Both sides of the river, we died just the same

Posted by Sappho on November 21st, 2014 filed in Blogwatch, Law, News and Commentary


Eric Posner, law professor at the University of Chicago and son of federal appellate judge Richard Posner, writes in Slate that Obama’s Immigration Plan Is Perfectly Constitutional, and a routine exercise of presidential power. What interests me most, though, are the reasons he gives, which are not broad ones about prosecutorial discretion, but particular reasons why “Immigration law is special.” They have to do with a conflict between America’s “huge and insatiable hunger for cheap labor,” our laws making labor more expensive than what we want to pay “workers to mind the kids, trim the hedges, pick strawberries, and slaughter chickens,” the availability of a lot of people south of our border who are willing to work for less than our minimum wage, with fewer protections than our labor law imposes, and how Congress has chosen to resolve that conflict.

The contradiction between ideological opposition to guest workers and the huge demand for cheap foreign labor is the key to the present controversy. To avoid the appearance of a legally recognized caste system while allowing one to exist in reality, Congress has given nearly full legal rights to legal immigrants and passed tough laws to keep everyone else out—while appropriating far too little money to enforce them. This throws to the executive the task of deciding whom to enforce the laws against. Because Congress appropriates only enough money to deport 400,000 people per year out of 11 million, the president by necessity must pick and choose whom to deport. It’s no surprise that for decades every president has deported mainly criminals while leaving most everyone else alone….

Nor does the government put much pressure on employers. In 2012, immigration authorities fined only 495 employers for illegally hiring undocumented aliens; the aggregate fines amounted only to $12.5 million, a pittance when you consider that 8 million unauthorized migrants are employed. (Republicans might be interested to know that zero employers were fined in 2006 and two employers were fined in 2007, under the Bush administration.)

You can see Posner taking a Republican slant even as he defends Obama; he would prefer a formalized guest worker program, and points the finger at Democrats as the party that opposes this solution. But whether you agree with him or not about the optimal solution, he has a point about the contradictions inherent in existing immigration law.

Other links relevant to Obama’s recent executive order on immigration:

A full transcript of Obama’s speech.

The opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel, made public by the administration, on “the scope of the Department of Homeland Security’s discretion to enforce the immigration laws.”

The law blog Balkinization has a Symposium on Administrative Reform of Immigration Law.

Predictably, though the bloggers at the Volokh Conspiracy aren’t normally Obama’s biggest fans, this turns out to be just the issue where you can find a defense of Obama’s action there (this one by Ilya Somin. (Equally predictably, Patrick Buchanan is just as passionately on the other side of the issue from Ilya Somin as you’d expect.)

Wikipedia has a list of countries by foreign born population, as of 2013. The US has the largest number of immigrants, but nowhere near the largest percentage of the population (the Gulf states run away with that distinction, with the United Arab Emirates having a whopping 83.7% of its population foreign born). This leaves me wondering exactly what it is that makes immigration a political issue in one country but not another, because it tracks surprisingly badly with how many immigrants you have (considering that Greece has a smaller proportion of immigrants than the UK, which has a smaller proportion than the US, and that’s the exact inverse of how worried the three countries are about immigration). I assume the state of the economy is a factor (that would explain Greece), but there must be others. I’m also trying to imagine what it’s actually like to live in a country where most people are guest workers. Come to think of it, some members of my extended family did live in one of the Gulf states for a while, so I could always ask them.

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Has Dean Hamer been vindicated?

Posted by Sappho on November 19th, 2014 filed in DNA, Sexuality


Some months ago, I blogged for a while about the odd “gay germ” hypothesis, and, in the course of that, talked a bit about the possibility of a “gay gene.” At the time, I mainly meant simply to argue that the “germ of the gaps” argument that male homosexuality, in particular, has to be caused by some germ, because a “gay gene” is somehow impossible in evolutionary terms, didn’t make sense, because it’s so easy to generate theories that might explain a gene that sometimes doesn’t exactly enhance reproduction that, even if you reject any one of them (let’s say, the “good gay uncle” one where uncles enhance the survival of their siblings’ children), there would still be some other (let’s say, the “sisters are more fertile” one, or the “some women go for more feminine men, and most of the men carrying the gene are straight” one) that might fit the bill. But of course, that means, not that a “gay gene” is proven as soon as you can come up with a “just so” story for it, but that the way to know whether the thing exists is to apply all the usual ways of testing a behavioral genetics hypothesis, from twin studies to studies of the genome itself.

It happens that there’s a new study that does just that. Like Dean Hamer’s old, and till now not replicated, study, it suggests an X chromosome link to homosexuality (which, if you’re tallying evidence for evolutionary theories, could fit with the “fertile females make up for less fertile males” theory). However, there’s still some dispute as to how far vindicated Dean Hamer is by this study. It uses an older technique for looking for genetic associations, genetic linkage.

In the meantime, the genetic linkage technique has largely been replaced with genome-wide association (GWA) studies. A linkage study identifies only broad regions containing dozens or even hundreds of genes, whereas GWA studies often allow the association of a specific gene with a certain trait in the population. That approach would be preferable, but a linkage study was the only way to directly replicate Hamer’s work, Sanders says.

Kendler, who is an editor at Psychological Medicine, says it was somewhat surprising to get the submission from Sanders and Bailey’s team using the older technique. “Seeing linkage studies in this world of GWAs is rare,” he says, but he maintains that the study “really moves the field along.”

Neil Risch, a geneticist at the University of California, San Francisco, disagrees. The paper does little to clear up question about Xq28, he says. Risch collaborated on a 1999 study that found no linkage at that region and says that more recent evidence casts further doubt. He also says the two linkages reported in the new work are not statistically significant.

A genome-wide association study is in progress, that may either back this finding up or refute it.

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A defense of Russian chivalry, and other links

Posted by Sappho on November 12th, 2014 filed in Blogwatch


Natalia Antonova: For God’s sake, Putin was not “hitting on” Peng Liyuan. Also, there’s nothing wrong with Russian chivalry

Jarrod Hayes: Carl Sagan and Reflections on the Significance of IR (“IR” here is “International Relations”)

xkcd: Efficiency (via my college friend Andrew)

What I particularly like about this defense, by Thoreau at High Clearing, of legalizing buying and selling pot, not just simple possession of small amounts: I like the way that he avoids the thing some libertarians do, of starting from their ideal policy that we don’t have, and then arguing that anyone who instead supports a more modest change in their direction is an unacceptably tyrannical statist (yes, socialists sometimes do that, too, in a different direction), instead saying frankly that
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Of Eagles and Hobbits

Posted by Sappho on November 10th, 2014 filed in Books, Movies


I gave platelets on Saturday (third platelet or plasma donation since my long deferral – first for cancer and then for travel – ended), and, for my movie, I watched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. As Peter Jackson broke The Hobbit into multiple movies, this one ends with the giant eagles flying the dwarves and hobbit out of danger and closer to their destination, the Lonely Mountain. Why the eagles don’t fly the party all the way there isn’t explained in the movie (but is in the book). More interesting to me, though (because the answer may be less mundane) is the often asked question, why couldn’t the giant eagles fly the Fellowship of the Ring all the way to Mordor, and short circuit the entire adventure in the Lord of the Rings trilogy?

One kind of explanation points to the logistical difficulties that an eagle flight to the Crack of Doom would actually have faced. Here you can find a cute video of what an eagle flight to Mordor might have looked like, and then a discussion of how such a flight might have failed in practice: giant eagles are much less stealthy than hobbits, the Crack of Doom was so constructed so that you had to traverse a tunnel too small for eagles once you got there, and minions of Sauron, alerted by the very visible entrance of the eagles, might well have made short work of the fellowship and taken possession of the Ring.

I, though, lean to a more spiritual explanation. There is a reason, besides stealth, that hobbits are the best candidates to carry the Ring. Though all creatures can be corrupted by the Ring, hobbits show themselves more resistant to its power than others. And this fact isn’t an accident, tied to some odd quirk of hobbit DNA; it is, instead, tightly bound to a major theme of the story. Hobbits are more resistant to the temptation offered by the Ring because they are small, weak, and particularly humble creatures. This is why Galadriel refuses the Ring, knowing what it could make of her. It’s why it can’t be born by someone like Gandalf, or even Aragorn. Blessed are the meek, and it takes a particularly meek Ringbearer to make the journey and not succumb to temptation as Boromir did.

And this gets me to a point made in this defense of Ayn Rand lovers (by a conservative who, as a Christian, has reservations about Rand).

2. It’s possible to dissociate a book from its politics

According to my totally nonscientific sense of things, the singlemost popular work of fiction among Silicon Valley geeks is The Lord of the Rings. (And even if it’s not the MOST popular, it’s still undeniably popular.) Much has been written about the techno-utopianism of Silicon Valley culture. But Lord of the Rings is profoundly and explicitly anti-technology; Tolkien clearly associates the forces of evil with industrial modernity, and his picture of Eden, whether the Hobbits’ Shire or the Elven realms, is pre-technological. Peter Thiel, who may be the most techno-utopian futuristic billionaire in Silicon Valley, has also named not one, not two, but three companies after items or characters from Lord of the Rings. How does he reconcile these contradictions?!?!?!?!?!

It’s probably very easy for him, because you don’t have to love a piece of art’s politics to love the piece of art itself.

It’s true; Tolkien’s attitude toward technology is vastly different from the views of his Silicon Valley following. How do you reconcile that contrast? Pretty easily, actually. Part of why you can love a piece of art without loving its politics is, surely, the merits of the particular piece of art, in terms of storytelling, which in one case may be good characterization, in another good plot pacing, and in another a well developed alternate world. But I think that, along with whatever “pure art” merits you can list, the reason we sometimes love a piece of art whose politics we don’t love is that, even if not all of the message of the piece resonates, there’s part of the piece that does. In the case of the Lord of the Rings, it’s easy enough to associate those particularly industrially modern forces of evil with ecologically insensitive uses of technology (lots of eco-friendly techno-utopians in Silicon Valley), but, more important, the central theme, of the value of the small and humble, resonates in Silicon Valley as much as anywhere.

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Paranoia Sweepstakes–the Winner

Posted by WiredSisters on November 4th, 2014 filed in Church History, Guest Blogger, Moral Philosophy, Sexuality


I apologize to any of you out there who have been waiting with bated breath to find out the winner of the current paranoia sweepstakes. To refresh your memories: Three paragraphs max, more or less. One end or the other needs to be grounded in reality (ie, either the means or the end must be an observed phenomenon–computer chips in pet animals is well-documented, using them for espionage isn’t. Or lots of homeless people on the street is an observable phenomenon, getting them out there by hiring out-of-work actors isn’t.) So you need to give examples of the observed phenomenon, then track it back to the means (how did we get here?) or forward to the end (What else could this be used for?) you are imagining. No UFO aliens, please. The prize is a gift card at our local spy store.

So here it is, from Linda Preston, of LaGrange Park, Illinois, and (full disclosure here) my godson’s mother, a longtime friend, and a member of my congregation:

This summer, a Baptist church in Florida refused to hold a funeral for a man because they discovered, after his death, that he had been gay. Their justification was
a) the Bible says we can’t, b) homosexuality is a sin. What an ugly action to be associated with God’s holy name! The Bible labels many things that people do as sins, people do these things anyway, and they continue to be church members and to have church funerals. Adultery, murder, child abuse, theft, whatever. Except in this case. What’s really going on here?

God, as it says in all holy books, is forgiving. (Two of many examples: “Judge not lest ye be judged; “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”) What makes God really angry, however, is the sin of Nineveh, the sin of Sodom, recorded in the story of Abraham and the story of Jonah – cruelty toward each other. This outrageous cruelty towards a grieving family, this sad refusal to offer a person who is part of the church the last rites, these are examples of what the Bible tells us God does not want. Actions like this, and the hatred that caused them, stray far from actual Biblical teachings. This happens because they were planted within the church by people who are not of the church. Think Trojan horse. The Greeks fought for 10 years to subdue Troy, without success. Finally, they packed up to leave, and left a huge wooden horse at the gate of Troy, supposedly as a gift. Trojans opened their gates and took the horse past their guards. During the night, the host of soldiers hidden inside came out and attacked Troy from inside. Troy was totally defeated, by the agency of what seemed like a gift.

Thinking of that, note that the increasing pitch of hatred directed towards gay people within the church has, within the last 30 years, moved from a background issue to a singling out of gay people as the group to hate. It has come to seem “obvious” to many Christians, but homosexuality was not always a headline issue, a litmus test of belief. Where did this change of perspective come from?

It is not a coincidence that, within the same 30 year period, many Americans have suffered under an array of hardships – millions of hard-working families losing their homes to foreclosures, tens of millions of jobs outsourced, millions of citizens who want to find work but are out of work for years, and finally find jobs for lower salaries and without benefits, cities without water and lights, the disappearance of pensions, the crippling of unions. At Nineveh, Jonah was there, in the name of God, to denounce such cruelty to ordinary citizens. Where are today’s churches?

I believe that the movement of the issue of gay sexuality, from background issue to litmus test, did not happen by accident. The headlines, the books, the articles, the media mentions, were paid for, crafted, and planted as carefully as a Trojan horse, seeming to shed light on the true nature of the church, while at the same time changing the course of some Christian discourse away from social and economic issues to a focus supposedly on sexuality, but actually on identifying a group of people within the church who are “different from you,” “inferior to you,” and ”the cause of all your troubles.” This has resulted in a strange thing, noted by many pundits and thinkers–a huge and growing group of people vote against their own economic interests. The new emphasis on sexuality came with the seductive and seemingly religious idea that sexual morality was more important than economics. If this were true, than it would not matter if you lost your job, if you would retire without a pension – if you were even able to retire, or even if you didn’t have enough money to pay for health care. The important thing, this supposedly Christian logic said, was that you stood against sexual immorality, that there was another “group” of people who were different from you and dangerous to you, and you opposed them.

Of course, this switch in theology would also benefit the very wealthy, since it would effectively remove the churches from the opposition to growing economic sabotage. It would be well worth it for wealthy corporate executives and folks from the new, suddenly-wealthy class to pay whatever it took to buy out media sources, to create saleable and inflammatory ideas, and to create and staff groups that would spread these ideas. The reward for their investment has been to neutralize one of the big players in the civil rights movement, by focusing its attention elsewhere, and by fomenting discord within its ranks. Perhaps it will work for them. Or perhaps the churches will wake up, read their Bibles, and go back to defending their flocks from economic suicide.

Linda Preston

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Notes from an Ultraviolet Voter

Posted by WiredSisters on November 4th, 2014 filed in Anarchism, Democracy, Guest Blogger, Health and Medicine, Uncategorized


The Tea Partiers and, to a considerable extent, even the Respectable Republicans, are fond of calling the President an “extreme liberal.” They aren’t paying attention. Or, more likely, they just know that American voters don’t like any kind of extremists. I can still remember Barry Goldwater, of semi-blessed memory, saying that “extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice” in the 1964 presidential election. It put him on the wrong end of one of the biggest landslide votes ever. That was not a blip.

But neither the Respectable Right nor the Radical Right have, in all likelihood, ever met an extreme leftist. For one thing, real leftists consider “liberal” a synonym for wishy-washy. “Extreme liberalism” would be an oxymoron, like “extreme center” or “extreme moderate.” (Or “jumbo shrimp” or “military intelligence.” Extremism in the pursuit of moderation is no vice?)

Okay, as a veteran of the anti-war movement of the 1970s, I have met more than my share of extreme leftists. I can tell you from personal experience that Maoists always come on time to meetings, but Stalinists are more fun at parties; that socialists tend to have dogs, pacifists have cats, and anarchists often have both, plus assorted lizards and parrots. I can also do a pretty good job of distinguishing undercover Red Squad plants from real left-wing nuts, and real left-wing nuts from rational leftists.

I do not consider myself a left-wing nut, or a liberal. I guess I’m a rational leftist. And, while I understand the president’s difficulties in getting anything more radical than the Magna Carta through this Congress, I would be happier if he picked bigger battles to get shot down in. “Obamacare” is not “socialized medicine.” I am willing to accept it as an improvement on the fee-for-service system, and the best improvement we are likely to get for a while. But it’s less radical than Medicare, which was the wave of the future 50 years ago.

Like most rational leftists (but, alas, not all of them) I support the president in getting the best deals he can from this Congress. But I won’t call those deals “liberal.” At best they are centrist, much like Clinton’s. I consider both of them the most rational Republicans to run the country since Teddy Roosevelt. And I think the worst blot on their legacies is that they have allowed our political discourse to become so badly corrupted that they have never disputed being called “extreme liberals.” Or liberals at all. I think, in fact, that what the various self-styled liberals who served in our government during Newt Gingrich’s takeover of Congress should have done then was join the Republican Party en masse, and force it to fight out internally what were essentially Republican issues.

Instead, we leftists are left (you should pardon the expression) with the party of “yes, but..” Yes, big government is evil, but… Yes, government spending is dangerous, but… Yes, the United States is destined to be the world’s top cop, but…. Yes, we are a less racist country than we were in 1965, but…

Unfortunately, nobody, on either side, has the inclination, the time, or the smarts to debate these issues on their merits right now. It’s hard to fix the roof when it’s raining, and when the sun is out, we’d rather work on our tans.

Red Emma

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Some apolitical links on the eve of Election Day

Posted by Sappho on November 3rd, 2014 filed in Blogwatch


Andrew Shields has A pragmatic consideration of the intentional fallacy.

Noah Millman has a weakness for unpleasant protagonists.

Some genealogy humor.

Is it harder for high-caste men to coordinate?

For Stress-Free Penguins, Use a Rover.

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I voted

Posted by Sappho on October 29th, 2014 filed in California Ballot Propositions


I’ve spent the past few days researching how to vote on my absentee ballot. I meant to blog my thoughts as I went, but it wound up being easier for me to take notes in a file on my computer (which I then didn’t have to organize for public consumption), leaving asterisks next to the races and propositions where I hadn’t had to make up my mind yet. Those of my readers who are in California will have many of the same choices I did, but, for those of you who are not in California, here’s what my ballot looked like: Six statewide propositions, three local ones (two for Orange County and one for Lake Forest), a zillion judges (but only one contested judicial race, the rest yes/no), about half a dozen partisan statewide offices, some partisan legislative races (federal and state), one non-partisan statewide office, a local community college board, a local school board, a local tax assessor, and a local city council. No water district races this time, which is a relief, because it’s nearly impossible to find information about water district candidates.

In addition to the information in the voter pamphlet, which was both mailed to our house and accessible online, I was able to use some of the online resources I’ve already linked, like Ballotpedia (which has the various races as well as the ballot proposition link I just gave you), VoteSmart, etc. And I did a lot of web searches to find what papers and blogs were saying about various candidates. In the case of the local city council race, a lot of the blog posts, on multiple blogs, were by one of the candidates, and others came from people with different political slants, so I had to carefully check and track the biases of my sources, as well as taking notes on what they said.

Though local races are all non-partisan, and the ballot does not list the party affiliation of the candidates, there are people who track these local candidates and make lists of who is Republican and who is Democrat, and Orange County has local branches of the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, the Libertarian Party, and the Tea Party, all of which field lists, on their web sites, of who they endorse. The candidates have web sites and Facebook pages, the Orange County Register has articles about candidate forums for local city councils (including mine), and the OC Weekly often has dirt on one candidate or another. Though nearly everyone running for office in Orange County is Republican, there are definite factions within each race, so that candidates for the South Orange County Community College District can often be placed as to their alignment with one of two longstanding community college district factions, and there appear now to be four distinct factions related to the Lake Forest City Council.

I’m not going to list all my votes this time, but I am first going to endorse my friend Daniel Faigin’s reasoning on the judicial races, and then say how I made up my mind on the propositions (except for Propositions 45 and 46, because I’ve already blogged about those – friends seeing this on Facebook who missed my blog post can ask me what I think).

Proposition 1: This was an odd one, because nearly everyone I’d normally listen to was urging a yes vote, while the Friends Committee on Legislation of California, a Quaker lobby with which I normally agree, was almost alone in urging a No vote, on wildlife conservation grounds. We’re in the middle of a drought, and, though Proposition 1 likely won’t do anything fast enough to help the current drought, it’s a reminder that we need to conserve water for future droughts. Water isn’t really FCL’s area of expertise, so I was inclined to wonder: were they letting the best be the enemy of the good? Was the ideal water proposition they hoped for actually politically possible? Proposition 1 follows several failed attempts to put a water proposition on the ballot. Karen Street suggested I check what the Pacific Institute had to say (water being their specialty). They neither endorse nor oppose Proposition 1, but do have a detailed analysis. In the end, I was swayed by the Los Angeles Times endorsement.

It probably took the crippling drought, now in its third year, to even get this measure on the ballot, given the state’s decades-long standoff over water…. It is a clever compromise, and makes the bond a package deserving of voter support.

Proposition 2, requiring an annual transfer to a state budget stabilization account, has widespread support from both parties and most major papers. It also fits with my Keynesian economic views (contrary to what some of the critics of Keynes on the right suggest, Keynesian economics is not about spend-spend-spend, but about building a surplus in good times so that you can afford to run a deficit in bad times). This, for me, is an easy Yes.

Proposition 47 is an easy Yes for me for different reasons. If I’m willing to disregard FCL on water issues (not their area of expertise), I give them heavy weight on criminal justice issues, which are their area of expertise, and where their values align well with mine. So I’ll link their ballot recommendation. (I’d quote from it extensively, but it’s a PDF file, and my browser isn’t letting me do a copy/paste, nor am I eager to type that much before work. So you can follow my link to read it.) Proposition 47 reduces certain non-violent offenses (drug possession and property offenses below a certain dollar amount) from possible felony to mandatory misdemeanor. This will relieve overcrowding in the prisons, allow California to comply with a federal court order to reduce its prison population without releasing more dangerous, violent criminals, and leave fewer people subject to the legal discrimination that comes with having a felony conviction, thus making it easier for petty criminals to go straight when they come out of prison. I voted Yes.

Proposition 48 is an Indiam gaming proposition. I always vote Yes on Indian gaming on Indian sovereignty grounds, so I did so this time, as well.

Orange County Proposition E bills itself as a fair elections proposition, but is opposed by a local Common Cause leader and a local League of Women Voters leader. So I voted No.

Orange County Proposition G is a proposition stating that you can’t be appointed supervisor if you lost the last election. No one bothered to argue against this one, so I voted Yes.

Lake Forest Proposition X is a term limit proposition. If you believe in term limits, you should look into the specifics of this one and decide how to vote. Since I believe that elections should be sufficient term limits, I voted No.

And there you have it. And of my friends who have questions about the various races, which I didn’t cover here, and want to know what I found out, can ask me. Note that the two candidates for Superintendent of Public Instruction have distinctly different views on education, so you probably do prefer one or the other of them. Also, since California has a new system where we vote on all the candidates in the primary and the two top vote getters in the general election, there’s a good chance that you already voted on each race. For this reason, it’s worthwhile to take notes on why you voted the way you did in the primary, so that, in the general election, if your preferred candidate is still on the ballot, you can just check whether there’s a reason to change your mind in that race, and start from scratch only on those races where your preferred candidate is no longer in the running. With so many things on the ballot, it’s good to be able to target your ballot research time. This is why I save notes from previous elections, not just for this year, but also for past elections. They sit in a director on my computer, and I can check my old files, to see if I’ve seen a particular local candidate before, and if there’s something I should remember about him or her.

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California ballot blog post round up

Posted by Sappho on October 24th, 2014 filed in California Ballot Propositions


I still hope to blog some more of my own thoughts about ballot measures, but, in the meantime, here are the thoughts of some other bloggers. I don’t necessarily agree with them on all six propositions (and they don’t agree with each other on all six propositions), but both Josh Flaum and Daniel Faigin have done a good job of explaining the propositions and why they’re voting the way they are.

Josh Flaum’s Personal Guide To The California Props – 2014 Edition

Daniel Faigin’s November 2014 Election Analysis – Part I: The Major Offices

Daniel Faigin’s November 2014 Election Analysis – Part II: The Propositions

The Pacific Institute is all about water. Officially neutral on Proposition 1 (the water bond proposition), they have put out an independent analysis of the proposition. Their president gives a summary in the Huffington Post.

Feel free to let me know about any other links, that I haven’t featured yet, with useful information and analysis about the California ballot propositions.

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Proposition 1

Posted by Sappho on October 21st, 2014 filed in Environment


Proposition 1 is a water bond proposal. It appears that the argument in favor is that we need that water in the current drought, while the argument against is that it relies too much on dams that put wildlife conservation efforts at risk.

Is this a good idea? A bad idea? If I have any Californian readers left after my scarcity on the blog back when I was going through cancer treatment, feel free to weigh in.

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Proposition 45 and Proposition 46

Posted by Sappho on October 21st, 2014 filed in California Ballot Propositions


It’s getting close enough to the election that I should probably suspend posts about issues on which I won’t be voting, and instead try to figure out how I’m going to vote on all the propositions and down ballot races. (For any of my readers who are bored with politics, I’ll try to work in a post about genetic genealogy, triangulation of cousins, and tools like Genome Mate.) This year, we have six statewide propositions to vote on. I’ve already posted links to some general sources of information, so for this post, I’ll just link Ballotpedia on California ballot propositions in 2014. Let’s start with the two propositions related to healthcare, Proposition 45 and Proposition 46.

“Prop. 45 Attacks President Obama’s Affordable Care Act,” announces a flyer sent to my house. The flyer warns that “Right-wing groups will use Prop. 45 as a legal tool to dismantle Obamacare in California.”

On the face of it, this warning sounds plausible enough. After all, opponents of Obamacare have been pulling out all the stops to scuttle the law ever since it was passed: votes to repeal it in the House, lawsuits in court to have it ruled unconstitutional, attempts to use the debt ceiling vote to get Obama to surrender his signature legislative achievement. Why not a ballot proposition in California to dismantle it?

A look at the list of who supports and opposes Proposition 45 shows that the story isn’t quite so simple. The proposition, which “Requires changes to health insurance rates, or anything else affecting the charges associated with health insurance, to be approved by Insurance Commissioner before taking effect,” is supported by the sort of people you’d expect to want insurance rate changes regulated (mostly Democrats) and opposed by the sort of people you’d expect not to want an added layer of rate regulation (insurance companies). Whether or not you buy the argument that Proposition 45 will undermine Covered California, it’s not likely that this particular set of people intended for the proposition to dismantle Obamacare or Covered California.

The flyer’s not entirely wrong, though. Though Proposition 45 isn’t meant to undermine Covered California, some do fear that the proposition may in fact have that effect. Some Covered California board members have expressed concern about the proposition, and some newspapers have endorsed a No vote. The Los Angeles Times, for example, writes

Proposition 103 has saved consumers an enormous amount on auto, home and other policies while still allowing insurers to make a profit, so the idea of extending its purview to health plans is appealing. But now would be the wrong time to pass such a measure. Thanks to the state’s implementation of the 2010 federal healthcare reform law, buyers of individual health plans have a new ally that other insurance shoppers don’t: an independent state exchange, Covered California, that negotiates with health insurers for better deals. Although many people don’t shop for insurance through Covered California, insurers have to offer their Covered California plans to all state residents. Yet Proposition 45, which was written before Covered California opened for business last year, doesn’t acknowledge the exchange or any of the other major changes wrought by the 2010 law.

The paper believes that there are conflicts between the proposition, as written, and Covered California, and that we’re better off waiting to see how the new system works out before adding an additional layer of rate regulation.

I’m leaning toward a no vote right now, as “make one major change to the healthcare system at a time” appeals to the quality assurance professional in me (it’s easier, that way, to judge the effect of your changes, and know what you may need to tweak). But feel free to try to persuade me that I’m wrong (or right), since I haven’t voted yet, and I find figuring out how to vote on such propositions tricky.

Proposition 46 has a different set of complications.
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More on Ebola and travelers

Posted by Sappho on October 21st, 2014 filed in Africa news and blogwatch, Health and Medicine


This seems like a good idea: U.S. to funnel travelers from Ebola-hit region through five airports.

Five airports sound like a large enough number to make it easy for humanitarian workers to travel as needed to help put out this wildfire where it started, and also enough that we don’t have to worry about the possibility that travelers from the Ebola stricken countries will lie about where they’re from and go underground where we can’t track them. At the same time, it’s a small enough number that we can hope that the people screening for Ebola at all five airports will be properly trained. The main lesson I take from what went wrong at Texas Presbyterian (besides the fact that the CDC’s Ebola guidelines for hospitals evidently needed the revision they just got) is that, even if we don’t literally need to send all Ebola patients to the four hospitals with the special rooms (those isolation rooms are more for airborne illnesses like SARS), our experience dealing with Ebola in the US appears thin enough that we’re best funneling everyone to a manageable number of people and train those people well. Sending travelers through only a few airports, and then sending anyone who does have Ebola to one of only a limited number of hospitals, sounds like a good policy.

This is darkly humorous: Rwanda is screening all travelers from the US for Ebola.

Here’s a Nature article on contact tracing, which has been the key to fighting Ebola, and has worked well in Senegal and Nigeria (both now declared Ebola free), and also appears to be working in the US. Unfortunately, in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, the healthcare system has gotten so overwhelmed that contact tracing is difficult.

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‘Cause there ain’t no cure, and there ain’t no pill for Ebola

Posted by Sappho on October 16th, 2014 filed in Africa news and blogwatch, Health and Medicine


The parody’s an old one, a bit of black humor from the days when all known Ebola outbreaks had been deadly, sure, but short term deadly, beaten back in short order in the country where they began.

I got it in Zaire, and it made me ill,
‘Cause there ain’t no cure, and there ain’t no pill for Ebola
E-BO-L-A Bola

The doctor says I’m sick, and I won’t last long,
But at least I’ll survive till the end of the song – [break off and mimic dying]

The black humor hasn’t quite been funny to me for many months now, as I’ve followed the news of the epidemic, for I have family in Senegal. Senegal’s one of the worried well countries of West Africa. Despite sharing a border with Guinea, one of the three countries hard hit by the epidemic, Senegal has stayed free, so far, of the disease, beyond one imported case. Tomorrow, WHO is expected to pronounce Senegal Ebola free, a designation that requres that

a country must pass through 42 days, with active surveillance demonstrably in place, supported by good diagnostic capacity, and with no new cases detected. Active surveillance is essential to detect chains of transmission that might otherwise remain hidden.

The period of 42 days, with active case-finding in place, is twice the maximum incubation period for Ebola virus disease and is considered by WHO as sufficient to generate confidence in a declaration that an Ebola outbreak has ended.

Trying to protect itself from Ebola, Senegal has applied a controversial closing of its border with Guinea, despite warnings from WHO that border closings are ineffective. Senegal has also, while keeping its border closed, opened a humanitarian corridor at an airport to speed aid to stricken countries.

Some other countries have applied travel restrictions, with Kenya and South Africa instituting travel restrictions for the three afflicted countries of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, and Saudi Arabia turning down 7,000 requests for hajj visas for Ebola concerns.

Now that two nurses have caught Ebola in the US, the calls are starting for travel restrictions here. I’m seeing it from people like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage (whom I pretty much discount, as looking for any sort of cudgel to hit Obama), and I’m seeing it from some in The American Conservative (whom I take more seriously, as they generally strike me as people making an honest effort to reflect on policy from a perspective that sometimes differs from my own, rather than people looking to make wild claims about the treasonous motives of the Other Side).

How do I explain my mixed feelings in discussions of travel restrictions? Why I’m sympathetic with some and impatient with others? Well, I will try.
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November 2014 election information links, most of them specific to California

Posted by Sappho on October 14th, 2014 filed in California Ballot Propositions


The Secretary of State list of qualified statewide ballot measures (with links to the voter guide).

VotersEdge.org ballot for Orange County, California

BallotPedia on California 2014 ballot propositions

League of Women Voters

CaliforniaChoices.org

CaliforniaChoices.org chart of organizational ballot endorsements on ballot measures in the November 2014 election

I’m just starting to look at these and make up my mind. Proposition 47 looks like a definite yes (reducing some drug possession offenses and minor thefts to misdemeanors), and as for Proposition 48 (another Indian gaming proposition), I generally vote for Indian gaming on Indian sovereignty grounds (plus these particular compacts were already approved in good faith by the Legislature. But I haven’t worked through the other propositions yet. If any of you have recommendations, feel free to speak up. I’ll probably blog more about the propositions later.

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Some links related to race and police work

Posted by Sappho on October 11th, 2014 filed in Blogwatch, Race


Ryan Gabrielson, Ryann Grochowski Jones and Eric Sagara at Talking Points Memo: Young Black Men Are 21 Times More Likely To Be Killed By Police than their white counterparts.

Dan Hopkins at FiveThirtyEight: Electing A Black Mayor Leads To More Black Police Officers

Alice Ollstein at Think Progress: Will The Nation’s Police Practices Change Post-Ferguson? Depends Who You Ask

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Off With His/Her/Their/Its Head

Posted by WiredSisters on October 10th, 2014 filed in History, Law, Moral Philosophy, News and Commentary, Torture


Creepiness alert: this is going to be just what the title should lead you to expect. Sorry.
Public reaction to ISIS beheadings in the West seems to follow two trajectories: the political (those are our guys getting the axe!) and neurological (eeeeeeeeeeeuw!) But all of this is going on roughly in parallel with various screwups in the administration of the death penalty in the good ol’ USA. Perhaps we should look at them side-by-side.

The point of executions by “lethal injection” in the US was originally supposed to be painlessness, or at any rate the elimination of unnecessary pain, more or less in keeping with the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” But in fact, from the outset, we had, and generally still have, no way to know whether the guest of honor at a lethal injection is suffering any pain, necessary or otherwise. What we do know is that most of the time, watching such an execution is minimally traumatic for the rest of us. More recently, we have ascertained that, when the people administering the injection get it wrong, either in the contents of the injection or the process of getting it into a vein, the result can cause the condemned person considerable pain. And in the meantime, obtaining the necessary ingredients of the injection is getting more difficult, since those picky Europeans who make one of those ingredients for some reason don’t like selling it to prison systems.

On the other hand, beheadings are deliberately set up to be as horrifying as possible for the spectators, and almost always arranged so that there will be as many spectators as possible. For more on the political theatre of beheadings, see:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-vlahos/about-beheading-there-is-_b_5953098.html

I spent a lot of my scholarly career reading up on the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe, especially England. Those guys were really into beheadings, mostly for the sake of political theatre. Ordinary criminals got hanged; criminals who pissed off the Establishment might get hanged, drawn, and quartered (for more detail, see “Braveheart.”) But high-class criminals got the axe, or, later on in France, the guillotine. Beheading was done with widely varying degrees of skill and decorum, from inept butchery to surgical delicacy. But neurological data seems to tell us that, done right¸ a beheading is as close to painless as executions get. In particular, a properly maintained and properly used guillotine is a genuinely humane way to die. At our present stage of technology, it may be the best one we’ve got.

I haven’t watched any of the ISIS videos, so I have no idea how much skill those guys exercise. I doubt that their primary goal is a painless execution, anyway. But even if they were using properly a perfectly maintained guillotine, our reaction would probably be the same—eeeeeeeeeeeeuw!. The guest of honor might feel no pain, but we spectators would be totally revolted anyway, just by the sight of a major body part being severed from the rest of the body. I suspect that a surgical amputation for life-saving purposes, under general anesthesia, would affect most of us the same way—the point isn’t why, or even how a body part is being severed, it’s the total gross-out of seeing it happen (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, anybody?). Which tells us that the main reason most of our legal authorities have insisted upon the search for “humane” methods of execution isn’t to spare the condemned person pain, but to spare ourselves a revolting sight. (And perhaps also to persuade ourselves that, despite using the death penalty, we are Nice People.)

I still want to know why the ISIS executioners wear masks. It seems to contradict all of the organization’s efforts to make the process not merely public but publicized and theatrical. If I were the Head Honcho of ISIS, I’d do the executions myself if I were physically up to it, or at least name one of my most prominent henchmen to do it for me, wearing a name tag in 72-point type so King Barack could read it without his spectacles. Can it be that, unlike John Hancock, even the Head Honcho of ISIS isn’t altogether sure they’re doing the right thing?

Red Emma

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Round up: this one heavy on links from The American Conservative, but with some liberal links as well

Posted by Sappho on October 8th, 2014 filed in Blogwatch


Conor Friedersdorf on How Christians Could Talk to America About Sex

Noah Millman on A Sign From Hashem? Don’t Know. Helping Others? … Couldn’t Hurt. (These two, combined, are an interesting discussion of sexual ethics.)

Quakers and Sex: A Call to Embrace Sexual Diversity (If Conor Friedersdorf, while not Christian himself, has an interesting take on what traditionalist Christians might have to offer if they expressed some of their concerns in a “Do Unto Others” form, this video, from a more liberal religious point of view, does a nice job of framing the liberal insight as “people differ,” rather than “every choice is equally good.” Every choice in my own life, even every mutually consensual choice, was not equally good; some were mistakes. Probably not every choice, even every consensual choice, is on average equally likely to have good results. But people do differ, and even those who think some sorts of sexual choices are much better than others would do well to acknowledge that people’s subjective experiences of those choices differ a lot.)

Daniel McCarthy on Was the American Revolution Secessionist? (An interesting take on the mixed consequences of the American Revolution.)

Gracy Olmstead on Why Cities Need Localists. (OK, I’m linking a lot of posts on The American Conservative in this round up. Though I’m neither conservative nor localist, I found this one interesting for the questions it raises, about whether cities are inherently less conservative or whether they’re simply less conservative because conservatives have leaned rural, and over what localism might have to offer cities.)

There comes a point in your life when you realize that the stuff that happens in your lifetime is also history. For me, that was the moment, when I was a kid, when my older brother came home and said “They’re comparing Watergate to Teapot Dome.” Nixon’s resignation was still a ways away, but I realized then that I was observing, as it happened, something that would later go into the history books. Then there comes a time, when you’re rather older, when you realize that something you lived through is past history, that Times Change and the college friend who went on to become a rabbi (Josh Marshall’s college friend, not mine, and his post), and who is now coming out of the closet as gay, would probably not be closeted if he came of age now.

Thoreau, at Unqualified Offerings, suggests that

… There’s a non-trivial percentage of Americans who believe putting any paperwork in the way of a person seeking to buy a firearm is tyranny, but putting more paperwork in the way of people trying to vote is sound policy.

Now, they might defend their stance by noting that keeping and bearing arms is a Constitutional right, but even if we leave aside the perplexing ambiguity in the relevant Constitutional language, voting rights are very clearly and explicitly protected in several parts of the Constitution and its Amendments. I’d say that any reasonable interpretation of the Constitution would accord at least as much protection to voting rights as gun rights….

And Ta-Nehisi Coates interviews Jordan Davis’s mother, Lucia McBath, about the guilty verdict in the trial of her son’s murderer, and what it’s like To Raise, Love, and Lose a Black Child.

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Yes Means Yes, Part Two

Posted by Sappho on October 5th, 2014 filed in Feminism, Sexuality


There’s a sequel to the story of my unfortunate experience with D’Kora, and this is where I get to another thread on Steve’s Facebook page, this one about a Camille Paglia article, and a comment someone made in that thread involving a quote from Spider Robinson.

All of us have our views about sex shaped by our own experiences, and these are the things I took away from my experience with D’Kora.
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Yes Means Yes, Part One

Posted by Sappho on October 5th, 2014 filed in Feminism, Sexuality


Last week, California passed a new yes means yes law, defining

(1) An affirmative consent standard in the determination of whether consent was given by both parties to sexual activity. “Affirmative consent” means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity….

In other words, rather than taking the absence of “no” as implying consent for sex, universities are supposed to expect their students to take consent as meaning a clear yes. Silence, here, is not consent.

I’ve been reading people arguing about the law (mainly in the Facebook feed of speculative fiction writer Steven Barnes, who’s a big fan of the new law). Some of the argument is stuff about what exactly people think the new law means, a subject that I’m sure my co-blogger WiredSisters, with her legal experience, can address much better than I can. But one of the big themes in the argument, one that I’ve seen before in “yes means yes” discussions and that has always puzzled me, is the belief of some that sex proceeds best when, apparently, you don’t talk at all (because, spontaneity, and because, surprise, and because talking is such a buzzkill).

I’m not convinced that the law in question actually requires talking (Amanda Hess, at Slate, makes a good case that sufficiently clear and unambiguous actions could meet the law’s standard, even without words). But it puzzles me no end that anyone would find not talking at all before or during sex either the most normal or the most desirable way to proceed. So I wrote, in a comment, on Steve’s post about the “Yes means yes” law:

I’m puzzled. I can’t think of a single instance of sex in my entire life, either, that didn’t meet this standard (and it’s not like I’m talking the whole time). (For that matter, in the one case of non-consent in my life I quite explicitly said no three different times and pushed the guy away, and he kept coming.) Sure, at some points in the process the affirmative consent involves both of us actively initiating physically, and at other points in the process, we’ll be talking to each other. But we’ve pretty much always *both* affirmatively consented verbally *and* both been actively touching each other at some point before any of my orifices is penetrated. Is this really *that* unusual?

Only after I’d written the comment did I remember that it wasn’t strictly true. There was, you see, this one other time, that I had left out. And it was awful. So here’s a fuller account of my own personal experience with “no means no” (even if you don’t want to believe me), with “yes means yes,” and with how “silence means yes” feels, and why you might not want to try it at home. To preserve the confidentiality of all concerned (even the one person who really doesn’t deserve confidentiality, because I don’t want him finding me again in a Google vanity search), I’m using randomly generated Klingon names for everyone except myself. I’m also putting the whole story below the fold, so people concerned about reading anything NSFW can just not read it.
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Ebola and Software Quality Assurance

Posted by Sappho on October 3rd, 2014 filed in Computers, Health and Medicine, News and Commentary


Every so often, a story I was already following suddenly reveals an angle that actually relates to my area of professional expertise. So it is now with Ebola. The Los Angeles Times reports on the Dallas hospital’s mistake in initially sending the new US Ebola patient home from the ER,

Hospital officials now blame a technical flaw for the failure to relay the information about Duncan’s background to the doctors. In a statement, the hospital said an electronic records glitch between the nurse who questioned Duncan and the doctor who treated him led to the lapse. The nurse noted in Duncan’s electronic chart that he said he had arrived from Africa. But the information was not transferred to the doctor’s electronic medical notes. Officials say they are now using a new process to record and share patient information.

I can’t speak to any other adjustments that may need to be made to hospital processes, to make sure any new Ebola cases don’t slip through the cracks, but electronic records are something I understand. In particular, testing software is something I can understand. Here is how errors like the one described slip in to software systems, and what needs to be done to catch them before software goes live.

A failure to transfer critical information from the nurse’s area of the electronic record to the doctor’s can be a bug that was introduced when writing the requirements (the requirement telling the programmers which information needed to be visible to the doctor was improperly written), in the software design (the requirement was there, but it was missed when designed the software), or in the coding phase. Whenever it was introduced, this is what needs to happen for the bug to be caught in the testing phase:

  1. A thorough inventory of test cases. This should include testing every type of information you can enter in the system, and, if you have multiple roles (in this case, nurse and doctor), it should include the right test cases to cover how the doctor and nurse roles interact. One way that you miss this kind of thing in testing is that no one thought to test the case where the nurse enters travel information and the doctor checks for it in the chart.
  2. All test cases need to be executed at least once, of course, but they also need to be executed again if a change has been made that might break that part of the code. Another way that you miss this kind of thing is when it worked once and then got broken. This part can be tricky, since there’s a limit to how often you can test everything. Things that can help: Automation of basic regression, communication between development and QA (so you know when a change has been made that might break something that you’ll need to retest), prioritizing the most critical tests (so that if you miss a bug, at least you can hope it won’t be the one that will lead to a patient with Ebola getting released), and allowing sufficient time to test the release build (slip in lots of changes at the end and skimp on time for testing and you may have trouble).
  3. Test cases are generally written based on the design and requirement documents. But testers should also use their heads, and, if they see that the design and requirements documents missed an issue, flag the issue. If the nurse’s notes for travel aren’t visible to the doctor, and that behavior is consistent with the design and requirement documents, but you notice that this isn’t likely to be what’s actually useful, you’re being a good tested if you point the problem out.

Obviously, the more complex the system, and the more pressed for time people are when developing and testing it, the easier it is to miss these things. But you can see how important it is to learn best practices for not missing these errors.

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America’s Unoriginal Sin

Posted by WiredSisters on October 1st, 2014 filed in College Life, Daily Life, Democracy, Guest Blogger, History, Moral Philosophy, Race


Many years ago, I worked with a Jesuit priest, who once told me that, after his first month of hearing confessions, he had ceased to believe in original sin. “Nothing original about it,” he told me. “Just the same damn things over and over.” I don’t believe in original sin either, at least not on the level of individuals. Collectivities, however, may be different. I believe every collectivity has the potential for a collective egotism (lately I’ve seen it called “groupishness”) that can be profoundly harmful to non-members and often to members as well. Every individual entity more complicated than a rock has an urge to self-preservation. That urge gets fulfilled by eating, reproducing, moving around, and self-defense. In the course of doing those things, the entity may, unavoidably, harm some other entities. This does not raise moral issues for most of us (for one of the more interesting exceptions, try googling “Jainism.”) But when a group does the same thing, the moral issues become more complicated.

Mr. Wired used to make the very useful distinction between prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice is the awareness of other people being, well, “other.” Different from oneself and other members of one’s group. Sometimes this awareness may include the feeling that the “others” are less-than one’s own group in various ways, or maybe even threatening to it. This is the homo sapiens collective version of the urge for self-preservation. Everybody has it, to one degree or another, about one or another “other.” There is nothing wrong with it.

But discrimination is acting on that prejudice. It’s wrong, anti-social, dangerous, immoral, and a Bad Thing. Mr. Wired did not add, but I do, that it’s wrong to shame people about having prejudices, which nobody can possibly help having, but perfectly okay to shame them about behaving in a discriminatory manner.

Over the last couple of years, the major trendy public discussion of prejudice and discrimination seemed to be around homophobia. People whose religion deems homosexual behavior sinful argue that (a) that’s not a prejudice, it’s a religious doctrine or even a divine commandment, and (b) therefore, those who believe such doctrines are not prejudiced, and (c) therefore, for supporters of gay rights to call those who believe such doctrines “bigots” is not only erroneous, but discriminatory. This discussion has died down a bit lately, partly because the facts on the ground, most notably various pro-gay-rights changes in legislation and judicial rulings, have made it less consequential.

And so we’re back to talking, once again, about America’s original prejudice, race. (Well, that’s not exactly the first prejudice to be brought to our shores by English immigrants, but it’s the oldest one that’s still around. The first may arguably be anti-Catholicism, which even gets favorable mention in the Declaration of Independence:
“For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these states” is a reference to the Quebec Act, by which, among other things, the British government guaranteed freedom of religion to Catholics in that province. But I digress.)

The institution of chattel slavery of Africans in the Western Hemisphere was, I think, what the crack in the Liberty Bell really symbolizes. The best and brightest of each generation keep wrestling with it in one form or another. We keep thinking we’ve overcome it. And then it returns in some new form. First we ended the international slave trade. Then we abolished the forms of chattel slavery. Then we abolished de jure Jim Crow. Now, a generation after that, we are just beginning to notice its current incarnations: mass incarceration, the War on Drugs, and the presumption of dangerousness applied to all African-American males and many African-American females. In the meantime, we’ve gotten less prejudiced about interracial romance and marriage, and workplace diversity. You win some, you lose some.

One of the more interesting subheads of the current discussion of prejudice and discrimination is “The Talk.” In this instance, it is the talk the parents of African-American children have with them at some crucial age, instructing them on how not to get perceived as dangerous, and, above all, how not to get shot by the police. Many of its practical details are similar to the instructions routinely given to people about to cross paths with wild predatory animals: move slowly, talk slowly and clearly, don’t do anything unexpected. As a taxpayer, I am disturbed by the notion that the police we train, and arm, and pay, to serve and protect us are in some contexts no better than feral dogs or grizzly bears. But if I had the raising of an African-American boy, I would give him pretty much the same advice.

There are other versions of The Talk, and probably the most common is the talk mothers give to their just-prepubescent daughters about how not to get raped. When I was growing up, girls got it at age eleven or so. Given the decrease in the average age of puberty and the increase in the sexualization of childhood since then, I shudder to think what age that talk is given at now. Judging from much of the current discussion of sexual assault on college campuses today, perhaps it isn’t given at all, which would explain a lot. It would explain why young women are only lately beginning to develop the caution my generation of young women grew up with, about being alone, or drinking too much, or displaying too much of oneself, with young men one doesn’t know and trust. As the mother of a friend of mine once told her, one of the basic requirements of good mothering is making sure one’s children know what to be afraid of. In the wrong hands, this can all too easily degenerate into conditioned paranoia. And even young people who follow whatever rules their parents give them may not be safe from harm anyway. We don’t always know what to be afraid of, and even when we do, we can’t always bring ourselves to say it. What mother would say to her daughter, “Don’t get too close to your stepfather”?

But, getting back to racism, Mr. Wired, despite his belief that prejudice is morally different from discrimination, also believed very strongly that the only way to overcome discrimination is to stop paying attention to racial differences, that color-blindness is the only way past any current incarnation of Jim Crow. He could point to the fact that people with blond hair and blue eyes were once objects of prejudice both in ancient and Byzantine Rome (where slaves and prostitutes were often Slavic imports) and Norman England (where of course the Saxons were the underlings), and now are not only accepted but eagerly imitated by people whose natural coloring is darker.

Is a color-blind society possible? Okay, scientifically speaking, “race” is nonsense. But it is a social reality, and unless we’re willing to wait a thousand years for nature to take its course as it somehow did with the Saxons, it has to be dealt with. Refusing to identify people by “race” on official documents doesn’t create an integrated society, it just makes it harder to see discrimination, much less to confront it.

And, even more important, would a color-blind society be desirable? I’m a member of several “minorities”—female, Jewish, elderly, Hispanic, bisexual, intellectual, independently poor, and mildly disabled. I would not be especially grateful to anyone who treated me as an honorary man, or an honorary Christian, or a potential marathoner. You get the idea. If all I am offered for giving up the various subcultures and “other” communities I belong to is a chance to be a second-class member of the majority, why on earth would I bother?

Quite aside from that, we have seen over and over again during the last century communities that lived side by side in complete acceptance, intermingling, and even intermarriage, for generations and even centuries, until some demonic genocidal outbreak destroyed them both—Jews in Germany, Serbs and Croats and Muslims in Yugoslavia, Hutus and Tutsis in Ruanda. The Hatfields and the McCoys, for that matter. It’s hard to trust current tranquility if you pay any attention to history.

The utopia I aspire to is one in which all of our differences are recognized, and none of them is used as a basis for a hierarchy. Maybe ISIS can make this happen, at least for non-Muslims. Some historians have suggested that Pope Urban had this sort of thing in mind when he declared the First Crusade, in which case ISIS could be right on track. World War II could be a salutary lesson for us, in that, while Hitler was persecuting Jewish atomic scientists, Roosevelt was enlisting the Tuskeegee airmen, and he was on the side that won. Churchill called that war a crusade, too. We Jews, of course, view the Crusades through somewhat jaundiced lenses, since one of the things the crusaders and their local admirers did before getting to the Middle East was slaughter Jews. But a war against the Martians could work to unite all humans, at least for a while. If I were president….

Well, in the meantime, what do we colorless people do about the persistence of prejudice and discrimination against people of color? At the very least, we need to recognize and work to overcome the perception of dangerousness, the almost instinctive fear of non-white male strangers that pervades the consciousness of even the most liberal of us (including some people of color, by the way.) The perception of dangerousness is, of course, closely related to the conditioned paranoia that often feeds into, or results from, The Talk. We need to be a lot more careful, and a lot better informed, about what we tell our children to be afraid of. And perhaps we also need to be more nuanced in how we tell our children to behave in the context of that fear. For instance, crossing the street to avoid intersecting with a bunch of unruly teenage boys (of whatever ethnicity, really) or men of color is likely to be perceived by them as a sign of disrespect. Even if they don’t take visible umbrage at it while you are around to see and hear them, it could have a really bad effect on their next encounter with people like you. Unless they are all visibly armed and actively chanting gang slogans, you may do more to improve the situation by following your current trajectory and saying “Hi,” as you pass them. They may surprise you by reciprocating your greeting. Maybe next time, you can even have a short conversation with them about the weather or the local sports team. One small step for an individual, one giant leap for a group.

Red Emma

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