lies, damn lies, and statistics

Let’s talk about gerrymandering.  It’s bullshit, and I’m going to explain exactly why.  The topic sort of requires visual aids which is why it’s a post and not a podcast.

Let’s invent a state and call it Fredonia.  Let’s say that Fredonia has six million residents, which allots it ten congressional districts and ten electoral votes.  Let’s also say that of its registered voters, roughly 40% are registered as Democrats, 40% are registered as Republicans, and 20% are registered as Independent or ‘no party stated’.  Let’s also assume that it follows the same rough demographics as other states, and have the registered Democrats be more concentrated around cities, and less concentrated in rural areas; with the inverse true of registered Republicans, because this is the general trend in the population of America.  Independents are all over with no particular concentration points.  (I might use this construct again, so if in future posts I refer to Fredonia, I’ll link back here and we’ll all agree it means ‘average state with a fairly even distribution of political sensibilities’.)

You’d be forgiven for assuming that the state legislature would follow the 40/40/20 spread or something fairly close to it, or even that it would be fairly evenly divided between the two major political parties with the odd independent; and that their representation in Congress would be similar.

NOW LET’S GERRYMANDER THE CRAP OUT OF IT

Absent the idea of gerrymandering, congressional districts are divided up by population, with each district getting as close to an equal portion of the population as can be managed with a target of ‘as close to six hundred thousand people as possible’.  Other than that, the lines are supposed to be drawn to be roughly in line with borders of cities, towns, counties, etc.  This makes it simpler for someone to tell who their representative is – ‘I live in Hooterville, so I’m in the 3rd district’ vs. ‘Lemme just plug my zip code and four digit extension into this here calculator’.

Gerrymandering is the practice of jiggering congressional district borders around to produce an intended result – either by drawing the lines to include as many members of their desired political party as possible, thus increasing the chances that the district will vote that way; or excluding their opponent’s party.  It also refers to splitting a concentration of a rival political party among as many districts as possible, to dilute their effect and deny them a bloc.  Advanced Gerrymandering flips the script a little – it recognizes that Overshoe Heights is hopelessly lost to their opponent, so it draws the district around Overshoe Heights to pack as many members of its rival party into it as possible, thus keeping those voters out of other districts.  Master-class Gerrymandering is a reactive process vs. the proactive processes of basic and advanced gerrymandering: it involves either merging two districts together and making up the difference by creating a new one elsewhere, thus forcing two incumbents to compete; or flipping a district from predominantly one party to another to dispose of an annoying incumbent.

But wait, you say, no matter how you draw the lines, there’s still going to be a few Republicans in your gerrymandered Democrat district or vice versa.  And you’re right, but remember, the goal of gerrymandering isn’t to manipulate individual voters, but rather, districts.  Furthermore, people tend to succumb to the ‘wasted vote effect’, which means that although Dogville might have 20% of its voters registered as Democrat, they’re likely to look at the fact that 75% of its voters are registered Republican and figure ‘why bother’ and stay home on election day.

My good friend Professor Wik E. Pedia has seen fit to provide me with some examples:

12th district of North Carolina – this one’s packed with as many Democrats as possible to get them out of neighboring districts, favoring the Republican party.

38th district of California – this one’s jiggered around to favor the Democrats.

really
(4th district of Illinois.  You can just barely see the thin line on the left there that connects the two halves.  Districts are required to be contiguous, but there’s nothing saying you can’t have a connecting bit that’s exactly as wide as Interstate 294.  This was redistricted in 2013 to make the connecting bit a little bit wider, but it’s still positively ridiculous.)

Okay, so if gerrymandering is so obviously bullshit, why is it allowed?  Several reasons – first, it’s a game of inches.  It’s not as if someone with evil in their heart starts with a completely even map of districts that would be a simple grid laid over the state modulo some wobbles for population density, and jumps straight to the horrible runes illustrated above, they’ll nudge a line a little here, a little there, until half a dozen revisions later they get what they want.  Second, both parties do it.  Seriously, although the bulk of cases of obvious gerrymandering favor the Republican party, the Democrats aren’t innocent either.  Why would either party outlaw a practice they have used to great effect?  Third, it’s been a Thing since there’s been a United States.  Seriously, Patrick Henry and his bros gerrymandered Virginia’s 5th to try and keep James Madison out of Congress. (It didn’t work.)  And finally, gerrymandering is a bit like pornography – hard to really define when you get right down to it, but you know it when you see it, to borrow a turn of phrase from Justice Stewart.  There’s a difference between pointing at that horrible nightmare going on in Illinois, and being able to actually codify the difference in legal language.

Okay, so if gerrymandering is obviously bullshit, and we’re not getting rid of it anytime soon, what now?

The short answer is to change the way we vote.  For Presidential elections, and for congressional representation in all but one state (Maine), we use a system called ‘first past the post’.  Everyone gets one vote, they vote for one candidate and one candidate only, and the candidate that gets the most votes wins.  Simple, but lends itself well to manipulation via gerrymandering and some other tactics.

Maine recently switched to a system called Ranked-Choice Voting – each person still gets one vote, but instead of picking one candidate, they list them in order of preference.  When it comes time to tally the votes, first the counters look at everyone’s first choice and tally those.  If one candidate takes more than 50% of the total votes, wham done.  If not, then the candidate who got the fewest votes is eliminated, and the ballots who had that candidate listed as their first choice are counted for whatever that ballot had listed as its second choice – so on and so forth until one candidate beats 50%, and then they’re declared the winner.  This system is still slightly vulnerable to gerrymandering in that by packing, you can still produce a district that’s all but guaranteed to vote a certain way, but fogs it up a little by removing the disincentive to vote for less popular candidates.  In first-past-the-post, a vote for a candidate that isn’t the nominee of either of the two major political parties is not only almost guaranteed not to win, but also means that vote ISN’T counted for either of the two political parties – ask your buddy who wrote in Bernie on the ballot how much grief they took from Hillary supporters to explain how that goes down.

Most of Europe uses a system called Proportional Representation, in which each party on the ballot nominates not a single candidate, but a list, and voters vote for which party they want.  A party which wins 40% of the vote wins 40% of the seats, which they fill from their list from the top down.  A variant called ‘open’ allows voters to also vote for individual candidates on the list, thus choosing which candidates on the list fill the seats the party wins.  This actually eliminates the need for congressional districts entirely – instead of each district choosing a representative, the states chooses all its representatives at once, and the proportion of each party’s candidates in the pool of that state’s representatives reflects the proportion of that party’s supporters within the state.

The downside is that voting gets a little more complicated with Ranked-choice voting or with Proportional Representation than with our simple first-past-the-post method, but it’s significantly more fair, breaks the duopoly the Democrats and Republicans have, reduces the impact of gerrymandering and other forms of manipulation, and (especially with Proportional Representation) more accurately reflects the will of the people.  In exchange for that, I think we can handle ‘rank these candidates in order of your preference’ or ‘what party do you want, optionally, which people on that party’s list do you want’.  It’s an idea whose time has long since come, and the only parties that stand to really lose out are the established political parties who, let’s be real, haven’t accurately represented the will of most people for a very long time.

Give it a think and maybe start some conversations about it.  Be excellent to each other, I love you all.

-30-

eighty bucks and deamonte driver

Deamonte Driver, who lived not far from where I live, would have been looking forward to his 23rd birthday this year, a young life at the very peak of its potential – instead, his mother is looking at the tenth anniversary of his death. Because she lost Medicaid due to a paperwork mixup that resulted from the family having to move, and not having the $80 for an extraction, she could not find anyone willing to remove the abscessed tooth.

Eighty bucks. That’s about what the average family spends on groceries in a week (source: https://www.bls.gov/news.release/cesan.nr0.htm) For want of eighty bucks, the bacteria in Deamonte’s mouth spread to his brain, where it killed him on February 25, 2007 despite emergency brain surgery.

That surgery, and the costs of the healthcare that started when his health declined to the point where he was rushed to a hospital, totalled to about a quarter million dollars. Since Deamonte’s mom didn’t have eighty bucks, she sure as hell didn’t have a quarter million, so that cost went unpaid, where it was picked up partially by taxpayers and partially by the healthcare industry (and therefore by healthcare consumers).

Congress soon afterward passed a bill requiring pediatric dental coverage to be included in Medicaid, a provision which was eventually included in the Affordable Care Act. Repealing Obamacare would mean creating the same situation that killed Deamonte Driver for want of eighty bucks, instead forcing the public in general – whether they can afford health coverage or not – to help shoulder the burden of a young man’s life and a quarter million dollar bill.

It goes without saying that I’d rather not be complicit in the death of a 12 year old kid. It also goes without saying that I’d rather pay part of $80 than part of $250,000. There is no situation where a straight repeal of the ACA makes sense.

Opponents of the ACA will scream about how much it costs to cover everybody. They’ll scream about how it’s not fair that the costs of one person’s healthcare should be spread among everybody. What they won’t tell you is that it costs LESS to cover everybody, BECAUSE the costs of one person’s healthcare DOES get spread among everybody if they don’t happen to be independently wealthy enough to pay it out of pocket. (And if you think anyone wealthy enough to pay for their healthcare out of pocket does so, and doesn’t have very good health coverage, you’re out of touch with reality.)

Eighty bucks is less than two hundred fifty thousand bucks. I don’t care what direction you look at it from, I don’t care if it’s a great big 80 made out of diamond and an itty bitty 250,000 made out of balsa wood. Eighty is, was, and always shall be less than 250,000.

And a mother should never have to put flowers on her baby’s grave because she didn’t have $80 for the dentist.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/…/02/27/AR2007022702116_3.html

what now?

Okay here’s the scoop.
Let me preface this by pointing out that the National Suicide Hotline exists, its number is 800/273-8255, it is open 24 hours a day, and exists to talk to you if you or someone you know are in crisis. They are not going to laugh at you or preach at you, they are not going to dismiss your concerns. If you’re thinking of hurting yourself, or worried that someone close to you is, please call that number. Won’t cost you a dime. There is help.
Regardless of whether you were disconsolate or elated by last night’s results, the last few months have made one thing extremely clear: Our political system is sort of broken. We’ve lost the ability to see our neighbor as a person with hopes and ideas if we see them with an opposing political candidate’s sign in their yard. We’ve stopped treating each other like fellow citizens of a nation and started treating them as potential enemies. All sides are guilty of this, and I’m not excluding myself from the path of this wide paintbrush either, we’ve all done it.
This has gotta stop.
For good or ill, Trump is the president-elect, and whether this makes you scream in terror or delight, we all still have a job to do: Making the next four (or eight) years go as smoothly as possible for everyone. Whether you want to support him or battle him, the answer is the same: Participate in our government. You don’t have to brush up your resume and run for local office or anything like that, but take a few minutes a day and read the news, national and local. Pay attention when they say an election is coming up, no matter how local or miniscule. If you’re not happy with either of the two parties, well, starting from the bottom is how a new political party gets going.
Stein or Johnson didn’t exactly have a hope of winning the election last night, but at least they were on the ballot – because a lot of hard work by a WHOLE lot of people brought their parties up from the bottom. That same effort could apply to any new political party, and heck, more work from more people and they could easily have a shot in four (or eight) years.
Voter turnout went up this election – but a whoooole lot of people stayed home. This worries me. I hear from a lot of people who refuse to vote because they think the system is broken – and, well, if we’re being honest with each other, it is. But the way to fix it is to vote out the jerks that broke it, and vote in the people to fix it.
Please, please, PLEASE participate in our government. It needs you more than ever, no matter which side you fall on, or whether you fall on no side at all. I’m not asking you to agree to political ideas you hate, or make compromises – all I’m asking is that you make your ideas known at the ballot box. None of the candidates for a given race satisfy you? Write someone in, or don’t pick anyone at all. I’ll bet you a Snickers that there’s SOMETHING on the ballot you have an opinion on, you don’t have to fill out the whole thing.
To close, I’ll fall back on the words of Ben Franklin: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
Be excellent to each other, I love you all.

really don’t mind if you sit this one out

My words but a whisper, your deafness a shout.

I haven’t written as much as I’d like lately. It’s frustrating in the same way it’s humbling – it’s hard to reach people who don’t already agree on some level with the things I’m arguing for, and on the occasion I can get new eyeballs on things, it just gets lost in the noise.

I may make you feel, but I can’t make you think.

I think a part of that is that one of the unwritten rules of polite society is that we generally don’t confront people to challenge their views on politics, money, and other forms of religion.  For every Trump supporter you argue with, there’s probably at least a dozen others you just roll your eyes at because engagement isn’t worth the effort. Heck, I’m guilty of that too.  It’s a cultural issue, not an individual one.  By shying away from discussing our beliefs with others, we shy away from analyzing them for ourselves.  We should think more and +like less.

And the sandcastle virtues are all stripped away
By the tidal destruction,  the moral melee.

But we don’t, because polite society runs on compromise.  We agree not to start uncomfortable discussions with any but our close friends, and generally fail to do even that.  As a result, your average person can get through a basic day without having to discuss the philosophy of their politics for half an hour on the subway. A fair compromise, sure, as long as the big problems get addressed. As a result of that comprise and its attendant assumption, we avoid thinking about the deep cracks in the mask of justice and freedom Lady Liberty wears.  At least, until the atrocities start to pile up.

And your new shoes are worn at the heels

Then we discuss them, but always with a subtext of “can we please find a reason not to talk about this” like Tamir Rice and the pellet gun, or how Michael Brown smoked pot and shoplifted, or if Freddie Gray hadn’t done something to get himself arrested, he never would have died.  We look for reasons behind these things that are more palatable then “the American justice system and a too – large portion of its agents are racist as all hell”. And then we can stop thinking about it.

And you shake your head, and say it’s a shame.

Sure, it’s hard and scary to think Big Thinks and it’s not a lot of fun to really put a large amount of thought into a complicated issue.  It’s also a necessary thing if we’re going to make the world a place where everybody gets a fair shot.  In the words of Michael Arnovitz – a far better writer than I am and definitely worthy of your eyeballs – “…bigotry is a societal virus.  And to one extent or another, most of us are infected.  Our job is not to throw things at people who point this out, and it’s not to pretend that we are fine while we walk around coughing and sneezing on each other.  Our job is to get better.”

Now I’m not suggesting we start chatting up people at random about their political leanings.  That’s a good way to get banned from your favorite Arby’s. (Don’t hate.  Arby’s is good.)  Start small.  Next time you get one of Those Emails or Those Facebook Posts from that one person you went to school with so you don’t feel right about unfriending them or blocking their email – you know the ones, the ones where they’re hollering about how the political candidate you’d dismissed as the latest Villain Of The Week – ask them privately about it.  What do you like about this candidate? What don’t you like about the opposition?  What issues are most important to you?  Here’s what issues are important to me.

You’re going to get a lot of pushback, especially at first, because people are used to political discussion being a binary of ‘absolutely no discussion whatsoever’ or ‘holy war’.  We can’t be afraid to talk about what’s important.  We can’t be afraid to gain alternative perspectives.  After all, if we’re afraid to really explore our thinking and challenge our assumptions, then how confident can we really be that we’re in the right?

We can build our invincible fortresses of moral ‘rightness’ all we want, but until we recognize the cracks in the foundation, they won’t stand up to a whole lot of punishment.

Would you be the fool stood in his suit of armor
or the wiser man who rushes clear

(Post title and italic text from Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull)

No rest for the wicked or the innocent alike

In Judeo-Christian tradition, three days are set aside for the dead to find their way to heaven.  This is also a time for the families of the departed to grieve, but to grieve knowing that members of their family or community are guarding them against prying eyes or other grave-robbers in their moment of vulnerability while they deal with the tragedy that has befallen them.  The impulse is to put on a brave face for the public, to try to keep it together, as if one should be able to shrug off such a horrible loss with nothing more than a mannerly tear or two.

Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, and the generalized addiction America has to outrage, this period of grief has been streamlined to about three minutes.

Earlier today, a terrible tragedy befell a town in Connecticut.  A young man, for reasons unknown, stormed into an elementary school in Newtown and viciously murdered 26 people – twenty of those small children, none more than ten.  This is a monstrous act, and one that we may never be able to understand.  I want to make clear that my thoughts and prayers go out to all the families touched by this horrible act – whether their children lost there lives, or merely their innocence.

Within hours of the shooting, I received emails from two different political organizations asking for my help in using the tragedy to push through laws favoring strong gun control – and donations were more than welcome.  I also received email from an organization opposing gun control, asking for similar assistance.  I have no reason to believe this is the last I will hear of these requests, but the fact that they were sent out before the dead had even all been positively identified – that their deaths were being politicized even before their bodies had gone fully cold – is also a monstrous, ghoulish act.  Less than six hours after the shootings, Mark Kelly, who is familiar with tragedy, being the husband to former Congresswoman and shooting victim Gabby Giffords, issued a statement offering condolences to the families who lost children, and in the same breath calling for gun control hearings, saying “This can no longer wait.”

Forgive me for disagreeing with you, Mr. Kelly, but I think it could have waited at least a day.  I think it could have waited until the parents of the children that were lost had time to draw a breath that didn’t immediately catch in their throat.  I think it could have waited until the children who survived finished crying themselves to sleep.

I think it could have waited until the families had a little time to mourn.

We’ve become addicted to sensationalism – we’re obsessed with more, with bigger, with better.  This is the culture that produces interviews like WTNH’s Erin Logan interviewing a young girl who survived unharmed, asking her what it was like – and when the answer wasn’t as sensational as she wanted, as we have come to expect, prodded her further and asking if everyone was “…crying, scared, wanting their parents to come get them?”

Pardon the vulgarity, but what the hell do YOU think? Is it really good journalism to poke at a victim clearly in emotional shock, and demand to know just HOW freaked out everyone was? Do you really need to push a small child into making a horrible, terrible tragedy worse by recounting the screams and cries of terrified children?  Is it truly newsworthy that children in danger will be upset?

There’s a difference between reporting the news, and manufacturing the news – and inappropriate questions like that plainly cross the line.  It’s obvious that the children were terrified – what next, shall we ask for direct quotes of the screams?  Recordings of the crying?

When does it cross the line?  As far as I can see, that’s long past.  Let them react on their own schedule, Ms. Logan.  Don’t pry the gory details out of a child.  Don’t pick at the scab before it’s even started to form.

On The Wrong LePage

(in response to the article found at http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2011/03/23/maine-governor-orders-labor-mural-takedown/ )

I grew up in Maine, and though we do have a few tall buildings, it is by no means a ‘city’ sort of state. You will not find the concrete jungles of New York, nor will you find the miles and miles and miles of sprawling city that California is so proud of, nor will you find the home offices of international powerhouses of finance or industry.

What you will find is about 1.3 million regular folks (roughly the population of San Diego spread over approximately 95 times the space), trying to get by as best they can in an area known for not a whole hell of a lot. Maine’s biggest exports are blueberries, toothpicks, and Stephen King novels. Common activities involve cursing Mother Nature, enjoying the outdoors, and working your fingers to the f*#$ing bone.

Much – perhaps even most – of Maine’s economy is labor-intensive. Fishing and logging, two of the most labor-intensive and dangerous jobs in the world, are responsible for a lot of the money made and spent there. Shipbuilding, leatherworking, agriculture – you name it, if it’s a pain in the ass to do and doesn’t pay near as well as it should, it’s probably responsible for the economic survival of at least two dozen towns and villages in Maine. The point I am trying to make here is that the vast bulk of folks from Maine fall solidly in the ‘labor’ camp and not that of ‘management’.

Enter Paul LePage, the new Republican governor whose politics are fairly typical of the post “oh crap those Tea Party guys are SERIOUS” Republican Party.

If there’s one thing the Maine government has fairly consistently gotten right, it is appreciation – or at least lip service – for the thousands and thousands of people who bust their humps from dawn to midnight, day after day, to keep the state working. The headquarters of the Department of Labor, for instance, has a gorgeous mural, spanning eleven panels and 36 feet, telling the history of the labor movement in Maine and some of its many conflicts. Students of labor history might remember reading of the massive strikes in 1937 at shoe mills sparked by ridiculously unsafe working practices and discriminatory management, or the strike in 1987 at the paper mill caused, among other reasons, by International Paper’s refusal to address environmental concerns and its attempt to eliminate the only holiday the mills granted its workers.

Furthermore, many of its conference rooms are named after heroes of the labor movement from all over, like the César Chávez room (if you don’t recognize that name immediately, you are doing yourself a great disservice by continuing to read this instead of Googling him), the Frances Perkins room (the Secretary of Labor under Franklin D Roosevelt – and the first woman to hold a department head position in the Federal government), and the William Looney room (a local boy from Portland who grew up to be the chairman of the House Committee on Labor and sponsored a bill limiting working hours for women and children in factories in the late 1800’s).

Governor LePage, however, has forgotten the thousands and thousands of people he attained his position on the very backs of, and is ordering the mural removed and the conference rooms renamed. It’s not as friendly to businesses as it should be, you see. Gives the message that Maine cares more about workers than it does about businesses, after all, and we can’t have that.

LePage, even though I no longer live in Maine, I grew up there and spent around two decades in it. I am still enough of a Mainiac to deliver this message to you without the slightest hesitation:

Get the hell out of our state.

For someone who cares so much about business, you certainly have none attempting to quiet the contributions of millions of hard working citizens who built this state from a blank forest to the burgeoning economy it is. You would not have your job if not for the hard working people in the Great State of Maine. The very house you live in, the Blaine House, was built by an old ship’s captain – someone who needed to really understand the delicate balance between labor and management, or risk being chucked overboard by the crew. How do you sleep at night within those walls, given how little you care for the people that put you there? Granted, nobody’s going to be tossing you over the side of a ship anytime soon, but you may find yourself woefully short of friends the next time the ballot boxes come out.

If there is one thing I learned after growing up in Maine, it is never, ever, ever anger someone – much less an entire population – near the tail end of a long, cold winter. Cabin Fever and other frustrations are at their peak, and folks from Maine have long memories. This won’t be forgotten for a long time, and 2015 is not as far off as you think. For that matter, we haven’t tossed a governor out early yet, but since you see no need to hold fast to history and tradition, why should we?

Fear and Loathing for Sanity

Driving to our nation’s capital from Southern Virginia, you pass by a whole lot of military and governmental installations: Belvoir, Quantico, Alexandria, and others. I was driving near Richmond, looking at the fog collecting over the swamps by the side of the interstate, and listening to Simon and Garfunkel singing about finding America. I had expected to write a pithy piece about how the Rally to Restore Sanity would show Washington that the loose assortment of hipsters, internet geeks, and slacktivists that they had previously largely ignored (with few notable exceptions) had suddenly become the Next Big Voting Pool, and write a message of hope for the future and an admonishment to not lose the momentum.

In the interests of covering all my bases, however, I came equipped with a flask of bourbon, a packet of cigars, a cell phone with still and video camera, and my trusty laptop. I’d forgotten the condoms, but was otherwise perfectly equipped to commit acts of journalism. A good friend had suggested I leave my ever-present knife at home, so I stashed it in the car. Sanity and all that, and besides, this wasn’t expected to be too bonkers.

Over the next twelve hours, I was proven wrong in more ways than I could have ever imagined, and a couple times I mourned the absence of the knife.

I generally wear a three-day shave, a Hulk Hogan moustache, dark glasses, a purple paisley do-rag, and a Popeye squint when out in public because that way the sort of people who aren’t worth talking to will leave you the hell alone on the subway. I immediately fell into a discussion on labor unions with a photojournalist, his wife, and a guy who looked like the love child of Steve Buscemi and Vinnie Barbarino. When the immensely crowded train lurched to a halt at L’Enfant Plaza and issued forth its passengers, we were directed toward the Mall by cheerful, lucid volunteers. I began to wonder if maybe my suspicions of madness were unfounded, and then I turned a corner to see a guy holding a sign demanding no amnesty or guest worker visas for immigrants, and immediate deportation of anyone found here illegally. I asked him what exactly he meant by that, and he replied in heavily accented English that if you weren’t born here, you shouldn’t be here. I asked him where his ancestors were from and he didn’t seem to understand the relevance of the question. The point that basically everybody but Native Americans were immigrants to America, and we were pretty uniformly dicks to those guys sailed straight over his head, and he stopped paying attention to me at that point.

Over the next few hours, I was vomited on twice by people I assumed to be unrelated, witnessed an old man in wizard robes lick the back of a policeman’s hat (the policeman was distracted by screaming at a very stoned young man who had climbed one of the trees in the Mall), listened to a surprising assortment of excellent musical acts, had my phone stolen a couple times (luckily everyone was immobilized by the crowd so retrieval was a simple matter of snatching it back and threatening the thief with anatomically unlikely retribution), and witnessed unholy anarchy as the local cellular networks were completely destroyed by sheer force of numbers and everyone tried their calls, text messages, and Qik uploads over… and over… and over again. AT&T never had a chance.

By the time the rally was over, the National Mall east of 7th and every possible surface for a couple blocks in every direction was UTTERLY jammed with a seething mass of humanity. On my way out, I saw people had climbed the portable toilets – some looking for their comrades, others jeering and preaching to the crowd, and a couple folks doing jumping jacks. The toilets, including the impromptu exercise yard, were still in constant use despite the rapidly disintegrating roofs. I can only imagine some poor jerk trying to answer nature’s call got a surprise.

Discarded signs, flyers, food wrappers and water bottles, assorted effluvia and bodily fluids, and the occasional demolished cell phone littered the ground, and the word on the street was WHAT’S NEXT – afterparties, pub crawls, and the never-ending quest for illicit substances. However, just as much as that was chatter about the midterm elections – who was secretly or not-so-secretly a tea party stooge, who was trying to do the right thing but bogged down by the politics game, who was a pretty good incumbent but should step down to make room for a rising star with some good ideas and enough political capital to make them happen.

My God, I thought, maybe I was right all along and this WAS the slacktivist voter pool captured in the act of becoming. Its birth – or perhaps baptism – was just a little dirtier than most. I kept those particular stars in my eyes right up to the point where I finally punched my way onto the exiting subway, and an unknown but very friendly gentleman in his twenties squeezed my genitals, along with the genitals of several other folks on the subway, before somehow wriggling through the crowded train and escaping the wrath of the groped.

I love Washington.

Sexual Torture in America’s Prisons

The town I grew up in, Addison, Maine, has around 1200 residents.  If I were to tell you that in an average year, around 53 of those residents were horribly raped, how would you react?  Would you wonder what law enforcement was doing?  Would you demand that effort be put forward to stop this victimization at any cost, that no amount of money was too much to invest to make sure that nobody has to live under that constant threat of violence on American soil?  Or would you shrug your shoulders and say they probably deserved it?

The Department of Justice recently released a study on prison rape (located here:http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=2202 ) indicating that 4.4% of the respondents to the poll had reported being raped or otherwise sexually victimized within the 12 months preceding the study.  In 2009, 2,297,400 men, women, and juveniles were held in prisons, jails, and detention centers (source:http://www.kcl.ac.uk/depsta/law/research/icps/worldbrief/ ).  That means that judging by the numbers released by the DoJ, 101,086 inmates are victimized every year, or one about every five minutes, every hour of every day.  In the time it took you to catch up with The Simpsons on television, six people – six American citizens – were horribly and violently sexually victimized.

And nobody seems to want to do anything about it.

It’s very easy to dismiss prison rape as a consequence of crime – after all, everybody knows rape happens in prison all the time, so if you don’t want to get raped, you shouldn’t break laws.  It’s easy to see the victims as Other, as less-than-human because after all, they wouldn’t BE in prison if they weren’t already bad people, right?

The United States of America imprisons more of its own citizens per capita than any other nation on the planet:  748 per 100,000, or 0.748%.  Out of the 217 countries that I could find statistics for, that’s more than the bottom 21 combined.  It’s more than China and the Russian Federation combined.  It’s more than Iran, Taiwan, and the UAE put together.  Surely we as a nation aren’t so sinful that each and every one of those 2,297,400 people deserve to be put in a place where there’s a good chance they’re going to be raped?  In fact, the vast majority of those in prisons or jails – about three quarters – are there for nonviolent offenses, like tax evasion, three-strikes convictions for marijuana possession, and having too many traffic tickets.  Hardly the sort of crimes for which brutal rape is anything resembling a fair trade, not that there is such a thing.

Many of you reading this are wondering why we allow this to happen.  Why haven’t we told the Department of Justice to do something about this?  Actually, we did:  In 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 was signed into law.  This Act put together a National Prison Rape Elimination Commission that, after considering reports, funding, statistics, and testimony, gave US Attorney General Eric Holder until June 23, 2010 to establish new standards for reducing rape and sexual assault in prisons.  The standards wouldn’t even have to be mandatory, though prisons would see reduced funding if those standards were not met.

The findings of the commission were sent to Holder in 2009, giving him one year exactly to come up with some new standards.  This apparently was not enough time for the Department of Justice, who has stalled the process by hiding behind cost analyses and budget concerns.  Although the findings of the commission recommended that the new standards not impose undue costs on the operating budgets of the prisons, it is worth noting that money spent preventing prisoners from being raped by other prisoners and guards (yes, of that 4.4% of prisoners getting raped every year, 2.8% – more than half – was by the staff) is money not spent on medical and mental treatment of the victims.  Money spent preventing rape is money not spent on prosecuting rapists.  Money spent making sure the staff isn’t sexually torturing the prisoners is money not spent replacing the staff and trying to hide the fact that the new prisoner is an ex-guard (because, after all, we wouldn’t want the ex-guard to be targeted for violence).

At what point do we say enough is enough?  At what point do you contact your congressperson or senator and tell them that you are furious at the constant stalling by the Department of Justice and that we need to send a message to them demanding that something be done about this NOW and not later?  If for you, that point is now, you can find contact information for your congresspersons here (https://writerep.house.gov/writerep/welcome.shtml ) and your senators here (http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm ).  Take a look at the report by the DoJ (linked above) and see the data for yourself – glance at the summary page at the very least.  Take a look at the World Prison Brief (again, linked above) and see for yourself how many people we put in prison.  Then ask yourself:  Is this justice?

News Corp, General Electric, and the Death of Objectivity

Borrowing a tradition from the government of pre-revolution France, journalism has often been called the Fourth Estate of society – the first being the clergy, the second being the nobility (government), and the third being the public at large. Journalism is most useful when it is separate from each of the previous three estates – although it is not an opponent of either the clergy or the government, it is at its best when it is free from the influence of either. For journalism to be objective and credible, it needs to be able to report on the flaws and failings of the other estates. In a sense, it protects the public from the machinations of the clergy and the nobility.

But what happens when the lines blur?

Recently, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, parent company to Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, donated one million dollars to the Republican Governor’s Association, an organization devoted to promoting the election and interests of state governors who affiliate themselves with the Republican Party. Fox News is, of course, home of Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly, all of which devote the vast majority (if not the entirety) of their programs preaching the virtues of conservatism and casting aspersions on liberals to a degree that approaches self-parody. Guest speakers advancing liberal viewpoints are occasionally present, but invariably dismissed as socialists, well-meaning simpletons, or simply shouted down.

Keith Olbermann, an MSNBC news anchor and longtime devoted rival of Fox News and its stars, reported on this shortly afterward, mentioning in the interests of full disclosure that General Electric, the parent company of MSNBC, had donated $105,000 to the RGA – along with an identical amount to the Democratic Governor’s Association. The fact that both amounts were identical was presented as an example of fairness and equality. According to CNN, those numbers are not entirely accurate – in the current election cycle, GE has donated $237,000 to the DGA compared with $205,000 to the RGA. Thirty-two thousand dollars, spread across an entire nation’s worth of funding, is a small enough amount so that it could be argued to be irrelevant – but even if Olbermann was accurate, that’s not the real problem – the problem is that news organizations and their parent companies are financially supporting political parties in the first place.

For a news agency to be taken seriously, its statements and commentary must be assumed to be objective. For objectivity to exist, it must be known that the person or agency making the statement be free from conflicts of interest or other forms of outside influence. For a person or a company to make a donation, especially one so large, to any person or group implies that the target of the donation is tacitly endorsed by the donator. You don’t give money to a charity that supports something you disapprove of, after all. Therefore, it can be reasoned that when news organizations donate money to a political party, they are expressing their endorsement and approval of the beliefs and activities of that party. This is the very definition of bias. If a news agency is biased, they cannot be trusted to provide honest, objective commentary on the target of their bias, just as you can’t ask a person about their lover’s personal problems and expect anything resembling an honest answer.

That Fox News is biased toward the Republican party is beyond question. MSNBC’s bias toward the Democratic Party is questionable as GE is not solely or even mostly a news organization, but it is still a troubling revelation. That mass media in general is at the whim and mercy of government or corporate interests is the horrible reality that lies at the root of the whole problem. The only saving grace is that at least many entirely different people and agencies are serving their interests by buying and selling the mass media, so there is often truth to be found by comparing the reports of rival news agencies and seeing where they agree – and more importantly, where they do not.

So where does this leave the person seeking truth? Nonprofit news organizations (a draft list can be found here:http://www.hks.harvard.edu/hauser/engage/artsculturemedia/nonprofit-news-organizations/index.html ) are not guaranteed to be free from outside influence, but as they have no shareholders to serve and no profits to worry about, chances are much better that they will be much freer from bias – or at least be honest and forthright about their bias. Nonprofit news organizations range from the tiny to the titanic, spreading their message everywhere from talk radio to the internet and everywhere in between. As I’ve written many times before, though, you should never depend on any one person or group to be your sole source of news and information – because to do so is to allow that one source to do your thinking for you as well.

Glenn Beck Is An Asshole

Caught a clip of Glenn Beck’s program thanks to the good people at Crooks & Liars (linkhttp://crooksandliars.com/karoli/glenn-beck-99ers-i-bet-youd-be-ashamed-call) and, after stomping around my home a little while, came to a conclusion stunning in its obviousness: Glenn Beck is an asshole.

On the surface, this seems a revelation on par with the observation of the liquid state of a solution of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, but there’s more to it than that. Glenn Beck REALLY IS an asshole.

The asshole, being the tail end of the alimentary canal, is where used food and other waste products leave the body after having had the nutrients and other useful materials extracted from them. Toxic substances which should never have been ingested in the first place are also often expelled from the body here. Though disgusting, the asshole is a necessary part of the body: the waste has to go SOMEWHERE, after all, and if it were not for the anal sphincter giving the body control over when and where to expel its waste, it would simply dribble out of the body as it was produced. Hardly sanitary.

Now let us apply this concept to the realm of political discourse: You start with an idea or a concept. The idea is consumed, its useful components extracted and utilized, and then it quietly dies. Except not really – ideas never really die, they are either maintained and cared for, or they become horrible shambling caricatures of the ideals they once expressed. Eventually, the idea and those who support it are so far removed from the original idea that they are barely recognizable – as far estranged from each other as a golden cob of buttery deliciousness, and a pale yellow husk sticking out of a lump of excrement.

Take something like the concept of the self-made man: At its heart, you have the idea that each man is the captain of his own destiny, that no person is so low that they can not pull themselves up to whatever success they deem worthy, that each person need depend only on him or herself to help them make it. It’s a noble sentiment, and has many good and useful concepts to it: Yes, each person should do their very best to succeed (for individual values of ‘succeed’). Yes, the most significant contributor to the fate of a person is that person themselves. Yes, when you are failing at your personal goals, or when you are needy, that is when you apply greater effort than ever before.

But there are false and harmful concepts there too: the idea that outside circumstances are meaningless is false. The idea that a person can see to their own needs without assistance from others is false and in many cases harmful (by that logic, those who are unemployed should not be allowed to live past the point where their savings allow them food or shelter).

So after digestion and excretion, we are left with what is called by many as the BOOTSTRAPS! concept: that the main reason so many people are poor is that they simply lack ambition or a strong work ethic, that those who make use of or depend upon unemployment or other social services are weak or lazy, and that those who suffer under circumstances making it difficult for them to succeed can simply ignore those circumstances and overcome them through sheer force of will.

The more the idea is digested and redigested, regurgitated, chewed, and re-swallowed, the more the eventual result has had its good and useful parts replaced with foul and toxic concepts. The more a piece of food is processed and chewed and digested and artificially preserved or any other form of altering, the more the eventual result has had its natural nutrients replaced with artificial ones, its textural nuances replaced with uniform easily-chewed blandness, its flavor only barely reminiscent of that of its original ingredient.

The problem arises when people confuse the two: Subsisting on a diet of only processed convenience food will make you ill, and subsisting on a diet of intellectual waste will sicken your mind and poison your spirit. Man cannot live on beef jerky and potato chips alone, nor can getting your ideas and opinions from a spewing asshole like Glenn Beck lead to a strong and healthy mind.

Glenn Beck fills a necessary role in media: He is the asshole, the spewer of digested ideas and diseased concepts, so that we as a society can look upon the effluvia that comes out of our collective consciousness and examine it for signs of trauma or disease. Unfortunately, he markets himself as a source of intellectual nutrition and, for those who don’t bother to read nutrition labels or other warnings, drops a steaming pile of mental cholera into the brains and hearts of untold numbers of the population.

There is nothing wrong with being an asshole – in fact, an asshole is necessary – but never, ever confuse a pile of bullshit with a sirloin steak.