Cool new study suggests the poor have shittier brains

The Life You Can Save’s [1] Facebook page recently shared an article that asks the question: does poverty show up in children’s brains? Because who among us haven’t been aware of the plight of the less fortunate and wondered if, in addition to being less fortunate, or also mentally inferior?

From the article:

Children from households below the federal poverty line ($24,250 for a family of four in 2015) had 8 to 10% less grey matter in these critical regions [frontal lobe, temporal lobe and hippocampus]. And even kids whose families were slightly better off – incomes of one-and-a-half times the federal poverty level – had 3 to 4% less grey matter than the developmental norm. In Pollak’s study, many of the poor parents were highly educated, indicating the “maturational lags” their children suffered from were a direct result of the circumstances of poverty.

The policy implications are immense. If the data holds, simply moving a family’s income out of poverty might be enough to get that child much closer to cognitive developmental norms [IT’S SO SIMPLE!]. And while we don’t yet know whether, or how much, these brain disparities persist into adulthood, this research – combined with past work demonstrating that people raised in poverty end up doing worse financially and suffering greater health problems than their more-affluent contemporaries over the course of their lifetimes – suggests they probably have lifelong effects.

These studies indicate it isn’t one specific factor that’s solely responsible for diminishing brain growth and intellectual potential, but rather the larger environment of poverty.

You did it, oh benevolent scientists! I think we now can definitively state that poverty is bad! Pop the fucking champagne! [2]

There is an ocean of research and literature pertaining to the causes and effects of poverty. To my knowledge, I don’t think any studies have been done to discover just how much money and resources have been put into this. What a fucking myopic waste of time, all to satisfy the curiosity of certain sections of academia. In regards to the above referenced research, what do they even tell they’re subjects? “Sorry, you’re brain kinda sucks. Good luck with that – try to get more money before you have kids.”

Maybe all of these researchers think their work will be the catalyst for the large-scale changes needed to actually confront the massive problems related to income inequality. And that’s a noble pursuit, snark aside. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so rude and dismissive of their career choices – after all, we’re all just wasting time until we die 🙂

***

Matthew Desmond studied my home city, Milwaukee, in his critically acclaimed book about the crushing repercussions of eviction. I found it profound and heartbreaking. It shone a light on a relatively unknown aspect of poverty.

Upon further reflection, asking the question if eviction can have astoundingly negative consequences for the evictees should be answered “yes, no shit.” Research like this filters out into the general populace, and the well-to-do can sadly nod at yet another previously unseen side of the mountain of bullshit that the less fortunate are forced to ascend if they want any semblance of comfort and stability in their lives.

During last summer’s unrest in Milwaukee, I recall seeing a video of a young man angrily lamenting those who come into his neighborhood looking to study them, like animals in a zoo. He asks the very relevant question of “what good does that do for us? They come here, leave, and nothing changes” [3]. It’s a salient point.

Which study will be the one to actually incite meaningful action?

***

The elite, and their sycophants (simultaneously worshiping and jealously coveting the status of their societal betters) have always scorned the less well off. History is replete with uncountable anecdotes, from Mesopotamian city-states to the contemporary West. I don’t think it necessary to belabor the point with endless examples

Evidence of superiority is eagerly sought out, though it’s hard to see why it’s even necessary. To pick one, easy, example, white Europeans were obviously superior to their colonial subjects. However, that self-evident knowledge was insufficient and reasons why needed to be sought out. Superior religion and intelligence proved to be the best justifications, enabling them to revel in their paternalistic mastery over their new domains.

Unfortunately, science has also been a useful tool for the dominant classes to use as a quasi-intellectual cudgel (surely this has been adequately covered on FtB). Recently, a Google employee’s anti-diversity screed went viral. I highly recommend not reading it and won’t even attempt to summarize it. As Rae Paoletta at Gizmodo points out, this is merely another example of the usage of science to reify the status of a dominant class (in this case, men):

Of course, using “science” to justify male superiority is much older than anything espoused by evolutionary psychologists. The idea that women are less psychologically stable—or more, bluntly, “hysterical”—has been around at least since Hippocrates wrote about it in the 5th century BCE. As Freud and his contemporaries later posited, women’s biology explained their “inherent” insanity. Or, as this particular Google employee called it, their neuroticism.

Through this lens, it’s not hard to see research about brain-inferiority being used by terrible people.

***

But maybe this is the research that will lead to change on a large-scale. I can see it now: Senator Bleeding Heart, Democrat from the Northeast/Northwest, introduces legislation (already passed by the House) citing it. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan both shed tears in shame for the evil they’ve done. Party lines are dissolved as the legislation is passed in a remarkable show of bipartisan solidarity. The 1% is to be heavily taxed and that money is transferred to the poor. A rider halves the military budget, freeing up even more money. A chastened, somber President Trump recognizes the gravity of the moment and the thick layers of bile that constitute his fetid interior disintegrates. He signs the bill. Truly, America is finally starting on the road to Becoming Great Again.  (Please excuse both my childlike understanding of how a bill becomes a law and simplistic methods to confront mass poverty).

More seriously, this is manna for the Sam Harris’s of the world. Just think: if poor Americans have less gray matter, just imagine how much less Muslim refugees have. Especially if they spend their formative years in camps. Harris can continue to laud himself for the courage he has to stand up to the regressive left using this evidence for his loathsome beliefs. So brave, always speaking truth to the vast power of the cowardly PC elites.

Let’s be honest, we are nowhere near ready to willing as a society to confront the systemic natures of the problem of inequality. This isn’t to say that all research into the causes of poverty is without utility. If it leads to increased donations to worthy organizations then that’s good. But it was truly disheartening to see TLYC, as well as one of their featured charities, GiveDirectly, sharing this. All in all, performing research to investigate brain differences serves to further stigmatize the less fortunate. It does not help.


[1]  TLYCS studies which charities do the best, most effective work. I wrote about it here

[2] I’ll leave scrutinizing the actual research to those more knowledgeable than I about the brain sciences

[3] Unfortunately I haven’t been able to locate this video

Fucking gross

It never fails. After every episode of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, I get an increase in traffic towards a post I wrote 4 months ago. Briefly, Samantha Bee and her husband Jason Jones were resisting desegregation efforts in their district, something I feel is extremely shitty and hypocritical.

Sometimes I can see where it’s been linked.

One website, apparently some kind of message board for Nike shoes, quoted a quote I used, and nothing else:

Samantha Bee is a liberal, right up until she thinks about her children having to go to school with black kids. Then, she turns into Strom Thurmond.” [from the comment section of a Slate article]

That was it, no context given. The take-home message the person received was that Samantha Bee=Strom Thurmond, which was used in a bewildering discussion sequence that hurt my brain.

Yesterday, to my horror, it turned up on a Reddit board for Opie and Anthony. If you don’t know them, you’re not missing anything. Unless you like terrible things. The person that linked to my post used a racial slur, and the rest of the thread consists of assorted, bigoted trash. So my blog was used as evidence for liberal hypocrisy by a trash person in his (it has to be a him) discussion with other trash people.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t all. Later on, it was linked on a thread on the fucking Trump Reddit. Fucking gross.

Regardless, I still stand behind everything I wrote and have no issue pointing out hypocrisy by beloved liberal superstars. If my interpretation is incorrect I’d certainly issue a mea culpa, but I’ve seen no evidence to the contrary. Anyways, this sucks and it feels weird.

So if you happen to see this, and found my blog via bigot Reddit threads, go fuck yourself.

Doom and gloom

In the late 90’s one of my best friends started on the slippery slope to full immersion into fundamentalist Christianity. By this time, we were in different colleges and communicating less and less, usually via AIM (rememeber that?!?). Whatever denomination he settled on, it was one of the sects that believed we were living in the end times. This was preposterous to me. One of his primary arguments was the recent increase in war and natural catastrophes. Nonsense, younger me countered, this shit’s been going on forever and it’s probably not getting appreciably worse. At the time, I had no idea if my rebuttal was true or not, but I was absolutely certain that a divinely prophesied apocalypse was nothing to be taken seriously.

My argument was made with the naive, myopic conceit that things will generally stay the same. Things (vaguely) would get a little better or worse, technology would continue to increase, benefiting some more than others. Basically, my bubble of a life as a middle class, straight white dude would maintain a sense of equilibrium. I’ll get up in the morning, go to work, go home and relax, or do something. Tomorrow will be pretty close to yesterday. Next week will look similar to the previous week. Work will mostly suck, but I’ll have a place to sleep, food to eat, and clean water to drink.

I constantly think about how extremely narrow my life experiences are, and that life looks completely different to different people in different times and different places. What’s normal to me is shared by relatively few people that have ever existed. Most people weren’t born into a white, Roman Catholic, middle class family in the rust belt in the early 80’s. Even within that subsection, things can look and feel wildly different based on any number of environmental factors.

***

In an interview with The Concourse, Walter Scheidel, Professor of Classics and History at Stanford, discusses his new book The Great Leveler which 

draws on thousands of years of history in civilizations across the world, and reaches a rather staggering conclusion: Extreme violence, plague, or total social collapse are the only things that have ever successfully leveled out inequality in societies. ‘Four different kinds of violent ruptures have flattened inequality: mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state failure, and lethal pandemics,’ he writes. ‘I call these the Four Horsemen of Leveling.’

The interview is definitely worth reading in full and I intend to get the book at some point. Scheidel manages to inject a little optimism that is shot down in a way that’s darkly humorous:

Is there anything hopeful or constructive that people concerned about inequality can take from these findings?

Scheidel: That’s what the history is, whether we like it or not. It doesn’t mean that it always has to be this way. It doesn’t mean that there’s no alternative way of improving things, it’s just we haven’t found it yet… History doesn’t determine the future. It just gives a sense of what’s easy and what’s hard.

And yet, this is the line from your book’s conclusion that jumped out at me: “Only all-out thermonuclear war might fundamentally reset the existing distribution of resources.”

Scheidel: Which is technically true. [Laughs]

Income inequality has been getting worse and worse for some time. How long are the socioeconomically disadvantaged, unluckily born into less privileged situations, going to remain relatively docile, as income inequality continues to increase? A reckoning may be on the way if the ruling classes aren’t able to find ways to pacify the masses, with increasing numbers of families sliding out of the middle class. Sports, entertainment, and mind-altering substances have been useful distractions alongside the ever-present need to secure shelter, food and water. I wonder if a tipping point will be reached and what that will look and like.

***

The religion-based doom and gloom believed by my old friend may have a factual basis, but obviously not in the way he thinks. The prospect of numerous apocalypses divorced from religion are ubiquitous, and eschatological preachers no longer have a monopoly in that area. There are innumerable shapes it could take: climate change, gamma ray blast, impact event, supervolcano eruption, nuclear war, famine, plague, and as described above, societal collapse caused by untenable income inequality.

The secular evangelizers are not spewing the inane blather of manipulative purveyors of dogmatic faith. They are individuals who dedicate their lives to studying long term historical trends and empirically investigating the secrets of the cosmos. Or, if not them directly, then the journalists, writers, reporters and bloggers who summarize their premonitions.

I’m loathe to mention our glorious leader and I’m purposefully trying to limit his mentions in my blog, but it’s obvious income inequality, not to mention the other listed apocalypses, isn’t on his radar (except, perhaps, for his venerable adviser’s hard-on for war with Islam). No, foremost among his list of things worth throwing money at is our already bloated as fuck military, a useless wall, and god knows what else.

I haven’t had to deal with any of the phenomena that evoke the idea of impending personal, societal, or global apocalypse. Again, I wonder what that would look and feel like. My interest is not in the minority: we are culturally obsessed with the idea. Hollywood blockbusters are the the most saccharine manifestations of this, portraying collapse in the form of easily digestible entertainment with little constructive thinking required. Such cultural representations are largely ephemeral in our consciousness, and not likely to cause much more than a small amount of cognitive dissonance – after all, collapse may not even occur and, if it does, it will be in the undetermined future. We’ll go on consumed with our daily lives, but there are storm clouds on the horizon that we are only dimly aware of. One day the clouds, perhaps soon, perhaps later, will arrive.

Hey! check out this pair of BFF’s:

Leave Kellyanne alone

I’m going to give Kellyanne Conway the benefit of the doubt on misspeaking “one word.” Because who could be intellectually dishonest enough to allege a nonexistent massacre and subsequently claim her mistake was no big deal? Who among us hasn’t said “massacre” while intending to say “terrorists?” It’s an easy mistake.

But maybe, due to lamestream media bullying and SJW ridicule, she’s too ashamed to admit she misplaced her massacre by roughly 200 miles and 235 years. Indeed, there was a massacre near present day Bowling Green. The perpetrators, however were not Muslim immigrants or refugees, but American militiamen (almost certainly Christians, all). The victims were pacifist Christianized Native Americans living outside of the boundaries of the nascent United States of America:

In early March 1782, the Lenape were surprised by a raiding party of 160 Pennsylvania militia led by Lieutenant Colonel David Williamson. The militia rounded up the Christian Lenape and accused them of taking part in raids into Pennsylvania. Although the Lenape denied the charges, the militia held a council and voted to kill them.

After the Lenape were told of the militia’s vote, they requested time to prepare for death and spent the night praying and singing hymns. They were held in two buildings, one for men and one for women and children.

The next morning on 8 March, the militia brought the Lenape to one of two “killing houses”, one for men and the other for women and children. The militia tied the Indians, stunned them with mallet blows to the head, and killed them with fatal scalping cuts. In all, the militia murdered and scalped 28 men, 29 women, and 39 children. Two Indian boys, one of whom had been scalped, survived to tell of the massacre. The bodies were piled in the mission buildings and burned the village down. They also burned the other abandoned Moravian villages.

The militia looted the villages prior to their burning. The plunder, which needed 80 horses to carry included everything which the people had held: furs for trade, pewter, tea sets, and clothing.

In 1810, Tecumseh reminded future President William Henry Harrison, “You recall the time when the Jesus Indians of the Delawares lived near the Americans, and had confidence in their promises of friendship, and thought they were secure, yet the Americans murdered all the men, women, and children, even as they prayed to Jesus?”

Maybe Conway will find the courage to clarify her initial comments and educate the masses about their heritage. I suppose I shouldn’t hold my breath.

 

 

 

 

Do what you’re told

The stories are trickling in regarding Trump’s immigration restrictions. It’s almost startling how fast these restrictions were implemented, or at least it would be if we had any reason to expect things to not be shitty. The president gives the order and immediately his demands are carried out. He says jump, and the federal, state, and local authorities comply, from office workers to the security officers on the front lines – spineless cowards, all of them. It’s something important to keep in mind.

A culture that deifies [1] authority figures gives unwarranted truth to the lie that they can do no wrong. They’re just following orders after all, whether they agree with it or not. For every terrible thing Trump orders there are underlings who have to decide whether or not to carry it out, as it filters through the institutional hierarchy. I have nothing but contempt for those that do, even if they have reservations or concerns. I guess it’s easy for me to say, since I generally don’t work at places I consider ethically compromising (though I was in debt collection for a minute and it was exceptionally soul destroying).  If you won’t quit because you need the job or can’t find a new one, well, I just don’t really care. With the ubiquity of horrors in this world, my empathy rations are running thin and don’t extend to such people. I hesitate to reference “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” by Hannah Arendt, but fuck it:

[T]he murderers were not sadists or killers by nature; on the contrary, a systematic effort was made to weed out all those who derived physical pleasure from what they did. The troops of the Einsatzgruppen had been drafted from the Armed S.S., a military unit with hardly more crimes in its record than any ordinary unit of the German Army, and their commanders had been chosen by Heydrich from the S.S. élite with academic degrees. Hence the problem was how to overcome not so much their conscience as the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering. The trick used by Himmler — who apparently was rather strongly afflicted by these instinctive reactions himself — was very simple and probably very effective; it consisted in turning these instincts around, as it were, in directing them toward the self. So that instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!


[1]. “Whites have consistently been shown to appear in a “hero” role on television news, being overrepresented as both officers and victims. In the past, authors have produced multiple alternative explanations for distorted race and crime portrayals. Three specific perspectives should be highlighted: (1) ethnic blame discourse, (2) incognizant racism, and (3) structural limitations and economic interests.”

 

Pipelines

To my shame, I’ve never had much more than a tenuous grasp on what presidents can or can’t do. Which is why I was confused about the executive orders signed by Trump regarding the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines. Can he just make these projects happen with the stroke of a pen? Thankfully, at this point, the answer is no.

For the Dakota pipeline he’s merely requesting the Army Corps of Engineers to hurry the fuck up and approve it. From The Atlantic

[T]he executive orders seemed to be written in a typical way. Instead of commanding agencies to ignore congressionally passed law, the orders request that they expedite or reconsider previous judgments. “Executive orders are legal orders—they’re law—but they can’t contravene legislative enactments. So an executive order can’t say, ‘Ignore the (National Environmental Policy Act) and give me a pipeline,’” [Sarah Krakoff, a professor of tribal and resources law at the University of Colorado Boulder] told me.

“If the federal law gives decision-making authority to a particular official, that official has to make the decision,” said John Leshy, a professor of real property law and a former general counsel to the U.S. Department of the Interior. “But there’s some murkiness about what the president can do. The decision maker can say no, and then the president can fire them and replace them with someone who would. But that takes time.”

Krakoff added that it would attract judicial suspicion if the Army Corps of Engineers suddenly decided that it didn’t have to make an environmental-impact statement for the Dakota Access pipeline after saying that it did just weeks ago.

“It would be hard for them to turn around on a dime and say, ‘We got this piece of paper from the president and now we don’t think that’s necessary,’” she said. “If the agency were to take a different route, legally, now, I would strongly suspect that that would be subject to litigation.”

There is less in the way of getting the Keystone XL pipeline off the ground. Ominously, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (isn’t he supposed to be a totally cool and awesome liberal heartthrob???) is welcoming the opportunity for TransCanada to re-submit its application:

Canadian diplomats had spent years attempting to convince Obama to let Keystone proceed. Trump’s decision was applauded by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

“I’ve been on the record for many years supporting it because it means economic growth and good jobs for Albertans,” Trudeau said at a Liberal cabinet retreat in Calgary.

To sum up where we are now in regards to the pipelines, (again, from The Atlantic article):

Experts seemed to think the Keystone XL pipeline would be easier to restart, at least from a legal perspective. The obstacles to that pipeline originated in the federal government and not an ongoing legal challenge. But in a way, that highlights the paradox of the two pipelines: While it may be easier to restart Keystone XL legally, none of that project is built, and there’s no guarantee that it ever will be. The Dakota Access pipeline, meanwhile, sits idle at 80-percent completion. It is closer to being done. It also has, legally, much further to go.

Our primary hope appears to be sweet, sweet labyrinthine bureaucracy, as well as the fact that not all executive orders yield their desired results. The Atlantic article notes this and concludes with an outline of Obama’s inability to follow through on his 2009 executive order to close Guantanamo. It would be obscene and demoralizing if Trump’s authoritarian bullying succeeds in attaining environmentally destructive goals, while Obama’s eloquence and diplomacy failed to achieve his comparatively noble mission to close an ongoing human rights disaster.

On badly named college papers, state violence, and resistance

1984: Satire or Reality?

This is the cringeworthy title of a paper I wrote for an English 101 class in 1999, at the age of 18. I came across it a couple years back, though was too embarrassed to read the contents. It was likely naive and alarmist, as only a college freshmen English paper on the topic of totalitarianism could be. Basically, it could’ve been the subject of an Onion article.

This past weekend I, and doubtless many others, couldn’t help but think about 1984 as Sean Spicer spewed a bunch of nonsense that was obviously and demonstrably false, and be scared. Politicians lie. They’ve always lied. [1] But this just feels different, an ominous harbinger of what’s to come. It’s one thing to blatantly lie and fly off the handle about unimportant minutia during a campaign that was more akin to a surreal reality show, but this was the second fucking day of actually being president. Just wait until they start to lie about things that actually matter. Of course they’ve been lying for months, but now they’ll have the whole weight of the federal government behind them, and all that that entails.

I think it gives the Trump administration too much credit to suggest Spicer’s inauguration crowd related briefing was done to deflect attention from Saturday’s protests. Why deflect that attention to a topic that makes him look petty and delusional? Any shift in awareness would have been an unintentionally happy byproduct – there’s no reason to believe that Trump didn’t want his version of the truth about this very important matter to be completely accepted.

If I can take solace in anything, it’s that the millions who participated in the Women’s March showed that there are a large amount of people that aren’t ignorant enough to believe the facile lies coming from Trump and his mouthpieces. He should now know to expect resistance. If (probably when) he starts doing terrible things (starting a war, rounding up Muslims, punishing the media (whatever that will entail), etc.), people will again take to the streets. Trump is a man who does not take criticism well, and he openly encouraged violence against dissenters during his campaign. He is now in charge of a dangerous, powerful, multifaceted security apparatus. If he gives the order for violence against civilians, how will the foot soldiers of the state respond?

In 1789, during the waning days of the Kingdom of France, women, angered over bread prices and food shortages, fucked shit up. Juxtaposing women’s roles in the French Revolution and the Saturday marches, Micah White at The Guardian writes

The lesson here is that protesting grandmothers, daughters and mothers have the unique power to do what male protesters cannot – such as break through a line of national guard bayonets without being fired upon. And for this reason, women will always play a foundational role in the great revolutions to come, but only when they take matters into their own hands, act unexpectedly and viscerally, and focus their collective energy on the only target that matters: concretely establishing the power of the people over their governments.

I don’t know how much I buy that, as it rests on powerful men (well, mostly men) backed by state power being too squeamish to react violently towards a large crowd of women. God knows men haven’t been shy about perpetrating violence against women for, I dunno, the past 10,000 years? [2] But perhaps they’ll be more apt to show reluctance, whether that’s out of enlightenment, guilt, or the fear of being filmed. And while Saturday was, by all accounts peaceful – with smiling faces, boundless positivity, and selfies galore – it’s unclear how peaceful subsequent protests will be in the future. Also very unclear is to what extent peaceful street protest in the modern era will actually achieve its intended goals, as vague and open to interpretation as those goals may be.

On the other side of the spectrum, more than 60 million people are more than happy to consume oceans of bullshit from their hero. While many of them are too far gone, the younger generation needs to know that Trump’s terrible beliefs, worn like badges of honor by him and his claque, are not okay. We have our work cut out for us:

When it comes to explicit prejudice against blacks, non-Hispanic white millennials are not much different than whites belonging to Generation X (born 1965-1980) or Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964). White millennials (using a definition of being born after 1980) express the least prejudice on 4 out of 5 measures in the survey, but only by a matter of 1 to 3 percentage points, not a meaningful difference. On work ethic, 31 percent of millennials rate blacks as lazier than whites, compared to 32 percent of Generation X whites and 35 percent of Baby Boomers.

One might even go so far as to say that 1984 is already a reality for the aforementioned 60+ million bootlickers [3] (please know that my tongue couldn’t be further inside my cheek). Whether their numbers increase or decrease is going to be pretty important.


[1] To pick one, GWB was obviously lying about the official rationale for attacking Iraq, framing it as a war for liberation against a despot. That should have made one wonder why we were cool with, for one example among many, Turkmenistan’s recently deceased dictator boiling people alive. But a fuckload of people probably never even heard of Turkmenistan, or constructively thought about or sought information about why GWB’s noble warmongering propaganda was on faulty ground. What I’m saying is, fine, I can see why people swallowed lies from that asshole. His lies were at least plausible. Then again, I’m probably just misremembering the relative innocence of the early to mid aughts. At any rate, as mentioned by Aziz Ansari on SNL, Trump might be the best thing that happened to GWB.

[2] On the origins of gender role disparity:

Mark Dyble, an anthropologist who led the study at University College London, said: “There is still this wider perception that hunter-gatherers are more macho or male-dominated. We’d argue it was only with the emergence of agriculture, when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged.”

The study suggests that it was only with the dawn of agriculture, when people were able to accumulate resources for the first time, that an imbalance emerged. “Men can start to have several wives and they can have more children than women,” said Dyble. “It pays more for men to start accumulating resources and becomes favourable to form alliances with male kin.”

Soon enough, early agriculturalist men begin to see women as wholly subservient, and humanity started down the path towards institutionalized patriarchy.

[3] “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”

 

 

Police officer indicted in the shooting of Sylville Smith

Against all odds, Dominique Heaggan-Brown will be charged with first-degree reckless homicide in the shooting of Sylville Smith on August 13th. In the immediate aftermath, the police and mayor claimed there was unequivocal video evidence that Sylville was armed and pointing a gun at the officer. Later, once the unrest had died down, it was admitted that the footage wouldn’t “answer every question.” And now, Heaggan-Brown is charged, which is in addition to the unrelated charges of 2nd Degree Sexual Assault and Solicitation. It’s impossible to know how much the latter charges factored in the decision to indict on the murder charges. A cynic might wonder if the authorities decided he was an acceptable sacrificial lamb due to his other alleged transgressions. A different police shooting, that of Jay Anderson, with questionable video evidence resulted in no charges, and for some reason, far less notoriety. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also include another local story from last week about an officer involved death in which there’s clear video evidence of federal agents hitting a man with a car, and the agency in question claiming the man shot himself.

As welcome of a development as this Heaggan-Brown’s indictment is, it’s almost impossible to be optimistic for a conviction. If Michael Slager, who clearly murdered Walter Scott, can get away with it, what hope is there?

The shooting occurred four blocks from our house. The burned down gas station was seven blocks away. The trashed liquor store is two blocks away. During this, well-meaning but patronizing friends and relatives offered for my wife and I to retreat to the safety of the suburbs. How privileged we were to have even had that option.

Below is what I posted to Facebook the day after the shooting (and only lightly edited). The intended audience was those who were surprised or confused by the events, and any closet bigots I had on my friends list. It was my way of putting into words everything I wanted to express about the situation.


I post so rarely, but I thought an incident like last night warrants something, seeing as we live a mere six blocks from the events. That’s pretty close! We didn’t really notice anything amiss until around 9pm, when we saw redirected city buses on our street. Even then, it didn’t really register aside from absentmindedly noticing sirens, which isn’t uncommon on a Saturday night. At about 9:30pm our local neighborhood app alleged that the gas station was on fire. Standing on the balcony, we couldn’t hear anything. Right before going back in, I heard gunshots and later found out it was from someone firing into the air. Aside from that, and more sirens than usual, our immediate neighborhood was quiet. As a true testament to the, in my mind surreal sense of normalcy of our block, white women were walking their dogs early this morning as if there weren’t riots the previous night. I mowed my lawn in peace listening to a Neil deGrasse Tyson podcast as our cats relaxed contentedly in their catio. So we’re fine, and thanks for your concern.

But none of the above is really the purpose of my first FB post in, I dunno 2 years? I just want people to understand that this did not happen in a vacuum. It’s ridiculously easy for people (some, but not all closet or openly racist) to shake their heads at their perceived social inferiors and lament something to the effect of this not being what MLK wanted (I’ve seen white people say this (please note you shouldn’t say this)).

Did you know that Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the country? (https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2016/01/25/back-in-time-60-years-americas-most-segregated-city.html).

And that this segregation isn’t entirely accidental – and in addition to its historical legacy is still something that is happening? (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/10/remember-redlining-its-alive-and-evolving/433065/)

It’s damn near impossible to convince some people that systemic racism is an actual thing, despite the wealth of scholarly research that emphatically confirms how persistent and insidious it is. Moreover, an understanding of this is tied to the founding of America and its abhorrent treatment of black people (among other classes of people, obviously). This isn’t ancient history – the end of the civil rights era didn’t magically usher in an era of pure equality and such thoughts are almost childishly simplistic.

This brings me back to my initial point about how the events of last night did not happen in a vacuum. Solely focusing on specific, discrete situations neglects the overarching systemic issues of historical institutionalized racism and the concomitant associated traumas (i.e. poverty; child abuse & neglect; substance abuse; transient living situations; familial incarceration; domestic violence; nonexistent access to effective schools, etc.). Dealing with any one of them is enough to shatter the hope of any child. Moreover, the aforementioned traumas are additive in nature and largely temporally ongoing events. I hope it sounds like these are exceedingly difficult things to overcome because they really are. Anyone invoking the “bootstraps” myth, or thinking how they’d totally turn out fine growing up poor and black is full of rancid shit. Even being able to move out of the hood to leave such problems behind is exceedingly difficult. I implore everyone who has any connection to Milwaukee to read the profound, heartbreaking book “Evicted” by Matthew Desmond, a Harvard sociologist who did the field work for the book in Milwaukee.

(As a brief side-note, I’ve chosen not to bog down this already overlong post with sources, but these are easily found – one can certainly find counter-arguments, but I’d be stunned if they were backed by anything remotely considered peer-reviewed research (Breitbart, Fox News, memes, and your feelings don’t count).

The final topic I’ll address is the relationship between the police and the poor black community mere blocks from my house. It’s unfortunate (aside from the loss of life) that the proximate cause is going to be used by those who think that cops can do no wrong to disparage and dismiss legitimate social concerns. This too is connected to the historical relationship between black communities and police (again events like this don’t happen in a vacuum, yada yada). It turns out police have been pretty rough on black communities since its inception (http://plsonline.eku.edu/insidelook/brief-history-slavery-and-origins-american-policing). Certainly their relationship can best be described as abysmal up until the civil rights era. Important steps have been made since, but it’s nowhere near sufficient to repair generations of perfectly valid distrust. It’s long been thought that police kill a disproportionate amount of black people, but until recently nothing close to a comprehensive accounting existed. The Ferguson events changed that and its since been definitively confirmed thanks to the monitoring of nongovernmental entities, the ubiquity of social media and cell phone camera technology. The minuscule percentage of police that will even have to go to trial is something also not to be discounted. (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/31/the-counted-police-killings-2015-young-black-men).

Police killings have long been overdue for their spotlight in the national consciousness and it is no longer ignored. Combined with prominent national killings, Milwaukee has had, among others Dontre Hamilton and Jay Anderson, that for whatever reasons didn’t achieve the same level of notoriety. The community that participated in the unrest yesterday is undoubtedly not unaware.

But, but police kill much more white people, you say! This is actually true. I view this primarily as an argument used by those who posit an unearned sense of white stoicism to police violence (“Hey we don’t get mad when they kill us!”). But it’s misleading and reductive to merely state that there are more incidents of police violence against whites than blacks, which is what one should obviously expect with whites comprising 64% of the population, while blacks comprise only 13%. In other words, a blanket statement of the gross amount tells us nothing statistically significant. As the aforementioned Guardian article states: “young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers in 2015.”

I prefer not to wade into how often police violence is justified and how that can be determined. To my eyes, it’s philosophically murky. I will say I don’t have too much of an issue with an officer whose life is actually in danger using murder as a last resort. This undoubtedly happens. As for last night, the police claim and the media are reporting that the young man was shot while fleeing and armed – these are the only concrete details known. It hasn’t been disclosed whether or not the police knew who he was beforehand; why he was pulled over; if they knew or had reason to believe he was armed; where on the body he was shot (it’s going to look bad if it’s in the back) and if he pointed a gun at the officers. Hopefully the body cameras can clear this up. If not, there are many reasons for the police to obfuscate what really happened.

So as a thought experiment, and to conclude this long-winded (and no doubt little read) essay, I’m going to attempt to tie everything together. You have a community that’s been historically kept from achieving the American Dream that is sold ubiquitously in our entertainment and media. In Milwaukee, affluent communities are mere minutes away with a level of comfort, safety and material possessions the adjacent poor can only dream of. They are people who have experienced punishing traumas. They, or someone close to them, have experienced police abuse and misconduct that never involves the offending officers receiving consequences. This feeling is reinforced with events from around the country. A young man is shot by police on a hot summer Saturday afternoon in August. A crowd gathers. Friends and family of the victim come and are overwhelmed with emotion. Rumors spread about the manner of death. The veracity of the rumors (which may or may not be true) are irrelevant, as anger spreads through the crowd. The face of the state, the police, are standing right there. Maybe your anger and pain gets the best of you and you throw a brick through a cop car’s window. With that, the fuse is lit and the combination of everything I’ve written about comes to a head, and explodes. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Or, hey, maybe black people are just inherently violent and destructive and stupid. That’s pretty easy to wrap your head around since it involves little to no thought and a complete lack of empathy.

I’m neither intelligent nor arrogant enough to claim I have answers. I don’t. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little worried – I’m not that naive. But overall, I guess we’re okay.

Obama was a cockeyed optimist

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an extensive account of the Obama presidency I didn’t know I needed. It is well worth your time, even if, like me, you weren’t a big fan. He paints Obama as being, what i would regard as, naively optimistic vis-à-vis the inherent goodness of white people, and provides insight as to why this is. Some, me for example, might even say he was (and still is) a cockeyed optimist, who got caught up in the dirty game of world diplomacy and international intrigue.

I think Obama’s status among the Left roughly parallels what Bush Jr. was to the Right in the 2000’s. They were candidates whose respective constituents wanted to have a beer with, though obviously for far different reasons. Is it a sign of progress that we’ve moved on from such puerile tendencies and instead select candidates who we fucking hate, and would never under any circumstances want to spend any time with? Yeah, probably not.

The most illuminating insights, to me, were those that touched on subjects tangentially related to Obama, and expounded on by Coates’ incisive prose. Some highlights:

Pointing to citizens who voted for both Obama and Trump does not disprove racism; it evinces it. To secure the White House, Obama needed to be a Harvard-trained lawyer with a decade of political experience and an incredible gift for speaking to cross sections of the country; Donald Trump needed only money and white bluster.

And [emphasis added]:

Much ink has been spilled in an attempt to understand the Tea Party protests, and the 2016 presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, which ultimately emerged out of them. One theory popular among (primarily) white intellectuals of varying political persuasions held that this response was largely the discontented rumblings of a white working class threatened by the menace of globalization and crony capitalism. Dismissing these rumblings as racism was said to condescend to this proletariat, which had long suffered the slings and arrows of coastal elites, heartless technocrats, and reformist snobs. Racism was not something to be coolly and empirically assessed but a slander upon the working man. Deindustrialization, globalization, and broad income inequality are real. And they have landed with at least as great a force upon black and Latino people in our country as upon white people. And yet these groups were strangely unrepresented in this new populism.

Christopher S. Parker and Matt A. Barreto, political scientists at the University of Washington and UCLA, respectively, have found a relatively strong relationship between racism and Tea Party membership. “Whites are less likely to be drawn to the Tea Party for material reasons, suggesting that, relative to other groups, it’s really more about social prestige,” they say. The notion that the Tea Party represented the righteous, if unfocused, anger of an aggrieved class allowed everyone from leftists to neoliberals to white nationalists to avoid a horrifying and simple reality: A significant swath of this country did not like the fact that their president was black, and that swath was not composed of those most damaged by an unquestioned faith in the markets. Far better to imagine the grievance put upon the president as the ghost of shambling factories and defunct union halls, as opposed to what it really was—a movement inaugurated by ardent and frightened white capitalists, raging from the commodities-trading floor of one of the great financial centers of the world.

And finally [again, emphasis added]:

“We simply don’t yet know how much racism or misogyny motivated Trump voters,” David Brooks would write in The New York Times. “If you were stuck in a jobless town, watching your friends OD on opiates, scrambling every month to pay the electric bill, and then along came a guy who seemed able to fix your problems and hear your voice, maybe you would stomach some ugliness, too.” This strikes me as perfectly logical. Indeed, it could apply just as well to Louis Farrakhan’s appeal to the black poor and working class. But whereas the followers of an Islamophobic white nationalist enjoy the sympathy that must always greet the salt of the earth, the followers of an anti-Semitic black nationalist endure the scorn that must ever greet the children of the enslaved.

So maybe read it, or don’t. But fair warning: it’s really fucking long.

 

 

The American dream is becoming an American nightmare

I’m very proud of this blog title. Until now, surely no one has used such a way to describe the fabled American Dream. There’s really no need to confirm this via Google.

Stunning new research by very smart people finds that income inequality in America is not only bad, but getting much much worse. From The Atlantic (“Severe Inequality Is Incompatible With the American Dream“):

The idea that an unequal society allows the wealthy to dictate policies that help themselves has very troubling implications in a country that just elected a president who seems focused on putting the wealthy in charge. The wealthy have benefited from the system that has helped create their wealth: the private schools, the elite colleges, and the growing salaries for those at the top. And they have little incentive to change it.

I chuckled reading the phrase “putting the wealthy in charge” as if this is something new. But I admit the incoming presidential administration will, in addition to countless other vile aspects, likely have the look of a kleptocracy, the likes of which haven’t been seen in recent memory. I’m only referring to America, of course. Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and Petro “The Chocolate King” Poroshenko in Ukraine are only two of many contemporary examples. At any rate, the notion that Trump will do anything substantive for the poor white dipshits who worship him is and always has been laughable.

And here’s FiveThirtyEight (“Inequality Is Killing The American Dream“):

‘There really is a dramatic change in what’s going on in the income distribution in the U.S.,’ said Nathaniel Hendren, an economist at Harvard and another of the latest paper’s authors. ‘The rungs of the ladder are growing further apart, so the difference in outcomes in being born to a rich family versus being born to a poor family is getting greater.’

Both articles discuss new research by, among others, Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. Their forthcoming paper can be found here. It’s nice that there is such robust analysis being performed, but it should be intuitive that governments of capitalist societies need to control for systemic inequalities. That is, if one idealizes egalitarianism rather than a cut-throat society based primarily on competition. For proponents of the latter, the Horatio Algers myth continues to reign supreme as the primary means of moving up the economic ladder. It’s basically a lottery the poor are forced to play, but with horrible consequences for the many who don’t win.

On a personal note, I am at best semi-literate economically. I’ve read Piketty’s The Economics of Inequality and while I understood the general message, there were large parts I could only barely comprehend (one day i hope to read his allegedly magisterial Capital). So, hat in hand, I’m asking for suggestions on fundamental books on economics for dummies like me. Thanks in advance!