Dominic Barter on Restorative Justice

I headed to RIT this evening and attempted to find Golisano Hall. I went to Carlson by mistake (and partly out of habit as that's one of the locations of the Caroline Werner Gannett Project lectures). I tried to get on the open WiFi to find a map, but the WiFi wasn't actually accessible — a metaphor for RIT's anti-community, pro-police-state, lets-all-live-in-a-bunker philosophy. I finally found a map and (as I suspected looking at the building behind it) I was standing in front of Golisano Hall: "you are here" on so many levels.

I was there to see Dominic Barter will present a lecture titled Toward Conflict: A Conversation about Restorative Justice. He began by talking about how there are no outsiders in a community. Often we think of conflict as being between two parties, but there is always that group affected by the conflict, and (by nature of being part of the community) complicit in it.

But "conflict", "community", and even "group" are pretty potent words that need some refining to understand what's meant.

Conflict is at its core, a disconnection of communication. The presumption is that all people think they are doing good with their actions, so everyone behaves in a way that is somehow beneficial. But an action does not benefit everyone. The conversation can stop there with each party assuming the other is mistaken, confused, stupid, evil, etc. Or one party can state its objectives, and the other (while hearing the words) may not be able to empathize with that position and be unable to understand.

Conflict remains as long as that disconnection of communication remains. And it demands to be addressed; it demands to be dispelled by reconnecting communication — all because the self of each person longs to be recognized, understood, and respected. This desire for communication is so strong that, if left unresolved, leads to animosity and eventually violence.

On community, let me back up for a minute. I'm often bothered by the word "is". It has this nebulous double-meaning as a way to describe a measurement ("the sky is blue"), and as a way to define an equivalence ("one plus one is two"). So I get flustered by "you are part of the community" because "community" can simply be a measurement of place, but it can also be a definition of behavior.

So rather than define community as a set of behaviors, Barter (if I remember correctly) sees it as the people and shared places — you, everyone you speak with, everyone you interact with, everyone you see.

He also doesn't like referring to "groups" involved with a conflict — as if there are literally two teams, each with common ideas that disagree with the other. Rather, it is simply individuals, each one with jeir own ideas, some of which are shared with others. Conflict resolution, then, involves every individual in the community — everyone who interacts with those "central" to a conflict are effected and necessarily involved.

Another way to look at conflict is an imbalance of power. So Barter's process — called Restorative Circles — is literally a circle of people which, by its nature, equalizes power. He tries to work from a perspective of being part of the community rather than as an outsider, and in that manner attempts to keep himself from being part of a power imbalance.

He says it always happens in three phases.

First, people reacquaint themselves with how to communicate. He has observed people not talking to the target of their statement — as in looking away, or at jeir own supporters. And people are inarticulate and flail about with words. He reminds himself to be confident in the ability of people to communicate, so he tries not to interfere, but when someone cannot fathom another's rationale, he asks jem if jee can explain a "good reason" for the misunderstood behavior, knowing that people think they act benevolently.

This phase always takes longer than he thinks it should and he starts to panic. But it inevitably does, and eventually people start communicating with one another.

Next, everyone starts to identify humanity in others. Each realize that everyone is human like jem — that there is benevolence behind everyone's actions. And they empathize with one another, and begin to see the source of the conflict.

Finally, they start creating possible actions. Barter says he's amazed to see the creativity of solutions that arise. And because the whole community is involved, the likelihood of those possible actions being implemented is dramatically improved.

I had to ask about anxiety and control. I like to be in control, and I at least feel most comfortable when the logical part of my mind can offer possible likely outcomes. But when it breaks down and is unable to formulate any likely outcomes, I feel anxious — that old "fexcitement" reaction that's the physiological fear/excitement response. And that's unpleasant and I try to avoid it. So to enter a situation like this — where I have no idea what solutions exist, what the conflict is, and even if it will work — is extremely difficult.

Barter said he experiences that as well and has learned to rely on a support network (either other people being present or readily available by phone). For him, support takes the form of people reminding him who he is. I presume he means to regain focus on his goals and methodology.

I thought it perhaps most fascinating that he described himself as an extremely impatient man. He knows how ineffective it is to rush the process, so to ensure it is successful and robust, he is willing to invest a lot of energy in making sure it is done right.

These Restorative Circles happen start small with just a few people each, then grow, and eventually can include as many as several hundred people at once. In all, it's an amazing process that we need to reacquaint ourselves with.

 1,015 total views,  1 views today

God Bless America at the Dryden

Curiosity got the best of me, I guess, and I headed to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see God Bless America. It's billed as a black comedy "revenge fantasy" although I think the philosophy runs deeper than that. Yes, it's a story that threads the needle of disbelief so we can have a "hero" who takes it upon himself to successfully go on a killing spree of people who, well, annoy him — "revenge fantasy".

Early on, Frank meets up with Roxy — a disaffected teen who hungrily insists on joining him. The mechanics of the plot force the revenge killings to continue unabated, but there's bound to be at least one that's just a little too close to the viewer's own behavior. That, and as Frank and Roxy discuss their guidelines of who to kill, it's clear that it's all way too subjective: each individual has jeir own set of behaviors that jee deems wholly intolerable.

But there is one common thread in it all — one thing that I think everyone can agree on: those people are most responsible for irresponsible and immoral behavior today. You know who they are.

See, the thing we all have in common is the "problem" is with "others", not ourselves. And if we identify some behavior that is part of the problem, we are certainly not the worst offender: we have a plausible justification for our behavior.

So that leads me to three questions: how can I tell if it's me?, are you sure things are bad?, and why am I even thinking about this?

One thought experiment is to ask, "if everyone in the whole world behaved as I do, would that be okay?"

  • If everyone in the whole world used 4,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity in a year, would that be okay? Hrmm … probably not.
  • If everyone in the world didn't own a car, would that be okay? That would probably improve things a bit.

Another experiment is to think of how complicated an explanation is necessary to defend your argument. I mean, I don't even see a need to justify holding the door for someone behind me. Or how about, "the other day this guy just walked out into the crosswalk and he almost got himself killed — I mean, what was he thinking? Didn't he know to look both ways before crossing the street? It's not like I could have stopped to wait for him because I was in a hurry because my presence is critical at my destination." And don't you think it's more consistent and straightforward to think that greed is more to blame for the problems in the world than some convoluted logic that somehow leads to homosexuality?

But a lot of times we should step back and think, "are things that bad?" I remember going on the highway with my parents in the 1970's. When traffic was moderately heavy, the whole highway stunk of gasoline, oil, and smoke. I mean stunk — like if you spilled some gas in your garage, only it was hot in the summer and the vapor just lingered there making everyone just a little queasy. But you can barely smell them now (except on a steep race track like the steep grades on I-70 west of Denver) even though there are literally twice as many cars now as in 1972.

And finally, what's the deal with finding someone to blame anyway? Why is our culture so hell-bent on doing that? It seems entirely counterproductive: it's so bad to be "ruining the world" that we are compelled to create convoluted explanations for our own behavior rather than just going, "yeah, that thing I'm doing is doing more harm than good so I'm going to change it."

See, the only way God Bless America makes any sense is if we are fully committed to shame so we feel absolutely justified in targeting someone else to blame.

 4,248 total views,  5 views today

Thoughts on Heist: Who Stole the American Dream?

I decided to head to The Little (240 East Ave.) to see Heist: Who Stole the American Dream? Filmmaker Frances Causey, and author David Cay Johnston were there to discuss the film with moderator Julie Philipp.

Of course, because I can't remember facts, I'm heading to Heist's Official Website with this outline of the central point:

Beginning with background on the New Deal, HEIST explores how Franklin Delano Roosevelt's progressive policies were derailed by Ronald Reagan and subsequent presidential administrations, benefiting only the wealthiest investors and CEOs. HEIST exposes the full story: how corporate leaders worked with elected officials of both major political parties to create the largest transfer of wealth in history, looting the economy to create a gap between rich and poor previously seen only in impoverished colonial nations. The film is structured as a political thriller, showing the shift from FDR's New Deal reforms to an ideology where the free market reigns. It reveals the impact of the infamous Powell memo of 1971 entitled "Attack on American Free Enterprise System," which was a call to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for American business to defend its interests against criticisms of unregulated capitalism. The Powell Memo and the 1000 page Mandate for Leadership document published in 1980 by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which were written to promote business interests and deregulation, serve as the starting points of the story to show the roots of the class warfare unleashed by big business, and how wealth in the U.S. was transferred from workers to corporate interests over decades of policy shifts.

I walked in there brimming with confirmation bias. The facts presented in the film and the theories behind them fit exactly with my own experience and observation of corporate expansion of scale and power, the behavior of the media, the exploitation of journalistic standards, government, and taxation — pretty much everything.

The other day I was in a restaurant with a TV on some news network, and the on-screen personality was presenting — as news — changes to the contract plans of one of the cell phone companies. To me, this was just the flat-out reading of a press-release generated by that company. I argue this isn't news (but I think I'm more likely to get people to agree that it's the reading of a press release so I'll stop while I'm ahead). This doesn't violate journalistic standards per se — where the goal is to accurately represent statements from an individual or organization. But there's something there that misses the spirit of journalism … perhaps the spirit that journalists are the watchdogs of democracy rather than the lapdogs of the aristocracy [a phrasing that is not exactly right, but far too clever for me to omit].

Heist, however, confirms my suspicions. One of the goals of the 1971 Powell memo was to control the media in exactly this way. Modern journalists don't just go out and pick their own stories: morning e-mails outline the stories they are to cover. Those e-mails are sent by the managers which are driven by their managers, and so on, until you get to realize that there are only a half-dozen media companies making these decisions. A few years ago, I recall watching the nightly news and flipping between channels — horrified that every single story was being reported on the other stations in exactly the same order. The simplest explanation was that the schedule for all three stations came from the same source.

I thought Heist presented a solid case, but it's also affirming what I believe already, so how can I be confident that the theory it presents is an accurate one? I was thinking that people bring their own biases, and they're more likely to be swayed by something that agrees with their established ideas than by something that does not. So why would someone be influenced by this film? I muddled my way through asking a question of the panel and got most of it across.

Frances Causey made a point to say that she had been a journalist at CNN, but left to work on more in-depth projects like this one. She said she spent an extraordinary amount of effort confirming that every fact — especially the most sensational ones — were verifiable and accurate.

What's omitted in all the discussion, though, is the underlying theory. I'm going to take as given that the facts are true, and the sequence of events is as depicted (i.e. corporations are using the 1971 Powell memo as a playbook). But Heist answers the question, "is this good?" with a resounding "no." In fact, it basically presumes that this is not good.

Individually, I think this kind of world sucks. I hate having to constantly be an outsider simply because I observe the world directly and draw my own conclusions.

Working outward, I also think that centralized power and wealth creates an inhospitable society for people to live. I think the core argument opposing that opinion is that the system we have at present provides slightly less than what people want, and that encourages them to work more and work harder, propelling progress. It doesn't actually let people starve (for the most part) but it does ensure people are in a constant state of indebtedness.

What I mean that it's inhospitable is that it could be much better. If all the wealth and power tied up in making more wealth and power were instead used to foster individual household energy independence, health care for all, true theoretical scientific research, elevating everyone's education, and so forth, I think we'd be far better off.

There is a fear — and rightfully so — that this may lead to a bunch of idle hands that become the devil's playthings, but it's entirely possible to get back to some of the good parts of the 1950's: particularly the possibility of income from a 25th percentile individual providing all that's needed to raise a family. Is it not absurd that two college graduates must both be employed to earn a decent living?

 3,702 total views,  3 views today

Something Like Therapy

I can't stop thinking about my personal ramifications from watching the movie Bully last week. I mentioned one sentence in my essay about it last week, but it just opened up a big can of worms.

Perhaps most recently, I was working on writing a proposal to speak about the solar system I had installed last year, but I quickly grew disinterested as I worked through my estimates of return-on-investment. But what was really stopping me was my painful "to hell with them" attitude. I've never been much of a salesman — and notoriously anti-good at marketing (owing to my desire to permit people to make an informed decision). I feel like I'm constantly fighting the status quo on big-picture issues: I talk with enough people who wring their hands over increasing energy costs and blame "the man" for ripping them off, but then fail to see they can just walk away from "the man", get a solar system, and do away with a big chunk of variability. The debate, see, gets quickly personal for me when I have a solution and they won't listen — as if they're actually calling me stupid.

Or like a few years ago when I abandoned my "mileage maximizer" project for, essentially the same kinds of reasons: "screw them." I still think that idea would work, and possibly be a significant step toward winning a 100 mpg X-prize. But there's really two outcomes: either it works, and then either I fail to market it correctly, or someone else takes it away from me and turns it into a "Bad Thing" — or it doesn't work and I'm ridiculed for being so foolish. In no way does it work out that I gain any satisfaction from it because I can't help but hear the critical voices. And the last thing I want is to give something useful to my critics.

Another thing that comes up often enough is my hair-trigger on people taking advantage of me. I probably missed out on a pretty fair number of dates in my past: if a woman was sweet to me, I always assumed she wanted something. I'd hook up her stereo, or drive her somewhere, or fix her car, or help with her assignments — all with a begrudging pleasure at the certainty that this was my lot in life. In retrospect, I can deduce that each of them probably just kinda liked me and wanted to get to know me, but even now, I can't fully internalize that was even possible. And I still can't believe it — I'm still skeptical when I meet someone who (to anyone else) clearly likes me, and the stronger the attraction, the stronger the skepticism.

And then, I take an excruciatingly long time to trust someone. And that trust can dissipate instantly if I even start to believe the relationship has any ulterior value. It's a constant struggle to balance on that razor edge: a combination of denial and suppressing evidence, and a desire to really feel trust — trust where I don't even consider that I'm being played. That's how my closest relationships work: my best approximation to what real trust must be like.

In high school (and most of college) I found my niche skating by with minimal effort. I graduated 4th in my class, and I was very pleased at that because it absolved me from the responsibilities of being valedictorian or salutatorian, particularly giving speeches. My whole point was to try to be invisible; to get attention from nobody, good or bad.

Farther back, things get more hazy, and all lumped together. Was it first grade or fifth grade that I sat in back of the bus solely to endure (unsuccessfully) the psychology cruelty of the "bad kids" who sat there? Did some kid wreck my diorama on the way to school or was that Lisa Simpson? Why do I remember so few good times on the bus? Why didn't anybody do anything about the misery I was going through?

I went into the world with an open heart. I have learned to ferociously guard that kid in me who believes people are good and they want to help others. But then I met my peers and they were sometimes cruel. And the adults in the world would say, "well that's the way the world works, Jay." They sided with the evil. And it is evil. And wrong. Being good and nice is natural to all of us, and it's the way we should all be all the time — it should be exceptional to ignore someone who is hurting. Yet it's always the story of someone who takes five minutes to help that is treated as exceptional. Well God damn it: you're all wrong.

And to me, that's the take-away from Bully: these kids who are bullied, they are the best people in the world. To coddle the bullies is tantamount to child abuse — it's teaching that cruelty is okay, that rudeness is okay, that abuse is okay, that stealing is okay, that rape is okay: they're all part of the same family, grown from the same kernel. We get the chance to build a new society every day, but we keep supporting the ugliest parts and wondering why it doesn't get better.

 3,743 total views,  3 views today

Watching Jeff, Who Lives at Home, and Bully at the Little

I headed out to The Little (240 East Ave.) to check out a couple movies. On Mondays, they have been running a $5/movie promotion, and since the George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) is closed, there is no film at the Dryden. Too often I let the Little's schedule slip through my fingers and I miss out on things I wanted to see.

I was tempted to see Jiro Dreams of Sushi as I heard good things about it (and I missed it at the Dryden last month.) But, since I was running a little late, I opted instead to see Jeff, Who Lives at Home and then Bully.

I remembered that Dayna Papaleo gave "Jeff" a lukewarm-positive review in the City Paper so I gave it a shot with relatively low expectations. I found it a bit rough around the edges. As I told a friend later, it tends to really shove hard on suspension of disbelief which did not quite break me out of the movie: my advice is to stick with it and let it flow because there's a multi-layered story going on that's worth examining. I'll also warn that I found Ed Helms acting to be a bit too broad … at least at first: I often suspect that shooting schedules for movies tend to be set up by location, but also loosely in script-order, so his earlier scenes in the film seem like a caricature portrait, but he does improve as the film goes on.

At the surface, the film is about an easily-dismissed stoner, Jeff (Jason Segel) who believes that the underlying nature of the universe is revealed through subtle messages that he believes he is tuning himself to see. Meanwhile, his brother Pat (Ed Helms) leads a much more conventional life, suppressing any belief in a purposeful world by focusing on the minutia of day-to-day life. Jeff lives in their mother Sharon's (Susan Sarandon) basement — who is struggling to find meaning in her own life as a widow, unsatisfied with her sons. Oh, and it's designed as a comedy with a lot of really quite funny moments.

But take away the mechanicals of the plot ("a stoner goes on a wacky adventure struggling to complete a simple task") and what's left is a painting of the way family is inexorably connected; how they are similar in deep, subtle ways that transcend their outwardly tremendous differences. Without giving away too much, I found it unexpectedly tender when Jeff is sitting the basement watching TV listlessly eating an uncooked PopTart.

With just a short break, I stuck around to see Bully. In case you didn't know, it's a documentary about bullying in primary schools in the United States … sort-of. Its candid portrayal of day-to-day school life resonated with me, and made me wonder if I'm repressing some memories of being bullied — I vividly remember moments that echoed Alex's dialog with his mother and with school administrators. I suspect that some part will resonate with everyone.

By my interpretation, in American society, it is considered normal for kids to establish their individuality by saying cruel things to one another. Most form a callous that protects and strengthens from each cruel remark. But some do not, and the cruelty strikes their heart each time. And because it hurts so very much, it's not something they wish to inflict on others, so they never become adept at cruelty. And then their unwillingness to be cruel becomes itself another difference that is attacked, and the pain just builds and builds.

The movie paints the picture of this seemingly unavoidable torture and then finds hope in things that parents and children are doing to turn the tide. But in my gut, I knew the speeches, the discussions, and the rallies would handily be derided by any half-clever fourth-grader — and much to the amusement of jeir peers, continuing to feed the cycle.

In one scene, Alex is talking with his assistant principal, he doesn't believe her actions will help. He cites a previous case where he was bullied by getting stuffed into the seat cushions of the bus and her actions failed to stop the bullying. She has the audacity to bully him to reinforce her belief in the petty authority she holds: she begs the question by asking if that specific circumstance ever happened again, knowing that she'll be able to steamroll poor Alex who doesn't have the skills to call her on her bullshit.

That, and the principal of the same school's reprehensible reaction to Alex's poor parents led me to think of Ferris Bueller's Day Off. A common criticism of the film is that Ferris is an anti-hero because he fails to respect the authority of Principal Ed Rooney who is played to be a petty dictator — and an incompetent one at that. But watching Bully, I can't help but believe Rooney's portrayal may be less of an exaggeration than it seems. As an adult, thinking of the advice given by my own guidance counselors, teachers, principals, and any other "school authority" seems, at best, to be the good-and-bad mix of advice you can get from anybody over the age of 21, and downright buffoonish at worst.

But when I said the film is about bullying "sort of", I meant that there's an undercurrent of hope from people doing things they never thought possible. And in a way, the bullying and attempts to stop bullying seem trite compared to the profound personal changes in the lives of people confronting adversity.

I was talking with a friend the other week and we were commenting on how the lilacs seem more fragrant this year, probably because of the stresses of the weather. She commented that stress makes things beautiful. I thought it wasn't quite right — I've seen people who are stressed and they're not pretty — so I said it's adapting to stress that is beautiful.

 3,848 total views,  5 views today

Salt of the Earth at the Flying Squirrel

I was kind of suspicious of how the "general strike" from the Occupy Wall Street folks happened. While I support organized labor, this was something different — more of a protest than a strike, and certainly not something the 99% got to vote on first.

But speaking of strikes, I definitely wanted to see Salt of the Earth at The Flying Squirrel Community Space (285 Clarissa St. Just recently, I read somewhere that it was banned in the U.S., fueling more curiosity. It's based on the real Empire Zinc Mine strike in New Mexico, and employs many people involved in the strike as actors. The reason it was banned is it was made during the time when Joseph McCarthy was performing what can only be described as witch-trials, and made by blacklisted people in Hollywood.

It's a powerful and moving account of the desperate need for unions. But the thing I found more intriguing was that it was realistic about what it takes to actually start a strike. Most fictionalized accounts focus on the outward conflict and its resolution. But this spent almost all its time with the people who, by striking, lost their livelihood and had to rely on handouts. To me, it's quite unfathomable: to decide that spending whatever savings I had, and then being at the mercy of the kindness of strangers is preferable to my working conditions is not a situation I've experienced. This is the decision Ramon must make when facing a wife and two children (with a third on the way) who rely on him as the sole breadwinner. They have nothing without him — literally, as the company also owns their home.

Their demand?: that Mexican-Americans be treated equally to Anglo-Americans.

1950. In America. And there are some who regard that decade as the most wonderful. Amazing.

Of course, it's not like today is necessarily any better: there are still millions of people who are working but either don't earn enough to survive, or their working conditions are dangerous or otherwise inhumane. Unions — and the legal protections for unions — are critical to the survival of the American people.

 6,434 total views,  1 views today

The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at the MuCCC

I was tired of running all around and today I had a full afternoon and evening of events to try and attend — heck, it's Sunday and I don't feel like leaving the house. Alas, I did go to just one thing: I headed to The Multi-Use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC) (142 Atlantic Ave.) for a reading of The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. I really didn't have much background (despite curating the events calendar on this site, I don't actually read much into descriptions) and I only recalled a passing interest in attending.

It is a monologue written by Mike Daisey and performed/read by Spencer T. Christiano which is a first-person account of how a fan of technology (and especially products of Apple) became disillusioned by visiting a factory in China. Christiano did a fantastic job voicing Daisey, who interweaves three tales: one is his own, personal relationship with technology, the second is the story of Apple, and the third is the story of his visit to Shenzhen, China. I found his style fantastically conversational and personal. The way he writes about technology demonstrates a deep understanding, and he genuinely seems like an eyes-wide-open kind of guy who is willing to lay any judgmental views right in the open.

But you don't have to take my word for it: you can go to his site and download the whole monologue as a PDF and read it for yourself (it's licensed with his unique open-source-like agreement).

I was drawn in to the story quickly. I grok the lust for technology, and his description of that experience fits with my own (for an example, one of the things he loved about his first computer — an Apple IIc — was that the keyboard was in Garamond; if that makes no sense to you, then you might not fully appreciate his geekery.) I have a fairly good understanding of the origins of Apple, and Daisey's details fully corroborated my own. And when he began describing the "retail" side of Shenzen, it fit with what I had heard, such as when SparkFun visited there (although I far more appreciate his description, "Shenzhen looks like Blade Runner threw up on itself. LEDs, neon, and fifteen-story-high video walls covered in shitty Chinese advertising: it's everything they promised us the future would be.")

So when he started talking about what the "manufacturing" side of Shenzen was like, I could only assume it was just as accurate. I realize it's a logical fallacy — a twist on the "ad hominem" fallacy — where I believe a fact to be true solely because I found other facts true.

He then outlined the conditions in the factories which were different from, and, by my gauge, worse than what I had envisioned. I had an impression of workers on an assembly-line putting together and testing electronics.

But I didn't expect it to be in gigantic rooms where absolute silence is enforced. I didn't expect such a lack of machinery (it's cheaper to pay a Chinese worker to install a screw than to make a machine to do it, presumably until some astonishingly large scale.) I didn't expect there to be suicide nets on the outside of the building. I didn't expect regular working hours to be so extreme (although the government-approved union-busting and blacklisting would naturally make that so). I certainly didn't expect these factories to employ the "best and the brightest" — a college education in China gets you a job assembling iPhones.

But then, like I say, you can read all about this yourself in a far more engaging and entertaining form.

So stepping out of the writing, and stepping out of the monologue and the performance, there's an interesting twist to the story. NPR radio show This American Life had Daisey perform an abbreviated form of the monologue for the January 6, 2012 show. But then they did something unprecedented: on their March 16, 2012 show, they retracted the episode, claiming that Daisey lied.

Now this is unique, first because it's the first time This American Life actually retracted an episode. But more important, it's not a retraction because the facts of the account are false, it's because they didn't happen to Daisey personally as he had claimed. According to the after-performance discussion with Spencer T. Christiano, producer John W. Borek, and director Kelly Webster, Daisey does not dispute the fabrications and says it is a work of theater, not journalism. On the Star Wars Modern blog titled What Mike Daisey Did Wasn't Fair – It Was Right., John Powers puts it better than I can: "when did Ira Glass graduate from being a talk radio Casey Kasem to NPR's Dan Rather?"

I'll briefly mention that there's a flurry of activity about this. My take [I'd add, "as if you care", but you, dear reader, are indeed reading this, so I'll meta-self-referentially say it parenthetically] is that journalists like to believe the rules of journalism produce a work that is closest to reality. The truth is, no writing is remotely close to the truth. No account of any event — be it written, photographed, filmed, or recorded — has ever been an adequate substitute for reality. However, it is a new truth, just as this blog entry is a new essay that's about a new performance of a new monologue by Mike Daisey which is a new transcript based on new performances of Daisey which is a new account … umm … etcetera.

But what I think is so valuable about The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is the way it paints a picture of the hierarchy that exists. A journalist could play by-the-book and quote a business person, and a worker, and a technology geek, and a Foxconn liaison, and Steve Jobs — and they could never manage to put it together to describe the chain of events. For instance, here's an attempt to explain the hierarchy I'm talking about:

  • An evangelical Apple geek eagerly awaits the newest product from (although having never met the man)
  • … Steve Jobs whose staff designs a new version of their latest product and sends a representative to Foxconn in Shenzen, China to meet (a group of strangers, both in relation and in culture)
  • … the representatives at Foxconn and they all go to dinner and mingle and go to the shiny factory meeting room and discuss the product when the Apple representative asks to see the factory floor, so the Foxconn people make a call to (knowing they should show an idealized version)
  • … the factory manager who sets up (not wanting to lose work and get fired)
  • … a mock factory — well, a real factory floor with real products, but with the child labor replaced by their oldest workers who (desperate for employment)
  • … go along with the charade and work hard and say all the right things so the representative can report back about the great working conditions (all the while wondering why American workers can't be so happy for work).

So go back in that list and find the bad guy — find the person who caused the dangerous working conditions, or the child labor. This is where journalism falls down: there is no person who is at fault.

Those parenthetical phrases are key: they describe the gaps that are filled in by the systems we have. Ergo, it is the system itself that is the problem. The system rewards people for making small lies to preserve its own profitability and we humans have created this new life form.

 3,987 total views,  2 views today

Paul Chappell at the Interfaith Chapel

I was inspired to see what Captain Paul K. Chappell will discuss had to say in a discussion titled Why Peace is Possible and How We Can Achieve It. I heard rumors that — as a graduate of West Point and having served in the army — he had concluded that it was possible to redirect the efforts of the U.S. military toward true peacekeeping rather than the delusion of using war. He spoke at The Interfaith Chapel at the University of Rochester (Wilson Blvd.) and the lecture was recorded by C-SPAN. (If I hear about a link to the recording I'll note it here.) I was quite inspired indeed.

Chappell grew up being taught that world peace is a "naïve idea". Central to the argument is that human beings are naturally violent. But is that true?

According to him, the greatest problem of every army is getting soldiers to be willing to die, and it's even hard to get people to fight. An effective technique is to instill the notion of a "band of brothers" so everything becomes self-defense. For instance, West Point teaches to treat your fellow soldiers as your family.

Second, no war has ever been fought for money or oil — at least not officially. In fact, people desire peace so much that every leader claims to be "fighting for peace". War is traumatizing because people are naturally peaceful.

An army study conducted in World War II (specifically Combat Neuroses: Development of Combat Exhaustion by Roy L. Swank, M.D.; Walter E. Marchand, M.D.) showed that after 60 days of sustained day and night combat, 98% of soldiers become psychiatric casualties (the 2% that can go on indefinitely already aggressive sociopaths).

Chappell spoke about how reading On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society gave him new hope for peace. Like other animals, humans have an innate aversion to killing one's own kind. All of military history supports this and uses three techniques to thwart this instinct:

  1. Create psychological distance such as derogatory name-calling — everything from "barbarian" (which comes from Greek interpretation of foreign language sounding like "bar bar bar") to a more subtle term like "illegal alien".
  2. Create a moral distance by declaring your enemy to be evil.
  3. Create mechanical distance (physical distance). For instance, the Nazis switched to gas chambers because shooting was too traumatic for the soldiers — they were protecting the executioner from psychological damage.

Chappell asks, "why would this be necessary if humans were naturally violent? If we are not naturally violent, why is there so much war?"

We're told we need war to stop war, violence to stop violence violence. Most soldiers want peace but that is not the means they are taught to use.

Chappell notes that at West Point he learned that the nature of war is drastically changing. It's now about "winning hearts and changing minds". This leads most directly from media coverage, since "collateral damage" is no longer acceptable: you can't kill any civilians. Yet, historically, the most people killed in past war were civilians.

So how do you win hearts and change minds? The masters of this were peaceful like Ghandi: someone able to transform an enemy into a friend; someone actively waging peace. This includes peace marches such as were used for civil rights or for attaining voting rights. (From Chappell's example, consider that prior to the 1830's, only a small percentage of tax paying people could actually vote, and it was through peaceful protest that we now take for granted that "no taxation without representation" is the bedrock of our country.) These peace movements of our country should be taught in schools as being at least as important as the wars.

Waging war or waging peace share many needs: people, strategy, unity, tactics, and winning hearts and changing minds. However, Chappell points out that there are tremendous differences as well:

  • Peace has truth on its side, war has myth.
  • War is about killing people versus peace which is about making a friend.
  • All war is based on deception. (He pointed out that in all cultures, the fundamental behavior of the "devil" is that of a deceiver.)
  • The people who perpetuate war control lots of wealth and power — just as the enemies of the civil rights did.

So what does being "pro-military but against war" look like? Well, pretty much like Star Trek in a lot of ways. For instance, what if the army was chartered with disaster relief and we had the worldwide reputation of arriving to help then leaving?

Chappell said that Eisenhower was the first to ask why the Middle East dislikes the U.S. He found it was because our policies block democracy and instead support or install dictatorships — they are angry that we don't live up to our ideals. As such, we need to hold our politicians accountable to change foreign policy so it is in line with the ideals we profess.

Chappell concluded by saying that war is not inevitable, and world peace is possible. Consider that 200 years ago, the only democracy in the world was America and even it was only fractionally so. And we don't need to convince everyone — for instance, the Civil Rights movement succeeded with only 1% of the population actively participating.

During the question-and-answer, some evocative questions were asked.

First off, can the world be united? Chappell noted that in the United States, we have moved from state-identity to national-identity. And consider Europe: can you imagine Germany declaring war on France today? This progress can be expanded to all nations.

I asked about how, prior to the Iraq war, 250,000 people marched to protest it yet it happened anyway, so is protesting dead? He said that people romanticized the past: while the Vietnam War was being debated, it was not uncommon for students to try and attack peace protesters. To my specific example, he said that the government learned how to defuse protest from what happened in Vietnam: to avoid risk of a draft, they censor the media by embedding journalists in military units, privatize the military, and by propagandizing "if you don't support the war you don't support the troops". As such, protest needs to evolve too.

In a later question, Chappell was asked what techniques should we use? He said we have lost our way to positive change. Consider how the Tea Party movement called attention to issues that were the same everyone cares about, but liberals were too busy calling them stupid. Remember to never demonize your opponent: identify with your opponent. In many cases the problem will boil down to hatred and ignorance. Remember that the government retains control of people by dividing them. So start with common ground and don't reinforce divisiveness.

In another question, someone asked, given that peace is an active task, what would non-violent passion look like? Chappell said it's easy today to isolate yourself today in peer groups and reinforce demonization of others. To be passionate is to defeat ignorance and to defeat hatred.

Another question had to do with conscientious objection: that by paying taxes, we are actively participating in and supporting war. To that, he said we should focus on how war makes us less safe, and how preparation for war is economically destructive. Consider Eisenhower's "Cross of Iron" speech where, in the central argument against "the way of fear and force", and what would be the worst- and best-case scenarios, he says:

The worst is atomic war.

The best would be this: a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and the labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the peoples of this earth.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms in not spending money alone.

It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.

It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.

We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat.

We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Chappell echoed this, reiterating that our infrastructure is hurting because of war. He suggested we seek out the works of Douglas MacArthur and President Eisenhower as he had.

The concluding question asked if peace is based in truth, yet battle and conflict is a fact of nature, how can we be truthful? Chappell said the language of "waging peace" is accurate. We are trying to defeat ignorance and hatred, but the person is not the enemy. So ask yourself: how can I most effectively attack ignorance and hatred without hurting the person?

 4,082 total views,  3 views today

Truck Versus Man

I was walking out to go to The Bug JarMySpace link (219 Monroe Ave.) When I got to the end of my street, I saw a man walking in East Henrietta Rd. I thought nothing of it — after all, the sidewalks are covered in snow and ice, so depending on his physical condition and footwear, it's understandable that he would walk in the perfectly clear road. (I'm fortunate enough to have boots, balance, and strength, so I just get a tremendous workout in my gluteus maximus.) As I arrived at the intersection, I noticed the light was in my favor (even if the inconveniently-placed crosswalk doesn't reflect that) so I was making my way across, parallel to the light traffic. As the light started changing and the last vehicle passed, I heard a thud, as if the pick-up truck had run over a log in the road.

I knew it was trouble before I turned around, and as I had expected, the man was lying in the road.

I was calling 911 (although I almost called 9111 in my panic) before the driver even got out of the truck. I think my initial assumption was incorrect — the man wasn't run over, but run into. Thankfully the driver was going relatively slowly, but he didn't see the man and didn't react, so the truck hit with full force. A firetruck, ambulance, and two police cars arrived within a couple minutes. They got the man on a backboard and into the ambulance — he didn't appear to have a broken back or other severe injury, so I hope the worst he could suffer would be a broken bone or two.

I always wonder how most people think this is okay — as if it's just a fact of life that these kinds of car accidents happen. It was certainly preventable. Why aren't cars equipped with brakes that engage automatically when they detect something? For that matter, why aren't the sidewalks cleared to the same standard as the street? I could blame the driver, but humans are wholly unequipped to drive the same route without incident and be expected to handle a random, unusual circumstance, proven again and again by psychology and anthropology.

It's really too bad we can't use science to guide our collective decision-making.

 1,244 total views

Watching Martha Marcy May Marlene and Margin Call at the Cinema

I missed out on Martha Marcy May Marlene when it screened at The Little (240 East Ave.) a few weeks back, but I got a chance to see it at The Cinema TheatreMySpace link (957 South Clinton Ave.) as part of a double-feature with Margin Call.

I'll start with Margin Call and say just a little: it's the story of the 2008 financial meltdown convincingly told with a sympathetic eye to the people closest to the problem. It really only served to reinforce my opinion that the stock market is nothing more than gambling with no relevance to any real value in the world. It was good, solid entertainment.

Martha Marcy May Marlene plays out largely in flashback: the tale of a woman indoctrinated into a rural cult. I think most people watch the film as a sort of horror/thriller, exposing the layers of lies, power, and brainwashing that get an otherwise reasonable person to embrace completely absurd notions. But I guess I come from a weird perspective, and saw it as a tale that compares two cults: one at a rural farm, and the other, American industrialized society. When Martha (a.k.a. Marcy May as named by the cult leaders, or Marlene when any of the women answered the phone) is reacquainted with her sister Lucy, she returns to Lucy and her husband Ted's summer home (none of who utters reference to a "cult" as none either knows or believes it). She first showers and when she rejoins Lucy on a bed, Lucy says, "oh, you're dripping", referring to Martha's wet hair. Particularly given the more important things going on, why is this even remotely important?: it is the Lucy/Ted/American culture's set of arbitrary and irrelevant rules.

Like Kynodontas (Dogtooth) (which I saw at the Dryden), the film acts as a mirror to our own society. My culture's foundation is violence: if I don't do what I'm supposed to do, society responds with force (which may sound familiar, taken from Derrick Jensen's philosophy). For instance, if I decide that the house I have been living in (exclusively, for the last 12 years, and no other person has come by to claim it is theirs) is mine and I decide to no longer pay my mortgage, eventually someone will come with a gun and tell me I have to leave. That is the incentive for paying my mortgage. Of course, it's conditioned from an early age, so it doesn't seem like that's the reason, but it ultimately is.

I of course know the differences between my culture and the cult, but the lines were pretty severely blurred by the end of the film. It's kind of a "choose your own poison" kind of tale. Martha is a pawn in the game where she's either enslaved to pay for her existence, or, well, enslaved to pay for her existence. There's happiness and misery to be found in both places only at different times and in different forms. But ultimately she's asking the right questions: why do I have to?

 3,533 total views,  1 views today