Fear Makes Enemies from Allies

The purpose of terror is to affect disproportionate change, to enlist emotions in recruiting unnecessary armies


The world is a complicated place.

Freddie Gray dies in the back of a police van after being picked up for nothing. No one is seemingly held accountable. Maryland a black state attorney, Baltimore has a black mayor, a substantial minority presence in their police force, a majority-minority city council, and has basically been run by local Democrats for fifty+ years.
There are issues here of accountability, but they run all over the place. If they belong to any political party, they belong to the local Democrats. They certainly appear to transcend easy racial narratives on the side of any oppressor, though personally I find it easy enough to imagine the state being a tool of minority/poor oppression regardless of who’s in charge.
We know that, for example, police use of force is disproportionately applied to minorities. There’s some ongoing discussion of shootings – most research indicates a bias, there’s at least one recent study (though only examining incidents in Houston) which counter that conclusion – but personally I think it’s enough to point out that minorities get beat more often than whites in similar incidences to say that there’s smoke.
But what now?
The panacea of “better government” is not enough. Government is, by-and-large, a manifestation of society at large and for good reason. The downside is that transformation in government comes after transformation in society at large, and American society at large is struggling with itself: Black Lives Matter against All Lives Matter, awareness of the state’s largely out-of-sight minority oppression against a struggle to maintain deference to law and order. The good news is that the civil rights movements of the 60s were decried in their time for being disruptive, and that Black Lives Matter being considered similarly is at least a reminder that struggles can tip quickly.
The new, ugly wrinkle in all of this is the string of murders of police officers.That is the wedge, the worst fears of All Lives Matter come to manifest, an erosion of the ideal that it is possible to be both aware of the minority experience of the state’s violence and power, as well as aware that minority and poor communities in general require the help and aid of police. Just as any kind of terror attack is designed to drive rifts between populations, to make estranged allies and neutral parties into enemies, these shootings are terror attacks. If they work, they will erode the social capital required for change, and everyone will come out lesser.
I hope it doesn’t go that way.

Police States, Real and Imagined

We’re fascinated by all the wrong things and it’s literally killing us.

It’s no great secret that the American police have become more militarized: they have bigger weapons and trucks, the use of SWAT teams is way up, and the ongoing use of what constitutes proper application of state-sanctioned violence in enforcement of the law is a key component of the cultural struggle between the Black Lives Matter movement and the law-and-order backlash against that movement.

In fact, crime has been falling steadily for decades, with a recent small uptick in violent crime (fuel for the struggle noted above). Yet here we are, with a decade+ of fears of terrorism managing to worm their way into America’s law enforcement management and execution. There haven’t really been any major devastating terror attacks in America since 9/11; the Boston bombing was the most spectacular, but even that couldn’t compare to a hundredth the destruction of 9/11.

It seems that police killings, on the other hand, are up, and steadily, slowly rising.

So at the least, it’s pretty clear that the fear we’ve constructed out of fear is turning on ourselves. Still, the police killed around a thousand people last year, it’s safe to assume at least some of those shootings were actually justified (rather than “police justified”, which is the kind of standard that’s applied legally and the reason that it’s so rare for murder charges to be brought against police), putting the number of unjustified shootings, at worst, in the realm of some few hundreds in what are probably a million police encounters in a year.

Dead innocents are tragic, but let’s stay focused on the militarization of police and the threat of a police state.

What can we say about all this?

Well, the police are clearly over-armed. They don’t need dozens of rifles for police work unless they’re putting down some kind of insurrection. They’re overly aggressive, given what we know about the frequency of police killings. And their uses of force fall disproportionately on minorities (though not quite as much as some may have you believe: it’s a real data artifact all the same). And yet? This is, in the end a thousand times less deaths and destructive a presence than, say, medical errors, themselves products of a medical system that doesn’t manage to even attempt care on a significant minority of our population.

The NSA is meanwhile reading your emails illegally but pointing that out gets you a decade in prison, the TSA is afraid of liquids and will gently pat your genitals and throw you in prison for noncompliance despite a 95% failure rate, and the FBI can’t find terrorists so it makes them up.

I’m not terribly sure why people are fascinated with these high profile things when accidentally being killed by your doctor is more likely, but one is treated as a statistical anomaly and the others the foundation for a massive police state.

Conservativism, Socialism, America, and Fear

America is so afraid of Communism that we’d rather go bankrupt than buy better health, cheaper

I rather like the information here, especially the median wealth information, and what it means compared to the information here, about median income, and the information here, on net debt-to-GDP. In the end they tell a story about some tremendous, obvious failings within America’s economic system, failings with both antiseptic negative economic impacts as well as moral failings. It’s a story about fear, and what it means to be culturally American.

There are a few stories here when you look at all these links together:

  • The gap between median wealth and net mean wealth is a good measure of how unequal the distribution of wealth is in the country. Consider a place with ten people in it, nine owning $0 and one owning $10M: it has a median wealth of $0 and a mean wealth of $1M. That’s not a great place to live.
  • The median wealth countries all tend to embrace socialized medicine and strong public support for post-secondary education. Medical bankruptcy is the most-common form of bankruptcy in the US, an incredibly disruptive and wealth-destroying event, and university education is a tremendous hole of American debt. It’s no wonder that the US can draw in such good income (see the second link) yet have much less to show for it.
  • The US has, in terms of median wealth, 64% of the OECD average of median wealth. We’re on par with Portugal and Slovenia, places that make two-thirds or half of what Americans do. Put differently: for every $1 a typical American makes in a year, they end up converting that, year-on-year, to $1.46 in wealth over their lifetime. Someone in Portugal converts $1 in yearly income to $2.75 in ultimate wealth. They’re more frugal to some extent because they earn less and culture is clearly part of this equation rather than just numbers, but there’s still a story in those numbers about how inefficiently the US converts income into wealth.
  • Taking a look at the third link, with debt-to-GDP, and you see that the US is on par with France. Running a nationalized healthcare system is economically wise at both the personal and national level: free market healthcare is a scam. The US spends 17% of our GDP – the highest in the world – on healthcare (about $2.9T), it is an average product, it is bankrupting us, and we have nothing to show for it. Sweden is in second place in the OECD with 12% of their GDP towards healthcare. If we could wave a magic wand and have Sweden’s system, we’d be spending around $800B a year on anything else other than a system that bankrupts us. It’s a terrible inefficiency.

It seems clear to most that there are some industries, services, what-have-you, which are not well-managed by markets with respect to the customers/citizens at large. That rationale is precisely why I support things like socialized medicine; it just so happens that others draw the line at, say, roads and parks. I’d call that overly conservative, but in the end the exercise of the rationale feels to me to be an ultimately conservative line of thought: test, move cautiously, keep what works… the part that seems missing in American conservativism is that one ought to eventually feel comfortable also tossing aside what doesn’t.

“Seizing the means of production” is an overwrought phrase that, when unreservedly adhered to in practice, tends to look like Zimbabwe. Central planning is not a universal panacea. Making wise decisions about what markets can and can’t do, however, and respecting that there are certain things that they magically cannot or will not do will in certain cases look like big bad Communism, and the question then is what are you scared of, and is it truly relevant. For example, I don’t see many gulags in France because of universal health care and generous leave policies and their post-secondary education system. Their finances are doing rather well, actually, at the national and personal level – in the latter case, much better than the US in terms of widely building wealth between generations regardless of class distinctions. Yet Zimbabwe and Venezuela are held up as what happens when you decide that markets run healthcare systems rather poorly, despite the tremendous gap between “socializing the healthcare system” and “nationalizing your country’s most-vital export” that only seems to be bridged by fear rather than an appreciation for what it actually takes, socially and historically, for that final event to come to fruition.

Progressive conservativism is a thing. It’s about as popular as libertarianism, I imagine, though I think it’s the fundamental position of the reformacon commentariat.

Dennis Hastert: Likes the Boys

He’s a rapist. Raping rapist. Dennis Hastert: rapist.

Poor Dennis, he’s so very embarrassed about being caught.

It’s not a big secret anymore that Dennis Hastert is a dirty old man and a coercive rapist and pedophile: pretty much everyone is covering it. What’s sort of news is that we’re not collectively flipping tables over it and just sort of shrugging “LOL those old white guys amirite”. North Carolina’s GOP is more exercised by protecting bathrooms from non-existent predation when apparently it’s more likely their own party members are going to try to rape people under their care. They should be writing laws to prevent themselves from being left alone with kids.

In (marginally more) seriousness, the BBC was rocked by stories of a “Sex Monster” within recent memory, and it’s no great stretch to say that particular scandal involved more higher-ups than it should’ve in any functionally moral society. So… this isn’t exactly unique, in that a (very) influential man high up used his influence to coerce and rape younger folks.

What’s a little more intriguing is that folks are more excited and fearful of the monsters within their midst, but are projecting that fear onto the unknown (such as the transgendered) rather than, say, the old guy with lots of money and friends that runs their town. The fact is that The Other is a convenient foe when you need to whip up the base, and that will ever be true.

In the end, folks will always be more afraid of The Other than someone they know, when it is significantly more likely that The Other is just some marginalized political group convenient to project cultural fears onto, whereas the person you know is actually more likely to be the rapist and pedophile.

Not only that, but ol’ Dennis was caught for trying to move money around, not because he was pinned to a wall by some wronged adult for crimes in the past. Our laws about sexual assault, being what they are, are much more amorphous and difficult to work with than proving that someone tried to bribe you with undeclared money. We live in a society where we haven’t found out a better way to get to the root of these nasty issues without seeing money fly around.

This isn’t a new phenomena: capitalism and liberalism’s obsession with the proper movement of money is the foundation of justice for the otherwise overlooked. Al Capone was caught for tax evasion. Dennis Hastert was caught for moving undeclared cash around. It’s just easier in our legal society to find weird money movements than it is to pursue justice, and that’s just where we live.

The North Carolina GOP Fears the Gays

North Carolina’s GOP candidate for Attorney General has some interesting ideas about being gay, and by interesting I mean dumb.

‘”Go home, tell your friends and family who had to work today what this is all about and how hard we must fight to keep our state straight,” [Buck Newton] said to applause.’ – from Reuters

COMMUNISM and/or homosexuality is coming for us all!

What a terrifying world it must be to believe that culture is disintegrating in front of your eyes, being torn apart by forces you cannot comprehend and that terrify you with their openly decrepit ideas. It’s generally the same feeling I get when I think about what life would be like with a guy like Buck Newton as my state’s attorney general. Luckily I live in Massachusetts, where our flavor of oppression is much more neoliberal.

Anyhow, imagine the mental gymnastics required to be the state’s representative of the law and also have a literally ignorant disregard for civil liberties. It’s not peculiarly American, but it certainly is the most common kind of fear-driven pearl-clutching reaction to a world confronting you with some kind of strange change you never considered before. The Other! They’re going to destroy us!

It’s such a well-worn trope that it’s easy enough to spot once you’re on the outside of it, but when you’re on the inside – say, when a terrorism victim’s family supports an unhelpful war or the expansion of security at airports or what-have-you – it’s a very, very hard sell. I have compassion for those folks; I’m sure I’m on the inside of some struggles myself, such as my position as an upper-class white male making me more amenable to capitalism than presumably a lot of other people. This is a democracy, and that means that sometimes what you or I might consider to be bad ideas are still the majority will and the representative’s will as well, and while screaming at people can be helpful for various reasons in a larger social context, I’ve always considered compassion and patience more effective in my personal life.

So, let’s just say a prayer for North Carolina that the GOP doesn’t get the Attorney General’s office, and helpfully remind people that being gay is almost certainly not a choice and that laws barring transgender folks from peeing where they’re most comfortable isn’t going to keep anyone straight.