Thursday, January 31, 2013

A pitiful pastor

You might have heard of the pastor who refused to accept the automatically assessed 18% gratuity for parties of 6 or more at Applebee's. The pastor didn't just scratch the tip out, though: she explained why she did so on the bill.
I give God 10% why do you get 18
According to the Smoking Gun, when a photo of the bill hit the 'net, complete with her signature, the pastor was mortified. She complained to the franchise manager, and the server who posted the photo — who did not wait on the pastor — was fired.

Where to begin?

The fired server exercised poor judgment; she should not have posted the pastor's signature. If she had uploaded a picture of my signature to the Web, I would have pushed for her firing, too.

On the other hand, I wouldn't have left such a note on the receipt. As the server observed, “If this person wrote the note, obviously they wanted it seen by someone. It’s strange to me that now that the audience is wider than just the server, the person is now ashamed.”

Bingo. As Bugs Bunny once observed, "But always remember — you asked for it!"

Pastor Alois Bell, after being identified as the customer, said, “I’ve brought embarrassment to my church and ministry.”

No, Pastor, you have brought embarrassment solely on yourself. Your "flock" is responsible neither for your inattentiveness nor your rudeness.

You should have noticed the tip had been added to the original bill: that's when people are supposed to notice these things. Instead, you carelessly waited until after your credit card had been billed, then attempted to dock the server the tip you failed to protest when you should have. Adding insult to injury, you left a sanctimonious, literally holier-than-thou note to your hard-working server that invoked your God to justify your meanness (in both senses). Dropping God's name requires balls, Pastor, and that's not a compliment.

And the only emotion you have expressed is embarrassment that you got caught.

Pastor Bell, do you have any idea how petty you are?

You seem singularly devoid of the generosity of spirit and humility I would seek in a spiritual advisor.

On a lighter note, I wouldn't eat out with Pastor Bell anytime soon. I don't like to think of what restaurant staffs might be doing to her food.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

My Obsession Now: The Lucy Show, "Ephemeral"

A lot of alternative music released in the 1980s had a quite distinctive sound. There's a lot of reverb, a lot of layered guitars but little guitar-wanking; a certain melancholy tinges it even as rhythms are mid-tempo or faster.

A friend tipped me to The Lucy Show's "Ephemeral (This is No Heaven)", a song I'd never heard. In less than a minute, it had slipped into the well-worn conduits blazed in my mind by the likes of Wire Train, U2, the Smithereens (yes, them) and especially the Chameleons UK, with faint echoes of post-Bauhaus Peter Murphy and the Church. It's a gloriously different sound from the constipated AOR of the 1970s, consciously rejecting the diluted blues that had made the Stones so powerful but which by the end of the decade had been warmed over too often by too many imitators and had lost all its vigor. The new sound was cold and suggested the impersonal mien of the electronic machines then making their presence felt everywhere. It was not music that you loved, not at first. Significant mental rewiring was required before you could imagine it being "familiar" and therefore enjoyable. Only the thorough exhaustion of all life in the old sound could have accounted for the success of the new.

I like the vague sense of foreboding carried by the minor key melody. I like that the vocals are much less prominent than in your average AOR song, and almost seem to be trying to break the surface of the guitar-painted soundscape. I like that the guitars shimmer and ring like multitudinous bells, filling the air but leaving the instrumentalists very much in the background: a known presence yet still invisible, like the wind.

It's a curious reflection of my own mental journey, I suppose, that when I contrast this with the contemporary pop music I hear, the latter comes up absurdly short. Today's pop mines rhythm and blues, funk (by way of hip hop), country, and even folk, but for all its conscious sourcing, the end result falls terribly flat: it universally reads as stagey, inauthentic, and emotionally void. By comparison, even an obscure band like The Lucy Show seems to be saying something interesting with "Ephemeral". I suppose the difference lies not in the eras but in The Lucy Show being obscure and "alternative" (back when the term actually meant something) while the pop I dislike is, well, pop, calculated and produced to within an inch of its life. The comparison, then, is unfair inasmuch as a decent struggling artist is always going to seem more authentic and interesting than a performer that has sanded off all the rough edges so as to turn off the fewest possible potential fans.

Anyway, if your mind appreciates the curiously anomalous sound of '80s alternative, you could do much worse than "Ephemeral". I have been obsessively replaying it online, hoping against hope I don't burn myself out on it before I can make it to Amoeba and search the cut-out bins.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Bobby Jindal's advice for his party

According to James Hohmann's article about Bobby Jindal's remarks at the Republican National Committee's meeting in Charlotte on Thursday, Jindal said:
"Washington has spent a generation trying to bribe our citizens and extort our states."
Yet he also said:
"If it’s worth doing, block grant it to the states."
If you believe Washington has been "extorting" money from states and "bribing" citizens, why would you want it to issue block grants? Why wouldn't you want Washington not to take the money in the first place?

The answer is, of course you wouldn't want Washington to have the money in the first place, so of course you wouldn't suggest block grants. You wouldn't suggest grants at all. But this flies in the face of Republican priorities, which are all about state-level power because they've spent a generation building up Republican majorities in a majority of the state houses. If, in order to fund Republican priorities at the state level, they have to get the federal government to extract the money for them from taxpayers nationwide, I guess that's just the cost of doing business.

By the way, Governor, your state receives more federal aid than it pays in federal taxes, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. If the feds have been extorting the states, you'd better break the news gently to your constituents before you derail the gravy train.

Also, whatever Washington has been doing, it has been doing it a lot longer than a generation, and Republicans have been complicit — or they've been equally responsible stewards, if you like. At least, until lately. Like, say, the last generation.

The foregoing statements are just the tip of the iceberg. The Times-Picayune provided Jindal's full prepared remarks. They fascinate me because ... well, read on.

A debate about which party can better manage the federal government is a very small and shortsighted debate.
I suspect that argument was a difficult sell to your audience, Governor, considering how heavily invested — emotionally and financially — Republicans were in the most recent election for the presidency and Congressional seats.
In addition to Washington, there are a bunch of outlying areas we call states, but they are pretty much just adjuncts of the federal government.

This is not the idea of America. But...this is what America will become if we do not reorient our way of thinking right away.

I know it is deeply disconcerting for you, as a governor, Governor, to feel that so much of your own fate rests with politicians who don't live in your state. I mean that without sarcasm. However, much of what is wrong with our country cannot be fixed at the state level. A state's jurisdiction ends at its borders, but many things don't: natural resources like water and fossil fuels; commerce; criminal activity — just to name a few.

The federal government is not the be-all and end-all, I agree. However, it has a role to play in our society. Perhaps (now here's the sarcasm) if your party hadn't been so unbelievably bad at administering it whenever you've had the chance in the last thirty years, your party's ideas for Washington's role would have found broader support. As it is, Republicans are like drivers agitating to take the wheel while loudly proclaiming their hatred for cars. You can't blame us if we're skeptical of your driving skills and your interest in proper maintenance — not to mention your concern for the well-being of your passengers.

Government and government power are the leading lady and the leading man.
Huh?
Today's conservatism is in love with zeroes.

We think if we can just unite behind a proposal to cut the deficit and debt...if we can just put together a spreadsheet and a power point and a TV ad....all will be well.

This obsession with zeroes has everyone in our party focused on what? Government.

Well, uh, on what exactly do you expect a political party to focus if not government?

For that matter, if you aren't interested in government, Governor, why are you — um — a governor?

Jindal's remarks suggest that when he uses the word "government" he is talking only about the federal government. If so, that's a misuse of the term. Government exists at the state level, too (and at the county and city and town level as well), so it's exceedingly disingenuous to imply that "government" is a bad thing but that whatever he's doing as governor isn't.

Capping federal growth by tying it to private sector economic growth is deemed 'not-serious' in Washington.
That's right, Governor, because if you were intellectually honest you'd admit that government is often needed most when the private sector isn't doing too well. You know, for things like unemployment benefits.

Intellectually dishonest arguments are indeed considered "not-serious", and not just in Washington.

President Obama has our national debt over 16 trillion dollars and climbing...larger than our entire economy. And he's not worried about it in the least.
Actually, Obama has never said he isn't worried about it. I'm sure he is. It's just that he thinks that millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans are more important. Republicans think they're pretty important, too; I recall Mitt Romney beating Obama over the head with that issue during the campaign. The thing is, Republicans believe that cutting spending is the only acceptable way to reduce the deficit, and cutting taxes is the only acceptable way to stimulate the economy. The idea is that tax cuts are supposed to result in private investment that expands the economy, resulting in revenue from an enlarged tax base that more than offsets the original cuts. Democrats don't believe that logic works, and frankly, given the experience of the G. W. Bush years, I'd say Democrats are right. They're looking to use federal spending to stimulate the economy directly in the hope that the private sector will pick up steam and power a recovery. The increased tax base could then be used to deal with the deficit, and in the longer run, the national debt. Oh, and along the way, a lot of out-of-work people would become part of the labor force again.

It's speculative, yes — but again, Republican mismanagement at the federal level doesn't incline us to put much faith in Republican theories of the economy.

You can't hire enough government workers or give enough taxpayer money to your friends who own green energy companies to create prosperity. The facts are in, it's a disaster.
Sigh. Republicans' contempt for research and development is tiresome.

The sad fact is that alternative energy sources are necessary. Not "are going to be necessary," but are necessary. We already know fossil fuels are nonrenewable (within the lifespan of human beings). It is obvious to anyone with a functioning brain that we have to get our economy off of them. We have to get our civilization off of them. Unfortunately, it is the height of folly to expect the private energy companies making billions of dollars on fossil fuels to jeopardize those profits by exploring alternatives. Ergo, somebody else needs to do the hard research to find those alternatives and make them useful commercially. You know whom we expect to conduct basic research that benefits all of us in the long run but has no immediate return? You guessed it: government.

Basic research isn't about immediate returns on investment. It's about tackling problems the private sector won't, because the private sector needs to smell profits before it will commit resources. We the people can't always wait for the profit motive to get stuff done. Republicans, unfortunately, reject the idea that problems cannot always be solved by invoking the profit motive. There's another reason so many of us don't trust your party to be effective leaders, Governor.

We must not become the party of austerity. We must become the party of growth.
Hmm. "We must not become the party of austerity." He must be talking about austerity in terms of government spending. Okay. In that case, "We must become the party of growth" must mean Republicans must become the party that supports growth of government spending.

Huh. He wasn't kidding when he said at the beginning, "I plan to say some things that may challenge your assumptions."

If our end goal is to simply better manage the disaster that is the federal government, count me out, I'm not signing up for that.
Does that mean you're bowing out of the 2016 presidential race, Governor?
We should let the other side try to sell Washington's ability to help the economy, while we promote the entrepreneur, the risk-taker, the self-employed woman who is one sale away from hiring her first employee.
This sounds like a fine vision, until you realize that most people work for someone else. (If we were all bosses, who would be doing the work?) Governor Jindal, you can identify your party with the entrepreneurs, but you're not going to win elections if they're your only voting bloc.
We believe hiring others, far away, is the last and least effective way to meet our social responsibilities to others.
Is the governor telling the Republican Party to disavow outsourcing? That would indeed be news, especially since it would prevent businesses from seeking to lower their costs by whatever means necessary — and would fly in the face of the party's devotion to the free market.
American weakness on the world stage still does not lead to peace.
I will hazard a guess that "weakness" to Jindal is what the rest of us call "cognizance of our limits".

It's fascinating to consider the Republican Party's current perspective on foreign policy. In the past, conservatism generally was associated with isolationism, or at least a deep reluctance to enter into entanglements beyond our shores. This reluctance dovetailed nicely with a commitment to minimal government spending. Nowadays, Republicans insist on greater intervention overseas, in spite of the cost. Why? Is it a hangover from 11 September 2001? Is the party still under the spell of G. W. Bush's famous dictum that the U.S. must engage "them" "over there" to keep "them" from striking "here"? Or could there be a baser motivation: "Whatever will embarrass Obama, we'll support"?

Whatever the cause, the fact is that "American weakness ... does not lead to peace" does not imply that American strength (however you measure it) does. The United States reigned virtually unchallenged on the world stage in the 1990s, yet the world did not know peace, even under George H. W. Bush. The fact is that "peace" is as elusive (and illusory) a goal as an "end to terror" is. Republicans insist on simplistic formulations like this because they make for good sound bites. Unfortunately, they also set up terrible expectations that no politician can meet, leading to an endless cycle of recriminations and a colossal waste of time and energy. If this is the extent of your foreign policy wisdom, Governor, maybe you should leave the subject alone.

President Barack Obama and the Democrats can continue trying to divide America into groups of warring communities with competing interests, but we will have none of it. We are going after every vote as we work to unite all Americans.
Oh for goodness' sake, Governor, the American public has always been divided along a host of fault lines. If there were no divisions within the body politic, we'd have no need for parties! Nobody is going to buy this nonsense of one party being responsible for divisiveness and the other being the great uniter.

If you must peddle horseshit, you will have to do a much, much better job of dressing it up.

We must focus on real people outside of Washington, not the lobbyists and government inside Washington. We must stop competing with Democrats for the job of "Government Manager," and lay out ideas that can unleash the dynamic abilities of the American people. We need an equal opportunity society, one in which government does not see its job as picking winners and losers. Where do you go if you want special favors? Government. Where do you go if you want a tax break? Government. Where do you go if you want a handout? Government. This must stop. Our government must pursue a level playing field. At present, government is the un-leveler of the playing field.
Demonize Washington, which Republicans have done so much to make deeply dysfunctional — check.

"Stop competing with Democrats for the job of 'Government Manager' " — sure sounds like the governor is telling Republicans to stop running for President or Congress. "Lay out ideas that can unleash the dynamic abilities of the American people" — not inconsistent with getting out of the governing business, since Governor Jindal thinks nothing good can come out of Washington anyway.

Government should not "see its job as picking winners and losers": I honestly don't know to what this oft-repeated jibe by Republicans refers. Are they talking about bailouts of private companies like GM and AIG? Or Solyndra (again)? Or something else?

"Where do you go if you want a tax break? Government." Well where else would you go for a tax break — Walmart?

"Where do you go if you want a handout? Government." Do you hide the contempt in your voice when you discuss charitable handouts by religious orders, Governor, or do you stick to your guns?

In my experience, what a "level playing field" implies is an end to affirmative action and any other government support for historically underprivileged parties. Yes, that's liberal rhetoric but I don't have a better term. In any case, the result is a very, very light hand on the market — which works out just fine for established players for the most part. This is a defensible philosophical stance, but the defense often sounds like "we don't care about little guys", and that aspect of laissez-faire doesn't sit well with most people.

In the last few years it has become fashionable to talk about American Exceptionalism - the idea that this country is better and different than any other on the planet.

As Republicans we have criticized President Obama for not believing in American exceptionalism.

And many who aren't Republicans have criticized the party and its leaders for using this term. It is hubristic and narcissistic and deeply offensive to many around the world. The expression reeks of arrogance and makes Americans look like consummate assholes.

For crying out loud, is it entirely unheard of in Republican circles for pride to be expressed quietly, through deeds and comportment? Whom do you respect more, the man who constantly proclaims his own superiority or the man who says little but does much? Which of them is the superior role model? Which of them inspires others to follow his example?

If you think the U.S. can only hold the respect of other nations by beating its chest and bellowing, get yourself to a therapist because you have an inferiority complex you're projecting onto the country. We can't afford this kind of childish, insipid jingoism any longer. It's ruinously expensive in blood and treasure, two resources Republicans supposedly hold dear.

Even as we must never take for granted the peaceful transition of power, America is not great because of the design of our government.
Really? You're really going to hold up the Constitution and say, "It's just a piece of paper" after your party has wrapped itself in it for the last thirty years?
But free individuals...taking risks...building businesses...inventing things from thin air...and passing immutable values from one generation to the next...that is the root of America's greatness.
This is the heart of your message, Governor? That the United States is defined by Facebook and the Chia Pet and opposition to gay marriage?

I kid — in part. Honestly, though, Governor, are we nothing more than a nation of business and religious interests to you?

There is so much more to life and living than money, gadgets and religion. Even I, as misanthropic as they come, like to think of my fellow Americans as more than their pocketbooks, possessions and pews. We are human beings. We can feel joy and love and pain and sorrow. We can imagine better futures for our children. We have room in our hearts for helping others. We can read and write, we can educate ourselves and others. Is there no room in your vision for the Republican Party for these things? Are Republicans unwilling or unable to inspire anyone but businesses?

It's great that the party says it wants to make this truly the land of opportunity. That's a big deal. Seriously. But besides the opportunity, what makes the U.S. worth the allegiance of those who live here? Why is it — or why should it be — a good thing to be one of us?

Your grand message, Governor, is that this nation is composed of businessfolk and inventors who are morally inflexible. (It's a good thing our values aren't truly immutable, or we'd still have slavery and women still wouldn't be allowed to vote.) Forgive me, but I don't find that a terribly inspiring vision.

A commenter with the handle "hope3637" summed up Jindal's speech thusly:

Make no mistake: there is nothing conservative about Bobby's message. He doesn't argue for incremental change and confronting issues on a case-by-case basis. He wants to undo 80 years of American progress and dismantle government in the service of a high-minded anti-goverment [sic] ideology. His speech was not conservative; it was actually the speech of a radical.
Yup. And this kind of radicalism is nothing new. His message was no about-face from existing Republican dogma: it was a reaffirmation of that dogma, coupled with the advice, "stop saying indefensibly stupid stuff". Really:
We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. We've had enough of that.
(Except it wasn't just this year. Remember "You lie!"? Remember "macaca"? Remember birtherism? I could go on.)

In the wake of the election, Republicans have contended that the small number of their candidates who made egregiously stupid and offensive remarks damaged their "brand". They also contend that there's nothing wrong with their core principles; they just need to present them more appealingly. They need to find better candidates who will refrain from making, well, egregiously stupid and offensive remarks.

Any party can be undone by just a couple of loose cannons. However, when it happens in multiple elections — Chris Moody of Yahoo! News' The Ticket blog reminds us of a couple from 2010 — that should serve as a warning. The ones who embarrassed the GOP might be a lot more representative of what the party is and what it stands for than some would like to believe.

I have yet to see a consensus as to why the party fared so much worse than it expected in the election. If I were a Republican I would be demanding a thorough study of exactly why swing voters (and maybe even some members of my own party) turned away from my candidates. Was it because voters were repelled by the insensitive boors whose idiotic remarks got so much unwanted attention? Was it because the party was seen as insufficiently conservative? Was it because the party was seen as too conservative? Was it the message, the messengers, the phase of the moon, what?

Nobody knows — yet party leaders have already declared that the GOP's identity is just fine, thank you very much; all it needs is better makeup. Here I detect a shortcoming endemic to the party, one that manifests itself again and again: its unwillingness to seek out unbiased, credible information, especially if the information might not conform to its preconceptions.

What if it turns out voters rejected the message, not just the messengers? You can't change too much of who you are without losing your identity altogether, of course. Yet if your business is getting people to like you — and that is a political party's business — you should be willing to look at yourself to see if maybe one or two personality traits that seem to repel others might be changed.

Perhaps the GOP's leaders understand better than the rest of us how difficult it will be to make changes to its identity. The far right's message hasn't changed much since it emerged as a potent political force with Barry Goldwater. As Richard Hofstadter's essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" explained, this extreme brand of "conservatism" didn't leave much room for compromise even then.

... the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.
(Hofstadter, by the way, was of the same mind as "hope3637" in not considering the far right to be conservative in the classic sense; he preferred to dub the movement "pseudo-conservatism".)

For the far right the message is not just urgent, it's a matter of survival. To change it is to court disaster not just for the movement, but for the country. That kind of dire consequence makes meaningful self-criticism by the GOP highly unlikely — as long as the far right constitutes the whole of the party's identity, anyway.

In his defense, Jindal tried to articulate a hopeful message. He wants the Republican Party to support growth of the economy. He wants the party to be the natural home for those who aspire to success, who want to make themselves better and by so doing, to make the country better. That's a nice vision, if vague (and it's not fair to expect a detailed policy statement in this context). If Jindal or somebody else could distill the aspirational bits from his speech, the Republicans might have a good starting point for reinventing their public face. Maybe. [UPDATE: I wordsmithed here and there.]

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Animaniacs

My, can I really have blathered about cartoons without mentioning the sublime '90s series Animaniacs? I guess so, because a quick search of my archives reveals nary a trace.

It still wouldn't have come up if I hadn't run across a great mental_floss page, "Way More Than You Ever Wanted to Know about Animaniacs", by Rob Lammle. He scored at least one long email from show creator Tom Ruegger giving lots of back story on the show's origins, including concepts for bits and characters that fell by the wayside.

There are several embedded clips from the show, but if you can only view one, make it Rob Paulsen's live remdition of "Yakko's World" with live symphonic accompaniment. Freaking wonderful. (It still doesn't tell me how he gets two lines out of a single breath where I can only do one, though. Frustrating.)

Oh, and I suppose if you've never seen the show, you really should get a taste for why it was almost as big a hit with adults as it was with kids. To that end, check out "The Ultimate Innuendos" clip fest.

Animation is thriving: plenty of shows geared toward adults air on the Fox network and cable, while kids, of course, have a smorgasbord of choices all their own. I don't know of any animated series right now that appeals to both, though, and that's a pity. Animaniacs, its spiritual ancestor The Bullwinkle Show, and Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends form a select pantheon of smart made-for-TV cartoons everyone can enjoy.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Why your recorded voice sounds different to you

A few weeks ago I blogged about recording our voices (as opposed to making full audio-video recordings, which we do frequently). I speculated that one of the reasons we don't record our own voices is that most of us hate the end result.
In my experience, people hate the sound of their own voices. They sound unnatural to themselves. (My guess is that our voices sound a lot warmer in our heads due to bone conduction.)
That was only my guess, though it was based on what I thought I'd read somewhere a long time ago. I was pleased to discover that my memory hadn't failed me, at least if this mental_floss piece by Matt Soniak is to be believed. Essentially, "your bones enhance deeper, lower-frequency vibrations and give your voice a fuller, bassier quality that’s lacking when you hear it on a recording".

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The change in gun culture

I have really done a disservice to myself by not following Talking Points Memo. Right now Josh Marshall is highlighting a number of reader followups to another reader's comment back in December, a comment Marshall featured in an entry entitled "Tactical Reality".
The gun culture that we have today in the U.S. is not the gun culture, so to speak, that I remember from my youth. It’s too simple to say that it’s “sick;” it’s more accurately an absurd fetishization. I suppose that the American Gunfighter, in all of his avatars, is inescapably fetishistic, but (to my point) somewhere along the way - maybe in, uh, 1994? - we crossed over into Something Else: let’s call it Gonzo Fetishization. The American Gunfighter as caricature.
The fetishization this reader, whom Marshall dubbed "SS", described sounds like it arises from the same mentality that fetishizes military boot camp-style team-building retreats. There's this notion that carrying around paraphernalia that looks like military gear and aping pop-culture interpretations of military behavior makes you a species of military bad ass.

Renaissance faires and science-fiction/fantasy conventions wouldn't exist without adults who like to play dress-up. But the kind of play-acting that involves real guns is quite different from the kind indulged in by fans of Avatar or Game of Thrones. The latter don't often forget they're play-acting, and if they do, we are quick to label them "delusional". When gun fetishists lose themselves in their fantasies of armed resistance to tyrannical authority, they're called "patriots" in the right-wing media echo chamber that serves them.

It's important to remember — or at least to hope, unless the evidence proves otherwise — that most gun owners in this country are like "SS". They don't fetishize guns; they're simply comfortable with them. Guns are not the be-all and end-all of their lives. They are not primarily interested in using guns for their own defense because they are not fearful beyond the norm.

The trouble comes from the minority of gun advocates who are fearful, irrationally so. They are the fetishists. They support the extremist positions advanced by the NRA and other irresponsible organizations. They are the ones to whom we must not listen if we are to arrive at a sane firearms policy — one that respects the right of people like "SS" to own weapons while respecting the right of others not to live in the NRA's fantasy world of universal gun-slinging.

Newtown truthers debunked

Last week I mentioned the "Newtown truthers", aka the Sandy Hook truthers. These are the loons who think the appalling massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary was planned, a giant stunt intended to gin up public support for gun control.

Alex Seitz-Wald, who wrote the truther report to which I linked in that earlier post, did the thankless work of debunking the "evidence" most commonly cited by Newtown truthers. Save this piece if you have any crazy relatives or friends who are susceptible to this kind of paranoid nonsense. It probably won't change their minds — resistance to reality is characteristic of paranoiacs — but at least you will have tried.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Of patriots

One of the things I've noticed about what I called the wing nuts in the last entry is, they tend to cloak themselves in self-righteousness. In particular, they claim to be the only patriots around.

Let that be one dead giveaway to wing nuttiness: a propensity to bandy about the term "patriot" as if it were a club.

Hold on to your sanity

In reading the comments about gun rights, gun control, whatever you choose to call the current furious national debate about the place of firearms in our society, I've been struck by the passion of some of the rhetoric.

Okay, "passion" is a deliberately kind word; "frenzy" comes closer to the impression I've gotten. And to be fair, there are some on the control side of the ledger who are just as irrational in their hatred of gun owners and gun advocates as some gun advocates are in their paranoia that the government is coming after their weapons. No false equivalency is intended: I've read a lot more from paranoid gun advocates than from frightened and clueless would-be gun banners. The nuttiness isn't one-sided, is all I'm saying.

I firmly believe most Americans — and by "most" I'm not talking the thin majority that Obama eked out to win his second term, I'm talking more like 75 or 80 percent — are relatively sane on this issue. We might not all agree on the specifics of whatever proposals the president and Congress eventually debate, but we're going to agree on some common-sense measures like universal background checks and reducing magazine capacities. We might even start to repair the shamefully inadequate mental health care system as a bonus. (I'm not holding out much hope on that score, but it's not like anybody's happy with the non-system we've got now.)

The thing is, the wing nuts in this country have altogether too much power to take over the discourse. It's not just on the firearms debate: it's on any debate about public policy. There are conspiracy theorists and paranoiacs everywhere, and they think somebody is out to silence them so they shout as loudly and as much as they can.

What the wing nuts say is, at first blush, crazy. It violates what you know to be common sense. The thing is, if you hear something often enough, no matter how bizarre, it stops sounding bizarre. It loses its shock value. If it goes on long enough, it might even become The New Normal.

A new normal is not always bad. Greater acceptance of ethnic minorities, for instance, is a good new normal, as far as I'm concerned.

But what a lot of wing nuts spout these days isn't about greater tolerance and understanding. It's not a positive message about how to make the world better. Rather, much wing nut rhetoric tries to foster a greater sense of embattlement and crisis. It's all about fear.

The First Amendment forbids us from muzzling wing nuts. Allowing screwy ideas is the price we pay for allowing a lot of good ones, and it's a small price — generally.

But as with healthful eating, you have to be careful about your diet of ideas. You keep guzzling wing nut ideas, you're going to lose your own sanity and balance after a while. Random nuttiness creeps in everywhere, of course. But these days, it's pretty easy to suss out whether a given source of information is heavily biased toward Teh Crazy or not. If it is, stop listening to it. Stop calling attention to it. Stop letting it be an influence in your life.

Don't let Teh Crazy take over. Don't let somebody batter you into paranoia. Hold on to your sanity. It's an increasingly precious resource.

The indie tweaks Disney

I was amused and intrigued to hear about an independent film maker's sort-of covert filming of his movie inside Disney World (in Orlando, FL) and Disneyland (Anaheim, CA). Randy Moore's movie Escape from Tomorrow uses the theme parks not merely as coloful backdrops, but apparently as integral elements of his underlying message, if you believe the excerpted line from IndieWire.com's review: "A daring attempt to literally assail Disney World from the inside out."

You might think that somebody making a real movie, as opposed to a home movie, would have stood out to park employees. Apparently Moore was able to camouflage his intentions.

The end credits cite the involvement of over 200 cast and crew members, although only small groups entered the Disney parks at one time to avoid drawing attention.

Still, there were moments during filming that Disney clearly knew something was up, Mr. Moore said. “I think they probably just thought we were crazy fans making a YouTube video, which is something that happens a fair amount,” he said.

With all the video-making devices in the hands of ordinary consumers today, this sounds plausible. If his movie makes a big splash, I wonder if Disney will feel obliged to take countermeasures to discourage the next indie director who wants to do guerrilla filming in its parks? And I wonder what steps the company could possibly take that wouldn't have visible, negative effects on its millions of customers looking to make nothing more than their own private record of their trip?

As for that underlying message, Moore said:

“Look, I have amazing memories as a kid from going to the parks. I think Walt Disney was a genius. I just wish his vision hadn’t grown into something quite so corporate.”
I don't quite know what Moore has in mind by the word "corporate", but if he means "coercing conformity", that was Walt Disney's schtick from day one. Disney the man achieved fame and fortune not only by having a clearer vision of what animation could accomplish than any of his competitors (at first), but also by being ruthlessly dedicated to achieving his vision. During his lifetime, he would brook no disagreement on artistic matters. (Steve Jobs in that sense was very much Disney's spiritual heir.) The Disney theme parks represent — or at least in Walt's lifetime represented — his idealized vision of the world, shorn of rough edges and devoid of the untamed. To my mind, there is nothing more corporate than that, and it's at the very heart of the company's DNA. What else could Moore expect?

Friday, January 18, 2013

To abortion foes

I caught a special report earlier tonight on The Rachel Maddow Show about abortion rights on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. Four states — Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Dakota — have only one clinic that performs abortions. These states are down to one clinic each because of intimidation and harassment of such clinics (and, presumably, individual doctors who offered such services) — not just by private anti-abortion organizations, but by the state governments.

Maddow, as most pro-choice advocates do, believes that there is a need for women to have safe and legal access to abortions.

Anti-abortion/pro-life advocates have a very simple and very compelling basis for their beliefs:

Abortions are murder.
The idea that an unborn fetus is as alive as an infant outside the womb is, to put it mildly, a controversial one. Nevertheless, if you accept that idea as axiomatic (it is unprovable given our current level of scientific knowledge, so it must be taken as an axiom if it is taken at all), the pro-life position needs no elaboration.

I am deeply uncomfortable condoning abortion. Nevertheless, I don't know the minds of the women who seek one. I can only call on my sense of empathy to believe that these women did not make their decision lightly. Whether or not you believe an unborn fetus is alive, after all, doesn't alter the truth that aborting it stops a potential child from being born. I think most if not all women would agonize if faced with the decision to abort. The caricature of women casually seeking abortions after heedless unprotected sex, imagery that persists in the shadowy recesses of the pro-life movement, is grotesque and inhuman, and says much more about the cruelty of the speaker than the supposed barbarism of the subject.

Enough of the abstract political blather. Here's my question for pro-life advocates, particularly those in Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota. You want to end abortions. Okay. What do you want women to do instead?

Illegal abortion providers existed before Roe v. Wade, and not because abortion is such a fun or lucrative practice. Clearly abortions fill some need in society. Yet I have never heard pro-life advocates address that need themselves. They only wish to criminalize, or at the very least make practically impossible, the practice of abortion.

New York City Mayor William J. Gaynor (1849-1913) was once asked to address the problem of prostitution in the city. Mayor Gaynor said he would understand if the petitioners wanted him to drown the prostitutes in the East River, but that they weren't asking him to do that: the concerned citizens were simply asking him to force the prostitutes out of New York City, not caring that the prostitutes would simply ply their trade elsewhere.

Mayor Gaynor understood that simply driving an undesirable practice out of your back yard doesn't address the underlying reason for the practice. Do pro-life advocates understand this?

How about trying to understand why some women feel the need to get an abortion, instead of trying to scare the hell out of them and the specialists who try to meet that need?

To my knowledge, the state of Mississippi — which is on the verge of driving its one remaining clinic providing abortion (among other women's services) out of business — is not a paradise for women seeking an alternative to abortion. How much public support (that is, favorable opinion and actual funding) exists there for contraception? What protection is afforded to young women whose spouses, significant others or relatives would punish them for an unplanned pregnancy? How good is the state's foster-child program, or its adoption program?

Are these even the primary reasons women seek abortions? (I genuinely don't know.) Are there other reasons pro-life advocates should address as well?

The dedication to life that pro-life advocates like to display would be a lot more admirable if they didn't focus so singlemindedly on potential life rather than the existing lives of women. If I were a pro-life advocate, I would be a lot more concerned with the big picture of how to make abortion unnecessary, rather than myopically and cruelly focusing on making it impossible.

Another gun story

Josh Marshall's "Speaking for My Tribe post, which I mentioned earlier today, elicited a response from a TPM reader. The précis:
I accidentally killed my best friend when I was 15.
Read the whole thing. It's not long. It is harrowing, though.

Unlike Marshall, I have one comment: moving as this story is, I have no way to assess its truth. I hope it's true because I don't need to lose any more of my faith in human nature.

"Speaking for My Tribe", Josh Marshall

Talking Point Memo's editor and publisher speaks out on gun control.
So let me introduce myself. I’m a non-gun person. And I think I’m speaking for a lot of people.
I'm a non-gun person, too. I largely agree with Marshall's take, though you can judge for yourself by reading my entry from last month in response to the NRA's belated and utterly unhelpful remarks following the Newtown, CT massacre. And I think Marshall identifies a key point about our current gun rights/control debate: what you think probably depends on whether you live in urban areas or rural ones.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The President's gun control proposals

David Taintor's Talking Points Memo piece lists the "23 planned executive actions on guns" proposed by President Obama. I have comments about a few of them. (The numbering of the proposals is as per the article.)
1. Issue a Presidential Memorandum to require federal agencies to make relevant data available to the federal background check system.
This is so broad, it's impossible to say what this means.
2. Address unnecessary legal barriers, particularly relating to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, that may prevent states from making information available to the background check system.
This one worries me. The Obama administration has been a gigantic disaster as regards privacy and civil liberties, and has given us no reason to trust it to make good decisions on matters affecting sensitive personally identifying information. As with #1, though, this is so vague that only time will tell what it truly means.
4. Direct the Attorney General to review categories of individuals prohibited from having a gun to make sure dangerous people are not slipping through the cracks.
The secrecy-obsessed Obama administration has shown total indifference to accountability when it comes to determining who is, to borrow the NRA's terminology, a good guy versus a bad guy. There is no reason to believe it will be any more open in explaining and justifying who's "dangerous".
11. Nominate an ATF director.
How long have we been without an ATF director?
14. Issue a Presidential Memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence.
This one's a biggie. As a Business Insider article notes, "The current law reads: 'None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.' " The net effect of this clause has been to make the CDC almost entirely unwilling to fund any kind of research involving firearms, a degree of inaction functionally equivalent to a ban on such research by the CDC but with the advantage that the NRA, which pushed for the clause, could deny having enacted any ban at all.

The CDC's wariness arose from the implicit threat that the NRA's Congressional allies would strip funding from the agency during budget negotiations. That threat remains, no matter what President Obama declares in an executive order, so I don't know how the President's obiter dicta will work in practice.

(I find it interesting that legislative language forbidding advocacy or promotion of ideas has not been challenged on First Amendment grounds, by the way. Certainly the demonstrated lack of research by the CDC since the clause was added seems a strong de facto showing of a chilling effect on speech for no good reason.)

19. Develop model emergency response plans for schools, houses of worship and institutions of higher education.
How did "houses of worship" make this list? Why not public libraries, or parks, or any number of other public venues? Why mention any private property at all?
20. Release a letter to state health officials clarifying the scope of mental health services that Medicaid plans must cover.

21. Finalize regulations clarifying essential health benefits and parity requirements within ACA exchanges.

22. Commit to finalizing mental health parity regulations.

23. Launch a national dialogue led by Secretaries Sebelius and Duncan on mental health.

All these sound good, but the mental health infrastructure in this country is broken for two reasons: (1) we don't want to talk about it, and (2) we don't want to pay for it. Obama's four proposals only cover talking about the problem; where's the promise to put up the money? I don't recall hearing that Medicaid was flush with unused funds, so proposal 20 on its own doesn't sound likely to make a practical difference.

I like that the list covers a broad range of actions and doesn't make the mistake of promising any easy fixes. However, at this point the list is just a bunch of good intentions. We'll have to wait for the implementation of these ideas to judge how useful they are in practice.

Finally, I am at a loss to understand the frothing at the mouth of many on the far right, like the governor and state House speaker of Mississippi, who appear to be panicking about stuff I could not find in Obama's proposals. Furthermore, I keep reading stuff like this, from Texas state Rep. Steve Toth (R):

“We will do everything in the state of Texas to ensure that as texas [sic] we follow the United States constitution. And if this government infringes on our Second Amendment rights, which gives us the right not only to bear arms but tells the government, the federal government, not to create any laws that infringes on those rights, we will do everything we can to push back against that.”
I wish clowns who gibber about the Second Amendment were held responsible for knowing the current state of its interpretation. According to District of Columbia v. Heller (478 F. 3d 370), the most recent decision to address the matter, the Second Amendment is not absolute.
Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.
"The absolute right to bear arms", isn't. This comes from the most right-wing Supreme Court in decades, for crying out loud.

What limitations are consistent with the Constitution? We don't know. Heller overturned a blanket D.C. ban on handguns so we know government can't outlaw them, but the majority declined to state categorically what was and wasn't acceptable. The only way to know what will pass Constitutional muster (or rather, this Court's; the two are not the same these days) is to craft legislation and wait for someone to challenge it all the way to the Supremes.

Sometimes I wonder if the extreme gun rights nuts, like these elected clowns in Mississippi and Texas, are in need of epinephrine shots. Their paroxysms of paranoid rage sure look more like severe allergic reactions than rational responses.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Newtown truthers

Alex Seitz-Wald's piece in Salon is "Meet the Sandy Hook truthers".

One YouTube video, for instance, calls the whole massacre staged, leading to this "logical" conclusion:

... the adults who participated in the media coverage of the shootings “should be prosecuted as accessories after the fact in a mass murder” — i.e., the parents whose children were murdered in the massacre should be thrown in prison.
Are the mentally deficient knobs who promulgate and actually believe this crap Obama haters? Perhaps, but those responsible for the aforementioned video also made "a popular 9/11 Truther film", according to the article. One must therefore credit them at least with equal-opportunity ass-hattedness. However, they can't be pigeonholed into the usual slots of our polarized politics. There is no unifying political impulse (I scarcely think such people are capable of conceiving "theories") to explain these benighted souls', well, benightedness.

The summary/teaser below the article's title asks, "Have they no shame?" Evidently, they haven't. And that signifies a bigger problem: they're — well, not "happy", but certainly prepared to believe the most arrant and irresponsible nonsense about the world in which we all live. That makes them potentially dangerous to the rest of us. Sandy Hook truthers have already started harassing a Good Samaritan from the massacre. That's beyond despicable: that's inhuman.

In thinking about this appalling situation, I found myself envisioning committing these people to involuntary psychiatric care. That is an overreaction that is as dangerous as the truthers' deluded crusade: we can't go locking people up just because they have crazy ideas. Einstein's theories were crazy when he first presented them, too. Not that I'm in any way saying these nutjobs are contemporary Einsteins; I'm just saying we have to be very, very reluctant to go with our first instincts when it comes to incarceration.

I actually want there to be a robust range of options in our marketplace of ideas. One need only look at Nazi Germany to see the danger of sanctioning only certain opinions and ideas: it can lead literally to catastrophe. However, too many people who hold paranoid ideas these days are tempted to act on them. We need to have a good, robust discussion about assessing people's mental health, a discussion that includes how to tell if hate and fear are so consuming someone that he is becoming a danger to others. It may be a quixotic quest to stop the next Adam Lanza before he kills, but as the reality-challenged Newtown truthers harassing Gene Rosen demonstrate with every word, we have many reasons to try.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Health care worker, heal thyself

Just caught a quick TV news story about a nurse at a Kaiser hospital in Alameda County who refuses to get a flu shot this season. (Unfortunately, I can't find an actual Web reference anywhere; it would appear this is too small a matter for anyone but the TV station (and me) to care about. Ah well.)

A little background: according to a 20 December 2012 article by Katharine Mieszkowski for SFGate (and originally from the Bay Citizen), health care workers in several Bay Area counties have the option of getting flu vaccinations or wearing a surgical mask. The article notes, "Some people may not get the shots for medical reasons, such as those who have a severe allergy to chicken eggs." But that's not why this nurse declined. She said that it's her right not to get it. However, she doesn't want to wear the mask, either; she claims she doesn't go to work when she's sick and she washes her hands regularly.

This sounds like one ass-ignorant nurse.

The Mieszkowski article — again, published last month, long before tonight's story — quoted Erika Jenssen, communicable-disease programs manager for Contra Costa Health Services:

Jenssen noted that it's possible to spread the flu to others before exhibiting symptoms.

"You, as a health-care worker, could be spreading the flu to patients you're caring for, even if you're vigilant about staying home when you're sick," she said.

Come on: even I, who have never worked in health care, know that a person is infectious before he exhibits symptoms. What is this nurse's excuse for not knowing that?

Furthermore, how can she be trusted not to pass along her irrational prejudices to patients, further compromising the overall efficacy of the vaccination program this year and down the line?

I am pissed that this demonstrably stupid and bullheaded nurse is entrusted with attending to the health and well-being of others. If she won't get vaccinated and won't wear the mask, let her be fired. She is a disgrace to her profession.

(In scratching around for more on this nurse, I ran across a blog posting about 8 nurses at an Indiana hospital who were fired for refusing to get a flu shot. The comments from those who support the nurses who were fired are remarkable. The supporters are uniformly wrapped up in an impenetrable web of fantasy, delusion and faulty logic.)

Thomas breaks his silence

It seems Justice Clarence Thomas finally broke his longstanding silence during oral argument today. He didn't quite make seven full years without saying a word during those sessions in which lawyers make their case in person before the Supreme Court. Now, it appears, everyone just wants to know what he said (the court transcript only recorded part of his remark).

I found this tidbit in Adam Liptak's article more interesting.

In his 2007 memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son,” he wrote that he never asked questions in college or law school and that he was intimidated by some of his fellow students.
I was painfully shy and insecure in my youth. (These days, I'm just shy and insecure.) Nevertheless, during college I found the courage to ask questions now and again. Not often, but sometimes.

Thomas declared in his memoirs that he had made a mistake by attending Yale Law School. Perhaps his bitter feelings toward Yale stem from his having failed to take full advantage of his time there. Exchanging views with one's classmates and instructors is part of the learning experience.

Obviously I don't know what goes on in the Justices' private deliberations; Thomas may be quite the chatterbox. I hope he is, even though I vehemently disagree with the vast majority of opinions he has written or joined. You see, if he's as silent during those private deliberations as he is during oral arguments, it tells me he doesn't care enough about influencing his fellow Justices to bother challenging their opinions. That, in turn, would suggest he doesn't care a great deal about his job. If that's so, he has no business being on the bench.

TV and violence

The New York Times article by Bill Carter is entitled, "Real-World Killings Pressure TV Fiction". I didn't think it would be worth discussing, but the more I read the more I felt I'd been dropped down a rabbit hole into an alternate reality. I had to call out a few passages that left me a little dizzy.
“I don’t think there’s anyone on this planet whose life hasn’t been changed and/or affected by the recent course of events,” said Nina Tassler, the president of CBS Entertainment. But, she argued, “nothing that is on the air is inappropriate.”
Says the woman in charge of putting all that stuff on the CBS airwaves. Truly an objective voice.

Here's the Fox network's chairman for entertainment, Kevin Reilly:

“You look at the top scripted shows on cable, and they are all pretty heavy duty. These are not some small cultural little things that people like. The top drama on television now is a show where people get their heads blown off at point-blank range.”
(He's speaking of AMC's The Walking Dead.)

My first, unstudied reaction to Reilly's comment is: "So you want every show on your network to feature people's heads being blown off at point-blank range?"

In pop culture, especially in TV, the game is always "follow the leader", so his remark shouldn't surprise me. Yet it does, and I'm tryihg to figure out why. After all, this country has survived a century of trend-following in film and TV. If thousands of cruddy Westerns and brainless "science"-fiction movies and TV shows haven't destroyed us, why should blood-soaked dramas like The Walking Dead or the current version of Spartacus?

That's a good question — and I don't have an answer. I only have a gut feeling, and it isn't good.

Maybe I'm too old to regard the continuing evolution of pop culture with benevolent indulgence any more. (I certainly passed the stage of "eager consumption" a while back.) I don't love gore for its own sake: a youthful viewing of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series made that abundantly clear. Some combination of these and perhaps other factors just leaves me less than thrilled that Reilly and other top TV execs are so eager to soak us in blood.

Reilly continued:

“If you are going to be in this genre,” he said, “the bar is set at the level of shows like ‘Breaking Bad.’ You can’t come in lower and succeed.”
I would ask a different question: "Should we be in that genre?" Then again, I've never longed to program a TV network or cable channel. I understand that the imperatives might be different.

Kevin Williamson, the creator of the midseason show The Following, which is garnering a lot of attention for its graphic depictions of violence, admitted to some unease in the wake of recent real-life shootings.

“We sit in the writers’ room after [the Newtown, CT massacre] happened, and we just, sort of, we’re all traumatized by it,” Mr. Williamson said. “It reaches a moment where that just gets too real, and it’s very disturbing.” But he added: “I’m writing fiction. I’m just a storyteller.”
I'm just a storyteller.

That is a highly disingenuous remark. It's dismissive of his power as a creator of filmed entertainment. Yet you don't go into a career in television without believing in its power to communicate. Even the lowest-rated TV show reaches hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people. And TV doesn't communicate via abstract symbols, like text on a page: it paints images into people's eyes and plays sounds into people's ears. There is little distance, except that created by our consciousness that "we're only watching a story". Yet the best stories slip in around that consciousness. They make us forget we're watching a story. That, indeed is the hope of everyone producing filmed entertainment, that the audience will be sucked into the story. That's why surround-sound and 3D are such intriguing technologies for creators: they promise to immerse us even deeper in our filmed fictions, to make it even easier for creators to suck us into their stories.

And what effect do the stories we are told have on us? Well, clearly they engage our emotions to some degree. They may help to form our moral sensibilities. In the absence of relevant life experience, we might even be tempted to fall back on them for guidance. At the least, it requires an act of will to ignore those stories when confronting real-life circumstances that remind us of the fictions we've absorbed.

I'm not arguing that Williamson or anyone else can't or even shouldn't create the TV shows they're making. But it's bullshit for him to brush off his own uneasiness, and ours as well, by claiming that he's "just" a storyteller.

Here was a bit of tap-dancing that amused me:

John Landgraf, the president of FX, which programs hit dramas based on some level of violence like “America Horror Story” and “Justified,” stressed a distinction between what he called “third-person entertainment” and “first-person entertainment.” The former describes the passive viewing of scripted dramas; the latter describes participatory entertainment, like video games, where shooting and mayhem are personally inflicted on characters.
I can't produce any evidence that he's wrong, but I doubt he can produce any that he's right, either. I'm going to call this an overly elaborate bit of sophistry, akin to Bill Clinton's famous parsing of "is".

Landgraf, though, didn't stop there.

“We’re mammals,” he said. “Our greatest fear is death, and if you want to rivet people, you’re going to tend to hover around questions of life and death because that’s the thing that rivets our attention most naturally.”
Yes, we're mammals. We're also humans, which means we've created a pretty elaborate and extensive non-primal civilization. Death, in other words, isn't all that can hold our attention.

By his logic, Starbucks should be peddling meth instead of coffee. I can live without our most primal instincts always being stimulated, thank you.

Truthfully, I would be deeply uncomfortable if anyone tried to ban the shows these execs are defending. I wish the audiences for these shows would dry up, though. A market-oriented solution like that would suit our present libertarian bent. However, that would require more self-control, and better taste, than we have ever shown.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Convenience vs. privacy

The New York Times article is entitled, "Legislation Would Regulate Tracking of Cellphone Users". Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) has introduced legislation "that would require entities like app developers to obtain explicit one-time consent from users before recording the locations of their mobile devices" and "would also require mobile services to disclose the names of the advertising networks or other third parties with which they share consumers’ locations."

There has been pushback, of course.

Yet many marketers say they need to know consumers’ precise locations so they can show relevant mobile ads or coupons at the very moment a person is in or near a store. Informing such users about each and every ad network or analytics company that tracks their locations could hinder that hyperlocal marketing, they say, because it could require a new consent notice to appear every time someone opened an app.

“Consumers would revolt if this was the case, and applications could be rendered useless,” said Senator Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican, who promulgated industry arguments during the committee meeting. “Worse yet, free applications that rely on advertising could be pushed by the consent requirement to become fee-based.”

Sen. Grassley, why are the companies making these apps more important to you than my right to be free of unwanted location tracking?

I'm already pissed that massive marketing databases contain information about my credit card purchases and ATM use. I am not about to roll over and play dead when it comes to my phone.

Either limits are placed on what apps can do without my explicit consent, or I will do without them. Period. How does that work for your business models, apps companies?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Corporations and religious rights

Lyle Denniston at the National Constitution Center has a piece in the Center's "Constitution Daily" publication entitled, "Constitution Check: Do profit-making corporations have religious rights?". It's a provocative question that is currently in the news because of Cyril and Jean Kortes. The Kortes have demanded the right for their business, K&L Contractors, to be exempted from the provisions of the Affordable Care Act that require employer-provided health insurance policies to cover contraception. The Kortes hold a majority stake in K&L and their lawsuit "explicitly claimed that their construction company has its own right to exercise religion, and as its principal owners, they have insisted that they run its operations every day to reflect their personal religious convictions."

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the Kortes' argument, citing the Citizens United decision.

My gut instinct is that upholding the Kortes' claim will be bad for the nation. In the extreme it will permit businesses to indulge their owners' whims in defiance of the minimal set of standards set by government, i.e., the standards on which a majority of us have agreed. For sectors and regions with sufficient competition the result might be practically tolerable: employees unwilling to suffer one employer's policies could find employment elsewhere. (That is a very big "might".) However, where no effective competition exists, employees will be held hostage.

At some point we are going to have to address the Pandora's box of evils opened by the Supreme Court's insufficiently-thought-through granting of "personhood" to corporate entities. If time and my attention span permit, I plan to go through the Citizens United decision (again) to see if I can better understand the Court's reasoning and its implications. This is an exercise Congress should undertake, too, but I'm not holding my breath. A majority of Republicans are beholden to fanatically pro-business interests and will never look hard at this matter. I have a feeling the same holds true for Democrats too, though they have more room as a party to maneuver.

As the instinctive revulsion of most of the public to Citizens United showed, we are deeply uneasy with the idea that corporations can exercise the same rights as flesh-and-blood human beings. We need to crystallize our concerns and push back before time sanctions that convention as "the new normal" and makes reasonable limitations on corporate power impossible.