Thoughts on So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

So You've Been Publicly ShamedI just read Jon Ronson’s newest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. It is probably his best book yet. Then again, maybe it’s just that I am really interested in the subject of public shaming — and shame more generally. But it was my intention to just read a couple of chapters and move on. Instead, I ended up reading almost the whole thing in one sitting. It really draws the reader in — especially anyone who is active in public life, even if that just means sending out a lot of tweets.

It is my fear of public shaming that stops me from being more involved in Twitter. For example, after the Vanity Fair cover with Caitlyn Jenner, I wanted to tweet out, “Great, now Jenner is providing unrealistic body images for women.” Similarly, after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, I wanted to announce a new line of hoodies that sported the words, “Don’t shoot! I’m white!” This second one relates directly to Ronson’s primary object: Justine Sacco. She is the woman who tweeted right before boarding a very long flight to South Africa, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” The tweet went viral while she was in the air, with at least one blogger camping out at the airport to get a picture of this supposed devil woman.

At the time, I really did not understand it. Maybe that’s not surprising coming from the man who thinks that “Don’t shoot! I’m white” on a hoodie is the height of social satire. But Sacco’s tweet was not insensitive, much less racist. It was rather the other way around: it was mocking western stereotypes and highlighting the fact that by and large Americans do not have to worry about AIDS. What I saw happen to Sacco was very typical and one of the reasons I’m not too keen on humanity. People decided to read the tweet as insensitive and racist so that they then could enjoy the pleasure of feeling outraged about it.

We see this same thing throughout media. Certainly, Jerry Springer and Judge Judy would have had no careers if it weren’t for the manufacture of outrage. And far from ideology, Fox News is primary an outrage machine. But that’s true to a lesser extent with CNN and MSNBC. People not only enjoy feeling outraged, they become addicted to it. It is one of the few ways that modern Americans have of feeling good about themselves. It’s sad.

The other major shaming example in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is Lindsey Stone. This story is an even better example of this. Stone is a caregiver to disabled people. She and a friend were in the habit of creating what they thought were funny pictures. For example, there is a photo of Stone smoking in front of a “no smoking” sign. The photo that got her in trouble was of her shouting and flipping off next to a sign that reads “Silence and Respect” at Arlington National Cemetery. Despite explaining what was going on in the picture, people decided to take it as disrespecting the people buried there and (Of course!) the military in general.

I’ve had to deal with this on Frankly Curious. I used to talk about the military as bluntly as I do the police. But I’ve been beaten down. It isn’t that my opinions have changed, but it just isn’t worth the bother. So I’m more careful when I talk about this subject, because there is an army of people out there just looking for something they can pounce on. To me it goes right along with those yellow ribbons. We don’t provide real respect in terms of using the military as little as possible and paying soldiers well. So it isn’t surprising that they would be always on the lookout for disrespect. But their wrath is ill directed at me and Lindsey Stone.

Two years ago, I got in a bit of a tussle on Twitter. A woman had tweeted out, “Is it me, lots of Bay Area tweeters going on about their day, tweeting stupid stuff. A plane crashed, lots of people impacted.” This enraged me. She was shaming the wider world because it wasn’t focused on what she was focused on. Ultimately, three people died in that crash — one because she was run over by a rescue vehicle. But I wasn’t nice about my anger. I tweeted, “About 2000 people died of malaria today. Why are you so focused on these people at SFO?” It wasn’t taken well. The whole thing still strikes me as bizarre. Apparently, a lot of people think that we must all obsess about whatever the television news is currently reporting.

Ultimately, I don’t think that Jon Ronson gets to the bottom of why we all are so inclined to shame each other. He posits that all of our personal shames make us shame others. I think it is more about control. But it hardly matters. Most of the stuff that people are publicly shamed for is forced. The shaming is a given, and the reason is reverse engineered. The only solution is for us all to show more mercy. But that is the solution to most problems in the world. I’m not hopeful. It doesn’t seem like Jon Ronson is either.

Media as Stenographers for Official Power

Glenn GreenwaldIn the Boston area yesterday, the FBI and Boston Police Department (BPD) shot and killed a 26-year-old black Muslim man, Usaamah Abdullah Rahim, after they stopped him at a bus stop at 7:00 am in front of a CVS drug store in order to question him…

NBC Nightly News led its broadcast with this story, and the video featuring a hysterical Lester Holt and Pete Williams has to be seen to be believed. “Good evening,” said the anchor. “We start here tonight with a deadly confrontation outside Boston between law enforcement and a man they feared might be preparing to launch an ISIS-inspired attack.” Even after killing the “terror suspect,” Holt intoned that agents are “still on the move in the Boston area, trying to piece together what he may have been involved with, and whether others might be connected to it.”

The story then narrated by Williams is told from the perspective of the FBI and the BPD. We learn that unnamed officials told NBC News they “were concerned Rahim had become radicalized by ISIS-inspired social media, and was actively considering an attack on police officers in Boston within the next few days, in a city still traumatized by the terrorist bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon.” The agents approached him “fearing he was preparing to take action soon.” Police are now investigating others Rahim was “in touch with who might also have been radicalized by ISIS-inspired propaganda.” Officials, Williams announced at the end of his report, “believe they disrupted a potential terror plot, but now they’re detaining other people for questioning… to see whether anyone else was involved in his plot, or whether attacks are planned.”

So just like that, major American media outlets converted someone about whom they knew nothing into a dangerous terrorist in the middle of executing an ISIS-related terror plot. And the heroic law enforcement officials didn’t just kill an ISIS Terrorist on the loose in America, but likely disrupted a vicious sleeper cell. All of that was achieved without a shred of evidence or investigation: just mindlessly repeating the self-justifying claims of the police agents who had just killed him.

—Glenn Greenwald
In Boston, Media Again Trash a Police Shooting Victim by Uncritically “Reporting” Police Accusations

Social Security Lockbox Scare Tactic

LockboxMy father has been watch The Roosevelts. And in relationship to it, he told me, “Roosevelt wanted there to be a lockbox on Social Security.” I sighed heavily. Suddenly, I was transported back into the 2000s and 1990s — the last two periods when everyone was talking about the Social Security lockbox. The problem with it is that it is meaningless. Actually, it is worse than meaningless. The idea of a lockbox is put forward to scare people into thinking that the federal government is stealing money out of the Social Security trust fund in order to pay for Cadillacs for welfare queens.

You probably remember George W Bush, in 2005 after his re-election, going around telling people that there was no money in the trust fund. It was just paper — IOUs! Of course, that’s all cash is. But more to the point, that’s all that bank accounts are. I don’t have money in the bank. I have a number on a ledger. In effect, I have an IOU from the bank. And if the bank goes out of business, I would lose that money except for the fact that that the government guarantees it. So what exactly did Bush think would be in the trust fund? Piles of cash?

It turns out that the Social Security Trust fund is currently worth over $2.5 trillion. There is only about half that much in total cash in the United States. So what are we to do with this money? It needs to be invested one way or another. So the Social Security Administration (SSA) does what everyone the world over does with money they need safely stored: they invest it in US government securities. The fact that one government program is loaning its money to another part of the government does not mean that the money is being stolen.

Think about it with regard to individual investors. They generally have a mix of stocks and bonds. Those bonds generally include a lot of US government bonds. No one — Really: no one — says that these investors are just being ripped off by the federal government because it spends the money that it borrows. Rather, everyone agrees that US government debt is about the safest investment in the world. How safe? Right now, US 10 Year Treasury bonds have a yield of 2.31%. That’s with an average inflation rate last year of 1.6%. (Note: inflation has basically been zero thus far this year.)

So what exactly is the lockbox supposed to do? It is a “solution” to a nonexistent problem. Suppose we hired Donald Trump to administer the Social Security program. All the money coming in would go to him. He would then have to do something with that money. I don’t know what he would do with it, and given my low opinion of him, I would expect the worst. But even aggressive investors would take a large fraction of that money and put it into US government securities. This is exactly what the SSA does. Money isn’t being stolen from Social Security. There is no need for a lockbox and people who talk about it are just trying to scare you.

Mary Jo White Is Doing Obama’s Will: Nothing

Mary Jo WhiteIt seems like only yesterday that I was warning that Mary Jo White would be a disaster as head of the SEC. But it was actually two and half years ago. I warned that she was just another finance apologist who only went after small banks. I quoted Matt Taibbi then, “Obama is not going to clean up financial corruption by pinning a sheriff’s badge on Wall Street’s protector-in-chief.” But I responded, “Obama would only pin a sheriff’s badge on Wall Street’s protector-in-chief.” But the fact that Obama has only ever been willing to deal with Wall Street with kid gloves will not stop me from pointing out that it’s wrong.

Thankfully, we have Elizabeth Warren. Michael Hiltzik reported Wednesday, Elizabeth Warren Declares War on Mary Jo White’s SEC — and It’s About Time. He noted that she “excoriated White with a 13-page letter that accused the SEC chair of slow-walking desperately needed rules and regulations, reneging on her commitments to ride herd on criminal activity by corporations, and even lying to Warren about the status of upcoming regulations.” Just as we expected. After the fight between Warren and Obama over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, I wonder if Obama will come out and say the truth, “She’s doing exactly what I want: nothing.”

The letter is quite a read. It seems personal. In particular, I was stuck by the following comment. After saying she was disappointed that White hadn’t lived up to here promises at her confirmation hearing, Warren wrote, “We have continued to talk, and you and I met personally on Wednesday, May 21, 2015, to discuss these issues. At that meeting, however, you said little that indicated that you would be changing your practices at the SEC.” I’m sure she didn’t! It is some big bank that is going to give White a job after she leaves the SEC — not the American people and certainly not Elizabeth Warren. Sadly, this was all predicted.

Warren is concerned about a lot of different stuff. What I’m most familiar with is the fact that still, except in the most extreme cases, the SEC is allowing banks to get away with a fine and no admission of wrongdoing. That was specifically something White had claimed she would clamp down on. In addition to this, White doesn’t seem that eager to implement Dodd-Frank. That’s not surprising, because of who also isn’t interested in implementing Dodd-Frank: the people White is supposed to be policing, also know as: her future employers.

One aspect that I was totally unaware of was this thing WKSI: Well Known Security Issuer. WKSIs get to take shortcuts through SEC processes. But they are supposed to only be available to banks who behave. You may remember an article I wrote last week, Prison for Soccer Villains, Fines for Bank Villains. In it, I discussed five banks that had recently admitted to criminal activity rather similar to organized crime. Well, that great team player Mary Jo White provided those banks with waivers so that they could maintain their WKSI status. You know, someone convicted of possessing a joint five years ago, can’t get a job, but banks responsible for billions of dollars in malfeasance can’t be held accountable. That would be unfair! It might also get in the way of Mary Jo White’s future employment.

What’s really interesting about these WKSI waivers for criminal misconduct is that they are a knew thing — the first one was issued in 2013. What it looks like is that the moment that the SEC had to start finding some (big) banks guilty of criminal misconduct, then the SEC figured out a way to make it meaningless. By this kind of reasoning, we could sentence bad bankers to life in prison, and Mary Jo White would be there to waive the penalty.

White has responded. Basically, she says that the SEC is doing great work and Warren is mischaracterizing it. But as Hiltzik pointed out, Warren is hardly the only banking watchdog who is unhappy with White. In fact, he quoted Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism, “White… specialized in empty promises, foot dragging, and financial services cronyism.” Which, as I said, is what Obama wanted all along. Mary Jo White didn’t become head of the SEC by accident; she got the post because Obama knew she would do what he wanted. And that is as little as possible. In that regard, she’s been fantastic.

Morning Music: Gordon Lightfoot

Don Quixote - Gordon LightfootA few days ago, James recommended Gordon Lightfoot for our Morning Music. We had discussed the darkness of “If You Could Read My Mind.” Maybe some day I will do that I song. I’m very fond of it. But I need to make my peace with the song “Don Quixote.” It’s a pretty song. And I quite like the lyrics. What I don’t like is the title. It makes me think that Gordon Lightfoot had never read Don Quixote.

Now I know better than most that Don Quixote means many different things. There is an often repeated quote that every man should read the novel three times in his life: when young, middle aged, and old — because it will mean different things each time. That’s very true. For myself, Don Quixote doesn’t mean anything in particular. There are simply elements that stand out more some times than others.

But I don’t see how Gordon Lightfoot’s song has anything to do with the book. The song is about the parts that we play in life and how we are really very complex. The horseman stands above this, accepting his contradictions. And part of this is, “Tilting at the windmills passing.” That’s the only reference to Don Quixote. But Don Quixote tilts at windmills because he is hallucinating. And he is hallucinating because he has totally lost his grip on reality and submerged himself into the part of a knight errant.

But “Don Quixote” is a good song. I just wish he would have given it a different title. But maybe I’m the one who’s wrong. If someone can explain to me why the song is corrected titled, I’d very much appreciate it.

Anniversary Post: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Uncle Tom's CabinOn this day in 1851, the first part of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in the abolitionist newspaper, National Era. Today, the novel has kind of a bad reputation because of the stereotype of an “Uncle Tom” — the “dutiful, long-suffering servant faithful to his white master.” But this and other stereotypes of African Americans are a reflection of the enormous influence that the novel had. It was an extremely important novel that galvanized northern thought against slavery.

What I never knew was the extremely negative reaction that the novel got in the south. In fact, it started a whole genre of novels called Anti-Tom literature. According to Wikipedia, during the ten years after the novel’s publication “between twenty and thirty anti-Tom books were published.” What’s shocking about these books is that Stowe actually went pretty lightly on the institution of slavery. Most of the slave owners are presented as decent people who are reluctant. There’s really only one slave owner who is clearly evil and I don’t think even he is indicative of just how bad slavery actually was.

I can understand why the African American community turned against the novel. And even today, no one mistakes it for good writing. But it does have to be seen in its historical context. Of course, there’s always a chicken and egg aspect to these kinds of things. Was the novel hugely successful because the north was finally done with slavery, or was it the novel that moved public opinion? I suspect that it was both. And that at least makes Uncle Tom’s Cabin a hugely important novel.

Happy anniversary Uncle Tom’s Cabin!