Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Al Franken and the Abuse of Insider Power


Show of hands: whose buddy ever drew a dick on your face while you were sleeping?

When I was nineteen, I traveled to South Dakota with a church group. Sharing a motel room with several of rowdy teenagers, I fell asleep around ten PM, my usual time. I awoke fifteen minutes later to raucous laughter: I’d slapped myself in the face when my roommates drew a dick on my cheeks with shaving cream, and I tried to shoo the irritant away. The only adult in the room suggested and encouraged this behavior.

I’ve always known that you’re totally powerless when you sleep. That’s probably why children hate being ordered to bed, and certainly why, when they’re old enough to understand some of the world’s dangers, they frequently refuse to fall asleep without a trusted adult around. But that incident really solidified for me what an act of trust falling asleep in public really is. You have to believe others don’t have malicious intent.

That’s why, the longer the Al Franken controversy continues, the more it bothers me. The ongoing revelation of sexual predation in American politics, journalism, and entertainment continues growing, but it’s usually something pretty straightforward: Roy Moore targeted minors, forced himself physically upon them, and used his public authority to demand their complicity. Even his supporters understand why that’s completely awful, though they justify it.

Franken, by contrast, in his pre-senatorial days, did something more insidious. He didn’t out-and-out sexually assault journalist Leeann Tweeden; judging by the photograph that’s surfaced, he possibly never even touched her. (The alleged forced kiss happened off-camera.) But Tweeden trusted her fellow travelers on the USO plane enough to fall asleep in their presence. And Franken drew a metaphorical dick on her face.

Whether drawing literal vulgar images on somebody’s face, or doing hover-hands over her boobs, as Franken got photographed doing, the point remains the same: to pause a person humiliation for being powerless. Somebody who is awake has remarkable power over somebody who is asleep. The waker could draw vulgarities, take embarrassing photos, take sexual advantage, even stab the sleeper. And the sleeper can’t stop it.

And be honest, Franken wouldn’t have photographed the prank if he didn’t intend to show anybody else. His purpose was to demonstrate his power over another human being, because she made the mistake of considering him trustworthy. Physical pain or psychological distress probably mattered little. This is the ultimate insider humor, the sharing of jokes at a powerless outsider’s expense. Not unlike jocks bullying nerds.
Yeah, this crap never gets old. Unless you need to sleep. So yeah, unless you're human.

All this happened after Franken postulated, in his book The Truth (With Jokes), that he could run for Senate. He’d at least contemplated a life in public service, a role that, depending on the attitude you bring, either involves subjugating yourself to the greater common good, or ruling over others. Since eschewing comedy writing, Franken has used common-good rhetoric in public. But this photo demonstrates a self-superior, ruling-class mentality.

I know, from experience, how such humiliations undermine one’s ability to trust others. Since I was nineteen, I can count on my fingers the number of people I’ve shared sleeping quarters with, who weren’t related to me by blood. It’s very difficult for me to relinquish control that way. I can’t possibly be alone: chronic sleep deprivation, and its related behavior, carb-loading, are among America’s leading causes of obesity, heart disease, Type-II diabetes, and other ailments.

By definition, America’s representative government requires citizens to relinquish control, voluntarily, to others. They’re nominally people we choose, but in today’s party-driven system, where we often choose between elephants and jackasses rather than actual human beings, the selection is often a lesser-of-two-evils choice. By seeking public power, Senator Franken asks Minnesota’s voters to entrust public control into his hands.

That photograph, sadly, demonstrates that we cannot him with such authority. In two different public statements, Franken disclaimed that photograph as a joke gone awry. Even if that’s true, remember what he considers funny: this person’s body needs rest, so she trusted me enough to fall asleep, haw-haw. That isn’t a funny group laugh, it’s pointed mockery at another’s expense. It’s taunting the powerless for lacking power.

That’s why I must cut Senator Franken loose. Sure, he’s not my senator; I’ve never had any influence in Franken’s career. But as a voter, I have input. And Franken cannot effectively represent anybody, constituent or citizen, when he arrogates power that way. He’s demonstrated rot at his philosophical core. When given power over others, he uses it for his own aggrandizement. That’s why Senator Franken has to go.

Monday, November 20, 2017

North America's Other Bloody Border War

Hispaniola, in a map from the Encyclopedia Britannica

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 84
Michele Wucker, Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola


Though it’s impossible to say with precision, many historians believe the spot where Christopher Columbus first landed in the Americas is in Haiti. Archeologists have found remains of a rudimentary wooded village with European structures near modern Cap-Hatiën. This means that, though Native Americans had a rich, complex pre-Columbian civilization, modern written history in North America begins on the island of Hispaniola.

So it’s particularly puzzling why Haiti and the only country with which it shares a land border, the Dominican Republic, remain essentially terra incognita for English-speaking Americans. Ivy League-educated journalist Michele Wucker, who specializes in crisis points and why nobody prevents preventable explosions, turns to this issue in her first book. The answers she uncovers aren’t pretty, because they indict us first-worlders in the ongoing cataclysm that is Latin America.

Inspired by the American Revolution, Haitians became the second Western Hemisphere colony to overthrow its European masters. Though that war dragged for thirteen years, and cost far more lives, it produced North America’s second independent nation, and the first dominated by an entirely black, formerly enslaved population. Sadly, Haiti didn’t establish freedom right away; strings of coups, royalist pretenders, and overseas occupations meant Haiti’s first free election didn’t happen until 1989.

Haiti controls approximately one-third of Hispaniola; the Dominican Republic controls two-thirds. Though the French controlled Haiti, the former colony of Santo Domingo bowed to Spain, who didn’t treat its colony so cruelly, but also didn’t extract as much wealth. Santo Domingo didn’t rebel against Spain for decades, and when it did, it petitioned the United States for statehood, and was declined. So naturally, Haiti invaded.

Michele Wucker
The Dominican Republic celebrates its Independence Day, not from the Spanish colonial overthrow, but from the ouster of Haiti in 1844. From this moment, we get an ongoing struggle of economics, power, and race that makes American civil rights struggles look placid and well-behaved. Violence between nations, particularly by relatively wealthier Dominicans against chronically impoverished, and black, Haitians, marks the identity of Hispaniola to this day.

Wucker uses cockfighting as a metaphor to understand this battle. White Americans perceive cockfighting as a barbaric activity, one which we prosecute as inhumane and backward. The nations of Hispaniola, however, see cockfighting much like we see horseracing, as a perfect union of human trainer and animal capability. The Dominican capital, also called Santo Domingo, has a glamorous, state of the art cockfighting arena like Americans have football stadiums.

Haiti’s border with the Dominican republic wasn’t codified and made enforceable until the United States occupation of both nations, during and after World War I. This became important later. Haitians sneak into Dominica much like Mexicans sneak into Texas, crossing a border into a country where they’re not wanted in pursuit of work. An ironclad border made sneaking in a more definite activity, which introduced new risks and rewards on both sides.

During Dominica’s Trujillo dictatorship, from 1930 to 1961, the government cracked down on illegal Haitians. This crackdown started as an ordinary law-enforcement issue, but as unelected government leaders whipped up nationalist sentiment, the crackdown escalated to violence, some of it extreme. Dominica’s massacre of Haitian immigrants, which partly overlapped the German Holocaust, competed for one of the Twentieth Century’s bloodiest genocides. Consequences echo down Hispaniola’s history to the present.

And it’s impossible to deny the racial implications of this genocide. Upper-class Dominicans consider themselves “white,” and have nine gradations of racial identity, down to “black,” which is Haitian. (Most Haitians have unmixed African ancestry.) It’s a shock to many “white” Dominicans when they emigrate to the United States seeking work, and discover that, in America, they’re considered Black. The implications for the United States are glaring, and painful.

Throughout, Wucker keeps her emphasis mainly on the Dominican Republic, the larger, wealthier, paler-skinned neighbor in this arrangement. She strenuously avoids commenting upon larger world affairs, except where the global context contributes to Hispaniola’s conditions. (For instance, the way Haitians and Dominicans both travel to America for economic opportunity.) However, it’s tough to avoid noticing parallels with Mexicans in America, Muslims in the EU, and other perilous border crossings.

However, like the best classic literature, Wucker’s journalism isn’t really about its subject. Ultimately, it’s about the audience, challenging us to understand our position in the world arrangement. We’ll maybe never personally visit Hispaniola; we’ll never engage in bloody race-baiting or cockfighting. But we, individually and collectively, are part of the system that makes this possible. Where, Wucker asks, do we stand? And what will we finally do?

Friday, November 17, 2017

Order In the Court of Public Outrage

Senate candidate Roy Moore (R-Alabama)
I mostly applaud the recent shakeout of sexual harassers in public places. Since Hollywood’s casting couch horror stories and Washington’s power-mad gropers have long been an open secret, it pleases me to see somebody finally being held to account. But I fear, in the last week or so, we’re seeing something I never anticipated from this scandal: the court of public opinion is massively overruling due process.

Okay, some powerful people probably deserve to have their careers torpedoed by what’s happening. Louis CK’s frank confession to past sexual misbehavior, and the mumbling non-denials out of Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein, have brought their recent ostracism on themselves. Frankly, Louis CK deserves credit for having balls enough to admit his past crimes, even as he deserves the ass-beating he’s now getting in the media.

But a different dynamic plays out in the cases of Roy Moore and Al Franken. These politicians both deny, to greater or lesser degrees, the accusations against them, but they’re both being treated as guilty. Calls for Moore to quit his Senate race, and for Franken to quit the Senate, have fallen out, not necessarily along partisan lines, but certainly according to group loyalties. Still, neither has confessed to, nor been convicted of, anything. Yet.

Maybe they should be. Moore has five accusers (that I know of), and they tell remarkably similar stories: targeting minors less than half his age, touching them without consent, then using his elected authority to demand their silence. Franken has one accuser, whose charges date back to when he was a comedian, and unlike Moore’s accusers, she has photographs. If he got caught on camera once, it probably happened other times, when cameras weren’t present.

Both deny their charges. Moore does so categorically, saying all his accusers are lying. Franken dismisses his accusations as a joke which fell flat. (I never liked him on SNL anyway; his Stuart Smalley character, in particular, was an unfunny slam on homosexuals and treatment seekers alike.) Moore has demanded proper legal charges be filed, knowing they can’t at this late date. Franken has submitted to an ethics committee investigation, like he had any choice.

Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota)
The fallout has been downright predictable. Moore’s evangelical Christian supporters invent stupid excuses for his behavior, though he’s slipped into second place. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and his colleagues, say they believe Moore’s accusers, though they continue mush-mouthing their responses to President Trump’s more numerous accusers. Senator Cory Gardner has suggested the Senate won't let Moore get seated, which would be unprecedented.

Congress has literally never preemptively prevented a legally elected member from being seated. It has very rarely even expelled a sitting member, and other than seventeen members expelled when their states joined the Confederacy, it has only happened when convicted of very serious charges. Congress expelled William Blount in 1797 for treason, and Michael Myers in 1980 and James Traficant in 2002, both for bribery and other financial malfeasance.

Meanwhile, the breakdown among progressives on Senator Franken is stark. Democratic Party loyalists praise his “leadership” for not impugning his accuser, and submitting to ethics inquiries. But people more loyal to principles than party began tweeting demands for his resignation within hours of the accusation. Unfortunately, this opens other terrible doors: if one single accuser requires resignation, could anybody accuse anyone of anything?

In both cases, well-meaning but misguided advocates clearly haven’t thought the implications through. If Republicans prevent Moore taking his seat, they’ll have to explain why they won’t hold Trump equally accountable; more likely, they’ll crumble as they did with Trump. And if Franken gets pressured into resigning without a hearing, it sets a precedent existing Senators won’t like (his accuser is a sometime paid Hannity commentator).

The Senate, and America, must hold both men culpable for their actions. Both should receive hearings, or face consequences if they refuse. But the Senate is a deliberative body, which exists to test ideas through open debate before foisting them onto the public. Sure, letting a seriously suspected sexual predator decide our laws has harrowing implications. But they gave Bob Packwood a fair hearing, and they had his confession on tape.

These charges are serious. Our lawmakers need to hear the accusers, and hold their peers accountable. But I fear we’re starting to see the ramifications of public outrage: moral panic, where accusations matter more than evidence. From Salem witch trials to the McMartin Preschool Trial, that never ends well. In times like these, we need due process more than ever.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The London Victorian Ladies' Social and Necromantic Circle

Molly Tanzer, Creatures of Will & Temper: a Novel

Lady Henrietta “Harry” Wotton’s glamorous salon has become somewhat bereft since her brother Oliver died. Oliver’s love, and Harry’s best friend, the portraitist Basil Hallward, has retreated into seclusion with Oliver’s painting. But, rootless in his grief, Basil has permitted his nieces to reside with him, temporarily, in London. Harry finally revives when she considers the woman fencing master Evadne Gray and her sister, Dorina. Yes, Dorina Gray.

On her blog, Molly Tanzer describes her latest as “a feminist retelling of The Picture of Dorian Gray with sword fighting and demons”, which is partly accurate. Though Tanzer uses Oscar Wilde’s only novel as her launching point, she doesn’t simply retell the novel; and the swashbuckling supernatural elements, though good, come remarkably late. She basically offers two overlapping books: a subtle historical relationship drama, and a heroic quest narrative.

Tanzer’s prologue mimics Wilde’s first chapter, note for note, though eschewing Wilde’s self-conscious authorial repartée, which is historically witty, but fake-sounding to modern ears. Instead, Tanzer focuses on relationships. Wilde’s characters use language to play status games; Tanzer’s characters use language to build, and tear down, bridges. The result is familiar to period literature buffs, but cuttingly contemporary for paperback genre readers.

Evadne and Dorina Gray are country girls, though that means something different for each. Evadne is adult, recently jilted, suddenly at loose ends: she only values strength, which she measures by her fencing ability, and rectitude, which has recently been shattered when the student vicar she loves betroths another. Dorina, meanwhile, is seventeen, secular, hedonistic, and… well, things explode when Evadne happens upon Dorina with another girl.

Molly Tanzer
There, immediately, we see Tanzer deviating from Wilde. What Wilde had to describe in coded language, Tanzer spells out immediately—probably has to, since modern readers aren’t accustomed to parsing hints. This theme continues. Once in London, the barely-legal Dorina begins aggressively courting Lady Henrietta, who attempts to maintain her distance. The demon living in Lady Henry’s brain, though, desperately desires the beautiful, sensual Dorina.

Oscar Wilde claimed that his trinity of characters, Dorian, Lord Henry, and Basil Hallward, represented three aspects of himself. It’s tempting to assign such meaning to Tanzer’s characters. She marginalizes Hallward, but foregrounds Evadne, keeping the three-legged stool standing. A Jungian psychologist would call the sisters one another’s shadows: adult versus adolescent, pious versus hedonistic, disciplined versus sensual. And so on.

The Gray sisters’ lifelong stalemate gets interrupted by Lady Henry, who resembles both, and neither. She has wealth and dignity, but disdains gender conventions. She encourages Dorina’s interest in art and sensual pleasure, but maintains polite remove. Lady Henry attempts to cultivate both sisters’ greatest strengths, but somehow invigorates Dorina’s hedonistic side, while alienating polite, self-contained Evadne. And most importantly, she channels demons.

See, there’s where problems erupt. Tanzer dangles that demonic influence episodically, but for most of the book, it’s oblique and distant. For chapter upon chapter, we have a historical novel about two sisters attempting to reach adulthood, but failing, because they cannot accept each other. Then suddenly, around the two-thirds mark, the demonic influence becomes central. Sword battles erupt on London rooftops. The book’s entire tenor changes.

As good as Tenzor writes, I cannot evade the fact that she’s created two parallel narratives, one of which idles for hundreds of pages before exploding violently, while the other proceeds carefully and thoughtfully, then gets sidelined by the action. One starts without really finishing; the other finishes without starting. I’d pay cash money to read either of these books, or one that blends them together without a hiccup.

Je suis frustrated.

We have, essentially, two books, fully realized, beautifully written, juxtaposed upon one another. Tanzer’s first two acts channel the kind of neo-Victorian writing created by A.S. Byatt and Sarah Waters. Then, in the final act, Tanzer offers urban fantasy from the mold that produced Jim Butcher and Seanan McGuire. Don’t mistake me: they’re very good books, and I enjoyed reading both. But there’s a scar where Tanzer stitched them together.

I legitimately enjoyed this book, and recommend it for audiences like me, who read both classics and contemporary genre fiction recreationally. She views Wilde’s classic characters from a contemporary perspective, one which rewards readings based not only on sexuality, but gender, class, and religion. My customer review has barely scratched the surface. One could follow Tanzer’s themes so much deeper.

Just be aware, going in, this journeyman author takes unconventional risks. Many of them pay off. But when they don’t, they leave a visible mark.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Gunfire Nation, Part II

The following essay is a continuation of my previous essay, Let's Just Accept It: We're Gunfire Nation
The church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, that brought guns
back into the mainstream discussion

Earlier this week, I wrote that we Americans need to stop fooling ourselves. Years of mawkish posturing can’t negate the fact that we’re apparently okay with some avoidable gunfire deaths, provided no measures whatsoever get taken to reduce access to guns among those most likely to use them recklessly. I still believe that; but I received some pushback from strangers who disagreed with my reasoning. I’d like to address three different objections, in order.

First, one respondent claimed that Americans “still have a higher chance to die by a fall.” No further clarification. Since “fall” is a vague category, I can’t quite confirm or deny this likelihood, especially since workplace falls get classed separately from “accidental falls” by stats collectors, so the exact number is somewhat murky. But a second respondent claimed “stats from 2013 give… 556,000 deaths from falls.”

I can’t find any such statistic anywhere. According to the CDC, there were 31,959 “unintentional fall deaths” in 2014, or ten per 100,000. Also according to the CDC, there were 33,594 firearms deaths in America in 2014, or 10.5 per 100,000. So if we believe the CDC numbers, you aren’t more likely to die of falls than gunfire. That’s just not true.

Then, the comparison between falls and gunfire falls down on one important distinction: we do something about falls. We require stairs to be built with handrails, elevators to have Otis safety clamps, excavations to be fenced off, and even natural cliffs and crevasses to have safety rails if they’re accessible to the public. We consider fall protection a priority, even if it runs up production costs.

This OSHA graphic demonstrates that we take falls very seriously, at least on paper

In my industry, construction, falls are a constant hazard. In any situation where workers could fall more than six feet, OSHA requires some combination of written warnings, orange cones, wooden safety rails, elastic fall harnesses, and other anti-fall protections. My subspecialty at work is specifically constructing handrails and other safety protections. Though we’ll never eliminate all fall deaths, we labor to eliminate all avoidable fall deaths. We consider the effort a moral imperative.

A second respondent mused vaguely that “Gun regulations in the past have not had much of an effect and new ones proposed, such as liability insurance would have about 0% efficacy in preventing gun deaths.” There may be something to that. The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban led to fewer mass shootings with semi-automatic weapons, but other weapons categories picked up the slack. And the liability insurance proposal is, at best, untested.

However, I never suggested any form of further regulation. In my essay, I specifically mentioned intelligence-gathering, and I stand by that suggestion. We now know that the shooter in Sutherland Springs, Texas, had been convicted of beating his wife, been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility, and been dishonorably discharged from the Air Force, according to the Washington Post. All these should have disqualified him from legal weapons purchases.

Yet according to Time magazine, the shooter legally purchased a rifle and two handguns, which police recovered at the scene. Apparently the Air Force never bothered telling relevant authorities about the shooter’s past, so the shooter faced no impediments to building a small personal arsenal. This failure to share important information painfully resembles the intelligence failures we discovered following 9/11. Apparently, we’re really bad at learning.

So that respondent is right; new regulations probably won’t work. We need, instead, to use information we already have, proactively, to identify people who give warning signs. We already use domestic intelligence to track chemical fertilizer buyers, so nobody can build a Timothy McVeigh-style truck bomb. Nothing but lack of will stops us doing the same with guns.

A David Horsey cartoon for the Los Angeles Times, dated 2013

My third respondent claimed that “The insurance proposal is simply a way to make sure poor people can't have guns.” There I must call complete bullshit. We require car owners to purchase liability insurance, even though statistically speaking, in America, the poorer you are, the further you live from work, and public transit: poor people need cars. We have no problem offloading expenses onto those who can least afford them. Until guns enter the picture.

Honestly, each of these three respondents has the grains of truth. We face many risks, some more imminent than guns. Regulations have a spotty record at best. And we shouldn’t perpetuate the idea that poor people can’t have nice things. But none of these statements really negates my point: that as a nation, we lack the will to do anything about misused guns. I believe my message still stands.