December 18, 2014I'm not going to pretend. Today is our office's annual Christmas dinner, which consists of dinner at Peter Lugar's, which is Oh My God, so I'm looking at a day of pretending to look busy and watching the clock. Plus also yesterday was the first Entirely God News Day since, what, Obama's first election? I mean I guess Sony pulling "The Interview" could maybe take some of the gloss off the rose that is the normalization of relations with Cuba and Gov. Cuomo putting the kibosh on fracking, but you don't actually care about Sony. You just feel like you have to care about Sony because it's highly novel and we are poorly trained conversationalists as a people.
But here's another little dollop of happy news to get you through the day until I can go to my party:
A federal grand jury on Wednesday indicted four owners and operators of the company whose toxic chemical spill tainted a West Virginia river in January, forcing a prolonged cutoff of drinking water to nearly 300,000 residents in and around Charleston.
Each was charged with three counts of violating the Clean Water Act, which bars discharges of pollutants without a permit. Their company, Freedom Industries, and its owners and managers did not meet a reasonable standard of care to prevent spills, the indictment stated.
Freedom Industries is of course the company that, after crippling the greater metropolitan area around the city in which I was born, swiftly declared bankruptcy so as to avoid anything like consequence for its actions.
It is these small boons that will cheer us, as maybe if we indict enough of the actual people behind these environmental crimes (yo Don Blankenship what's up dog?), perhaps they will be disinclined to commit these crimes in the future, since apparently conscience has failed them.
Posted at 10:50 AM
December 17, 2014Just in time for the end of the year, I wrote my first listy-type thing for the year-old The Toast, which is easily the best new website around and of a specific voice and viewpoint that I'm shocked that they'd let me contribute. To wit, The Toast is the idiosyncratic butterfly that grew out of the comments sections of such so-called "ladyblogs" as Jezebel and The Hairpin, and it is truly sui generis. Acutely literate, fiercely feminist, occasionally misandrist — they're really great and you can see why I'm an odd fit. (Also: go buy Mallory's book if you haven't already.)
But anyhow it's a list of Fifty-Something Constitutional Rights Most Frequently Exercised. It's a strange little beast, as it does whip back and forth from tongue-in-cheek to earnest sarcasm to whimsy and back again. But I like it! Especially the last four, which I don't think anyone's read all the way to yet.
(Yes, that is my first byline in nearly a year. I'm working harder to rectify that, for my own good more than yours. Now hush.)
Posted at 10:51 AM
December 15, 2014Let's talk about SantaCon real quick before it recedes too far in the rearview.
It is currently common sense that SantaCon as it exists now is a frothy geyser of spewing garbage that people of good conscience avoid like a GGer, just a buncha bros and the girls that love them ginning up a cheap North Pole drag and going out there to terrorize normal people with vomit and urine and sex acts. There is no way I would dispute that characterization, and I'd sooner volunteer to intern for Chuck Johnson before I'd agree to be within ten city blocks of a SantaCon event.
But here's the interesting thing about all that: SantaCon was started as a completely different sort of event. It went like this (and forgive me if I elide or fudge details, this is a breezy conversational recollection and not a research project), back in the late 90s, this sorta-anarchist movement, which started in San Francisco, largely, was seeping across the country. The primary "organization" (if you can call it that) was the Cacophony Society, which soon became the SF Cacophony Society, because chapters were popping up all over the place. Including Brooklyn! And after some very mild pranks, the BCS decided that this SantaCon thing that some of them had participated in SF the year previous would be a really neat thing to do here in NYC.
"Really fun": yes, there was a dash of public intoxication intended, as well as a far amount of bar hopping. But the actual intent of the thing was to do a bit of "culture jamming," or casual social protest with a bit of a sense of humor, assailing commercialism and consumerism and complacency in general.
I can't tell you what wickedly funny pranks they played because I was not there for the full evening that first time, in 98 (I think). I was friends with them, and a putative member of the BCS, but I hate dressing up. So I had a beer with the Santas at Rosemary's Greenpoint Tavern before they all headed out, and then off they went, robotically chanting HO. HO. HO.
That was the first one, and the only one I was around at all, so I'm not sure exactly when the wheel came off. Maybe the first time SantaCon got a bunch of TV News footage, the first time that your miscellaneous American saw it and though, "Binge drinking. Cool."
And I realize that whatever organization that is claiming to run SantaCon right now is making a big show of claiming "culture jamming" as a raison d'etre for SantaCon, but this is demonstrably not so in the actions of the dirty filthy Santas all puking all over themselves while 50,000 other folks marched for justice on Saturday.
But I just wanted to note: SantaCon was not birthed as some frathouse tradition, or as some Elks Lodge attempt at transgression. It began with some actual fringe-types who accomplished a lot of fringe-type activities, as a fuck-it-all attempt at social good with a tiny bit of larceny in its heart. And perhaps the largest irony is that instead of fading away and being forgotten, SantaCon was derailed and zombified. (See also Man, Burning.)
Or hell, is being co-opted by bros the ultimate fate of everything?
Posted at 11:12 AM
December 11, 2014I'm not used to the feeling, but this NYT explainer of the slapstick-but-not-funny road to torture and this look into the unqualified sociopaths who developed our torture techniques (why? because they were good with dogs) dovetails nicely with my brief thoughts on the matter from yesterday. So I may or may not be losing my touch, but at least if I am I am doing so in a way that is consistent with the Paper of Record.
But one last sweeping generalization: am I imagining this, or is the thirst for torture nothing other than a total xenophobic disregard for brown people? And not even in the sense of punishing wrongdoers or answering some perceived cultural moral shortcoming, but just in the sense that torture would work at all. The simple idea that a person can be "broken" is predicated on a smug superiority over the person. As in, we didn't resort to torture because it was the last option; we resorted to torture because we thought it would work, and we thought it would work because we thought the assumed perps were simpletons because of their national and religious background.
And I don't mean "we" you and me, of course, though we are complicit if for nothing because of the elections we lost. It's pretty clear the "we" in this equation is the Bush Administration with Dick Cheney feverishly whispering in everyone's ear, making some unilateral decisions with total operational naivete.
Oh and when is someone gonna snag the exclusive with the two bozo psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen? Seems like that might be a good case for journalism, there.
Posted at 11:04 AM
December 10, 2014As usual there is an awful lot to unpack in reviewing the 600 declassified pages of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on C.I.A. Torture, which was released yesterday and put everyone into hopefully the final major bummer of 2014. It's something we're all going to talk about for a while (um, next day or two) and of course end up agreeing about nothing.
Agreement? Yes, as with everything, what seems to be a glaring and obvious moral failure to some seems an attack on everything American and wonderful to others (John McCain honorably notwithstanding). And the primary bone of contention (other than maladjusted instant hatred of the current administration) is the efficacy of torture.
Very few people would argue that torture is good or fun, and if there are such people, let's just say that their opinions are accordingly marginalized. But those that excuse torture (or hide being flimsy neologisms like enhanced interrogation techniques) argue that torture is a necessary evil — that it produces results. The thing is, I have no idea from where this sentiment arises. Wishful thinking? I have never seen a jot of research that supports this (unless you count an episode of 24 as research), and time and time again, torture just ends up being messy and useless.
And this is a dumb lesson that the C.I.A. keeps having to relearn again and again. Forget about the lessons of yesterday's report (nicely broken down here by the NYT), check the story of Yuri Noshenko, a KGB agent who defected in early '64, offering, among other info, the locations of bugs in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and background on Lee Harvey Oswald. However, CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton did not believe him! So this happened:
In 1964, the C.I.A. put Mr. Nosenko in solitary confinement at Camp Peary, its training site near Williamsburg, Va., where he got "the treatment his fellow Russians received in the gulag," as [author Tim] Weiner wrote.
"There were scanty meals of weak tea and gruel, a single bare light burning twenty-four hours a day, no human companionship," he wrote.
In a statement declassified in 2001, according to Mr. Weiner, Mr. Nosenko said: "I had no contact with anyone to talk. I could not read. I could not smoke. I even could not have fresh air."
After numerous lie-detector tests and many interrogation sessions, the C.I.A. determined that Mr. Nosenko was telling the truth. He was released in 1967, given $80,000 and a new name and sent to spend the rest of his life somewhere in the South, with occasional trips to Langley, Va., to lecture American intelligence professionals at C.I.A. headquarters.
Who knows if these "interrogation sessions" were the same as more contemporaneous ones (developed by two renegade psychologists for a cool $80 million dollars, and reverse-engineered from Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape programs from the Cold War, which were basically What To Expect When You're Captured), but Nosenko was held in this state for a thousand freaking days.
The cold truth of it is, whatever the deranged torture-supporters believe, is that the White House demanded torture on a sub rosa level, and the smart guys at the CIA realized that if it was going to be pulled off, they would have to suborn some sickos to run it and bust ass to maintain plausible deniability. Does that sound like the actions of a bunch of true believers cock-sure that torture works like it does on TV?
Posted at 10:27 AM
December 9, 2014I decided that I'm going to keep a list of works that should be reread/rewatched/relistened to on an annual basis, a bunch of stuff that commemorates some milestone or is just plain super awesome.
The inaugural entry is this column by Jimmy Breslin, filed the morning after John Lennon was murdered.
As Moran started driving away, he heard people in the street shouting, "That's John Lennon!"
Moran was driving with Bill Gamble. As they went through the streets to Roosevelt Hospital, Moran looked in the backseat and said, "Are you John Lennon?" The guy in the back nodded and groaned.
Back on Seventy-second Street, somebody told Palma, "Take the woman." And a shaking woman, another victim's wife, crumpled into the backseat as Palma started for Roosevelt Hospital. She said nothing to the two cops and they said nothing to her. Homicide is not a talking matter.
Breslin is sort of an acquired taste, of course, but if you are at all enamored of the New Journalists, that is some grade A shit. Though if you think about it, they really are Old Journalists now, and even though they were flashy and thought they were upending the news, they fit so linearly with the newspaper tradition, don't they? Ah, history.
And remember, John Lennon was shot in the nighttime, and Breslin this wrote for the next day's paper, on deadline.
Posted at 10:34 AM
December 2, 2014I think I may have said this before, and I'm sure we're all sick to the bone of reading things about Ferguson, Missouri, but there is one aspect of this contretemps that is utterly baffling to me: how is it that there are two sides to this?
Believe it or not, this is prompted by the players at the St. Louis Rams game, coming out to the field all hands-up-don't-shoot, and then some local police union losing every last bit of their shit over it. Clearly there is some sort of disagreement that falls on two sides, with the Rams players on the one side and the cops on the other, but there is a certain squishiness in defining the two sides that's giving me pause.
First, you have the hands-up side, which is pretty easy to parse. Mike Brown was killed by cop Darren Wilson in what can most charitably described as murky circumstances. Brown was unarmed and, some allege, surrendering. The District Attorney of St. Louis County went well out of his way to sway the grand jury to pass on an indictment, and members of the community, and people in general, are sick of brazen abuse from the constabulary. The majority of the protests are good ol' non-violent protests, though a bit of the old riot has flared up here and there. But the goals are obvious and overt: justice for Mike Brown, and reform the cops.
And then there is the other side, which is both inchoate and dug-in. What do they stand for? I mean, I guess they're pro-cop? There's been all sorts of fundraising for Wilson, so in some sense? But, like, are they supporting just the idea of Cops, or are they supporting wanton and unwarranted use of force? Or, and I don't mean to slippery-slope it here, are they specifically supporting the murder of Mike Brown? After all, no small amount of ink has been spilled to remind us that Brown smoked pot and may have robbed a convenience store and was (gasp) black. Is that what these supporters are supporting? It's hard to argue against it.
And that's the problem: they don't stand for nothing. They are purely reactive, and they will kneejerk oppose anything that the hands-up side supports. What we have is a side, a movement, that exists only to oppose a group of people with a well-defined purpose.
And that is what makes it hard not to impugn the motives of the police union in St. Louis and the like-minded. They oppose any gesture of sympathy for a murdered kid, solely because the kid was black and from a lower socioeconomic class.
I guess what's keeping me up at night is I would love to have a reason not to believe these people utter fucking monsters, just a hair's width short of the Klan. But I don't. And I'm waiting.
Posted at 10:41 AM
December 1, 2014I'm by no means as up to date on the state of the coal industry as I should be, considering that I am a son of the proud state of West Virginia, but I am watching with interest the slow downfall of Don Blankenship. Blankenship was the head of what was then known as Massey Energy back in 2010, when an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 miners.
Blankenship was notorious as a stereotypical coal boss — union busting, safety rules skirting, that sort of thing. And this is no Amazon warehouse, either. With mining, when employees are largely abused and misused, they're not going home because they pulled a hamstring or threw their back out. They're going home because they have black lung and months to live. So as the dude responsible for this mistreatment (let alone the slow destruction of pretty much every holler in WV). He's also infamous for bankrolling the campaign of a state judge, who would go on to win the seat and then rule favorably for Blankenship. He's just an unrelentingly dirty guy (more background here).
But for once Blankenship isn't skating, as he has been indicted on four counts in connection with his actions at Massey. None of the charges are related directly to the Upper Big Branch explosion (i.e., he's not indicted for any sort of murder charge, as he is most surely guilty of), but rather for ignoring safety standards in general, lying to the Feds about it, that sort of thing. So this is a good thing.
And here's a fun personal detail on Blankenship from the piece linked above (emphasis mine):
Although Mr. Blankenship now lives in Las Vegas, his primary residence was once in Mingo County, where he grew up and built a mansion with a helipad in one of West Virginia's poorest communities. He piped in clean drinking water to his home even as neighbors sued Massey for poisoning the local wells.
Blankenship is one Dickensian piece of work, and I hope he does a good stretch of time.
And remember, which execs like Blankenship complain that regulations are stifling their business, what they mean to say is how are they supposed to make money if they can't cause the deaths of employees every so often?
Posted at 11:08 AM
November 27, 2014To reiterate, these days there's an awful lot of things to be upset and/or concerned about, on top of all the background-noise things to be upset about. State of the state of things, late 2014.
But it's Thanksgiving Day here in the States, and while I've had wonderful Thanksgivings and less so (this year: wonderful), I have always subscribed to giving thanks, because at the end of the day, it's all about thanksgiving. And I'll be giving thanks to the IRL people I'm about to break bread with, and I'll give thanks to everyone else with a nice note, I am grateful for you people, whoever and however many you are.
It's been more than ten years now, and there have been times when this was my primary outlet, and times when this was a bit of a journal when I was publishing elsewhere. (Next year: who knows?) But without you I'm just barking at a mailbox, so thanks for the time spent here, and I hope your own personal circumstances are favorable, with a forecast that is even moreso.
And tomorrow, back to fighting crime.
Posted at 12:37 PM
November 25, 2014Obviously a lot to talk about on this Tuesday, November 25. Let's not!
Instead, let's talk about dressing.
See, over the weekend I went down to Virginia and had a little pre-Thanksgiving dinner with the family. These days, I do most of the cooking, as I am the only one that doesn't think it a chore. And I always play it safe with the dressing/stuffing — I might throw chestnuts in there, or some sage, but mostly your standard store-bought dried bread, onions, celery, spices, etc.
But Saturday, as I was prepping, I opened the package of croutons and noticed that they were pounded to dust. Oh no! No one wants to eat dressing like that! It'll come out either like concrete or like gruel.
So what I did was I did use the bread dust, but I also took about a quarter loaf of actual bread, shredded it, tossed it in a drizzle of olive oil, and toasted it up in the oven until browned, and then added that to the bread dust and all the savories I was using.
And the result was beyond what I expected: the dust served as a binder, to give it the texture you expect, while the bigger toasted pieces were crispy on top, and pleasing to the eye. It was the best of both worlds, and I can't imagine I'll do it any other way from now on.
And that's you're Thanksgiving cooking tip, to help you forget we live in a world that a cop can chase down and execute an unarmed teenager and still have "supporters." Hug your loved ones, and be better than that.
Posted at 1:51 PM
November 18, 2014There is a pretty unique situation happening in my happenin' Brooklyn neighborhood of Ditmas Park. (If you are not local to NYC, Ditmas is a leafy nabe in the dead center of the borough filled with gorgeous Victorians, and adjacent to some of the most ethnically diverse areas in the entire city.) What's going on? We have our very own crime wave, with five armed robberies in the past three weeks. And these are not your garden variety stick-ups, but rather hold-ups of bars and restaurants with the customers in them. One happened a block away from my apartment, at 8:30 at night. Scary stuff!
Not that I'm actually scared. I might be a little too chill for that — this is clearly a crew that is pushing their luck, and are destined to be behind bars soon even though our precinct is a little bit less than ept. However, my many friends in the service industry are rightfully freaked out, and the people who I've met who were victims are well shook up.
But as interesting as it is to live through this truly novel time, the real interest is in how our little community is reacting to it. Which is to say, thoughtfully, and also garbage.
There's a little website that serves as our town square, Ditmas Park Corner, and it is in the comments that these conversations are happening. I know: never read the comments, and obviously the content therein is mitigated by whatever 21st Century malady that enables people to act like absolute monsters when anonymous and on the web. But there is some honest talk about gentrification, or, to put a less glamorous moniker on it, what is happening to cities like New York and the many many neighborhoods thereof. Even outside of the boom times, there is a push and pull between longtime residents and the news ones that move in. And we are in a boom time, real estate-wise, so that tension is a lot more tense.
And even in the garbage comments there's a possibly nuanced conversation (except for the one racist dude who always deletes his comment — eff him), as there are two or three commenters who truly believe that the crime wave is not the result of the pressures of gentrification, but rather our new mayor, Bill de Blasio, who they blame for tying the hands of the police by cutting back on stop and frisk. Now this is nonsense of course (S&F was being cut back two years before de Blasio was swept into office), but hey, let's do talk about policing! Our precinct traditionally is more of a responsive force than a patrolling force, and it was rare that you would see a cop that wasn't actually at a crime scene.
Good news: in recent days I've seen foot patrols. It's not quite a return to the beat cop, which I'd prefer, but it's a start.
Anyhow! Interesting times, and it's nice to realize that your community is a living breathing organism.
Posted at 2:35 PM
November 13, 2014Good gosh this is depressing. I wanted one last quick hit on the 2014 elections, one concerning the effect of restrictive voting laws on the outcome. Naturally, this would be a topic that would need a little more than may say-so, so I did a little searching around for some authoritative links.
And, no, not a whole lot out there.
Now, you'd maybe think that the fact of that indicates that the restrictive voting laws in states like North Carolina and Kansas and Florida had no effect, seeing as how no one is talking about it. But actually that is so totally not the case, as not even twenty-four hours after the election, Wendy R. Weiser of the Brennan Center For Justice crunched the numbers and came up with this:
The Republican electoral sweep in yesterday's elections has put an end to speculation over whether new laws making it harder to vote in 21 states would help determine control of the Senate this year. But while we can breathe a sigh of relief that the electoral outcomes won't be mired in litigation, a quick look at the numbers shows that in several key races, the margin of victory came very close to the likely margin of disenfranchisement.
The races in question? The North Carolina senate race, and the governorships of Florida and, wait for it, Kansas. And instead of these stories being reported out, what we've been reading for the past ten days are stories of the "mandate" demonstrated by the election — which is ludicrous on the face of it as it was an election in which only 36.3% of registered voters bothered to show up. (And FWIW I didn't see 2006 as any sort of "mandate" as I don't really believe the concept applies until you get to a margin of victory approaching unanimity.)
Maybe as the results are solidified and the data rolls in, more attention will be paid. But until then, let me commend the efforts of the Brennan Center, as they truly are doing God's work when it comes to keeping elections free and fair.
Posted at 10:39 AM
November 10, 2014Now let's talk about how the results of the election a week ago are the fault of our sitting president, Barack Obama, whose unpopularity is so-famed that rarely a day passes that you are not reminded of this somewhere in the A section of your local paper. Let's look at the numbers!
So Obama's approval rating right now is 42%. That's pretty bad! Not sure if I would want to be photographed next to a man that only four of ten voters approve of! But wait. President George W. Bush's approval rating the month after his final midterms, November 2006, was 35% percent. For the record, that is lower than 35%. And for the record, the approval rating of Congress is currently 14%.
There seems to be a certain exaggeration of the toxicity of Obama. So what is actually going on here?
I have two answers. (Maybe you have your own!) First of all, and most depressing, is that while Obama is not necessarily less popular than historical precedent or other government institutions, the quality of the "unpopularity" is a bit more weaponized than in other instances. That is to say, people who don't like Obama really fucking hate Obama, to the point of unreasonability. Such as, if Obama is for something, the Obama haters are against it, on a kneejerk basis. This is maybe not such a new thing — there were elements of this at play during the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration certainly had its "derangement syndrome" — but the viciousness of this hatred for some reason has a much uglier quality (cough cough racism cough).
And the second answer is that this whole midterm was one big self-fulfilling prophecy. For months, the narrative that the news reporting interests ending up agreeing on was that the Obama unpopularity was "toxic" and therefor the motif of the entire election. Now, as we discussed above, this was demonstrably untrue, at least in any novel way, but it was repeated over and over again until it became conventional wisdom. And wishing made it so. "Obama is toxic" was repeated so many times that it became undeniable, to the strategists of Democratic candidates, and then to the blue voters that did not show up and the red voters that did. I'm not suggesting some conspiracy between all the DC newsdesks and blogs and Sunday AM newsshows, but I do think that there is a bit of laziness, and a bit of losing sight of what the news is for. The news is not some storyline that needs to be impressed upon the news-consumer so that interest is not lost. The news is, you know, what happened, not necessarily what is going to happen.
Is it possible that the so-called Obama drag on the ticket, as evinced by campaigns and voter turnout, would have happened had the media refrained from shoe-horning a result yet to be determined into a gripping drama easy to follow, but I think that this was not a natural phenomenon. I propose that it was conjured into inevitability by a bunch of people who have to file many more words per day than they have ideas for.
Posted at 10:51 AM
November 7, 2014Okay, let's hit this in small bites, because there is an awful lot to unpack from the results of the election on Tuesday.
Let's start with a little bit of Why the Democrats Lost. Well, in many cases, vote suppression, but we'll get to that later. Actually, I think a large part of the problem is that they had shitty candidates.
This is not universal, of course — Colorado's Mark Udall was about as close to Russ Feingold as we have now (other than Franken), and I can't think of any obvious defects of Alison Grimes in Kentucky. So maybe not shitty candidates.&mbsp; More like really shitty strategy.
True, the Republicans ran on nothing other than dislike of Obama, but the Democrats ran on pretty much nothing other than running away from Obama, and that is not a strategy. When a candidate (Grimes) is actually afraid to admit that she voted for the President, who is also a card-carrying member of her party, then that is a strategy problem. That's a character problem, and that's a candidate problem. When you have Mark Udall running around the State of Colorado basically only talking about a woman's right to choose, that's a strategy problem.
Obviously all of these campaign deficiencies were advised by the current generation of election svengali's, backed by reamed of polling and data-micromining (and it totally worked in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012), but, much like a cure for the hiccups, it stopped working, and made candidates seem timid and almost privileged.
For example, unemployment is under 6%, the economy is righting itself (well, at least on paper) and millions more people have health insurance that did six years ago, but you never would have known that from any of the Democratic Senate candidates. That's just dumb.
Posted at 9:49 AM
November 5, 2014Wow, I hate waking up to mornings like this. Anyone remember 2004? That was another bad one. I'm sure I'll have something to say about the Great Wave of 2014 (on the Internet they call something to say a take!), but right now I'm just gonna luxuriate in all this misery and see what kind of fire that kindles.
In the meantime, did you know that yesterday morning the New York Times published an op-ed about how Americans vote in their self-interest?
Most people aren't ideologically pure, and most don't derive their opinions from abstract ideologies and principles. People are more strongly influenced by the effects of policies on themselves, their families and their wider social networks. Their views, in short, are often based on self-interest.
Now you and I know that the past thirty-five years of American politics has been predicated on everyone voting AGAINST their own self-interest. Just ask the Middle Class. Oh right you can't ask the Middle Class because the Middle Class ain't there no more! But hey, a couple of academics got a hold of some numbers that actually a fraction more poor white households vote blue than vote red, so, yeah, sure, our economic self-interest has clearly been to give away all the wealth to the ten or fifteen families who really really deserve it, like the Waltons and the Kochs.
Well, cheers, everyone, here's to everyone voting their self-interest yesterday. I hate us.
Posted at 10:05 AM