I’m more comfortable being openly atheist than openly against the US military

I’ve never been shy about being an atheist. It’s not something I bring up among coworkers or acquaintances. But, if asked, I’m very comfortable talking about it. People close to me know and are respectful. There are other things I believe, however, that I don’t really like talking about.

Four American soldiers were killed in Niger, a country most Americans never heard of and even fewer could point out on a map. Many probably weren’t aware we were there in the first place, but it shouldn’t be too surprising. In 2015, the US had more than 800 bases in 70 countries. Somewhat hilariously, the senate has little idea of where and what our benevolent global police force is doing:

“Senator McCain is frustrated, rightly so, we don’t know exactly where we’re at in the world militarily and what we’re doing,” Graham said, adding that with McCain’s system: “We’ll know how many soldiers are there, and if somebody gets killed there, that we won’t find out about it in the paper.”

Dead soldiers rarely warrant more than a few days of media coverage. However, the dumpster president fucking up what should have been a simple condolence call has kept the story in public eye much longer than normal. Not that anyone really cares about what the US is doing in Niger. The media (damn you MSM!) isn’t particularly interested in giving us a nuanced, comprehensive look at the recent and historical geopolitical ramifications of US intervention in the Sahel:

The media’s efforts should have been devoted to exploring — really exploring — why Rangers (and drones) are in Niger at all. (This is typical of the establishment media’s explanation.)

That subject is apparently of little interest to media companies that see themselves merely as cheerleaders for the American Empire. For them, it’s all so simple: a U.S president (even one they despise) has put or left military forces in a foreign country — no justification required; therefore, those forces are serving their country; and that in turn means that if they die, they die as heroes who were protecting our way of life. End of story.

But maybe we should just accept the obvious reason we’re in Niger: to teach them “how to respect human rights.” I, for one, can’t think of a better teacher.

The first paragraph was written to contrast my religious beliefs (or lack thereof) with my feelings about the military. While I’m fine being an open atheist, I go out of my way to not bring up my feelings about the US military, specifically the people that eagerly join. Most people I associate with on a regular basis, very generally-speaking, fall somewhere on the left side of the spectrum, somewhere between Clinton and Sanders. But most would not take kindly to questioning the valor, sacrifice, and altruism of the troops. Critiquing US hegemony is mostly fine, but that’s where it ends. Criticism of the humans who provide the muscle is not socially acceptable. I get why this is. So many people have friends or relatives in the military. It would be pretty shitty telling them that their loved ones shouldn’t have joined. Only a monster would tell someone dealing with the loss of a loved one that the dead soldier “knew what he signed up for,” even if it’s kind of true.

It’s easy to blame the leaders of the American military-industrial complex, but soldiers are a huge part of the problem. They are not a force for good in the world. There is no causal relationship between a person joining the military and my or anyone else’s right to free speech. Dead soldiers are not automatically heroes. Maybe some have unequivocally done heroic things outside of their role in US hegemony, but anything in the service of it is not heroic. Our collective deification of the troops is infantile, and made even more pathetic by how the US government treats them when their service is ended.

I’ve had a few friends serve. I hoped very much that they would be safe and not do anything shitty to the war-ravaged inhabitants of the places we conduct unwinnable wars. But I always kept those feelings to myself. At any rate, I’m glad I have this blog to serve as an outlet for expressing something I’m uncomfortable talking about verbally.

As I wrote above, it’d be pretty fucking rude to give my spiel to anyone that’s been negatively affected by a loved one’s service by death or PTSD. Maybe some of you read this and think I’m an asshole for impugning individual soldiers. That’s fine. I would point out, though, that I support soldiers remaining alive by wishing them to not be in the military.

 

 

 

A confession

Last fall, shortly after starting this blog, I became a theist. It’s a secret I feel I must now reveal.

In 2013, the Milwaukee Bucks selected Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick of that year’s draft. At the time He was largely unknown. He had only recently took up basketball, while His family scraped to get by as illegal immigrants in Greece. Bucks fans only had grainy video footage from high school-sized gyms to go on. Since then, His meteoric rise has felt simultaneously improbable, though in retrospect inexorable. He’s become a darkhorse MVP candidate at the very young age of 22. It was only last year that casual fans became aware of the latest stage of His metamorphosis – no longer were basketblogger nerds and Bucks fans the only groups to joyously witness His continuing ascension.

I know, I know – you could not care less. But the Cult of Giannis is an evangelizing faith. It is my duty to speak of the Good News:

Someday, someone will take he and his family’s story and make it into a shitty movie. I can’t wait.

I apologize to those inadvertently subjected to an irreverent sports post, with nary a whisper of the problematic social issues roiling beneath the surface (i.e. the refugee/illegal immigrant experience in Europe, another Horatio Alger story as a supposed example of how exemplary the meritocratic West is, etc.)  .

Anyways, let us pray:

On child welfare

Jezebel has been posting stories over the past several weeks from parents of children that have been involved in the child welfare system. They’ve been both interesting and heartbreaking, while providing narratives to situations most are only vaguely aware of. I’ve noticed in the comments that there are disagreements where, generally-speaking, some feel that the stories told do not mitigate what they see as the fact that children are placed in danger. Others highlight the odious effects of state involvement in underprivileged populations. Both sides make valid points.

It’s really important to note that the posts thus far are incredibly one-sided. In none of them are the various child welfare entities going to offer their side of the story even if asked, as that is highly confidential. Neither will you hear from children, though the comments section contains some of their stories and responses.

I’ve been aware of a couple local stories where I’ve personally known about a lot more beneath the surface, where if the public knew they’d probably have a different opinion than solely having read a sensationalized account in the local media. But lacking that confidential context, the public, when they are aware of it, are free to excoriate the system for continuing to fuck up. In instances such as the ones referenced in Jezebel, I can’t help but find myself rhetorically asking “what the fuck? Should we as a society just turn a blind eye and not err on the side of caution if there’s strong evidence of child endangerment?”

On the other hand, I cannot deny that the following is abundantly true:

But recent reporting has captured the opposite reality – that child welfare investigations and removals are a constant, terrifying presence in the lives of poor parents. Citywide, one in five children comes to the attention of the child welfare system. The majority of investigations are concentrated in just eight neighborhoods. Most allegations are not abuse but neglect, often driven by the stressors of poverty, not the character of the parent. And the negative press may have heightened disparate treatment of poor families; in the first quarter of 2017, after the coverage of Zymere Perkins’ death, requests for removals by the agency were up significantly over the same time last year.

I guess what I’m saying is it’s important to consider what’s missing from the stories. Unless you are directly affected, or work in the bowels of the system, it’s hard to get a grasp of the magnitude of what’s faced. But one is able to get a tenuous grasp if they choose to look.

***

Wisconsin, my home state, publishes certain statistics regarding child welfare. Other states do as well, though it varies in terms of what information types are accessible and how it is collected and presented. If Wisconsin’s website is any indication, most aren’t very user user-friendly. But before digging into some of those statistics, I’m going to sketch a brief outline of how a family becomes involved in child welfare.

A person believes an incident or child abuse or neglect has taken place. They call the appropriate hotline in their area. A decision is made to investigate (Screen In), or to file the information away and not investigate (Screen Out). A majority of calls are Screened Out. This usually happens due to a dearth of information. For example, if you see a parent physically abusing a child in a parking lot and call it in and have only that information, it’s likely to be screened out.

Calls that are Screened In are investigated. For this, Social Workers are sent out in a time-frame that is determined by the possible danger the kids are judged to be in. This could happen immediately or over the course of a month. Most investigations will yield a result of unsubstantiated. Typically, this is due to lack of evidence, or the allegations not turning out to rise to the level of actual abuse and neglect. These cases are either closed or kept open while services are given with the children remaining in the home. Though it’s obvious, it should be pointed out that though an allegation may not be substantiated, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. The same goes for uninvestigated Screen Outs.

The state of Wisconsin received 52,100 allegations of child abuse or neglect in the first eight months of 2017. About 35% were Screened In and investigated [1]. The rest were not. Milwaukee County accounted for about 20% of all calls, and were investigated more than the statewide average, around 45% of the time.

In any given month, around 7000-8000 children are in out of home care. Roughly around 400 children enter care, and 300 leave care in the same time span. Children are placed with relatives, family friends, foster homes, or at higher level of care facilities such as group homes, or residential care centers. Efforts are extended, especially when a child enters care, to place with relatives. Very anecdotally, about half of all cases involve relatives willing to help out. Unfortunately, most of these relatives have at least some history of involvement in child welfare in many different contexts. If one of the contexts is a substantiation for abuse or neglect, they will be ruled out as a viable option [2].

I noted above that most allegations are unsubstantiated, but prior to looking into this more in depth, it was an anecdotal opinion based on my work. In short, I’ve read hundreds of reports and most are unsubstantiated. This is borne out by data, though perhaps not as much as I had thought. From 2004-2015 the substantiation rate has been consistently lowering from a high in 2004 of 20.3% to 12.0% in 2015. Reasons are not given or hypothesized for the drop and it can’t be said that it is due to a lowering in the amount of CPS reports (the combination of Screen Ins and Screen Outs).

The year 2015 was the most recent year I found a complete report for, and the following data is culled from it. For that year, a majority of the CPS reports were for neglect (similar to NYC, as described in the Jezebel post), as can be seen below:

However, neglect allegations weren’t as likely to be substantiated as allegations for sexual abuse. This came as a surprise to me due to preconceived notions, largely due to reading so many horrifying sexual abuse allegations that were unable to be verified for various reasons. Often, this was in the form of a child recanting their prior allegation.

The report also breaks down the victims by race. Unsurprisingly to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the systemic race-based hurdles placed in front black families, they are disproportionately affected:

I could keep going, as there is a wealth of other information on topics like child fatalities, the breakdown of relations to abusers, caregiver maltreatment, placement outcomes and stability, etc. But I think the above suffices to paint a general picture of what occurs in a standard calendar year. The same graphs and tables in previous annual reports are relatively consistent in terms of trends.

There are no statistics about income level, but anecdotally, just about all families, at least from Milwaukee County and probably the rural parts of the state, are economically disadvantaged. This should not be interpreted as concrete evidence that poorer families are definitively predisposed to child abuse and neglect. It’s more accurate to say that families are, through no fault of their own, stuck in generational cycles of poverty and its associated risk factors, such as substance abuse and depression. The research is pretty clear.

Here I’d like to step back and note how it feels almost inhuman to reduce families and children to data points presented in a bar graph or pie chart. These are actual human beings experiencing many forms of trauma. Every situation is different, though many themes may be similar. The sheer volume may not surprise everyone, but it should. I’m pessimistic as fuck and have long had somewhat of a grasp on child welfare in my state and still I’m pretty shocked – 52,100 allegations over seven months is quite a lot.

***

Social services workers are almost always overworked, underpaid, and very unappreciated. There are no TV shows or movies celebrating what they do. If they’re ever portrayed it’s usually as exhausted and mildly incompetent, with the latter usually being a direct consequence of the former. Compared to other public servants, such as the police, firemen, nurses, and even teachers, they’re largely invisible, little thought of, and certainly not worthy of fetishization by popular culture, in contradistinction to the aforementioned.

Generally, the only time the general public is aware of anything relating to child welfare is when something horrible happens – a child dying in foster care, or a social worker clearing a family for child abuse or neglect and a child dying afterwards. At the same time there is a nagging, and not entirely undeserved perception of child welfare workers breaking apart and ruining families – after all, they are paid representatives of sociopolitical structures that have historically oppressed people unluckily born into bad situations not of their making [3].

Throwing services at people is analogous to putting bandages on gaping wounds. The child welfare system is a reactionary multifaceted entity that does not, and indeed cannot address and rectify the deep underlying issues relating to institutionalized racism and income inequality. Until these issues are meaningfully addressed, we should expect little to change. The best we as a society can hope for is the ongoing refinement of what works, and the ceasing of what doesn’t.

At its root, the goal of child welfare is protecting children. While the people who work in this field need to be cognizant of the underlying socioeconomic issues affecting families, it does not change the fact that some children are in need of protection from their parents, no matter how oppressed by the system they may be. The stories referenced in Jezebel are important, and deserving of filtering into the general consciousness. But I feel it paints an incomplete picture (as does this blog post).

I think child welfare is something you should learn about in your area, outside of local media reporting terrible tragedies. Your state probably has statistics to look though. And there are many things you can do to help out. Failing that, at the very least, you can become aware.


[1] I don’t want to get too lost in the weeds, but this doesn’t include reports relating to child welfare in which families request services. Over the same time span there were 17,772 such requests. Most of these, around 80%, are Screened In since it is usually deemed appropriate to investigate whether or not the request is warranted.

[2] They can also be ruled out for certain violence-related felonies, arrest warrants or pending criminal charges. Anecdotally (an overused term in this post) half of all potential caregivers are ruled out.

[3] The two preceding paragraphs are lightly edited from an earlier blog post. A lot is changing “we” to “they” and “we’re” to “they’re,” since I’m no longer directly in the field.

What about the Catalan anarchists?

It doesn’t seem like violent state repression of the Catalan independence referendum is that great an idea. If I were an undecided resident, I can’t fathom desiring to remain a part of Spain after the events of the past weekend.

In an area steeped in the romantic ideals of early 20th century anticapitalist movements, I found myself wondering how contemporary Catalan anarchists perceived the independence movement. It’s certainly not intuitive that they would support the secession from one state and the creation of another. Thankfully Crimethinc has it covered:

Anarchists hadn’t thought about what to do in relation to this movement until the referendum was approaching and the Spanish state began to crack down on civil liberties. Faced with the censorship imposed by the state, a large number of anarchist groups from different parts of Barcelona, who have already been organized in their own neighborhood assemblies and social centers, decided to give support to the local independentista movements.

Within the anarchist movement, there are people who support the referendum itself, and also people who don’t. Independentist people are demanding basic democratic rights and civil liberties, such as the right to vote, and some anarchists believe that anarchists should be out there with them. There are also people involved in the independence movement who we lost track of years ago when the political parties like CUP and Podemos that gained momentum after the 15M movement in 2011 institutionalized the energy from the streets. Now, with the referendum, people are returning to the streets, so we decided it was an important moment for us to be out there too. But this has created a good deal of debate within and between anarchist collectives, because we are definitely not coming from the same place politically as many of the independentistas.

For us, it has been really complicated. For me personally, sure, I hold contradictory positions all the time, like supporting certain reformist campaigns or engaging with single issue movements… but to defend a democratic process towards national dependence… it’s very hard to figure out where I stand. Many of the comrades in our neighborhood are trying to figure it out too.

Many of us went home yesterday very annoyed, because we had a lot of differences with what was happening. About two weeks ago, the anarchist collective here in my neighborhood had a discussion about whether or not to defend the process of national “self-determination.” There were many people close to us, with whom we share a lot of political affinity, who said it was better to struggle against the institutions of a Catalan state because it would be a smaller state. Many people also supported the process in hopes of destabilizing the Spanish state, because at the moment the Spanish state is very weakened. It’s a moment that could tip either way.

Personally, I don’t like either of the options. We can’t lose track of where we stand as anarchists. I think we should be supporting people in the streets, but I truly believe the worst thing that could happen to us would be if a Catalan state gained independence. In the end, it’s just a way to legitimize the social and political exclusions that exist today to believe that we’d have more control over them in a smaller state. But it’s hard for people to see a Catalan state as something other than their own, especially after struggling for years to achieve it.

I too have mixed thoughts. I’m totally all for a group of people leaving their nation-state if they so choose. But is what follows going to be better? Of course, as someone who doesn’t reside in the area, my opinion is completely irrelevant. However, in cases like this, one should always be cognizant of the odious themes of nationalism, and its associated bigotries of xenophobia and racism.

Catalonia, Kurdistan, Rojava, Scotland, Palestine, the Donbass, Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, Tibet, Xinjiang, Chiapas – these are only a few of many examples of unease within sovereign countries that are decades, if not centuries in the making. Many of these are bound to come to a head sooner than later. Though each situation is contextually different and related to their geopolitical particulars, they are associated thematically with the ongoing death spasms of neoliberalism, and the very real possibility of fracturing nation-states on the horizon. As to what comes next, and whether or not it will be for the better, who can say?