Monday, September 26, 2011

Lay Off The Poverty Porn

Whenever a journalist writes about a current social or political trend, the story is supposed to include a couple of case studies. It's not enough to report "This problem exists"; you must find some people suffering from said problem and willing to discuss it on the record.

For some problems, that's easy: when I was a staff reporter for an alt-weekly, and wrote on a subject like "Medical marijuana users push for legalization," all I had to do was call various pro-legalization organizations and introduce myself as a sympathetic journalist, and the organizations were happy to put me in touch with medical MJ users willing to chat.

It's harder to write hard-times stories; many people affected by them are ashamed of their newly reduced circumstances. Suppose you need to write on the theme "The food bank says donations are down and requests for help are up, with the economy likely to blame"; ideally, you need someone who (because of the economy) recently cut back on former food-bank donations, and someone else who became a food-bank client for the first time. Except those first-timers don't want to talk to you, don't want their name or face in a news story about the Nouveau Pauvre, and when you finally do find someone willing to openly discuss their reliance on food banks, you often find yourself facing an unpleasant truth: this person has one of the least sympathetic sob stories ever.

Relevant anecdote: two winters ago, when I worked for a dying local daily, an unfortunate freelancer was hired to write a story about a local charity that bought coats and other cold-weather gear for poor kids who couldn't afford it. The point, of course, was to make readers want to donate time or money to said charity.

The day the story broke, I read it online and winced before I finished the second paragraph. The case study -- the individual client chosen to put a Human Face on those whom the charity helps -- was a never-married woman who quit her cashier job at McDonald's after catching pregnant with her ninth child.

She and her children aren't poor because the economy stinks or there's too many holes in the social safety net; they're poor because the woman is a cataclysmic idiot who refuses to learn from her mistakes, and because you can't raise a family of ten on a minimum-wage income insufficient for one. And sure enough, many people who commented on the story pointed this out and added, "Well, I WAS going to donate some of my hard-earned money to this cause, but after seeing what utter basket cases that money will be spent on...."

The next winter, when the paper ran another story about the cold-weather charity, the editor made the wise decision to simply run a press release, with no case studies. Kudos to the paper, and I mean that sincerely; winters can get pretty frigid around here, and it's bad enough being one of the nine offspring of a pathologically irresponsible parent without getting frostbite, too.

So I cringe when I read mainstream news stories about the Plight of the Poor, because all-too-often they turn out to be the Plight of the Makers of Consistently Bad Decisions. On New Year's Day 2007, just before the economy went sour, I wrote an irritated post about one such story; the poor-me woman in question kept her three pet dogs even though she couldn't afford to feed herself and the dogs repeatedly got her evicted from her rental housing.

And I cringed again when I tried reading today's LA Times story "Fear, Uncertainty are common themes as families face economic toll." The first case study:

Staring resolutely ahead, a heavily pregnant Veronica Long pushed a stroller along 5th Street in downtown Los Angeles, past the junkies, the psych patients and those with no place to go. She ignored the whispers from crack dealers outside San Julian Park and strangers who hollered at her: “Go home!”

Before the recession, home was a two-bedroom house with a pool in Reseda. For most of this year, it was a shelter on skid row.

Veronica's husband, Jonathan, had a busy studio where he recorded and produced up-and-coming rap, hip-hop and R&B artists. But when the economy tanked, his clients ran out of money and he had to pawn his equipment to pay the bills.

The family downsized to an apartment in Long Beach, then a friend's spare room in Corona. When the friend was evicted last year, Jonathan, 35, Veronica, 34, and their four children ages 3 to 8 were homeless.

In hindsight, perhaps having so many children while still heavily in debt was not the best decision. But what's done is done, and there's no point blaming the couple for it now (though the soda and large bag of Cheetos visible in the photograph leads me to suspect that whatever food money they do have, they're not spending too wisely).
The Longs squeezed into a room at the Union Rescue Mission, which has turned over two floors of its main shelter to families washing up on skid row. Soon after, Veronica found out she was pregnant. (She thought she couldn't have more children because of a medical condition.)
Sigh. I'm guessing she plans to keep Baby #5 when he or she arrives.
Jonathan was thrilled when he found a job doing event security, but the work was sporadic. Other employers turned him down. He thought it might have to do with the tattoos covering his arms, a relic of his music industry days. When a young boy admired them in the hallway, he snapped: “I regret every single one.”
In hindsight, perhaps spending a lot of money on elaborate tattoos while deeply in debt and trying to raise an ever-growing brood of children was even less of a good decision. But what's done is done, he already feels bad about it and there's no point criticizing the decision now, though if he thinks his heavily tattooed arms are keeping him from job opportunities, why doesn't he wear long sleeves?

On a June morning, the family piled their belongings into two minivans and moved into transitional housing in Koreatown operated by Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. They pulled up in front of a building on a quiet, residential street. ... Their ground-floor apartment had two roomy bedrooms with bunk beds. ... They didn't stay long. After a dispute with staff over house rules, the family moved to an L.A. Family Housing transitional facility in North Hollywood.

No mention of exactly what those disputed house rules were. If my broke self had four kids to support and a fifth on the way and Jewish Family Service offered us a free furnished two-bedroom in a nice neighborhood, I'd keep a kosher kitchen if that's what they demanded. No bacon and no cheeseburgers still beats no place to live.

On the other hand, if Jewish Family Services required the man and his sons to get circumcised, then I genuinely sympathize with the family here. But if that were the case, I'm pretty sure the story would have mentioned it.

I have no doubt many Americans today are in dire financial straits through no fault of their own: illness not covered by insurance, no-fault job loss followed by prolonged unemployment ... even someone with no debt and a decent financial cushion can land in deep trouble, if such calamities strike. I wish the LA Times had written about such a couple rather than Jonathan and Veronica.

Maybe the second couple has a bit more sense:
Three years after the collapse of his six-figure income, Eric Petersen ...[and his] family has managed to hang on to its dream home in Coto de Caza, a gated community with golf courses and polo grounds that at one time was the primary setting for the reality TV series “The Real Housewives of Orange County.” But inside their five-bedroom house, which they bought for $375,000 in 1997, there are signs of trouble. Laundry hangs in the garden because they can't afford to fix the dryer. The facing is coming off the kitchen cabinetry. The shelves are stocked with handouts from a food pantry. When the housing market peaked, Eric, 46, made up to $360,000 a year...But in the last three years, he has made just $70,000 on real estate transactions, most of it on a single deal. Many months he made nothing.

The Petersens burned through their savings, credit cards, home equity line and help from relatives. This year, they missed two mortgage payments....

But they're still "hanging onto their dream home." Though I don't know how much longer they can keep that up; the story says monthly expenses for themselves and their two sons "come to about $7,000 a month, including some $4,000 in mortgage payments." Seven grand a month equals $84,000 per year. If you're trying to live an $84,000 annual lifestyle (including $48,000 in mortgage payments) on a $23,000 annual income, you again fail to meet the criteria for "sympathetic story about Americans in dire straits despite living within their means."

The third case study should have been the first; no extravagant mortgage or other debt mentioned, but the couple both work for public schools and their hours and wages have been cut. (Granted, I've known for a while now that public-sector employment costs have grown too high to be sustainable in the long run, and thus would never bet my long-term future on a no-power public job, but I can't blame them for lacking the insights gleaned from reading snarky libertarian blogs).

I still have no doubt that in this dreadful economy, many millions of Americans are poor through no fault of their own, yet the media Case Studies all-too-often focus on "these people are idiots" scenarios, which in turn makes it easy for others to insist "ALL poor people are idiots" leading inevitably to "we need not help the poor at all." According to the LA Times, after all, two out of three poor families have entitlement issues and the third was dreadfully naive.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Troy Davis: Killing A Scapegoat Is Easier Than Finding The Actual Murderer

Despite ample evidence suggesting Troy Davis did not commit the murder for which he sits on Georgia's death row, despite ample witnesses saying police and prosecutors badgered them into implicating Davis, the state of Georgia still plans to execute him tonight.

Prosecutors fabricating evidence to convict innocent people is nothing new in contemporary American justice; last year I protested the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court due to her stance on the matter. And I'll just repeat now what I said then:
I’d like to offer a modest proposal to cut government costs: let’s abolish the criminal court system altogether, and replace it with a big red-white-and-blue top hat of the sort Uncle Sam wears in patriotic posters. Next time a crime is committed, we’ll collect the names of all minority men in the area (and a few especially unpopular white people), dump their names in the hat and then pick a name or two out at random. Whichever name we pick will thus be dubbed “the guilty party” and locked in prison for however long the crime they never committed warrants.

Why not? If the American court system is fine with imprisoning innocent people, why force prosecutors to waste time and money creating a frame job first? Let’s just cut out the middlemen and put the innocent directly in jail. And Kagan can file an amicus brief explaining why this is just fine, and Obama can praise her for her integrity, excellence and passion for the law.
And so can the legislators in Georgia. When a crime is committed it's very very important that somebody be punished for it; whether the punished somebody is actually guilty doesn't matter so much.

The Technological Problems Of Retirement

Still no solution in sight for the whole "Baby Boomers/Social Security/WTF can we do to pay for all this?" retirement conundrum. (I am confident that whatever quick-fix solution our government proposes, it definitely won't involve "cutting back on military expenditures almost as large as every other military on earth combined," though.)

But it's a definite problem either way: a pay-as-you go program like Social Security worked well enough back when we had a ratio of 16 workers to every retiree; now there's three workers for every retiree, and the ratio is predicted to drop to 2:1 in a couple of decades.

Much of the retirement-funding difficulty stems from a current technological glitch: "Caring for people too old and sick to care for themselves" is the only aspect of modern existence I can think of where machinery/technology/automation has ultimately brought us to a situation requiring more human labor than before, rather than less.

Consider the matter "People need clothing appropriate for the weather." Getting enough clothes for everyone -- even those too young, old or sick to work -- hasn't been a problem for decades, not when a modern machine can spit out more clothes in one hour than a human weaver and tailor working together can make in their entire lifetimes. "People need food" -- also not a problem for over a century; when famines hit today, it isn't because "there's simply not enough food to feed those people" but because "those people's evil government is keeping food away from them."

So for an elderly retiree (or any person of any age) today, if you ask the question "How much human labor and effort is needed to keep that person clothed and fed?" the answer is "very little, especially compared to the old days." (I've mentioned before how my current winter wardrobe, purchased in secondhand stores, cost me roughly one median day's wages in all, though in the medieval era a wardrobe that size would have been literally worth more than its weight in gold.) Feeding and clothing the elderly isn't the problem now; the problem is providing hands-on medical or everyday-living care they can no longer do for themselves.

And there, technology has (temporarily) made matters worse: we can keep people alive who would've died before, but now that they're still alive, we need to pay actual people to care for them, because our robot and mechanical technology isn't advanced enough to handle it. This wouldn't be a problem if we had Jetsons-level tech, where an ordinary middle-class family can easily afford a tireless robot maid that dedicates 24 hours a day to turning Grandma over so she doesn't get bedsores; changing Grandma's clothes, bedding and bedpans when necessary; helping Grandma if she falls down and can't get up ... but for right now, if Grandma needs someone to do all these things for her, it takes a lot of different people working together to achieve this.

A friend of mine pointed out that Japan has been developing robots for that exact reason -- their population demographic is aging even more rapidly than ours -- but so far, it's not going over very well. But Japanese robot technicians would do well to avoid uncanny valley situations by making "machines" rather than "robots." My dishwasher does not in any way look like a poorly paid immigrant servant scrubbing plates at the kitchen sink, and doesn't attempt to; it's a machine rather than a robot. And if I one day get so incapacitated that I can't even load the dishwasher myself, a machine that takes dirty dishes from the sink/my table and loads them into the dishwasher need not look anything like a person, either.

Indeed, in many ways robots would be preferable to actual human contact; if ever I get so dependent that I can't even wipe my own ass after visiting the bathroom, I'd much rather use a robotic asswipe machine* than need another person to do it. (*Though if it came to that, 'twould probably be easier to just install a bidet.)

Unfortunately, I have the gloomy suspicion it'll take us a couple of centuries before technology grants us affordable full-service robot servants, and that's not soon enough to give people today a good answer to the question "WTF can we do to pay for the whole Baby Boomer retirement thing?"

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Linguistics And The TSA

My nth anti-TSA column is up at the Guardian.
Today's lesson in vulgar Americanisms is "camel toe", a slang term meaning "the front half of a woman's genitalia, or the shape thereof". To properly use it in a sentence, you can say, "Those tight trousers give her such camel toe, when you talk to her, you hear echoes" or "the Transportation Security Administration demands to see or feel the camel toe of every female airline passenger in America, in case she's smuggling weapons there."
The one-year anniversary of the TSA's mandatory molestation policy is next month.

Friday, September 16, 2011

This Post Is Actually A Beer Commercial

The news media is all abuzz upon learning that Obama (or rather his servants) brews his own beer in the White House. Maybe they can sell it and use the money to pay down the national debt? I don't know what they should call it -- my own partner has a fondness for precious little microbrews with names like "Pretentia-Brau" -- but if the White House does enter the beer-selling business, I have an AWESOME advertising slogan:
ObamaBrew. Nowhere near as intoxicating as the potent pot I used to smoke or kickass cocaine I used to snort, but if you drink it, at least I won't have my attorney general arrest you for ingesting the exact same intoxicants I enjoyed back in the day. I mean, unless you drink it before your 21st birthday, you filthy alcoholic criminal slime.

What, too long? Maybe I should try something shorter and punchier: "Combining the great taste of hops with the greater taste of hypocrisy."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Philosophical Question Regarding The Whole Solyndra Thing

Okay, so the Solyndra high-tech green-energy save-the-Earth solar company shut down a year or so after getting 535 million federal dollars, and now there's allegations the firm was never trustworthy to begin with, and I still can't decide if this was better or worse than the bailouts: assuming you find it acceptable to hand hundreds of millions of public dollars over to certain select private companies (those with the right connections, natch), is it better to give companies this money before they fail, or afterwards?

The Evolution of Keith Albow

Dr. Keith Albow in contemporary America, here in the Year of Someone Else's Lord 2011: "PANIC and don't let your kids watch that TV dance show with Chaz Bono on it, or they might grow up like him."

Alternate universe version of Dr. Keith Albow, writing op-eds forty years ago: "White parents, don't let your offspring watch Soul Train lest they grow up and catch Teh Blackness."

Me, intensely annoyed: "If nontraditional heterosexual procreative sexuality freaks you out, why the hell are you watching dance shows anyway? You wanna freak out about gays and trans, learn your stereotypes."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

TSA Continues To Insult America's Intelligence

For the third or fourth time since implementing its genital-fondling policy last October, the TSA has announced that henceforth, children under 12 shall be exempt from molestation; not until American citizens turn 13 will TSA claim the right to feel our goodies. (The logic is, if molesting children is a bad thing, the badness goes away once they hit puberty.) Janet Napolitano has also raised the possibility of ending the take-off-your-shoes policy:
"We are moving towards an intelligence and risk-based approach to how we screen," Napolitano is quoted as saying by Politico. "I think one of the first things you will see over time is the ability to keep your shoes on. One of the last things you will [see] is the reduction or limitation on liquids."
At least she was honest enough to say they're moving toward an intelligence- and risk-based approach, rather othan pretend we have an intelligent, risk-based approach now. But she said nothing about the hands-down-your-underpants or photograph-your-genitalia policies. The hope is, if you're allowed to keep your shoes on, the inability to keep your pants on too maybe won't bother you so much.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

This Is Who I Actually Live With

I have never seen an episode of Space: 1999 (though I have reels depicting an episode of it, somewhere in my View-Master collection). However, my partner spent a good part of his teenage years active in whatever fandom the show had, and via him I gather the story had something to do with the moon blowing out of Earth's orbit, and either yesterday or today was the anniversary of when that happened in the Space: 1999 universe, so here's my One True Love waxing nostalgic about it over at SF Signal.

I'm pretty sure we're already supposed to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland by now in the Star Trek timeline, too. Chances are we're only a few years behind schedule for that.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11: Never Forget (Because They'll Never Let You)

I wrote and published my obligatory 9/11 ten-year anniversary post last week, so I could get it out of the way and then move on with the rest of my life (as far too many of my countrymen refuse to do).

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Feral Genius Offers Heartfelt Congratulations To International Celebrity Thedala Magee

All hail the Streisand Effect! Only a few short hours ago, I read and blogged about Thedala Magee, the abusive TSA agent who is attempting to sue columnist Amy Alkon after the latter wrote a blog post complaining about Magee's treatment of her. Alkon wrote that post over four months ago, and since then, neither she nor Magee have exactly been household names.

But that's likely to change, thanks to Magee's gloriously clueless lawsuit. In the few hours since I wrote about it, here on my rather obscure blog (if you're reading this, you're statistically exceptional), I've had visitors searching for "Thedala Magee" coming not only from America, but from the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany .... congratulations, Ms. Magee! Instead of being known only to the relatively few people who either read Alkon's blog or frequent TSA opposition forums, your name is known to everyone on the internet. If my obscure little blog's getting that many hits, just imagine how many are going to TechDirt, Forbes, Popehat, and the ever-growing number of other sites covering your travesty of a lawsuit.

I do know that either Sabrina Birge or friends or relatives thereof commented here a couple months ago, after I criticized Birge's behavior on behalf of the TSA; I can only hope Thedala Magee is in the habit of Googling herself as thoroughly as she diddles innocent travelers. I also suspect TSA higher-ups wish Magee had simply let the issue drop; the last thing TSA wants is a jury contemplating its procedures to decide whether or not they constitute sexual assault.

TSA Gate-Rapist Thedala Magee Sues An Advice Columnist

Last April, when I wrote for the Guardian about a TSA agent's pornographic search of six-year-old Anna Drexel's body and underwear, I also noted this:
A TSA spokesman said Anna's groping "followed proper current screening procedures". Not a bad apple, not an isolated incident; just standard TSA procedure – which Janet Napolitano has said she wants to expand beyond airlines to all forms of mass transit.

Two days after calling the Drexel incident "proper", the TSA told CNN that expressing "contempt against airport passenger procedures" is one of the "behavioural indicators" of a "high-risk passenger". It's not enough for them to fondle you; you have to pretend to like it.

Apparently, advice columnist Amy Alkon didn't want to play pretend. Five days after that Guardian column and eleven days after TSA deemed "contempt" a "high-risk activity," Alkon wrote a justifiably furious blog post:

Don't Give The TSA An Easy Time Of Violating Your Rights
It shouldn't be emotionally easy, earning a living by violating people's rights.

On March 31st, when I came through the metal detector and realized that everyone in the TSA line to my United flight was getting searched, I got teary. I was teary at the prospect of being touched by a government worker -- entirely without probable cause. I was very upset, both because of the physical violation and because I love our now too-often-crumpled-up Constitution and Bill of Rights.

I can hold back the tears...hang tough...but as I was made to "assume the position" on a rubber mat like a common criminal, I thought fast. I decided that these TSA lackeys who serve the government in violating our rights just don't deserve my quiet compliance. And no, I won't go through the scanner (do you trust the government that they're safe?) and allow a government employee to see me naked in the course of normal and totally ordinary business travel: flying from Los Angeles to Binghamton, New York, to attend an evolutionary psychology conference for my work.

Basically, I felt it important to make a spectacle of what they are doing to us, to make it uncomfortable for them to violate us and our rights, so I let the tears come. In fact, I sobbed my guts out. Loudly. Very loudly. The entire time the woman was searching me.

Nearing the end of this violation, I sobbed even louder as the woman, FOUR TIMES, stuck the side of her gloved hand INTO my vagina, through my pants. Between my labia. She really got up there. Four times. Back right and left, and front right and left. In my vagina. Between my labia. I was shocked -- utterly unprepared for how she got the side of her hand up there. It was government-sanctioned sexual assault.

Upon leaving, still sobbing, I yelled to the woman, "YOU RAPED ME." And I took her name to see if I could file sexual assault charges on my return.

Alkon identified the TSA agent as

Thedala Magee. Or Magee Thedala. I was really upset, and neither name sounds like a typical American first name or last name, so I can't remember if I wrote it down in the right order.
Alkon got it right the first time, and Thedala Magee the TSA agent is now suing Alkon, demanding $500,000 and removal of the blog post. Alkon responded through her lawyer Marc Randazza:

Your client aggressively pushed her fingers into my client’s vulva. I am certain that she did not expect to find a bomb there. She did this to humiliate my client, to punish her for exercising her rights, and to send a message to others who might do the same. It was absolutely a sexual assault, perpetrated in order to exercise power over the victim. We agree with Ms. Alkon’s characterization of this crime as “rape,” and so would any reasonable juror.

Furthermore, even if your client did not actually sexually assault my client, Ms. Alkon’s statements to and about Ms. Magee would still be protected by the First Amendment. The word “rape” itself has been the subject of defamation cases by far more sympathetic Plaintiffs than your client. In Gold v. Harrison, 962 P.2d 353 (Haw. 1998), cert denied, 526 U.S. 1018 (1999), the Hawai’i Supreme Court held that a defendant’s characterization of his neighbors’ seeking an easement in his backyard as “raping [the defendant]” was not defamatory. This speech was protected as rhetorical hyperbole. Of course, we need not seek out Hawai’i case law in order to debunk your unsupportable claims. Rhetorical hyperbole has a strong history of favorable treatment in defamation actions. See Greenbelt Cooperative Pub. Ass'n v. Bresler, 398 U.S. 6, 14 (1970). This doctrine acknowledges our First Amendment right to express ourselves, even when employing literary license. Accordingly, even if your client’s actions were not “rape,” Ms. Alkon had every right to characterize them as such.

No free woman should endure what your client did to Ms. Alkon. Fortunately, Ms. Alkon is capable of recognizing injustice, and for the good of us all, she had the courage to speak out on this matter of public concern of the highest order. After Magee’s assault on Ms. Alkon’s vagina and dignity, Ms. Alkon exercised her First Amendment right to recount this incident to others in person and through her blog. This was not only her right -- it was her responsibility.
It's no surprise Thedala Magee wants to remain anonymous. Last November, when certain media outlets started printing sympathetic stories about poor TSA agents sobbing their little hearts out because they just can't understand why Americans have to be all rude and cranky rather than passively adopt submissive-criminal body poses while uniform-wearing thugs fondle their genitals, I quoted a couple of anonymous complaints:
“Molester, pervert, disgusting, an embarrassment, creep. These are all words I have heard today at work describing me. ...These comments are painful and demoralizing,” one unnamed TSO posted on Frischling’s website.

Another said: “Being a TSO means often being verbally abused. You let the comments roll off and check the next person; however, when a woman refuses the scanner then comes to me and tells me that she feels like I am molesting her; that is beyond verbal abuse.”
At the time, I commented: "I don't blame you for remaining anonymous, you sociopathic piece of garbage. You grope innocent people all day, then claim you're the victim when they take umbrage?" But Amy Alkon's spiteful rapist Thedala Magee is even worse. I hope Alkon countersues and wins, and even more fervently, I hope Thedala Magee and her colleagues are tried, convicted and sentenced to prison for the sex criminals they are. If nothing else, the Streisand Effect should ensure the name "Thedala Magee" in association with the label "rapist" becomes far better known than it otherwise would have.

For Love Of Man And Country

When the World Trade Center went down almost ten years ago, pundits were quick to make comparisons with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Nobody makes that comparison anymore, though, because now it's just embarrassing. Ten years after Pearl, the attack wasn't still being cited as justification for the mass suspension of American constitutional rights. Ten years after Pearl, the American government didn't claim the right to shove its collective hand down little girls' underpants, didn't demand that sick elderly ladies submit to inspection of the contents of their adult diapers before flying home to their families, didn't take pride in assaulting law-abiding travelers under the guise of protecting them.

Ten years after Pearl the nation didn't still wallow in masochistic obsession over it, the way we now do over 9/11. Of course, by the tenth anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, we had long-since established a more important anniversary to celebrate -- the day we defeated those who attacked us. (Compare that to 9/11, where we mostly ignored those who attacked us; the State Department removed all references to Saudi Arabia from its report on the attack, and we went after Iraq instead.)

As for this 9/11 fetishism ... we have no victories to celebrate so we jealously cling to our defeats instead, and use them as justification for evermore harsh and punitive policies -- not only against the rest of the world, but against our own people. The anti-Muslim hysteria that didn't actually start growing until the economy collapsed, over six years after the initial attack; the complete and growing evisceration of the fourth amendment for travelers; the knowledge that in a presumably free country, the DHS and its TSA subsidiary cite 9/11 as justification to claim the right to strip-search any and all travelers at will ... if someone knocks you down, picking yourself up and cleaning yourself off is a much healthier option than staying down and wallowing in the mud.

But if you want to stay in the mud, or simply lack the heart to climb out of it, then goddammit, don't drag the rest of the country into the mud with you. Bin Laden is dead, al-Qaeda defanged, and STILL they are cited as excuses to make this country a little meaner and a little less free every day.

Oh, but I shouldn't say such things. How dare I criticize my country? When asked about 9/11, the proper patriotic American response is "They hated our freedom, not our foreign policy, so let's make some changes to the former." (The Muslim race is a very emotional one, you see, and when you bomb their wedding parties or kill their infants they get extremely cranky, even if you explain how it's all for their own good, to free them from the forces of oppression.)

Yet the rot set in long before 9/11. Maybe it dates back to the Vietnam War. I can just barely remember, as a little girl, seeing cars festooned with faded old "America: love it or leave it" bumper stickers, obviously directed toward anyone who'd dare criticize their country. But what psychosis is necessary to believe honest criticism and love cannot co-exist?

To repeat an analogy I've used before: one day, while giving my boyfriend a backrub, I saw a mole I'd never noticed before, and immediately brought it to his attention. Why? Because I love him too much to say nothing if I see he has a problem which, left untreated, could destroy him. But if I "loved" him the same way certain self-described patriots "love" America I would have said nothing, because "I love him too much to admit he could have anything as ugly and imperfect as a melanoma on his body!" And woe betide any doctor or colleague who brought it to his attention: "Don't you dare criticize my man! He's perfect!" I'd screech before throwing a few punches (or chairs), or adopting some of the other conflict-resolution techniques so beloved by fervent nationalists and Jerry Springer guests. Such patriots would literally love their country to death.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Irene’s Aftermath: Sympathy For The Devil

Once afternoon when I was about seven, I thoughtlessly ran into traffic to retrieve a stray ball. Fortunately, nothing bad happened: the driver saw me and slammed his brakes in time, no other driver hit him, I didn’t even lose my ball.

That said, even as a seven-year-old dumb enough to run into traffic, I still knew enough (when considering the incident afterwards) to conclude “I was very lucky,” rather than “Obviously, that talk about the danger of running into traffic is overblown hype, used by authority figures to control me!”

Which brings me to Hurricane Irene, which (despite warnings to the contrary) turned out to be an extremely minor storm, here in my little corner of Connecticut. And by “my little corner,” I specifically mean “my small city block, and the one next to mine.” Beyond that, though, the river overflowed its banks, and less than a mile in every direction were homes and businesses without electricity; roads either coated in mud from temporary flooding, or completely washed away, leaving flooded ravines where the roadbed used to be; a building that collapsed directly into the river less than ten minutes’ walk from my front door.

No damage on my street, though. For the first time since I loved here, I can point to my address and say “I live in the good part of town!” I did lose electricity, but only for a second; none of my refrigerated or frozen food went bad though I did have to reset all my digital clocks.

In conclusion: despite the catastrophe unfolding in Vermont, the millions still without power on the East Coast, the dozens dead and all the other damage caused by Hurricane Irene, I personally suffered none of the ill effects the media warned me about. Thus, this was a minor fizzled-out nothing of a storm, and the warnings about it mere hype and bullshit. ’Cuz it's all about me. Only me.

When the sun came out on Sunday afternoon, I grabbed my camera and walked a few blocks to where the underground river re-emerges into the open. It’s usually less than a foot deep and a few feet across, but when the remnants of Irene came through it overflowed its banks into nearby streets. By the time I came by the water had mostly receded, but the roads were still closed to traffic and covered in a couple inches of mud.

There used to be an abandoned business building spanning the river itself – since at least the 1960s – and it always survived previous flooding, but this time the building slumped into the river below, and I saw two large black cracks in the yellow brick walls.

I saw them from a safe distance away, using the zoom function on my camera, but every few minutes somebody would walk around the yellow tape police attempted to tie around the slumping building (the still-brisk winds kept tearing the tape loose), and a few people actually stood on the front steps peering in, and I found myself actually feeling sorry for the exasperated policeman who kept repeating over and over into his loudspeaker “Get away from the building. Get away from the Stately Floors building. You there, in the white shorts and blue top, get away from the building!”

I’m not usually one to urge compliance with authority figures, but this was a rare instance when I wanted to shout “Listen to the cops, dumbass!” Of course I didn’t; I said nothing as I walked across a mudfield that used to be a sidewalk. A group of five teenage girls walked across from the other direction; four wore flip-flops and the other walked barefoot, and a few minutes later when I heard “Get away from the building” over the loudspeaker again, I wasn’t surprised to see the barefoot girl peering inside the store.

Various friends and colleagues who live closer to the coast or major rivers remain without power even now, five days later. Entire towns in Vermont were wiped out. But I’m completely fine, so I’ll be the latest media person to declare Hurricane Irene a complete non-event (unless you want to focus on the whole “me agreeing with government authorities” angle). But an actual disaster? Pfft. I’m fine and so’s New York, and really, who else matters?
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