the longer that time is, the more businesses shut down or shift the way they do business—from us going to them to them coming to us—the more changes happen in our economy. The more changes in our economy—lost jobs, mandatory paid sick leaves, quarantining of all non-essential workers (medical personnel, people in infrastructure jobs, repair people, banks, pharmacies, grocery stories, delivery people) the more our way of life changes. The longer that goes on, the more normal it becomes. The more normal it becomes, the less we want to go back to the old ways when this is over. The end result is massive social change.

There is a tsunami of things that need to happen to support ordinary people in the midst of a pandemic, especially in a country like ours where there is very little in the way of social safety net. When people get sick or infected, we don't want them working in public or with pubic goods. That means mandatory sick days or loss of jobs for people who are running public transportation, delivering your mail and goods, manning the gas pumps. When people lose their jobs, they can't pay bills or rent. Landlords and banks lose mortgage and rent payments. They can't pay their bills. Wealth doesn't trickle down, but poverty sure does in this instance. Our lack of mandatory paid sick days is a major failing. My vote for Most Despised Motherfucker in the World, Jeff Bezos, owner of Whole Foods, has offered his serfs two weeks of paid sick leave and unlimited unpaid sick leave, and urged his workers to donate their vacation time to their colleagues. Like he couldn't afford to absorb a month or more of paid sick leave for all his Amazon and subsidiary employees without missing anything in his grotesque pile of cash.

Hoarding wealth & TPI can rant about Bezos's lack of humanitarian values all day, but Amazon, especially, is illustrative of the underlying problem. If you cannot afford to not work, you are a source of contagion. If you are too sick to work, your fiscal house of cards falls over in the winds of a system that demands money for everything. When enough houses fall over, when enough people are evicted, have their utilities cut off, their internet turned off, their houses repossessed, their cars—that plunges more and more people into the kind of poverty it's almost impossible to get out of later. Capitalism has no mercy. And with the majority of wealth concentrated in the hands of a few people, we are in no position to weather even a couple of months of non-payments. That will lead to economic collapse. And the dispossessed are an excellent pool of vectors, so the pandemic takes longer to burn itself out, and then they become endemic sources. Trade and tourism get shut off because we can't get our shit together. That tanks our economy further. The cause and effect here is really fucking brutal. 

Closing schools is another example of the unintended consequences problem. School is a source of contagion. Kids are germ factories and snot everywhere. We all know this. But if you close schools, who's going to watch the kids of people who can't afford childcare and must go to work to pay the rent, many of whom perform vital services for the rest of us? Where are the kids who depend on school lunches for their main meal of the day going to eat? What if we had a basic income? What if we had affordable childcare for all? What if we had a president who wasn't eviscerating the food stamp program? What if he hadn't bankrupted so many farms with his stupid manufactured trade war bullshit? 

And don't even start me on healthcare. I don't think I need to explain what a hot mess that is in the middle of a pandemic, with or without gutting the CDC and making us utterly unready to face this. Or the fact that so few of us have access to healthcare that won't bankrupt us. And when people start dying in large numbers of something their government should be helping to alleviate, it tends to make them a little testy. That can lead to all sorts of world-changing things. Or at least regime-changing.

So the system we have now, of unfettered capitalism and the sequestration of wealth among a few people, along with a group of leaders who think less government is more, is abysmally failing the test of the pandemic. Now what?

I can see this going a couple of ways, one good, one not so good.

After 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers did an amazing job of helping each other out. People lined up to give blood, to volunteer, to search, to help rebuild, to feed, clothe and shelter each other. Sure there were some ugly incidents. There always are. But overall, we pulled together and helped each other. We became not just a city, but a community. Even when government failed, and it did in both instances in a big way for many people, the community didn't. 

Now, we've had too many years of meanness both on social media, via Faux News, and from our own elected officials. I don't think there's ever been an American administration as gratuitously, indifferently, indiscriminately cruel as this one is, even the ones that practiced genocide on Native Americans, supported slavery, and locked up Japanese Americans in concentration camps. This one fucks over everyone who is not a rich white male of a certain age. If you are not rich, fuck you.

One way this pandemic can go is that we can follow the lead of the administration and adopt an every man for himself attitude. Can't get healthcare? Too bad. Die, motherfucker, and your little dog too. Can't afford to not work or don't have any paid sick leave? Too bad. Work while you're sick, spreading the disease. We don't care. Quarantined and can't get out to get food? Too bad. Starve. Lost your job and can't pay your rent or mortgage? Too bad. Out the door. In this scenario, disaster capitalism rules and everything gets privatized or bought up that isn't already. The black market that is already getting started continues unchecked and encompasses more and more goods, including food and medicines that may or may not be efficacious. T-Rump uses this opportunity to impose martial law at the height of the quarantine and institute his favorite fascist policies. Your civil rights, always dicey during national emergencies, are "temporarily" suspended. Elections are "delayed." Schools and universities are permanently closed. Big business is bailed out but the common consumer is not. Eventually, the pandemic subsides, but we are left with a massive number of homeless people, and more dead than we should have had. The National Guard, or perhaps the army, deployed for the first time on American soil to enforce the quarantine, remains in place to suppress citizen unrest. The U.S. becomes a fascist state with Trump as president for life, our government pared down to nearly nothing, the rich getting rich and the poor—eh, let them eat cake.

Probably the sole check on the full horror of this scenario is that the pandemic is not Ebola or something more virulent and deadly. With that kind of a disease, even close neighbors can easily get panicked enough to weld you into your house and/or set it on fire with you inside, while handing over all their authority to whomever's in charge, hoping to save themselves.  Covid-19 is pretty mild by comparison. Being an old fart with at least two contraindications myself, I'm not going to say it doesn't matter that it mostly affects older people and the immuno-compromised. I have two friends with new kidneys I'm deeply worried about. But that it doesn't prey indiscriminately on everyone is far better than otherwise.

Now, here's what I'm hoping will happen: 

First, all those old, rich, white, male Republicans who pooh-poohed the severity of Covid-19 and went everywhere shaking hands and raising money for their re-election get sick as dogs and die. Kidding! (Maybe. Something has got to stop that sociopathic fuckhead Mitch McConnell from using his ideology to obstruct anything that might help people who aren't his donors and cronies.) Somehow, we hold T-Rump's feet to the fire and Congress manages to pass a massive aid bill (suck it out of the border wall funds and some of the military budget) that includes: mandatory paid sick leave; free covid-19 testing and treatment; a basic income to tide over people who have no other source of income and can't work during quarantine, have lost their jobs, or who are too sick to work; a moratorium on evictions and mortgage, rent, and utilities payments for the duration of your illness; strict enforcement of the ADA regulations forbidding people from being fired for this illness; suspension of student and other loan payments for the duration; investment in internet infrastructure to facilitate distance work and learning (let's just call it a public utility and be done; we all know we're paying too damn much for it now). Let me know if I forgot something.

None of this is impossible. Some of it is being instituted now in New York City and California, who I hope are leading the way to more community-minded action. AOC, Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi (and Bernie, I think; I haven't kept track) have all put forward plans to help ordinary people out, while T-Rump and his gang of robber barons are busy shoring up big business. But it's less the details of plans themselves that are important, though they are, than the message they send, which is, Take Care of Each Other. Help your neighbors. Don't pretend you can do this alone.  As my friend Sylvie Richards posted:

Do you know who the elderly people are in your building or neighborhood? In my building, the doormen have identified the elderly people who live alone. We are making sure that they have groceries, medicine, wipes, etc. and that they know that they are being cared for. Now is the time for us to take care of each other. Please -- identify and care for the elderly around you.

And of course, one of the reasons Mitch McSatan is fighting anything like this tooth and nail is that this legislation is a slippery slope to FDR-like programs: single-payer healthcare, free college, an infrastructure that serves the people not the corporations, loan forgiveness, job protections, maybe even—gasp!—higher wages. Not utopia, by any means, but a better way of life. Just as a sample of what this might lead to, the unintended consequences of supporting people: With better, cheaper internet service, maybe more of us will continue to telecommute, having broken the grasp of our micromanagers. Our cities would become less congested We'd need less office space and have more room for affordable housing. Imagine less commuting, less pollution from that commuting, less crowded public transportation. But again, the biggest change would be in us abandoning the bullshit myth of pulling ourselves up by our non-existent bootstraps, and bootstrapping each other instead. I'm not going to use the words kinder, gentler because they leave a bad taste in my mouth now, but there's so much room for us to become more humane. In becoming more humane, we become more human, less bigoted, more welcoming. 

My company had a massive Zoom meeting partially about our response to Covid-19 this Friday, followed by a note from our CEO. This is what she said, in part:

Please end the week by noticing what an incredible set of colleagues you have, and take time this weekend to rest and rejuvenate. I am so grateful to work with all of you, and proud of how everyone has engaged in problem-solving this week, across all levels of the organization and all our departments.  Take care of yourselves -- this is going to be either a half-marathon or a marathon, but certainly not a sprint.

Let's start work on Monday by finding ways to continue being kind to one another - for example, set up some cyber coffee breaks that help you connect with others at [work], relaxed time with either people you work with regularly or perhaps someone you've been meaning to get to know better. This is a weird circumstance in which our usual rituals of gathering with friends in our communities - whether at church or temple or at a restaurant - are being curtailed just when we need those comforting interactions.  So just as we have been creative at solving the challenges facing some of our projects, let's think outside the box about how to stay connected with one another and offer each other support. As one of many emerging examples, the intrepid group working on our Thursday 3/19 "critical conversations and celebrations" has been reworking it into a cyber-based community gathering. Something to look forward to toward week's end! 

In this spirit, I decided to organize a once-a-week or so Virtual Happy Hour in Zoom to keep track of my friends both online and the ones I usually see in meatspace. It's likely to be awhile before we can meet in person again, and seeing one another via videolink is far better than just interacting on social media. Let me know if you're interested, and I'll add you to the email group. Because our actions as a community and in-community might help tip this the right way for everyone and reshape the world in a good way.


Filthy mittnesAs promised, some #covid19 resources:

Natalie Dorfeld's Colonel VonMittens (left) says it all.

Advice and explanations from science reporter Beth Mole at Ars Technica.

Very in-depth and multi-sourced information on Reddit.

Geeky: Covid-19 Surveillance Dashboard. And this one, made by a 17-year-old. Watch this motherfucker spread.

Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center

For the thick among you, a vivid illustration of how your heedlessness and selfishness makes other people sick. From WaPo.

A really great podcast.


Patriot or Not

RadicalMoiI've been watching bits and pieces of the impeachment hearings (who hasn't?) this week, in between work tasks, and it's quite different from either the Nixon or the Clinton hearings. The latter was truly a farce over largely farcical and personal misconduct that should have just been handed to Hillary to deal with. (Yes, Clinton lied to Congress, but that's not what that was really about, was it? It was a foreshadowing of the mentality that's festered in the Republican Party to stay in power at all costs, even the loss of democracy.) Nixon's was far more shocking to a nation that still believed in itself, and it was clearly a criminal act, sprung from the paranoia of another Republican that mirrors the minority party's current paranoia.

Lord of the liesT-Rump's hearing is different. The criminality is equally paranoid, and serves Republican paranoia about loss of power and a conspiracy of Others, but it's wrapped up in his own narcissism, attempts to be more subtle, and is more complex in nature than a break-in, as befits a second-rate, wannabe mob boss without a mob. Nice country you got here. Be a shame to lose it to the Russians. How about saying in public that you'll start an investigation of Joe Biden and his kid? We'll see what we can do for you. Jesus, the ineptitude. Of course, the denial of this kind of extortion only gets a pass when you propagate a distrust of the press and the career bureaucrats and diplomats who are the true professionals running the government. That distrust didn't exist during Clinton's or Nixon's hearings. 

Which brings me to Dr. Fiona Hill and the decorated Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. Immigrants both, serving their adopted country at the highest level and at the cost of personal injury in the latter's case.  Vindman telling his father, scarred by Russia's methods of dealing with dissenters,

Dad, I’m sitting here today in the US Capitol talking to our elected professionals, is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union, come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.

Fiona Hill, daughter of coal miners in the north of England, insisting, 

This is a country of immigrants. With the exception of very few people still here, everyone immigrated to the U.S. at some point in their family history. This is what, for me, really does make America great.

Both statements brought me to tears (admittedly, it doesn't take much), I think because I once felt this way myself when I was younger, and because it had to be a covert emotion. Roger Cohen writes in the Times about the ideas I've wrestled with since I was a child: an emotional love for the place where I was born, and disgust with the injustice it perpetrates, i.e., patriotism. 

WeThree2Let me give you a little of my background for context: On Dad's side, I'm a second-generation American. His folks emigrated from somewhere in Austro-Hungary (it was always a big secret, so I'm not sure where) and Dad was born here. Like Vindman, he joined the army (the Army-Air Corps then the Air Force) and fought in one of our wars (WWII), in his case, against people who spoke the same language his parents did (they were German-speaking Hungarians). Most of Mom's people, by contrast, have been here a very long time indeed, long enough to have left the American Colonies during the Revolutionary War to take up big land grants from King George in Canada. I'm not a Daughter of the American Revolution, but a Daughter of Union Empire Loyalists. At least one of the Canadians came back to the US to marry my Welsh-American Grandfather, whose family had been in Pennsylvania for a couple of generations, too. So I'm sort of the nexus of both aspects of American colonization and immigration: newcomer and founding colonialist. Add to this that as a Jehovah's Witness, I was supposed to not stand for the pledge (which I still don't; loyalty does not require pledges), not celebrate the 4th of July (boy that was tough in 1976), not vote, to have no loyalty but to God's Kingdom, and to be utterly neutral politically. Not just non-partisan; non-political.

That last one was a kicker. Politics and history, inextricably intertwined, were the number one topics of conversation in our house: Dad was a relentless FDR Dem; Mom, in a non-JW life, would have been even farther left. We supported unions, didn't cross picket lines. Dad voted fairly often and he and Mom always talked about who was running. Dad was also an inveterate writer of Letters to the Editor, mostly about politics and politicians, as well as local policy issues. Being retired WWII military and someone who got out when he saw what was happening in Vietnam informed a deeply ingrained sense of Honor and Right, the same kind Vindman exhibited and spoke about before Congress. You find this in a lot of career military people. They join up because of a real desire to Do the Right Thing, to give back and to serve in the only way they know how—with their lives. You see the same thing in many career diplomats and civil servants as well. They have a vision of a country and government that at least tries to Do the Right Thing, to make the world better, no matter how often or badly it fails, and they want to be part of that work.

It's no surprise Dad hated Nixon with a fiery hatred. I can only imagine what he'd say about T-Rump. There would be a lot of swearing. He hated Lieutenant Calley too, for sullying the uniform, so the recent pardoning of war criminals would result in much more swearing. He wasn't fond of the damn hippies, but he knew they were right about Vietnam, and supported their right to protest. Members of the KKK and the "goddamn John Birchers" were beneath his contempt. He was, nonetheless, ferocious in standing up for people's civil rights, especially if he didn't agree with them. "That's what I fought a war for," he'd say. Mom pretty much agreed with him, but extended her dislikes to most organized religion, except her own, fondly (and rather hilariously) quoting Marx's "religion is the opium of the people." She took any injustice in the world personally: racism, sexism, religious persecution, persecution by the religious, wage inequality, war—you name it, she hated it. I finally realized that the thing that appealed most to her about being a JW was the idea that Armageddon was a way to burn it all down and start over. I think she was really a thwarted Anarchist at heart. 


Conservative vs. liberalBoth my folks were outraged by injustice, for different reasons. But I always think of Dad as one of the most patriotic people I knew. He couldn't care less about the Pledge of Allegiance, or the flag or the visible trappings people sport. He was a reluctant respecter of authority, so God help you if you abused that authority. Dirty cops, dirty politicians, war criminals, there wasn't anybody he hated more. He was a little guy and the little guy you didn't piss on. If you wanted to burn the flag as a protest, he'd support that. Free speech, freedom of religion, and the right to dissent were deeply important to him, but he was a "work within the system" guy. Mom was the one who wanted to see it all burned down and replaced with something better.

So here I am, raised by a couple of shit-stirrers and closet radicals. All the while I was clinging to being a JW, I was frustrated by their inaction and "giving it up to god" attitude that said humans were incapable of fixing anything. I was most frustrated, finally, that the attitude included poverty and hunger, which we manifestly can fix. It took me leaving my religion to become a card-carrying, out lefty. I pined in secret to go to anti-war protests, and finally went to my first march in college, the No Nukes rally in DC in 1979. That makes me proud in a way being directly connected to American colonialist history doesn't. I've always been, like Mom, a dissenter, and demanding, like Dad, that we as a society Do the Right Thing. One thing I'd never call myself is a patriot.

I've never had a good definition of patriotism, and it's always been a semi-dirty word to me because of how often it's trotted out in support of something really vile. The line about fascism coming to America wrapped in a flag and carrying in cross, whether Sinclair Lewis said it or not, is chillingly true. We're watching it happen. Every time T-Rump says "Make America Great Again," he's personifying what's worst about patriots and patriotism. It so often the refuge of fools and scoundrels, to justify acts that benefit no one but themselves and their increasingly tiny interest group of old white men. In that sense, the Patriot Act is aptly named, because it negates, in the name of "safety," the rights that are codified in the Constitution for everyone. 

This is part of what I wrestle with: the harm we've done and are still doing versus the good we try to do, the ideals we hold up and so often fail to uphold. I am heartened and touched by Vindman's belief that he will be okay telling the truth before Congress, even while the Army has had to relocate his family to a military base to keep them safe from the fucking Trump troglodyte MAGAites. It is still not the government coming after him and his family, as it would be in Russia, and that's what matters to him. I am heartened by the fact that Hill succeeded so well here when she couldn't because of the even more rampant classism in her country of birth, and touched that she decided to repay that opportunity by serving in the government. Her calling out of officials of the government she works for, right in public, in front of God, Country, and Everyone Else, to stop lying about Ukraine's meddling with the 2016 election—that's a patriotic act if ever there was one. 

And while that self-serving prick Devin Nunes insults him by not recognizing his rank as a serving U.S. Army officer, Vindman reiterates his belief in the U.S.:

As Vindman’s testimony neared the end, Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat from New York, asked the witness to reread the message he delivered to his father in his opening statement. He obliged....

“Why, then, do you have the confidence to “tell your dad not to worry?” Maloney asked.

“Congressman, because this is America,” he replied without hesitating. “This is the country I have served and defended, that all of my brothers have served. And here, right matters.”

Right matters. 

Maybe that's what patriotism is in a democracy: the dogged insistence that morality and ethics matter, that Doing the Right Thing is our duty, not a part but all of what being an American is, even if it means holding your leaders' feet to the fire of accountability in public. Maybe especially that. And to have two recent immigrants do that shows how important immigration is to who we are. Cohen, in his opinion piece on Fiona Hill, writes,

This [that American is a nation of immigrants] is the very revolutionary American idea under attack from Trump and his Republican enablers and the Fox News fabulists. Make America Great Again is, in fact, Deny What America Is.

Dissent is patrioticThe people who come here from all over the world—even from places we've helped ravage like Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam—come here with a sense of hope and idealism that we born-here citizens often have lost. Look at the new crop of immigrants, and first and second generation Americans newly elected to Congress, how they're tearing it up. They're tearing it up because they believe in the system. And what they believe of the system is that it's supposed to work for all of us, not just Big Business, not just stinking rich people. They believe that government's main job is to take care of its citizens, especially the most vulnerable of us, to lift us up, to protect us from the predatory and the greedy, to give us equal opportunities to succeed and pursue happiness. It's what I still believe and demand but don't expect. That these people are working for it when their colleagues on both sides of the aisle (with some exceptions) are not only shows how much we need immigrants to renew our democracy. That kind of faith in the process can only come from the young and from people who have experienced far worse times than most American citizens have. When you come from war, or genocide, or desperate hand to mouth poverty, or a land savaged by climate change, or authoritarian government, America still looks like a haven and a promise. People like these are not what Thomas Paine called Sunshine Patriots. They become, instead, our Winter Soldiers. 

And we need them because what's Right is grossly at odds with our practice of capitalism, which, unchecked and unregulated, is anything but Right. It's grossly at odds with the gospel of bootstrapping, as well. The idea that every person—regardless of skin color, sex, nation of origin, or any of the artificial labels we slap on each other—has a set of inalienable rights that a government cannot strip from you is the foundation of Right. Without getting into what the founders meant by "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," I think we're at least starting to accept the notion that the inalienable rights include the right to basic necessities, health care, and education, all of which are necessary to life and the pursuit of happiness. And you certainly don't have liberty without them. The freedom to starve, be homeless, and die young is not liberty.

And Right is grossly at odds with the two party system as it's in play now. Too many of the Democrats are in thrall to special interests and Money, especially when they call FDR's policies "radical left." And where to start with the Republicans? Where? Oh Lord. Let's just say, if you have to lie and cheat and allow others to break the law to stay in power, you are Wrong, not Right.

Sadly, we are currently being governed by the most Wrong administration ever, and opposing it is probably one of the most patriotic things we can do.  I fear that our democratic experiment is failing  and has been failing for a while now, a good part of my lifetime, every time we allowed money and/or power to matter more than people. And that experiment matters because people's lives matter. The whole point of civilization and government is to make people's lives better. Everything else is gravy.

So, patriot or not? If dissent is patriotic, then yes. If I need a flag for it, then no. Unless I can burn it.


On Bubbles and Lost Time

Dark Side CookiesSheesh, did I. It's called Facebook.

I spruced up the blog a bit this weekend, to bring it up to date. Changed the layout and banner. Added some new/old content in the sidebars. Checked the links. In doing so I rediscovered some places on the web I hadn't been to in a while: interesting blogs, magazines, web comics. Things I miss, that I hadn't realized I missed until I saw them again. You'll see them over there on the right in the sidebars. In the editing, I discovered some of them were gone, or had come to a conclusion, or their authors had moved on to new projects, or to new places on the web. Most of them dated from about ten years ago, which is an eternity in interwebs time, and a fair amount of time in realspace. All things change; nothing is immutable. But I also spent part of this weekend starting a new account over at MeWe, which is largely antithetical to the conclusion I came to today.

I think I'm done with social media.

Crazy cat lady
Posing outside my office at NJCU with fellow adjunct activist Bri Bolin's signifying gifts.

For two reasons: one is that it is a huge, exhausting time suck of the "somebody is wrong on the internet!" type, and two is that I can't be part of the (sociopolitical) problem any more. I was initially pretty skeptical of Facebook when it arrived and killed my first account after a few weeks. I didn't like that it lived on, zombie-like, for weeks afterward, either. I was a lot more fanatical about my privacy back then. I've now reached the conclusion that it's impossible to have any privacy in an internet world without living totally off the grid like the Unibomber, so what the hell. It's not like my life is so utterly fascinating or that my secret thoughts are so dangerous that I'd be injured by them getting out. Embarrassed, probably, but not actually, you know, ruined in that Victorian sense of reputation. As I get older, I give fewer and fewer fucks about that. I'll never see any of you people again anyway. (Ah, the lessons New York has taught me!) I mean, I've already had this picture (above) circulated on the web back when it actually could hurt me, so what's the difference now? (In case you're wondering, the hat and mug are an in-joke with a somewhat vicious history. My fellow adjunct activists and I were embracing what was supposed to be a slur. I love that mug, and that hat is warm.)

I don't remember how I got sucked back in to Facebook again, but I dove in head-first with gusto the second time around, the way I tend to do with new things. It's a bit like infatuation with me; I can't get enough of it at first and then the fire dies down, eventually. Except it didn't with FB. I love the fiddling with settings and getting things to look just right (which is why I end up working in production so often). I also like to meet new people and make new friends. And before I knew it, Facebook was my principle "place" of social interaction, which is not a good thing, at least for me. I know chat rooms, BBSs, Tumblr and FB have been lifelines for folks with social anxiety or who live in the boondocks and can't find anyone like them to socialize with. And I think that's the beauty of the Internet: the opportunity to meet other people like you (and not like you). I rolled around quite a lot in Fandom-space through the Internet, and met some wonderful people I still think of as friends, though I'm not very involved in that subculture anymore. I've met some very cool friends of friends on FB, too, folks I would love to meet in "meat space" someday. Some of them, like some of my activist friends, I've actually been lucky enough to hug in real life. And for activism, social media is a godsend. It's not the be-all and end-all, by any means. Nothing beats face-to-face live action. But it's a great way to plan and connect and get the word out (c.f. the Hong Kong protests, most recently), although it can be a two-edged sword, when the government gets hold of it.

Somehow, in my embrace of all things social media, I wound up running not just my own but my union adjunct caucus's page, and New Faculty Majority's social media: blog, Twitter, FB. And after the election, the League of Nasty Women FB group. I went from adjunct activism to political activism. And I have spent hours a day on FB, shitposting and information and news posting for, literally, years. 

Years. Egads.

As I mentioned in the previous post, it was its own kind of lifesaver for me at the time, for at least five years. But I find instead of expanding my world, it's narrowed it to the issues of the day. Especially since the 2016 election of the Not So Great Pumpkin (apologies to Linus), I've been utterly absorbed in working to counteract the horrible crap he and his bigoted, greedy minions are foisting on us. It's felt like both a cause and a mission, in a way none of the obligatory proselytizing I did when I was younger ever did. But I have what I call a vacuum cleaner mind: if it's in the way, I suck it up, and the steady diet of politics and injustice I've been living on is beginning to take its toll. Quite a while ago, I decided I can no longer do nothing but wait for god to clean up our messes, as my former religion dictated. But I know also this is not something I can do alone, and it's not something I have any control over. I can speak out, be a good ally, vote, but I can't reach people who won't listen, and the ones who do listen don't need much talking to. As for that "someone is wrong on the internet" factor, I'm learning to let that go too, which is a good thing. I don't have to win every argument or even join in. Let the antivaxxers Darwin-Award themselves out of existence. A sign, maybe, that I'm finally maturing and don't always have to have the last word. Just sometimes.

I realize now that I miss literature. I miss poetry. I miss browsing through the internet for interesting articles not on politics or social justice. I miss following a couple of webcomics I was following before. I've been confined to the links in my bookmarks bar, which consist largely of newspapers and social media and work tools, and that's just crazy. The interwebs are vast and wonderful. There are still books being written, new poets to discover and read, things not directly related to politics and social justice to write about. I'm not sure whether what I've been doing is an addiction, an obsession, or—at least for the last few years—a form of self-care, but I'm ready to move on now. Even as I was doing this, I knew it couldn't last, but what I hadn't counted on was quite how much it would wear me out.

One of the other things I did when I was sprucing up the blog was have a re-read of my raison d'être for it ("Dowsing for What?" in the sidebar). I started this about 10 years ago, after my folks died,and I finally made the move to stop calling myself a Jehovah's Witness. I was much more concerned with spirituality and religion then; the tag line for this blog was then "Finding a new way to believe." I've changed that now to just "Finding my way." I haven't become an atheist in the meanwhile and I doubt I will, but I haven't become a Buddhist either, which seemed likely at the time. I wouldn't even call myself a monotheist, because the whole notion of god seems fairly limiting somehow. I'm trying to avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect. The universe that we know is just too vast and unknowable for what passes for religion to be a viable option. I keep coming back to Arthur C. Clarke's assertion that any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic; the corollary being that any sufficiently different and/or advanced life form seems like a god. If energy is conserved, as it seems to be, we do have a kind of immortality. And if the Many Worlds hypothesis is true, "I" may exist everywhere, which I find both kind of hilarious and negating of my uniqueness in a very Buddhist way.

Galadriel dark queen
Don't draft me to run for office.

When I was a JW, one of my frustrations with it was the neutrality in politics they practice. Unlike the Mormons, with whom they're often compared, they don't vote, they don't lobby, they don't run for office, they rarely go to court, unless it's to fight for a civil right that sustains their public preaching and right to bang on  your door on a Saturday morning. I grew up during the Vietnam war, and even though I was in a military town, there was enough dissent about how right the war was to make me sympathize with the anti-war protesters. Like most young people, I was full of zeal for right and wrong, and my religion prohibited my participation in such "worldly" things, or I'd have been a hell-raiser a lot sooner than I finally came to it, in my late fifties. Who knows where that would have led? Jail, probably, like Jane Fonda, bless her. Sadly, she's got a lot more energy than I do right now. and I find, after immersing myself in activism and politics for the last five years, that I am not just tired, but less passionate than I was. The infatuation has worn off. I would never run for office because people like me should never have power (c.f. Galadriel; Dunning-Kruger; and Good Intentions, Road to Hell Paved With). Also, that window is closed now. It's time for people younger than me to step up, and time for the Old Farts™ to give it a damn rest. You had your chance and blew it. Lead, follow, or get the hell outta the way.

This doesn't mean I'm abandoning the field entirely, or that my own personal code of ethics and morals does not continue to be offended by the Fuckhead in Chief and his Dark Minions. Or by his enablers. I'm looking at you, Mark Zuckerberg. The last straw for me, with you, sir, was your approval of Brietbart as a "legitimate news source." But before that, I watched with disgust and dismay as the algorithms your company developed silenced anti-racist, anti-bigotry, anti-fascist, anti-rape culture, feminist, and other progressive activists while leaving the hate-mongers to spew their shit simply because they were white men. Any platform on which women cannot say "men are trash" without being censored and thrown in your stupid FB jail, while men can threaten women with rape and violence with impunity is a misogynistic hot mess. If calling out racism gets you censored, but being racist doesn't, that's a hot mess. Fuck that shit, Mark. You are part of the problem, and you're responsible for skewing our election by taking money from Russian trolls without compunction and refusing to do your duty as a private citizen to stifle hate speech in your business. Your cool little creation that aimed to connect people all over the world is turning into 4chan, and you're letting it. Not to mention that you expect people to sift through the sickness and violence posted to your platform without providing them with mental health benefits. I cannot be party to that anymore. Hence the MeWe account.

 

20181130_215419-ANIMATION
Jillybean has a bath.

I'm not sure how that'll work out. I'll probably maintain my FB account for a good while, and I've promised to stick around at the League of Nasty Women until the 2020 election, but I'm weaning myself off it. I abandoned Twitter quite some time ago because it really is a sewer and I'm too long-winded for that kind of character count. I ditched Flickr because I think I'd like to do something professional with some of my photographs, but I'll keep my Instagram account at least for sharing pictures of the Jillybean Calico. (Here's another.) And Pinterest has been really useful for a lot of art projects and world building; also, the infatuation has worn off there, too. It's just occasional fun now. I never did much with my Tumblr account and the platform has turned into a puritanical rule-bound shit show now (in a way that has nothing to do with curbing misogyny, bigotry, or white supremacy), so that's just as well. I've got 616 "friends" over at FB. There are people not following me over to MeWe that I haven't yet formed meat space social bonds with that I will miss, and it means I'll have to try harder to stay in touch if I want to keep them. But so will they. It's our own special kind of bubble, and I'd like to get out of it, at least until the bigots and fascists get chased back under their rocks again. 

And as Auntie Maxine said, I'm reclaiming my time. I've got other things I want to say, and I'll be saying them here. Follow along if you like, and feel free to argue with me here.


Failure of Leadership: Money, Power, Privilege

RadicalMoiI'm generally a big picture kind of person, though my own focus for activism right now is pretty narrow. In case you haven't been watching my every move, I've been spending the last couple of years concentrating on education labor activism but my personal impulse is to be outraged by every sort of injustice: racism, sexism, homophobia, economic inequality, war, greed, you name it, I'm pissed about it. I've always believed that everyone should have equal opportunity, a fair and level playing field, and the right to be treated in every way with dignity as fellow human beings.

I have to give my parents credit for that. In many ways, they were a lot like Alice Dreger's Polish emigre parents. My dad was a working class, old school FDR/JFK Liberal and my mother was a deeply religious woman constantly outraged by injustice. Dad's belief in civil rights and free speech were unshakable and he had a real soft spot for underdogs, even if it did take him a while to come around to feminism. Mom was more the avenging angel type and would have gladly carried one of those Biblical flaming swords, had they been issued to mere mortals. So I grew up in a kind of Truth, Justice and the American Way household, without the jingoistic patriotism. In my house, everybody deserved respect and a fair break. Is that so hard?

It sure seems to be. And I've been thinking a lot about why, lately, as I get ready to teach my research course that focuses on economic inequality this summer. Human failing is the obvious "Duh!" reason for injustice, or what we more frequently call human nature. We have it in us to be absolutely selfish, vile shits, but we also have it in us to be amazingly altruistic. The sheer number of beautiful, generous, uplifting things we do for each other is one of the best parts of the internet, along with cat videos. We make cheap artificial limbs for kids and dogs. As individuals, we collect massive amounts of money for the victims of natural disasters. We turn our ingenuity to making the lives of refugees and the poor easier. We get out in the street and protest injustice even when popular opinion is against us, changing those opinions in the process.

OutofbalanceAnd still, what we see in the news, and in our lives, is a grossly unequal and unjust world where far too few people hold not just most of the money, but all the cards. Two immediate examples, one petty, one part of an ongoing battle: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's administration spawned, among other scandals, something called Bridgegate, in which Christie's cronies "conspir[ed] with Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly to close the lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 to 'punish' the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie in his re-election bid." This doesn't sound like much; traffic sucks in New York and New Jersey most of the time anyway. But this was an intentional obstruction that created a public safety hazard and held up EMS vehicles, resulting in at least one death. Christie and his cronies grossly inconvenienced and endangered thousands of drivers and helped cause the death of a 91-year old woman because somebody didn't play pattycake with them.

I'll just let that sink in for a moment.

The second example, much more immediate and appalling is the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department. Charges have just come down today against six police officers who not only illegally arrested Gray, but then proceeded to beat the crap out of him somehow in the back of the van he was being transported in. It's too early to say exactly what happened, but it seems clear that neither Mr. Gray's safety nor dignity were paramount in the minds of the cops who picked him up. His pleas for help were ignored and he was not secured safely in the back of the van. Somehow, he acquired a spinal injury that killed him between the time he was cuffed and when he arrived at the station. The New York Times has highlighted a practice called the "rough ride" or the "nickle ride" used all over the country to rough up suspects without having to physically touch them, a form of torture not quite as egregious as that practiced by the Chicago Police Department but nonetheless abhorrent.

A third example, larger and even more systemic than the deaths of black people at the hands of police, is the denial of living wages to workers all over the world, and the sequestration of the majority of wealth in the hands of a few, and the way that gets talked about by others with relative privilege. Far too often, as in the case of this white, male, privileged tenure track asshat, it leads to a rhetoric of blaming the victim for the very injustices under which they are suffering. Likewise this equally phantasmagoric piece by David Brooks, in which he asserts that poverty is not really about lack of money but social psychology. The poor are poor because they want to be, because they're lazy, because they're incapable of taking "advantage" of a broken public school system handed over to shysters, an overpriced higher education system that leaves them tens of thousands of dollars in debt, or of non-existent living wage jobs. Meanwhile, living in poverty has a whole host of deleterious physical, psychological, educational and social effects. So, we fuck children up by not helping to provide secure, healthy living conditions and then blame them for failing. It's a brilliant strategy with all kinds of denial of responsibility built in.

This is where we come to the title of this post. All of these examples illustrate a failure of leadership—or the success of a certain kind of leadership inimical to the welfare of the people these leaders are supposed to be serving. If we posit the idea that political life in a democracy (hell, any political life), especially leadership, should be grounded in morality, compassion, and justice, then the leaders have, in these cases, failed spectacularly. Or succeeded in upholding a morally bankrupt, bigoted, unjust social order. Take your pick.

Humans are herd animals, by and large. We like to be together, we like to be led, we like to follow for the most part (see also: crowd theory). Even so, we are rightly suspicious of the motives of leaders who emerge from the crowd. Lord Acton famously said "Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." What seems to actually be true is that the exercise of power heightens already existing personality traits. If we are compassionate, moral people when we're given power or find ourselves in power, we tend to exercise it with those qualities in mind to the best of our abilities. Nobody's perfect, but we've had some truly compassionate presidents in my lifetime, and before (FDR, JFK and Jimmy Carter all come to mind, despite their human failings). We've had plenty of the other kind too: the sorts who are more interested in power and personal advantage than they are in service to their countrymen or anyone else. I don't think you need examples of those. *Cough*Bush-Cheney*Cough*

Money, however, seems to have a more universally deleterious effect on people. Money creates a buffer between us and the rest of the world. When we have enough of it to live comfortably, it reduces stress and makes our lives easier and healthier (see above). It also allows and encourages us to be generous. Poor and middle class people give larger percentages of their income to charity than the wealthy and uber-wealthy do. Anything in excess of a comfortable income seems to turn us into greedy asshats for whom there is never enough money. We think, hey, I've made it; I don't care about the rest of you. This kind of contempt is the polar opposite of what we should want from our leaders, whether they are political, financial, or intellectual leaders. Sadly, that's mostly what we've got now: police departments that see a large proportion of the people they serve as insurgents; educational leaders who see children as nascent criminals and sources of income; political leaders who see citizens as potential terrorists and their own nation as a battleground; business leaders who see natural resources as exploitable commodities.

Leaders like Chris Christie and the chiefs of particularly abusive police departments foster an atmosphere of contempt in which abuse, selfishness and cruelty thrive. Christie is known for being a particularly petty jerk who verbally abuses constituents who challenge his god-like self image. It's not surprising that his administration should cook up a juvenile scheme like Bridgegate. That's the kind of tone that Christie sets; he has all the diplomacy and maturity of a 12-year-old schoolyard bully. Likewise, the kinds of police chiefs who look the other way when their officers brutalize or racially profile the public they're supposed to "serve and protect" foster contempt for their own communities. Broken Windows policing sounds good in theory, but without including respect for the people in those communities, it fosters the idea that everyone who lives there is currently a thug, practicing to be a thug, or used to be a thug and might be again at any moment. We then stray far from the principle of innocent until proven guilty and common sense, not to mention the spirit of the law. And if our elected leaders allow the (often useful) paranoia of intelligence agencies to be the pervading attitude toward our nation's citizens, that fosters distrust, hatred, and disrespect of everyone who does not look like "us." Who that "us" might be in a nation of immigrants from all over the world eludes me, but there are plenty of "others" to go around in the minds of the frightened. Right now, it's Muslims who are the potential terrorists of choice, even though lone wolf homegrown white supremacists like Timothy McVeigh are far more dangerous.

What concerns me most in all of these examples is the almost complete lack of compassion for our fellow citizens. More and more we as both nation and individuals are exhibiting not just a lack of compassion but an outright contempt for others who have less power, less money, less luck, less stuff, less education, less privilege than we do, whoever we are. We are "punching down" more instead of lifting up. In the courses I teach, we talk about inequality and social violence of many kinds. Most of my students are first generation college students (like me); many are first generation Americans (like my dad). Most of them buy into the "work hard, get ahead" American dream and are shocked to discover it is out of reach for most of us. But when they read about the fraying safety net we have, they immediately bring up welfare queens and foodstamp fraud, even though many of them have used those services themselves. The rhetoric of our privileged leaders is teaching these kids not to work hard but to hate themselves and their families for failing when they can't realize the return on their own investments. It's hiding from them who the true culprits of their oppression are and turning them against each other. It's an excellent tactic for social control and our leaders are making very good use of it.

But this doesn't let the rest of us off the hook. We're currently living in a society that lionizes socio- and psychopathic personalities. If you think I'm exaggerating, think about who we admire most: hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, bankers—none of whom actually produce anything—the Forbes 400, most of whom (with some notable exceptions) are vile, exploitative creeps. Example: The Koch brothers (numbers 3 & 4), the Walton family (numbers 6, 7, 9 and 10). Even when they mean well, as I suspect Bill Gates (#1 with $81B) does, money seems to give them an excess of paternalism that is completely misplaced, as though knowing how to make a fortune means you have the intelligence to solve all the world's problems, or even know when there is a problem. Gates's meddling in education is a prime example. According to Bill, our public education system is failing and needs the expertise of Microsoft's genius to fix it. Instead of listening to actual experts in the field—you know, people who've been educators their whole lives, who have degrees in it, and years of study and experience—we should let Bill tell us what's wrong and how to fix it. And now we are eviscerating public education, and firing our best teachers on the basis of an untried testing regime that makes kids hate learning. But that's another post.

Worse than the moneymakers are the politicians, like Christie, that they buy with those billions: ultra conservatives like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Michele Bachmann, Bobby Jindal, the Bush boys who apparently really hate poor people, women, minorities, immigrants, or anyone who can't give them money for reelection. Why do we elect these people? Evil must have better PR. We're not just voting for them though. We're validating their frightened, narrow, cruel worldview and often parroting it. We're encouraging their failed leadership and becoming part of the problem.

Stop voting for petty, mean, selfish assholes, people, lest you become their victims. Better yet, maybe it's about time the compassionate, honest people who care about justice showed the leaders we've got now how it's done.


New Year, New Focus

NYCMoiIt's been almost a year since I blogged here and I admit I've kinda missed it. I like writing, and I've been doing a fair amount of it (novel, poems, diatribes, conference papers), an awful lot of it on Facebook. In case you haven't been keeping up there, I've gotten myself neck deep in activism of various kinds, mostly the petition signing kind for human rights, environmentalism, social justice of various sorts. But I invested in a pretty big way in the labor movement too, especially educational labor.

For instance, over the summer, I went to the UALE/Cornell Summer School for Union Women, which was a fantastic experience, and at which I made some great friends/contacts. My local, (or one of my locals) AFT 1839 at New Jersey City University, where I'm part of the executive committee, footed the bill, for which I'm extremely grateful, as I couldn't have done so myself. I was on employment for the first time since 1992 because even freelance work is thin on the ground right now. While I was up at Cornell, I met women from all kinds of unions and labor organizations, from all over the world: retail workers from NYC, telephone workers from Africa, forensic lab techs from Puerto Rico, make-up artists, auto workers, housekeepers, cafeteria staff, and a number of faculty members, many of them from CUNY's Professional Staff Congress (PSC) and from SUNY's UUP, both unions I also belong to. I quickly became known as the three-union woman, because I was the only contingent faculty member there (I think). It was a warm, fierce group, and I thank Marcia Newfield of CUNY's PSC for suggesting I go there.

Also on Facebook, I've been doing a lot of national organizing and this last summer, nearly became an oAdjunct working conditions postern-the-ground organizer for SEIU upstate, at the urgings of my new best friend, Teresa Mack-Piccone, Texan English Ph.D. extraordinaire, who's organizing for them out of Albany. I think 25 years ago I would have been all over that job like white on rice, but I'm pretty sure I don't have the energy for it now. So my organizing has been quieter and a little more subversive. For Campus Equity Week, I plastered my New Jersey campus with signs that said A is for Adjuncts: Our working conditions are Student Learning Conditions, and encouraged folks to post how many adjuncts shared their office or where in their department in very public places. I'd like to follow that up this semester with some agit prop theater in the commons, but I'm not teaching there this time around, so we'll see how that goes.

In the spring. Teresa invited me to give a conference paper with her at the Washington DC SEIU HQ, where I got to meet Joe Berry of COCAL, Maria Maisto of New Faculty Majority, and reconnect with the inimitable Anne Weidner of UUP. We dragged along one of the few vocal tenured allies I've met, Seth Kahn of West Chester U, someone else I met through Facebook, and again met some amazing people fighting to get decent working conditions for adjuncts across the country. I really have to give kudos to SEIU, which is one of the few labor unions in country that's actively organizing adjuncts. The Steelworkers in Pittsburgh were chosen by the adjuncts to represent them, and the same with the UAW in Michigan, but SEIU has gone into DC, Boston, LA and now into New York and actively organized adjucts in a campaign that has been met with as much hostility as any mineowner's, including the hiring of union busting law firms. There's a good use of tuition and endowment money.

And the conditions, make no mistake, are killing us. In September, what I still think of as my semi-hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, ran a story called "Death of an Adjunct," detailing the miserable conditions 25-year veteran French adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko died in after not being rehired. I don't know an adjunct who isn't terrified that this might be us. More than a few of us are graying (remember, academic careers often don't even start until you're in your 30s or 40s), many of us have chronic conditions, children with chronic conditions, or have been struck down by cancer or other illnesses without any health insurance. Thanks to ACA, that might change, but that doesn't absolve the institutions we work for from treating us with the dignity we deserve. If you can pay for administrators, who add very little to the intellectual reputation of the university, you can damn well pay for the people who make or break your reputation as an institution of learning. More on that in later posts.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say here is that somehow I'm becoming the activist I always wanted to be. I have a cause (several, in fact) and have found my voice, and don't have any fear about using it out loud anymore. I don't have to hide my outrage, and I can use my writing as a way to accomplish something good in the world. This doesn't mean I've given up the creative part; far from in it. In fact, I stumbled into a great writing group and have managed a rewrite of the novel I've been working on forever, and I've been writing a lot of poetry. So this change I've been undergoing, from silent, not very good Christian person, to vocal, skeptical Buddhist fellow-traveller proceeds apace. I like where it's going.

Stay tuned for more about education and activism and education activism.

 


Unsung

9-11Moi

The City rebuilds itself on its own ashes,
like Troy on sixteen other Troys—
this burned out hulk where cop and fireman died
herding the innocents in downward flight
no different from the scorched ruins
left beneath centuries
of building and rebuilding in Anatolia.
Except
with no Homer to name their names,
assign their metaphorical attributes,
and send them in perpetuity
with their doomed engines of salvation
to the high smoking towers,
who will know them fifty, a hundred,
two thousand years hence?
Already we forget the names—if we ever knew them—
of the soldiers new fallen in Assyria’s sands
by the waters of Babylon,
the half million citizens
dead of our retribution
against a city that stole nothing
from us.

No bells toll
so read the names,
but intone them all, linking dead with dead:
Agamemnon, Father Mike, Hector;
the Myrmidons, Spartans, Amazons,
Luis Moreno, Allen Greka, Linda Jimenez (the new dead of Akkadia);
the cops, the firemen, the EMTs,
Uhuru Houston, two Angelini, Yamel Merino;
the lawyers, brokers, office workers
of Cantor Fitzgerald, a whole company erased;
Helen and Cassandra, Hecuba,
mothers, wives, and sisters
of busboys,  janitors, CEOs, salesmen; and after,
the searchers, sifters, dismantlers
still choking on the dust and ash.
Even the rescue dogs, exhausted, sad, and footsore,
finding no one alive.

All that’s missing is the gods.

9/11/12


Day of Activism against NDAA

RadicalMoiThought you were safe from indefinite incarceration because of the Constitution?

Thought it was illegal to call in the army for domestic action?

Thought your goods and services were safe from seizure by the government if you were a law-abiding citizen?

Not anymore.

These are powers now vested in the president's office, not just in Obama's hands. Imagine someone like Dick Cheney with these powers. Think Fascism can't happen here? It already has.

Learn about it and and speak out. Before they use it to take your voice away.

;


Occupy Wall Street I—A Personal Story

Protestor I've been trying to get to these rallies for the last two weeks and can't seem to shake the cold I've gotten from getting up at 5:30 and getting home at 10:30 twice a week to work two jobs. So I thought I'd use my powers for good, and at least write about why I support them. Unlike a lot of people, I'm not really hurting, or don't consider myself one of the hurting, anyway, in part because I've made certain choices about my life that helped put me where I am. Unlike the so-called 53 Percenters, I realize that no matter how lucky or content I consider myself, this is not what the American Dream is supposed to be.

Despite this cold, I realize I don't have it that bad, so I'm not complaining. I could be doing this five days a week, or seven, like the English department secretary at NJCU, who works at Home Despot or some other big chain store on the weekends. I also don't have a lot of debt, and what I do have is less than five figures—less than most people pay for a car. My student loans were small and are paid off, despite the fact that I went to an expensive private school for my undergrad degree, where I accrued those debts. I had a teaching fellowship at the state school I went to, and I paid tuition there too (which seems unfair when I was also working for the university), but it was in-state tuition and I had no loans. I feel like I live pretty comfortably, but my standard of living is well below what my parents enjoyed, even though neither of them went to college and my dad was a blue-collar worker. I don't own a house or a car, don't even own my apartment. I've got next to nothing in the bank, and a very small retirement fund. Even so, I'm better off than many, and have a lot of freedom and time to myself.

So why am I supporting the protesters at Occupy Wall Street? Because I'm both taking responsibility for my choices and acknowledging that lots of other people don't have that luxury, and/or didn't even make the choices I did and yet find themselves in much worse shape.

As I said on a sign I made for the rallies, I'm a 51-year-old single woman with no dependents (other than my nagging cat, whom I will not have to send to college) and a Master's Degree. I haven't had health insurance since I left school for more than a a few years at a time. I worked full time for a while out of grad school, and a couple of places where, despite my education, I was treated like both an idiot and a flunky, for barely a living wage. Every year, I used up all ten of my sick days in one shot with bronchitis, and spent my two weeks of vacation with my parents. I'd come out here to go to grad school at NYU, where I had no scholarship, so I had to pay for my exorbitant tuition by working full time. About halfway through the second master's degree I was working on in a new field, I realized that several things were going to happen: I would probably have to take out loans to get through the Ph.D., because I was having enough trouble doing the kind of work I knew I was capable of while working full time. The doctorate was going to cost me a fortune and there were no guarantees of a job when I was done. If I did get a job, it was likely to be in the middle of freakin' nowhere, and certainly not in New York City. I wanted to stay here more than I wanted to get a Ph.D., and I wanted to write more than I wanted to be an academic. I hadn't written anything but graduate school papers while I was working full time, and it was killing me. So I totally rethought and refashioned my whole life.

Annoy a ConservativeI left school, I quit my full time job, and I started temping and freelancing and working part time. In a lot of ways, my life improved drastically. I was happier, I didn't get sick, I did a lot of writing and started to get published. I had the luxury of taking poorly paid teaching jobs because I was doing other things too, and met some great people along the way, some of whom became life-long friends. In other ways, it was not so good. It was a good thing I didn't get sick or hurt, because health insurance eventually doubled from an affordable $245/month to something astronomically out of reach. Money was very tight, even though my folks helped out, and I learned to live pretty frugally. Even so, there were three years where I couldn't afford to pay the taxes I owed, and didn't file. I also got into some serious credit card debt. The low point was the infamous neck bone stew I made when I was down to my last couple of dollars and waiting for a client to pay me.

To make matters worse, at the time, even when I did get a paycheck, it took days to clear, and often I didn't actually know how much money I had in my account. In nine years of undergrad and graduate school, I'd never bounced a check. Now I did it with alarming frequency because my tally never matched the bank's: not Citibank's, Chase's, or Chemical's. That was because of banking regulations that allowed them to hold even local checks drawn on their own banks, for three days before releasing the funds, instead of making them available right away. Thankfully, that finally changed, but before that, I found a bank, HSBC, that didn't try to screw me with overdraft fees by playing with my balance. I've bounced only one check in the 12 years I've been with them.

I also finally found a great part-time job that I stayed at for just a little more than ten years before there was a mutual parting of the ways. I still had no health insurance, but my bosses treated me with respect and it gave me a lot of freedom and a little 401(k) that I put into a high risk fund to earn some quick dough while my very safe TIAA-CREF fund slowly built up through ultra safe investments. That 401(k) disappeared when the housing bubble burst and the stock market crashed. I cashed in what was left—less than $2,000—because I needed it for living expenses. Since then, I've been freelancing and teaching again, which I love. But I discovered that in the ten years I'd been working part time and only occasionally freelancing, rates for editing and writing have not risen at all. Not even to reflect the cost of living or inflation. In fact, if you consider those two factors, they've actually decreased. There's a lot of work out there for freelance editors, but you should see the griping on the discussion board of the Editorial Freelancers Association.  It's not that we're unhappy about the amount of work, but we're really unhappy about what people want to pay us for our skills and years of experience, and the fact that so many of our clients, even big publishing companies, make us wait 30 to 90 days after submitting an invoice for a paycheck. Until recently, freelancers have had no union or organization to protect them, and why should we need one? Because too many employers want something for nothing.

That's not even my main source of income now, nor the one that concerns me most. My real complaint is the structure and disparity of pay in the post-secondary educational system. This is just one of many places where the capitalistic model has run amok. When I was in grad school in the early 80s, very little teaching was done by adjuncts. Community colleges were populated by teachers with master's degrees, and the PhDs taught at 4-year and graduate institutions. Now, there is such a glut of doctorates (thanks in part to the misleading advising of professors, who seem not to realize that the market isn't infinite), that community colleges regularly require a doctorate for new hires. Worse, as much as 60% of any department's classes are taught by adjuncts now, people with advanced degrees who are limited by policy from most of the rights and privileges of being an academic: no tenure, no job security, no opportunities for research support, and most importantly, no employment benefits. Oh, and did I mention the the wretched pay scale?

When I worAdjunctsked in industry, my skills as an editor and layout designer were billed out at between $60 and $90/hour. Obviously, I didn't make that much myself, but that's what I was worth. Most editorial work goes for about $35/hour, unless it's highly technical or science editing which is far better paid. When I first started teaching as an adjunct at a community college in New Jersey in the 90s, I was paid $1200 for a three-credit class running four months and meeting for 180 minutes a week, and that's not unusual. At one school I recently taught at, I was paid about $1800 for a four credit course that met for about the same number of minutes each week. That's just the gross pay, not the net. and that amounts to about $30/contact hour, the hours I'm actually in class—far less if you include the hours I work outside of class. Neither of those jobs provided me with an office where I could meet students or keep my books or even required me to keep office hours, much less paid me for them. But good teachers always have office hours, always make time to see their students. I can't tell you how much totally unpaid tutoring I've done.

At universities with unions, the pay is much better ($1200 a credit, rather than a class), and so are the working conditions. But I still have no access to affordable health insurance, no job security of any kind (imagine not knowing if your job was going to disappear every four months), and often, my schedule is so crazy that I spend four to six hours on the road just getting to the various places I teach. Needless to say, this makes going to faculty meetings or seminars or anything that might make me better teacher nearly impossible. Not to mention how it isolates you from the rest of the faculty. Just as an example, a couple of years ago I was teaching in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, not all on the same day, but the Staten Island and Bronx jobs were. That meant I left the Bronx in the morning, took a train and an express bus to Staten Island, where I also took a campus bus to my class, taught a three-hour class, had office hours, and took the bus, a ferry, and another train to the Bronx, taught another three-hour class, and took a bus home. If I didn't catch the right ferry, I was late for the Bronx class, so it was always stressful. And the commute was never less than two hours. Now, I have an hour and a half commute to New Jersey for a job that pays well, but not well enough for me not to have to teach somewhere else too, because I'm restricted to 6 credits or two classes. With three, I could actually make a good living.

The adjunct system is good for university endowments, and bad for its students and faculty. The constant searching for, hiring, and class observations of adjuncts, most of whom are transient doctoral students, takes time that department heads and committees could better spend on department administration. Adjuncts are less available to their students, and have less time to spend developing their courses or teaching methods. Many of them are untried as teachers, and don't have much supervision the way we did as teaching assistants at Michigan State. But by god we're cheap, and the administration likes that. In many places, we're as faceless and interchangeable as factory labor, without unions to protect us from lousy pay and long working hours.

Replacing regular tenured faculty with the cheap labor of adjuncts is the equivalent of outsourcing jobs overseas, or hiring illegals to pick your produce. But we're not talking about consumer products here. Education is not a consumer business, though we've led students to believe it is. "I pay this much tuition, I damn well better get good grades," many of them seem to think. They've been led to believe that the value in what they're getting is in their GPA, not in gaining skills or knowledge or learning how to think for themselves. In part, that's another issue, but it's one that has sprung out of the idea that the education is a business, not an art or a service. The product model of education is bankrupt and is bankrupting our future by making students believe that we can just "give" them an education, that they can just "buy" it, not that they have to work for it. Using adjuncts to replace tenured faculty exacerbates this attitude by offering them sometimes-shoddy teaching, and removing the opportunity for them to develop any kind of mentoring relationship with someone they may really feel they learn from. Many of the students I taught in the Bronx were deeply disappointed that I wasn't going to be there this semester to teach a required class I usually teach. One of them begged me to let her email me her paper for some help. How could I say no? I love working at that school because of them, but I can't afford to work there because, even with the maximum number of classes, I can't pay my bills each month.

Let me repeat that, because it's what's fundamentally wrong here: Even if I teach the maximum number of classes (3) I'm allowed, even with with a special dispensation for an extra class, and a class or two at another institution, I cannot pay my very modest bills, let alone save anything, or afford health insurance. Four to five classes are considered a full-time load. Even with that, I am barely getting by.

This is what the 99% are pissed about.

The social contract used to be that if you worked hard, got an education, and found a job, you could make a decent living. That is no longer true. You can work hard, get an education, find not one job, but two or three, and still live at the poverty level with no sense of security. Now, my choices to work part time instead of full time earlier in my life have given me less security for the future than most people, and that was my choice. I'm not complaining about that; I knew what I was doing when I did it. What is deeply wrong, however, is that so many of us must work extravagant hours well beyond the 40 hour work week to even keep your head above water. There is no getting ahead anymore, except for a very few. Costs have risen, wages have fallen, and the middle class seems to be paying for almost everything.

Taxes that should go to infrastructure go instead to the military industrial complex for unnecessary wars. And the people who use that infrastructure the most don't help pay for its upkeep. Sure, we all use in the infrastructure: roads, dams, railroads, telecom, electricity. But without that infrastructure, no business would even get off the ground, let alone grow to become a multimillion or -billion dollar enterprise. As I said in a conversation on Facebook, shipping companies, not cars, beat the roads and bridges to pieces . Bandwidth is eaten up by corporations, not private users (it's why they're trying to suppress streaming video--because it cuts into their usage). Corporations are the largest consumers of electricity (who leaves all those lights on in the skyscrapers?). Passenger trains make way for freight, which is what the majority of rail traffic is. Harbor facilities are almost exclusively for shipping and freight now, with a little bit of passenger traffic. Even airlines make more money from cargo than passengers. And who craps up the water? I'm not dumping any chemicals down my toilet, are you? The heaviest users need to pay the heaviest "fee," in taxes, for that usage. It makes their wealth possible.

Balance-the-budgetNot to mention that we, the workers—the teachers who educate them; the technicians who keep the equipment running; the people at the CAD station doing the specs and on the production line following them; the salespeople on the road; the marketers and graphic artists who provide the sales materials; the packagers, truck drivers, train engineers, and other shippers and delivery people; the HR people who keep employees happy and bargain for the best benefits; and the people who manage these people, are all doing the actual work. Without them, commerce grinds to a halt. We're not asking for anything more than our fair share of your success, 1%. We all helped make you what you are. This goes for the Masters of the Universe who do nothing more than move that capital around. Why do they earn so much for producing nothing tangible, especially when they have the power to wreck entire nations, and aren't afraid to do it? Capitalism is as much a group effort as Socialism; Socialism just distributes the rewards more equitably. What we have now looks more and more like feudalism.

And this isn't even touching on the corruption of our representatives by PAC money, or the safety net we all, as moral human beings, owe the weakest members of our society. Without a sense of obligation to one another, we are worse than animals. This is what bothers me about the so-called 53%, many of whom have the attitude that "I work hard and get by. The rest of you are just whiners." There is a shocking lack of empathy or foresight in that attitude. How stupid do you have to be to realize that if you're hit by a truck tomorrow and paralyzed from the waist down, your working days at your three jobs are over? Do you really want your alternatives to be begging in the street or a private charity poor house? None of us are immune to disaster or misfortune. Some of us, in fact, are born into it and have no power to change it for the first 18 years of our lives. The cold-hearted selfishness of this "I've got mine, screw the rest of you" attitude sickens me, and millions of others.

I've made choices in my life that leave me more vulnerable financially than many, and I'm willing to shoulder that responsibility. All I want is the opportunity to make a decent living at something I'm very good at doing. I don't want a handout, or even a hand up. All I want, all most of us want, is a fair shake for our own efforts.


Grade This, Motherf%#@&*!

TeacherMoiI went off on my College Prep students last night. They've been a troublesome group and that's been only partially their fault. This half semester has been full of breaks and holidays and every time I'd get a momentum going, we'd have a break and lose it. Labor Day, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Columbus Day—every other week, it seemed we had a holiday. It's also been troublesome because I'm not teaching all of the class. I don't mind team teaching, but I think it's a mistake to break these two components—reading and writing—apart, and treat them as though they don't influence each other. And the only reason I'm team teaching is because CUNY, like most universities, limits the number of hours adjuncts can be in the classroom, even though they've increased the instructional hours of the course itself. That's just fucked up on at least two levels: not only does it prevent adjuncts from making a decent living by teaching at a single school rather than at least two, it causes stupid bureaucratic snafus like this one, which hurt students.

But I digress.

I went off on my students last night because when I told them my recommendations about their opportunity to take the CUNY assessement test are due next week, one of them said, "well why should we bother coming back after that?" And I lost it. Sarcasm on full bore, I responded, "because you might possibly still learn something." And then I gave them my patented five-minute lecture about why college is not about grades, it's about knowledge and learning, and how little your GPA matters in the grand scheme of things, and how they're only cheating themselves if they put nothing into the effort of learning.

This fixation on grades is pretty common among high school students and undergraduates. I remember having it myself. But I also remember the moment I realized what bullshit it is. I'd completely blown the final in one of my biology classes, not because I didn't know the material, but simply because it was finals week and my brain seized up like an unoiled engine. All the information was actually in there; I just couldn't get it to come out in coherent sentences or filling in the blanks. I left most of the test blank, in fact, something I never do, because I was just blank myself. Even my prof asked me what was wrong when I handed it in. But I realized as I walked out of the test totally frustrated, that it didn't really matter, ultimately, because I knew I'd learned a lot. I could have gotten at least a B on that exam if my brain hadn't turned to a gooey frozen treat. But that didn't lessen the amount of knowledge I had in my head. And neither did the C I got in the class, though it didn't reflect what I actually knew, either.

And that's why grades as the main focus of academic learning are bullshit. With the crazy emphasis on assessment and test scores that is prevalent in elementary and secondary ed today, it's no wonder students are all about grades. And that does them a disservice too. The best thing you can teach a kid at that age (the earlier, the better) is to love learning. To be curious, rapacious, even, for knowledge. Because the grades follow from that. Grades are just an imperfect tool for trying to see how much of what you've thrown at the wall stuck, and sometimes for how students will use those facts for good or evil.

There's no test that's ever been devised for how that knowledge will shape that student's pursuits, personality, or their actual life outside school, and that's what's really important. Did you learn to think for yourself? Did you learn how to apply reason to your questions? Did you learn something about how the world works beyond the theories? Did you learn the weaknesses of theory without practice and experience? Did you learn how to be kinder? Did you learn how to see and hear and appreciate beauty in its diversity? Did you learn how to step back and see the big picture and where the small picture fits into it? Did you learn from our past mistakes, or at least how to recognize those mistakes?

Those abstractions are the foundation of everything else. And you can't grade those. You can only mourn their lack in the world we've created without them.

 


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.

 

 


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.