Say what you want to say

As I mentioned the last time I posted in – good lord – July, I’ve been reexamining a lot of aspects to how I put together articles here. At that time it was mostly about just how I drew on outside resources, specifically that I wanted to broaden my horizons in terms of what news sources I read, and as a result who shaped the meta-analysis that I tend to give here. Since then, I haven’t posted much because I’ve been a busy bee for other reasons, what with an internship at 429. That’s been a learning opportunity in a number of ways, but a key part of it has been changing how I look at the news cycle, and with that reexamining my writing tendencies and strategies.

On here (and even to some extent other places I write, even 429), there’s a driving sense to say something relevant. I can make decisions about what to talk about, but my choices should be comparatively narrowed to what other people are already talking about. Actually working in the media, not just doing what I do here, has taught me how nonsensical that is. Just take the example of the on-going detention crisis. You read that right, on-going. It might seem like the discussion on that is over, that presumably some sort of solution has been reached since the blanketing coverage from this summer has disappeared. The reality is, however, that the coverage of this issue has never reflected the reality on the ground.

The reality that many major news resources were late to the party in discussing minors being excessively and inhumanely detained was hinted at on shows run by some of the bigger names, such as MSNBC’s “All in with Chris Hayes” which acknowledged that other programs had long recognized that a refugee population had been created by instability in Central America. José Díaz-Balart, a dual MSNBC and Telemundo newscaster, was brought on to augment Hayes’ coverage, something of a nod to the face that many Latin@ news circuits had been discussing the militarized border and increasing reliance on detention systems for months if not years previously.

Since then, the Obama administration and a patchwork of legislators and administrators have cobbled together a family detention system, which attempts to create larger facilities, to at the very least not separate families within the process. Feminist media covered the ways in which these new systems have failed to recognize the often sexual violence many women and children were fleeing and even perpetuated those experience in new forms. Latin@ media likewise stayed atuned to the story. And even I covered some LGBT dimensions to it over at 429. One thing you’ll note about those articles other than mine is that they aren’t, like Chris Hayes’ segment, terribly reflective of prior coverage. Mine makes note of some of the last major news pieces that discussed the problem, while the other two almost exclusively focus on the policy on the ground, with media coverage having long since moved on to other topics.

news cycle
(“The News Cycle” – it doesn’t quite work like that.)

That’s not a fluke. What that’s a reflection of is how much major media’s focus is driven by other reporting, and how desperately necessary smaller and more “ideological” or “perspective-taking” reporters are to covering what’s happening in the world. As a news-watcher, you need to look for more creative and less responsive media as much as possible, and if you are a news-creator, you need to be very careful in what sources you draw from because some of them are already out of touch.

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High expectations

TW: military occupation, civil war

Before anything else, I wanted to quickly apologize for the relatively low number of posts in the past few months. I have been experimenting with several new sources, with the aim of broadening the types of coverage that inform my writing here and elsewhere. One of those has been the World Review, which has an interesting reporting style. Their stated goals paint a picture of news that is fact-driven, values importance over mainstream appeal, and free of editorializing – all admirable aspects to their reporting they generally deliver on. That said, this often comes at the price of context (in spite of promises that their objectivity is shored up by expert analysis). The past two week’s news, as far as I’m concerned, underscores this sort of can’t-see-the-forest-through-the-trees effect, that leaves them a very useful news source, but only for a sort of immediate, fact-establishing reporting.

Last week, they published an article that helpfully highlighted the paradox at the heart of modern Iraq – that there is enormous mineral wealth in that country, but that its concentration in certain circles has led to resentment and instability rather than general prosperity and even investment in a shared future. What’s surprising is actually that this is surprising. The article itself treats this as something of a shock, quite literally elevating it to the opening hook of – “Iraq is now a failed state despite its great oil riches which provide more than 90 per cent of government revenue”.

From a historical perspective, there could be little doubt that Iraq’s wealth would remain concentrated even if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wasn’t interested in Shia-dominance in government, business, and society in general. The (sometimes literal) infrastructure of an insular elite has nearly a century of legacy to lean on – beginning with the UK-backed Kingdom of Iraq, then the US-backed Ba’athist regime, and most recently the US occupation famous for its focal points of tight security and economic power. Iraqi governance has been geared towards inegalitarian political and economical realities through decades of foreign influence and subsequent machines in local politics.

Beyond that though, the reality of 90 percent of the government’s revenue coming mineral extraction and export hardly seems like a counterbalance to that very real and very recent history of inequality. While shared resources are not necessarily a definitive source of conflict, the “resource curse” perspective on productive areas of the world remains fairly common. That’s with good reason, not only because of the instability that seems to linger in most parts of the world economically-centered on mineral extraction, but because of how those industries work. Some labor is required, but rarely enough to do more than make a portion of the population see the benefits of successful extraction and exportation.

The primary goal of states, companies, and individuals dependent on the success of those sorts of local economies tends to be security against any ill-wishers from the rest of society. An Iraq dotted with Bremer Walls and compounds of the well-to-do is one that only biases them more towards that sort of security-focused strategy, with profits even furthered maximized by keeping them contained within an incredibly small population. The very rhetoric of the Sunni-supremacist insurgency in northern and western Iraq reflects that reality, as since 2012 they have called for “destroying the walls” – meaning not only the ushering in of a post-state neo-caliphate (destroying many border boundaries), but the current targeting of these islands of security and wealth in Iraq (and groups seen as politically aligned with them, or simply their coreligionists).

bremer
(Bremer Walls in Iraq, from here.)

In short, the history of Iraq and its current dependency on resource extraction and export for income aren’t at odds with each other by a long shot, but have worked together to reinforce an inherently unequal political, economic, and social reality. That modern Iraq is an example of that which can’t absorb the subsequent sectarian and ethnic hostility or negotiate a new sort of society is the actual issue here. With a recent article whose title just gushes with excitement that newly discovered gas deposits in Mozambique will create a brighter future for the country (but which ironically the article itself admits is “at the mercy of a weak and corrupt government” concentrated in a completely different part of the country from the gas-rich region), it’s unclear that the World Review has learned its lesson about high expectations and extraction-based economies.

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Surprise twitter liveblogging

I’ve been keeping this under wraps because I’m kind of going into hostile territory with this. Later this morning (9 am Pacific time and 12 noon Eastern) I’ll be liveblogging this Family Research Council event, the star of which will be the famously anti-LGBT Robert Gagnon. Given that the talk’s title references “new knowledge arguments”, I suspect it will mostly be a retread of what he’s already said on the fourth page of this document.

As always you can follow along my commentary here. I cannot share information to the livecast as they are carefully monitoring who has access to it. If anything particularly interesting gets said, I will potentially update here with an audio clip.

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Warren and Piketty discussion on Monday

This Monday beginning at 8:30 pm Eastern (5:30 pm Pacific), Senator Elizabeth Warren (who is widely considered the populist voice in the current Senate) and French economist Thomas Piketty (who has galvanized the modern movement to contain capital flight) will have a conversation about economic and political issues that will be broadcast by the Huffington Post on a link accessible to you if you RSVP here. You also have the option of submitting questions ahead of time in the middle of registering as a listener.

As always, I will be liveblogging about this discussion on twitter, which you can follow along with here if you don’t already follow me on that platform. Recent statements by both Senator Warren and Piketty have actually led to many questioning how effective they are as advocates for policies that would reduce economic inequality, so this should be interesting to see whether either of them challenges the other based on those recent controversies. Senator Warren has famously stated that political insiders never attack other political insiders (at least, for being that), so this may in a weird way function as a litmus test to see how capable of self criticism both of these influential progressive thinkers are.

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42: not the answer to life, the universe, and everything

There’s been very little coverage of California’s Proposition 42, which many voters have already voted for or against (or ignored) on their mail-in ballots and which many more will vote on, on June 3.  Both locally and nationally, this small but significant tinkering with local government accountability has largely gone unmentioned, leaving it to mostly pro-42 groups to promote it in a frankly pretty shallow way. There’s the expected glossy description from the official website for passing the proposition, which appears to have the same hosting company as this baffling site. Beyond that sort of expected oddness, there’s only been the occasional editorial in favor of it, most noticeably from a local paper and an online news source. The latter in particular, an overtly libertarian-leaning outfit, reveals a lot of the subtle politics at play.

That piece cuts to the heart of the matter, while acknowledging that it doesn’t actually change current laws about what information local governments have to provide so much as the means by which they can inform the public:

“At the root of of the disconnect between California’s ambitious open information laws and their practical application is that fact that local agencies don’t always have to comply with the laws if they’re not being reimbursed for doing so. In the current climate of budgetary belt-tightening, this can effectively block public access to government records. [... Proposition 42 resolves that] by eliminating the requirement that the state reimburse local governments and agencies for complying with records requests or public meeting information.”

Instead of considering that this will result in already tight county budgets suddenly becoming even more inadequate, the article paints a rosy picture of near-inevitable results:

“If you’re still awake, you might be wondering where the money will come from. And that is where this humble little proposition gets interesting. If 42 passes, and current polling indicates that it will, it will create an incentive for governments at all levels to preempt freedom of information requests and the costs of responding by simply publishing their data online. ‘It would be a lot cheaper to release public information as data, rather than have someone at City Hall processing these requests and eventually Xeroxing swaths of information,’ says Robb Korinke of Grassroots Lab, a public affairs firm that is supporting the measure.”

In other words, unlike the prior attempt at dismantling requests for information that resulted in an outcry from many media outlets, this one will ostensibly result in at least some counties using this sort of high-tech solution to the problem. The solution is being touted as a cheap one, but for whom? Even assuming this doesn’t majorly impact the finances of counties (who pay for large numbers of staff to provide educational, medical, and social services to their residents in the state), who is going to have the time and resources to dig through websites? Remember, this is information that supposedly counties don’t want to provide people with – it being online doesn’t necessarily mean easily and transparently accessible on a website that makes clear what information it contains. Information can and (assuming there’s an interest in hiding it) probably will be as hidden in plain sight as possible.

Open_Data_stickers
(Open data begs the question of – open to whom? Image from here.)

The fact is that this specific proposal is designed to make it easy for people with a lot of free time and technology on their hands (or who look through public records for their job) to find stuff. It’s overtly not designed with a person who, for example, works in a non-technological field for most of their day and doesn’t own (for any number of reasons, most obviously cost) a personal computer. Lugging themselves down to their local library after a shift is probably easier than attempting to wrangle all the forms needed to request information, but keep in mind that this is all being done at the risk of the social services many people like that depend on. It might make the information easier for everyone to find, but it’s going to make having the time and resources to access it potentially much harder for some.

The local news article contained an admission of sorts about how wrong-headed this approach to the system is. It notes that “it costs more time and energy to file the paperwork for reimbursement than what an agency typically gets back” and that “there are so many rules and regulations to meet the qualifications for reimbursement that there wouldn’t be much at stake in the end if the option were to be taken away.” In other words, the system is definitely broken, and our solution is to cut funding further. What’s not being considered is a new state law to separately fund a drive to put as much information online as possible or to generally improve the reimbursement system or ideally both.

Tellingly, the article notes that as a result of “financial difficulty, the state hasn’t always been able to pay in a timely matter or at all, thereby giving these agencies reason not to comply with such laws”. To be blunt, what financial difficulty? California is flush with cash at the moment. Now is precisely the time to create a fund for a specified and separate online program in addition to existing programs that create ways for people to get information online. Or to hire a group of people to reexamine the reimbursement system. Or otherwise pay with the funds we have to strengthen a culture of accountability (which, hopefully, will mean continued prosperity). None of those alternatives have been even remotely explored or even acknowledged by the few people talking about this. Instead, we’ve gotten glowing reviews of the proposition from the tech-oriented libertarians and professional journalists who would stand to benefit the most from this law and risk the least.

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Net neutrality – now

Net neutrality has been an issue on virtually everyone’s lips these days, and with good reason. Conflict has broken out between Netflix and Comcast, and in the past few days spiraled out of control into an all out rejection of the Federal Communication Commission’s decisions and arguably contention even within the FCC. I honestly think one of the best descriptions of this was the one offered up by Vi, a popular YouTuber vlogger, who explained earlier today:

Her video lays out two major distinctions between companies and how that can (or does) impact their perspectives on this issue. Net neutrality as an issue innately divides between companies that host content and those that provide access to it. The former are ostensibly interested in maximizing the number of people who look at their content, both because of the pride that comes from creating a popular site but also because they materially benefit from having as many eyeballs as possible look at their site (because that’s how ad revenue is frequently calculated). Companies that provide access to that content, however, have a different business model, centered on driving up revenues through creating reasons to charge more for access than before… say, creating a unique fast lane for some content providers or customers.

Vi hints at a distinction among companies that host sites and content, however, in terms of how the on-going drive to dismantle internet neutrality affects different companies. In the short term, the companies most at risk of fee hikes are actually the most powerful – like Netflix, and a growing other number of sites, like Google and Amazon. Those are the companies that could afford to pay for the privileged delivery of their sites’ content are now under fire to actually do that. Smaller sites are actually not the ones in immediate danger (they only will be once a fast lane becomes established and they fall between the cracks). That said, torrenting sites and other marginal sites are already deprioritized by internet access providers under legal reasons. Likewise, the future deprioritization of smaller sites that are unable to pay extra appears likely to eventually marginalize them as well.

In short, we need to stave off this attempt to create of a pay scale for sites that determines the speed that their content will be delivered at. The current market is shaped by the (inconsistent) net neutrality we have currently, which means that almost all hosting sites both large and small are invested in a particular business model (built on attracting as many viewers as possible). If sites that can pay for greater security in how they deliver content become invested in that, the resources they could use to oppose such a system will get tied up in keeping their sites afloat. The current system unites companies that host content against internet providers. If we lose this current fight, that will no longer be true.

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Class in Ukraine

TW: antisemitism, anti-Roma violence and rhetoric

An interesting class-focused look at the on-going conflict in Ukraine was put forward today in an opinion piece by Vladimir Golstein, a Russian immigrant to the United States and Brown professor with a degree in Slavic studies. I won’t quite link to it yet, for reasons that will become clear, but I think the question it raises (what can we see when we focus on class in the recent political upheaval in Ukraine?) is one worth exploring more broadly.

Even the comparatively pro-business sources acknowledged the reality of an oligarchic retreat from Yanukovych’s government this winter. One article from Bloomberg News at that time noted that “Business oligarchs such as Rinat Akhmetov, the country’s richest man who acquired control of state stakes in leading power generators in 2011-2012, had relied on ties to Yanukovych to safeguard control of large sectors of the economy”. Unfortunately, the looming possibility of repressing protest movements would “signal that Ukraine is adopting the model of next-door Belarus” and justify an international response like the EU’s “visa ban and asset freeze on [Belorussian President since 1994] Lukashenko and [other] top officials”. The many oligarchs involved in politics would have been directly affected, as would have their class as a whole because of how many of them have foreign investments or assets which would at least come under new scrutiny.

A bit more foreboding to the less wealthy Ukrainians who are typically more invested in their own country’s production, is that entering the EU would create a situation where the local markets would have “duty-free access to more than 90 percent of [the EU's] products”. The already anemic manufacturing base of the country, concentrated along its eastern border with Russia, would likely crumble in the face of EU integration, stressing an already beleaguered working class in the region.

The German paper Der Spiegel argued even more overtly that several Ukrainian oligarchs that had been essentially invested in the existing government abrupt switched sides, and actively supported the protesters in the middle of this February. As one piece explained-

Last Tuesday’s [February 17, 2014] bloody conflicts tipped the scales. On Wednesday both Akhmetov’s and Firtash’s [two oligarchs] TV stations changed their coverage of Independence Square: Suddenly the two channels, Ukraina and Inter, were reporting objectively on the opposition. The message of the oligarchs was clear: We’re letting Yanukovych fall. And in parliament — where the majority party had barely budged a millimeter in the past weeks — the mood suddenly changed: Suddenly they were looking for a compromise after all. It became clear on Thursday what this would mean: the forming of a broad coalition, the return of the old constitution and, with it, a reduction of the presidential powers as well as an accelerated presidential election.

That is the economic class and socio-political faction that Vladimir Golstein sees facing grassroots resistance from russophone and perhaps even russophile groups in eastern Ukraine. He asks-

But what about the heavily industrialised Ukrainian east? Those who think that it is Russia that pulls it back are deeply ignorant of the complexity of the region. The Donbas Region, which comprises 10 percent of Ukraine’s population and produces 25 percent of Ukrainian exports, is inhabited by Russian-speaking people who work in mines, steel plants, and machinery factories, and who have a less cheerful view of Westernisation.

[...]

Local workers hardly need Putin propaganda to know that many of their smoke stack plants will be closed once Ukraine joins the EU. It is sufficient for Ukrainians to look to other recent EU countries, from Hungary to Romania and the Baltic States, or even at Russia’s own economy that switched to the export of natural resources at the expense of thousands of closed factories to know what will happen to the big Soviet-style factories that still dominate the landscape of the Donbas region.

Donetsk_Ukraine_map
(Shaded in is the Donetsk or Donbas region of Ukraine, with the city of Donetsk itself marked with a red dot. It is one of Ukraine’s most densely populated areas.)

Golstein is entirely too optimistic about this class consciousness, particularly in the larger Donetsk (or Donbas) region, being removed from ethnic and even racial histories. He explained that they were united in the interest of maintaining their jobs, independent of whether they are “ethnically Ukrainian, Russian, Armenian or Hungarian”. In the past few days, there have been allegations of separatists engaging in antisemitic pamphlet campaigns and anti-Romani violence, hallmarks more reminiscent of fascism’s recent history in the region than Marxism’s. The broader issue of average Ukrainians having different political interests than their economic and political elites will likely leave Ukraine’s prospective government in a precarious position, but the unique flashpoint so far has produced not only class consciousness as Golstein notes, but also hints of a dangerous sort of ultra-nationalism.

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The Bundy Ranch: race, immigration, terrorism, and power

TW: racism, racist criminalization, anti-immmigrant racism, islamophobia, gun violence

Before we get into the heat of it again, I want to apologize for my long and unannounced absence. Life can get hectic, and writing about politics can be uniquely frustrating. One of the things I hope to do on this site is illuminate patterns in how many people approach and respond to certain issues, allowing those interested in improving things to anticipate their opposition. Unfortunately, that causes me to often feel like I’m needlessly repeating the same analysis, to the point that it gets stale, or even abstracted and confusing to someone who hasn’t been reading my posts here for months on end.

I’ll even admit I sometimes get concerned that I’m spotting connections that aren’t there or are less important than the context around them. Or maybe that my own biases are causing me to pick on people or otherwise get rather hyperbolically invested in a certain way of looking at an issue. A bit paradoxically, I’ve even been afraid of simultaneously showing off which news sources I prefer while more or less picking a fight with the journalists that I guess could be called my “favorites”.

So, hopefully I can avoid doing that when I say that Chris Hayes seems to have avoided looking at a crucial wrinkle in the recent controversy surrounding the Bundy Ranch in Nevada.

bundy_ranch_stand_off_april_12_2014_by_pm_beers
(The owner of the Bundy Ranch near Bunkerville in southern Nevada, has refused to pay fees for the use of adjacent federal lands for grazing since 1993. After a decade of court litigation and accumulating fines, the Bureau of Land Management attempted to repossess the ranch’s cattle these past few weeks, culminating in an armed stand-off. Image from here.)

Chris Hayes covered this initially from a variety of angles, but most interestingly invited Nevada State Senator Michele Fiore, a Bundy Ranch supporter of sorts, to speak on the developments. You can see the video of their exchange here.

Fiore immediately summarizes her perspective as one that rejects the governments response to the Bundy case as essentially heavy-handed, but very quickly makes it clear that she doesn’t disapprove of the government having those powers for supposedly distinct situations. She explained, “Generally when my-  when our federal government comes in armed, we expect a bigger problem, maybe terrorist crossing the border, not an unpaid bill”. She later clarified, “If we literally sent our federal government to the borders to secure them against terrorists crossing, hey I got that, but they want to come here with arms because cows are grazing?”

Her perspective is, essentially informed by the idea that not only is the Bundy Ranch not a problem, but it is not a problem because of inescapable comparisons – to a violent other, understood as different from the speaker probably in terms of race, religion, and national status. The idea of who qualifies as a terrorist, as the balking over calling the Bundy Ranch supporters domestic terrorists shows, is difficult to separate from toxic ideas about exactly those ways of distinguishing people, and the political systems that have elevated White people, practitioners of “Western” religious traditions, and US citizens over others. Fiore and others expressing that viewpoint basically want to play a rigged game.

This is a pattern of thought I’ve been talking about for a while now. Especially in contexts that could be described as having to do with “security”, a new way of thinking about those issues has begun to emerge, which is often called “libertarian” or a new sort of “third way“. It’s often discussed as challenging established power, but when examined closely it prioritizes limiting state power and only in selective ways. Typically, the restrictions that remain are designed to be brought up in a racially and ethnically neutral way, but that reflect biases and prejudices that will allow a backdoor profiling to occur. The implicit idea behind these politics is that state surveillance and aggression need to be curbed, in order to better concentrate on the correct populations (this is the part where the person arguing for them winks or says, “you know“).

Now, the question is, how can people wanting to point that out respond to that? Hayes later explained his decision to invite on Fiore, saying that he wanted to create a place where people can interrogate her ideas and better understand her potential disagreements. I applaud that goal, but I have to say, he unfortunately failed in the moment to get her to address the existence of non-violent people of color who are subject to very militarized state aggression that she doesn’t care about.

His even later analysis (with Michael Eric Dyson) is interesting, but fails to call out the fact that she seems to know what she’s doing – she raised the comparison before he did. There is worth in pointing out (to people who simply aren’t aware of it) that the Bundy Ranch probably wouldn’t still exist if people of color had pulled that stunt, but that doesn’t directly address that that’s exactly how Fiore (and those who agree with her) seems to think it should be. Dyson helpfully points out something quite powerful:

“When people have guns who we think should not have guns, our sense of the social order is- is dramatically changed. Think about the big brouhaha occasioned by Thelma and Louise. Here are two women who took up a few guns and had,you know, if you will, a kind of reverie, and of course ultimate, the potential, suicide. But there was more violence in the first five minutes of Lethal Weapon 1, than in that entire movie, but because women, who are the ordinary victims of gun play, are now the agents of gun play, this is seen as toppling the social order. And when race, and gender, and class, and generation get involved, it begins to change our perception of who legitimately has a gun.”

But Hayes responds to that by asking how liberals (here seeming to mean people who hope to challenge that sort of thinking about who is and who isn’t a threat) should react to that distinction working towards a peaceful solution. He was offered up eloquent commentary on the same sort of distinction that Fiore obviously had working from the beginning of her argument for the Bundy Ranch’s perspective, and rather than pushing his guest to make it even more relevant to the arguments he supposedly had on to engage with, he countered it.

Hayes said in fact, that he’s concerned that the good in the government’s (temporary?) backing off has “gotten lost in this”. That’s admirable, and perhaps we should take a moment to be glad when these sorts of situations are resolved peacefully. That said, Hayes didn’t unfortunately seem as concerned about losing his own thread with analyzing exactly what type of unequal policies Fiore was advocating, and which has for the time being been reflected in how the government has treated the situation at the Bundy Ranch.

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The threat of the executive order

If you’re on the Howard Dean-affiliated Democracy for American email list, you’ve probably already seen this image, which they sent out seemingly yesterday to their thousands (if not million plus) of subscribers:


(Literally anything?)

Huh. Now if that isn’t a symbol for our times. Not in that executive orders are more common (they aren’t), but that they’ve become necessary for basic political functions. In the 1980s and 1990s (and even the often called dysfunctional Bush years), the United States paid its bills, kept the lights on, and even updated the image of who was working and living in the United States. The legislature had it’s moments of inane or counter-productive behavior (Clinton’s impeachment seems like it shouldn’t be forgotten), but on the hold, governance was shared between a presidency, a congress, a high court, and numerous other functional elements to a political system.

That no longer exists. The threat of a executive order has been one of the sticks shown off in attempt to force congressional action on the debt ceiling, and similar attempts have now been made with regards to policy on indefinite detention, immigration, and now even the minimum wage. In a twisted way, the president has come to rely on (among other persuasion techniques) threatening to do everything himself in order to goad Republicans in Congress into action, which unfortunately only convinces them to dig in their feet harder (the better to oppose his “radical” policies!).

We’ve lost any semblance of a consensus that we as a country are viable in our current form, mostly because of rising conservative alternative theories. The resurfacing popularity among many Republicans of establishing a golden standard, of dismantling the Federal Reserve, of reversing Civil Rights victories, of overturning Roe, and of letting the US default on its debts and watch its federally-insurance banks go belly up in order to cleanse the economic system do not exist in isolation from each other. They tell a story of a long-negotiated political consensus about how the US economy and political system can and should be set up suddenly finding itself under attack in innumerable ways. It is likewise not an accident that secession is suddenly on the table again.

Within the context, it’s not just a useful threat to say that the President will keep those previously agreed-upon systems running. It’s also comforting to the people who would be protected by them. And it becomes unfortunately necessary to note that, comforting or not, executive orders have largely remained an overly polite bully pulpit for Obama, rather than an actual tool used to maintain (or even broaden) basic equalities and freedoms. Detainees are still waiting for their freedom in Guantánamo. Employees of anyone other than government contractors are still waiting for a raise. And the debt ceiling fight is threatening to come back again.

Systems are self-reinforcing, but only to a point. After a while, they need more than just a gentle nudge to keep them going. They need to be invested in and supported. How much longer will “good enough” be good enough?

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State of the Union 2014

As usual, please follow along with my comments on twitter to President Obama’s State of the Union address tonight, at 9 pm Eastern / 6 pm Pacific.

There’s been a few hints as to what we can expect tonight, but the most solid are coming from the think tank Demos, which released this informational graphic today (warning it’s large):

Continue reading

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UC Davis meetings reveals conflicts surrounding agritourism

TW: abilism

Californian Assemblymember Mariko Yamada along with several other assembleymembers presided over an informational hearing about agricultural tourism at UC Davis yesterday, with testimony provided by university staff, local farmers, and county officials. Shermain Hardesty, a university cooperative extension specialist, opened the meeting with an explanation of how “agritourism” could help create ties between farmers and other Californians. Specifically, she expressed a hope that urban residents could participate in agritourism in order to gain an “appreciation of what a farmer is going through to produce these crops and the food for them.”

olive trees
(An olive grove and agritourism destination in Oak Glen, in Southern California, from here.)

Later speakers and public comments supported the possibility of agritourism strengthening relationships between agricultural workers and others, but also expressed how agritourism created or worsened disagreements within rural communities. Penny Leff, an agritourism coordinator with UC Davis, was the immediately following speaker, who spoke almost exclusively to how agritourism businesses often struggle with existing regulations. She drew attention to a 2009 survey of 332 agritourism operations, whose owners pointed to “regulations and legal constraints” as their main obstacle to running their existing businesses.

More specifically, she noted that zoning laws and building codes are rarely written with agritourism in mind. She explained that many farmers and ranchers stand to benefit from new legal definitions which would “include some of the low-impact visitor services as a part of their operation”. These zoning and coding laws and regulations are the outcome of “each county’s planning department legitimately trying to protect agriculture.” Their narrow definition of that, however, has produced “strict zoning regulations that prohibit a lot.”

Liability laws and insurance policies are similarly designed for different industries, according to Leff. She pointed to a few states where an agritourism-specific liability law has been passed which “allows a farmer or rancher to usually register somewhere, post a sign that the farmer or rancher is not liable for things that happen out of their control.” Within California, Leff noted that similar provisions exist at the county level in California in Butte, Sacramento, and El Dorado counties particularly.

One local farmer, Chris Turkovich, spoke about how contradictory and confusing regulations made it difficult for his family’s farm to upgrade and improve its facilities with energy efficient and environmentally friendly products and processes. He noted that those outdated policies are “disincentivizing younger, newer, and smaller farmers, because of the burden and overhead cost to getting projects like these off the ground”. That sentiment that many younger farmers in particular are interested in better state and county support for agritourism was later echoed by other members of the public that came forward to speak.

Supporting agritourism in typically rural areas was discussed as not only requiring a revisiting of zoning, coding, and liability standards, but improving and expanding rural roads. Noelle Cremmers, a director at the California Farm Bureau Federation, explained that agritourism carries with it the risk of allowing tourism to come into rural communities and either impact them negatively or stretch their services beyond their limits. Cremmers explained, “If you have a three-acre parcel and you are having weddings and you regularly have a significant amount of traffic, that could impact your neighbor.”

Michelle Stephens, the “farmbudsman” for both Yolo and Solano counties, likewise echoed that point about agritourism stressing underinvested rural roads. She explained, “a less discussed component of agritourism is the rural roadways” which are “often the only thoroughfares that lead to the farms, and are commonly cited by neighbors as unsafe and a reason not to allow agritourism activities in rural areas.” Stephens additionally called for more positions that like hers to be created, to guide farmers through regulations. She also argued, however, for a critical approach towards rethinking how agricultural and rural businesses could comply with regulations written with urban businesses in mind.

Assemblymember Brian Dahle, one of the other assembleymembers in attendance, expressed appreciation for Stephens testimony, but seemed to politely disagree. He explained, “I live 75 miles away from a Walmart, to give you an idea of how rural my area is. Now, half the people there want growth, that’s usually the storefronts, the realtors. And then the other half would just like it to stay the way it is.” He added, “We want to be left alone by the agencies and everyone else.”

“Decisions have to be made with planning, and how you’re going to strike the balance between what your community wants your community to look like and how you’re going to continue one with those sorts of practices,” he ultimately explained. When he expressed specific ways that those conflicts often come up, he cited the expectations created by particularly the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA had been previously absent from Stephens’ testimony, both in what specific regulations she referenced and the general scope of her argument. Chris Turkovich and a vineyard-owning speaker, Ann Wofford, had both briefly referenced it, as had Penny Leff who explained it might “inhibit some tours”. The crux of speeches by the various experts on the situations of these businesses had been that improving roads and revisiting regulations, if carefully done, could lead to some benefits. Dahle, a farmer himself, moved the focus of the regulations on to how ADA or environmental regulations could be weapons for petty feuds in rural communities, and reduced roads improvement to an act of intrusion.

One urban farmer from Sacramento, James Brady, declared that the testimonies about the needed changes had, immediately after Dahle’s response, made him “afraid” for how regulations might work against him. The message that many of the speakers had delivered, of agritourism bringing people together, had been soured by what conflicts had been referenced and Dahle’s anti-regulatory concluding note. What had started out as a reason for optimism on the part of agricultural communities, or perhaps a difficult but attainable goal, had been lost in the fray.

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The rising tide doesn’t lift all boats

TW: heterosexism, cissexism

A number of legal cases for marriage reform and the new state leadership in Virginia have combined to create the perfect storm in that state for the current ban on LGBTQ* marital recognition to be struck down. Elected only this past fall, current Attorney General Mark Herring campaigned on the basis of expanding marriage rights and in response to the various looming legal cases previously announced that he was “reviewing appropriate legal options” and has now filed alongside the plaintiffs in one Virginia case. This is a dramatic reversal to Virginia’s policy, which currently not only bans the recognition of those marriages but also the provision of any legal status to a same-sex couple with rights comparable to marriage.

Virginia joins a list of states, surprising to some, that have seen this issue recently come into question in spite of strict state-level bans. Both Utah and Oklahoma have in the past few weeks had federal judges strike down their policies, although granting same-sex couples marriage licenses has now been halted in Utah and not yet occurred in Oklahoma. All three of those states only had their sodomy laws, which banned sexual acts between same-sex couples, wiped out in only 2003 by the federal Supreme Court. To call this a quick progression seems like an understatement.

The expanding possibilities for many couples in all three of those states is highly limited, however, outside of the still uncertain changes to marriage laws. Housing discrimination against LGBTQ* people remains legal in all three. Likewise, none of those states collect or prosecute hate crimes against LGBTQ* people. Virginia is the only one of those states that has any protections against employment discrimination, which only applies to state employees and was only added earlier this month. All three also lack any sort of systemic protection for LGBTQ* people against harassment in schools or discrimination in accessing healthcare.

usa map - states with effectively no protections -
(The states shaded in above with red do not have any significant state-level protections for LGBTQ* people. They do not bar employment discrimination in either the public or private sectors for only cis LGBQ* people. They do not bar housing discrimination, again, even against cis LGBQ* people. They do not prosecute anti-LGBTQ* hate crimes, or even record them for federal purposes. Until this month, Virginia was also a member of this category.)

A common complaint in LGBTQ* activism is that the movement for recognizing their rights is overly focused on marriage and particularly avoids addressing the needs of transgender people. The evolving policies in these three states seems to suggest that, as they not only are far behind in protections other than marriage for LGBTQ* people, but they are among the most difficult states for transgender people to live in.

Oklahoma is among the few states that in a technical sense does not recognize transgender people – the state has no policy for or practice of changing the gender listed on a birth certificate. Utah and Virginia do modify birth certificates, but each with a catch. Utah fails to provide a new one, and simply “amends” an old one, which means that after modification it will come under increased scrutiny because of how it is “amended”. Virginia, alternatively, provides a new and authoritative certificate, but only after proof of an invasive surgery is offered. All three states fall far short of an ideal policy.

With one of several marriage cases already scheduled for January 30, majorities of Virginians in some polls supporting a turn from the current policy, and many legal experts comparing this issue to the push for legal interracial marriage (which was won nationally by a Virginian case), the next few weeks should hold some interesting developments. That said, Virginia, like much of the US, lags behind on the various other protections that LGBTQ* people find themselves in need of, particularly those most relevant to transgender people. Marriage reform is a necessary ingredient for resolving heterosexist and cissexist inequality in the US, but it isn’t sufficient on its own, which is among the “best” outcomes at the moment in those three and many other states. There may be a rising tide, but we’re seeing it fail to lift all boats at the moment.

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Let’s focus on Christie, starting with his past…

In the on-going realization that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was at least indirectly implicated (for systemically poor staffing choices, if not his personal involvement) in the illegal closing of most of the lanes of the George Washington Bridge, there’s been a shifting of sorts in how the issue has been discussed. With a large amount of information now released, and Christie’s office’s  intentional involvement confirmed, a lot of the criticism has actually moved from him and his staff towards those defending them. That’s not a necessarily counter-productive way of addressing the issue – after all, well-respected figures giving Christie a pass is an issue, but let’s not lose track of the radical revisiting of Christie’s record that this scandal calls for.

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For instance, what was the above? Was it really just a baffling endorsement? Or was it the result of a threat or fear of a threat? Beyond that and a million other odd “coincidences” that appear to have followed Christie throughout his years as governor, there’s also the small unknown matter of how he retained his job as a United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey. In that case, Christie’s political actions are documented, and in short, it’s been established that he maintained a fraudulent corruption case for as long as possible in order to harass a Democratic state Senator.

Political cartoon showing democratic donkey telling a sprinting Christie
(Let’s not even get started on this understanding of the issue, that ignores both the corruption and its defenders in the press, from here.)

The current scandal has brought many of these old memories up, of Bush-era venality which extends as a consistent pattern of corruption to this day. The political discussion should, at least to some degree, remain centered on Christie, but what’s more, we need to acknowledge how the situation has changed. The question we need to ask ourselves is no longer whether Christie is corrupt, but what corrupt activities he engaged in either personally or through his staff.

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The invisible racist

TW: racism, classism

Earlier today, Brittney Cooper published a thoughtful criticism of the way the Romney family was insulated from criticism about race, and in fact, Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor and television show host, was put on the spot to apologize for a segment she oversaw that poked fun at one of Romney’s son’s recent adoption of a Black child. It’s well worth the read, but at its core was a particularly enlightening comparison:

This faux-outrage on the right about MHP’s racism and insensitivity obscures exactly this set of truths about the right’s shoddy record on race. That both Mitt Romney and Phil Robertson have and love black grandbabies should remind us that racism is not primarily about individual attitudes. White folks can love individual black people and still build a world that is inhospitable to black folks. In fact, individual and exceptional black achievers are necessary to maintain the lie of racial progress. Their presence has very little to do with systemic change, though.

Phil Robertson (the patriarch of the Duck Dynasty family who was called out for his heterosexist and racist comments) and Mitt Romney? To quote Pia Glenn on Romney’s new grandson: “One of these things is not like the others.” No, it’s not, and that’s the entire point of Cooper’s comparison. More of her readers rightfully can interpret Robertson’s actions and statements as racist, but Romney is a little bit harder for some to grasp their heads around.

Writing about this is tricky, because it’s actually not that Romney is more wealthy or socially powerful, so much as that Robertsons willingly set the markers of their wealth and similar lifestyle aside in the name of reality television. Even if it’s all an illusion though, the Robertsons are easier for many White people to mentally cast as racists compared to the Romneys who are whatever the US’s equivalent of the British “posh” is.

That’s a divide that has many outcomes. There hasn’t been an outcry over, for example, the Wall Street Journal publishing a wistful look back at the WASP dominance that once was, complete with half-century stale stereotypes of Irish Catholics as lecherous and a carefully unspecified non-WASP group of bankers as “greedy pigs” (golly gee, what could that mean?). Discontent with equating (perceived) moral failings with ethnic statues, the article likewise insists that corruption was non-existent during the days of WASP dominance. Given that according to its author, conservative writer Joseph Epstein, the Bush political dynasty “lost” its WASP status between George H W Bush and his son, it seems like corruption or failure disqualifies you from being a WASP, so as to keep the ethnic reputation intact.


(This article, the above image it contains, and millions of people around the world would disagree.)

That same sort of fence-post moving seems to be at play in the reasons why Epstein and the Wall Street Journal didn’t come under fire for quite literally implying that things were better under codified legal dominance by not only White people, but a very specific brand of White people. A few places passed around the article as an amusing demonstration of confusion and rudeness, but most carefully sidestepped labeling Epstein, his editors, or the publisher anything like racist. One article quoted a tweet that called the article “racist”, but without really agreeing, so much as noting that as an opinion. Another one only drops either of the r-words in relation to the articles contents (or its author, editors, and publisher) in saying it was “almost too transparent, resembling something closer to satire than to outright racism.” Quite literally, a privileged, educated and fundamentally well-off racist screed is easier to understand as poorly executed humor than an extension of racism.

None of this is to claim that if racist words had come out of not Robertson’s mouth but that of a distant relative or childhood neighbor it wouldn’t be racist (or, alternatively, that the racist ideas about a happy pre-civil rights past are not prevalent throughout the South and the US generally). Instead, it’s to question who we let off the hook when it comes to racist statements without even realizing it. More often than not, it seems like it’s well-off writers for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal that are called out by fellow White people for classism, when racism is a clear factor as well. We’re too slow in picking up on and shutting down the racism of people who look like Robertson, but too many of us don’t seem to even realize the cruelties people who look like Romney regularly spew.

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Population determines proportion

In case you haven’t noticed yet, the past few years have seen national US media repeatedly comparing California and Texas, often in ways that are misleading if not outright wrongheaded. One of the key facts in the most recent incarnation of this is this one fact about internal immigration as referenced by Dan Balz in the Washington Post this way:

Nearly a quarter of the new, domestic immigrants to Texas between 2006 and 2012 came from California, which was by far the largest contributor of any state in the nation. Last year, according to the Census Bureau, 63,000 people moved from California to Texas, while 43,000 in Texas moved to California. [...] In a recent telephone interview, [president and chief executive of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Richard] Fisher exclaimed that Texas is “a jobs machine” and noted that Texas has seen an influx of migration from other states — the biggest being from California. “People vote with their feet, and right now they’re voting to come here — from New York and Michigan and California and so on,” he said. “Those are the facts, and one can apply value judgments.”

The reality that more people are moving from California to Texas than from Texas to California is an established fact, which is directly tied to political arguments over which set of the two state’s policies are more popular or leading to more stable and successful populations. But is there possibly any other explanation for the discrepancy between how many people are leaving California, compared to Texas besides that offered by Fisher?

Like, say, the comparative size of those populations? As long as we’re citing the census, let’s note what their most recent 2013 estimates for the number of people living in those states were. California supposedly had about 38 million to Texas’ just shy of 26.5 million. California is the equivalent, in terms of just the number of residents, of about 145 percent of Texas. The number of Californians moving to Texas is 146 percent of the number of Texans moving to California. The population flows are virtually identical to the existing discrepancy between those two states in terms of population. Proportionately, the same percentage of Californians are moving to Texas as Texans are moving to California – the only reason that’s not immediately recognizable is because of how much larger California’s population is.

The way that claim appears to have jumped from the mouth of one of the people interviewed for this story to the actual reporting in the Washington Post without even a cursory exploration of alternative explanations should give you pause, especially if you regularly read that paper. This is precisely what being a stenographer to power looks like – the failure to even conceive that a source could be wrong about or misleading in their use of a statistic.

2014-01-03_1058
(See here for an interactive version. The color indicates the state more people are leaving, with the size adjusted to reflect the number of them.)

Chris Walker presented the same sort of proportion-blind data, in an interactive graphic for Vizynary. I suggest checking it out, while keeping in mind that not all of the states shown have equal populations, so the direction of the flow isn’t necessarily an indication of something other than differing populations. It seems notable, however, that combined, Oregon and Washington are receiving more than ten thousand more migrants from California than Texas. In terms of the exist populations that those former Californians are joining, however, that’s a more significant change to the population that’s literally out of proportion. What hasn’t been asked is whether that reflects an interest in gaining the greater degree of economic security, particularly that found in Oregon where gas station laws create a more constant demand for basic service jobs and the lack of a sales tax helps create an impression of lower costs of living.

But discussing that wouldn’t fit a narrative of arguing in favor of business deregulation, now would it?

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