Saturday, April 27, 2013


Words get bandied about in our national conversations without too much thought.  Social Security, for example, is often called an "entitlement" program in a way that sounds disparaging.  In fact, recipients of Social Security benefits - not just retirement benefits, but the Supplemental Security Income program and other benefits Social Security pays - are, indeed, entitled to them.  Because they've paid in to the system.  It's their money, after all, and so it isn't exactly something people are receiving for no reason.

According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and Thesaurus, the word entitlement has three distinct definitions.  It is the third on which I prefer to focus attention at the moment: belief that one is deserving of or entitled to certain privileges.  With all the discussion recently about rape, one thing emerges quite clearly.  Too many men, young and old, feel a sense of entitlement when it comes to women.  If they've taken a woman out on a date, they are entitled to something in return.  If a woman has had sex with other men, then they are entitled to have sex with her.  If a woman begins an intimate encounter with a man, the man is entitled to full consummation.

If a young man, or young men, are accused of raping a woman, the man is entitled to defend himself, this is true.  Too often, that defense assumes a certain air of entitlement.  Consider the young men in the Stuebenville rape case.  The assumption was the town would rally to their defense; their coach, their parents, the teachers and school administration, all would come to defend them.  The victim in this case, however, was entitled to no such presumption of social care and concern.  She was attacked online and in the press.  She received death threats, threats of further sexual assault, her reputation was attacked.  When the young men were convicted, the best they could come up with as an apology was an admission that passing around photos of the young woman's violated body wasn't a good idea.  Not that forcing a young woman to drink to unconsciousness, then raping her, then putting her in a car and taking her elsewhere to do it all again, sharing the event with friends; not that any of this was wrong.

Or consider some concern-trolling Beyonce has received.
When Beyonce kicked off her Mrs. Carter Show World Tour two nights ago, wearing her sheer bodysuit with nipples showing, to me she performed the final degradation of her talent; a retrogressive transformation that has taken someone stellar and otherworldly, and made them into something dreadfully familiar and sad.
Variations of Beyonce's body suit can be found in brothels, strip clubs and red light districts across the world - where sex is for sale and it happens to be dispensed through a woman's body. That she is a human being with feelings and dreams, perhaps a sister, a mother, a leader, a teacher, a student - ALWAYS - a daughter - all of this can be forgotten. In those surroundings a suit like Beyonce's would look far from glamorous. Maybe just downright heartbreaking as a woman somewhere becomes an object, available for the gratification of a desire - at a price dictated by her 'managers'.
She has been the target of a lot of discussion, beginning in February with her performance at the Super Bowl halftime show.  There was this near-universal shriek of horror at a woman daring, among other things, to display her body and include her sexuality as an attribute not for delectation but of inherent power.  Consider for example, Madonna, who's decades-long metamorphoses have always seemed rooted in an assurance that she will be yours; unlike, to take another example, Britney Spears, who was offered up as fodder for older men to ogle a too-young girl, insisting she wasn't "that innocent" in a way that came far too close to the edge of child pornography; and like a contemporary of Ms. Knowles, Lady Gaga, whose sexuality is simultaneously on display and downplayed precisely because it is part and parcel of a far larger set of attributes she wishes to show the world; like these - and so many other female performing artists - Beyonce always stands on the thin blade of a very sharp sword.  Regardless of what she does or how she presents herself, there will be those who either insist she overplays her sexuality; or, conversely, that by not emphasizing her sexuality enough, she is losing an opportunity, variously, to be a "role model"* for young women, or be a bad "role model" for young women.  Through all this, there is the assumption that women's sexuality is not their own but rather a thing to be used and manipulated by and for men.  As one commenter wrote at Raw Story:
Women are like a beautiful work of art, they should never be hidden behind a curtain (burka) - Iranians are making their country less beautiful by covering women.
Women are not people, who can choose how to live their lives, including the manner, time, and place during which they may or may not display their sexuality among their other attributes.  Rather, women are a thing, a product to be seen gazing through a store window or museum, to be judged not by whatever merits they might possess, but rather on how they add to the beauty of the world.**  The point is not the integrity of the women, their agency in the world, or the freedom to live their lives as they see fit.  Rather, the point is that men are entitled to enjoy women as they see fit.  Women step out of line by displaying their sexuality in a way men disapprove?  They get slut shamed, like Beyonce was at Huffington Post, and all around Twitter and Facebook after the Super Bowl halftime show.  Women in positions of power and authority who dare to act like the boss?  Obviously, they're bitchy, unapproachable harridans who just aren't feminine enough.  Because, you know, men know what it is to be "feminine" and any woman who isn't "feminine" needs a stern talking-to.

We swim in a sea of male entitlement, and fighting back against it takes a lot of work.  The first thing we need to do is get men to understand that we do not deserve anything from anyone just because our genitals are different.  If we really want a different world, a better world, the first thing we need to do is give up the idea that we are entitled to dictate the terms of that change.

*And could we please just dispense with the idea that public figures are role models?  This on-going, desperate search for idols to worship is really quite troubling.  Most young people are intelligent enough to know their role models are their parents; that's who they rebel against, after all.  Celebrities, athletes, politicians are NOT role models.

**When Beth Spencer highlighted this comment at Lawyers, Guns, & Money, there was a whole lot of manspalinin' in the comment section.  At a liberal blog.  Which, again, shows how far we still have to go.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Back To Basics

I was going to avoid the story, because, honestly, how is it possible to say something on the topic of rape that isn't an easy way to make oneself look good?  Like the whole kitten-burning trap, one would think it takes zero moral imagination to speak out against rape.

Sad to say, we are in one of those historical moments when a basic lesson of moral life needs repeating: Don't rape.
I don’t think that we should be telling women anything. I think we should be telling men not to rape women and start the conversation there with prevention.
Full stop.  No more needs to be said, one would think.  Except, as the sign above and the young man holding it make clear, more seems in need of saying.
Dean Saxton — also known as Brother Dean Samuel — regularly preaches on the UA Mall in front of Heritage Hill and the Administration building. On Tuesday, his sermon drew the attention of onlookers, several of whom either personally confronted him or complained to the Dean of Students Office.
Saxton, a junior studying classics and religious studies, said his sermon was meant to convey that “if you dress like a whore, act like a whore, you’re probably going to get raped.”
“I think that girls that dress and act like it,” Saxton said, “they should realize that they do have partial responsibility, because I believe that they’re pretty much asking for it.”
With the Steubenville rape case still a fresh wound; a young woman in Canada committing suicide after her sexual assault was photographed, with the pictures shared around among those involved, while the town rallies to the boys' defense; with Republican candidates last year tripping over their own tongues trying to explain their . . . um . . . unique theories about rape and women's physiology; with the mounting evidence that women who have spoken out about sexual violence in recent months face a virulent backlash in the form not only of death threats, but rape threats, as well; with a Republican candidate for the office of Mayor in Omaha, NE facing sexist attacks from Democrats (including one local Democratic pol smiling while holding a t-shirt showing Ms. Stothers as a stripper; douchebaggery is no respecter of party); all this along with all the normal run of sexism and sexual violence that pervades our society, it seems we need to return to square one and repeat, without qualification: "Don't rape."  There aren't any extenuating circumstances that mitigate that; there is no escape clause because the society or culture within which one lives dehumanizes women and permits rape to occur without punishment (see India for recent examples); and, no, there most definitely isn't a religious exemption, as in, "I can tell these dirty sluts who dress like whores they deserved it because God told me to."

Don't rape.

Don't rape.

Don't rape.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Existential Threats

It's only Wednesday in the week after a series of events that, coming within close proximity to one another, tried our emotional ability to comprehend.  A bombing in Boston; letters laced with poison sent to state and federal officials, including the President; a fertilizer plant exploding, the explosion large enough to register on seismographs as a small earthquake; the denouement in Boston that included killing a police officer, a shoot-out, and massive manhunt.

I'll leave to others to join in the shouting back and forth about whether or not Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be treated as an enemy combatant.  Obviously, I do not believe he should for one simple reason: since the legislation defining who is and is not an enemy combatant explicitly exempts American citizens operating on American soil, it seems it would be a violation of the law for the Justice Department to make that declaration.

Which isn't stopping perennial bed-wetters John McCain and Lindsay Graham - the Senators from the Sunday Talk Show Green Rooms - from insisting over and over again that the law Graham wrote should be ignored.  What's been most interesting, in particular, is McCain carrying on about what we don't know about  Tsarnaev.  It's interesting because on the one hand he is quite right; on the other hand it has nothing to do with the case against Tsarnaev.  What we have, and have had since Friday, is an abundance of information specifically related to the potential legal case against him.

I'm fascinated by the show on the right both in the public and in Congress.  Somehow, the whole idea of "terrorism" has become limited not so much to a method of political violence as to who perpetrates the violence.  Thus, for instance, the harassment, bombing and arson campaign, and occasional murder of abortion doctors is not, for those on the right, a case of terrorism.  Dr. George Tiller's murderer, who just a couple weeks back was interviewed in prison, gleefully talking about the threats Tiller's replacement has received, is a good example of a terrorist.

As is Eric Rudolph who bombed abortion clinics, a gay bar, and then the Atlanta Olympic Games.  While hiding from authorities, this perpetrator and lover of political violence was supported by locals as he hid in the foothills of North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains; apparently some terrorists are just more likable than others.

During the online "search" for the bombers last week, it should hardly surprise anyone that sites on the right kept insisting they "found" a "suspect" and it turned out to be someone with dark skin.  That is the face of fear in America, the example of terrorists.  As Rick Perlstein writes in The Nation:
Instead, the nation has surrendered to an inherently right-wing idea, one that I've written of here in the context of the gun control debate: the notion that the world is easily parsed into god guys and bad guys, never the twain should meet—and the corollary notion, which I've also written about recently, that once the world has been so divided, vanquishing the bad guys licenses any procedural abuse.
This is also why Rush Limbaugh can compare Tsarnaev to Trayvon Martin and his audience understands exactly what he's talking about.  Being Muslim, Tsarnaev is an other, some strange being different from Americans, just as Trayvon Martin, being African-American, was different, not belonging in the neighborhood in to which he'd wandered, posing a threat merely by his presence.

Which leads me to the other case of mass death last week.  Oddly enough, the explosion at the West, TX fertilizer plant isn't getting the kind of traction one would think such a story would, beyond obvious and much-deserved praise for the firefighters and others who died doing their duty.  Death in the workplace is relatively common; death by terrorists extremely rare.  There is abundant evidence the Texas plant was in violation of many federal laws and reporting regulations, and worked feverishly to get rid of those same regulations they devoutly ignored.  Rather than a "tragic accident" - which hints at unpredictability; uniqueness; and finally something to mourn and then pass over - the explosion in Texas is a case study in industrial malfeasance, a kind of policy-and-procedure manual in ignoring safety regulations in pursuit of profit.

The news media is enamored of the Boston bombing story and its Byzantine intricacies because the perpetrators seem exotic, and the event itself was so dramatic.  The events in Texas are droll, involving violations of arcane codes and regulations as well as examination of how well, or even if, the town of West and the surrounding county controlled residential growth around an industrial site that posed an inherent risk. The latter story, for all its dullness, is being played out in communities around the country.  The former story offers an opportunity to delve in to exotic locales, the psychology of two young men, the current politics of immigration reform; in other words, to make of this event a Movie Of The Week without having to pay any actors.

Oddly enough, the real existential threats aren't Chechen refugees radicalized in no small part because of the constant clamor of anti-Muslim rhetoric of some Americans.  No, the real existential threats are the things we miss because they're boring.  Why aren't John McCain and Lindsay Graham insisting the owners and operators of the fertilizer plant be treated as enemy combatants?

Because they all look the same.

Monday, April 22, 2013

A Musical Interlude

I've written about my enjoyment of the internet music/radio site Spotify.  There are all sorts of things I could write about this morning, but, really, I just feel like listening to music.  What I like most about Spotify is that it is social.  Not only can you link it to Twitter and Facebook, but you can follow others, check out their playlists, share music, and (what I do) steal when someone listens to a song you forgot about.

I have 6 different playlists.  The shortest is a mock-up of the soundtrack to  the film Almost Famous.  For some reason, that's not on Spotify, so I cobbled one together based on the music in the movie.  It ranges from the obscure - "Something In The Air" by Thunderclap Newman - the truly classic, including "Paranoid" by Black Sabbath and "Tiny Dancer", featured in a memorable scene.

I have a jazz playlist and one of choral music, to both of which I listen at work.  The jazz playlist has 217 tracks, spanning from early Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington up through Weather Report, with a heavy reliance on Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Bird, and Trane.  The choral music is heavy on the Renaissance composers, but also includes Rachmaninoff's Vespers, Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna, and some choral renditions of traditional hymns.

I have one I call "Morning Mix".  That's music for Lisa and me, in the mornings.  Quiet, probably banal, but it is pleasant enough, and it makes us both smile.

The big one I call "Eclectic Mix of Favorites".  785 songs, spanning funk, soul, pop, rock, and, well, pretty much whatever.  Here's a sample thanks to the "shuffle" button:

The Real Thing - Faith No More
Furry Sings the Blues - Joni Mitchell
Talk Talk - Talk Talk
Wilderness Heart - Black Mountain
Torment of the Metals - Black Math Horseman
Pull Me Under - Dream Theater
Meanwhile - Moody Blues
Save It For Later - The Beat
Rosalita - Bruce Springsteen
Heart of Gold - Neil Young

And because a post like this wouldn't be complete without something extra:

I'm planning on putting together a Gospel playlist, with some help from some friends who know the genre better than I do.  Because the soul can be fed in all sorts of ways, am I right?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Did We Lose It Last Week?

No one would deny that, for America, last week sucked.  Trying to sift and strain a bombing, an attempted murder on two federal officials, and the explosion of an entire freaking factory in a small Texas town left most of us wishing mightily for a weekend filled with nothing to do but relaxation.  And, probably, some booze.

Even before Dzhokhar Tsanaev was in custody, however, the Monday-morning quarterbacking began.  If it can be called that since, to carry the analogy along a bit, the game was still on-going.  In any event, some folks just weren't happy with America and, specifically, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
While I appreciate that police work is made easier by completely immobilizing the population of a major metropolitan area, this sort of massive over-reaction to the failure to apprehend one 19-year-old amateur terrorist (I doubt Al Qaeda types and the like would consider knocking off a 7-11, shooting a security guard, and carjacking an SUV to be the smart play a few hours after having their faces spread all over the internet) is what gives the performers of what are essentially bloody publicity stunts ever-more motivation to engage in their crimes.
And Campos wasn't finished, revising and extending these thoughts at Salon:
As [Friday] drew to a close, Boston-area residents must have wondered why Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was being treated as if he was some sort of existential threat to the entire region – especially since treating him in this way caters to the grandiose fantasies that fuel what, for now, remain extremely rare outbursts of murderous pseudo-political theater, that depend for their very existence on the overreaction of the political and media establishments.
In both posts, Campos compares the Boston Marathon bombing to what has become a typical day of violence in the City of Chicago.  He wasn't alone.  On my Facebook newsfeed, I had several people compare what happened in Boston to events in Iraq (in particular), Syria, and other places experiencing high levels of domestic terrorism and violence.  The conclusion, if there was one - I was never quite sure if the people posting things like this had any point other than to show off how connected they were to the rest of the world - was that we as a people were over-reacting to an event that was, in the end, isolated, relatively rare here in the United States, and less costly in lives and damage than daily occurrences in other places even here in the United States.  In other words, "Suck it up, Boston, and deal!"

First of all, I think criticism of official action is necessary, even in the midst of a crisis.  That's the only way to figure out why decisions are made the way they are made, as well as make sure folks in charge understand they are accountable to the people.  Even if an official action is entirely appropriate, consistent both with common practice as well as applicable state and federal laws and regulations, we can only know this for sure if we are willing to ask questions.  We gain nothing by being supine and nodding our heads when officials say, "Do this," or, "Don't do that."

Second, I agree with Campos that, by Friday morning anyway, it was clear the perpetrators of the bombings on Monday posed no threat to the city of Boston or its people.  The biggest danger came from a willingness to engage in gun battles, along with the use of whatever explosive devices they were tossing at the police.  Bullets have a habit of missing their intended target; folks in New York City not too long ago learned that lesson when, during a shoot-out between a criminal suspect and police, eleven civilians were injured by "stray" bullets (as if there was some kind of "bullet fence" they sneaked over or under, escaping out to the wild screaming, "I'm free!").

Finally, I also agree that, after taking a couple deep breaths, most of the rest of the country should have been able to consider the events in Boston, in West, TX, and the mailed ricin letters with a bit more perspective.  A perspective that included measuring the event itself both against the terrible toll violence takes in other cities here in the United States and around the world, as well as whatever possible motivations the perpetrators might have had for carrying out the bombing.

That, however, is the extent of my agreement with Campos.  First of all, the claim that terrorism is "political theater" and thus we give terrorists what they want when we pay attention to terrorist acts, misses a couple important things.  While true enough as far as it goes, we should also be aware that, in this instance, authorities weren't clear who had committed the bombings or why.  No one took responsibility for them.  None of the usual suspects stood up and said, "I did it and here's why."  Which could lead some to suspect it wasn't "terrorism" of the usual sort.  Also, a terrorist act is designed to kill, maim, and destroy.  Finally, precisely because they are such rare occurrences, they are bound to attract attention in and for themselves.

Despite CNN jumping the gun and announcing an arrest on Wednesday, while authorities probably had narrowed the suspect list substantially by then, they had not given the public the information on who probable suspect or suspects might be.  Indeed, that didn't come until the next day, at which point it appears - and let me stress "appears" - the Tsarnaev brothers panicked and bolted.  Prior to then, the public wasn't sure if the perpetrators were foreign or domestic; we didn't know what motivated them, if anything other than  a desire to kill and destroy; we had no idea if those responsible were still in the Boston area. Until the Tzarnaev brothers were offered up to the public as suspects, the public - and officials, too - had no idea how we could begin to understand the events in Boston on Monday.  Context is everything.  With faces and names, officials could begin to piece together possible reasons for the bombing.

By Friday morning, a couple things were clear enough.  Whatever their motivations, the Tsarnaev brothers were continuing to demonstrate a callous disregard for their own lives and the lives of others.  They killed an MIT police officer.  They shot it out with police officers in Watertown.  Tamerlan Tsarnaev rushed police officers, shooting and detonating an explosive device attached to his body so his brother could get away, but also to continue to kill and/or wound police.  Even though Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appears to have gone to ground, wounded either during the early Friday morning firefight or subsequently, no one knew for sure if that was what happened.

Was Boston "locked down", as we heard over and over?  The transit system, run by a publicly-owned and operated corporation, was closed.  Other than that, officials did not "order" people in and around Boston and its suburbs to stay inside.  They suggested it and most Boston residents, Cambridge residents, and those in surrounding communities were willing enough to comply; for those folks, it had been a rough week, and getting an extra day off plus a long weekend probably seemed a good thing, all things considered.  While I doubt anyone even up to and including the Governor of Massachusetts imagined the Tzarnaevs were "an existential threat" to the city and suburbs, it was certainly clear enough they posed a danger and hazard, willing to continue killing people in an effort to evade authorities.  Neither the Boston Bruins or Red Sox games were postponed by outside authorities; rather, the owners and management decided, independently and based on common sense that turn-out would be low, it might be better to put the games off until a later date.

Did authorities over-react?  That's a harder call.  I think some things they did were excessive.  The city of Boston could have been open for business as usual on Friday.  While having an increased police presence in and around the Watertown area was most definitely necessary, parading around in armored vehicles, having sniper points set up around town, was probably a bit much (although, to be fair, snipers do have the training and ability to look and see things that others might miss; if nothing else they can serve as eyes that see further and clearer than some).

As for comparing the actual violence and its toll to events in other cities both here and abroad, well, that kind of makes me angry.  For one thing, the events in Boston and the on-going violence in Chicago - used twice by Paul Campos to try and shame people in to carrying on about the bombings - are completely different types of events.  Let me repeat myself: Until late Thursday/early Friday, no one really knew who had set the bombs or why.  Figuring it all out was necessary precisely because, if the perpetrators were linked to international terrorism, that might well necessitate a response from the federal government beyond using law enforcement.

Chicago is currently undergoing a long-term series of gang-related murders.  I suppose it is at least theoretically possible Mayor Rahm Emmanuel could use tactics similar to those used in Massachusetts, i.e., calling out massive amounts of heavily armed and armored paramilitary police units to sweep through areas of the city where the violence is worst, round up people involved in gang activity, and let the chips fall where the courts toss them once it is over.  Hell, I'm figuring most of the people living in those areas might welcome it.  All the same, it is both impractical, unworkable - we're talking potentially hundreds of criminal defendants in Chicago as opposed to two in Boston - and, most important of all, not touching the underlying causes (poverty, the lucrative nature of criminal activity exploited by the Chicago gangs, racism, the sense that the gangs provide structure to areas of the city officials have neglected far too long) of events in the Windy City.

In other words, in this case with this example, it is really quite impossible to compare the events using simple numbers.

Which doesn't mean that we can't now focus on the endemic violence in Chicago, say, or the death toll from unregulated and criminally negligent corporate activities that also take a toll on life and health and property, such as occurred in West, TX.  In a suburb of Little Rock, AR, the press is still barred from the scene of a massive oil pipeline rupture that may well render that suburb uninhabitable.  Stories that seem far away and, well, boring, such as the expanding "dead zones" in the world's oceans; the collapse of commercial fisheries that are creating both economic chaos as well as potential shortages of food; the toll global warming is taking on agriculture both here in the United States and around the world, again creating both economic hardship as well as threatening food supplies (and the insurance industry is pressing Congress to get busy on climate change legislation precisely because they understand how much they stand to lose in payouts due to global warming damage); all these and so much more have far more potential impact on all our lives than a couple stupid, scared kids or some nutty Elvis impersonator sending letters that had no hope of reaching their intended target (while certainly still threatening the lives of the people down the line who came in contact with them).

This last, however, is not so much an indictment of public officialdom as it is an indictment of our news gathering and disseminating bodies.  American broadcast journalism crashed and burned in a big way this past week; it wasn't helped all that much by internet sights that kept banging the drum that the people responsible were "dark-skinned", which should tell people all they need to know not about the perpetrators as much as the websites and the people who run them.  It would be nice if we the people relied for our news not so much on sources either beholden to a particular political agenda or on sensationalism to drive ratings but rather on news sources that were interested in providing real news, up to and including looking in a camera and saying, "Well, we don't have anything new, so we're going to tell you some other stuff that's going on."  That would demonstrate both responsibility and balance on the part of journalists; by and large, the events of this week demonstrated our ongoing need for real journalism rather than TV personalities and pretenders on the internet.  The best of these were - despite the New York Post - print media, especially the Boston Globe.  Other print outlets were doing good work making sure the stories stuck to facts, leaving speculation to John King and Wolf Blitzer at CNN and Jim Hoft and Michelle Malkin on the internet.

Did we "lose it" this week?  Some of us did, I think.  I think officials on the ground in and around Boston should be given some - not a lot but some - slack and benefit of the doubt, while still being willing to answer some tough questions about actions and decisions.  While this was a tough week for all of us, I think after a weekend to release some of the tension, it might not be a bad idea if, on Monday morning, we jumped right in and started asking some tough questions about all sorts of things, whether it's sensational stuff like bombs exploding or really pedestrian stuff like zoning laws and community planning.  Maybe, too, we can start turning off the 24/7 news channels and start reading our news again.  Precisely because print media doesn't have to "be first on the air" with information and news, they can take a bit more time to get stories not only right, but get the right stories.

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