Reflections on a memory of Sarajevo

Posted by Sappho on June 8th, 2019 filed in History, Peace Testimony

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
And what difference does that make?”

Joseph Heller, Catch 22

One day, back in 1993, I sat in a room full of people from the various warring countries that were then still known as “former Yugoslavia.” My husband, Joel, who had spent three months in 1992 mostly in Croatia and Serbia (with shorter visits to Slovenia and Northern Macedonia), had been invited to join this gathering. Some of his friends were there – a Serbian woman, a Bosnian man. All of the people in the room had gathered in the hope that, somehow, if Serbs and Croats and Bosnians in the US could meet and talk, they could find a way to help fix the ongoing disaster in their respective countries.

Still, they disagreed. Serbs who were appalled at the actions of Milosevic still hoped to press their country to stop its acts of aggression without encouraging the US to bomb Serbia. Others thought that bombs might be just fine, as long as Serbia was stopped. And so a Serb posed the question to a Bosnian whom we knew, a man from Sarajevo. I’ll call him Adin, because that was not his name, and because I don’t think most Americans have preconceptions about the name Adin, as they might if I called him, for example, Ahmed.

“But if the US bombed Serbia, wouldn’t that just mean that other families are getting bombed?”

“Yes,” Adin replied, “But my family would no longer be bombed.”

Bear in mind, as you read this, what was happening in Sarajevo at the time. The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. It began on 5 April 1992 and ended on 29 February 1996. At the time we spoke, the Serbs had managed to blockade the city since 2 May 1992, as they assaulted the city with artillery, tanks, and small arms. According to Wikipedia,

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The Sociopath Next Door, Quakerism, and the blessing for the tsar

Posted by Sappho on May 26th, 2019 filed in Quaker Practice

I recently finished reading Martha Stout’s book The Sociopath Next Door. Stout’s argument is that 4% of the population has antisocial personality disorder, or, as she puts it, are sociopaths, and that sociopaths are without conscience or love. Coming from the perspective of being a therapist who helps people pick up the pieces after being damaged by close relationships (family, romantic, etc.) with sociopaths, she issues the warning that not all sociopaths are behind bars. That many of them are our neighbors, coworkers, friends, or lovers, and we need to be prepared to protect ourselves from them.

The book is readable, backed up by some footnotes pointing to research, but not so loaded with research references that it will be put off any lay reader. I found interesting Stout’s discussion of different kinds of sociopaths, and how to detect a sociopath. (High on the list is the “pity play,” which, as I see it, doesn’t mean anyone you’re inclined to pity, but does mean you want to run like hell from someone who both wrongs you and appeals to your pity – don’t be the woman singing “As Long As He Needs Me.”) Stout is also ready with suggestions on how to respond if you find you are dealing with a sociopath (distance yourself!).

Two questions stuck in my mind, as I read the book. The first: How far can I rely on Stout’s account? Clearly, she’s more expert on this subject than I am. She’s a therapist, and I have a rusty undergraduate psychology major from decades ago. But she’s not the only expert. For instance, her estimate of 4% of the population is backed up by some studies (peer reviewed ones that are referenced in footnotes), but I’ve also seen apparently reputable sources giving other estimates – in one case 3% of men and 1% of women, in another 1% of the population as a whole. Whether we’re talking about 1% or 4% doesn’t change the situation that much, but it’s a reminder that no single book is the whole story on antisocial personality disorder. More telling is the question: Are sociopaths actually as unfeeling as Stout says? Here’s a report on a study suggesting that they feel more regret than we think, but aren’t able to integrate that regret into their decision making.

Still, there does seem to be agreement among psychologists that there’s a minority of the population, whether it’s 1% or 4%, who are, let’s say, conscience challenged. And that raises the second question: how do I react to that information, as a Quaker, remembering George Fox’s exhortation to “Walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone”?

Simply brushing aside the challenge of sociopathy strikes me as a kind of spiritual bypassing:

Spiritual bypassing is a defense mechanism in which one uses spirituality in order to avoid uncomfortable or painful feelings. Maybe one wants to avoid anger, or grief, or loss, or boundaries. So instead of feeling that anger (or grief, or loss, or boundary, or whatever the thing in question may be), one papers it over, and calls the papering-over “spiritual.” 

(The image illustrating this post is a great example of spiritual bypassing in pop culture: Princess Unikitty from the LEGO movie. She’s a sparkling rainbow unicorn, and she over-focuses on the positive, refusing to acknowledge anything that hurts… until she reaches her breaking point, whereupon all the negativity she denied herself causes her to boil over in rage. Image via Stephanie Lin.)

About Bypassing, by the Velveteen Rabbi

Early Quakers had a notion called the Day of Visitation. It’s an idea that seems theologically liberal, perhaps, compared to the Calvinist belief in predestination that was prevalent in 17th century England. Everyone gets a Day of Visitation! No one is predestined not to get this chance. But perhaps also not so liberal compared to how we often think now. Can you miss your chance? (As one hymn, not a Quaker one, puts it, “And that choice goes by forever, twixt that darkness and that light.) I do, though, find myself thinking back to that notion whenever I encounter someone who doesn’t seem to have a sense of empathy that’s reachable now. I don’t get to see the whole arc of that person’s life. Maybe I’m just not present for that person’s Day of Visitation.

Stout, in fact, thinks that sociopaths are to some degree genetically hardwired for lack of empathy, but not entirely hardwired for anti-social personality disorder. She notes that research in China has shown a much smaller percentage of the population meeting the diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder (by which I mean, much smaller whether you take the 1% estimate or the 4% estimate of incidence in the US), and says that culture influences how much sociopathy gets expressed.

Then there’s the question, how do I respond to sociopathy, as a Quaker?

I would say, with humility. Judging someone else to be irredeemable, because a sociopath, is above my pay grade. In most cases, I won’t actually know that the person has antisocial personality disorder, and can I really know who will never change? No. But I can know who I can’t change. I can know, if someone is damaging to me, and has repeatedly shown no willingness to stop that damaging behavior, when it’s time to give that person the blessing for the tsar: “May God bless and keep the tsar – far away from us.”

And that’s OK, because none of us can be there for everyone, trust everyone, or work with everyone.

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Meeting of the Minds, Orange County, 2019

Posted by Sappho on May 19th, 2019 filed in Bipolar Disorder, Classes, Lectures, and Conferences

On Wednesday, May 15, I took a floating holiday from work and joined my husband and another member of our DBSA chapter staffing a table at Meeting of the Minds, a mental health conference that is held every year in Orange County, sponsored by the Orange County Mental Health Association. I’ve attended this conference in other years, and have written posts about what I saw those years.

This year, I spent half my time in the exhibitor area staffing our table, as we traded off which one of us took time away from the table to attend workshops. The exhibitor hall housed tables for a number of organizations. Some offered mental health services addressed to the language and cultural needs of particular immigrant communities. Some represented local hospitals or health insurance groups. Some offered particular kinds of therapy (pharmaceutical, drug/alcohol rehab, psychotherapy of different kinds). Here is the police booth, with an exhibit about how cops and first responders can effectively respond to situations that involve mental illness.

I went to two workshops. The first was given by cops, for cops, and advised on what to do if you are called in to deal with someone who is mentally ill. The cops began by listing their qualifications and specialties as cops. Both were mental health liaison officers and homeless liaison officers. I noticed that both were also terrorism liaison officers, but this turned out to be a coincidence that had nothing to do with the presentation. They also had other qualifications that I didn’t note, because they differed from one to the other.

We then moved into the presentation. Most calls a cop will get that involve mental illness are for low level crimes, not violent. Cops may also get a “suspicious person” call (here one of the presenting cops remarked on how many “suspicious person” calls cops get – “we get suspicious person calls about UPS drivers”) or a call from a concerned family member (for a situation which may or may not meet the legal standard for a “5150” – California law for involuntary commitment to a psych ward). 55% of US cops have no training in mental illness.

We got an overview about mental illness in general, where I did not take notes – mental illness is really common, a large proportion of homeless people are mentally ill, mentally ill people are way more likely to be victims of violent crime than people who are not mentally ill, but are not way more likely to be perpetrators of violent crime. These were expressed as specific statistics (the one I remember is that people who are mentally ill are four times more likely to be victims of violent crime), but, because I didn’t take notes, I’m not going to rely on my memory for the statistics.

Next, we got a presentation on four or five specific conditions. I say “four or five” because whether you count four or five depends on whether you count “depression and anxiety” as one category or not; the cops did combine them when saying they would talk about four conditions, but presented first depression and then anxiety when they got to that part. The full set of conditions were: Autism (which the cops did say was a developmental thing rather than a mental illness), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety. Each presentation followed the same sequence: a general explanation of the condition including some statistics on how common it is and when in a person’s life it usually appears, a video that was either an interview with someone with, say, autism or depression or anxiety, or an attempt to simulate what it was like to have, say, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. And finally a discussion of how a cop should approach someone with that condition.

Then we got a video of some cops handling a situation well.

General advice: Clear, simple commands. No more than one command, or at most two, at a time. A calm voice. Remember that people can be triggered when touched without warning, so, when safety permits, don’t touch or warn before touching. Some conditions got specific advice (for instance, “don’t argue with delusions” was part of the advice for schizophrenia but not, obviously, for autism).

The next workshop that I attended was by a therapist, for therapists (like the cop workshop, it was also attended by people living with mental illness), and it was on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) was created to treat borderline personality disorder and is now also used for other patients with severe, chronic, treatment resistant problems with emotional control.

DBT is not a first line treatment for garden variety depression. Why? Because it is expensive and time intensive. But for borderline personality disorder it is one of two tested treatments. The other is mentalization. But fewer people know how to do mentalization. Learning DBT if you are already a therapist is a 10 week course. This was just an overview.

We got an overview of borderline personality disorder which I will not attempt to summarize.

DBT involves: behavior therapy, affirmation, dialectics, and mindfulness.

Behavior therapy: There is a focus on learning and rewarding new behaviors. In addressing behaviors, first priority is given to life threatening behaviors (dangerous forms of self-harm), second to behaviors that threaten the therapeutic relationship (if therapist and patient can’t maintain a good therapeutic relationship the treatment won’t work), and third to everything else.

Affirmation: Borderline personality disorder is an emotional regulation disorder that is partly a matter of heightened genetic sensitivity and partly a matter of feeling not affirmed. The therapist looks for something in the patient’s experience to affirm (obviously not affirming unhealthy responses, but affirming emotions).

Dialectics: If, like me, you think first of Hegel and Marx when you think of dialectics, you may wonder what dialectics has to do with therapy. In fact, dialectics does have more or less the same meaning that it has when you read your Hegel, and it is relevant. People with borderline personality disorder are prone to black and white thinking. Dialectics, here, means teaching the skill of holding two conflicting ideas, both of which may be part of a larger truth, at the same time.

Mindfulness: Focused attention on some particular thing in the here and now is a useful skill for emotional regulation. (Mindfulness, in fact, is now often incorporated in standard cognitive behavioral therapy, though other DBT practices are not.)

Patients need to commit to six months to learn the skills, and may continue for another six months.

The program includes: individual therapy, group skills learning, and phone coaching (a patient gets to call the therapist for a quick coaching of what skills to use in a triggering situation – not a crisis call but a short refresher call). Another vital part of DBT is that the therapist has a regular consultation with other DBT therapists. This is very helpful for the therapist.

While there are no tested treatments at this time for other personality disorders, DBT is tested and works for borderline. No longer is borderline considered untreatable. DBT works. Go, DBT!

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Links: On Spiritual Bypassing, Prayer, Abortion, and Climate Change

Posted by Sappho on May 19th, 2019 filed in Abortion, Blogwatch, Theology

The Velveteen Rabbi, About Bypassing

Johan Maurer, Abortion and the cost of rhetoric

Jim Burklo: Education: The Cultivation of Attention

David Roberts at Vox, Jay Inslee is writing the climate plan the next president should adopt

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Celebration of Life: Rachel Held Evans, Riley Howell, Zeynep Tufekci’s grandmother

Posted by Sappho on May 5th, 2019 filed in RIP

One of my favorite Christian writers, Rachel Held Evans, has died way too young.

Once upon a time, there lived a girl with a magic book …

“Inspired” by Rachel Held Evans

If you haven’t read Inspired, I recommend it. It’s a lovely book, about encountering the Bible, when young, as a magic book, getting disillusioned later, and recovering the power of the Bible as a story book. I have also loved following Evans’ blog and her Twitter feed. She will be missed. Well, most of all missed by her family (she leaves behind her a husband and young children). But also missed by the wider world.

Also dead way too young: Riley Howell, who died charging a gunman at UNCC

Remember his name, not the name of the shooter.

On hearing of such premature deaths, it’s a comfort to read what a rich long life Zeynep Tufekci’s grandmother lived (though still, of course, sad for Tufekci to lose her). Read about her in Tufekci’s touching blog post, In Memory of my Grandmother: “Educate Your Girls, Cherish Your Good Memories”

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A Mueller Report Round Up

Posted by Sappho on April 30th, 2019 filed in News and Commentary

I finished reading the Mueller Report myself, and summarized what I learned in posts for friends and family to see on Facebook. I’m not posting those comments on the blog, but I am going to do a round up of what others have to say.

Quinta Jurecic at Lawfare Blog, Obstruction of Justice in the Mueller Report: A Heat Map

Quinta Jurecic at Lawfare Blog, Robert Mueller’s Take Care Clause

Benjamin Wittes at Lawfare Blog, Notes on the Mueller Report: A Reading Diary

Ryan Goodman at Just Security, Guide to the Mueller Report’s Findings on “Collusion”

emptywheel, The Commander in Chief Keeps Instructing His National Security Officials Not to Protect the Country



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Busara Road

Posted by Sappho on April 22nd, 2019 filed in Africa news and blogwatch, Books, Fiction, Quaker Practice

Busara Road, by David Hallock Sanders, is a Bildungsroman whose themes range from grief to sexual awakening to the aftermath of colonialism.

In the wake of the death of his mother, 11-year-old Mark Morgan is uprooted from Philadelphia to a small town in the rain forest of western Kenya, as his father seeks to bury his grief in Quaker missionary work. Initially unhappy about the move and scared of his new neighbors, Mark comes to develop a deep love for his new home and his Kikuyu and Luo neighbors.

The book displays a variety of Quaker characters (Quakerism in Kenya proves different from Quakerism in Philadelphia!) who both display serious flaws and sincere devotion to their faith. Also varied are the villagers Mark encounters in his new home, who range from devout to possibly atheist, and who are sharply divided in their response to the aftermath of colonialism. It is this violent colonial past and the continuing impact of the wrongs done during that time that drives much of the plot of the book, as Mark grows in his understanding and appreciation of his new home.

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On Marx and Adam Smith and changing my mind, or not changing it

Posted by Sappho on April 18th, 2019 filed in Economics, History, News and Commentary

“And that is why, when I first registered to vote, I registered for the Communist Party,” my friend tells me.

We’re talking about what it’s like to work a customer service job. How customer facing jobs mean getting less pay to take more crap. How part of the deal can be having maybe a quarter of the customers you’re helping treat you as if you’re not quite human.

And that isn’t, not really, what this post will be about. This post is about changing my mind. About how, sometimes, “changing my mind” isn’t as simple as changing a single position to a different one. Not as simple as, say, being wary of nuclear power because, what about nuclear waste, and then deciding we actually need nuclear power, even more of it, because coal is doing much more harm. Sometimes, instead, a change of mind means moving to a different point on a spectrum, but not all the way to the opposite side. Or changing the nuances with which you hold a particular position. A complicating of your perspective, rather than a reversal of your position.

So let me talk about how my perspective has shifted on three matters: Marx and Marxism, libertarianism, and markets and free trade.

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Posted by Sappho on April 7th, 2019 filed in Quaker Practice

“The clergyman is expected to be a kind of human Sunday,” said Samuel Butler. It’s one of the two quotes from The Way of All Flesh that stick in my mind. The other one is a bit longer:

His wife, too, did not recover rapidly from her confinement; she remained an invalid for months; here was another nuisance and an expensive one, which interfered with the amount which Theobald liked to put by out of his income against, as he said, a rainy day, or to make provision for his family if he should have one. Now he was getting a family, so that it became all the more necessary to put money by, and here was the baby hindering him.

But back to being a human Sunday. I’m glad that the clerk of a meeting is not expected to be any kind of human Sunday, because I’d be a bad one. As it stands, my main job is to clerk/facilitate/guide the monthly meeting for business, and beyond that, I close meeting for worship, give reminders to committees to get started with things, and do various little tasks. And people are kind when I do them imperfectly.

Today was one of those imperfect days. Quaker Explorations looked promising: One of our members was slated to talk about refugee assistance in Orange County. And I arrived ten minutes late. And it turned out that arriving ten minutes late was a blessing, because, while a bunch of other people were taking part in Quaker Explorations, a couple of other Friends and I hung out in the social area talking to a member who was back, whom we hadn’t seen for weeks. And it turned out that was an important conversation to have.

It’s the first Sunday of the month, when we normally read the Queries first during and then after meeting for worship. And this month I forgot – bad clerk! – but my assistant clerk remembered for me, and fetched me a copy of Faith and Practice, and so, though we didn’t have the reading during meeting for worship, we did read queries and have a brief discussion afterward. (This month’s queries: Harmony with Creation.)

Little things (and I’m imperfect in ways much bigger than these), but useful small reminders that sometimes imperfection works out fine. Sometimes a little worse (probably better if I had remembered about those queries), sometimes unexpectedly better (a good thing I didn’t miss that conversation).

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Christchurch and immigration

Posted by Sappho on March 20th, 2019 filed in News and Commentary, Race

Christchurch shootings: Jacinda Ardern calls for global anti-racism fight

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called for a global fight to root out racist right-wing ideology following last week’s deadly attack on two mosques in Christchurch.

In one of her first interviews since then, she told the BBC that she rejected the idea that a rise in immigration was fuelling racism.

Fifty people were killed and dozens more wounded in Friday’s gun attacks.

Ardern is right. I’ve said in the past that I’m not “open borders” as I understand the term (which would mean suddenly removing all existing border regulations, and addressing border issues in terms of “what interferes least with people’s right to move wherever they please” rather than in the cost/benefit terms I favor). And also that I’m very much “open borders” in the everything-to-the-left-of-Donald-Trump sense. But what I’ll say now is that the past few years have convinced me that a) the cities and regions that are actually getting the most immigration aren’t the ones most alarmed about it, and b) cracking down on immigration does not crack down on racism. If there were some magic amount of immigration that would be low enough not to trigger the racists, and some slight amount more that would? Of course I’d pick the somewhat lower amount, to keep my own country together. But it seems that immigration restrictions only empower the racists more, to attack people in their own countries and to spread their poisonous ideology to other countries. Paying their price doesn’t make them go away.

And that is called paying the Dane-geld; but we’ve proved it again and again, that if once you have paid him the Dane-geld you never get rid of the Dane.

Rudyard Kipling

Not paying Danegeld to people who shoot up synagogues and mosques.

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Quaker meeting kids

Posted by Sappho on February 20th, 2019 filed in First Day School

We now have an active group of kids, full of enthusiasm for projects of their own choosing. Within the last couple of months:

They raised money for water filters in a place short on clean water.

They put together homeless hygiene packs.

Several of them did a local version of the spreading international school strike for action on climate change.

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About Yizkor books, and Zikhron Saloniki

Posted by Sappho on January 27th, 2019 filed in Yizkor

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. One of the cities hard hit by the Holocaust was Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. When my grandmother was growing up there, the Jewish population was large enough that my grandmother spoke fluent Ladino (a Jewish version of Spanish). By the end of WWII, the Thessaloniki Jewish community was almost entirely gone.

One way that Jewish communities are remembered is through the writing of Yizkor books, which preserve a record of the communities as they existed before the Holocaust. One such book is Zikhron Saloniki, written by David Recanati and others, and published in Israel in 1972. I am the project coordinator for a JewishGen project to translate this book from Hebrew and Ladino to English. You can find the pages already translated here.

You can donate to this project, and as many other Yizkor book projects as you like, at this page.

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Baby Hitler

Posted by Sappho on January 19th, 2019 filed in Moral Philosophy, Speculative Fiction and Other Geekiness

I don’t find the question “Would you kill Baby Hitler?” especially interesting as a moral question. As Will Wilkinson said

Why is it “kill baby Hitler” rather than “make Hitler’s mom fall in love with YOU” or “kidnap Hitler’s grandpa and strand him in Nepal just before he meets Hitler’s grandma”? People lacking in imagination should not have time machines.

Sure, you can add the hypothetical conditions to ensure that killing baby Hitler will absolutely for sure prevent the Holocaust and nothing else will, but why would I want to do that? Because why would I want to imagine myself killing babies? Sure, it’s a way of posing a philosophical question about doing evil so that good can result, but if you don’t want to do evil that good may result in the real world, why would you change your mind based on a hypothetical that would never happen? Conversely, if you would do evil for some cause that you consider good (maybe even are doing evil to real toddlers because it suits your political goals), the baby Hitler hypothetical, precisely because it can never happen, gives you an oh so easy opportunity to imagine that you’re really not an end justifies the means person, because you would never, ever kill baby Hitler. Given that you can’t kill baby Hitler, this is an easy choice.

I’m more interested in the speculative fiction and alternative history aspects of the “baby Hitler” hypothetical. Speculative fiction: If I’m killing baby Hitler (or, in a gentler version, diverting a somewhat older Hitler into a painting career), how do I get around the time travel paradox that I wouldn’t exist (because my father would never have come to this country) without WWII. If time travel exists, what kinds of temporal alterations are even possible, given that many temporal alterations would pop the time traveler right out of existence? Do time travelers carefully check their genealogy before setting off to alter time, so that only someone whose existence doesn’t depend on Hitler gets to kill him?

For me the most persuasive resolution of this problem, assuming time travel, is a many worlds version of time travel, where you never alter your own timeline, however many times you kill baby Hitler, but rather simply spin off an alternate timeline.

And that leads to the question I find even more interesting, the alternative history question: What would it take to actually change the past? If we live in a multiverse, in which all possible alternate timelines exist, which alternate timelines are actually possible, and what were the changes that made them work?

This ties into a real question about how you view history. What are the driving forces? Implicit in the baby Hitler hypothetical is a “great man theory” of history, where history is explained, for good or ill, by the impact of highly influential individuals. In contrast, “history from below” emphasizes the impact of masses on the leader. From Tolstoy (for whom history is guided by Providence) to Herbert Spencer to Karl Marx (for whom history is driven by shifts in economic forces), the great man theory doesn’t lack for critics. If you believe in “history from below,” killing baby Hitler only ensures that someone else fills his role. But that doesn’t mean that an alternate timeline is impossible; you just need a different sort of change to build that alternate timeline.

In fictional alternate histories, sometimes the change is a shift in a decision in a particular battle (which fits with the great man theory), but other times it’s something else; Years of Rice and Salt takes its point of departure from a more virulent Black Plague, leading to a world without European civilization as we know it.

In our own lives, we sometimes need to act as if the “great man theory” is true (a President Hillary Clinton would have been materially different from Trump, and only a modest number of votes would have needed to shift, in the right states, to put us in that timeline). But we also sometimes need to act as if “history from below” is true, and not everything hangs on whoever is currently President.

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Last round up of the year

Posted by Sappho on December 29th, 2018 filed in Blogwatch

Year end thinks from my friend mama sdb

But the more confusing one was the “leader” who asked me what I was doing to “work on my gift.” Now, I know I haven’t been trained in these things, but I’m pretty sure if it is a gift, that means I didn’t work to earn it.

Also, here is that pesky honesty again. I know what he was really asking me: was I working on  conforming of all the expectations of that God Club. 
And see, I am kind of a contrary thinker about things. I mean, they told me that grace was unearned favor. I was told over and over again that it wasn’t by “might or power, but by the spirit.” That doesn’t seem to leave me a lot to work on.

Some good news on Twitter from Jay Ulfelder

Johan Maurer highlights some of his 2018 posts, from “What’s so urgent about sex?” to “Have we seen his glory?”

Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns, and Money on Anything Good Happening on the Environmental Front?

It’s the day after Holy Innocents Day, but that makes it only a day too late to share Coventry Carol

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Posted by Sappho on December 16th, 2018 filed in Feminism, Music, Sexuality

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

‘Tis the season for arguing about whether “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” should be appreciated as a romantic period piece or rejected as a date rape song. Let’s look at the lyrics

First, let’s look at how the song lyrics tell you that the “mouse” really does want to stay with the “wolf,” and how it makes the “wolf’s” pursuit gentle. Then, I’ll look at the two lines that make the song creepy as all get out in a #MeToo era.

First (because it’s the more straightforward role), the “wolf”: Most of his pleas are either compliments to the “mouse” (“Your eyes are like starlight now”) or references to how very cold it is outside (“Look out the window at the storm”). There’s only one “What’s the sense in hurting my pride?” Imagine if the frequency of these lines were reversed (as they actually sometimes are, when someone is badgering someone to change a “no” to “yes”). There would be nothing romantic about that (and “How could you do this thing to me” would turn from what’s probably meant to be a compliment to an angry demand that the mouse stop rejecting the wolf).

Now, here are all the cues that the “mouse” supplies that her heart isn’t in her rejection:

“I really can’t stay”: Here “really” isn’t an intensifier, but the opposite. If you want to eat another holiday cookie, you say, “I really shouldn’t,” and the person offering says, “Go ahead, it’s Christmas.” Unless the words are “no, I really mean it,” we don’t usually use the word “really” when we really mean it (paradoxical though that may be).

“The neighbors might think”: All of the mouse’s reasons for wanting to go are phrased in terms of concern for her 1940s reputation. Not only isn’t this the way a woman talks who really doesn’t want to have sex; it’s not even the way a woman talks who does on some level want to have sex, but who has reasons of her own (whether doubt about the man, or convictions about when it’s appropriate to have sex) for waiting.

“But maybe just a half a drink more”/”I wish I knew how to break the spell”: At the same time that the mouse tells us that other people would want her to leave, she also drops suggestions that she does want to stay.

“Baby, it’s cold outside”: The dead give away that she’s actually persuaded, and wanted to be persuaded, comes when she joins in on the chorus.

So, with all these cues that show that the song is, yes, of course a 1940s period piece in which a woman who wants to have sex puts up a token resistance for respectability’s sake, what’s the problem?

“The answer is no”: If someone’s saying “I ought to say no, no, no sir,” that’s a sign that the answer may not be “no.” But when she flat out says “the answer is no,” you should take no for an answer, not a negotiating position.

“Say, what’s in that drink?” Obviously the creepiest line in the song, in a #MeToo era. I’m told that, in the time period in question, it’s supposed to mean that there’s nothing in the drink, but the woman is pretending there is, to justify staying. Honestly, that doesn’t make the line less creepy to me. If the signal for “I really do want sex” (I’m drunk! I’m drunk!) is that close to the signal that I really should be left alone (I’m too drunk to take care of myself), then that’s a problem. When I listen to the song as a period piece, I like to imagine “Say, what’s in that drink?” as the mouse saying, “Say, that looks like a really tasty drink, maybe I’ll stay and have some more,” because it’s the only way I can make the line non-creepy to my own sensibilities.

Affirmative consent: The song lyrics do a lot of work both to show you that the mouse’s protests aren’t about her own desires and that she actually does want to stay. In real life, though, when you start interpreting every ambiguous sounding “no” as a “yes,” you wind up pressuring a lot of people who did mean “no” but were trying to phrase their “no” to sound nice. A social convention that treats “no” as a bargaining position harms a lot more people than it helps. (And, as Professor Khachaturian used to say, in the Human Sexuality class at Stanford, “When I came to this country, I had grown up with a custom that you always say no to an extra helping of food, and get talked into taking it. When I saw the plate moving away when I said no, I changed.” If there really are still women who say no when they mean yes, they’ll change their practice if their no is taken seriously, and everyone will be happy, since the women who really mean no will get their no taken seriously.)

Bottom line: Enjoy the song as a period piece if you like, or change the radio when it comes on if you’re in the “this song is creepy” camp, but either way, don’t take it as a template for how to behave on a date.

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G K Chesteron on Democracy

Posted by Sappho on November 30th, 2018 filed in Quotes

This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves — the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.

G K Chesteron, Orthodoxy

This passage is found in Chapter 4, “The Ethics of Elfland.” Immediately following it comes Chesterton’s famous description of tradition as “only democracy extended through time” and “giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” And that point offers an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, there’s some sense to it, as there may, at any given time, be swings in opinion that are best checked by a due regard for “the democracy of the dead,” mistakes made in one age that aren’t made over time. On the other hand, how do we avoid making regard for tradition the perpetuation of real injustice. Also, how do we balance the possibility that those of us currently alive may be missing some wisdom that we would gain from “the democracy of the dead” against the possibility that we may think differently because we are in different circumstances, and the fact that we’re the ones who have to live with our decisions? I can’t say I’d want to let the dead always outvote me. Maybe just to give them a chance to give me pause? To make sure I fully understand them before I dismiss them? And if we talk about democracy of the dead, it needs to be democracy of all the dead – the enslaved as well as the enslavers, those who suffered from Jim Crow as well as those who benefited from it.

At any rate, setting aside the interesting question of what regard we do or don’t owe to tradition, I like the way Chesterton puts his argument for democracy. It’s not that a democratic government will always be right (is any government?), but that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary people themselves.

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Gridlock is better than tyranny

Posted by Sappho on November 23rd, 2018 filed in News and Commentary

Not long ago, after it had become apparent that Democrats had won the House, someone I know, someone who thinks considerably better of Trump than I do, made one of those remarks that comes naturally, when you like a President and see the opposition gain in the midterms. I don’t remember the exact words, but the general sense was that now the Democrats were simply going to block things. And I made the obvious reply, if you’re in the opposition: Gridlock is better than tyranny.

Checks and balances. They’re a good thing.

I got challenged, though, on the word “Tyranny.” At the time, I didn’t care to take the time to reply. If you don’t see Trump as an authoritarian threat to democracy, you’re far enough from me, in your perception of him, after we’ve had two years in office to see what he’s like, that I’m not likely to persuade you to think differently.

Still, at some point it’s worth giving my account of Trump the authoritarian, two years into his Presidency, if not to persuade any of his fans, then to make a record of what I see, as I did at the end of the first year of his Presidency.

Someone said once on Twitter that watching Trump in action is like being a dog in a room of bouncing tennis balls; as soon as you have chased one outrage, another comes down the pike. It’s hard even to narrow down all of my objections to him, as there are so many. But I do want to organize them.

First, let’s divide all of the ways Trump is wrong into two categories: normal things, and things peculiar to Trump.

Normal things aren’t minor. They’re much of what we argue about, come election time, for good reason. The Trump tax cut is skewed to the rich (and whatever cut ordinary folks get will, a) expire over time and b) be more than made up for by the increased taxes from Trump’s tariffs). Preserve healthcare for people with preexisting conditions. Don’t cut Medicare. Etc. And they including some ongoing institutional issues (the deterioration of our Supreme Court nomination process), and one looming disaster: climate change. They’re simply “normal” in the sense that Trump, personally, isn’t outside the norm, here, for a Republican President. And so, though they’re worth talking about, they’re probably better put in a different post from the one that talks about Trump the authoritarian. Trump’s authoritarianism makes all of these problems worse, but they’d still be problems even if we had a considerably less authoritarian President than the one we have.

Things peculiar to Trump aren’t things completely peculiar to Trump. It’s not as if Trump invented racism, or was the only President ever to try to overreach his Constitutional limits. But they are things where Trump is way outside the norm, relative to other Presidents, ways in which he’s a much worse President than most. And, while I can list lots of ways that Trump is a bad President, I’m going to follow the Rule of Three, here, and pick three important Trump flaws, with a few examples of each.

First, Trump is particularly self-serving.

Second, Trump is particularly white supremacist.

Third, Trump is particularly authoritarian.

The obvious examples follow.
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On Julian Assange, Wikileaks, and giving the Devil benefit of law

Posted by Sappho on November 17th, 2018 filed in News and Commentary

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons

Julian Assange should be no one’s hero. Accepting Russia’s weaponized leak of hacked information and timing its release for maximum damage to Hillary is only part of the reason. There’s also the misogyny, the anti-Semitism, and the list goes on. But he’s been a man who should be no one’s hero for a long time, well before the 2016 election. And that’s not the same thing as being a man who should be indicted in the US for a crime. Before you applaud any indictment of Assange, you need to be sure that said indictment isn’t going to cut down protections that we need – that journalism needs – to stand upright in the winds that would blow.

The flip side, though, to the “I’d give the Devil benefit of law” argument is that, once you have given the Devil benefit of law, once you’ve ensured that you haven’t cut your laws flat in your pursuit, and that you have them all for protection if the Devil turns round on you, well, then, go for it.

Balancing these two considerations, the only thing that I can say about the news that sealed charges have been made against Assange is – I have no opinion one way or the other until I know what the charges actually are, and what’s the evidence backing them up. A charge under Section 793 of the Espionage Act of 1917 would be disastrous in First Amendment terms. Other charges might or might not have bad First Amendment implications, depending on the charge.

Some relevant links:
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On Doxing: UPDATED

Posted by Sappho on November 10th, 2018 filed in News and Commentary

UPDATE: Rebecca Kavanaugh goes to the police report of the incident at Tucker Carlson’s house and finds that “it completely contradicts him” and that the police report has “no mention whatsoever of any damage to the front door of Mr. Carlson’s residence. Not a scratch.” and “no mention in the police report of anyone chanting anything about pipe bombs or chanting any sort of threats against Mr. Carlson.” The protesters did spray paint an anarchist symbol on the driveway. This considerably changes the severity of the incident (and, if Matt Yglesias was judging the incident from having read the police report while others were judging it from Tucker Carlson’s account, that might explain their different perspectives on the circumstances of Carlson’s wife). Don’t spray paint other people’s driveways – but spray painting a driveway is still much less bad than threatening to use a pipe bomb. So I stand corrected here. My original post is below, and I stand by everything I said about what principles should be applied to doxing.

Favorite take pervading my mentions today is, “That guy *deserved* to get harassed for saying that other guy deserved to get harassed.”

Will Oremus on Twitter

There are, of course, worse things than what just happened to Tucker Carlson, and what subsequently happened to Matthew Yglesias. There are always worse things. Just this week, about 90 miles from my home (California is big), a mass shooter killed a dozen people. One of my blogging and Facebook friends is mourning one of those who died, a student at his school. A huge fire has been sweeping through Malibu, and another huge fire has been sweeping through northern California (wiping out the town of Paradise, where my grandfather once built water generators). There are always worse things.

There’s also some debate over exactly what the protesters did at Tucker Carlson’s home. Did they actually try to break down his door, in an attempted home invasion (really awful), or merely knock on the door and stand outside the home chanting (still scary for his wife who was home alone, but considerably less bad than trying to break down the door)?

So why blog about these incidents? Because they give me a chance to talk about first principles, concerning a much subject that has lately been much debated on the Internet: doxing.

Why is doxing wrong? And are there any exceptions to the “doxing is wrong” rule? If so, what are those exceptions?
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“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest!”

Posted by Sappho on October 27th, 2018 filed in News and Commentary

Here’s how it works: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” And…someone goes out and kills Thomas Becket. The king gets plausible deniability, the deed is done. In an emotionalized, politicized climate, the least stable will take the first actions. And the speaker gets to say: “who, me?” This is why the tone of speech matters, and our leaders are responsible for setting it, always. Unless the violence is randomly distributed…yeah, partisan politics matter.

Author Steven Barnes, on Facebook

In recent years, a term has begun to circulate to capture this phenomenon — “stochastic terrorism,” in which mass communications, including social media, inspire random acts of violence that according to one description “are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.” In other words, every act and actor is different, and no one knows by whom or where an act will happen — but it’s a good bet that something will.

Eyal Press, op-ed in the New York Times on 10/25/2018

Just this week:
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They’re bombing my childhood now

Posted by Sappho on October 24th, 2018 filed in Memory, News and Commentary

I was going to make one of those snarky posts on Facebook: Marked safe in the California riots. A wry reference to the “sanctuary city riots” that aren’t happening here. Then I lost my sense of humor, when a terrorist started roaming northern Westchester, bombing my childhood.

New Castle is a small town, containing the hamlets of Chappaqua and Millwood. (You can walk between these hamlets in a pinch, and I used to do so when I was a teenager, particularly when I was training for the March of Dimes walk.) It has forests, once roamed by the legendary Leather Man, a Buddha who seems your own special secret when you discover him as a kid, streets where all the Scouts assemble to join the rest of the town in the annual Memorial Day parade (I marched as a child), a Quaker meeting house, and Horace Greeley, my high school, one of the best public high schools in the country. Neighboring New Castle, in different directions, you can find Mt. Kisco (where my family went to church), Ossining (now best known as the hometown of Don Draper in Mad Men), – and Bedford, another town, whose hamlets include Katonah.

I grew up in Millwood, went to school in Chappaqua, and, starting in middle school when my parents divorced, every weekend I would go to my father’s house in Katonah.

On Monday, someone delivered a bomb to the Katonah house of Holocaust survivor and prominent philanthropist George Soros.

On Tuesday, similar bombs were delivered to the DC home of former President Obama, and the Chappaqua home of former President Bill Clinton and former First Lady Hillary Clinton (the bomb was addressed to the latter).

These bombs could have killed their targets. Or the staff who opened the packages. Or someone else in the neighborhood. (I’m not sure how far the Soros house is from its neighbors, but the Clinton house is right in a residential neighborhood, not so far from the high school I attended).

Katonah and Chappaqua are right near each other.

A terrorist is stalking northern Westchester, bombing my childhood.

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