Vancouver Riots

My brother has posted his thoughts on last night’s rioting in Vancouver.

#vancouver2010 olympics hockey party by rocketcandy

I think we’re mostly on the same page about how this mess came about: the riots happened because people expected a riot to happen. The anarchists and the assholes showed up, dragged a few fence-sitting drunkards in with them, and the party was on.

The people who gathered to watch bear some of the guilt too: their presence was encouraging, even if they remained silent (although some did speak up, and I applaud them). The presence of the silent witnesses provided the cover which made it possible for those without conscience to do their looting and violence.

But even though I condemn these actions, I’m not embarrassed by them. Living in a free society means embracing a certain amount of risk. Eliminating all crime necessarily requires the elimination of all freedom and privacy. Other Western nations are turning increasingly towards a police-state mentality: the USA has its obscene airline security. The UK has more surveillance cameras per capita than anywhere else in the world. France has proposed arbitrary censorship of any website.

I’m hopeful that Canadians will accept that this event — an extremely rare, and, relatively speaking, minor one — is an acceptable price to pay for living in a truly great culture.

Standing in the Rubble

Two months ago, near the start of the Libyan revolution, I read this paragraph:

Gaddafi, clad in brown robes and a turban, spoke on Tuesday evening from a podium set up in the entrance of a bombed-out building that appeared to be his Tripoli residence hit by US air raids in the 1980s and left unrepaired as a monument of defiance.

And I immediately thought to myself: No, that’s not right at all.

I was considering the image of all that rubble, all that damage left on display, and I understood that there is nothing defiant about flaunting your damage. Maintaining that rubble was an act of blame, not “defiance”.

That rubble could have been bulldozed; a park could have been built. The stones and space could have become a new thing. But taking away the damage takes away the memory of the act of destruction; if there is no wound, then the impact of the original strike is diminished.

Rebuilding is the defiant act. It shows that the damage was inconsequential and that we remain unfettered. We are still growing. Your act did not make us stumble. What you did, did not matter.

To maintain our damage is to maintain blame; it says to the aggressor, “Look! Look what you have done! You are guilty, and here is the proof, and I will never let you forget it.”

The only persons we are defying are ourselves.

Passionate Wisdom

UPDATE (June 13, 2011): The author of this story has come forward admitting that it is a hoax. Although the story loses some of its appeal without the lustrous shine of a “based on a true story” tag, I hope that the underlying message of my commentary still stands.


An out lesbian in Syria is visited by goons in the middle of the night, and her father stands by her, defends her, and ultimately sends them away in shame:

 

“And my daughter? Let me tell you this about her; she has done many things that, if I had been her, I would not have done. But she has never once stopped being my daughter and I will never once let you do any harm to her. You will not take her from here.”

All of us, as good parents, would share the same sentiment; we will defend our children with ferocity.  But this father goes a step further: he defends her with passionate, lucid eloquence:

So you come here to take Amina. Let me tell you something though. She is not the one you should fear; you should be heaping praises on her and on people like her. They are the ones saying alawi, sunni, arabi, kurdi, duruzi, christian, everyone is the same and will be equal in the new Syria; they are the ones who, if the revolution comes, will be saving Your mother and your sisters. They are the ones fighting the wahhabi most seriously. You idiots are, though, serving them by saying ‘every sunni is salafi, every protester is salafi, every one of them is an enemy’ because when you do that you make it so.

“Your Bashar and your Maher, they will not live forever, they will not rule forever, and you both know that. So, if you want good things for yourselves in the future, you will leave and you will not take Amina with you. You will go back and you will tell the rest of yours that the people like her are the best friends the Alawi could ever have and you will not come for her again.”

When our children are threatened or hurt or bullied it is our instinct to be warriors. We will fight others to save our own. But this intelligent man modeled a different parenting path: calm, passionate wisdom saved his daughter’s life.

How To Explain DADT to a 4-year-old

This morning, in response to a story on NPR, Ruby asked me what “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” means. Never one to shy away from an opportunity to explain extraordinarily complicated issues to a young child, I dove right in…

First I started by explaining that the people in the army and navy don’t have as many rights as we do. For example, if I wanted to quit my job, I could do that any time I wanted. But people in the military aren’t allowed to quit. And if my boss told me that I had to move to Kansas, I could just say no. But in the military, if your boss tells you to move to Kansas, you have to do it. Ruby asked why people weren’t allowed to quit, and I said it’s because sometimes people in the military have to do really difficult things, and that too many people would want to quit. “Couldn’t they let just one person quit?” she asked.

Okay, now that we’ve established that people in the military have fewer rights I started explaining about love. I said there are some people who love other people who are the same sex as them. I said my friend Justin at work is married to a man and he only loves men. And I told her that I only love women. I asked her what kind of people she thought she would love, and she said she’d want to marry a man — not surprising given her age, gender, and that I was in the car with her. 🙂

Then I gave her some examples of people she knows who love both men and women — maybe that’s the kind of person she is? And she immediately said that *that* is how she is. She loves both.

Note that through all of this I wasn’t using any labels: no “gay”, “straight”, “bisexual”, “homosexual”. Those are shortcuts that are handy when talking with adults, but I think they’re too rigid to use when introducing this kind of a concept to a child — especially when I’m framing the conversation in terms of the individuals you love.

Okay, next step was to talk about where love comes from. I told Ruby: “love isn’t something you choose. It comes from deep inside you and it just makes you love someone. Do you think you could choose to not love Mama?” She said no, of course. “And do you remember when you started to love Mama? No, it was just there and it happened without you thinking about it. You didn’t choose it — it just happened”.

Moving on, I told her that some people don’t like it when a man loves a man or a woman loves a woman. I told her it makes them feel weird or uncomfortable or angry, or that it isn’t something they’re used to. And I told her that older people are more likely to feel this way, and that people in charge of the military are older and so they think a man loving a man is strange and don’t like it.

Finally, tying everything together, I explained that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” means that if you’re in the military, it’s okay for a man to love a man or a woman to love a woman, as long as it’s a secret. But if they find out about it, then they’ll fire you. And that’s bad because the people who are getting fired really love their jobs.

I told Ruby that all of my friends and just about everybody I know thinks that it’s okay for a man to love a man or a woman to love a woman, and that we think “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a bad idea. But there are people in other parts of the country who disagree, and sometimes it takes a long time for the country to change. I said sometimes, this country changes too slowly.

“But Papa,” she said, “it just changed to fall yesterday!”

Gotcha Politics

This blog post (which made it onto boingboing today) was the last straw for me.  It takes Microsoft to task for using a Macintosh to create their latest “I’m a PC” ad campaign.  There’s no discussion of the content of the ads.  Just a quick mention of a meaningless point of embarrassment.  Gotcha!

There’s too much of this going on in the wider world of the media today.  Instead of discussing content, background, and nuance, everyone is on the hunt for the latest misstep.  It’s not just that these gotchas are meaningless distractions.  The media’s focus on the embarrassment instead of the content means the target will be quick to cover their tracks, wave a hand around the subject, and move on.  Any opportunities for further debate are lost.

Here’s an example: last week, while major financial institutions were going belly up, McCain stated that the “fundamentals of our economy are very strong”.  His opponents immediately picked up on the contrast. McCain was forced to offer up some pablum about how the American worker is the foundation of the American economy.

And that was that.

McCain looks a little silly for a while, but we’re really no closer to understanding how he really feels about economics, market regulation, and other important topics that are pushing to the forefront in this election.  What about consumer culture?  The burden of debt and trade deficits?  The ongoing shift away from a manufacturing economy?  How are these affecting the long-term stability of the American and global economies, and what kinds of activities should government be taking in each of these areas?  An opportunity for real debate and understanding was lost because everyone was too eager to yell “Gotcha!”

There are plenty of examples of these kinds of empty mistakes, and they’ve had varying impacts.  Howard Dean’s over-exuberance in the 2004 campaign appeared to destroy his campaign because he was… too enthusiastic?  During a recent interview, Obama spoke about his “Muslim faith” (quickly corrected to “Christian”), and I’m sure the right-wing media enjoyed chewing up that little sound bite.
I don’t expect the media at large to be able to step away from their pursuit of the latest misstep, no matter who makes it.  We are living in a sound-bite culture, and major media conglomerates need to do what they can to feed into their audience’s attention span.  It’s only going to get worse as the news cycle continues to accelerate and audiences continue to fragment, and I don’t have any grand solutions to offer here.

But I can ask my friends to take a step back.  Take a breath.  The next time you see someone on the other side of the debate make a mistake, don’t pounce.  Don’t base a gleeful blog post on a single misspoken phrase.  Instead, dig.  Ask questions and keep digging.  Look for the actual truth behind the misstep, and you might find even more powerful arguments to make your case.

Swarthy Choice

There’s an ad on the bus warning everyone to be vigilant of stray packages. These ads are sad and ultimately destructive of the society they’re supposed to protect. I wish we could learn to think more rationally about risk.

But anyway, that’s not what prompted this post. The ad has a picture of a suitcase-like bag sitting alone on a seat. In the frame next to it, squinting at the bag, is a close-up of a face that is nothing if not Arab-looking (or perhaps Indian, it’s hard to tell). Now, it’s not clear if this guy is squinting at the supposed bomb because he’s being vigilant, or if he’s squinting because he’s the bad guy with a hard, unapproachable look. Either way, did they have to make him look Arabic? There’s no such thing as “accidental” choices in the advertising world.
(As an aside: In the 1990’s, twice as many people were killed by roving death squads in Los Angeles County as were killed by foreign terrorists on 9/11.)

My take on I-933

Initiative 933 is on the ballot for Washington State this fall.  Here’s the summary:

This measure would require compensation when government regulation damages the use or value of private property, would forbid regulations that prohibit existing legal uses of private property, and would provide exceptions or payments.

Read the full initiative here: http://www.secstate.wa.gov/elections/initiatives/text/i933.pdf

I am against this initiative.  There are numerous practical reasons why it is bad, such as the billion dollars each year it would cost to administer claims, but I’m going to argue a more philosophical bent:

Any kind of law which reimburses you in the event of damaging government action should also do the opposite: if the value of your property goes up as a result of government action, you should be charged for it.  I can’t imagine why you’d design a system with one but not the other.  For example: all the people along the west slope of downtown Seattle, whose property values would skyrocket if the viaduct came down, should be charged to pay for a new tunnel.  Taken to its logical extreme, every time the government imposes a necessary burden on someone (say, for example, a landfill in their backyard), everyone else gets an implied beneft (no landfill in their backyard) — and therefore, they should be charged for it.  Guess what?  That’s called paying taxes.   And I’m guessing that the neo-nimbyists behind this initiative aren’t going to start clamoring for increased taxes to pay for all their reimbursements.

At the heart of capitalism is the assumption of personal risk.  Nobody has guaranteed that your property will always be valuable.  The price you paid for your exurban McMansion isn’t some fundamental constant of the universe.  If you can’t handle the idea that it could go down, maybe you’re better off investing in some writings by Marx.

This initiative is a sociopathic attack on the fundamental ability of the government to govern.  The point of a governing body is to create laws that enhance the common good.  Sometimes that involves affecting one individual more than others, but in the end everybody benefits.  It’s like a stop light at a busy intersection: some people need to wait a little longer than others, but in the end everybody gets where they need to go in much less time.  Who could possibly think it’s a good idea to pay people to not run red lights?