Archive for the ‘The Way We Live Now’ category

April 16, 2015

 

Figure_skating_beesWhen a non-crazy parent — Alice Dreger — sits in on her son’s sex-ed class, taught by someone who thinks sex is, well…

Read it and weep.  A taste:

The lesson Jerry wanted to impart? This: “You’ll find a good girl. If you find one who says ‘no,’ that’s the one you want.”

He actually said that. If a girl says no, “that’s the one you want.”

Silly me! I have been teaching my son that if a girl says no, you exit politely and get the hell out of her space.

Oh hell, one more morsel:

Ms. Thomas’s dire warnings continued: “It takes only one sperm to fertilize an egg. It takes only one act of sex to get pregnant.”

I wanted to raise my hand and blurt out, “Not if it’s anal or oral!”

Tizian_011

You get the drift.  Dreger’s twitter feed for the last day or so is a hoot and a half too…or would be if it weren’t so damn depressing.

Dreger’s problem — or the East Lansing High School’s — is that the school has contracted at least part of its sex ed curriculum to the usual suspects:

The abstinence class is part of the district’s overall sex education unit. According to Fletcher, it is called SMART for Sexually Mature Aware Responsible Teens. It’s provided by an independent contractor working with Pregnancy Services of Greater Lansing, a group that counsels pregnant women to avoid abortion.

Lori Bolan, the administrator of SMART, said East Lansing has been using the program for 22 years to cover abstinence. She said it is fact-based using Centers for Disease Control statistics.

“We are trying to give them an option,” she said. “We’re just one portion of what the school provides.”

And yet, inevitably:

Bolan declined to provide the PowerPoint used in the class and the instructor’s name

This last report is from the local paper, which also seems to think the problem isn’t the crap material, but Dreger’s impertinence in giving it a public ridiculing, writing that her choice to live tweet was a shonde:

unfortunately for East Lansing schools, she found a spot with wifi.

In the end, this is yet anothe example of the perils of privatization.  “Independent contracting” of sex-ed to anti-sex, anti women’s autonomy pressure groups is analagous to handing a donor a badge and a gun, or turning convicted criminals into product for processing in private prisons…and so on.  Public goods — an accurately educated school population; professionally policed streets; socially agreed and imposed punishment and rehabilitation are not “luxuries” to be doled out to high bidders or motivated donors.

Or rather they are, but not in civilized societies.

Images:  Photo of bee figure skaters (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) via bugeater.

Titian, Danaë with Eros, 1544.

The War At Home

April 10, 2015

Via Vox, this information and chart on death-by-cop:

A huge majority of the more than 5,600 deaths on the map are from gunshots, which is hardly surprising given that guns are so deadly compared to other tools used by police. There are also a lot of noticeable fatalities from vehicle crashes, stun guns, and asphyxiations. In some cases, people died from stab wounds, medical emergencies, and what’s called “suicide by cop,” when someone commits suicide by baiting a police officer into using deadly force.

Massacre of the innocents

It’s important to note that thte 5,600 number is an estimate, and a lower bound at that:

D. Brian Burghart, head of Fatal Encounters, estimates that his organization’s collection of reports from the public, media, and FBI only captures about 35 percent of total police killings.

That’s a terribly…useful information gap:

This means that it’s hard to gauge, based on this incomplete data set alone, whether these types of killings are becoming more common.

How wonderfully obscure.

Still the data that do exist speak volumes.  Here’s one way to get a sense of the scale of the violence.  In the same period (actually, 2001- April, 2015) US deaths-in-action in Iraq and Afghanistan total 5374.  Saddam and his army, the Taliban, ISIL and all the rest have killed, at a minimum, ~two hundred fewer Americans than our domestic police.

Make of that what you will.

Image:  Pieter Breughel the Younger, The Massacre of the Innocents, c. 1605-1610.

Brrrraaaaaiiiiiiinnnnssss…

February 6, 2015

Or rather…

MMMMMorrrrrronnnnns:

The reanimated corpse of Dr. Jonas Salk, the medical researcher who developed the first polio vaccine, rose from the grave Friday morning on what authorities believe is a mission to hunt down idiots.

Wiertz_burial

The usual suspects beware.

Another drive-by post, but go read the whole of Andy Borowitz’s update to his eponymous report.*  It’ll help your mood.

You’re welcome.

*Yes.  I did put this post up solely for the purpose of getting to type “eponymous.” It’s the little pleasures…

Image:  Antoine Wiertz, The Premature Burial, 1854.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong

January 21, 2015

When self selected vigilantes assaulting armed strangers in public spaces?

Consider this incident:

According to the Hillsborough  Sheriff’s Office, [African-American] 62-year-old Clarence Daniels was entering Walmart with his legally concealed firearm to buy coffee creamer on Tuesday when he was spotted by 43-year-old vigilante Michael Foster.

Foster, who is white, had observed Daniels conceal the weapon under his coat before he came into the store. When Daniels crossed the threshold, Foster tackled him and placed him in a chokehold…

Florida, Jake…but at least the worst outcomes were avoided:

He’s got a gun!” Foster reportedly exclaimed.

“I have a permit!” Daniels repeatedly shouted back.

After a struggle, the men were separated. Deputies later arrived and Foster was charged with battery.

V0017125 Head of a man, composed of nude figures. Oil painting.

So:  no one died.  Good.

A couple of thoughts, though:  (a) what kind of asshole do you have to be to decide that you want to walk around looking for folks to bash based on whether they look hinky to you?  B)  if it’s really all about guns, then what’s going to keep you from going all George Zimmerman at any point in the drama?  That this ended with neither the victim nor the self-appointed asshole on a gurney is just a signal that FSM was dangling its noodly appendage down Hillsborough way that day, nothing more.

The most obvious take away is, of course, that this couldn’t possibly be about race because (nods to Charlie Pierce) it’s never about race.  Except…

Again, I see it as a near miracle that the legal gun owner who happened to be black is still alive right now.  The white vigilante is lucky too, certainly — jumping a guy with a gun is not a long-term health strategy — but we’ve seen too much lately of what even the merest hint that an African American man or kid! might be armed does to their odds.

But I want to point out the essential current here, the unifying thread that runs through all of these incidents, the tragedies and the bathetic ones alike.  That’s fear, brought on by the worship of the gun.  How on earth is vigilante-ism even a thing in 2015 America?  It’s because the toxic combination of racial and class politics and unlimited arsenals produce terror and rage in equal and toxic admixture.

Worst of all is then how normal this all seems to those in the midst of it.  Consider this advice:

“The Sheriff’s Office recommends that vigilante-inclined citizens refrain from taking matters into their own hands, especially when an incident is gun-related,” the Tampa Bay Times reported.

McKinnon said that vigilantes should “make sure there’s a good reason” before tackling gun owners.

Ya think?

In the end the fact that actual bad guys do not in fact carry neon signs to identify them  (no Poor Impulse Control tattoos yet) means that, well, it’s a target rich environment.

“Unfortunately he tackled a guy that was a law-abiding citizen,” McKinnon noted. “We understand it’s alarming for people to see other people with guns, but Florida has a large population of concealed weapons permit holders.”

In other words:  be careful out there.  Someone, soon, is going to get killed in one of these stunts.  And once again the tree of liberty will be watered with the blood of someone just going about their business, or a kid who happens to be in the next aisle when the stray shot comes home or…

Not to mention, except I will, again:  the racial element here.  White guys chasing black guys they fear is an old trope in American life.  It’s with us still.  Video at eleven.

PS:  I’m totally with Bryant Gumbel here.

Image: F. Balbi, The head of a man composed of writhing nude figuresposs. 1868.

Offense, Speech, Redress

January 7, 2015

In the thread below yesterday’s post on the shootings in Paris in its Balloon Juice version, a … lively … discussion broke out around various forms of the question of provocation.  No one, I think, suggested that the murders were anything but grotesque, an expression of evil.  But several people noted that they weren’t surprised that the atrocity occurred, given the known impact of the sort of satire in which Charlie Hebdu traded.

That evoked discussion — and sharp disagreement — about the duty of respect, especially to minority views or senses of identity.  (I’m paraphrasing and drastically shrinking the discussion here.  Feel free to correct, demur, dismiss in the comments.)

My view is pretty simple.  The price to pay for living in an open society is suffering the existence and the independence of those who drive you crazy.  Sort of like being the parent of a teenager.

But I digress.

Bluntly:  the appropriate response to speech that pisses you off is speech.  Nothing else.  I am a cultural relativist in my daily work. (What is a historian, even or especially a popular historian like myself, but someone who tries to grasp that foreign country, the past, in its own terms as well as in our own time’s?)

But that relativism has limits.  It commands empathy, sympathy, the effort to understand; it does not require, or even permit any veto on thought or behavior based on the cultural demands of one group over another.

That’s why anti-abortion groups become terrorists when they shoot clinic workers.  That’s why those who provide public accommodations — bakers, for example — no more get to choose to deny a gay couple a wedding cake than they would an African American one.  And so on.

So, no.  I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the contextualization of the murder of foul mouthed, blasphemous satirists as an extreme (and — everyone agreed on this — utterly unacceptable) extension of genuine grievances.  Even if it is true that France treats its former-colonial Muslim population culpably wretchedly.  Speech is speech.  Murder is murder.  The former never ameliorates, much less excuses guilt for the latter.  It doesn’t, really, even make it comprehensible.  Those who kill over cartoons (or use a cartoon as a pretext for a killing for other ends) are neither sembables or frères

That thought is what, earlier today, led me back to one of the monuments of 2oth century American jurisprudence.  It’s only surprising that the William Rehnquist wrote the opinion in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell in light of the current debasement of the Supreme Court.  I can actually remember when the party identification of the appointing President was not a wholly reliable guide to where opinions would land.

The issue in dispute in Hustler v. Falwell was whether or not the egregious preacher was entitled to damages for emotional suffering imposed by Hustler’s publication of a mock advertisement that showed a drunken Falwell having sex with his mother in an outhouse.

As Rehnquist wrote,

There is no doubt that the caricature of respondent and his mother published in Hustler is at best a distant cousin of the political cartoons described above [works by Thomas Nast and others], and a rather poor relation at that.

Boss_Tweed,_Nast

Nonetheless, crappy, nasty, or downright mean political speech is still vital, Rehnquist and a unanimous Supreme Court (Fat Tony included!) agreed, to the point that the no-doubt sincerely pissed off Falwell had to suck it up:

If it were possible by laying down a principled standard to separate the one from the other, public discourse would probably suffer little or no harm. But we doubt that there is any such standard, and we are quite sure that the pejorative description “outrageous” does not supply one. “Outrageousness” in the area of political and social discourse has an inherent subjectiveness about it which would allow a jury to impose liability on the basis of the jurors’ tastes or views, or perhaps on the basis of their dislike of a particular expression. An “outrageousness” standard thus runs afoul of our longstanding refusal to allow damages to be awarded because the speech in question may have an adverse emotional impact on the audience.

Rehnquist was hardly my beau-ideal of a jurist.  But he was always strong on the first amendment.  And in this  opinion, he nailed the essence of what freedom of speech means and requires from a society that values and trusts itself:

France isn’t the US.  I can imagine a different view of what might constitute shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater if one were in Lebanon, say, rather than the Bronx — or the Marais.  But the underlying theme in the Hustler v. Falwell opinion talllies with the way I believe free societies would choose to live.

It remains vital to have enough sympathy to be able to recognize genuine pain evoked carelessly or deliberately by speech.  It’s an important part of living well to model the best definition I’ve heard for what it means to be a gentleman:  someone who never insults another person unintentionally.

But granting the reality of grievance in the face of either deliberate or ignorant disdain, still Rehnquist had it right:

 

“[T]he fact that society may find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressing it. Indeed, if it is the speaker’s opinion that gives offense, that consequence is a reason for according it constitutional protection.

Amen and amen.

The full text of the opinion follows below the jump.

Image:  Thomas Nast, Boss Tweed, before 1871.

(more…)

Living Large In Football’s Minor League

December 29, 2014

Perhaps the most dog-bites-man headline of this last weekend of regular season NFL play came atop stories on Jim Harbaugh’s move from the San Francisco 49ers to the University of Michigan.  Nearly all of those stories, before and after the news became official, mentioned Harbaugh’s expected salary:  $8,000,000/year, a sum that would make him the highest paid coach in the history of college football, though the latest reports suggest that even that staggering figure is low.

Henri_Rousseau_-_The_Football_Players

Just for the perverse pain of it, I decided to do a few sums.  The University of Michigan charges slightly lower instate tuition for its 1st and 2nd year undergraduates than it does for juniors and seniors.  The average of the two comes to $14,336.  Taking the original $8 million number for  Harbaugh’s salary, that translates into 558 tuition-free rides for Michigan kids.

University of Michigan faculty salaries in 2013 range from an average of roughly $88,000 for assistant professors to an average number around $149,000.  Picking a figure more or less in the middle, and adding in an allowance for benefits, Harbaugh’s reported salary would cover the cost of about 50 faculty — with, among other things, the benefit to the university and society of the research such an addition to the Wolverines capacity to study science, medicine, engineering, social science and the humanities might provide.

To add yet one more comparison:  even in an age of administrative bloat, Harbaugh’s compensation comes to more than the pay given Michigan’s top 16 executives, or all 20 of its deans.

Apples and oranges, football boosters might reply, and they’re right.  NCAA Division 1 football, at least within a major conference, has revenue streams not available to a mere Dean of Engineering or the College of Literature, Science and the Arts.  It’s plausible to me that between TV contracts, merchandise and the rest, the University of Michigan may indeed make a profit on its football operation.  (I’m not sure, though.  I’ve spent enough time in and around the film industry to know that before you simply accept that claim, you have to see the real books on anything as rich in opportunities for financial legerdemain as a big time entertainment business.)*

But even if , as is certainly true, the king’s ransom Jim Harbaugh will now collect doesn’t rob the rest of the university, and would in any event be simply unavailable to any other initiative at the University of Michigan, still, it seems to me useful to pay attention to the scale of that salary against the costs of what are, after all, the core of what a university does.  That would be to educate young adults and to create knowledge valuable in both a practical and liberal sense of value.  Michigan remains a great university, and I’ll be bursting with pride when my nephew graduates in Ann Arbor next year.  And, of course, Michigan is hardly the only football-mad school; it’s just the latest to hit the headlines with a monstrous expression of what it as a microcosm of society prices and hence prizes most richly.

In the end, I guess this whole post is a “get offa my lawn you kids” kind of plaint.  As a society we are so committed to a primitive market view of human relations that I can hear myself telling me that this is simply what the bourse will bear for a top name in a small, big-money field.  There’s a lot of ways to parse that thought for bullshit, of course, but just the fact that I frame it that way before catching myself shows how thoroughly the Reagan revolution has defined our categories of thought.  I will say, though, that the history of decline-and-falls is littered with examples of the already-rich alienating yet more resources from things that actually build the wealth and power of a society.

Oh well.

*I don’t know how to factor in the question of alumni fund raising, because I know of no way to calculate the crowding out problem: how much cash raised for athletics either fosters or crowds out possible support for academics.  If anyone has any insight on this — pop it into the comments, please.

Image:  Henri Rousseau, The Football Players1908  And yeah, I know. Not that football.  But I couldn’t resist such gaily prancing young sportsmen.  Could you?

Fables of the Reconstruction: Tom Petty Edition

December 10, 2014

It’s been a while I know, and in the meantime real life has been so agonizingly real that the problems of three (or more) little kitchen appliances don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

But it’s getting on for evening, and in our house the sun has definitely passed over the yardarm, so perhaps a little renovation schadenfreude might suit y’all just fine.

So here’s the current look:

IMG_1986

 

Those of you familiar with the renovation rhythm will recognize this phase.  We’re really in the end game.  The cabinets are in and … wait for it … almost all the trim has been fitted.  The appliances (all but one)  have been placed — not hooked up, mostly — but placed.  The painters are doing their thing, the electrician is scheduled and … you get the drill.

And yet, inevitably, what I blithely label an ending is not a matter of the number of actual days the different crafts have to do to complete the project.  It is, of course, the number of weeks it will take to get the guys in for the day here and the day there to do all the bits and pieces.

We’ve already been hammered by that.  The key, as everyone who’s done this kind of thing knows deep in the bone, is that first stumble off the neat center line of the project.  Or, to put it into the SNAFU military frame familiar to many here, every renovation reaffirms the eternal truth: no plan survives first contact with the enemy.   That enemy, in these cases, is, of course, the effrontery of wood and stone and flooring and all the other bits that don’t miraculously assemble themselves.

As late as November 5th or so, everyone involved thought we had a reasonable shot at a working kitchen by Thanksgiving.  Now, today, we got a sink plumbed, with the dispose-all to be hooked up Friday, maybe.  As for the rest…

It’ll come.  It’ll all happen.  We’ll likely have ovens on Friday too.  The stove will take longer, as we have a little code problem that will take a bit of carpentry to fix (don’t ask).  And….

Never mind.  Everyone who’s entered renovation hell knows this story, and it’s never an interesting one, no matter how often it can be retold.  This job will likely be actually done, no one coming back, everything in and working, by sometime in January.  Could be February — wouldn’t surprise me.  It’s a minimum of a 50% schedule fail on a four month job.  Par for the course.

When it’s all done, we’ll be able as a family to do what we truly love:   cook and cook and cook and cook for friends and friends and friends and friends.  If in the meantime y’all get a bit of vicarious pleasure at knowing that the eternal verities of construction remain true…so much the better.

Last — and I mean last:  we’ve been pretty good this going-on-for-half-a-year at cooking interesting, enjoyable meals on a hot plate, an electric frying pan, and a gas grill. But we’ve been beaten down.  Tonight was supposed to be spatchcocked chicken roasted on the grill, but it’s pissing down with a steady, penetrating drizzle and it’s cold and it’s late, and f**k it sideways.  We give up:  pizza is on its way.

And I’m not ashamed.

So there.

And really last (no I’m not joking) — the obligatory soundtrack to a post about attending on the arrival of Godot’s scullion:


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