Sunday, August 31, 2014

Strung Out On Anodyne

The United States is a selectively forgetful nation, thanks to the mainstream media in this country. We are trained to remember everything that reinforces apple-pie patriotism, while any news that challenges the notion that America is the greatest nation on earth is quickly buried.

So it is that many American media outlets have begun to forget Michael Brown, the unarmed Black teenager who was shot to death by a white cop in the town of Ferguson, Missouri. (Just as we've been made to forget our ongoing problems with mass shootings in this country, and the implications for American society.) I have to confess that I am a bit amazed by the speed with which Mr. Brown's story was replaced with stories about germs on keyboards, a rehash of the last moments of the RMS Titanic, the saga of Michael Sam, and a list of freaky things that happen to ordinary people, such as “8 year old girl saved by adoring pit bull.”

Fortunately, Mr. Brown's story isn't entirely buried. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has issued a condemnation of the shooting of Michael Brown and a call to the United States to eliminate ongoing racism and discrimination in this country. The committee also called attention to the pernicious effect of “stand-your-ground” laws in this country, and the continued inequitable enforcement of the law by police departments which remain largely white. But that's not front-page news today at, or the New York Times, or USA Today, and certainly not at the Wall Street Journal, which was eaten a few years ago by Rupert Murdoch, a bigoted rich Australian who applied for US citizenship in the 1980's so that he could consolidate his ownership of American media. And Michael Brown certainly didn't make it onto the cover of People Magazine and other magazines like it, which have indeed at times chosen to publish stories about ordinary Americans caught in extraordinary circumstances. I guess he didn't have the potential star power of Elizabeth Smart.

Forgetfulness can be dangerous. As can be the refusal to think through the implications of a thing. When the town of Ferguson erupted in unrest after the shooting of Michael Brown, the doofus mayor of Ferguson declared that “We don't have a race problem here.” That statement is an example of willful blindness. And as Margaret Heffernan stated in her book titled Willful Blindness, problems that are ignored only become worse. The problem in the United States is that for a very long time, the members of one dominant culture have subjugated, oppressed, exploited and in many cases murdered other peoples both in the United States and abroad, simply on the basis that the skin of those other peoples was not white. The privileged people of the U.S. did so in order to secure all the benefits, both material and psychological, of being at the top of a heap. Such behavior has unintended consequences, even though the consequences may seem to be a long time in coming. Eventually the heap comes down, due in part to the consequences of the actions of the people who built the heap in the first place.

Consider the “Stand Your Ground” laws, the latest outgrowth of the rabid devotion to “2nd Amendment Rights” on the part of many Republicans and white supremacists. A Wikipedia article states that, according to many researchers, the effect of those laws was “...a significant increase in homicide and injury of whites, especially white males.” (Emphasis mine.) Consider also something I wrote in an earlier post, namely, what happens when a large, dominant group scapegoats another smaller and weaker group. Eventually, if the scapegoating is cruel enough, the smaller group is eradicated or removes itself from the scene – but the dysfunction which led to its scapegoating continues to exist within the larger group. There must always be a scapegoat in such groups. Therefore, a fight ensues to see who gets to create a new heap, and who will be at the top of it. The losers get to occupy the place of “poor trash.” Some of the newly-minted trash will be quite surprised at the change of identity bestowed on them by their newly-minted masters. With that change of identity will come the deprivation of civil rights and the denial of due process, along with pervasive, yet subtle discrimination based on the place of one's birth, one's income level or the last names of one's parents. All these things have happened before – even in seemingly homogeneous societies.

But all this assumes that the builders of the heap are allowed to continue sitting at its top. Those who comprise the lower levels of the heap might just decide one day to tear the heap down. That sort of thing has also happened before. A nation can't unrestrainedly exploit its natural resource base without reaching a point of diminishing, then negative returns. Neither can it exploit other peoples without the same thing happening.  So if you're not in a forgetful mood, here's something to think about: first, how, in the midst of diminishing resources, to create a society (or a social circle) in which resources are shared equitably and people are valued equally.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Grey Town of St. Louis County

If a person wants to read about racist policemen killing Black men or using excessive force against them, there's no shortage of stories this week. New York City has come again into the spotlight, which isn't surprising, given their long history of questionable policing. But for this post, I want to continue to focus on Ferguson, Missouri, and Saint Louis County, where Ferguson is located.

An early indication of the fairness of the “justice” which Michael Brown's family can expect is the refusal by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to appoint a special prosecutor to replace Robert McCulloch, the St. Louis County district attorney who will likely be prosecuting the case against the officer who shot Mr. Brown to death while he was unarmed. I see no justice coming for Michael Brown or his family from St. Louis County or the Missouri state government.

But a Business Week story that caught my eye a few days ago provoked a few strands of thought. The story concerns the description of the causes of the extreme fragmentation of St. Louis County. Over time, the county has fragmented into 91 municipalities that “range from small to tiny, along with clots of population in unincorporated areas.” Why this fragmentation? First, because the law allowed residents to fragment themselves. Secondly, because of the hellishly selfish motives of the residents, who “set themselves up as municipalities to capture control of tax revenue from local businesses, to avoid paying taxes to support poorer neighbors, or to exclude blacks.” One of the municipalities has only thirteen members – all of whom are white. And according to the Business Week article, the extreme fragmentation of St. Louis County is a key factor holding back economic development in that county.

This description of St. Louis County reminded me of the description of Hell in The Great Divorce, a short novel written by C.S. Lewis in the early 1940's. In the story, Hell was likened to a shabby gray town (or grey, if you prefer the British spelling) that seemed to go on forever, where the time was always evening, and where it was always raining. Why was the town so big? Because all the residents were so selfish and self-centered that within 24 hours of arriving from Earth, a new arrival would have quarreled with his or her neighbors and decided to move on. Because their selfishness was by now incurable, the residents continued to quarrel, and to move farther and farther apart. When the narrator in the story asked whether one could meet any famous people, he was told that they all lived really far apart. He was also told of an expedition undertaken by a few ordinary people to visit Napoleon Bonaparte – a journey which took 20,000 years. In order to locate his house, the expedition had to use a telescope. It seems those who hold power in St. Louis County have turned it into a little bit of Hell, which is ironic considering how many churches there are in the county. Truly “the salt has lost its flavor!” (Matthew 5:13)

But St. Louis County seems also to be a shining example of Dmitry Orlov's Fifth Stage of Collapse, in which “faith in the goodness of humanity is lost.” People lose their capacity for selflessness and concern for others, and become like the Donner Party, except that they don't wait for each other to die before trying to chew on each other. Anglo-American supremacist culture is an organism born already collapsed, with its emphasis on self-reliance, “freedom” from responsibility to anyone but oneself, and unrestrained competition. Even the privileged members of our society cannot rest easy, as their identity depends a great deal on who and how many people they can identify as being beneath them.

And that leads to the third strand in this web of thought, namely, how typical St. Louis County is of a narcissistically disordered family, whose head cannot stand the presence of people different from himself unless they are under his heel as scapegoats and dumping grounds for unresolved anger and insecurity. The thing that many white supremacists in this country don't realize is that even if they succeed in ridding themselves of the “named” scapegoats, that won't be the end of scapegoating, for some of their own number will be selected as the replacements for the old scapegoats. They don't seem to have the imagination to picture what that will be like.

St. Louis County, Missouri. This is the sort of place where Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, was shot to death by a white policeman.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How to Digitally Fake A Video (or, They Only See What They Want To See)

My attention was drawn this week to some rather arrogant and ignorant comments made by a blogger/gadfly/wanna-be pontificator who, it seems, would like to dictate to everyone in the world what their assigned places in the world should be. This particular blogger mentioned the murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, and stated that a surveillance camera video had surfaced that showed Mr. Brown allegedly robbing a convenience store shortly before he was shot. Thus, in the mind of this particular blogger, the shooting of Mr. Brown was no crime, but rather the judgment of a righteous society against a Black population that insists on remaining stubbornly dysfunctional.

There are only three problems with this argument. First, it is very easy nowadays to alter digital video – assuming that the original video was authentically made by a convenience store video camera. If you want to know just how easy video can be altered, read this 2007 article from Scientific American. Or you can read this, or this.

Or, you can just watch the video yourself. And that leads to the second problem.  The video sample I have selected is representative of the quality one would expect from typical store surveillance cameras; in other words, you don't use cameras like these to take pictures of the rings of Saturn or to shoot blockbuster movies. You tell me: who can positively identify the faces of anyone in the video? (If you want another version of the video, watch this. See how much clearer the image of the Fox News liar is than the images of any of the people in the alleged robbery video? Also note in the beginning of this clip, that Michael Brown wasn't the only person in the world who liked red hats and white T-shirts.)
The third problem, of course, is that the police let slip the fact that officer Darren Wilson did not know about the alleged robbery when he stopped Michael Brown. Thus Mr. Wilson's act looks increasingly like what I have called it: murder.

A person who has learned how to think would ask the following questions about video evidence: first, what are typical surveillance camera capabilities (i.e., image quality, resolution, low-light performance, etc)? Second, how easy is it for an ordinary person to alter a digital video (and the vast majority of videos nowadays are digital), or to create a fake video from scratch? Third, are there unaltered, untampered 9-1-1 calls from Ferguson, Missouri, describing a convenience store robbery on the day that Michael Brown was shot? Fourth, what motivations would the various players in this drama have for lying? Fifth, what sort of track record does the Ferguson police department have in regard to misconduct? Sixth, how often are unarmed Black men shot in this country?

The answers to all these questions might be deeply upsetting to those who enjoy the rapidly fading vestiges of Anglo-American privilege. But the willingness to ask the questions and to face the answers would separate honest people from dishonest gadflies who hold and voice opinions simply because they like them, regardless of the facts. Again, I am thinking of the blogger I mentioned at the first, who said during the most recent race riots in England that the British had a problem with immigration (and who disregarded the way the British violated and victimized nonwhite residents and citizens), and who said that Haitians were starving because Haiti had a population control problem (without considering how multinational corporations had stolen everything they could steal from that country). How easy it is to blame the victims for the injuries you have inflicted.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Clocks Can't Be Run Backward Without Breaking

I've been following the events in Ferguson, Missouri, with more than a little interest. For those who don't know, that is where Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot to death by policeman Darren Wilson several days ago. The Black community in this country is not amused, to say the least. Most of us believe that the case of Trayvon Martin was a miscarriage of justice. It also seems to many of us that the institutions of “justice” in this country are by now little more than organs of self-expression for narcissistic, sociopathic elites. One interesting thing about narcissism is the need for people who are narcissists to project a grandiose image of themselves. The other thing is that narcissists need an audience to reflect that grandiose image back to themselves. Without that audience, narcissists don't know they exist.

One way to project a grandiose image on to others is to intimidate and oppress others. That way, a narcissist can say, “At least I'm better off than this person whom I am kicking around, this person on whom I project all my insecurities and inadequacies, this person whom I can use as a convenient dumping ground for all my hostility.” For a while the cowboy narcissistic society known as the USA could use the entire world as a mirror to reflect its grandiosity back to the eyes of the chief beneficiaries of that grandiosity. And Anglo-Americans didn't even have to leave the country to find people to kick around – what with slavery, Jim Crow, separate-but-equal laws, and “institutional,” covert racism, there were plenty of victims to dominate.

Then something happened – a critical mass of unrest and unwillingness on the part of the victims of this oppression to take any more. The unwillingness was expressed in such a way that the beneficiaries of American privilege saw that they couldn't continue in their evil ways without risking the loss of that privilege, and maybe even of anything resembling a civil society. That, I am sure, was one thing that persuaded the leaders of American society to lighten up a little.

But now, the privileged sector of the United States is losing its place in the world, due to forces beyond its control. This seems to be provoking a psychological crisis, and some of these people seem to want to roll back the clock to a time when they could use nonwhite people in this country as a punching bag/target stop/dumping ground for their unresolved insecurity and hostility. In their clock-fixing attempts, they are quite bold. But this shouldn't be happening, should it? After all, we have a black President!

Yes we do. But over the last five years, Barack Obama has very obviously proven himself to be nothing more than the lesser of two evils. By now, when one says, “the lesser of two evils,” the eyes of his audience usually glaze over – the phrase has become a cliché. So let me present an illustration. If a gang of thugs breaks down the door of your house and tells you that you have a choice between having your teeth punched down your throat or having your car torched, you have a choice to make between the lesser of two evils! If we add a few more evils to choose from, such as having your house burned down, having your identity stolen, or being sexually assaulted (“raped” in plainer language), you have the smorgasbord that American politics has become with our token inclusion of third-party candidates like Ron and Rand Paul. (Is a choice for Ron a choice to be raped?  Is a choice for Rand a choice to drink battery acid?)  I voted for Barack Obama twice because I didn't want my teeth punched down my throat. But I have very little hope that he will keep my house from being burned down. Obama does seem quite hot to “protect” people in other countries from not being raped by the West – even to the point of sending American bombs, arms and troops where they're not wanted. What evil can you live with, dear reader?

But to those who want to roll back the clock, I have just one warning. By trying to make a clock run backwards, you may wind up breaking the clock. I vividly remember the overt racist garbage (utter garbage!) I had to put up with growing up in this country, and the more covert and insidious attempts to destroy me made by others whom I met in my adulthood. And why? Because my skin looks different from theirs? What utter garbage! What did I ever do to these people? Here's my policy: I want my home and my life to be a clinic of mercy to anyone who needs it, anyone who walks in the door – red or yellow, black or white. But here's my warning to the clock-tinkerers: you won't peaceably roll the clock back on me.  I'm not putting up with it again.