Poverty is not for Sissies

Posted by WiredSisters on October 20th, 2016 filed in Computers, Democracy, Economics, Guest Blogger, Moral Philosophy, Work

Poverty also isn’t for lazy people.  Poor people generally work a lot harder than the rest of us.  The guy who panhandles around the corner from my office building is there from 8-ish to 5-ish every weekday, rain or shine.  For all I know, he could be there on weekends too, but I’m not there to see him.  And he spends most of that time getting rejected.  The only people who can beat that record are some free-lance writers I know.

There was what I suppose some poor people regard as a Golden Age, when all they had to do to keep their welfare grant was show up for various office appointments on time.  Which is not all that easy when you’re poor anyway—it means either having a reliable means of transportation, or having the spare time to allow for its unreliability.

But now, they not only have to comply with the welfare regulations, they have to get, and keep, a really awful job.  Which means they may not be able to make or keep any other appointments, not even those with the welfare office.

A friend of mine is working for a posh grocery chain, Mariano’s (normally I don’t mention names, rather than give the Bad Guys any free publicity.  This time, I want people to know who the Bad Guys are, so as to shop elsewhere.)  They pride themselves on being good employers because they give their workers a schedule every Friday, for the next week.  That schedule is, however, subject to change without much notice.  Sometimes the changes are just because a whole bunch of unexpected customers come in at 11 AM on a Tuesday for no particular reason.  But mostly they are elegantly calibrated, with the aid of a highly sophisticated computer system, to make sure that nobody gets “too many” hours, that is, enough hours for a part-time employee to qualify for full-time benefits, or enough hours for a full-time employee to qualify for overtime.  What this means, of course, is that the worker, even if her part-time status guarantees that she will never have enough hours to earn enough to support her family, will not be able to get, or keep, a second job (except a totally unscheduled one like driving for Uber, or peddling her flesh on the street.)  Never mind classes, or school conferences, or medical appointments.  This is slavery without the fringe benefits of slavery (like slop and shacks.)

Another friend of mine is receiving SSI benefits.  I wrote about this institution a while back, but let me refresh your memory.  This program is for elderly or disabled people who have never established a work record covered by Social Security.  The maximum it pays for a single person, this year, is $732.00 a month.  Every dollar a recipient gets from any other source is deducted from this grant, penny for penny, so $732.00 is also the most a recipient is allowed to get from any source.  No panhandling, no side jobs, no Christmas presents.  In assets, the recipient is allowed $2000 total, usually for a life insurance policy to cover funeral expenses.  Since there aren’t a lot of places to live that rent for less than $732 per month, many SSI recipients are homeless, or live in subsidized housing.  My client recently received a subsidized housing voucher, and is now trying to find a place to rent with it.  The place he has been living all these years, although it is a wretched hovel, would at least save him the trouble of moving.  Problem is, because it is a wretched hovel, it won’t pass the inspection required for subsidized housing.

So my client went looking for someplace else, and finally found one, or so he thought.  But the landlord won’t accept his application.  It is illegal in Chicago to discriminate against housing voucher holders in renting housing, although this ordinance is rarely enforced.  But this particular landlord has figured out an elegant end run around it.  He’s not refusing to rent to my guy because of the source of his income.  He’s refusing to rent to him because my client has no credit!   In the last few years, trying to survive on $732 a month or less, the last thing this guy ever thought about was credit.  Buying on credit presumes that you have disposable income, and that you will continue to have it for the foreseeable future.  Gimme a break!  This is bovine excrement of the highest caliber.  I am now trying to decide whether it is worth pulling this case into court.  It might at least make some landlords think twice about this particular dodge around the city’s source-of-income ordinance.

Hillary has made noises about improving some Social Security programs.  When I fully recover from last night’s debate (which involved my taking a sizeable gulp of Bailey’s every time Trump said something especially outrageous), I intend to write her office about it.  In the meantime, consider this the latest skirmish in the War on Poverty.

Wired Sisters




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Music, immigration, and ballot propositions

Posted by Sappho on October 15th, 2016 filed in California Ballot Propositions, Music

Sometimes I like to listen to a song over and over. Or a couple of songs over and over. Today, I have a split personality in my music. I’m alternating between “Not Ready to Make Nice” and “Avinu Malkeinu” (another version here). It fits my mood, when I think of the current state of my country. I’m not ready to make nice, and please, God, have compassion on us and bring us peace.

At my Quaker meeting, we have what we call Quaker Explorations before meeting for worship. Sometimes I go (and am always glad when I do), and sometimes (lazy co-clerk that I am) I sleep late enough on Sunday that I just make it in time for meeting for worship. Not long ago, Quaker Explorations was about remembering our elders, and we shared stories of those no longer with us, including a Japanese-American woman who spent time in Manzanar as a child, and who as an adult drove trucks for the AFSC, her tiny frame dwarfed by the large trucks she drove. Last week, I didn’t go, but the discussion, which had been about William Penn, inspired ministry in meeting for worship. Betty, who had recently been at a legal clinic concerning immigration issues in Mexico, spoke about her experience, and about Penn’s invitation, “Let us see what love can do.”

Here is Betty’s one post blog about her experience.

We have our voter information pamphlets, and I am going to go over the many propositions and blog about them. But, not being ready yet, I’ll point you to some other sources.

My friend Daniel has a whole series of Decision 2016 posts about the election, including Prop 60 through 67 and Prop 51 through 59 (as well as the top of the ticket and down ballot races).

Informative pages about the California propositions can be found at Ballotpedia, the League of Women Voters, and the Institute of Governmental Studies at Berkeley.

And there’s my friend Jim Burklo’s Votivator Facebook page, where he discusses his views and invites discussion from others.

At a first glance, I am thinking:

Proposition 54 (Publication of Legislative Bills Prior to Vote): Yes
Proposition 57 (Parole for Non-Violent Criminals; Juvenile Court Trial Requirements): Yes
Proposition 58 (Allow Non-English Languages in Public Education): Yes
Proposition 62 (Repeal of the Death Penalty): YES!
Proposition 66 (Death Penalty Procedures): No

It’s possible that my husband and I will wind up voting on different sides on Proposition 64 (Marijuana Legalization); I’m concerned about what we’re obliged to do to enforce that law, while he, initially in favor, is hesitant after hearing the argument that we don’t have a good way to test for driving under the influence.

I do have opinions on some of the others, too, but I need to sit and analyze them, and come back with more than a simple Yes/No for you on each. My friend Max is encouraging me to do this soon.

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Choosing Our Own Caligula

Posted by WiredSisters on October 13th, 2016 filed in Democracy, Genealogy, Health and Medicine, History, Moral Philosophy, Sexuality

Historians have often enjoyed pointing to the role that luck plays in designating hereditary monarchs.  If you got a kick out of I, Claudius, either in print or on PBS, you have already seen that role at its worst.  Caligula and Nero were both evil, crazy, and incompetent; Tiberius and Claudius were at least moderately competent, though their personal habits were sometimes deplorable.  Fast forward to 1776; George III, the British monarch of the time, was crazy and mostly incompetent, though not exactly evil.  No doubt Rome, and Britain, had plenty of other better-qualified, sane people out there, but the choice of monarchs at the time was constrained by the rules of monarchical heredity.  So were the personalities of some of the monarchs.

There are monarchs around these days too, although most of them have very little real power.  Just as well, we think.  Some of them are nice people; every now and then one of them may have a flash of intelligence; even if their more corrupt relatives ever succeed to the throne, they won’t be able to do much damage.  But imagine one with the power that our constitution gives POTUS.  And imagine an electorate that deliberately and knowingly chooses a George III or even a Caligula.  Not just the familial luck of the draw, an outright electoral decision, of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Notice, by the way, that our modern dictators have their own familial oddities.  They may have no relatives to speak of, like Hitler.  They may kill off their families, like Stalin. Or they may create a dynasty, like the North Korean Kims.  They may create a constitutional mechanism for selecting succeeding dictators, as Iran has with its religiously-appointed Supreme Leader.

And most democracies are not immune to informal dynasties, like the Argentinian Perons and the American Adamses, Roosevelts, Taylors, Kennedys, etc.  Some of those have worked better than others. Most of the American dynasties have worked surprisingly well.  Mostly that’s because, in choosing democratic dynasties, the popular electorate still gets the last word.  And has usually exercised it pretty intelligently.

Oh dear readers, how I wish you were all history buffs!  At least, if you get the chance, binge-watch I, Claudius.  There you will find, among other things, how the fall of Caligula and Nero involved, among other factors, disgruntled relatives of women insulted or seduced by the emperor.  History, as Marx points out, repeats itself, first as drama, and then as farce.  Or, as Patrick Henry said, “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third…..may profit by their example!”   Enjoy.

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Mercury and Me: About “Middleman Minorities,” the Ottoman Empire, and the Merchant/Financial Sector Side of My Ancestry

Posted by Sappho on October 8th, 2016 filed in History

My Veniamin great-grandfather had, my aunt Yvonni told me, factory which made different kinds of clothes, fezzes, and both European and Turkish clothes. But that wasn’t his only job. As I’ve traced his way through civil records microfilmed by the LDS, I’ve found that he’s sometimes a “ktimatomesitis” (real estate broker), other times a “mesitis” (broker), and on his death certificate a public employee. His Kapitzoglou father-in-law, my aunt Avrilia tells me, was a “chrimatistis,” a word that now translates into English as “stock broker” or “financier.” Did he actually sell stocks? Maybe. My great-grandmother, Glykeria Kapitzoglou, was born in Istanbul in the late 19th century, and at that time the recently established stock exchange in Istanbul could have allowed her father to make a living as a stock broker. At any rate, one thing is clear. The Veniamin/Kapitzoglou families were in finance and trade, handling money or acting as merchants.

In the Ottoman Empire, as in a number of other cultures, trade was a profession adopted by certain ethnic groups (Jews, Greeks, and Armenians in the Ottoman Empire) and not so much by others. The ruling Turks, like the ruling Christians in medieval Europe, disdained lending at interest and were not so interested in mercantile professions, and so consigned these jobs to others. So, as I look at the professions of my ancestors on this side, it occurs to me that they were that thing that’s variously described as a “middleman minority” or a “market-dominant minority” or a “Mercurian” “service nomad.”

So this is a post where I pull together a few links on what those terms mean, and how different people have viewed this “middleman minority” category.
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The Basket of Deplorables–Half Full or Half Empty?

Posted by WiredSisters on September 30th, 2016 filed in Feminism, History

When I was just starting high school, and just starting to pay attention to boys and vice versa, my mother told me something that impresses me more and more as I get older.  “Always notice how a guy talks about or behaves with his mother.”  There are any number of levels on which that makes sense—how does a guy treat a woman he has to spend time with?  Is he rude?  And (I have come to realize more recently) how will he treat you when you get to her age?  But there is one implication she could not possibly have foreseen in the 1950s—how will he deal with intelligent, strong women of that age as politicians, business executives, academicians, clergy, or other decision-makers?

We got a chance to find out, with the interaction of two presidential candidates last night.  It wasn’t pretty.  But it was encouraging.  All through this campaign, and Clinton’s last one in 2008, we heard people complain about her voice, her face, her “schoolteacher,” “nanny,” “shrill,” “strident” way of talking and acting.  (Maybe the critics had problems with their mothers?)

A long time ago I realized that, in any social context, women always have two items on their agenda that men don’t—looking attractive, and not getting raped.  This is not necessarily unfair, because men always have one item on their agenda that women usually don’t—dominance.  Under the circumstances, it’s amazing, and perhaps a credit to the human race, that any work gets done at all.

Anyway, last night, Hillary’s voice was actually quite attractive and effective.  Maybe she has finally found a voice coach (my concern about her voice has been that she was damaging it by using it so harshly.  Her husband had similar problems for a while—maybe he loaned her his voice coach?) She was obviously having fun, which I haven’t seen her do very often.  In answer to his unanswerable “I have a winning temperament.  I know how to win,” she did a now-notorious “shimmy” and exclaimed “Woo! Okay!”*  For the first time during any presidential debate I have ever watched, I laughed out loud.

I normally don’t watch political events live, except inaugurations.  I don’t go as far as one of my clients who, in an effort to avoid watching Bill’s November 19, 2010 speech about his relationship with “that woman” actually got himself arrested and ended up manacled to the wall of a police station, unable to avoid watching “the speech” on the station TV (appointment in Samarra, anyone?) But it’s easy enough to study my online tutorial or wash my hair or cook up my week’s lunches or have an hour-long phone conversation with my brother.  Last night, I began to reconsider that policy.

I also began to reconsider the policy that every lefty I know, and every lefty organization email I receive, has strictly adhered to this year—avoiding disappointment by keeping our expectations low.      (I still remember falling asleep on the night of November 7, 2000 hearing the radio election coverage tell me that Florida was clearly going for Gore, and waking up the next morning to the cluster$#@% that was ultimately the Bush victory.  That’s a trauma that probably haunts all of us.)  Maybe we can actually win this one!  Maybe we can even enjoy the experience!  Two-and-a-half cheers for democracy!

* This needs an emoticon.  Suggestions, anyone?

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Heard today from a friend

Posted by Sappho on September 25th, 2016 filed in Peace Testimony, Quaker Practice

I know murderers whom I would trust with my life.

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A quote from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France

Posted by Sappho on September 18th, 2016 filed in Books, Quotes

I’m not actually reading Reflections on the Revolution in France in full – too lazy or too busy with other things. But I’m skimming through it to find quotes relevant to Burke’s thoughts about change, and what “Burkean conservatism” actually means. To that end, here’s a quote that I found interesting:

I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentleman of that society, be he who he will; and perhaps I have given as good proofs of my attachment to that cause in the whole course of my public conduct. I think I envy liberty as little as they do to any other nation. But I cannot stand forward and give praise or blame to anything which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction. Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing color and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind. Abstractedly speaking, government, as well as liberty, is good; yet could I, in common sense, ten years ago, have felicitated France on her enjoyment of a government (for she then had a government) without inquiry what the nature of that government was, or how it was administered? Can I now congratulate the same nation upon its freedom? Is it because liberty in the abstract may be classed amongst the blessings of mankind, that I am seriously to felicitate a madman, who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell, on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty? Am I to congratulate a highwayman and murderer who has broke prison upon the recovery of his natural rights? This would be to act over again the scene of the criminals condemned to the galleys, and their heroic deliverer, the metaphysic Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance.

Here I see Burke at his most appealing. I especially like the line “Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing color and discriminating effect.” I’m now living in a time when people are pointing to the fact that there are some hot spots in the world that aren’t going the way the US would like – which has been the case, through ten different Presidents, for my entire lifetime! – as evidence that we need “change,” and should vote for ignorant and incoherent Trump over level-headed, intelligent, and qualified Clinton. But circumstances are what gives any political principle its distinguishing color, and, before I’m to say whether “change” is a good thing, I have to ask what is being changed, and whether it’s really a change for the better. Even in the case where the status quo is flawed (which is, frankly, always the case, and certainly has been the case for my entire lifetime), I need, whether in foreign or in domestic policy, only to vote for “change” when the circumstances and details of what I’m voting for tell me that “change” will be an improvement. There’s a lovely German word, “Schlimmbesserung,” for supposed improvements that actually make things worse. Whatever the flaws I’ve seen in my country’s foreign policy over the course of my lifetime – and I’ve often been a critic – I’ll go for the most competent and deftly run version of that policy that’s on the table before I’ll go for a wrecking ball.

Now, here’s the part where Burke is alien to my modern American ears, because I’m just not royalist enough for his principles to resonate with me:
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Posted by Sappho on September 14th, 2016 filed in Genealogy, Race

I don’t normally begin posts with “as someone with Native American ancestry.” There’s a lot that I’m not willing to claim, based on my tiny fraction of Native American ancestry. I don’t get to go ask the Mashpee Wampanoag for a share of their casino earnings, if they get approval to build that casino, not even if it turns out my Native American ancestor really was Mary Little Dove. It turns out, though, that I’m exactly the same sort of someone with Native American ancestry that Elizabeth Warren is – one who is mostly white, who looks white to all appearances, and whose Native American ancestry you may well doubt. And here’s what I have to say.

My great-great-grandfather, James Madison Moore, was the son of Irish immigrants. That’s what I tell you now, but if you’ve followed my attempt to trace his line, on this blog, you may remember that I once thought he was descended from colonial era Scots-Irish immigrants, and later thought his family was a Pennsylvania German family who assimilated their name to Moore. So you may well question whether I now have it right.

But the one thing you won’t do, whether you think I’m right or mistaken about my Irish ancestry, is mockingly call my great-great-grandfather “Niall of the Nine Hostages,” or display leprechauns or sing “The Wearing of the Green” to poke fun at him.

James Madison Moore’s wife, Ella Frances Merchant, is the source of my Native American ancestry. I have good reasons to believe this of her; as with her husband, you may think that I’m right or you may think that I’m mistaken. But either way, should you get to mock my great-great-grandmother by calling me “Pocahontas” or greeting me with war whoops?

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No More Water, But Fire Next Time

Posted by Sappho on September 3rd, 2016 filed in California Wildfires

For the past few days, I have been near a fire known as #HolyFire. It feels apocalyptic.

“The Lord showed Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, but fire next time.

I first learned of the fire the way we learn of all disasters these days, from Facebook.

“You really should let your friends and family know that you’re safe,” Facebook said.

“I’m near a wild fire?” I said. Here at the top of the hill, where we live, the skies were blue and free of smoke.

“Yes, you really are near a fire,” said Google.

“It’s only 5% contained,” added Twitter. “And people in the canyon near you have gotten a voluntary evacuation order. Here’s where they get to go if they evacuate.”

So, though the fire didn’t look threatening from my vantage point, I packed a few things to take to work. The calendar of family photos that my sister made from my mother’s eightieth birthday party. My great-uncle’s journal and his autobiography. My uncle’s mini-biography of his grandfather. A thank you letter from one pair of nieces, and a Christmas card with a photo of another niece and nephew. A copy of the traffic theory book that my father authored. I threw my laptop in the trunk of the car, and I left a thumb drive back up of many of its files when I brought it back home with me in the evening.

Children played ball in the condo complex as if the fire was all the way across the country. Had we had a Santa Ana wind blowing our way, it might have been far more dangerous. As it is, I check Twitter and the incident web site regularly, and see the containment level first creep slowly up for a few days, then rise more rapidly. Right now, the last report I’ve seen is that it’s 67% contained. Thanks to our brave firefighters. And no thanks to the couple of fools who have been flying drones in the way of firefighters’ helicopters, prompting a couple of suspensions of firefighting activities and one threat of arrest if a drone didn’t get the hell out of the way now.

As I check Twitter for fire updates, other stories flit across my screen. The death of the leader of Uzbekistan. A review of Kameron Hurley’s book on geek feminism. A report from an International Crisis Group analyst about Boko Haram. A decline in the murder rate in NYC (the lowest level ever recorded, as of 2016). A senator in Kenya dancing with a member of the RedSpaxx dance group. A plague genome sequenced from a 6th century woman’s teeth. Mother Teresa’s impending canonization. And the hope that we may soon see a #TacoTruckOnEveryCorner.

Today I joined a barbecue by our swimming pool. The #HolyFire seems very distant indeed.

“You better get ready, and bear this in mind…. No more water, but fire next time.”

(The real reason our local fire is called #HolyFire can be found here.)

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Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Posted by Sappho on August 28th, 2016 filed in Movies, Speculative Fiction and Other Geekiness

We just saw this, so here’s my summary.

One line plot summary: Everyone is really pissed off at Superman for the collateral damage from his last super battle.
Mood: Grimdark. Really grimdark. More of a Batman movie feel than a Superman movie feel, and grimdark even for a Batman movie.
Best part: Wonder Woman, by far. I liked her character, I liked that she had a bit of a Greek accent, and I liked the “I thought she was with you” moment.
Weakness: Missed opportunity for some lightening touch of humor. Alfred (well played by Jeremy Irons) could easily have been more used to fill that role. I mean, Casablanca is a serious movie about Nazis, but it still managed touches of humor. OK, not every movie can be Casablanca, but is it too much to ask for a little light amidst the darkness?
Bechdel Test: There were multiple named women with significant roles, but the movie somehow managed to avoid having any of them talk to each other. So, no, I don’t think this movie passed that test.

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Here’s to Maurice Walker and a Good Day for Justice

Posted by WiredSisters on August 23rd, 2016 filed in Economics, Law, Moral Philosophy

Last week, some of you may have seen my post “The Eighth Amendment Revisited.” Apparently, as I was drafting it, the US Attorneys in the 11th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals were writing something very similar, in the case of Maurice Walker v. Calhoun, GA. Locking a man up for “walking while intoxicated”* for six days because he couldn’t post $160 bail (on a monthly income of $540 a month) discriminated unconstitutionally against poor people. As soon as I can get hold of the actual brief, I’ll probably post about it again.
*Walking while intoxicated? Seriously? How are intoxicated people supposed to get around, if they can’t drive and they can’t walk? Or are they just supposed to stay where they had that last drink, until the buzz wears off? Even after closing time? Even if that constitutes trespassing? When I googled “walking while intoxicated”, I found that drunk pedestrians get hit by cars pretty often. The New York Times says 37% of all pedestrians who get hit by cars have alcohol in their bloodstream. But on the other hand, the data indicates that they aren’t likely to harm anybody else.
This does, however, call to mind a case I had in my early years of practice—an 83-year-old African-American man who got hit one evening by a car driven by a lady who drove off without stopping, but not before somebody got her license plate number. When her hit-and-run case got to court, she claimed that she hadn’t stopped because she was afraid of the man she had hit (a rather scrawny-looking elderly man.) Since then, of course, we’ve all heard a lot about colorless people perceiving people of color as “dangerous,” but even in light of this new data, I find that argument unconvincing. And somewhere in the course of her trial, somebody said they thought my client had been drinking. When I asked him later, he allowed as how he had, but just a couple of beers. So this makes him fair game for paranoid white ladies? Gimme a break!!
I hope somebody gives Maurice Walker enough money for a drink and a cab ride home.

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Puppies 2016

Posted by Sappho on August 13th, 2016 filed in Speculative Fiction and Other Geekiness

The Hugo voting has been over, now, for a couple of weeks, and MidAmeriCon will begin this week. I’m betting that Vox Day, once again, doesn’t actually win a Hugo just because he managed to get a sufficient crowd to nominate him, but beyond that, well, I’ll find out who wins when it happens.

I bought a supporting membership this year, as I did last year, but haven’t written as much about it, partly because I’m busy with my new job, and partly because I’m preoccupied with the election. Still, I don’t want to completely avoid commenting. So this is that post.

Like last year’s ballot, this one was thoroughly Puppied. It’s probably the last year we’ll see quite this much of a Puppy sweep, as the E Pluribus Hugo nomination system, approved last year and probably to be approved again this year, won’t eliminate slates, but it should at least prevent a coordinated minority from taking all of the Hugo nominations for multiple categories, by nominating in concert while others scatter their nominations.

The results were mixed. Best Related Works was absolutely awful, and thoroughly deserves another No Award. Works like “SJWs Always Lie.” For real. Still, I’ll get no joy in seeing the “The Story of Moira Greyland” get placed below No Award; this nomination offers an unpleasant choice between humiliating someone who suffered actual abuse, and giving a Hugo Award to a work that argues that gay and lesbian people in general are child molesters.

Other Puppy nominations, like Stephen King and Neil Gaimann, are fine writers who could easily have gotten on the ballot without Puppy support. Having decided, as I did last year, to do my voting on merit, I mostly didn’t bother to find out which of the works were Puppy nominated and which weren’t. In some cases, it was obvious (who but the Rabid Puppies would have nominated in the Fan Artist category someone whose drawings are largely in support of GamerGate, and who else would nominate Vox Day himself). In some, it was a safe bet that the Rabid Puppies, in particular, would have nothing to do with the nomination. (Vox Day originally fell on the outs with much of SF fandom due to a racist suggestion that N.K. Jemisin was a savage so, yeah, probably she wasn’t on his slate.) But in a lot of cases, who knows? The Puppies nominated some good stuff, as well as some bad stuff, this year.

While last year, the Rabid Puppies had piled on to give John C. Wright multiple nominations, this year they decided to bestow multiple nominations on Jerry Pournelle’s There Will Be War. This left me more ambivalent than last year’s Wright nominations; I neither like Wright as a writer nor care for the part he’s taken in the Puppy Wars, so it was no loss to see him lose over and over to Noah Ward. Pournelle, on the other hand, is a writer I’ve long enjoyed. And I remember fondly my discovery of the first There Will Be War. He’s stayed out of the Puppy Wars and, though his politics aren’t remotely mine, he treats people with varied views with respect. I’m not convinced that his actual literary merits are to have himself and everything from his anthology lose to Noah Ward.

But I also don’t think he’s such an excellent editor that he deserves to sweep the awards. One of the works that got nominated from There Will Be War, “Seven Kill Tiger,” was absolutely awful. Even the There Will Be War nominee that looked most interesting to me, “Flash Point Titan,” didn’t draw me the way other Hugo packet entries did.

Neil Gaimann, yay! (But I’d already read, and loved, this particular work.)

The Semiprozine and Fanzine categories included some sites I’d already learned to appreciate, like Strange Horizons and File 770, and some new finds, like Lady Business.

Stephen King’s “Obits” grabbed me from the start, with its tale of a man who learns that he can make living people die by writing obits for them (and that’s not the worst of it).

“Cat Pictures, Please” was a charming short story about the troubles of a benevolent AI.

In “Binti,” a Himba woman from Namibia uses her own ingenuity to face attack from an alien species.

And N. K. Jemisin, well, I’d heard of her dispute with Vox Day, and I’d seen some of her Tweets, but I’d never actually read her writing. Fifth Season showed me that she’s a writer well worth reading.

Still, I’m looking forward to E Hugo Pluribus winning the vote, and a more varied set of people getting their Hugo nominations on the ballot next year.

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For the beauty of the earth

Posted by Sappho on July 31st, 2016 filed in Daily Life, Music, Quaker Practice

A little over four years ago, when I had cancer, my mother came out to help me. One of the things she and I share, on Facebook, is the fact that we follow a page called Unapologetically Episcopalian, which posts lovely hymns twice a day, for morning and evening prayer. And so one of my memories of that time is of a day when I got up for work (I went to work, on those days that weren’t chemo day, and scheduled chemo day for Friday so I could rest on the weekend). Mom, always an early riser, was up before me, and when I got up that morning, she put on the hymn of the day, “For the Beauty of the Earth.”

Today I get up to prepare for meeting for worship. I’ll be seeing my oncologist in two days. Probably getting one order for a blood test and another for a CT scan. Possibly, if all goes well, my last CT scan (it’s been over a year since I had one, though I still get the blood test every six months). But today is a meeting for worship day like any other. I’m assistant clerk, now, and Sherri is out of town, so it will be my job to close meeting for worship with a handshake. I put on my “Well-behaved Women Rarely Make History” T-shirt, a pair of jeans, and the sandals that my sister-in-law Tchissem got me when I visited her and the family in Senegal. Because a Pacific Yearly Meeting Quaker meeting is the kind of place where those are your Sunday-going-to-meeting clothes, and because “Well-behaved Women Rarely Make History” seems like a fitting T-shirt for today.

As I check Unapologetically Episcopalian, I see that the morning hymn for yesterday (which I missed, because Joel and I were out for a group hike that started early in the morning – 16k steps on the Fitbit yesterday!) was “For the Beauty of the Earth.” So I play it.

It’s a beauty worth celebrating.

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Getting There From Here: Why BLM is essential to European-style democratic socialism in the US

Posted by WiredSisters on July 27th, 2016 filed in Bible study, Democracy, Dreams, Economics, Implicit Associations Tests, Race

My late husband and I used to have this argument over and over during the 46 years we were married. If we were having it now, he would phrase his side of it as “all lives matter.  We need to create an economic and political system in which race doesn’t matter because all of us would be treated equally and justly.  That’s what democratic socialism is all about.”  And I would respond, “That’s a goal, not a path for getting there.  Until we get rid of racism, we will never have socialism or any other kind of equal justice for all of us.  And the only way to get rid of racism is to be able to recognize it when we see it.”

I always found his position attractive.  But I could only respond, sadly, “you can’t get there from here.”  We have fought three wars on poverty in my lifetime, and we lost them all because of the racism at the root of our political and economic system.

The first of those wars was the New Deal.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt (and still more, Eleanor Roosevelt) used the power of the White House to battle unemployment, child labor, low wages, and the consequences of aging and illness.  But in order to get Congress to work with him, Roosevelt had to cooperate with the Southern wing of the Democratic Party.   That wing was solidly organized and brilliantly managed.  It was a great machine for getting things done.  But its first purpose was the maintenance of Jim Crow in the South.  It would cooperate on nothing else with any opponents of segregation and racism.  FDR had to make a deal with the devil to accomplish any of the New Deal programs.  If you want to get the whole story, read Ira Katznelson’s masterful books When Affirmative Action was White¸ and Fear Itself.

The second war on poverty was never advertised as such, but it moved an entire generation of Americans into the middle class:  the World War II GI Bill.  It may well have been the closest the US ever came to socialism.  The men (and the few women) coming home from military service were suddenly entitled to education, medical care, and home ownership through VA benefits.   Well, some of them were.  The education and medical care were pretty much available to all veterans.  But the home loans were something else entirely.  Most of the homes that were newly built or available for purchase were in neighborhoods Black veterans could not move into.  In their “own” neighborhoods, all they could do was rent, or buy on unconscionable “contract” terms.  The VA offered no help to renters or contract buyers.

The third war on poverty was the one to which Lyndon Johnson actually gave that name, in the 1960s.  Most of what it accomplished was to extend to Black Americans many of the benefits White Americans had gotten thirty years earlier with the New Deal.

Since then, we haven’t just stalled in the fight against poverty, we have actually backslid—that’s what “welfare reform” was all about.  It sort of worked, briefly, while the economy was in good enough shape to conceal its dangers.  Then came the recession, and now most non-rich Americans are actually worse off than we were fifty years ago.

Let’s talk about “welfare” and “welfare reform.”  The original official title of “welfare” was Aid to Dependent Children.  It was a New Deal program intended for widows with children to raise.  Like many New Deal programs, part of its purpose was to keep out of the work force anybody other than able-bodied men aged 20 to 65, so that that demographic could have first dibs on what few jobs were available.  Social Security targeted older Americans; child labor and compulsory education laws targeted youth; and Aid to Dependent Children targeted single mothers, who ought to be home taking care of their children anyway.

Among the women excluded from the program were Black women (because they could always get jobs doing domestic service) and unmarried women (because their homes were “unsuitable” for children.) And the Southern Democrats were fine with the program as long as it was only for respectable white widows.

But by the time the official War on Poverty came along, an increasing proportion of ADC recipients were unmarried women of color.  Indeed, many colorless Americans sincerely believed the program was for unmarried women of color and for nobody else (in the 1970s, one of my clients explained that to me—as to a naïve dimbulb–when I asked her why she didn’t apply for welfare, which she was clearly qualified for at the time.) In fact, the popular image of people on any kind of government aid program except VA home loans and Social Security was distinctly dark-skinned.  That was never accurate, of course.  Most poor people in the US, and most people on aid programs for poor people, are white, because most Americans are white (though this will not be true for much longer.)  Even private sector programs to assist poor people tend to be perceived as targeted toward people of color.  The United Way public service ads on Chicago buses always very carefully depict their beneficiaries in demographically correct batches of 6 whites, 3 African-Americans, two Hispanics and an Asian, more or less, in a varied assortment of genders and ages, just to disabuse the riding public of this notion, but it doesn’t help much.

There are two problems with this misperception, aside from its inaccuracy.  One is that no matter how hard we try to clean up our presumptions, most colorless Americans (and a lot of people of color, too, for that matter) deep down in their hearts believe that people of color are less “worthy” than the rest of us, and therefore less deserving of public or private sector assistance or most other good things in life.  And the other is that, quite aside from this belief, we see people of color as “other.”  Not like us.

The wise-ass Pharisee asked Jesus “who is my neighbor?”  after quoting Leviticus 19:18 telling us to love our neighbors as ourselves.   Most non-Jewish Americans are more familiar with the New Testament version in Matthew 22:39, but biblical scholars have spent a lot of time and discussion of both these admonitions.  Mine is a little different from both.

My mother taught me that imagination is the moral faculty.  It is what enables us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.  And it is really a leap of faith.  None of us can really know that other people are “like ourselves,” in having emotions, feelings, thoughts, beliefs—in having insides.  Experimental neuropsychology is working hard to prove it, but we aren’t there yet.  But this commandment requires us to believe it anyway, to believe that our neighbor is “like ourselves,” and therefore to love him/her.  Jesus’ response—the Good Samaritan story–points us in that same direction.  To act as a neighbor to another person is to recognize him or her as deserving as much relief from pain and need and poverty as we do.  Like us.  Not “other.”

Among the things that are impossible to a society that does not recognize all its people as “neighbors” is socialism.  Socialism has worked in European countries because most of them are (or were, until recently) racially and culturally homogenous.  So Europeans viewed any programs for the benefit of people in need as not for “others”, but for “us.”  Now that an increasing proportion of European citizens and residents are “non-European” in origins and culture, European socialism may be in considerable jeopardy.  I share Bernie Sanders’ aspirations to institute European-style socialism in this country.  But if we could do it, we might then have to model it for our European colleagues in hope of helping them get it back.  What we would have to model is how to get over “othering” our neighbors so that we can set up a system that works for the welfare of all of us.

“Black Lives Matter” is just another way of saying this.






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Reflex and Reflection

Posted by WiredSisters on July 25th, 2016 filed in Implicit Associations Tests, Law, Moral Philosophy, Race

Last week, a North Miami police officer shot Charles Kinsey, a behavior therapist who was trying to get his autistic client, Arnaldo Eliud Rios Soto, out of the middle of the street and back to his group home.  Kinsey was unarmed, and immediately obeyed the police officer’s order to lie on the ground and raise his arms, prominently displaying his empty hands.  Soto, in the meantime, was sitting on the ground with a toy car in one hand.  The police officer was allegedly responding to a 911 call about a suicidal man with a gun.  Fortunately, Kinsey was only wounded in the leg.  He asked the police officer “Why did you shoot me?”  “I don’t know,” said the cop.

The officer, Jonathan Aledda, a four-year veteran and a member of the SWAT team, hasn’t made things any better by trying (through the police union) to explain.  He now says he wasn’t aiming for Kinsey, but for Soto.  You know, the Latino man with autism and a toy car.

What am I missing here?  Beginning with the beginning of the incident, why on earth would the police pull a gun on a suicidal person?  Isn’t that kind of counter-intuitive?  It isn’t unusual, apparently—a lot of shootings of people with mental illness happen in the course of police response to a call about a suicidal person.  But isn’t it kind of like pouring water on a drowning person? Or throwing somebody with hypothermia into the freezer?

Then we get to the toy-car-perceived-as-gun meme, which you’d think police training would have tried to overcome by now.  No, officer, a toy car isn’t a gun. Neither is a wallet, nor a cell phone, nor even a toy gun.  Really.

But now there’s a new element handed to us.  Two, maybe.  How come Aledda didn’t manage to hit the person he was supposedly aiming at?  If there is one thing police training is really serious about, it is marksmanship.  Both the targets, Kinsey and Soto, were stationary, and not sitting in each other’s laps.  We’re used to street gang members not being able to shoot straight, but we do have a right to expect better from cops, who are, after, armed and trained on our money.  It is interesting that the shot in question didn’t kill either Kinsey or Soto—police are not ordinarily trained to “shoot to wound,” so there was obviously something odd going on.

Of course, we do not yet know exactly what the 911 caller actually said.  Did s/he indicate that there were actually two people out there?  Did s/he indicate the apparent race of either one?  Because while I can actually believe Aledda doesn’t know why he shot Kinsey, I have a pretty good guess at his reasons myself.

I think that all Aledda heard or saw in that fraction of a second was “gun,” a man holding something in his hand, and a Black man.  His mind somehow mashed all of these elements into “Black man holding a gun,” and he responded the way most police officers reflexively respond to that phenomenon.

Soto is now having serious problems eating and sleeping.  Since he wasn’t very verbal to start with, he has no way to explain how traumatized he is now, but it will probably take him a long time to recover, especially in the absence of a caregiver he seems to have been close to.

I know some people who do the kind of work Kinsey does, and mostly they don’t have very good health insurance or paid time off, so I really hope the North Miami police compensate him for his hospital bills and lost work time, even if they can convince themselves that Aledda didn’t shoot anybody on purpose or through gross negligence.  The real negligence, of course, was that of whatever training programs trained Aledda and the numerous other police officers who shoot unarmed or fleeing Black people.  All of us, but especially police and those who train them, need to rejigger our reflexes and presumptions.  As Maria Montessori says, the problem isn’t understanding what we see, it is seeing what we see.

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Why studying population differences in medical conditions isn’t at all the same thing, scientifically, as that silly HBD argument that some “races” are smarter than others, and a few interesting links on genetics

Posted by Sappho on July 23rd, 2016 filed in DNA, Health and Medicine

Predicting 9% of educational attainment is cool. I’m going to have to take issue with one comment from Dienekes, from whom I learn about the genome wide association study that made the prediction in question, and whose post on the study I link. Dienekes writes:

Genetic egalitarianism is an edifice on which too much has been invested and I doubt that it will go down without a fight. It’s of course a great idea to optimize learning for the students you’ve got. But, at the end of the day there’s only so much you can do to foster achievement in a trait that is mostly genetically determined.

Come again? First, one study predicting 9% of educational attainment from DNA is far from proving that the trait is “mostly genetically determined.” Even if we ignore the usual caveat about levels of peer review (a single study in a peer reviewed publication is good, but still falls short of what I might call “established research” because single studies often get contradicted by later studies), and figure that the result holds, 9% is a lot less than 50%.

Second, while I grew up thinking of “most” as meaning “more than half,” my friend Karen Street is used to thinking of “most” as meaning “a whole lot more than half.” I’m not sure whether Dienekes favors my meaning of “most” or Karen’s, but I think Karen’s is the relevant one if you’re talking about “genetic egalitarianism” and “fostering achievement in a trait that is mostly genetically determined.” It could easily both be true that “most” educational attainment is genetically determined in the “a little more than half” sense, and that fostering achievement in a trait that’s mostly genetically determined does a whole lot of good. Particularly when you consider that how much of a trait is environmentally determined depends a whole lot on how big the environmental variation in question varies, and that, however large the impact is of genetic factors on individual attainment here, the environmental impact on ethnic differences is a whole other ball game, given the evidence for change over time in rankings of ethnic groups (e.g. Southern European immigrants to the US and their descendants) and for a very non-level playing field, between groups, on the relevant environmental factors.

“Genetic egalitarianism” would be a silly thing to believe if it means believing the individuals are all born as blank slates with no prior genetic variation making some of us more likely to turn out one way and some of us more likely to turn out another way. But it’s not a silly belief at all if it means believing that evidence for the superiority of one ethnic group over another should be suspected of being dodgy as hell. And are there really a lot of people invested in genetic egalitarianism in any other sense? Is there a huge, thundering horde of people who think there’s no genetic component to who has a good ear for music and who is good at math?

I bring up the ethnic ancestry angle not because Dienekes did (he doesn’t mention it in his post, I don’t know exactly what he means by “genetic egalitarianism,” and I’m not aware of his advocating the “some races are just smarter than others” position), but for two other reasons. First, it does matter to how you handle fostering achievement (even if more than half of a trait should prove to be genetic, you can do a lot to remove inequality by leveling environmental gaps between groups whose variance on that trait is mostly environmental, and I do here mean “mostly” in the Karen Street sense of overwhelmingly more likely to be environmental, not in the “slightly more than half environmental” sense). Second, I want to remind you of my low opinion of “race and IQ” arguments before I get to my next link, and why “my race is better than others at the mental and psychological traits I most value” arguments aren’t at all the same thing as investigating the role of ancestry in medical conditions. (As a reminder, my comments aren’t open to arguing that one “race” is stupider than another, but they’re definitely open to comments, pro or con, about the medical article I’m about to discuss.)
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Puppies and kittens

Posted by Sappho on July 10th, 2016 filed in News and Commentary

I don’t need to tell you why this past week has been one where I’d like to hide my head under the covers and not look at the news. At such times I’m torn between the half of me that says, “Don’t look! Go find something good to appreciate” and the half that says “Don’t look away! This is serious and you need to Do Something About It.”

Both impulses strike me as in some sense valid. On the one hand, if those of us who can look away always do, then that takes away from our chance to make the world a better place. And maybe comes back and bites us later. So I’ve always valued Eugene Debs’ statement that

I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

On the other hand, awful things are always happening, and if we don’t take what breaks we can, well, awful things will still be happening, and we won’t be in the space we need to be in to get, well, anything useful done.

And of course there are always things that need to be done close to home. Work. Walking the dog. Clerking a meeting for business.

Anway, today, as I switch my social media between #FreeDeray tweets (the good news – he’s been freed) and a video of two dogs snuggling a happy cat, here are some of my things that I’ve found worth reading.

First, commentary on this week’s dismal news:

My friend’s daughter, a civil rights attorney named Hilary Landis Rau, has made a couple of public posts on Facebook, one in which she reflects on this week’s news from her perspective as a civil rights attorney, and one with useful links for anyone who wants to become better informed. Since these posts are public on Facebook, you should be able to find them if you Google her.

Charles M. Blow at the New York Times on A Week From Hell.

Steven Barnes: About Dallas.

Next, the puppies and kittens and entertainment and good news.

25 inspirational woman entrepreneurs from Kenya (including some who have been involved with one of my favorite technology non-profits, Ushahidi).

Rhodes tax inspectors dives into sea to catch masseuse. I have to admire her persistence. It reminds me of A Taxing Woman, which you really should sea if you haven’t seen it already.

The Mashpee Wampanoag have been having their annual artisan festival. Check them out on Facebook. There are some beautiful photos.

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Riding With a Bomb–the American Way

Posted by WiredSisters on July 5th, 2016 filed in Anarchism, Daily Life, Democracy, Economics, Guest Blogger, Science

Every now and then, we hear of another recall of some line of automobiles because of malfunctions in the passenger airbag system.  Usually it involves blowing up for no particular reason, putting the lives of all the car’s occupants and anybody in its path in jeopardy.  Yet another thing that happens to airbags is that they get stolen, because one of their components is made of a very precious metal.

The airbag mechanism also emits some dangerous chemicals, such as sodium azide, which ignites and gives off extreme heat in order to deploy the airbag, and sodium hydroxide, a caustic gas that can cause burns and irritate the skin and eyes.

The extreme speed with which the bags inflate can break bones, most commonly the bones of the arm.  So the safety mavens now tell us that we should no longer hold the wheel with our hands at the “ten and twelve” position, but the “three and nine,” to minimize this hazard.

And, of course, we all know that children are no longer allowed to ride in the front seat because they might be injured, or even decapitated, by the airbag.  The only people who have problems with this are mothers, who often have to interact with the said children over the back of the front seat while trying to drive, and children, who often really really want to ride up front.  Since mothers and children rarely head major car companies, nobody important pays much attention to this problem.

Yet another population of car occupants who have to inconvenience themselves to avoid being blown to bits by airbags are short people.  People under 5’4”, to be exact.  Most of these people are women or elderly men.  In order to be able to see over the steering wheel, they tend to push their seats all the way forward, so that they are almost leaning on the wheel.  This puts them in considerable danger if the airbag deploys.  Safety authorities generally suggest getting pedal extensions, so that a short driver can keep the seat a safe distance back from the steering wheel and still reach the pedals.

The other thing safety authorities strongly advise is that people who drive or ride in a car with airbags should use their 3-point (shoulder-and-waist) seat belts.  This reduces the likelihood of injuries from airbags.

And the airbags are dangerous not only to the occupants of cars, but to emergency workers who respond to car crashes and can get burned or gassed in the process.

Strictly speaking, the airbag mechanism is, literally, a bomb.

They do, certainly, prevent more deaths than they cause.  But they do cause some fatalities.

But why are we using them in the first place? The statistics compiled in the U.S. in the early 1970s indicate that the use of 3-point (shoulder and waist) seatbelts reduces car crash injuries by 73% and eliminates fatalities entirely.  So why not just stick with that?

Despite these significant statistics, seatbelts were not made mandatory in the U.S. until 1991.  In the meantime, a very large proportion of drivers and passengers just didn’t bother using them.  And the seatbelt mandate did not, in fact, increase use all that much, probably because of the “secondary enforcement” policy in most states—i.e.¸ the police issued tickets for seatbelt violations only if they were also ticketing the driver for something else considered  ”more serious.”  In the meantime, some car manufacturers equipped their cars with “passive seatbelt restraints”—belts rigged through the car doors so that once the occupant was seated and the door was closed, the occupant was restrained by the belt without having to do anything (other than sit down and close the door.)  These were sometimes clumsy and prone to malfunction, but they were quite effective in preventing car crash injuries.

It is, just barely, understandable that we Americans might be so enamored of our liberty that we object to feeling “restrained” by seatbelts, whether “active” or “passive.”  But in fact, these days we have learned to live with them   Almost everybody in almost every car uses the seatbelts correctly.  We have, somehow, adapted.  We weren’t willing to do it just to avoid being thrown from the car in the event of a crash. But we are willing to do it now, for two reasons: to protect us from being injured by the airbag in a crash, and to keep from getting ticketed by the police—who have now almost everywhere adopted a policy of primary enforcement—ticketing people for failure to use seatbelts even if no other offense is being committed.

So far as I know, nobody is advocating getting rid of airbags simply because they are unnecessary, and therefore unnecessarily dangerous.  Back in the first years of seatbelts, American carmakers deliberately made them as clunky and prone to malfunction as possible, in hope of making them really unpopular and thereby getting the government to back off of requiring them.  But today’s auto manufacturers have not resisted installing airbags and regularly refining them.  In fact they are enthusiastically piling on, adding airbags on the sides and in the back seat as well as under the windshield.  Can it possibly be that airbags are now a profitable accessory, a great excuse to jack up the price of a new car?  And that that extra profit outweighs the expenses caused by recalls and airbag injuries?  Can it possibly be that car manufacturers and cops can more effectively persuade us to give up some of our freedoms than Big Government, and even to pay more for the privilege?

And what does this imply for our political future?

Red Emma


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Orlando, Dhaka, and Orange County Pride in Santa Ana

Posted by Sappho on July 2nd, 2016 filed in Daily Life, News and Commentary, Quaker Practice

“#NoMoreHate I so thought my granddaughter would be growing up in a better world than this.”

The scene: The Orange County Friends Meeting booth at this year’s OC Pride fair, in Santa Ana, California. We had a slender supply of Quaker literature, for it was afternoon and much had already been taken earlier in the day, a sign with glittering peace signs, a dog watering station supplied by Peggy (who worried about overheated dogs at the fair), and a long roll of paper, on which people drew and wrote what they pleased.

It seems I am often writing in the wake of some disaster, and perhaps it was Orlando that was on the grandmother’s mind as she wrote those words. Orlando, mass shooting of 50 people in an LGBT club on Latino night a couple of weeks before OC Pride. I have cousins in Orlando, as it seems I have cousins near every disaster, so I got accounts of the aftermath from Sharon’s husband Shawn. As a Pride festival in a largely Mexican-American city, OC Pride seemed doubly connected to a mass shooting that hit the LGBT and Latino communities in Orlando.

Here is the point where my journal entry, written a week ago right after pride, segues into “But Pride is resilient and Pride always celebrates,” and talks of the more joyous parts of the festival. That’s the post I meant to write, when I got around to editing my journal entry into a blog post. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. As a manager (who feels obliged to remind you that she doesn’t speak for her company in anything at all that she says on the Internet), I had a hectic week, and felt obliged to work long hours to get something right, and had to put off all writing till the three day weekend. Before I reached the day when I would have time to post about pride, I got news of the attack in Dhaka.
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Pistols for Two, Coffee for One: yet another confused excursion into moral philosophy

Posted by WiredSisters on June 30th, 2016 filed in Guest Blogger, History, Law, Moral Philosophy, Peace Testimony

The Morality of Dueling, Assassination, and War

Those of you who got to watch the dueling scene in the recent reboot of “Roots” may be interested in  some more information on the practice.  As a lawyer, I believe my first duty is to inform you gentle readers that it’s specifically illegal in 21 states and the United States Armed Forces, and can get Catholics excommunicated.  And in other jurisdictions, it can be construed as manslaughter or even premeditated murder. Don’t try this at home.

Nonetheless, it deserves a more careful analysis in the context of the alternatives to it.

Similarly, while I certainly do not advocate assassination, there are circumstances in which it may be the least evil alternative.

And, in comparison to these more narrowly focused forms of violence, maybe war is the most evil choice.

Many of us, having grown up on the novels of Dumas and Sabatini, think of dueling as an elegant and restrained form of violence, a way to encourage good manners by punishing rudeness at sword’s point, and leaving the loser (or perhaps both parties) with impressive scars.  The “Roots” scene ought at least to disabuse us of that fantasy.  The duel between Tom Lea and his snobbishly rude tormentor is savage, brutal, and above all, messy.  There is nothing courtly about it.  The beautiful laces and brocades in which both parties are attired at the start of the episode are torn and blood-soaked by the end (good use of close-ups.)  In the supposedly elegant antebellum South, there were a lot of duels, and probably most of them were like that.

So once we’ve gotten the Musketeers out of the way, are there any upsides to dueling?  It certainly killed fewer people than the Civil War.  Perhaps it encouraged good manners.  (Sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein says “an armed society is a polite society.”  When Miss Manners was on a radio talk show some years ago, I called in to ask for her views on that subject.  She allowed as how that might be true, but only in societies in which people, especially young men, were seriously interested in surviving.  Involvement in dueling usually correlates with an indifference to survival.)  The argument from statistics breaks down as dueling (or its more modern equivalent, the gang fight) becomes more prevalent.  So does the argument that all parties injured in duels are voluntary participants—certainly gang fights kill an appalling number of completely innocent bystanders, such as cheerleaders, toddlers, real estate agents, and grandmothers.  That may be a function of our more advanced technology, but even the most primitive dueling pistol can misfire or send a shot wild.

It may be relevant that dueling has been more prevalent in wartime, and in highly militarized societies, than in more peaceable situations.  The US Uniform Code of Military Justice specifically forbids dueling, but it is easy enough to see how a one-on-one battle which may or may not end in the death of one or both parties may seem almost innocuous to people accustomed to reckoning casualties in the thousands or even the millions.

Compare this to assassination.  It is usually less harmful than warfare, in that it kills fewer people in a single encounter.  The killer usually exposes himself/herself to at least the same risk as the intended victim, so it carries many of the same equities as the duel.  There is more possibility of “collateral damage,” and less care taken to avoid it.

And under the conditions of modern warfare, the line between warfare and assassination gets dramatically blurred sometimes.  In 1986, for instance, the US bombed Ghaddafy’s residence in Libya, and killed, among others, the dictator’s 4-year-old daughter.  The US government claimed to “regret” this mishap, but denied that the bombing had been an assassination attempt.  In fact, US law forbids assassination: see Executive Order 12333, Section 2.11, codified at 46 FR 59941, 3 CFR, 1981 compiled, which forbids all involvement in assassinations, without even specifying any particular target.

Which brings us to the quintessentially modern conundrum: dropping bombs on various places where a targeted foreign leader may happen to hang out, and thereby killing numerous innocent civilians, is permitted under the laws of warfare, while intentionally blowing up the targeted leader himself in a “surgical strike” with no collateral damage is legally prohibited.

What’s wrong with this picture?

This leads us to two closely linked philosophical questions: harm reduction, and the use of numbers in the context of human casualties.  In most contexts, lefties prefer harm reduction to abolition (usually expressed as a “war” on drugs or whatever.)  That’s certainly true when the issue is drugs and other harmful substances.  Our harm reduction approach to tobacco has worked remarkably well over the last thirty years. So far as anyone knows, the only casualty in the “war on tobacco” was Eric Garner, who was choked to death by the police in Staten Island in July, 2014, for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes.  That may be closely related to the fact that we have never declared a “war on tobacco.”

But a pure harm reduction approach leads inevitably into a numbers game.  Is it less awful to kill 20 people than 21? How about the difference between 6 million and “only” 3 million, which is the sort of game Holocaust deniers and the Turkish government’s apologists are so fond of playing?  How many human deaths is too many?  Stalin is believed to have opined that a single death is a tragedy and a million deaths is a statistic.  My NPR station carries a sponsorship attribution to a foundation that “believes all lives are of equal value.”  That rubs me the wrong way, and it took me a while to figure out why.  Stalin would probably have concurred with that statement—except that he believed that “equal value” was zero.  If you start out believing that all human lives are of infinite value, you get a very different result.

On the other hand….as a practical matter, even the most “surgical” forms of assassination and dueling are likely to generate “collateral damage.”  Ultimately they may even generate wars.  The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria led to the stupidest, most wasteful war in history up to that time (or maybe ever.)  When we finally succeeded in knocking off Ghadafy, it turned out to have been a bad idea. Ultimately, murder is murder and murder leads to murder.  It’s hard to make any more sense of it than that.

Jane Grey


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Elitist? Moi? A confused excursion in moral philosophy

Posted by WiredSisters on June 28th, 2016 filed in Democracy, Moral Philosophy, Queries, Theology

I’ve spent the last several years reading about why liberals are elitist, because they disagree with Joe Sixpack.  Or because they use the term “Joe Sixpack.”  Or because they stubbornly refuse to concede that Joe Sixpack was right about [whatever.]  Or because they like classical music and go to art museums instead of NASCAR races.

In the light of the recent successes of Donald Trump and Brexit, should we be repenting of our errors?  We went through that in 1980 when Reagan beat Carter.  Should we have to do it again?  Can we at least wait until after the election to see whether Joe Sixpack has wised up in the meantime?

And why am I focusing my attention on these rather petty personal-political questions in the middle of what many people think is the most important election in our lifetimes?

Let’s deal with the last question first.  Yesterday I was in the Chicago Gay Pride Parade and (along with a million other people) had a perfectly wonderful time.  We lefties don’t get too many fun celebrations.  No hangovers, not even a sunburn.  (BTW, we Chicagoans have a pretty good idea whose side the Big Guy is on: Passover is usually windy and/or rainy; Latin Easter [the one most of you guys celebrate] is so-so; Greek Easter, which comes a week or two later, is quite nice.  But the best weekend weather of all happens on Gay Pride Sunday, year in year out.)  So I don’t want to harsh my mellow too soon.

Anyway, so far as I can tell, liberals get a bad rap because we are not only elitist but opinionated.  An elitist is somebody who is proud to have gone to school long enough to know that 2+2=4.  He’s opinionated if he thinks he’s right to believe 2+2=4.  (I’m not sure what the opposite of opinionated is—maybe somebody who says “I think 2+2=4 but I could be wrong”?)

“Political correctness” figures in there someplace, too.  It’s “politically correct” not to sneer at people whose education didn’t last long enough to get to 2+2=4.  But it’s “elitist” to think that “2+2=4” is true.

I used to worry about this stuff.  I have made a conscious effort to extend my tastes to include country music and occasional baseball games (preferably minor league—cheaper and a lot more fun.)  I celebrate Hank Williams’ yahrzeit with a good round of “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” I bragged about my cooking skills (unfortunately that coincided with the flowering of elite foodiness.  Sometimes you can’t win.)  Now I brag about my craftiness, and carefully avoid telling people I learned most of the ladylike arts at a girls’ boarding school.  This is all pretty much okay, because life is always more pleasant if one can enjoy more of the things in it, even if one wasn’t brought up with them.

What I can’t make myself do is flutter my eyelashes and say “but that’s just my little ol’ opinion” when discussing why 2+2=4.    What I try to do instead is let the other guy do as much of the talking as possible (for a woman, that’s really easy) until he finally gets around to saying something like “I’ve got a nice retirement package, after working for Streets and Sanitation for 25 years.” Then I get to ask him “How’d you manage that?” and he says “We had a good union,” which in fact Streets and San workers in Chicago do have, along with a good civil service system. And I get to say, “So how do you feel about our current governor, who wants to abolish public worker unions?”  This is more subtle than “gotcha,” but just as much fun.  If I do it often enough, maybe our current governor will not be re-elected, if enough other people do it too.

But there are dilemmas for lefties that are less easily resolved.  For instance, I spent several years without health insurance.  I got most of my health care through the Cook County Hospital systems.  If you’re willing to wait several months for a non-emergency appointment, and then spend an entire morning, or an entire afternoon, waiting to get into the outpatient clinic or whatever, you will ultimately end up getting pretty good health care.  (Their emergency care, BTW, is fast and good.  The real problem is with medical issues that are not emergencies—yet–but need to be dealt with faster than the Cook County waiting list for appointments can handle, or they will become emergencies.) In the meantime, you can watch a lot of cute kids running around, or bring a good book.  But it still sort of bothered me—was I using a place in the system that people poorer than me needed more?  Or would it have been snobbish of me not to use it? Now that I have Medicare, I can at least stop worrying about that.

And then there’s housing.  I live in a more-or-less integrated university neighborhood.   My husband, on principle, insisted on finding an integrated neighborhood.  When we moved in, it was a definitely uncool area full of semi-impoverished students.  Now it’s getting all sorts of posh commercial “improvements” which may end up pricing me out altogether.  Was I gaming the system when we moved in? Was I a snob for staying when it started “improving”?  And what about segregation?  When we moved in, were we taking a space that some non-white family needed more and could not have found in a whiter neighborhood?  Or were we doing our bit to keep the neighborhood from re-segregating?  It is easy to get cross-eyed from this kind of double-double-think.

In fact, what it reminds me of more than anything else is the moral system invented by Augustine refined by John Calvin, and recently updated by Paul Samuelson, that says we’re all sinners and the proof of that is that we do what we want to do instead of what’s right, and even when we do what’s right it’s usually because that’s what we want to do.  And the reason we want to do it is that it makes us feel good.  Hahh? The solution to that conundrum, from the Jewish point of view, is to say “Who on earth cares why you do the right thing, as long as it gets done?” Saves a lot of moral energy that can be more usefully devoted to doing the right thing.

Aside from that, I don’t have any useful answers for this confusion.  Do I think I’m smarter than people who didn’t graduate from Harvard because I did?  (Well, actually, that raises an important distinction.  I’m definitely not smarter than somebody who went to Harvard and didn’t graduate, because flunking out of Harvard takes real work and serious smarts of which I am far from capable.  I know a couple of people who did, and they’re a lot smarter than I am. So here I’m talking about people who never went to Harvard in the first place. Aside from people who went to Swarthmore.  I know several people who got into Harvard but were rejected by Swarthmore, from which it follows that Swarthmore grads must be smarter than Harvard grads.)  Not really, and besides, who cares?  Which is to say, for most purposes, being smart is highly overrated.  What it’s mostly good for is finding more ways to enjoy life. Aside from that, it’s just a rare and recondite talent like being able to wiggle one’s ears.  Which I can do, but not as well as my late father could.

Do I think I’m smarter than Donald may-his-name-be-blotted-out?  Yes and no.  No, in that I haven’t become a millionaire. But on the other hand I’m smart enough not to be running for president. Do I think I’m smarter than the people who voted for him?  Presuming the usual distribution of what Charles “Bell Curve” Murray would call g, I’m probably smarter than some of them, and not as smart as some others.  Which is to say, some people may have some grounds for voting for him that are based on sound reasoning and a set of values very different from mine.  Once again you may wish to read up on Jonathan Haidt’s discussion of moral foundations.

So okay, do I think my values are better than theirs?  Well, yes, I do.  That doesn’t mean I think I’m better than the people who hold those other values.  And I have an advantage over lefties who weren’t raised in a religion—I can always blame it on my Sunday School teachers, rather than taking credit for it myself.

So anyway, I’ll worry about Brexit later in the week.  In the meantime, enjoy the Glorious Fourth.  I’ll worry about that next week.




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