Sunday, July 25, 2010

Into the Wild

I'll be out of touch for about a week because I'll be in the Sylvania Wilderness Area, a tract of extremely rare old-growth forest, saved from the logger's axe because for many decades it was private property.

I've posted about it and told a little bit of its story before, here and here.

You'll hear from me upon my return!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Shirley Sherrod Case: What Have We Learned?

So, on Monday I saw Bill O'Reilly running that clip from Andrew Breitbart's web site, where Ms. Sherrod seems to be speaking with approval of her having discriminated against a white farmer because she thought he was looking down on her. Immediately he called for her resignations. My first thought was "Whoa, that's a little precipitous. Oh, well, maybe you're right. What she's saying does sound pretty awful." It turns out that this was the first time the clip was run on TV.

On Tuesday I learn that Sherrod has already been forced to resign. "Yikes! That was fast! What's going on here?" The CEO goes on TV denouncing Sherrod and applauding her ouster. She claimed she was told, on the instigation of the White House itslef, "Pull over to the side of the road and do it. You're going to be on Glenn Beck tonight!"

On Wednesday we all see the full tape of Sherrod's talk, in which the anecdote is part of a tale of redemption in which she sees the error of her former ways.

What is going on here? It appears that the administration fired Sherrod even before the story showed up on Fox -- which would mean they were relying on Breitbart as their source of information. Since when is this administration strongly influenced by a scurrilous right-wing web site?

I have three comments on all this.

1. Charges of racism hurt people. Further, they are always intended to hurt someone. Breitbart wanted to hurt the NAACP and its members. He also declares in the above video that he doesn't care if he has injured Shirley Sherrod (which is just as bad, if not worse). He did it because he he thought that last week's NAACP resolution denouncing the tea party as (in significant part) a racist phenomenon was intended to de-legitimize the movement and in effect silence its voice. I think he is surely right about this. Although they obviously had other motives as well, some of them honorable, they were pretty clearly using a strategy that I have elsewhere called "turning off the microphone" (see my comment on Rule 5 here). This whole thing was a duel between two groups of character-assassins. That explains why the administration reacted so swiftly. If you are in a sword fight, you don't weigh and sift evidence and try to be fair. You parry and thrust. They knew how deadly Breitbart's charge of racism was, because it is the same weapon they (or rather their close allies) are using here. It had to be parried, fast. If they didn't, the next blow to fall on them (when Glenn Beck weighs in, perhaps) would be a crippling one.

2. "Racism" is a weapon that can be used against anybody. Maybe part of the reason our culture supports and enables this sort of thing is that we think of it is something that is used by underdogs against upperdogs, who of course can take care of themselves. Obviously, it does not really work that way. Everyone has an interest in discourage the use of "racism" as a slur.

3. As I have pointed out before, there is no way of knowing in advance who such charges will hurt. The NAACP meant to harm the tea party and its members. It did not intend to set in motion a row of falling dominoes that would result in one of their own members losing her job. Yet that is what they did. Ironic, isn't it?

Robert Gibbs rightly called this "a teachable moment." One thing we should learn is that using the "racism" charge as a rhetorical weapon unleashes a chaos of malice that no one can control.

Maybe I should add,to avoid sounding naive, that I am merely using talk of "teaching" and "learning" here as a literary device. I don't expect anyone to literally learn anything from this. Since this incident, Sherrod, victim of a false accusation of racism, has made viciously false accusations of racism about Fox News.

To put the matter in its most general form: for all X, where X is something unpleasant, people do not learn that X is wrong by having it inflicted on themselves: more often than not, it merely gives them an overwhelming desire to inflict X on someone else. Such is the depth of human folly.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Harvey Pekar: Long Live the Crappy Government Job!

Saddened to hear of the death of Harvey Pekar, writer, raconteur, and subject of the brilliantly innovative HBO movie, American Splendor (2003), I've been watching my DVD of the movie again. Here's a thought you won't read anywhere else:

This time around, this movie strikes me as a window on a rapidly receding past. Note that the crappy job Harvey's stuck in -- and pathetically grateful to have -- doesn't even exist any more: taking care of paper files in big metal drawers and yards of metal shelves in the basement of a government hospital. Nowadays that stuff is all on computers, and the job would go to a somewhat more skilled person.

When I was a hippie, I knew longhairs who worked for the Postal Service, not because they felt a calling to wear shorts and carry bags full of Sears catalogues, but because the USPS didn't care if you had long hair. Their customers may not have liked it, but as a government bureau they didn't have to please their customers.

This is the niche in the socio-economic system that Harve occupied. The film begins with the real Harvey telling us that he has always worked at sh*t jobs, lived in sh*t places, and with women who treat him like human garbage. A lot of the charm of the film, and of Harvey's books, is enjoying the ironic tension between a) his intellectual brilliance, b) the gritty crappiness of his immediate surroundings, and c) the gross, obvious character flaws that bring about (b) in spite of (a).

Has anyone noticed the contribution to our culture that was made by that vanishing institution, the crappy government job? Here is a guy with a set of skills and interests that are not highly marketable (jazz critic, expert on comic books and the kind of blues records that only eccentric white people listen to any more) and massive failures of patience and self-discipline that prevent him from getting very far with his formal education (otherwise he might have pursued his goofy obsessions in a university and actually gotten paid for it).

How to avoid a life of utter frustration? One classic solution, admittedly imperfect, was the undemanding but unrenumerative government job (or UDURGJ for short). It enabled a person like Harve to go home at the end of the work day, his mind un-cluttered by any complex or worrying problems like the ones that come up in other people's work day, and un-exausted by any backbreaking physical labor, free to pursue his private obsessions as just that -- private. Meanwhile, the UDURGJ makes it possible for Harvey to make a real contribution to the economy and to be remunerated in a way that is appropriate to his meager contributions (ie., not much). The arrangement is meager, yes, but honorable.

From what I have read, this sort of job seems to be vanishing fast. Thanks to increasing unionization, more and more government jobs have better pay and much, much better perks than similar jobs in the private sector. (Not to mention that precious government job security!)*

Maybe you are thinking, what's wrong with Harve getting better remuneration? Wouldn't that be a good thing from his point of view? Well, I don't think so. If you take the UR out of the UDURGJ, I doubt that this job will go to someone like Harvey. If the job is really worth a lot, it will attract people who are a lot more marketable than him. Why would anyone, even the government, hire someone with Harvey's obvious emotional problems, character flaws, and complete lack of credentials, when for the same (exorbitant) price they can get someone who is a lot more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed? Those unions must be pricing guys like Harvey right out of the market.

With the disappearance of the crappy government job, we will lose a haven for dreamers, misanthopes, and misfits, for the stunted, the botched, and the mangled-by-life. I don't know about you folks, but that describes some of my favorite people. As a recovering hippie myself, I will miss them!

* News flash: I just heard an interview with the mayor of San Jose CA, on why they are firing their (unionized) city janitors and hiring private (but also unionized) ones: the government ones cost twice as much as the private ones. Their government janitors get about $80,000 a year [including perks] plus about 17% "for time off" [now there is an interesting concept!], or just under $100,000 per year, or around $50 per hour. That's fifty bucks for an hour of buffing the floor and swabbing the toilets.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

R and R

This is a scene cut from the original Fantasia.

David Kramer posted it over at with no explanation except for a title: "American Popular Entertainment, 1940."

Yes, vast, profound changes have come since then, changes in popular taste and in the practices of artists. The latter changes of course had a lot to do with the triumph of artistic modernism.

Anyway, enjoy this little key-hole view of what popular culture used to be like.

BTW, for you non-birders out there, the bird depicted above is the great white heron, which is actuallly the same species as the great blue (Ardea herodias). Great whites are only found in extreme south Florida, but we have plenty of great blues here in Wisconsin, including a few who do their fishing in a pond a half a block from my house.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

When Can You Say "That's Racist!"

On the occasion of the NAACP formally condemning "racist leaders" of "the Tea Party" yesterday, I thought I should re-run post I ran last year on the logic of charges of racism.

Related: in June the Los Angeles chapter of this same organization got Hallmark to pull a "racist" graduation greeting card. The astronomy-themed card featured two cartoon characters (Hoops and Yo-Yo, pictured here) chattering about the cosmic scale of the achievements made possible by a high school diploma [insert joke about public education here]. The offending lines:
This graduate's going to run the world, run the universe and run everything after that... whatever that is. And you black holes, you're so ominous. HA HA HA OHHH. Congratulations. YEA!!! Nothin' like taking over the world. And you planets, watch your back!”
The reference to "black holes," it was said, is obvious code for "black hoes" (ie., whores) and viciously stigmatizes black women. NAACP public pronouncements also seemed to suggest at one point that "watch your back" is a veiled threat of racist thuggery.

[BTW, I strongly recommend you view the video to which I just linked. It's a hoot. As good as an Onion video.]

Hallmark not only pulled the card, but apologized and promised to "learn" from this experience. (Learn what, I wonder? That people can be idiots?)

Under what circumstances do charges of racism actually make sense? Here is my original answer to this question:

Sept. 15, 2009

The air is thick with charges of racism. Yesterday, Jimmy Carter said that " an overwhelming portion" of the hostility to Obama that you see nowadays is due to racism. Columnist Maureen Dowd is sure that Rep. Joe Wilson's rude outburst, now the subject of a House vote of disapproval, was racist.

The charge that an act is racist is an explanation, and as such must pass the ultimate test that all explanations must pass: it has to be the best one available. There must be no available explanation that beats it on the grounds of greater plausibility or explanatory power.

A tea party protester is waving a sign criticizing Obama’s policies of massive deficit spending. The protester is white and the protestee is black. Obviously, the reason for thinking that the sign is racist is virtually nil. There are white racists, and so there is some finite probability (very small) that any single act in which a white person is criticizing a black person is actually a racist act. In this case it is vastly more probable that the reason for the protester’s objecting to these policies is – the policies themselves.

One of the interesting features of explanations is that typically the best one, at least if it is good enough, trumps the others. It doesn’t just come out ahead of the alternative explanations, it destroys them. Once the fire inspector determines that the best explanation of a fire is arson, we don’t keep wondering, in the absence of new evidence, whether it might really be due to lightning or a careless smoker. Given that there is an immediately forthcoming and highly plausible explanation for the tea party protester’s ire, a rational person does not keep wondering if it might be due to racism instead, and a fair and honest person will not pretend to wonder.

All this applies pretty clearly to Wilson’s rude outburst. There are obvious reasons why he would think BHO was lying. The reasons why this would make him angry are equally obvious. There is no need to rummage in his supposedly sinful past to find reasons why he said what he said.

What Dowd is trying to do is to enhance the probability of another explanation by placing the act in the context of a pattern of action that indicates the moral character of the agent. I’m rather partial to character arguments myself, but I think this one is weak.

First, an effective character-based explanation requires intimate knowledge of the agent’s actions, which (as Jack Hunter points out) Dowd obviously lacks in this case. What does she know about what is in Wilson’s soul? Next to nothing, most likely. This makes it virtually impossible for this explanation to trump the immediately obvious ones. Wilson’s alleged racism is like the lightning and the careless smoker.

Second, even aside from the probability that they are true, her premises are weak on explanatory power. Even if Wilson is a racist sort of guy, that does not mean that this particular act is racist. Even racists aren’t necessarily so obsessed that everything they do that is adverse to any black person is motivated by racial animosity. Joe-the-racist might well feel that, where the fate of one seventh of the entire US economy hangs in the balance, nothing else matters, including the color of some guy’s skin.

Character-based explanations are much better for ruling things out (“I’ve known Joe for umpteen years and he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body,” etc.) than for ruling things in (“He’s a racist person, therefore this act must be racist”).

On the other hand, if you are directing a charge of racism against someone you don't really know, like the crowd that filled the capitol mall on Saturday, the allegedly racist act would have to be one for which there just isn't any other good reason. Carter is assuming that there just isn't anything, or at any rate not very much, in Obama's policies that would provoke hostility.

Monday, July 12, 2010

An Offensive Video?

[Note: As Will S. kindly pointed out in the comments, this video has been yanked due to a copyright complaint. You can see it excerpted in this news show clip, but of course the excerpt completely lacks the emotional whallop of the original video. A shame.]

This is 89-year-old Holocaust survivor Adolek Korman dancing with his grandchildren at various Holocaust related sites: Dachau, Theresienstadt, the Arbeit Macht Frei gate of Auschwitz, the memorial at the site of the Lodz ghetto, the cattle cars, the synagogue that Hitler had intended to make into a museum about the extinct race of the Jews.

This video brought tears to my eyes. Many people though claim to be (and I have little choice but to believe them) angered and offended by it.

I saw it as something like dancing on Hitler's grave (which unfortunately is not possible). None of the people you see here would exist if he had managed to force his vision on the world.

What, I can only wonder, is the view of those who are offended?

That perfect evil should be an object of inverted reverence, like a photographic negative of the reverence that is due to perfect good?

That it is a sin to celebrate that you survived when so many did not?

That survivor guilt is not a mental health problem but a moral duty?

I wish Mr. Korman another 89 years, this time with nothing but peace and plenty.

(Hat-tip to David Kramer.)

Monday, July 05, 2010

The BART Shooting Trial

A verdict is expected this week
in the trial of Johannes Mehserle, the Bay Area Rapid Transit cop who fatally shot Oscar Grant, a young black man, in the back as he lay face down on the ground, clearly under the control of other officers.

Riots in Oakland have been predicted, if the verdict comes out the "wrong" way. Angry demonstrations were held there last week. I've got three things to say about this.

1. In a liberal democracy, holding demonstrations about a criminal trial is virtually always wrong. It's not that judges and such have "authority" that must be respected. I have no such respect for anybody. It's that a criminal trial in such a culture is a pretty good method for getting at the truth, generally far better than what I can manage by reading new stories and picking up rumors. I realize I would see this somewhat differently if I were black, but I can't imagine any of the African Americans I've known and respected waving a sign to intimidate a jury into coming to the "right" result.

2. Mehserle's story, that he meant to draw his taser and shot his gun by mistake, seems true to me. No other explanation of this horrific event makes any sense. The best alternative explanation is that he must have flown into a rage and deliberately shot him. Some people have pointed out that the young man still has one free hand, and the cops might be having some difficulty getting a cuff on it. I just don't see how this can drive someone into a murderous rage. Also notice that Mehserle raises his hands to his head after the gunshot, as if in shock and horror at what has happened.

3. This is probably really a case, surely one of the worst, of a widespread problem: police over-use of tasers. Just as this is not a situation that would justify shooting someone, it isn't one that would justify tazing them either. Police often taze people for being "uncooperative," and that is most likely what was going on here. Nonetheless, Mehserle is still guilty (morally if not legally) of using excessive force. Being insufficiently cooperative does not justify a devastating electric shock. Unfortunately, current law does not seem to view the matter this way. The law for using tasers should be clarified and stricter limits laid down. If we had done so already, this tragedy might not have happened.

Later: I just came out of a camping trip in South Dakota and find that Mehserle has been convicted of involuntary manslaughter, for which he could get up to 14 years. There have been "demonstrations," but the violence has not been catastrophic. It looks like Oakland has dodged a bullet this time, unlike poor Mr. Grant. Requiescat in pace.