Politics Must Be Personal

The last year has been an abrasive, at times eye-opening, tour of how forgiving people are of racism/sexism that they don’t consider blatant. More so I have been rocked that so many people see obvious racism/sexism and forgive it for not being blatant.

I think that if a negative statement regarding a category of people needs defense it has already defined itself as bigotry. If we feel a need to defend that type of statement it is probably wrong in a moral and/or ethical sense. In our foreseeable future it may behoove us all to hold a line that if a person has enough knowledge of a damaging statement/act/law for a prepared defense, they already know it was wrong.

When you consider what you personally defend rephrase in your own words, when faced with other’s defense ask them to rephrase in their own words. If you, or anyone, has trouble rephrasing a statement in personal terms it is most likely weak, dogmatic fluff. In an era of propaganda a front line enemy is giving up your own voice and words. If you express your politics on personal terms you can deflate the power of propaganda.

So, I advocate that part of the defense against totalitarianism and authoritarianism is to be critical of what others, and we, defend. Pragmatically I think that means reclaiming blatant as observable. It is not the extreme of taboo, rather the observable manifestation of discrimination that must be countered, lest we fall prey to evil by banality.

Question the negative, share what you see, use your own words.

Loving Your Neighbor

We each have to ask whether we can handle the way we treat each other. Would you be okay being treated the way People of Color and other targeted groups are treated socially, politically, and legally? You are part of society, what you do and say matters.

Jane Elliott, the teacher in this video, has worked on education about Racism in America since the day after Martin Luther King was murdered. This is a small window into that work. A larger documentary, Eye of the Storm, is available, it was filmed the third year that she taught this for third-graders in Iowa. I chose this video as the introduction because it contains a very telling moment. About half-way through one of the blue-eyed participants rage quits. It is worth the time to hear Jane’s response and the response from the kids in the exercise. There are several documentaries that have been produced on her workshops. One of my favorites was produced for Brazilian TV, it happened during the 90’s and nails the rise and fall of Colin Powell a decade before it happened.

It has come to my attention that many of the people who are reading this are sensitive about being called racist. Please allow me to clarify, you live in and participate in a racist society. If you have a house, a job, or clothes on your back you have reaped benefits from a racist society. You are not, personally, racism. You do one of three things: fight back against the racism, accept racism, or you support racism. Your claim to goodness or rightness is tied to which you choose to do. Each of us old enough to read this have bigotry and prejudice, that is inescapable.

Deriving value from the world you were born into does not make you a bad person. But, complacence when witness to injustice does chip away at goodness. I do not want you to flagellate yourself for the times that you have chosen self-preservation in the face of injustice. As repentance I want you to own your decisions and work to rebalance the scale in someone else’s life on a person-to-person level. Repent by helping someone, repent by building up where you you have been silent, and repent by never allowing your feelings to be a factor in another person’s survival.

You cannot escape the racist systems that you were born into, you can only work to retool or rebuild a system that does not accept and rely on racism as a central pillar. The first step is to never allow your feelings of comfort to stand in the way of other people’s survival.

A Tale of Two Pictures

One of my longtime passions has been visual interpretation (I did my undergrad thesis on it). I have advised many people that you can’t escape from how you look. So, when I discovered PhotoFeeler I immediately uploaded two pictures from my LinkedIn profile to see how their system works, and how cruel the notes would be.

Both pictures are taken by professional photographers using the same standards for portraiture: 3/4 stance, shoulders to camera, and clothes that I feel comfortable in. The results were very different from each other, and, frankly surprising. Each photo was rated by 20-people; the scores reflect my percentile rank compared to other images rated by the same number of people.

Image Score
What I lack in competence I make up for in likability. Yikes!


What a competent near sighted fellow.
What a competent near-sighted fellow.

I was surprised by the huge difference in Competent and Likable between the two pictures. I was not surprised by the user comments that I am dressed too casual. Out of 6 user comments 3 were removed by the site moderators. Seriously, 50% of the people that took the time to add a note said something so offensive that the website removed their comment. Why do you think that is? 

I suggest you tryout PhotoFeeler. To use it for free you have to score other people’s pictures, and I think that is where the value is. After scoring 10 pictures I started feeling a bit uncomfortable about my answers. I was rating people with the same clothes, background, and framing differently. Why would I do that? What I was going through was like a test, specifically an Implicit Association Test (IAT). It was putting me up against my biases.

In the end I scored 80 people so I could test my current LinkedIn profile picture in two categories, my old picture once, and my long time Facebook profile picture. The end result is that I am happy I am self-employed and already married.

It Is Not JUST Racism

On November 24th we learned about some of the unfortunate misuse of our judicial system. St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch failed to convince a grand jury to send Darren Wilson to trail for killing unarmed Mike Brown. The entire concept of the Grand Jury is meet to a minimal threshold of plausibility to enable a District Attorney to take anyone to court–even a ham sandwich.

From Google:

The purpose of the grand jury is not to determine guilt or innocence, but to decide whether there is probable cause to prosecute someone for a felony crime. The grand jury operates in secrecy and the normal rules of evidence do not apply. The prosecutor runs the proceedings and no judge is present.

Did you see that? There are no rules of evidence, no judge. It is a dog and pony show, when the prosecutor says whether they want to indict. Robert Paul McCulloch got on stage and lied to you. He misrepresented the entire concept and purpose of the grand jury, and his role in shaping their decision.

He lied to you so hard that the National Bar Association has castigated DA Robert P McCulloch. A Bar Association that represents 20,000 members feels that the only possible explanation for this outcome is that District Attorney McCulloch failed to properly perform his duties as he was sworn to do. The National Bar Association endorses that the US Department of Justice ignore the grand jury and pursue federal prosecution. The National Bar Association feels that no competent prosecutor, or properly informed, functioning jury could have reached the result of November 24th.

It Is About Greed

You may not remember, but there were multiple requests that Robert McCulloch recuse himself from this case, based on conflicts with performing his duties. Among his conflicts of interest are very strong ties to the police department, a history of tanking grand jury investigations against cops, and being the president of an organization (Backstoppers) that collects money on behalf of the police. Beyond that, this particular incident has similarities with an incident that killed Paul McCulloch, Robert’s father.

Robert McCulloch has gotten away with this before. Even in cases where he was forced to go to grand jury (like this one), he usually fails to secure an indictment when the defendant is a police officer. He has a history of choosing the side of his own interests over those of the public, and he does not make any effort to hide that fact.

DA Robert McCulloch is not the only party who stands to gain from this situation. There is, unfortunately, a lot of money in jailing people. John Oliver points out several very disturbing statistics about the US penal system.

  • The number of prisoners has grown 8-fold since 1970
  • Around 9% of US prisons are entirely private
  • Food and medical care are increasingly privatized
  • Around 50% of prison population is related to drug offenses
  • We spend around $35,000 per prisoner per year

The NAACP, using statistics provided by the FBI, finds that black Americans are 10-times more likely to serve jail time for drug offenses than white Americans are. This is problematic in part because there are 14,000,000 white Americans that report using drugs, 5 times the number of the black population that report using any illicit drug. Black Americans are sentenced to an average of 58.7 months (almost 5 years) for drug offenses. By contrast, white criminals serve an average of 61.5 months for violent offenses. That means that I would serve almost as much time for drug possession as Rose would for attacking a stranger with a bat.

A pervasive characterization of dark skinned Americans as criminal, and scary, leads to not only higher arrest rates, but longer sentencing. So, there is plenty of money in not installing cameras, like Ferguson, or in destroying footage, like Seattle. Body cameras range from $120-$200 from a company like Police One. A taser is $400. A SWAT vehicle is $250,000. The reason that your town doesn’t have cameras is because cameras cut down on profits, not because the police can’t afford them. Ferguson PD claims they spent $6,000 buying dash cams, none of which have been installed. They spent $6000 that could have equipped 30 of their 54 officers with body cameras, but instead chose to buy and fail to utilize car-mounted cameras. Ask yourself why that happens.

Yes, It IS About Race

Even when the cameras are watching, race is still a problem in how we are policed. Time and again, police and civilian surveillance footage makes it clear that emergency personnel carry a clear and disgusting disrespect for black lives and black bodies. John Crawford was shot in a Walmart, not even carrying an air-rifle, in an open carry state (Ohio). After Cleveland police shot twelve year-old Tamir Rice, they left him injured for 5 minutes before first aid was administered. EMTs refused to administer care to Eric Garner after he was choked by NYPD, and Mike Brown was left lying in the street for 4.5 hours.

You just don’t see this level of disrespect being inflicted on other populations. Chokeholds were banned by NYPD in 1993, long before the officer who choked Garner even started his career there. Between 2009 and 2014 the Civilian Complaint Review Board investigated over 1,000 complaints of choking by police officers. Fully 63% of the victims were black.

Tamir Rice was shot within seconds of the police car arriving. They were called to his playground by dispatch, and informed that the weapon he had was probably fake. Knowing that the call was about a child, the officer identified Tamir as a 20 year old black male. Even having back-up, police see black children as a threat. While responding to a dispatch about a youth with a probably fake weapon, the officer was nonetheless afraid enough to shoot first and justify it later.

This is how deeply racism is driven into our system. In NYC, a black person is choked by the police more than twice a week, because the police believe that the rules of conduct don’t apply to them. And unfortunately, It’s not just the police, it is emergency medical personnel, too, who are afraid to treat black American as worthy of basic respect. I promise you that black is not a weapon or a disease, you can’t catch it, and it can’t injure you.

What Can You Do? 

The least you can do is change the way you speak. Change the way you talk about these incidents.

Don’t pluralize. Don’t talk about individuals in the plural. Mike Brown was a person, not those people. If someone changes the subject from an individual to these people, that neighborhood, or any other plural thing–shut that person down. No one deserves to die because they are in that neighborhood. If someone is trying to change a conversation about what happened to one person into a generalization about what those people are like, they are telling you that they don’t see black people as human. If someone is trying to dehumanize an individual by calling on generalizations they are a bigot trying to hide. Don’t let them get away with it. Don’t let them cower behind generalizations and pretend that they are anything but a participant in the disrespect of humanity.

Promise me that one thing, that you will stop pluralizing and talk about people as individuals.

Love and Lies

I love my country, warts and all. One of the these warts is voting.

As I see it there are 3 fundamental lies about voting that pervade the mainstream:

  1. It doesn’t matter who you vote for because all politicians are bought by corporations.
  2. Everyone has equal access to vote.
  3. Vote percentages are honest.

Who you vote for is incredibly important!

Yesterday someone said that all politicians and political parties are corrupted by corporate masters, so it doesn’t matter what party you vote for. That is a terrible equivalent. He used fast food chains that all buy from the same distributor as a metaphor, what follows is my response:

If you imagine the political parties as restaurant chains that all get their food from the same distributor it is still true that they don’t buy exactly the same products, don’t charge the same prices, don’t keep the same hours, use their base ingredients in different proportions, and some only thrive in very specific geographic areas. All of them have to serve a central list of items considered the cuisine du jour, labeled mostly the same.

Outside the cuisine du jour you have acceptable deviations (Overton’s Window) and radical deviations. You can get cuisine du jour anywhere, but if you get it from the people who serve radical deviation away from your tastes you will wake up to find that no one serves anything you find acceptable.

Yes, all politician are corrupted by corporations, but by different corporations. Mobil Exxon lobbies to drill in national parks and maintain corporate loopholes, the ACLU lobbies on immigration and protection of civil rights. These corporate masters have different agendas for you as a person, they are not equivalent. Also, your state legislation is hugely important as those bodies have passed over 24,000 bills in the time that the Federal Congress passed 185.

You have a right to register, not a right to vote.

Because the Supreme Court gutted the Voters Rights Act (VRA) this year many states got away with ID laws that will likely get overturned on the basis of breaking the second article of the VRA by putting undue burden on minority voters. I will add to this that Florida has ongoing battles over unconstitutional disenfranchisement of people that serve prison sentences, and Texas has had over 200 pieces of legislation reversed for breaking the VRA. Below you will see a comprehensive table of state and US turnouts and voter ID laws. I add to this that Washington, Oregon, and Colorado all do mail in ballots to step around the issue entirely, and the requirement that we vote during work hours on a Tuesday that is not a national holiday is unduly burdensome to the poor.

We report our elections wrong.

To be fair we should report percentages in elections as the percentage of registered voters, not turnout, because the act of registration is empirical evidence that you wish your vote to be counted. So, if you are registered and you don’t cast a vote I think it should be seen as a vote of no confidence in all races. The reason for this is that the current model creates a false signifier about the support of politicians.

In Ohio it is reported that the Governor was elected with 63.85% of the vote. That makes it seem like he has a great deal of support, but that is a lie. The reality is that only counts 32.2% of the registered voters. The reality is that 20.56% of Ohio’s registered voters voted for him. We should report that number.

It should be made clear that 8-of-10 registered voters in the state of Ohio did not vote for the man who will be Governor next year. This is roughly true in every state in the US.

The way we report election results is part of why voter suppression is an effective political tactic. It creates a false indication of support. All politicians should look at the humbling fact that you serve people that have no confidence in your ability. We have so little confidence in you that 2-of-3 registered voters can’t be motivated to jump the hurdles just to tell you how little we believe in you. It isn’t that we are apathetic, it is that you are too pathetic to motivate us.

All of this said, don’t believe the lies. Who you vote into state legislature matters immensely (they become the federal nominees), be honest about the results, and for the love of god register and vote.

Pain Is Better Than Poison

Overnight on Monday, something happened on CNN that got a lot of people up in arms. A white woman anchoring a broadcast asked, “Why are they using tear gas, and not water cannons?” Given the shameful history of water cannon use in the United States, people were understandably somewhat outraged at her suggestion that police might use them.

The thing is, that horrible British CNN announcer is not 100% wrong, asking why the police in Ferguson don’t use water cannons instead of tear gas.

Yeah, I know that’s a statement that is going to make people mad. I can’t say that I’m entirely comfortable with having typed it. The first reaction of many people, her co-anchor included, ranged from side-eye to outright outrage. There are Americans walking around today who were subjected to fire hoses and water cannons as police broke up Civil Rights protests in the 1960’s. Images of water cannon use are still horrifying, decades on.

But, as terrible as it looks, as brutal as it is to be water cannoned (I have to assume, I have not had that experience) the consequences are shorter-lived and less devastating than those associated with the long-term use of tear gas. We, as Americans, are ashamed to be seen using a water cannon, because of their historical use against black bodies, but we are alone among first-world countries. The suggestion that we should use them forces us to confront a painful wound in our past, and instead, we choose to deploy internationally-banned chemical weapons against our own citizens.

Here’s what the National Institutes of Health have to say about CS tear gas (the type that has been deployed in Ferguson):

Based on our current knowledge, if CS tear gas is used by properly trained law enforcement officers and exposed combatants leave the area rapidly, few, if any, significant or long-term human disabling effects should occur.

Their recommendations are that people exposed to the gas leave the area within 10-30 minutes. Kinda hard to remove yourself from the exposure when it’s being shot into your front yard during a curfew, right? Or when you’re asleep in bed and it’s being fired indiscriminately into your neighborhood.

The NIH also acknowledges that there is precious little information about the long-term effects, but acknowledges that some populations are likely to be at increased risk of damage. Who are those populations?

those with asthma or chronic obstructive disease, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease and possibly those taking neuroleptic drugs.

Anybody wanna take a guess about which American populations are disproportionately affected by asthma, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease? Bueller? African Americans, of course, especially those with limited access to quality health care and nutrition.

While it feels extremely shitty to say “water cannons are better than tear gas,” the truth is that there’s not much damage a water cannon in the street can inflict on a kid sleeping at home, unlike the days and days of tear gas exposure. I still can’t believe I’m making this argument, but: a water cannon is a targeted tool. Tear gas is a blanket chemical weapon. Does that mean it’s a good idea to use water cannons? Good gravy, no.

I think every officer currently in Ferguson should be pulled from duty, the National Guard pulled out, Amnesty International and the Red Cross allowed in, and Darren Wilson arrested. Of course, in my fantasy world, Mike Brown would still be alive and in school today, and none of this would be necessary, but that is not the world we live in. I think we’re all right to give Samantha Church all the side-eye we can, but once we’ve done that, we should acknowledge that there’s something to her question. Why are we more comfortable deploying chemical weapons against our own people than facing the discomfort of our own history?

The Strangeness of the Universe – You Can’t Escape

When I asked Facebook what I should write about the first person to respond was Jon Colman. He said that I should talk about the strangeness of the universe, he was quickly followed by someone that wanted me to talk about my ancestry. To my mind these two have a clear crossover, because I can talk about them in the same story.

You Can’t Escape What You Look Like

No matter what you do you can never escape what you look like. You can change what you look like, but you can never escape the assumptions that come with your appearance. I have a beard and tattoos. Some people like that, some people don’t. I can shave my beard, and laser off my tattoos, but that won’t change the fact that some people will like it and some won’t.

You Don’t Actually Know What You Look Like

When I was in second grade I learned this lesson: you don’t know what you look like. As a young squirt I was bright, attentive, and gregarious, and to my teacher (Ms. Sullivan) the icing on theses qualities was that I was black. Because I am black, like her, she had quite a bit of affection for me and pride in having me in her class.

When it came time for parent/teach conferences she was excited to meet the rest of this bright, black family. The next day when Ms. Sullivan saw me I was no longer a black boy–I was a BROWN boy. Nothing had changed about me: I was still seven years-old, bright, attentive, and gregarious; hell, I was still the same color (two-parts burnt umber, one-part burnt sienna). From that point forward my attractive warm brown looked like mud in her eyes.

I was no longer medium-skinned black boy to my teacher, I was a half-white-mongrel.  She didn’t really care what made up that half of me, it could have been Scottish, Swedish, it even could have been Brazilian, all she cared about was that it wasn’t acceptable.

In part this was the formative moment in why I have tattoos, piercings, and a beard. During what I like to think of as my quarter-life crisis I decided that my outside was going to look like my inside. I can’t ever change the fact that other people make assumptions, but I can make myself comfortable in my skin.

So, Where Do You Go From Here?

Always dress comfortably; you will make your best impression. One of my high school friends got most of her dates by going to the mall in sweatpants, because that is when she attracted the right kind of people. When you are comfortable you are confident, wear things that make you feel like the best version of you whether that is flats or heels, t-shirt or dress shirt. Don’t invest in accessories that you won’t maintain:

  • Don’t grow a beard unless you are going to keep it trimmed.
  • Don’t buy cheap eye-glasses.
  • If you paint your nails keep them nice.
  • Do one make-up trick well instead of several half-assed.

Learn to talk to people. I know that this is scary for introverts, but honestly the only way to escape the pandemic prejudice of other people caricature of you is to break the ice. Polite introductions are a good start:

  • Tell strangers what your first name is when you ask them a question.
  • Choose something about yourself that you are comfortable sharing with people, even strangers.
  • Do your best to be appropriate to your venue.

Sadly, we all live under this weird tyranny of familiarity. That is one of the biggest factors in bigotry, not knowing anyone from a particular group. If you represent yourself authentically and offer to exchange familiarity (even small ones) you will make the universe a little less strange.