Archive for January, 2011

Empty-Bubble Caturday

My Grey Kitty had a way of staring into space that might have been deeply philosophical. My husband, however, always suspected that if you could see a cartoon depiction of her thoughts, it’d be an empty bubble. Other cat-owned humans have likely seen this in (in)action. Those who knew GK will know precisely what I mean.

GK had white highlights on her face and more of a sprawling belly, but otherwise the likeness isn’t too bad.

(Philosopher kitteh from ICHC? of course.)

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Usually I try to blog on topics where I can offer a smidge of expertise or experience. On the Middle East, I have neither (beyond the Iranian exiles who befriended me at my first post-college job, and a rudimentary knowledge of their history). Tonight, I write only because I am moved by the courage of the people taking to the streets, first in Tunisia and now in Egypt and Yemen. I am frightened for their safety. I am awed at the transformative potential they are unleashing for their countries and for the entire Arab world.

Perhaps Iran circa 1979 isn’t such a poor comparison? In a lot of ways, the situation in Egypt reminds me of the Iranian Revolution that brought the Ayatollah to power. A dictator long supported by the United States is challenged by mass uprisings. A people long yearning for self-determination takes to the streets. Islamists waiting in the wings. A substantial secular opposition.

Will the U.S. learn from our mistakes in Iran?

Back in 1979, Jimmy Carter openly professed American loyalty to the Shah. Obama has not done the same for Mubarak, though Joe Biden has proclaimed Mubarek “not a dictator.” I suspect Biden was running off at the mouth with about as much forethought as when he called Obama “clean and articulate.” Thoughtless pronouncements could cost lives. Might this be a good time for Biden to be called up for jury duty again?

As for what the U.S. should do, Goldblog’s take seems about right to me:

President Obama would be standing for American values if he encouraged Hosni Mubarak to leave office now. Mubarak (and his son, it is almost needless to say) have no credibility, and the U.S. will have no credibility if it doesn’t support the aspirations of these frustrated protesters. Will the Muslim Brotherhood follow in the wake of Mubarak’s downfall? Not necessarily. But the U.S. will make that possibility less remote if it doesn’t stand with the people now.

I’m not downplaying the threat the Muslim Brotherhood poses, to America or to Israel. And I fear for the future of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. And there is a chance this regime could survive, for a while. But these facts are overwhelmed by the reality on the streets.

I’m not sure it would be prudent for Obama to call publicly for Mubarak to step down. I’m queasy with fear that the protestors could be massacred, Tiananmen-style. But couldn’t the U.S. quietly arrange for Mubarak’s safe passage out of Egypt to a friendly third country? Not to the U.S., please! Iran convulsed with rage after the Shah was allowed to come here for medical shelter. We don’t want to embolden the theocrats in Egypt. It’s bad enough that they can rally just anger against the U.S. for its thirty-year policy of supporting Mubarak despite human rights abuses. It doesn’t help, either, that the tear gas canisters used against the protesters are labeled “Made in the U.S.A.” Mubarek also can’t just emulate the Shah, whose first and last station in exile was … Egypt.

But surely we still have no shortage of despots among our friends? One or the other ought to be open to a bribe for harboring Mubarak. We can just call it, y’know, foreign aid. If the U.S. eased Mubarak’s departure , we could then provide succor to the more secular and democratic-minded protesters. As long as Mubarak remains, open U.S. support for the protesters risks triggering a crackdown.

On a less analytical note, I was floored by the fact that the Egyptian government could just shut the whole damn Internet down. I thought the distributed nature of the net was supposed to prevent such centralized censorship? Evidently an oligopoly of ISPs existed, which enabled the Internet to be shut down by taking those ISPs offline. The proximate cause was apparently government intimidation of the ISPs. I still don’t claim to understand it fully, but the graph of Internet usage in Egypt is stunning:

(Via the Daily Dish.)

The sun is rising on Cairo, Suez, Alexandria. I hope that Egyptians – and Tunisians and Yemeni – are waking up to a day when no protesters will be gravely harmed. A day that brings them a little closer to democracy and self-determination. A day that repeats itself until it becomes months and years. May it someday be remembered as the dawn of a new era.

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I happen to have a truly wonderful boss, who’s been supportive in ways I can’t even catalogue here. Suffice it to say I’m lucky, and I know it. Thanks to her efforts, it even looks like I’ll be employed next year (though if Governor Kasich decides to drive his famous “bus” over the university, all bets are off).

But not all bosses are so exemplary, as my last post reminds us. That’s why a former professor of mine, Bob Sutton, created a diagnostic test to sort the gems from the jerks. Actually, he wrote a whole book about it, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.

His online test is the Asshole Rating Self-Exam (ARSE). It’s actually meant as a self-assessment, but you could take on behalf of a co-worker or boss – or ex.

I scored in the low range: “You don’t sound like a certified asshole, unless you are fooling yourself.” I’d like to think that’s right, but I’m guessing most people score themselves lower than other people would rate them. (Cue Zappa.)

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Yesterday, the student newspaper on my campus, The Post, told an amazing story that reveals once again how upper-level administrators are shielded from the consequences of wrongdoing, while whistleblowers are punished. It’s an old story, but the details are freshly repellent with each retelling.

Howard Lipman was VP for University Advancement (aka fundraising) before he left earlier this school year, returning to his old employer, Florida International University. (This and subsequent facts come from the The Post’s account.) But evidently he thought one of the job’s perks was the chance to act abusively toward at least one of his subordinates, Molly Taylor-Elkins, who is now filing suit with the EEOC. The Post reports:

Molly Taylor-Elkins spent almost two years as Lipman’s executive assistant. She says she felt harassed and bullied by Lipman and that on multiple occasions he made inappropriate sexual comments to her and other female employees.

A university investigation conducted last year agreed Lipman created a hostile work environment but couldn’t find enough evidence to substantiate the sexual harassment claims.

The investigators didn’t find that Taylor-Elkins had fabricated the sexual harassment claims, only that there was not evidence of them being “pervasive” enough to rise to the standard of creating a hostile environment. The investigators determined that Lipman’s bullying behavior violated university policy on workplace violence. He is accused of shouting at employees and belittling them. The Post provides detail on an encounter after Lipman’s yelling reduced Taylor-Elkins to tears:

Elkins says Lipman approached her desk and said: “Some people make up by having sex and since we can’t do that let me buy you lunch.”

She says she denied the offer.

In his interview with the OIE investigator, Lipman acknowledged that he was frustrated after having worked an 18-hour day. He said he was disappointed Elkins defied his orders not to schedule or cancel meetings without his approval.

But Lipman insisted he never made the comment about make-up sex.

At FIU, Lipman makes more money than he’d earned here at OU. His old salary here was a measly $232,000. He was never suspended or put on leave while the investigation was underway. He never faced any substantive consequences before he left for FIU.

Taylor-Elkins was first put on administrative leave, but then moved onto sick leave, which – if I understand The Post’s article correctly – has been unpaid. This switch was made directly after Taylor-Elkins took her case to the EEOC last July.

Her son, who had been admitted to a grad program at OU, had his admission revoked after his mother filed her original, internal complaint. Taylor-Elkins has letters to substantiate this, according to The Post.

This is absolutely stunning. I have never heard of admission being revoked unless there were a proven charge of fraud or cheating in the application. You really have to wonder who brought pressure to bear on the faculty who’d admitted Taylor-Elkins’ son, and what form the pressure took. No faculty would be willing pawns in a game of revenge.

The whole thing stinks. I do not know if Lipman is guilty of everything as charged. I do not know him or any of the other principals in this personally; the chief investigator is an acquaintance, and I know enough about her that I would not impugn her integrity.

At the very least, Lipman was a first-class bully at a top-flight salary. He came in for a soft landing. Meanwhile, a vulnerable female employee who blew the whistle on his bad behavior has suffered. There aren’t many other employers in this town, apart from Wal-Mart and a couple of wonderful tech start-ups that mostly require tech skills.

I know rotten things like this happen all the time. It’s how Wall Street works. Our universities are supposed to stand for loftier ideals. Instead, they are aping the corporate structure, giving sweet deals and institutional protection to a small and not necessarily deserving elite, while janitors, secretaries, and adjunct faculty are losing their jobs. Blatant mistreatment like Taylor-Elkins alleges is just the whipped cream on top of this sundae of inequality.

(Actually, if we’re going to wander into food metaphors, “pigs at the trough” might be more fitting, but the next thing you know, we’ll be talking about making sausage, and I feel grody enough already after writing this post.)

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Most of the students I teach, I never hear from after the final exam. The exceptions are almost always utter delights – the folks who sincerely took interest, who liked to learn, who were kind and thoughtful and real. Every once in a while one will re-emerge from the ghostly wisps of the past, reminding us that our work isn’t ephemeral, even if it usually feels that way.

Two former students resurfaced this weekend. One, whom I taught in 2007, wrote me for a reference – no, not a recommendation letter, but the title of an essay! A piece she’d remembered and wanted to reread! Turns out she’s well on her way to a Ph.D. in psychology. She tells me my class made a lasting difference in how she views the world. Judging from her request, she’s got an abiding interest in sexual assault. I hope she’ll be able to marry that with her psych skills. She says she’s developed an abiding “passion” for women’s issues. Words like “powerful” and “inspirational” were bandied about. Let’s just say I’m the one who felt most energized and inspired.

The other ex-student was more of a monster rising up from the deep. [Edit: That comes across as unduly harsh: The ideas she espouses are the monster, not the ex-student herself.] Technically I’d never taught her; I’d only read her column in the school paper, marveling at its wingnuttery. I also listened to the venting of colleagues who had the dubious pleasure of teaching her in WGS and journalism. There, she was intermittently hostile to her feminist teachers and consistently too cool for school. I always thought her ambition was to become the next Ann Coulter.

Surprise! She’s publishing cheek-by-jowl next to Coulter at Town Hall! (Via Renee at Womanist Musings who braved the ooze of the far right – a far more intrepid gal than I.). Now that our young alumna is halfway to her goal, it’s fair to name names: Meet Ashley Herzog, recent Ohio University grad, proud denizen of wingnuttia, author of Feminists against Women. Oh, and she’s also making those lists of “top conservative women who are HAWT!!” (to which we owe the following photo).

In her latest post at Town Hall, Herzog takes aim at my university’s new gender-neutral housing option:

The idea that college life is so tough for gay and transgendered students that they need separate housing is preposterous. Far from being uniquely oppressed, the LGBT contingent is often the most catered-to of any group on campus. Administrators go to great lengths to satisfy these students while simultaneously nurturing a victimhood complex.

(Read the rest if you think it could possibly get better. I promise it won’t.)

Hahahaha! You’d think gender-neutral digs would feature jacuzzis, wall art by Robert Mapplethorpe and Judy Chicago, and surroundsound cycling through Liberace and Elton John, Holly Near and Bikini Kill.

No. Dude. It’s just a dorm room. In fact, said rooms won’t have any extra features. It will merely lack one simple furnishing that used to come standard: a roommate harboring homophobia and transphobia.

As for a “victimhood complex,” Herzog’s been nurturing her own for at least half a decade, spurred on by silly instructors who insisted she work for a grade. By now, her wounded victimhood is festering quite nicely. I’m sure she’s finding that what failed in the classroom will stand her in good stead at Town Hall. Ann Coulter, prepare to move over.

Me? I reserve the right to snark at Herzog in the future when she deserves it. (And she will, she will.) In the long run, I’m far more interested in what becomes of my smart, altruistic former students who don’t see self-promotion as their best quality.

Update 1-27-11, 4:30 p.m.: I want to make it crystal clear that I will never, ever mock students for statements they make in class. That is a zone of privacy, a safe place for exploring ideas, even (or especially!) half-baked ones. I will occasionally blog about interesting things they teach me, but I won’t publish their names. If a student places themselves in the public sphere by publishing views that are reprehensible, criticism is fair play. I still wouldn’t call him or her out for anything that happened in class. By the same token, I’ll link to any student who publishes something interesting, and I’ll do so with great pleasure. All of this goes for former students as well as current ones.

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It’s tempting to imagine that if we lefties and liberals ignored the likes of Ross Douthat and Will Saletan and Caitlan Flanigan, their influence would wither. Aren’t we the core audience for their publishers: the New York Times, Slate, the Atlantic? True, they provoke smart takedowns – I’m thinking of Jill Filipovic’s response to Saletan framing abortion as an abstract moral problem, or the way Amanda Marcotte decimated Douthat’s willingness to view women as mere incubators – but we end up making the same arguments again and again. It starts to feel like deja vu on Groundhog Day all over again.

How much more tempting to think we could wish Sarah Palin away! Via Skippy, we hear that Dana Milbank is calling on the rest of the media to break the Palin addiction. He’s pledging to not mention her for the entire month of February. (Ironically, Milbank is taking a cue from Douthat, of all people.) And the movement is spreading:

(via Leslie Savan at The Nation)

Skippy says he’s on board. Granted, I haven’t said much about Palin recently, but her name appears in 68 of my posts, which is about 7% of the total. Way back on September 7, 2008, I wrote a post called “Palin, the Object of Our Obsession.” Might I be due for Palin detox, myself? Besides, Skippy’s graphic is irresistible.

All bets are off, though, if Levi drops a bombshell or Todd runs off to Vegas with a showgirl dressed up as a sled dog.

Also, just for the record, even though I’ve got six more days before the pledge kicks in: I am positive Palin had no fucking clue about the origins of the phrase “blood libel.” She’s not bright or curious enough to even know what she doesn’t know. She thus wouldn’t have bothered to look it up. And once she knew (assuming she even knows, now!) she didn’t care.

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Maybe it’s just the lighting on the State of the Union podium. Maybe it’s too much tan-in-a-tube.

Whatever the cause – John Boehner’s skin appears several hues darker than Obama’s tonight.

(Photo of my TV doesn’t quite do justice.)

I keep thinking that with a tan like that, there must be pictures of Boehner in a bikini somewhere on the internet. So far, the google is failing me. If he were a female politician or a Kardashian, I’m sure I’d hit the jackpot.

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This year’s Blog for Choice Day theme is to contemplate what the electoral gains of the anti-choicers will mean for “choice” this year. I’m sure other bloggers will ponder the damage liable to be wrought by our virulently anti-choice new Congress. For my part? I think most of the mischief will occur at the state level, where a new crop of reactionary leaders will exploit the abortion issue to pander to their base.

Take Ohio. (Please! Or at least, deliver me from our new “leadership.”) With John Kasich, we now have a blithering idiot as a governor. He’s so far right that if the earth were flat, he’d tumble off  its right edge. We have a completely Republican legislature. The anti-choicers are emboldened. And they’ve already made their first move.

Modernesquire at Plunderbund reports that one of our Democratic (!) legislators, Lorraine Fende, has introduced a bill that she and the media are framing as a ban on all late-term abortions. As Modernesquire notes, Ohio already has a law in place that prohibits “partial-birth abortions”: Ohio Revised Code 2919.151.

Modernesquire (who unlike me, is an actual lawyer) suggests that the late-term ban is redundant with ORC 2919.151, except in one crucial respect:

It potentially criminalizes all abortions.  H.B. 7 enacts a new section 2929.17 that makes the performance of any abortion in which the fetus is arguably “viable” a fourth-degree felony.  “Viable” is defined under the bill as:

“the stage of development of a human fetus at which in the determination of a physician, based on the particular facts of a woman’s pregnancy that are known to the physician and in light of medical technology and information reasonably available to the physician, there is a realistic possibility of the maintaining and nourishing of a life outside of the womb with or without temporary artificial life-sustaining support.”

The statute also creates a rebuttable presumption that any fetus at 24-weeks gestational age is viable.  But note that the statute does not create a converse rebuttable presumption that any fetus before 24-weeks ISN’T viable.  The bill declares the issue of the viability of the fetus to be an affirmative defense.  What does that mean?  It means that the State has no burden to proof that a fetus was viable to criminally prosecute a doctor under this provision, even in instances that don’t involve a late-term abortion.  Instead, the doctor has the burden at trial to convince a criminal jury unanimously that the fetus was not viable, or that the abortion was necessary to protect the life of the mother, or to protect from serious and irreversible impairment of the pregnant woman’s medical health.

If a doctor carries the burden of proof to show that the fetus was not viable, this bill would surely have a chilling effect. It would be still be pointless for a prosecutor to pursue first trimester abortions, but what’s to stop him from questioning the viability of a 20-week-old fetus? An 18-week-old fetus? Second-trimester abortions.

In criminal cases the burden typically falls on the state to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Here, the burden of proof is reversed in a stunning disregard for basic principles of jurisprudence. Modernesquire again:

Normally, affirmative defenses are things in the criminal law in which the law recognizes that the Defendant committed a crime, but holds that certain factors require the Defendant to not be held culpable for the crime such as insanity and self-defense.  In this instance, however, it takes what should be a major element for the State to have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt and forces the accused to prove the negative instead.  Such element shifting can only be by design to encourage prosecutions against any abortion provider.

Yes. Furthermore, this “element shifting” constructs second-trimester abortions as presumptively illegal. It essentially says that any abortion within the latter part of the second trimester is assumed to be a crime – unless proven otherwise.

With all due respect to Modernesquire’s legal smarts, I do notice a difference between the proposed bill (House Bill 7) and the existing law. They don’t appear to be entirely redundant, because existing law is limited to a single procedure (which it charmingly terms “feticide.”) ORC 2919.151 explicitly distinguishes between dilation and extraction (aka “partial-birth abortion”) and other techniques; it explicitly exempts dilation and evacuation, another late-term technique that is often an implicit target of restrictions on “partial-birth abortions”:

This section does not prohibit the suction curettage procedure of abortion, the suction aspiration procedure of abortion, or the dilation and evacuation procedure of abortion.

House Bill 7 is silent on these other procedures. It does not exempt any particular procedures. It appears to broaden the scope of the earlier “partial-birth” ban to any technique used in the second trimester – and even to those, like suction curettage, which are used only for early abortions!

Fende’s bill contains another little bombshell: it significantly narrows the health exemption for late-term abortions. Where the law previously included multiple sclerosis and diabetes as conditions that impose a “serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function” and thus permit abortion late in pregnancy, now those two diseases are downgraded: they may be included among such conditions, but they’re clearly ranked lower than preeclampsia, which isn’t saddled with such a qualifier:

A medically diagnosed condition that constitutes a “serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function” includes pre-eclampsia, inevitable abortion, and premature rupture of the membranes, may include, but is not limited to, diabetes and multiple sclerosis, and does not include a condition related to the woman’s mental health. [my emphasis]

In what appears to be a very substantial change, mental health would never qualify as a reason for late-term abortion. Where Fende invokes the image of a woman cavalierly choosing to abort at 8 1/2 months, my imagination conjures up a woman struggling with psychosis – a woman in acute danger of ending her own life. We are not talking about a woman who’s having a lousy day, feeling a tad blue, and flips a coin: an abortion or a pedicure as a quick pick-me-up? Hmm, if I get the abortion, I can paint my own toes??

Oh, and in any case where the fetus could be remotely considered viable, H.B. 7 mandates that the doctor performing the termination get a written certification from a second physician that abortion was medically necessary. The only exception would be for dire, acute emergencies.

The Columbus Dispatch reports that some Ohio lawmakers want to tinker with H.B. 7 to define a fetus as potentially viable all the way back to 20 weeks. As far as I know, no fetus born at 20 weeks has yet survived. For those of us who get ambiguous test results during the 19th week (as I did in my second pregnancy) and need to pursue further testing to learn what we’re up against, a 20-week deadline would be a nightmare. It would trigger precipitous decisions to abort in some instances, while potentially criminalizing those who choose termination after additional tests.

I’d like to close with some comforting words about how this bill doesn’t stand a chance. But you know, the Statehouse leadership saw fit to introduce this bill among its first ten. The Repubs are making it a priority. It’s sponsored by a Democrat. And Governor Kasich is shaping up as the kind of guy who’ll make G.W. Bush appear intelligent, humane, and pro-feminist.

If by some miracle this bill flounders, it’ll only be a matter of weeks before the anti-choicers launch their next salvo.

And that’s just my adopted state of Ohio. My purportedly purple state. I cringe to think of what will happen in those states that are even more retrograde.

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In the past ten days, as Limbaugh and Palin and other tighty-righties have tried to argue that their words don’t have consequences, reality keeps getting inconveniently in their way. Case in point: Several local Republican leaders have resigned in Arizona, citing threats from Tea Partiers. Anthony Miller, who was the chair of the GOP in Arizona’s Legislature District 20, stepped down along with three of his deputies a few hours after Gabrielle Giffords was shot. (LD20 includes parts of Tempe and its environs, so it’s not Giffords’ territory.)

The Arizona Republic reports (via Alternet):

The first and only African-American to hold the party’s precinct chairmanship, Miller said he has been called “McCain’s boy,” and during the campaign saw a critic form his hand in the shape of a gun and point it at him.

“I wasn’t going to resign but decided to quit after what happened Saturday,” Miller said. “I love the Republican Party but I don’t want to take a bullet for anyone.”

The word “boy,” of course, is a racist epithet when aimed at a black man. Don’t let anyone tell you this has nothing to do with race. And if that example is too nebulous for you, listen to what the L.A. Times reports Miller heard at a campaign meeting:

“This old guy says, ‘There’s Anthony. Get a rope.’ I turned around and said, ‘If you get a rope, get one for you and get one for me too,’ ” Miller recalled.

Ultimately, Miller said he quit at his wife’s urging:

“Sorry today my wife asked me do I think my PCs [precinct committee members] will kill me. I am done,” Miller texted to a committee associate. “I am done.”

“These people are crazy,” he said. “If somebody’s that mad at you, who knows what they could do?”

In his resignation letter and subsequent letter of clarification, Miller emphasized that his distaste for the animosity and infighting was a much bigger factor in his decision than any concerns about potential violence.

But [former communications director Jeff] Kolb, who has moved to another state for his wife’s job, said the level of rhetoric was escalating to an uncomfortable degree.

“I’m not worried. Nobody’s going to drive 900 miles to come track me down,” he said. “But were things escalating out of control? I would say yes.”

Maybe this is just normal political infighting on steroids. But when the rhetoric becomes so heated that people can’t be sure they’re safe, it’s time to ask where free speech ends and hate speech begins. Maybe it’s also time to ask – as Badtux did a few days ago – whether general threats should still be protected speech. Specific threats are illegal, but general ones (like “all illegal immigrants should be shot”) have been permitted and protected since the Supremes handed down Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969. That decision would have to be somehow rolled back. Quoth Badtux:

If outlawing advocacy of violence, as EVERY SINGLE WESTERN DEMOCRACY did after the events of 1939-1945 where some German dictator used violent speech to incite his people to exterminate most of the ethnic minorities of Europe, is “tyranny” — does that mean that only the United States is free, and only since June 9, 1969? Or are you saying that, unlike every other citizen of a democracy on this planet, Americans simply can’t handle such a ban on violent speech? If the latter, why do you hate America?

[Read the rest here.]

Badtux notes that countries who criminalize violent rhetoric actually have a more vigorous, less lap-doggy press than the U.S. (see the British example). Having lived in Germany for a decade, I’ll second that.

I’d also add that free speech is supposed to shore up democracy. When it starts to undermine democracy, we need to ask where the line lies between “mere words” and speech-acts that themselves constitute a form of violence. Wherever it lies, it’s hard to deny we’ve crossed that line and landed squarely on the dark side.

Limbaugh’s billboard in Tuscon, courtesy of Copyranter. The billboard was taken down rapidly after the attack on Congresswoman Giffords and her constituents.

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Why, the same place you can find anything in our consumer culture: they’re on Amazon! (Unless, of course, you find that Kittywampus already offers all the white supremacy you’ll ever need.)

Some weeks ago, Gen. JC Christian, patriot (the brilliant satirist at Jesus’ General) posted a spoof review of a dreadful white supremacist novel, White Apocalypse, which went up on his blog as well as at Amazon. The premise of the book is that Norwegians were actually the first Americans but were wiped out by the Indians. Here’s a choice snippet of the good (and oh-so-manly) General’s review:

This is the book that will make [author] Kyle Bristol as famous and as revered as Dr. William Pierce, author of the Turner Diaries. …

That’s not to say the book is perfect. It isn’t. Bristow fails to fully explore the scope of Norwegian Exceptionalism. There is no mention of Father Abrahamson, whom God first blessed with the gift of lutefisk and an assurance that his descendants would be God’s chosen people. Nor is there any mention of Schlomo Noahson, who was the first Norwegian to step off the Ark onto Vinland’s soil after the Great Flood. Worst of all, he fails to tell the story of the greatest Norwegian, Jesus Letsjustcallthepoorfatherlessbastardjosephson, who redeemed our sins by being crucified on a giant herring (the proof of which can be seen stuck on the back of any Christian’s car).

(Read the rest at his blog.)

Amazon left the General’s review up on its page, where it’s nestled among real praise from real white supremacists. One didn’t care for the writing, but loved the premise:

[T]he subject matter is of great interest and significance in the struggle of white people to survive the 21st century in the ongoing war against the enemies who have targeted us for extinction. The theme of the story involves the argument that whites were the first human inhabitants of the New World and were the victims of genocide by the later Mongoloid arrivals. Naturally, the Amerindians and leftists don’t like this idea at all and are prepared to kill to prevent it from being broadcast.

“Wotan” writes:

With the “brainwashing” our children receive at school, in the media, both print and visual, parents should give a copy of “White Apocalypse” to their children by at least Junior High School. Truth about your White race and pride in your race does not make you a racist!

“Thor Odinson” gushes:

Through the medium of fiction, Bristow enlightens the reader about matters of philosophy, history, and evidentiary-supported conspiracy theories to support the “fictional” thesis of the novel: that white people are persecuted by non-whites today just as they have been throughout world history.

Amazon leaves this hate speech on its website, yet it claims to have done the right thing by cutting off services to Wikileaks??!! That’s some code of business ethics.

Uff da.

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What a bracing way to start the day! One morning, you wake up, log on, and find that a commenter has called you a cunt. Another day, you’re equated with white supremacists. The former hasn’t happened in a while. The latter came just this morning, before I’d had my coffee.

I’m not approving that comment, which was aimed at my previous post (on guilt versus responsibility in anti-racist pedagogy). This isn’t censorship. This is simply following my comment policy, which disallows hate and ad hominem attacks. I’m willing to engage with criticism, as long as it’s constructive. You be the judge: helpful or hateful?

If you look at the guilt pedophiles possess because of what they do to children and the fact that none of their kind has ever been cured of the desire for sex with children, you can see how far Whites still have to go to cure themselves of the inferiority complexes known more commonly as White supremacism and Negrophobia.

You can read this analogy, and the rest of the long comment that accompanies it, elsewhere on the interwebs. I’m not linking to it, but you can google the quote. Or just search on the name of this blog and “white supremacist.” It’ll pop right up.

Another highlight:

Kittywampus’s problem is her lack of experience of human variation – a typically White supremacist stance that proves her attempt to hijack the national debate on White supremacism in favor of Whites.

I would love to have a chance to hijack the national debate! We would have universal single-provider health care, an end to hate-talk on the airwaves, generous grants for troubled schools, a vastly shrunken military, chocolate bon-bons for all – and that would just be my first day’s agenda.

But seriously. Am I a white supremacist?

I do not believe that any white person can shed every vestige of racism. We can and should examine our attitudes and privileges, but there’s an unconscious level that is highly resistant to change. An example I often use with my students is the myth of the black rapist. White women continue to see media portrayals of black men as sexual predators that go straight back to the days of lynching. (For the record, I am not nostalgic for that era, which I fear makes me a rather poor white supremacist.) I think it’s important to acknowledge that racism is visceral. Conscious ally work does not magically erase decades of harmful stereotypes being funneled into our unconscious minds.

You can take the Implicit Associations test on race to see if your subterranean thoughts are completely free of race bias. Mine are not. For the record, I don’t come out “pure” on the gender tests, either. Go here to try the test – then select “Demonstration,” click through the next two subsequent screens, and select “RaceIAT.”

The fact that racial stereotypes persist somewhere in our id does not mean we should throw in the towel as allies. If anything, it’s a reminder of our obligation – our responsibility – to do something about it. “Something” shouldn’t end with self-examination and guilt, either. It should lead to action.

For me as a teacher, “action” means challenging students’ views in the classroom when they complain about affirmative action. It means learning and teaching about black feminism, womanism, and womanist theology. It means examining white privilege – again, not to make my white students feel like crap but to inspire them to act against racism in their lives. It means showing up for attorney and strategy meetings when a young black man (a former student of mine) is being framed for a felony. On this blog, it means denouncing Arizona’s stupid and draconian law that gags ethnic studies teachers; undermining the racist trope of “reverse racism”; and questioning Islamophobia.

Funny thing – none of that involves wearing a white sheet.

Yes, I realize that racism is more subtle these days than in the heyday of the KKK. I ask my students to consider how it’s woven structurally into the very fabric of our institutions, economy, as well as lurking in our unconscious minds. But true white supremacy is alive and well on the intertubes. Can we reserve the term “white supremacist” for those who deliberately embrace and cultivate racism? Can we discuss differences of tactics in antiracist pedagogy without stating that all white people are as morally bankrupt as pedophiles? (And no, this isn’t “reverse racism,” either. It’s just plain old hate and prejudice, because the author does not exert any systemic power over me due to our racial backgrounds.)

If everyone who questions the political utility of guilt is, um, presumed guilty of white supremacy, then it’s a crying shame that Audre Lorde is no longer here to defend herself. I quoted her words on guilt in my previous post. She saw it as a barrier to fighting oppression. Anger, in her view, was a more useful emotion, as long as it was focused fiercely on ending oppression rather than simmering corrosively inside us. Her essay “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” (pdf) poses challenges that are (unfortunately) still relevant to white allies. She asks white feminists not to fear the anger of women of color, but to listen, and to understand, and to acknowledge that anger is justified.

Lorde also distinguishes between anger and hate:

And while we scrutinize the often painful face of each other’s anger, please remember that it is not our anger which makes me caution you to lock your doors at night and not wander the streets of Hartford alone. It is the hatred which lurks in those streets that urge to destroy us all if we truly work for change rather than merely indulge in academic rhetoric.

This hatred and our anger are very different. Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change. We have been raised to view any difference other than sex as a reason for destruction and for Black women and white women to face each other’s angers without denial and immobility or silence or guilt is in itself a heretical and generative idea. It implies peers meeting upon a common basis to examine difference, and to alter those distortions which history has created around our difference. For it is those distortions which separate us. And we must ask ourselves: Who profits from all this?

(Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, p. 129)

Who, indeed, profits when constructive engagement with allies and potential allies is replaced by hateful invective intended to silence? Hint: It won’t be people of color, or any other marginalized group.

How about seeking that “common basis to examine difference” instead?

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Last month, a clip of Tim Wise speaking on “guilt versus responsibility” for racism appeared on both Sociological Images and Womanist Musings, where it drew diametrically opposed reactions. Sociological Images posted it without comment from the bloggers, but reader comments were strongly positive, apart from one obvious white-supremacist troll. By contrast, Renee at Womanist Musings was scathing:

Isn’t that nice?  No guilt, only responsibility.  I think the problem with this little speech is that from the moment that White people are born, they do take advantage of every single ounce of privilege that is bestowed upon them.  They don’t have to feel guilty about slavery, or Jim Crow, but they should sure as hell feel guilty for the perpetuation of Whiteness.  Tim may have gone to multicultural daycare, but his Whiteness made that an option, rather than a necessity.  When he was streamed into university courses and the teachers worked hard to ensure that Blacks were not, he didn’t feel the need to question.

(The whole post is here.)

Here’s the clip, so you can judge for yourself.

(Click here if you can’t view the clip.)

The discussion on Renee’s post made the important and valid point that white people shouldn’t dominate our conversations about race. Ultimately, a person who has grown up white needs to make the effort to read what people of color have written and listen to what they have to say. They can’t just listen to Time Wise and stop there.

But I would take issue with some of the other criticisms that Renee makes. First, Renee says that Wise should feel guilty about the unearned privileges he enjoys – about advantages he did not personally choose or seek. He should feel guilty about his daycare experiences? Really? How is he culpable for choices his parents made? Should he have foregone college, just because black and Latino boys are funneled away from it (and often into prison instead)?

Fighting privilege – or even “renouncing privilege” – shouldn’t mean voluntary abjection. Privilege comes in two basic forms. The first relies on power over others; it’s a zero-sum game. An example of this type of privilege would be the tendency of many audiences to take white middle-class male speakers more seriously than speakers from a marginalized group. (See, for instance, some conservative pundits’ dismissive comments on the Native American blessing given at the Tucson memorial service last week.) The second form of privilege need not entail the degradation of marginalized groups. Attending college falls into this category. These privileges shouldn’t be abolished but should be made so widely available that they cease to be privileges. (That doesn’t mean that every kid should attend college, or that colleges couldn’t be selective about admissions; instead, we would need to mitigate poverty, substandard K-12 school, dangerous neighborhoods, etc. until the racial makeup of colleges – including highly selective ones – looks very much like the demographics of the U.S. in general.)

More basically, I do not think guilt is a helpful emotion. Guilt paralyzes. It focuses attention right back on the feelings of the white person. It leads to inaction. It can even help perpetuate white privilege. As long as I wallow in guilt, I may have the illusion that I’m achieving solidarity with people of color. But that’s bullshit. Guilt is solipsistic. It’s a natural reaction, but if it’s more than transient, it’s toxic.

When I reject guilt, am I just shoring up my own privilege? After all, I’m a white woman who grew up in a practically all-white farm town in the overwhelmingly white state of North Dakota, dimly aware as a child that the civil rights and black power movements were taking place somewhere else.

So please consider, instead, the words of Audre Lorde:

Guilt and defensiveness are brick in a wall against which we all flounder; they serve none of our futures. … (124)

Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness. …

I have no creative use for guilt, yours or my own. Guilt is only another way of avoiding informed action, of buying time out of the pressing need to make clear choices, out of the approaching storm that can feed the earth as well as bend the trees. (130)

(Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, pp. 124, 130)

In fact, Lorde saw guilt as an obstacle to white women acknowledging difference, which in turn stopped them recognizing their own role in perpetuating racism.

In my teaching about racism, I’ve consistently tried to reframe the discussion as about responsibility rather than guilt. I try to show how racism is structural and systematic, rather than limited to outright bigotry. Most of my students are white, with backgrounds varying from rural poverty to suburban affluence, from highly integrated schools to all-white gated enclaves.

This past week I used the Tim Wise clip in my intro to Women’s and Gender Studies, and I thought it was very effective. More effective, in fact, than my teaching alone. Does it trouble me that may have Wise resonated with some of my white male students in part because he can draw on male privilege? A little. But I’m also pragmatic enough to see the value in male allies in anti-sexism. If Wise’s analogy of the manager who can’t ignore the debt side of the ledger makes some students more receptive to Patricia Hill Collins and bells hooks, then that’s a good starting place.

Many of the commenters on Renee’s post seemed to assume that Wise’s voice is crowding out the voices of people of color. I can understand why people of color would resent his earning an income as an anti-racist educator. I agree he has a responsibility to promote the voices of people of color, and I honestly don’t feel qualified to judge whether he does this adequately or not. From my perch here in Appalachia, I think Wise could do better in understanding the nuances of white poverty (in this otherwise useful piece, for example.) Overall, though, Tim Wise is helping to challenge young white people, especially, to see anti-racism as a cause that should matter to them.

Allies don’t have to be perfect. They/we need to be willing to listen. They/we need to be willing to speak up. They/we need to be willing to examine their own privilege. We’re all a work in progress. We all have opportunities to be allies. We’re all called to engage constructively with potential allies. Guilt doesn’t advance any of these processes. But a sense of responsibility sure does.

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And by “back in the day,” I mean in the rollicking ’80s, when some parents panicked at the prospect of women and men on the same hall.

My university is on the verge of establishing a gender-neutral housing option. This doesn’t mean that all students will be mixed willy-nilly, irrespective of gender. It just means that some students can opt into a dorm where any genders can share a room.

This is really good news, obviously, for people who aren’t gender conformists. Students who are trans or genderqueer will finally have options. Since there are only 50 beds available in the pilot program, and they’re mainly for upperclassmen, incoming students will have to file special requests. I hope this process will be simple, so that the youngest trans students won’t feel they have to fight for access.

I’m frankly surprised that my university is taking this leap. Compared to a more diverse urban campus, we don’t have many openly trans students. Many of our students have conservative parents. Our university administration is not known for taking risks. I applaud it for doing the right thing. I’m even more impressed by the students who raised the issue and got the policy changed.

One of my outstanding former students, who blogs at I Hamburger, punctures the myth that opposite-sex couples will leap at the chance to live together:

How many unmarried couples did I know who lived together off-campus (and we’re talking planned it as they were a couple, not lived together and became a couple)? Zero. That’s because in college, people usually want to live with their friends, not significant others.

(Read the whole post here.)

That sounds about right. Even back in those swinging ’80s, my college friends shied away from living with their romantic partners. It represented more commitment than most of us wanted.

I did briefly live with a boyfriend for one summer during college, but only under duress. Not that we didn’t like each other. Not that we minded sharing a bed. We just didn’t want to be locked into a commitment we weren’t ready for. The house manager of our student-run semi-co-op informed us that the only way he could satisfy other students’ wishes was to place the two of us into a shared room. It was just for the summer, and at the end of it we happily reverted to separate quarters.

The only lasting impact of that summer? I inherited his kitten, since his new quarters prohibited animals. (So did mine, but I had a much better chance at hiding her.) That kitten was Grey Kitten, patron cat of this blog.

I knew exactly one couple who shared a room in a conventional dorm (not a co-op). That was my freshman year, in a dorm full of pre-meds and teetotaling Asian Americans. Skeet and Tom had matching plaid bathrobes that they wore almost constantly. Yes, Skeet was a dude (as was Tom). It took me half the year to figure out they were more than mere roommates. Even in that conservative milieu, way back in 1981, no one gave a hoot.

I’m sure a few parents will gripe about my university’s new policy. Maybe they need to recall that 30 and 40 years ago, students were having sex just like students do today – no more, no less. The only thing that might have changed since then? Our acceptance of sexual diversity.

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When my little Bear was actually little, he loved the show “Bear in the Big Blue House.” Now my Tiger has discovered it, too. Yes, it’s aimed at preschoolers, but Muppets are ageless. Myself, I can’t stand the squeaky voice of Tutter the Mouse, but I’m utterly charmed by the big Bear and his little niece Ojo.

(Image borrowed from here.)

I’ve always loved the show’s music, too, even after logging thousands of miles with those tunes filling our car. The one that always struck a melancholy chord in me is “The Goodbye Song,” sung by the Big Bear in a duet with his lovely friend Luna the Moon at the end of each episode. Meant to help the child let go of the fantasy world and transition calmly back to reality with the promise of another day, it had an opposite effect of me, evoking fragility and impermanence and frank loss.

(Click here if you can’t see the clip.)

It’s partly the key change that would put me in a melancholy mood, but most of all it was Luna’s voice. Before googling the show yesterday to see if it’s still in reruns (apparently yes, but not where I live), I didn’t know that Luna was sung by Lynne Thigpen, an actress and singer whose career spanned the stage (Godspell), movies (Anger Management), and oversized Bear muppets.

Thigpen was struck down at age 54 when she suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage in early 2003. When she died, the show died with her. Her Wikipedia page says that “the crew’s hearts just weren’t in it anymore.” I had wondered why the show disappeared so abruptly and blamed corporate greed at the Disney channel. Wish I’d been right.

I never knew Ms. Thigpen, but I love her voice, and I love her work. I wish I’d known her name years ago. Her voice lent company and comfort in those topsy turvy, sleep deprived, sometimes lonely days of early parenthood.

Bear: Hey, this was really fun

Luna: We hope you liked it too

Bear: Seems like we’ve just begun

Both: When suddenly we’re through

Bear: Goodbye, goodbye, good friends, goodbye

Both: Cause now it’s time to go

Bear: But, hey, I say, well, that’s OK

Luna: Cause we’ll see you very soon, I know

Bear: Very soon, I know

Both: Goodbye, goodbye, good friends, goodbye

Bear: And tomorrow, just like today

Luna: (Goodbye – today)

The moon, the bear and the Big Blue House
We’ll be waiting for you to come and play
To come and play, to come and play.

She died too soon. Tomorrow is not just like today. It’s not OK.

So to Lynne: Goodbye, goodbye, good friends, goodbye. And to Luna: Thanks for the light.

(Photo of Lynne Thigpen from her tribute page at Muppet Central.)

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I’ve been reading a lot more than writing the past few days. One of the themes that has popped up repeatedly in the discussion of the Arizona shootings is whether college officials should have been far more proactive in seeking help for Jared Lee Loughner. The New York Times today ran no less than three pieces on this topic:

Couldn’t a caring teacher have intervened? It’s an appealing what-if, isn’t it?

Take for instance the piece that appeared yesterday in Salon, where Sarah Hepola interviews a psychiatrist, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, on the probability that Loughner has untreated paranoid schizophrenia:

Hepola: … What do you do when you see someone like this?

That’s the $64 million question. Among his classmates, if you took all the information known about him and looked at it together, you’d say this guy is potentially dangerous. But one classmate saw one thing, another classmate saw another. The college apparently had enough information to know this guy should be off the campus if he didn’t get mental help. They knew people were purposefully sitting by the door so they could run fast in case this guy did something. This guy clearly struck people as dangerous.

In Arizona the laws are fairly liberal compared to other states. In lots of states the only way you could act on this is if he had demonstrated dangerousness to self or others. But in Arizona, it would have been legal to involuntarily take him to the clinic and have him evaluated. People don’t do this much, because we’re very concerned about people’s civil rights. How do you weigh the fears of a college atmosphere against the civil rights of the individual — an individual who will go in and say, “Look, I might be a little strange, but there’s nothing really wrong with me”?

That’s a key question. Did the college behave properly? Should the school have mandated some sort of mental health treatment for him, rather than kicking him out?

Legally, they could have. Whether they should have or not depends on who had what information and what it looked like at the time. The retrospect-o-scope is a hundred percent.

Exactly. The people around Loughner had only piecemeal information, the impact of which is “obvious” only now that we know how the story ends.

But that’s not the only problem colleges face. For one thing, the actual contact hours a professor has with students are pretty limited. I typically see a student four hours per week (unless they’re taking more than one class with me, the poor dears!). Loughner gave off enough scary vibes that the instructor reported him and the college ejected him until he got treatment. That didn’t happen at Virginia Tech, where as far as I know just one instructor was alarmed enough by Seung-Hui Cho to advise him to seek counseling.

In my eight years of teaching, I’ve had a handful of students who were disruptive of classroom dynamics. There was one guy I considered my “mini-MRA,” who belligerently challenged every idea I presented, but also seemed to think he could kiss up to me by calling me repeatedly at home. Another apparently aspired to become Jonah Goldberg’s clone. But I’ve only had one who gave me an intensely uncomfortable vibe. He talked about how people thought ill of him because he liked to wear a trenchcoat, just like the Columbine shooters. I spotted him again on campus about five years after I’d taught him, and I wondered if he’d had to stop out for mental health reasons. As a new instructor back in 2002, I just thought he was creepy and eccentric. Today, in the post-Virginia Tech era, I’d probably consult with a campus counselor.

But actually reporting someone isn’t a simple matter. Will the student retaliate once he’s put under a microscope? One of my graduate advisers was stalked for many months by a former student, and she had only given him the low grade he’s earned. Loughner, too, acted out when he didn’t get the grade he wanted:

Even in his gym classes, there were problems. In May, the police were called by Mr. Loughner’s Pilates instructor, Patricia Curry, who said she felt intimidated after a confrontation over the B grade she wanted to give him. She said he had become “very hostile” upon learning about her intention. “She spoke with him outside the classroom and felt it might become physical,” the police report said.

Ms. Curry told the police she would not feel comfortable teaching Mr. Loughner without an officer in the area, and the officers stayed to keep watch over the Pilates class until the class ended.

Ms. Curry must have been alarmed indeed to call the police. In her place, I’d be even more frightened about retaliation after class.

The danger of retaliation would be great if the student weren’t treated or didn’t adhere to his treatment. My university does offer psychological services, but they’re woefully understaffed. Severely depressed students are routinely told to wait a month until they can see a therapist qualified to prescribe medications. This has occurred even when the student was suicidal, and said so. Multiple students have told me that they sought help and endured a long wait to get in, only to find they had no rapport with their assigned counselor. One rape survivor told me her sessions were downright counterproductive. Much of the counseling is provided by graduate students. The experienced therapists are quite good, I think, but they’re far too few in number.

Pima College, where Loughner took classes, provides no mental health services. It has over 68,000 students. Much of Loughner’s behavior was bizarre rather than threatening – for example, insisting that the number 6 was actually 18. I can understand why they Pima expelled him but didn’t petition to have him involuntarily committed.

One of the New York Times articles makes the argument that colleges can keep a closer eye on troubled students if they remain enrolled. That’s true as long as students are in dorms. (Incidentally, the same holds true for substance abuse problems.) But when a student lives off campus, we cannot expect an instructor – who in community colleges may teach four or more classes – to keep tabs on a student she sees only four or five contact hours per week. Pima is not a residential school. Did I mention it has 68,000+ students?

It’s striking that no one is asking why Loughner’s former restaurant employers didn’t call in the state. Or why the dog shelter where he volunteered didn’t so the same. Or the Army! All of these entities recognized that Loughner had serious issues. The Army rejected him for having a drug arrest. Quiznos fired him for bizarrely refusing to respond to a customer, and his manage recognized a “personality change.” At the shelter, he exposed puppies to parvovirus after being clearly told to keep them out of a contaminated area. But the New York Times is not asking why these entities didn’t intervene.

I think the difference is that Americans still expect colleges to operate in loco parentis. Even residential colleges haven’t really borne that responsibility – or wielded that power – since the 1960s. We no longer have housemothers and curfews. Young people 18 and older aren’t legally children. Universities can’t act like their parents. Especially when the student is still living at home with his parents.

I don’t want to indulge in blaming Loughner’s parents. His father is reportedly an unpleasant fellow. They still deserve pity and compassion. They have lost their only son forever.

But we surely cannot expect an underfunded, overgrown community college to stand in for his parents, either.

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I cannot talk about Christina Taylor Green without starting to cry.

My kids are too old to be sheltered from terrible news. And so I have to talk to them about it. We have been talking about the Tuscon massacre since the weekend, in small doses, with as much reassurance as I can muster. It’s not enough.

Tonight we watched the memorial together. The Bear, who’s eleven, said, “It’s important.” He wanted to watch. The Tiger, who’s seven, wanted to be near us, too, though he was playing with rubberbands and flipping through books and asking when we could watch Simon’s Cat again.

The Bear started to cry when the image of Phyllis Schneck came on screen, as Obama talked about her quilting and churchgoing. “The pictures make them real, Mama,” he said. I think she may have reminded him of his grandma.

When Obama’s speech turned to Christina Taylor Green, I broke down, too. Then Obama said:

I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.

I squeezed the Bear’s hand. He squeezed back and said, “Yes! But something terrible shouldn’t have to happen before we get better.”


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I’ve been very absorbed in family commitments and the terrible political news, but I didn’t want to miss my bloggiversary AGAIN, for the third year in a row.

This blog started as a space to stash thoughts and material for teaching. Within the first month it outstripped my own intentions. Blame its feline inspiration, which – like the patron cat of this blog, Grey Kitty – is hard to steer or discipline.

Three years into this experiment, with 958 posts and oodles of thoughtful comments (thank you!!) to show for it, I think it’s time to celebrate – with a purrito for each year I’ve been at this. (The two grey kittehs’ markings remind me of GK.)

(From ICHC? of course.)

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It’s not the Tucson Tragedy, as MSNBC keeps terming it. This was a fucking assassination attempt. I’d hope our ostensibly liberal cable news station would call it what it is.

Anthony McCarthy (at Echidne’s place) criticized this trope as soon as it emerged. I’d add that a tragedy is an event that was inevitable because of someone’s personal flaws or their star-crossed destinies. (Think: Romeo and Juliet, not Lee Harvey Oswald.) This was not just a crime, as Anthony so rightly states. It was a political crime. It was an assassination attempt.

Yes, the alleged gunman seems to be deeply disturbed, but that in itself is an incomplete explanation. Why did he fixate on political figures? What fed his paranoia about the government?

In the town next to mine, there lives an intelligent young man who believes that the government (the CIA?) has implanted a chip in his brain and is attempting to control him. He’s been in and out of inpatient mental care. When he’s out, he occasionally emails all of his acquaintances about the government’s nefarious plots, and he regularly calls into a local talk radio show. (I know this because regular Kittywampus commenter Hydraargyrum listens occasionally to said show, and my husband is on the email distribution list.)

This man has never threatened anyone, as far as I know. I also fully recognize that the vast majority of mentally ill people will never pose a danger. My point, rather, is that disturbed people don’t live in a vacuum. They inhabit the same culture as the rest of us. They soak up the political atmosphere. When the climate is charged with hate, paranoia, racism, and kneejerk pro-gun rhetoric, that’s what they’re likely to imbibe. Living in Arizona, a state famous of late for its institutionalized hostility toward immigrants, Jared Loughner was liable to absorb all of these toxins.

When I heard about the assassination attempt late on Saturday, William Manchester’s description of Dallas in fall 1963 shimmered in my recollection. I’d read the passage in Vanity Fair a few weeks ago:

“In that third year of the Kennedy presidency,” Manchester wrote, “a kind of fever lay over Dallas country. Mad things happened. Huge billboards screamed, ‘Impeach Earl Warren.’ Jewish stores were smeared with crude swastikas.…Radical Right polemics were distributed in public schools; Kennedy’s name was booed in classrooms; corporate junior executives were required to attend radical seminars.” A retired major general ran the American flag upside down, deriding it as “the Democrat flag.” A wanted poster with J.F.K.’s face on it was circulated, announcing “this man is Wanted” for—among other things—“turning the sovereignty of the US over to the Communist controlled United Nations” and appointing “anti-Christians … aliens and known Communists” to federal offices. And a full-page advertisement had appeared the day of the assassination in The Dallas Morning News accusing Kennedy of making a secret deal with the Communist Party; when it was shown to the president, he was appalled. He turned to Jacqueline, who was visibly upset, and said, “Oh, you know, we’re heading into nut country today.”

Manchester discovered that in a wealthy Dallas suburb, when told that President Kennedy had been murdered in their city, the students in a fourth-grade class burst into applause. …

(The whole article, which appeared in October 2009, is worth a read, though off-topic for this post. Andrew Sullivan also posted a version of this passage on his blog.)

Like Lee Harvey Oswald, Jared Loughner can’t be easily pegged to a coherent political philosophy. Oswald had communist sympathies, but his attempt to defect foundered when he discovered he didn’t much enjoy the Soviet way of life. I’m not credulous enough to believe that the Warren Commission uncovered the whole truth, but it seems hard to dispute their conclusion that “His deep-rooted resentment of all authority which was expressed in a hostility toward every society in which he lived …” Similarly, Loughner’s YouTube rantings seem to revolve around anti-authority, anti-government sentiments, many of them obviously delusional. Loughner seems to be of no organized political party – but if you think the government is controlling our minds through grammar, Loughner is just your guy.

Obviously the Tea Party is not fixated on grammar. Nor is Glen Beck. Ditto, even more obviously, for Sarah Palin. (Hmm … The grammatical deficits or wingnuts: coincidence, or a defense against mind control?)

However, they and the other new American reactionaries (one can’t fairly call them conservatives) have plenty of nasty things to say about how government wants to control our lives.

American reactionaries also have broken new ground in bringing weapons to political rallies. When that taboo was broached in August 2009, I thought that violence was inevitable. Dave Neiwert, who has been sounding the alarm on eliminationist rhetoric for far longer, has reconstructed specific threats aimed at Gabrielle Giffords, including a gun found at one of her previous public appearances.

We’re in the midst of a cultural struggle for how to understand and frame this event. I’m still trying to shut up and listen, instead of blogging my every passing thought. (Hence I’m only getting to my “initial thoughts” two days later, which for a trained historian is actually light-speed.) I think all of us should refrain from snap judgments. I’m prepared to be persuaded by good arguments that Loughner had no political motives whatsoever.

If, however, the wingnut narrative – “He’s just a whackjob!” – prevails, hate speech will continue unabated. It will continue to shape the worldviews of disturbed individuals. And violence will again be inevitable.

My heart goes out to the victims and their loved ones.

The least we owe them is to put an end to our climate of hate.

And while we’re at it, let’s finally adopt sane gun laws, starting with mandatory nationwide background checks and a ban on the ammo for guns like the one Loughner used.

(In case you haven’t seen this – not all of my students had – here is the graphic that Sarah Palin has now removed from her Facebook page. Note that one of the crosshairs targeted Gabby Giffords. Even if Loughner never saw it, this is still vile, eliminationist hate speech.)

Update, 1:20 a.m., 11 January 2011: Rachel Maddow just had a terrific discussion of the different types of assassins – including those with incoherent political motives – with my favorite senator, Sherrod Brown. Watch:

Update, 12:50 p.m., 12 January 2011: Eric Boehlert at Media Matters has an excellent piece on “the right’s rising tide of violent rhetoric.” Essential reading. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center offers a sober, balanced assessment of Loughner’s incoherent ideology that suggests Loughner’s most salient belief is a “‘smash the state’ attitude.”

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I’m not talking about duck versus pheasant versus deer. No. For the past few days, hunters just outside my town have been trying to track a human. He wasn’t their prey, though. Denzle Stanley is a small, slight, 84-year-old man who wandered off into the frozen rural hills two mornings ago. After three days of searching, officials called off the search.

Those of us who didn’t know Mr. Stanley learned of the search’s end the same way as we heard he’d gone missing: through the county’s 911 alert system. (Which, I might add, I’m happy to see put to intelligent use.) The second 911 call ended on an odd note, though. While the sherriff continues to investigate, citizens are positively warned off of further searching.

I realize that hopes dim after three days. The county threw all its resources into the search, ranging from dogs to helicopters to infrared. Meanwhile, nights have dropped below freezing, with a few inches of snowfall since yesterday. It would take a miracle to find him alive.

But that’s not why the search was called. Instead, as NBC 4 (Columbus) reports:

Authorities said the public should not search in the wooded areas and fields surrounding Albany because of the start of muzzleloader deer season Saturday.

“We do not want anyone getting hurt with all the hunters in the woods next week,” Albany Fire Chief Roger Deardorff said.

What would it take to call off the deer hunters, instead of the trackers of a human being? Local officials report that the family has agreed to suspending the search, and volunteers are exhausted. And yet, at least a few members of the public evidently want to keep searching; if they’d all gone home, there’d be no need for a 911 warning. Couldn’t the deer hunters wait a few more days? Maybe Mr. Stanley still wouldn’t be found, but his loved ones might suffer fewer “what-ifs.”

I don’t know if Mr. Stanley suffers from dementia, though at his age, it wouldn’t be surprising. Caretakers for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias worry about exactly this scenario. My father is not yet so confused that I worry about him wandering off, but that day will surely come. I feel for Mr. Stanley’s family. (If any of them were to arrive here via Google, I would say this: You did the best you could. You tried to strike a balance between protection on the one hand, and allowing him some freedom and dignity on the other. That is all any of us can do when age befuddles our elders.)

This week we also got an alert for a local teenager who’d gone missing. By the end of the day she’d been located, safe, in Missouri, after the police tracked her cell, and every parent in the district rejoiced a little, whether we’d known her or not.

Her rescue makes me think that we should equip our elders with cell phones. They may never learn to text, but hey, I don’t text either. I’m betting you could buy a lot of cheap cell phones for the price of a single manhunt.

In the meantime, though: Couldn’t we just delay muzzleloader deer season a few more days?

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I understand you’ve proposed a laundry list of ways to save money and balance the budget. I agree that reining in the deficit is crucial in the long run. In the short run, it’s pure nitwittery. We’re still in a recession. Cutting domestic spending takes money out of the economy. It’s the opposite of a stimulus. Any counter-stimulus will dig our economy into a hole so deep, we’re liable to come out in China (but hey, they already own us).

Slashing people’s Social Security payments? Crappy idea. As a group, retirees aren’t saving on a massive scale. They’ll spend that money and goose the economy.

Cutting federal discretionary spending? Meredith Bagby at HuffPo counts some of the reasons only a numbskull would see this as solution.

It’s very easy to slash the domestic discretionary budget. It’s been done for decades by both parties, and there really isn’t anything left to squeeze out of it. Simpson-Bowles proposes cutting the federal workforce by 10% and freezing employees’ salaries for three years. This accepts on faith the conservative assumption that the government is doing something now that it shouldn’t be doing. But what, exactly? Prosecuting criminals? Funding medical research? Building levees, tunnels, and bridges? (All of the above?)

(More here.)

And that’s not all.  Federal grants for low income college students. Federal grants for middle-income college students. Investments in alternative energy sources. Funding for studies on surviving the future oil shocks. Training for Arabic language specialists so we don’t misunderstand the Arab world even worse than we do now. Full funding for Head Start. Movement toward a true single-payer health system. Oh, and those research docs need more public funding, not less. (For all I criticize medicine, ultimately I hang a lot of hope on it.)

Pie in the sky, you say? Well, yes, when you take a look at the fresh herd of congresscritters. (Or is the correct term not a herd but – as for crows – a murder?)

But just take a peek at this pie (chart), via sexgenderbody’s Tumblr:

This is not the U.S. budget. This chart compares military expenditures among different countries. Somehow France, say, manages to provide excellent social services without bankrupting itself on military spending.

Conventional wisdom says we need to maintain our current military spending to stay safe. But honestly? Such astronomical expenditures are only needed to preserve an empire, not to assure our safety. Sometime during the past 60 years, “national security” morphed into “imperial security.” That’s why “homeland security was coined: because “national security” no longer denoted the actual need of the U.S.-American people to be safe.

In a post-9/11 world, spending almost as much as all other countries combined on defense is not making us safer. We are only adding to the misery of Afghans and Pakistanis. Meanwhile, we live in perpetual insecurity and fear, which is only amplified, ironically, by the statements and policies issuing from the Department of Homeland Security.

So, dear Catfood Commission, how ’bout we hive off a tenth of our military spending? Maybe even a twentieth, over the next decade or two? As a future grandmother of America, I object to eating catfood. If I’m lucky enough in my dotage to have an actual cat or two, I would not want to whisk the kibble out from under their whiskers.

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