Friday, July 24, 2015

Sandra Bland

I saw the name "Sandra Bland" for a week before I knew anything about her. I admit, I avoided reading anything about her because I suspected I'd be depressed and angered by the story of another black person who died after getting mixed up with the police.

Larry Wilmore ran the dashcam video of Bland's initial encounter with Texas state trooper Brian Encinia. I was right. I'm depressed and angry.

Like Jamelle Boule in Slate, I blame the police for what happened. Specifically, I blame Encinia, and whoever failed to train him to do, and/or should have been checking that he was properly doing, his job, because Sandra Bland should never have been in police custody.

I respect cops. They go into situations I won't. I'm grateful for that. When one has stopped me on the road, I've tried to remember that he doesn't know what he's walking into; that for all he knows, I could be a hitherto unknown serial killer. I try not to make his job harder.

But if I did make his job harder by complaining when he stopped me, I would expect him to deal with it. Arguing is not an arrestable offense.

Yet that's how Encinia treated Bland's initial complaint. Encinia acted like he was a king whose dictates could not be defied without consequences. It's altogether too easy to imagine he wanted to put an "uppity" black woman in her place.

Racism? Sexism? An unhealthy affection for power? All of the above? We'll probably never know. Any way I look at it, though, he didn't exercise self-control and he didn't act like a trained law-enforcement officer. He acted like a bully.

His apologists say that anyone, irrespective of skin color or gender, should comply completely and without hesitation with any police order.

That is a dangerously supine attitude. It fosters an unhealthy arrogance among police, especially among those drawn to the job because it feeds their need to lord it over others.

I'm not saying we should defy cops willy-nilly. They have a dangerous but necessary job to do and we owe it to them not to make that job harder than it already is. But in the average traffic stop, the cop is in an unquestionably superior position, physically and psychologically. We become nervous and instinctively go on the defensive, even if we don't know what we've done wrong. Moreover, society deliberately gives him certain advantages over civilians. He's armed; we're not. This is an ordinary part of his day; this is an entirely unexpected and unwelcome disruption of ours. Most of all, he has been trained for this; we haven't.

Pulling me over for a traffic violation is a cop's right. But along with that right goes the responsibility of comporting himself with a minimum level of professionalism. That may include taking a certain amount of harmless verbal flak and letting it roll off his back.

I repeat: arguing is not an arrestable offense. At least, it shouldn't be.

It's possible Encinia is a good cop who was having a (horrendously) bad day. If you believe that, though, you also have to accept the possibility that Bland was a good person who was having a bad day when Encinia stopped her (for what seemed to her no good reason).

Any way you look at it, Encinia escalated what should have been a trivial traffic stop into ... whatever you call this tragedy.

The responsibility for this episode spinning out of control rests largely with Encinia. He should never have let his temper (or arrogance) get the better of him. He should never have let this traffic stop turn into an arrest.

I don't know what happened after the arrest. Maybe other officers, actively or passively, contributed to Sandra Bland's death. But she wouldn't have been in police custody at all if Encinia had done his job professionally. No, I'm not a cop, but you don't need to be a cop to interpret that dashcam video. He let that encounter get completely out of hand.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Cosby is cooked

If Bill Cosby is still in your good books for some reason, it's time to write him off. As the headline in the Hollywood Reporter piece puts it, "Bill Cosby Deposition Reveals He Gave Women Quaaludes for Sex".

A man who screwed as many women against their will as he did is the last one who should have been lecturing us about declining morality, but that's exactly what Cosby did. Talk about hubris. (Deliciously, the judge who released the deposition transcript cited Cosby's voluntary assumption of "the mantle of public moralist" in ruling that Cosby didn't qualify for as much privacy as an ordinary private citizen.)

An actor who has missed out on awards for specific roles is sometimes, as (partial) compensation, given an "honorary" award for "the totality" of his work. Cosby deserves an "honorary" prison term, both as (partial) compensation for all the jail sentences he missed out on, and in recognition of "the totality" of his sexual abuse. This "honor", of course, would include very real time behind bars.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

"New American" cooking is not home cooking

The Slate piece by Megan Giller is entitled, "New American Food is Un-American". Giller argues that the term "New American cuisine" is a catch-all for watered-down, faddish food that results in menus that look the same all over.
Americans deserve better. This is a call for chefs to create a distinctly new American cuisine that doesn’t rely on tradition but is accessible and delicious. What would this type of food look like? It would be creative and bold in both flavor and technique.
Well, that's not vague at all.

I don't find Giller's suggestions for improvement to be helpful, but I'm neither a foodie nor a chef so maybe I just don't have the right perspective. However, that alone speaks volumes about the cultural context in which this article appears.

When you think about cuisines, you think of cultures and heritages. You think of dishes and ingredients and techniques that belong to an entire group of people. Most of all, you think of this food as being cooked in people's homes.

Why is it, then, that this article is addressed to professional chefs cooking in restaurants?

Trick question, of course. Urbanites eat out more often than they eat in, and a large percentage of the U.S. lives in and around urban areas. We place a far greater emphasis on living to work than most of the rest of the world and we're proud of it. The result is that we generally don't cook unless the fancy strikes us. So if "New American cuisine" (or even "American cuisine") means anything, it can only refer to restaurant food.

Moreover, even if we all were to start cooking every day, our whole infrastructure conspires against us. A distinctive cuisine evolves out of the simple imperative that a family has to eat every day and somehow the limited selection of plants and animals in the area must be made palatable. In the U.S., everything is available everywhere for the right price. Nothing even guarantees that locally grown ingredients are cheaper than imported ones, or that the raw ingredients for a meal are collectively less expensive than heat-and-serve packaged meals.

I'm certainly not advocating that we go back a century or two, when nutrition was a much more parlous business. I'm simply noting, with some regret, what we've traded for our modern culinary world. Cooking, that most basic of skills that made anthropologically modern humans, well, human, isn't about home and family any more. Not in America.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

To the officials who won't marry same-sex couples

The ACLU is suing the Rowan County (Kentucky) clerk for refusing to issue marriage licenses. County clerk Kim Davis decided not to issue marriage licenses to anyone in the wake of the Supreme Court's Obergefell decision that legalized same-sex marriage. A few other county clerks in Kentucky have also stopped issuing marriage licenses altogether.

Davis and her fellow holdouts are holding their religious duty to be more important than their official duties. That's their right, of course, insofar as they can believe what they like. However, holding a job is not a right. Holding a job requires them to do that job.

I don't know why these clerks chose not to resign their posts, as other, more principled officials have done in other states. However, if they're imagining they'll be remembered someday as heroes along the lines of, say, Oskar Schindler, let me disabuse them of that idea.

Ms. Davis and fellow holdouts, when you lose your jobs, you might be remembered kindly by those who share your beliefs. As for the rest of us, we and those who come after us will look back on you with pity. You aren't saving persecuted minorities from genocide, you're discriminating against people you detest (whether you know you detest them or not). We'll remember you, vaguely, as we do the holdouts against racial equality. We'll remember you as being so deeply invested in an old and unjust way of thinking that you couldn't see how profoundly harmful and wrong it was.

Since you can't bring yourselves to follow the law, you have forfeited the right to hold your job. The rest of us would respect you more if you'd simply quit.