Tuesday, November 25, 2014

My present thoughts about Ferguson and the drudgery of causation

The worst part about seeing fnords is that almost no one else does, so I find myself in conversations or making observations that not many people understand.  I find this frustrating so I shut up more often than I should.  What's the point of saying something when no one listens?

Anyway, here's the bit about Ferguson.  I'm not sure to what extent it is fair to take a specific incident and turn it into a referendum about broad social policy. While I understand the legitimate issues at stake in Ferguson, I find this specific incident far less touching and significant than the general trend that I don't think many people understand.  Here it is:

We have all been tricked by the "war on crime".  It has never been about crime.  Every other industrialized nation in the world has crime rates similar to the US without our crazy obsession with crime and punishment (and they all have a small fraction of our murders, due to the fairly strict gun control laws in every other country worth living in).  This very strongly suggests that crime rates in the US have been dropping due to outside factors (such as the fact we're a generally richer nation than we've ever been, leaving fewer people in utterly desperate straits).  No, no, the war on crime has never been about crime but about race.

As the social movements of the Sixties changed the attitude of Americans, it became unacceptable to perpetrate violence on minority communities merely because they were minorities.  Cops couldn't just go in to beat and kill minorities to satisfy the racist bloodlust.  Yet, all of these police departments and justice systems were top-heavy with brutally vicious racist assholes.  The cops and judges that came into power in the 60s were raised in the undeconstructed racism of the 50s and earlier.

It is likewise important to realize that this continuity extends forward - the cops and judges in power now arise directly from those people in the 70s.  It is very important to remember that there is direct continuity of personnel between then and now - that the people in charge of law and punishment are the chosen heirs to the people who played the trick I'm going to reveal.

The people in power of the justice systems in the US weren't cured of their racism simply because some hippies made it harder to bash in black people's heads.  So they invented the war on crime, which distributed the bulk of law enforcement assets in crime ridden areas.  Well, those crime ridden areas were poor and non-white neighborhoods, they were defined as crime ridden by those undeconstructed racist cops.  A bunch of laws and procedures were invented to rationalize this (and I'll talk about a couple of the specifics below) but the important thing to remember is that when you police a given neighborhood (even taking away stuff like racism, which was definitely a big player, but this is true even if you take that way), the neighborhood that is more policed will seem to have more crime.

This is easy to figure, right?  You take two identical neighborhoods and you put twice as many cops into one as the other, the one with more cops will tend to find more crime - because that's one of the key duties of the police!

In turn, this rationalizes even more police coverage of those neighborhoods in a vicious circle.  All the did was create the conditions through which the same behavior was permitted, merely changing the rational for that behavior to something that appeared less racist.  It also allowed police to characterize non-white communities as being inherently criminal, even though it was a condition they created in the first place.

I said I'd give a couple of examples.  They racists who set up this system consistently overplay their hand, but they aren't called on it because the more attenuated an argument becomes the less likely people are to pay attention to it in the first place.  It's easy to understand that cops beating and killing black people because they're black is wrong.  It's harder to understand that a bunch of racist people created a system to justify continued racist abuses under layers of statistically skullduggery.  Most people don't bother to penetrate the more complex argument and/or assume the people proposing the more complex argument "have a point" so they give violent racist assholes a pass.

Still, examples.  Both of them come from the major campaign of the war on crime, the war on drugs.

The first is that black people account for about 12% of the US population and about 13% of drug users and drug peddlers (the difference is due to wealth, by the way - poor people use more drugs and black people get paid about 3/5ths what white people do in another part of the complex and persistent pattern of racism in the US).  However, over half of the people arrested on drug related offenses are black.  This is what happens when you send your cops into black neighborhoods to look for drug dealers while ignoring the ones in white neighborhoods.  It is the natural consequence and it is racist, hidden under statistical skullduggery.  And it creates vicious stereotypes of black drug dealers and black drug users when the truth is that drug sales and use is almost perfectly evenly distributed by race.

(The sentences between black and white people for similar crimes is also greatly different.  In all, black people spend about eight times longer in prison than white people for drug related offenses.  Hella racist.)

The second clear and obvious example is crack cocaine.  Until very recently, 1 gram of crack cocaine (which tends to be sold in poor, black neighborhoods) was treated as 100 grams of powder cocaine (which tends to be sold in rich, white neighborhoods).  Now 1 gram of crack is as bad as 18 grams as cocaine.

The rationale behind this is that crack is some sort of superdrug.  It isn't.  The bioavailability of crack cocaine is about 15% more than snorted cocaine.  That's it.  It produces a short but intense high, but as with all narcotics how high you get is primarily a product of how much you take.  If you've got enough money, you can put as much coke up your nose to give you the same intensity of high as crack - and it'll last longer.  Likewise, if you don't have a lot of crack, you might smoke less, producing a less intense high.  Since the metabolites of crack are identical with powdered cocaine, there is no particular difference in the character of the high - it's the same high.  You just get it a little faster with smoking, per unit, though the high is shorter in duration.

Which is part of the reason why black people spend eight times as much time in prison vis-a-vis white people - when 1 gram of your drug is worth 100 times its weight in sentencing, you're going to be staying in the big house for a loooooooong time.

This isn't subtle, people!  But the essential trick is that the when blatant, overt racism became less permissible in the 1960s it wasn't like the cops stopped being racist.  They found a way to keep doing the same stuff, but buried under somewhat complex arguments.

Which is why it is vital to remember that the justice system of today is run by the hand picked successors to the guys who have always been running the show.  It is being run with the same eye towards permitting the overt racism of the 50s and earlier but with the new lingo.  They've had generations to tighten it up, to create the vacuous procedural bullshit that we've seen all over America, to solidify their "reasons" and cover up their racism with charts and shit.   But it's shit.  They're just racist thugs.

So, I very strongly feel for the people who have been trapped by the war on drugs.  But when I hear people talking about this specific indictment, well, Betty Bowers summed it up pretty well when she said, "Whether Ferguson and racism or 9-11 and terrorism, Americans always fixate on the theater of results rather than the drudgery of causation."  But the drudgery of causation is the important part!  Without discussion of that causation, no amount of riots over specific police actions is going to mean very much.

Monday, November 17, 2014

NaNoWriMo and the writerly culture of self-abuse - and a call to arms to stop it!

NaNoWriMo has been a very positive experience for me.  It's my first year of doing it and I'm very glad I have - it has been wonderful.  Still, I guess I'm just a critical person because there's one thing that vexes me: the extent to which wrimos are critical of their own work.  There is a persistent culture in NaNoWriMo that says to its participants that their novel will stink, that writing swiftly is somehow inferior to writing patiently, but there's no reason to think that's . . . true.  That's right.  My criticism is that you people think you suck when you don't!

My initial draft of this post included a lot of historical stuff about 19th century writers like Dumas and Tolstoy who have written enduring classics of literature on very tight schedules.  It is true.  Many of the finest novelists who have ever lived wrote in ways similar to wrimos.  My initial post included additional historical details about how this kind of writing fell out of favor due to changes in publishing that made centralized publishing houses more economically profitable and not because of the preference of the audience, and how that centralization lead to those publishing houses putting a premium on shorter works due to the cost of paper, glue and ink.  Yeah, that's right, all that "stay focused, write concise" stuff is primarily due to publishers wanting to save money on paper, ink and glue - it was never an artistic choice!  It was never a popular choice!  (Which is part of the reason why almost everyone who reads this will have their favorite works in some giant series like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones or whatever.  Most readers don't want their favorite novels to end!)  I ended up saying that modern comic book writers also write in a fashion similar to wrimos and they have created many of the most enduring cultural icons of the past hundred years.  In short, I talked a fair bit about why writing quickly, as wrimos do, does not lead to inferior art and a brief history behind the often cruel modern editing practices that have more to do with the cost of physical books than anything artistic.

But that was long and boring, so I just summarized it and am going to move on to what I think is the more trenchant argument:

The odd of you failing to suck are in your favor - you're probably an average writer.  There, I said it.  Your book doesn't suck, it's probably average.  Some will suck, but the odds of your book being truly bad are about the same as it being truly great.  And for most of you?  Your book is somewhere in the middle.

But here's the thing - being an "average" writer is pretty goddamn incredible.  Just like the "average" of any other artist!  In any other artistic field, people are quick to point out that their local music scene, art scene produces things that are lacking only big budgets of major distributors and are more in sync with the local attitudes and culture!  Local artists rock.  You are a local artist.  This means you rock.

I don't understand why wrimos attack each other like this.  If this was musicians instead of writers, we'd be pretty goddamn awesome.  I assure you that musicians don't stay around their local scene talking about how much they suck!  They instead talk about the conformity and banality created by the big labels, they revel in their idiosyncratic nature and local culture.  And people would come from far away to listen to the products of that local musical culture.

What I'm saying here is we should adopt that mindset.  We would find that the "average" of unpublished writers is about the same "average" for published writers, just as it is for musicians who aren't signed by big labels, or indie filmmakers, or pretty much anyone in the visual arts who doesn't have a studio in Manhattan.  Because, let me tell you, I don't think a bunch of rich white people in New York City are any better at determining what's good for the three-hundred and fifty million people in the United States any more than a tiny group of rich white people in LA are very good at deciding what we should all listen to or make into movies.  (And, of course, this doesn't even count everyone outside of the United States!)  Most of us live in a huge country with incredible diversity and it is ill-served, I think, by the New York City centered publishing industry.  We should break free of the strange notion that a small group of people far away from us in terms of culture, education, needs and wants should determine what defines good writing!  I'm saying we're as good as the local artists in every other field, who are very good artists.

I think we should adopt that mindset.  We are good artists.  We are making good art.  As good as all those other local artists out there that we thing are good.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Lena Dunham is the liberal Paris Hilton

I wasn't going to write this but when Luke O'Neil called me a liar, I decided that I had to talk about Lena fucking Dunham.

Here's the scoop, if you ain't heard.  Lena Dunham was a really creepy seven year old.  She was the kind of seven year old who peeked inside her sister's vagina, who bribed her with candy for kisses and masturbated next to her - when her sister was a year old.

Some right wing women-hating assholes saw this and said, "Holy shit, that's sexual abuse!"  Some of the brighter ones said, "Her parents were abusive in allowing that kind of behavior."

This made Dunham flip out even though, let's face it, the whole point of her various stories is that she was a not normal child.  Indeed, her entire career is predicated on saying shocking things.  Banal, yes, but often shocking.  (Shock material is almost always banal, anyway, so this isn't weird in the slightest.)  She wrote these stories that were creepy about her creepy shit when she was a kid and is somehow freaked out when people find her creepy shit creepy.

But here's the thing - those conservatives?  They have a point.  Let me put it to you another way: what conversation would we be having if George Bush, when he was seven years old, shoved his fingers up inside a one year old girl's pussy?

The idea that some people are going to find Dunham's behavior akin to sexual abuse is pretty goddamn obvious.  What is wrong for adults is usually wrong when children do it, too, after all.  Sure, we often don't treat them the same way we treat adults who have done wrong, but if you're the kind of person who figures that it's wrong when an adult masturbates next to a toddler, you're probably going to think that it's wrong when a seven year old does it.

Then, Dunham is so . . . incredibly privileged that she doesn't see this is what disturbs me.  Just the same way that her and her family are responding with the stock language of abused-but-in-denial people everywhere - that in their family it wasn't like that, don't be crazy, it made me the person I am today, all of that.  Almost no one who engages in abuse realizes that they're abusers; many abused people think that the abuse is "normal".

To a certain extent, then, so what that the people who brought this to our attention were conservatives?  Sure, it is not possible to ignore the sexist context of their behavior and beliefs, but that doesn't mean that they don't have a point.  It is possible to be both a sexist and right, after all, if only by chance.

While the people who come to Dunham's defense, like Luke O'Neil, who called me a liar because I entertain thoughts that Dunham isn't really innocent, start off saying that, y'know, hey, let's ignore the really incredible privilege that Dunham has.  She has what, then?  A bad case of affluenza?  She's been raised in such a morally challenged environment that the normal rules of human behavior somehow don't apply to her?  Because I think that's the case, definitely.  She doesn't come off like a human because she's not much of one, she's just the liberal Paris Hilton.  She's never lived in the world, so she doesn't understand it at all - but that's okay because she will never have to live in the world.  So she can just put on this "gee whiz" look and act like her behavior wasn't inappropriate, regardless of age.

Seriously.  Just imagine if George Bush had, even as a young child, admitted to masturbating next to his one year old sister - where that would go.  Seriously.  The more he tried to say that it was okay and shit, the guiltier he would sound.  The more disturbed we would get because he wouldn't seem to understand that - despite it being absurd to hold a seven year old responsible in the same way one holds an adult responsible in that situation - that it's actually pretty creepy, that it actually is a whole lot like molestation, even if it is absurd to hold a seven year old morally culpable as we would hold an adult morally culpable.

So while it's true that conservatives are using Dunham's rather shocking revelations as a mask for their sexism, it is equally true that her defenders are using her gender to mask their equally vile classism.  When this fucked up woman does something between genuinely, legitimate criticism of her actions are forbidden because she's a woman.  That's as wrong as condemning her on false pretexts, if you ask me.

So, Luke O'Neil, fuck you.  You're giving cover to your rich masters because you're too much of a fucking coward to criticize wealth and privilege when it happens to be a liberal woman doing disturbing, fucked-up things.