Witches and Hippies

DragnetThis video parody of Dragnet is very funny with some clever computer effects. But what I think is most interesting about it is the original stuff that sadly very few people in a society can see at the time: how law enforcement is mostly just cultural bias, and in-group and out-group signifying. The original episode is all about the good people symbolized by the cops and the bad people symbolized by the hippies.

It is based on “The LSD Story” episode—which was ironically the first color episode of the show. This is interesting because at the end, the dealer dies of an LSD overdose. In fact, it is not clear that anyone has ever died from an LSD overdose. So much for the stories being true. But that is wholly beside the point. The episode is intended to portray the heroic police officers saving our youths from a life of sin and debauchery. In another time, the story could have been about the demons lurking in the woods waiting to have sex with our daughters and turn them into witches. It is exactly the same thing.

But forget my ranting. Check this video out. It’s a lot of fun, and as I said, funny:

Dobson’s Negro as Other

Dobson's EncyclopaediaIn the complexion of negroes we meet with various shades; but they likewise differ far from other men in all the features of their face. Round cheeks, high cheek bones, a forehead somewhat elevated, a short, broad, flat nose, thick lips, small ears, ugliness, and irregularity of shape, characterize their external appearance. The negro women have the loins greatly depressed, and very large buttocks, which gives the back the shape of a saddle. Vices the most notorious seem to be the portion of this unhappy race: idleness, treachery, revenge, cruelty, impudence, stealing, lying, profanity, debauchery, nastiness, and intemperance, are said to have extinguished the principles of natural law, and to have silenced the reproofs of conscience. They are strangers to every sentiment of compassion, and are an awful example of the corruption of man when left to himself.

Dobson’s Encyclopaedia, 1798
Entry for “Negro”

Larry Summers’ Last Chance

Larry SummersLet me tell you about Larry Summers. He’s an economist and was the Secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton. Before him, Robert Rubin was Treasure Secretary, and Summers, being an acolyte of his, continued his strong dollar policies. Now I know that a strong dollar sounds like a good thing, but it isn’t. Politicians love a strong dollar because it makes them feel powerful. But even more important, all of the rich people who are the true constituents of the politicians love a strong dollar. If you have a lot of dollars, a strong dollar is great. If you have to work for a living, a strong dollar is bad.

The economics of this is very simple: if the dollar is strong, imports will be cheap and exports will be uncompetitive. If markets truly were the magical entities that conservatives claim, we would have no trade deficit; instead, our dollar would be worth less and trade would adjust accordingly. But anyway, if you want to decimate American manufacturing, then keep the dollar strong.

Now Larry Summers is a good, even a great economist. So why did he believe in a strong dollar? I don’t know. I guess because he thought it was more important to protect the wealth of the rich than the jobs of the poor. But since the financial crisis of 2008, he has been making lots of sense. So I’m divided in my thinking about him.

Last week, he did a little political science over at the Washington Post, Sometimes, Gridlock Is Good for America. I agree with the title. When Republicans are in the White House, we could use a good deal more gridlock. He even said so when it comes to the Bush Jr years. Of course, Summers is a New Democrat so he thinks the Reagan and Bush Sr years were a-okay! Whatever. But mostly, his point was that we’ve had gridlock in the past as if blanket Republican opposition in the 1960s is the same as blanket Republican filibusters today.

The great Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann took him to task late last week, Gridlock Is No Way to Govern. They come right out swinging:

Larry Summers is a brilliant, award-winning economist. Monday, in his monthly op-ed column for The Post, he opined about politics and history. Our advice, as political scientists, is that Summers should stick to economics.

Then they go onto argue more or less the same thing that is in their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. Check it out.

The point is not so much that Summers is wrong. It just bugs me how much all of these elite people prove that we do not live in a meritocracy. Once you get to the level of Larry Summers or Robert Rubin, it doesn’t matter how wrong you are about anything. There is still great demand for your thinking. Meanwhile, an 18 year who old gets arrested for cannabis possession sees his life effectively over.

The nobodies are never given a second chance. The somebodies are never given a last chance. Don’t talk to me about equality of opportunity and don’t mention “meritocracy” except to say that it doesn’t exist—in America anyway.

Afterword

Last year, I wrote about a tax reform proposal by Larry Summers that I really liked. So I don’t mean to be too hard on him.

Come Back Obama

Obama CopeJust one more quick note about all the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. I believe that Obama was so quick to call the bombing a terrorist act because, as usual, he’s a wimp. I’m sure he is worried that just like in Benghazi, the right wing will attack him for not calling it a terrorist attack. I’m all for being a wimp when it protects a person. I’ve managed to avoid fights all my adult life by being a wimp. But Obama will not avoid fights this way. If he hadn’t called it a terrorist attack, the right would have attacked him. If he said that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be given his Miranda Rights, the right would have attacked him. As it is, he has indicated that Tsarnaev will be tried in our regular court system, so the right is attacking him for that.

Will the president never learn that the right will attack him regardless of what he does?

I have an idea for the president. It’s radical, I know, but here goes: why doesn’t President Obama try to please his base? It is very possible he would actually succeed at that. Trying to please the Republican Party is a fool’s errand. In fact, trying to please the centrist Washington insiders is also a fool’s errand. Did you read Maureen Dowd yesterday? The defeat of the gun bill is apparently Obama’s fault. She’s a great example of how Obama just can’t win with the only people he seems to care about winning with.

The clock is running out for the president. He needs to come back to the liberals he was courting all the way through 6 November of last year. Because despite everything, we still like him. And we’re the only ones who ever will as long as he is in power.

Racism Toward Muslims

Electronic IntifadaAli Abunima at The Electronic Intifada has written an article that I wish all Americans would read (even though I fear their reaction would be no better than it was to Marc Ambinder’s article), Obama’s Rush to Judgment: Was the Boston Bombing Really a “Terrorist” Act? The basis of his argument is that our definition of “terrorism” requires that the perpetrator being politically motivated. At this point, we don’t have any information indicating that this is the case so we should back off on the talk of terrorism.

There are two comparisons that I think are important. The first is that this could well be just another Columbine. As we now know, that crime was committed by one “clinically sadistic sociopath” who manipulated another who suffered from depression. When all the information comes out about the Tsarnaev brothers, I think we will at least see that dynamic going on. I will be surprised if the older brother didn’t have some “reason” for the attack, but I have a hard time believing it was really about it. Regardless, if it turns out they did the attack for al Qaida or Chechnya of the lack of Russian representation in USA Boxing, then it will be a terrorist attack. Until then, it isn’t.

Abunima as notes that the attack last August on the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin is almost never referred to as a terrorist attack. But of course it was. I would go further: a lot of people still bristle at calling the Oklahoma City bombing a terrorist attack. What’s more, no one on the right wants to call abortion clinic bombings and assassinations terrorist attacks. That’s because in America, a “terrorist” is only a Muslim. This is, admittedly, strange. We have long known about terrorist acts in Northern Ireland and Spain. And Timothy McVeigh was executed before 9/11.

I think what is really going on is that Americans see people from the Middle East writ large (so large that India is included) as the enemy. And these people are all assumed to be Muslims (even though most of them aren’t). On Wonk Blog this morning, John Sides wrote about some of his research, Americans Who Distrust Muslims Are Likelier to Back the War on Terror. He started the article by displaying the following tweet from game show host Chuck Woolery who is saying what most Americans think:

Sides went on to present data that shows that Americans find Muslims far more violent and untrustworthy than any other group, including blacks and Latinos (even though the rated them high in these regards too). It is extremely sad to see.

But in this way, I think I might disagree with Abunima’s concern about the tendency of Americans to call anything that Muslims do terrorist. I think the problem is that Americans hate Muslims and are eager to find anything to blame them for. Even still, I’m kind of hopeful. Over time, I think it will be like the LGBT community: as more and more people get to know Muslims, it will be harder to hate them. And it will be the same dynamic: the young and liberal will embrace them first and the old and conservative will be the hold outs.

None of this means we shouldn’t fight back against these unfair stereotypes. And I hate to think about the small scale terrorist attacks that are being perpetrated on American-Muslims right now. Remember, the Sikh Temple was attacked because the white supremacist thought the worshipers were Muslim. And that does make plain the fact that hatred of Muslims is racism pure and simple—unless they also hate all Basques and Northern Irish. That may provide a way forward.

Abunima is right, though: we need to push back on fools like Chuck Woolery who think Muslims are violent. Adam Lanza was a white guy who killed 27; I don’t think it is right to lay that on me just because I’m also white.

Missing Cat/Dog/People Signs

Lost CatI rarely torture you all with my own poetry but this rhymes! And yes, I know what you’ll say, “It’s bad enough that this is all about death; do you really have to end it by saying that death is a good thing?” Well, yes, as a matter of fact I do. I’m no fan of death, but there are a great many things that are worse than death. For example (and I hate to bring this up because it really bothers me), I would rather die than have my toes cut off one by one with a pair of cutter pliers. The same thing goes for my fingers now that I think about it. And now that you have that image, enjoy the poem!

Hopefully perky
Each sign I saw said
Please bring back my Muffin
But Muffin is dead.

Not all the king’s horses
Nor pharmacy meds
Will bring back poor Muffin
Cause Muffin is dead.

Maybe on a highway
Or under a bed
There aren’t happy endings
Cause Muffin is dead.

Kristin can tell you
When her Muffin fled
And stayed gone for two weeks
Muffin was not dead.

But that’s the exception
Of which you have read
Cause generally speaking
Muffin is dead.

I know that I’m dreary
And filled up with dread
But ration’ly speaking
Poor Muffin is dead.

She could be in much pain
Tortured in a shed
Then isn’t it better
If Muffin is dead?

Charlotte Was Not Tenacious of Life

Charlotte BronteJohn Muir was born this day in 1838. Filmmaker Marcel Camus was born in 1912. Comedic screenwriter Norman Panama was born in 1914. Anthony Quinn in 1915. And American citizen gunned down without due process of law, Anwar al-Aulaqi was born in 1971.

Queen Elizabeth II is 87 today. The great comedian Elaine May is 81. Charles Grodin is 78. Since I mentioned Hitler’s birthday yesterday, I guess I have to mention that James Dobson is 77 day. The great Iggy Pop is 66. Talentless beauty Andie MacDowell is 55. And Robert Smith of The Cure is 54.

But the day belongs to Charlotte Bronte who was born 1816 and died not all that much later. She is, of course, the author of Jane Eyre, a wonderful, if flawed novel. I will always remember the line, “You must be tenacious of life!” (I use it a lot; and it’s opposite!)

Happy birthday Charlotte Bronte!

We Aren’t the Anti-Terrorists

Inventing the EnemyA lot of people in the United States want terrorism to be a major problem—it seems to define us as a people. But apparently, terrorism is an extremely minor problem. How else can we explain the fact that almost every time I read about a foiled terror plot, it turns out that all the tools for the act and very often even the idea came from the FBI? Michael Tarm over at the Associated Press reported yesterday on two such cases, FBI: Ill. Man Tried to Join Al-Qaida-Linked Group. In it, he wrote about Abdella Ahmad Tounisi who tried to board a flight to Syria to join a group that is fighting against the Bashar Assad regime. The article didn’t say, but I wouldn’t doubt that the FBI even provided the plane ticket.

Tounisi was a allegedly a friend of Adel Daoud who, like most “terrorists” in America tried to detonate a fake bomb that the FBI had given him. I question how valid these prosecutions are. Would these people have actually gone through with these acts if the FBI hadn’t made it so easy? We’ll never know. And the bombing at the Boston Marathon shows how ridiculous these investigations are: we spend enormous resources setting up fake terrorist acts to foil while real ones go unnoticed. I understand that plotters like the Tsarnaev brothers as almost impossible to detect beforehand, but certainly resources could be used that now go to people likely couldn’t commit a terrorist act without government help.

There was something else in the article that caught my eye:

There are no links between Tounisi and the Boston Marathon bombings earlier in the week, the head of the FBI office in Chicago, Cory B. Nelson, said in a statement announcing the arrest.

This goes along with a common meme in conservative media right now: the Boston Marathon bombers were part of some large terror network. Now certainly, I don’t know. But that sounds really unlikely and there is certainly no indication of it. But people really want to believe in some vast conspiracy that isn’t there. From what we know, al-Qaida is not that organized a group. Many acts that are supposedly by al-Qaida are really only by people who align themselves with al-Qaida. And that makes them harder to detect. But as “public enemy number one,” al-Qaida is a pathetic group—like a mouse who keeps attacking your feet: annoying and even painful at times but certainly not an existential threat.

I just read the title essay in Umberto Eco’s Inventing the Enemy. He explains what is going on perfectly:

See what happened in the United States when the Evil Empire vanished and the great Soviet enemy faded away. The United States was in danger of losing its identity until bin Laden, in gratitude for the benefits received when he was fighting against the Soviet Union, proffered his merciful hand and gave Bush the opportunity to create new enemies, strengthening feelings of national identity as well as his own power.

That’s about right. What Eco is getting at is the fact that we only have identity to the extent that we are not “the enemy” or more generally “the other.” That’s a much more profound discussion, which I may write about later. For now, it is enough to say that we need to fight against this. The barbarians are not at the gates and there are much more edifying ways to define ourselves than as “not those pathetic religious fundamentalists who think God wants them to kill other people.”