Friday, November 11, 2016

Stop slut shaming Melania Trump

There are a few images making the rounds on social media, juxtaposing an image from a nude modeling shoot of Melania Trump beside various First Ladies. The First Ladies pictured vary by meme, but they're always clothed; it is meant to convey the dignity of these other women, in contrast to Melania Trump, because they're clothed and she's not. This is straight up slut shaming, using a woman's sexuality and body as a weapon against her.

And this is being shared by liberals and so-called progressives.

This is not acceptable, people. There are plenty of reasons to dislike and oppose Trump. There are hundreds of legitimate criticisms of Trump. And not one of them involves how or why his wife took her clothes off.

Yes, it's legitimate to call out the hypocrisy of the Right, in slut shaming First Lady Michelle Obama for baring her arms while having no qualms about Melania's modeling. Yes, it's legitimate to call out the hypocrisy of the Christian conservatives, whose power is largely derived from promoting sexual "values" that shame and limit women while celebrating a family that embodies the reverse of those values. It's absolutely fair to call out the hypocrisy, because the focus is on trying to force us, by the letter of the law and the full brunt of social pressure, to live by their religious teachings as they flout them. But Melania Trump isn't that person; she's not and never has been a crusader against nudity, or a "family values" champion, or a religious crusader. (Even if she were, while it would be absolutely acceptable to point out the hypocrisy, it would not be acceptable to slut shame.) What she chooses to do with her body is her business, and she does not deserve to be dragged through the mud for it simply because we don't like her husband.

That is not progressive. Frankly, it's no better than what they do. Please knock it off.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Yes, we can -- and should -- reach more of the working class (and the country at large)

I read an interesting article from The Daily Beast awhile back, suggesting more or less that the white working class voter -- the kind that votes Republican, anyway -- is basically a tribal racist who votes on us-versus-them biases rather than economic issues, and liberals should stop "pandering" to his whims. The economy really isn't the issue; it's the focus on the "other".

That voter certainly exists. I've met that voter; I'm sure you have too. No matter what the problem, fewer Mexican immigrants, closed borders, and stay at home moms would solve it. Oh, plus prayer. Always prayer.

The thing about that voter is, though, that he's often not actually a poor or lower middle class working man. He's the upper middle class business owner with a Trump sticker on the back of his pristine truck. He's the guy who doesn't actually have financial worries; he's the guy who pays his workers as little as possible while railing about illegal immigrants. He's the guy who pretends he cares for the working man, as he works hard to shaft him.

But the working man? The eight-to-five "lunch pail" carrying guy described in the article? You better believe the economy features into his worries (and he may wear a blue collar, but his worries are not that different from his struggling white collar colleagues). When you live paycheck to paycheck, you can't help it. When you can't afford the medical care, or car repairs, you need to get back to your job, the economy matters. When you know you will never be able to send your kids to college, when you see your jobs being shipped overseas, the economy matters.

Now, that's not to say the working man can't hold biases. It's not to say that plenty of Working Joe's don't hate immigrants, or hold onto bigoted ideas. We all know that voter too. But the thing is, in many cases, those views are directly tied to the economy. The Working Man may hate immigrants, but the Working Man is told 24-7 by conservative media and the Big Business Party that those immigrants are the reason for his low wages. He's told 24-7 that the reason his boss can treat him like dog shit is because of all the unskilled and illegal labor Big Government is letting into the country.So let's be absolutely clear: while the Working Joe can be wrong, and can be bigoted, both are tied closely to the economy.

The liberal solution to this is often to help alleviate the pain of the Working Man. Labor Unions are the primary and most effective means of accomplishing that (which is, of course, why conservatives have made them Enemy Number One). Now, plenty of working people hate unions. Of course. Sometimes it's a bad experience with a particular rep, sometimes it's the idea of paying dues when your job is  just fine at the moment (usually, and not coincidentally, "at the moment" is when you have a strong union). It can be hard to convince people that union dues are like buying insurance – only this is insurance against being treated like dirt at work. That's for two reasons – because conservatives have waged a full scale propaganda war against unions. And the other? The economy. Penny wise and pound foolish is not a great budgeting strategy, but when you're dealing with more pennies than pounds, it's sure as hell tempting.

The other way liberals try to alleviate the suffering of the working class is through assistance – be it the safety net or education resources. This, too, is the recipient of conservative hatred, and a focus of rampant propaganda. Which brings us to another aspect of the Working Joe. Joe may or may not oppose the safety net, but if he does, his motivation is usually economically driven at least in part. He's thinking of how hard he works, how much his family struggles, and hearing that he's working for people who don't work.

He may well be guilty of lazy thinking. His objection, whether he is aware or not,  may be tied to racist Reagan-esque fears of the black “welfare queen.” He may well be a complete hypocrite, who benefits from every program under he sun while complaining about moochers stealing his tax dollars. We all know some combination of the above. But usually, there is an economic factor at play; and often, it's the primary one.

There's only so much liberals can do alleviate this problem. Correcting the Right’s rampant misinformation and promoting the positives of (I can't believe I have to say this) not leaving our countrymen to starve in the hedgerows is of course helpful. While again we run into the dilemma of spending pennies to save pounds in providing a safety net that will protect us all, decent people do not need to personally benefit to acknowledge that preventing starvation is a good thing. And the average Working Joe, blue collar or white, is a decent person. This is precisely why conservatives work so hard to convince him that the people on food stamps are spending his tax dollars on lobster, etc. The working guy, even though he's pinching pennies to get by, won't let his neighbor starve – unless you can convince him that his neighbor doesn't actually need the help after all, and is just using his hard earned money to live it up. Countering the dedicated propaganda of the Fox, et al, sphere isn't easy. But assuming that the working person is just a selfish, unreachable  asshole doesn't fix this either.

What will? Two things. First, realizing that there is a tremendous difference between the real moochers, those of the one percent, and working people. Everyone talks a good game about wanting to earn what they've got. The one percent say this, while writing the rules and stacking the system to give them as much as possible. Federal land? Check. Huge tax breaks and refunds? Check. Subsidies, low interest loans and every kind incentive under the sun? Of course.

That’s a vastly different outlook from the rest of the country, though. The rest of us work hard, just to get by; we’re not looking to game the system. We just want to be able to pay our bills, live a little, and have a decent future. So if your solution to income inequality is to promise free education and free healthcare (looking at you, Bernie…), you may think you're targeting the working class. But the working man doesn't want free education and healthcare, because he understands that he's still paying for it – through the government rather than out of his own pocket. The working man doesn't want Uncle Sam to fix the fact that he's living in poverty by paying for his kids’ education. The working man wants to be able to pay for it himself. 

Which brings me to the second point: expanding our focus. Unions are vital. The safety net is vital. Education is vital, and so is ensuring access for those who can't afford it. Ditto on healthcare.

But you know what else is vital? Jobs. Good jobs that pay a living wage. Strong labor laws without jobs is only half the battle. Keeping manufacturing here, making sure we have plenty of solid union jobs, and that we're not rewarding those companies that ship jobs overseas to exploit foreign workers, is both a political and moral imperative. We should not be turning a blind eye to billion dollar companies that treat workers on the other side of the world so badly that they need to keep suicide nets outside the windows to stop mass deaths (looking at you, Apple…). We should not be turning a blind eye as corporations that rely on American markets would rather treat people like slaves than employ American workers for a decent wage.

And then there's the tax burden, and the corporations and wealthy who get to avoid their taxes while the middle class pays and pays. Can you blame the working man, whether he wears a hard hat or a tie clip, for being skeptical of a free education promise in a country where he pays his taxes on 45K a year, but  GE doesn't?

We don't need to pander to anyone. That's what conservatives have been doing for decades – playing lip service to individualism, religious preferences, etc. Their promises are empty, and the results are decades of increasing failure. (It's worth noting that someone who acknowledged the economic difficulties facing many Americans [while offering a plethora of empty, albeit different, promises himself]  handily beat all the Republicans who stuck to their standard lines of pandering this election). We need to actively, aggressively pursue fixes to a system that perpetuates economic inequalities. Even if that means crossing moneyed interests; and not with vague, pie in the sky promises. We need real, solid solutions. We may not always win.The Republicans will fight tooth and nail to protect their interests at the expense of the rest of us. We may never win back all or even most of any given target, and that includes Republican voting working class people. (Although I would argue that Trump’s success indicates the opposite – that people are so  desperate they'll  even settle for  vain promises to address their concerns). But there are better reasons than votes to try: it's the right thing to do. Demonstrating the hollowness of conservative trickle down, big business-coddling rhetoric will transform our nation, improving the lives of all Americans.

So, by all means, don't pander. But don't hate the people the Democratic message has failed to reach. Let's actually fix this mess instead. I suspect you'll be amazed how many of those unreachable people will suddenly become reachable when they have good, secure jobs.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

A giant conservative "safe space": the conservative vision of America, as it should be

Conservatives like to ridicule those liberals who ask for safe spaces or caution about "triggering" people, but the fact of the matter is, conservatives themselves treat
America as if it is their own personal "safe space" -- and demand that Americans refrain from triggering them, or else.

And it's not enough to insist on a nation-wide safe space that caters to their every whim. They demand the right to react in whatever over-the-top fashion they choose to if they're triggered -- whether it's devoting countless segments, year after year, to the travesty of people not celebrating a holiday exactly the way they do, or implementing laws that allow people to kill based on their feelings of fearfulness.

In other words, while some liberals may demand safe spaces to segregate themselves from people who frighten them, conservatives ask for "stand your ground" laws, to kill people who frighten them.  The liberal "safe space" is one where some groups can talk in private, without feeling frightened; the conservative "safe space" is the one where a person who feels frightened can shoot the person frightening him. With zero responsiblity to even try, you know, leaving before pulling the trigger.

And yeah, there are liberals who can be triggered by things like racism, sexism and rape jokes. Conservatives, though, are triggered by a cashier wishing them happy holidays. You know, because friendly holiday greetings are totally traumatizing if you don't use exactly the right words. Exactly. That one word is the difference between a happy holiday and a triggering, traumatic experience. ("But why should I have to police my language? Why don't you people just get over racism and sexism and sexual assault already?!")

So sometimes liberals are triggered by stories of people being raped, murdered or abused. But conservatives know what's really horrifying -- they're triggered by those scary stories of consenting adults marrying a consenting adult of the same sex. (Ohhh, take me to my Republican safe space ASAP! This is persecution!)

Conservatives are very good at controlling the narrative, painting a picture of their own rugged emotional stability in contrast with the wimpy, wishywashy sensitivity of liberals. But the fact is, they've been demanding an entire nation kowtow to their whims for decades. They've been carving out a nationwide safe space for the delicate sensibilities of Republican voters, and they've worked hard to make sure their efforts to make those "safe spaces", to avoid being "triggered", are backed up either by the billion dollar conservative religious industry and/or the force of law.

So, love them or hate them, the handful of liberal safe spaces and the rise of trigger warnings in liberal media pales in comparison to the demands of the rightwing. Conservatives may pretend otherwise, but they pioneered safe spaces and demands not to be triggered. The only difference is, liberals aimed lower -- they demanded specific spaces on campus instead of, you know, the entire country.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Huge potential for harm. Minimal potential for good. If we're talking guns, that's good enough!

The perfect drinking companion
So a guy outside a nightclub pulls a gun over an argument, and starts shooting. Another guy (outside the nightclub) shoots back.

And based on the reaction I'm seeing on social media, a guy resorting to shooting over an argument doesn't demonstrate to conservatives that it may be dangerous to introduce guns where people will be drinking and may, while impaired, argue. On the contrary, this just "proves" how we need more people bringing guns *into* nightclubs. Where people will be drinking, and, while impaired, arguing, and not thinking right because they've been, you know, drinking.

Even the NRA recognizes how dangerous this is. We tell drivers not to get behind a wheel to get home if they've been drinking, because they're a threat to public safety. As in, they can fucking kill people even when using something not designed to kill, because alcohol impairs judgement. We teach hunters that they should never mix hunting and alcohol because it's, you know, fucking deadly. But when it scores political points, mixing guns and alcohol is suddenly a great idea. Apparently to the "guns solve everything" crowd, the innocent lives that will inevitably be lost by mixing guns and partying are just numbers on a chart; and if, somewhere along the line, they can point to even a single instance where a gun being present turned out decently, tough shit for the many lost lives from all those other instances when it was a total, predictable fucking disaster.

In no other circumstance would we accept a clearly deadly thing because every once in a while a good outcome may occur. If eating rat poison occasionally prevented cancer, but mostly, if it had an impact at all, led to suffering and sometimes gruesome death, nobody in their right mind would urge people to eat rat poison, much less if there was the potential for individual rat poison use to have an impact on others too. And yet some conservatives are so insanely obsessed with guns that an obvious harm, a well documented danger -- mixing guns and alcohol and crowds -- is okay if once in awhile the outcome is good. No matter how many other times the outcome is disaster.

These people -- so many of whom pretend to be "pro-life" -- have taken a healthy embrace of the Second Amendment to an obsessive worship, where human life just doesn't matter if it gets in the way of their gun fetish. Thus the heavy confirmation bias, the selective preference of rare goods to frequent harms, that allows them to push their version of eating rat poison on the off chance that it may prevent cancer.

Their desire to carry a weapon absolutely everywhere, even if drunk, outweighs your right to life. Because if you don't have guns in a place where people are drinking and partying (and sometimes fighting), what's going to protect you from guns in a place where people are drinking and partying (and sometimes fighting)?

Friday, June 17, 2016

If your response to Orlando is...

A few thoughts on the aftermath of Orlando (and, yes, these are all things I've seen people say).

If your response to Orlando is... call for more guns, or talk about how "if only they were armed": consider what you are saying, and don't just parrot the same old party line regardless of the circumstance. Because let's be clear, these circumstances are not "more guns" circumstances. When people are partying, dancing, relaxing and hanging out in a club, they don't need a bunch of partygoers packing heat. Alcohol and firearms are a lethal combination, not a solution. This is just another problem proposed as a solution. congratulate yourself that your particular brand of bigotry doesn't involve murdering gay people: fuck you. Seriously. Isolating, harassing and persecuting people, or fighting to make it legal to do so, doesn't make you a good guy. You may not personally be murderously inclined, but when you contribute to a culture that drives gay kids to suicide all the time...guess what? You've got blood on your hands. When you contribute to a culture that demonizes, harasses and persecutes gay people, you don't get a free pass just because there's someone out there who is worse than you. And fuck you for even going there.

...blame all gun owners: stop. Seriously. You're not helping anything. You're alienating millions of people who would not hurt a fly, and feeding right into the NRA's "liberals want to take out guns" BS. Don't lash out at people for utilizing a constitutional right. Contribute to finding the solution, not making noise.

...saying this has nothing to do with Islam: listen to the shooter, and stop talking. No, of course this isn't the fault of other Muslims. And maybe the shooter was a bad Muslim. Certainly there were other factors at play too. But when someone is vocally mowing people down for their god, why the hell would you deny that reality? You won't stop bigotry that way; you're just throwing your weight onto a demonstrably false point.

...blame all Muslims: piss off. Unless you are willing to assign the blame for Robert Lewis Dear, Westboro, the KKK, etc, on all Christians, you're a hypocrite; and if you are, you're just wrong. There's certainly things the Muslim community can do to combat homophobia, and those are legitimate points to make. But if you are using this as an opportunity to dump on Muslims and hold them to standards you won't hold yourself to...again, piss off.

...suggest banning people on the terror watch list from weapon purchases: think through what you're asking for. This one sounds like a good one on the surface, but it really isn't. You're suggesting that *suspicion* should be enough to deprive someone of their constitutional rights. Again, these aren't people who have been proved to be doing harm, they're not people who have been charged with crimes. These are people *suspected* of terrorist leanings. Our constitutional rights should never be waved over suspicion.

Monday, May 9, 2016

To stop Trump, Bernie needs to drop out, refocus his fight

Donald Trump is counting on pissed off Democrats to hand him the presidency. The longer Bernie stays in the race, the more likely that is to happen.

Bernie has every right to stay in the race as long as he wants. But he shouldn’t. Bernie is right now where Ted Cruz was the other week: promising the impossible to people he’s worked hard to convince that he’s the only one who comes close to representing them. Like Cruz, it’s not true – he’s not the One True Party Representative who stands for the same things the base stands for, and he’s not going to be able to pull off a miraculous victory. On the issues, like Bernie, Hillary supports a higher minimum wage, healthcare access for all, attainable education, action on climate change, equal rights for women and LGBT Americans, etc. She’s not as far left on some issues, and she’s further on others (like gun sense). Further, with a Democratic legislature, she will advance the things we care about. She will appoint SCOTUS justices who will protect our rights. She will defend and advance a progressive agenda.

As far as a miracle win…even if Bernie is able to win all the remaining contests, his victories would have to be extraordinary to beat Hillary’s pledged delegate count. Pulling in a few more delegates than Hillary in each state isn’t going to cut it. It’s not going to (nor should it) convince the superdelegates he’ll need to ignore the millions more votes than Bernie Hillary has won, and support him instead of the clear favorite of the voters.

What it will do, though, is it will extend an already bitter contest closer and closer to the general election. It will give that anger, the sadness of loss, less time to dissipate. It will give progressive and Democratic voters who supported Bernie less time to cope with loss, less time to readjust their focus to the next contest: the general election.

Right now, Ted Cruz’s supporters are in the throes of that anger. There’s party registration burning and promises to stay #NeverTrump to the bitter end. That anger will burn hot, and largely extinguish, because no matter how much Cruz Republicans may hate Trump, they want to steer the country rightward. Trump isn’t their first choice, but most will choose Trump over Sanders or Clinton. That disappointment of loss will make way for the excitement of a president who can advance conservative goals – and who can appoint conservative justices who will do so for decades to come.
The longer Sanders puts off his loss, the nearer the general election we get. That puts us at a distinct disadvantage to the Republicans. And let’s make no mistake, Trump is counting on Democratic division. He needs it. It is what will hand him the White House.

It cannot be overstated: the only way a clueless misogynist bigot like Donald Trump will take the White House is if disgruntled Democrats hand it to him by refusing to support the Democratic nominee who receives the popular vote.
Bernie himself has stated that on her worst days, Hillary Clinton would be a far preferable president than Trump. This doesn’t have to be the end for Bernie, or the revolution he’s trying to start: uniting the party, and working with Clinton to send a strong wave of Democratic legislators to Washington will have more impact than a protracted primary fight, particularly one he will lose.

Bernie made a good play for the ticket, but he’s in a spot where winning it is all but impossible. Now is the time to look past the personal and toward the greater good. A united, strong Left can make the revolution happen – whether led by Hillary or Bernie. A bitter, divided Democratic party, whoever is at its head, can’t. And if this is really not about Bernie, but us, he should put aside his personal ambition for the sake of the greater good.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Ted Cruz’s campaign, and the Religious Right, were crucial to Donald Trump’s victory

Iowa, it seems, is a great indicator for which Republican candidate will not get the nomination. The particularly interesting thing about this political season’s primary though is that the Iowa swing toward Cruz – and the continued bolstering of Cruz via the Religious Right – was not only not enough to stop Trump, but it was also just enough to stop anyone else.

It’s the great irony of the primary so far: Trump’s arch nemesis "Lyin’ Ted" was exactly what he needed to knock out any more mainstream contenders. With more Republicans voters opposed to Trump than supporting him (Trump won more votes than any individual candidate, but more voters overall preferred other candidates to the Orange Menace), the key to Trump’s success was the division of the opposition. The Religious Right likes to flatter itself that it is the Kingmaker of the Republican Party, but as Trump’s success demonstrates that's just not true anymore. On the contrary, the Religious Right’s power is not enough to pick the party's own kings, but it's still formidable enough to throw a wrench in the process and screw everyone over.

Now, the voting base who wanted a political messiah instead of a leader isn't solely to be, let's say, credited with Trump. Cruz’s own efforts surely can't be sold short in all of this. After all, it was Cruz who campaigned on painting the kinds of candidates who had the best chance in a general election as the conservative witch-of-the-day. Cruz, who was a decided long shot for the general, worked hard to whittle away as much support as he possibly could – starting well before the actual campaign. And this came largely in the form of trashing the guys who were far less of long shots. Now, that's politics: take the other guys down to build yourself up.

The problem was that Cruz was building up a guy (himself) who was, frankly, an unlikeable prick. So he could build a moderately strong coalition of religious extremists and tea party extremists; but it was never going to be enough to topple Trump, and Cruz lacked any sort of appeal outside those groups.

Even when the #NeverTrump crowd turned to him, it was done out of absolute desperation, and with their noses firmly pinched. Like Lindsey Graham said, Cruz was still poison. Cruz was only, ever turned to as being marginally better than the alternative; as poison to Trump’s shot. Which is kind of what you can expect when you go out of your way to be a prick to pretty much everyone. Couple that with all the charm of an eel hellbent on selling you a car that won't start, and, well, you can't be surprised when people call you Lucifer in the flesh. And you can't be surprised when you fail to win over a majority of anyone.

On the other hand, if a candidate with more mainstream appeal had been Trump’s chief rival, instead of any overly ambitious eel in a human suit, Trump’s chances might not have been so good. Any other Republican running would necessarily have been more religious, and therefore more likely to get the Religious Right’s vote, than Trump. So they could have nailed down that part of the base. More importantly, they would have had a much better time with the entire #NeverTrump crowd.

Instead, Cruz’s purity politics turned the race into the kind of anti-establishment blood sport that bolstered the non-politician Trump. No matter how he tried to cast himself as the One True Believer, Cruz was still a politician, still part of the system he was trashing. In building up the myth of the righteous outsider, Cruz built up the Trump myth. Furthermore, his feeble attempts to paint Trump as the establishment candidate were never particularly strong, but once the establishment embraced him as the anti-Trump, they became downright laughable.

Meanwhile, though, in tarnishing the party and drawing enough of the anti-Trump Republican electorate to his own doomed efforts, he effectively squashed any hope of a viable mainstream anti-Trump candidate. The question was one type of extremist versus another – with Cruz sharing and even exceeding some of Trump’s more mortifying stances. The radical elements of the anyone-but-Trump camp pushed toward a candidate who was himself so radical that many Republicans could not in good conscience support him except as an absolute last resort. Even then, as the support for Kasich indicates, there were many who just couldn't bring themselves to take the poison.

In the end, splitting the anti-Trump crowd, siphoning so much of it too far right for the rest of the party, was exactly what Trump needed to win. A segment of the party that could have united to defeat Trump was split between the extreme and moderate wings, by a self-styled savior.

Cruz’s messianic delusions were key to Trump’s victory.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

How stupid does Donald Trump think Democrats are? Pretty stupid

So how dumb does Donald Trump think we are, really? As it happens, pretty dumb. He's been taking to Twitter lately to stoke the flames of the #BernieOrBust crowd, with accusations of unfairness against Bernie. And claims that he'd much rather run against Hillary than Bernie. Which is totally believable, because I at least would absolutely expose my fears about running against a candidate midprimary. Wouldn't you?

And then there's this advocacy for Bernie, where Trump encourages a third party win. All from an impartial need for justice, of course.

So how stupid does Trump think we are? Pretty stupid. Stupid enough to hand him the White House in November.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Yes, working class people in America are getting screwed by the system. Even those who support Trump

The Self Appointed Cheetos Dust Savior of the GOP
So I just read an article on Salon that argues that sympathizing with Trump voters -- it specifically calls out the white working class Trump supporter -- just empowers them, and that they're all essentially a bunch of racist yokels who deserve no sympathy (they "are not victims" the article argues).

And that is, frankly, hogwash. That's not to say that racism doesn't play a huge role in Trump's support. Of course it does. That racism needs to be called out without hesitation.  The article also makes good points about how the Democratic party lost the white southern voter when civil rights were pursued.

But none of that means that the working class -- any of it, white included -- does not have a slew of legitimate complaints. The working class -- all of it, not just the white working class -- is getting screwed, mostly by Republican policies. And white collar workers are right behind the blue collar, because the lower the 1% can push them, the lower they can push white collar workers. Trump has broken with his party to make this a center point of his campaign -- and it's a mistake to ignore or dismiss that appeal.

The Republican Party has spent the last few decades doing everything it can to keep significant portions of the population less educated (just a few years ago, Texas Republicans were going so far as to attack critical thinking classes!) and more religious -- to keep the focus off ideas that might shine a light on how shallow Republican ideas really are, and so they can reel people in, every year, with Bible thumping attacks on women and the LGBT community. Throw in some fights to teach creationism instead of real science, abstinence only "sex ed" instead of the real thing, (both of which you can only do if your voters have been misinformed enough to support such bad policy and non-factual fails at science) etc, and you both reinforce your pattern of an undereducated (or, worse, wrongly "educated" to believe a-factual nonsense) and extra religious population, as well as fire the voter up for a crusade. It's been a winning, and self perpetuating, strategy for a long time.

Except the greedy bastards in the GOP didn't know when to stop screwing the working class. Too much was never enough. Full time workers living in poverty, people unable to afford to send their kids to school or see a doctor, etc. was just brushed aside -- or worse, mocked. And now they've pushed so far that the crusade isn't as pressing as mere survival.

Trump plays to a lot of prejudices, but he also acknowledges something that the party has long ignored -- that the American worker is getting screwed. Instead of just blaming "the taker", which has been the Republican standby at least since the days of Reagan, he acknowledges what any reasonably intelligent worker already sees: the system is designed to fuck the working man and woman.

That's a legitimate complaint. Sure, Trump doesn't offer any real solutions. But he offers hope. And that, to a desperate person, is better than bible thumping -- or being berated as an unmotivated lazy bastard by a Republican prince born with a silver spoon in his mouth. It's a lot more appealing than a religious fanatic who thinks an intense obsession with what's happening in other people's pants is enough to justify a presidential run. It's a hell of a lot more appealing than being told you just need to keep working further and further into your old age to barely subsist.

So, yes, a lot of Trump's support comes from bigotry etc. And that deserves to be called out. But many of the people who support him respond to his promise to bring back jobs and restore economic stability for the very reason that they have been victimized by a system designed by and for the rich. They feel like they have no other hope, and here is the first Republican in a long time promising to do something other than blame them for not being energetic enough, not having the drive, etc.

And assuming those voters are evil, stupid bastards with no reason to complain is just wrong. Desperation causes good people to do stupid things. Treating all working white Trump supporters like racist yokels isn't going to demonstrate how they're supporting a fraud who is exploiting their desperation while providing no actual solutions. It's just going to make them hate the "elitist" left -- the only party that actually has good ideas and a true willingness to improve the lot of the working class -- even more. Which in turn is going to empower the party that has created this problem.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Steven Avery case: a veritable case study in misapplied “skepticism”

What more "proof" do you need?!
If you know me or my writing, you know I value critical thinking and skepticism. I realize the value in challenging the default position, in questioning the accepted wisdom, to determine if it’s really the right position, or if we’re just so accustomed to it that familiarity has granted it undeserved legitimacy in our eyes.

Unfortunately, what I too often see conflated with thinking and skepticism is pretty much exactly the opposite. The only thing it has in common is challenging established wisdom – but from there, it veers sharply into paranoid conspiracy territory. There are a lot of political examples I could use, but one that seems to have bridged the left-right divide in our country was the Steven Avery case. *
It’s the kind of story that’s perfectly suited to garner attention from pretty much everyone. A grisly rape and murder. A potentially corrupt town with possibly crooked cops. It’s not particularly surprising that Making a Murderer sparked the kind of interest it did. We as a nation seem inexorably drawn to our high profile murder cases and police corruption accusations; and, seeing as how the defendants were white, justice against police oppression is something even conservatives can get behind. The split between the "guilty" and "not guilty" crowd did not seem to be drawn on ideological grounds**. Which makes sense, due to its wide appeal.

It also makes sense that viewers were immediately, passionately enwrapped in the series. That’s a sign of well done (if highly emotionally manipulative) project, and MaM was certainly well done. As Slate’s Brownen Dickey writes:

From the brooding cello and martial drums of the soundtrack (highly reminiscent of the intro for another show about wrongful conviction, the Sundance Channel’s Rectify) to the long pans of the weed-choked Avery Auto Salvage yard, everything in Making a Murderer spins around an axis of desolation and decay—moral, professional, and physical. If an innocent man can be railroaded by law enforcement twice in one lifetime, I thought, then Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, must be where virtue goes to die. Even the sky that hangs over the place looks like a steel door waiting to slam shut.
And that, of course, is exactly how the directors of Making a Murderer, Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, want me to feel. They have constructed every frame to extract from me a sense of moral outrage that is predicated—whether the directors admit it or not—on Avery’s innocence in the murder of 25-year-old Teresa Halbach. …
Several critics have praised Demos and Ricciardi for their neutral, hands-off decision to present the Avery saga without a narrator…
I strongly disagree. Viewers only feel as though they are deciding for themselves. In truth, the conclusions were set up for them long ago. Editing almost 700 hours of material into a taut 10-hour narrative for prime time (roughly 1.4 percent of the footage) necessitates abundant manipulation, but with no narrator at the helm, you are simply less aware of being manipulated. That is its own form of myopia—the tunnel vision of television, as it were—and it brings with it its own set of perils. We are being encouraged to make sweeping decisions based on minimal information—precisely the sort of rush to judgment that Making a Murderer indicts. …

 This was a series designed to evoke anger, sympathy, and outrage, and it left out significant information (like the non-blood DNA from Steven Avery, recovered on Halbach’s vehicle) in the process. The initial reaction is understandable.

What’s less so, though, are the wild, outlandish conspiracy theories that grew from that reaction. As more information, particularly evidence that does not bolster Avery’s claims of innocence, reached the public sphere, “free Avery” activists started to spin some real whoppers. Just a few that I've encountered:

  • As part of the theory that Halbach’s murder was really the work of a serial killer who framed Avery (with or without the assistance of the police, depending on which intrepid investigator you ask), a random elderly man was drawn into the web, on the solid basis that he was seen in the background of a photograph from the courthouse at the time. (That theory crashed and burned when the pictured man was identified as now deceased, and not Ed Edwards). 
  • There was the garage theory – that the “main suspects” (targeted by these self-appointed internet sleuths, rather than real investigators) were tearing down their garage in the middle of winter, because Avery’s new lawyer, Kathleen Zellner, was in town. Which the theorists also had to walk back, admitting that the garage had been started in 2015
  • There’s speculation as to which real person actually wasn’t, as part of the conspiracy. 
  • There was the “the sheriff owns a salvage yard and was in direct competition with Avery so…evidence!” theory (this seems to range from the sheriff wanted Avery out of the picture, because he was competition; to the police found the real location of Halbach’s car, and the crafty sheriff used his tow truck to transport it to Avery’s salvage yard, and hide it).

I’ve seen just about as many variations on theories as you can imagine, pinning the murder on everyone from Avery’s family to his neighbors to the cops themselves, but they share a few things in common:

  • The ardent belief that Avery and Dassey had nothing to do with the murder
  • Complex logistics and multi-layered conspiracies to explain how it actually happened, and how bone fragments, blood and non-blood DNA, Teresa’s camera, phone, jean rivets, and jeep ended up in Avery’s yard, etc.
  •   A total lack of anything resembling evidence

That’s not to say the promoters of these theories don’t think they have evidence. It’s just that what passes for evidence is, in my experience, nothing of the sort; instead, it falls into the typical pattern of conspiracy theories.

You start with a few nuggets of truth, like so:

  • The sheriff owns a salvage yard
  • Avery’s family owns a salvage yard
  • The sheriff must own a tow truck
  • The sheriff was involved in investigating both Avery cases, including one that yielded a false rape conviction

Then you add in your own feelings, like: 
  •  I think that he was unfair to Avery during the murder investigation, and that makes the sheriff a bad person

And based on those facts and feelings, you wildly extrapolate anything you need to explain away actual facts (like, Halbach’s vehicle being found hidden on Avery’s property), like so:

  •   Manitowoc officers found Halbach’s car, where the Real Killer left it (unless they were actually the killers, in an even more nefarious plot to frame Avery, in which case they needed to dispose of the car after committing the crime themselves). 
  • The sheriff ran back to his salvage yard, got his truck, took it to the scene of the abduction, towed it to Avery’s property, hid it on Avery’s property, and went back home. Unnoticed, of course. 
  • Oh, and they quite possibly planted Avery’s DNA – blood and non-blood – on various parts of the vehicle before they dropped it off (otherwise, they did this afterwards, where they were again fortunate not to be spotted…by anyone).

And you don’t just do this once, about a single piece of evidence. You do this again and again, about literally everything that stands between Steven Avery and freedom. 

And should you happen to find a piece of evidence that you don’t have to invent an elaborate, multi-tier conspiracy for (like the allegedly planted key), that in turn becomes evidence on its own. In other words, you can substitute your suspicion for actual proof, and then use that to buoy less plausible assertions.


  • It seems odd that that key was found after the full search.
  • Therefore it had to have been planted.
  • We already "know" that they were planting evidence to frame Avery, so it only makes sense that they planted the bones too. (And the jeep. And jean rivets. And cell phone. And camera. And blood DNA. And non-blood DNA. And…)

 Even when the suspicion is reasonable on its own, accepting suspicion as fact before it’s been validated by evidence is not sound. The key theory is more reasonable (in that, it’s tightly based in the factual circumstances, without introducing a host of variables based entirely on conjecture) suspicion than many of the others:

  • a full search did not reveal the key the first time, but days later this important piece of evidence showed up, so it may have been planted by the officer who found it.

While plausible (an officer could have walked into the Avery residence with a single item to plant, and not been caught), that suspicion is not the only plausible explanation as to why the key wasn’t found the first time (it may have been stuck in the back panel of the nightstand, as the prosecution suggests; or Avery could have relocated it once he thought he was safe to do so [he did argue, after all, that the key was inadmissible, as the search had already been executed, so he seems to have believed the police would not have been back]; etc.). Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest it is any more likely to have been planted than the other options. So not only is this not evidence that the key was planted, it’s certainly not evidence that other pieces of evidence were planted.

And that’s exactly what’s needed for these conspiracy theories to fly: evidence. These are extraordinary claims: multiple officers from multiple departments engaged in multiple crimes; the hiding of the Real Crime Scene; the disinterest in or protection of the Real Killer; the burning of Teresa’s body; the relocation of Teresa’s remains; the attention to detail, to transfer Teresa’s camera, and phone, and jean rivets; the moving of Teresa’s car; the planted bullet fragments; the planting of Avery’s blood and non-blood DNA; the planting of the key; etc., etc. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and instead of extraordinary evidence conspiracy theorists provide vague, ever changing motives, wild finger pointing, and an intense suspicion that Avery was railroaded.

Which brings me back to my original point. It’s not skeptical to literally invent wild, complex solutions to simple problems, and you don’t deserve a pat on the back for challenging the party line with completely a-factual, unsupported nonsense. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Real evidence. Not none.

The Steven Avery case is a great example, as I’ve said, of how easily people can conflate desperately searching for an answer more to their liking, no matter how few facts support it or how unlikely it is, with skepticism. It’s a great example of how actual facts can be spun into completely a-factual narratives. And it’s a great look at how willing we can be to bend and outright disregard reality to hear what we want to hear.

* Disclaimer: I’m not talking about people who have reasonable objections to how the case was handled, or present logically and factually sound evidence that the case was mishandled or that Avery and Dassey are innocent (I’ve yet to see anything convincing on that score, but I’m not assuming that everyone who believes either of those points has to do so so on the basis of the terrible arguments I’ve thus far encountered).

** As far as I could ascertain, at any rate, from reading material on a number of liberal, conservative and neutral sites. If there's any more definitive survey out there, I missed it (if you have a link, I'd be happy to see it & update accordingly).

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Donald Trump wants to punish women who have abortions. No, it's not going to hurt him in the polls.

I see people suggesting -- hoping -- that Trump's comments about punishing women who have abortions will hurt him. I disagree that that will happen (as nice as it would be). 

First, Wanna-be-Jesus (Ted Cruz)'s camp has been hitting Trump as soft on abortion because of his former pro-choice stances. This proves that he's not -- and it takes a play from his tried and true handbook of saying what Republicans are thinking, but too afraid to say out loud.

Because, let's be honest, that is the end goal, after all. We've already seen bills proposed in this country that would put abortion doctors behind bars. There have been sneaky attempts to do the same to women. But we've also seen laws -- often pushed under the guise of helping pregnant women -- criminalizing pregnancy when the fetus is imperiled -- that is, without abortion even entering the picture. Republicans in this country are already putting women behind bars for harm to their fetuses -- and abortion is still legal here. And elsewhere, in so-called "pro-life" countries, abortion is a punishable crime. Not just for the doctor.
So let's not delude ourselves. Hurting women who have abortions is absolutely the goal of this. Not just punishing the doctors who provide reproductive care. It's what happens where abortion is illegal. It's what is already happening to pregnant women here, while abortion is still legal.
Sure, there are pro-lifers who may think -- at this point -- that this is a little too harsh, that the doctors are the real problem, and so on. But the movement isn't driven by the "moderates" who "only" want to strip women of their rights; its agenda isn't set by those people. It’s set by the fanatics, who call women who exercise their right to choice “murderers”, who promote outright lies about women’s health clinics trafficking human organs, who claim that birth control use leads to cancer, etc.

And you don't legally define something as "murder" and then let the person who authorizes and procures the "murder" walk away without punishment. It just doesn't work that way.

So will these comments hurt Trump? No, I don't think so. It plays up one of his biggest selling points -- that he's the tough, tell-it-like-it-is guy, not afraid to commit to goals that the "pussies" in his party like Ted “Call Me Jesus” Cruz won't. 

It may be a little hardcore for the moderate conservative who merely wants to strip women's rights, but deludes him or herself in the process that it's really the only kind or right thing to do; but Trump's bellicose style would already be extremely off putting to that voter. Along the same lines, Trump has already lost the votes of self-respecting women and men who respect women, due to his storied history of extreme misogyny. The only real danger is that this move may strike his savvier voters as impolitic -- the sort of thing that is understood, but not expressed openly. But, let's face it, Donald Trump's entire rise is due to saying what other Republicans have only hinted at before.

I’ll be surprised if using the same approach on abortion that his won him adoration on immigration, the rights of Muslim citizens and visitors, etc., will hurt him. On the contrary, these comments may well boost him — especially among those who ave heard from the Cruz camp that Trump isn’t anti-choice enough.