Thursday, March 29, 2012

Month Three: Twins

What started out as a year of Bug/Bugs project has turned into a street furniture project. The photo-ops are just too good, the pictures are turning out too nicely, and the sofafrees are just not there when you need them.

Year of the bugs

Monday, March 26, 2012

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Kayla Williams: Love My Rifle More Than You

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Recently I've started listening to public radio, which is a huge shift for me. Before, if I listened to talking on the radio, I got kind of overwhelmed- the voices grated on me, and I couldn't understand how people listened to the news or talk radio or even NPR. Of course I listen to baseball on the radio, but that is an entirely different thing (it is!)- there's a story going on, and also a kind of ritual of voices, a cadence.  I only started listening to radio in the last month or two, usually driving between my house and my boyfriend's house- it's about a 45 minute drive- and honestly, I think it's because of twitter. A lot of public radio stations have great twitter feeds that make tweeps feel like they're part of the conversation. Interestingly, this came up on the Melissa Harris-Perry show last week, and though it's tangential, I'm going to post it here in the hopes that you'll start watching the show, or listening to it, which I often do.

Anyway, I heard Kayla Williams on the radio a couple of weeks ago, after the announcement that women would be allowed to serve in more roles in the military, though not combat. Kayla Williams served in Iraq in 2003 as a Arab-language linguist, and right up front lets us know that even though women technically aren't allowed in "combat roles," "technically" is a really big word.
Isn't Congress keeping women out of combat? There are no women in artillery, no women in the infantry. We are not permitted to drive tanks. [Williams often drove her team's Humvee.] We can't be Rangers or Special Forces. There are also teams we rarely go out with because the gear is considered too heavy for the average female to hump on her back.
So people conclude that girls don't do combat zones. That we're somewhere else from where the action is. But that's bullshit. We are Marines. We are Military Police. [See the review of "The Ballad of Abu Ghraib."] We are there as support to the infantry in almost every way you might imagine. We even act in support roles for the Special Forces. We carry weapons- and we use them. We may kick down doors when an Iraqi village gets cleared...
I've long felt ambivalent about women "being allowed" to do combat work, sort of like I've been ambivalent about the struggle for "gays in the military." I guess it's not really that I don't think women or gays should be "allowed" in the military, that's a no-brainer. My question is more, why fight for this? The thing we want to do is to fight and die in ridiculous wars because then we'll be equal? I get it, I understand it's right, but it's not a fight I'm going to fight. But Williams points out that perhaps the fight is not to get women into the military- and this probably holds true for gays, too, even after the repeal of DADT- it's to gain recognition for women in the military. It's a slap in the face to women soldiers that everyone (including me) has the false impression that women somehow bring up the rear in the army, and serve as camp cooks or something, like in an old war movie. Women soldiers deserve recognition: they're already in combat. Without recognizing this, the ordeals that they're going through while in war and when they come home are easy to erase, and this is a very serious problem.

 Williams is an honest woman, and she admits her shortcomings. She's also honest about her fellow soldier's shortcomings, which is one of her shortcomings: she doesn't hold any punches. Her book is eminently readable and eye-opening. We don't get a lot of looks into what really goes on in the army. "The Ballad of Abu Ghraib" was good (both times I read it)- there were a lot of real words from real people there- but there was definitely a sense that it was written by outsiders, academics, journalists.  Williams is the real thing, and it's telling. She experiences the trauma and boredom of war, the annoyances of her partners out there, and she includes the parts she's proud of, like her ability to communicate with the Iraqis, as well of the parts she can't really believe she participated in- long days of throwing rocks at her co-soldiers when they were stuck up on a hill doing pretty much nothing.

As in "The Ballad of Abu Ghraib," I had the same sense of empathy: Williams could not leave. In fact, Williams could have left: she had a serious injury to her foot that required surgery. Twice she had the option to get out of the war: first before she deployed and then once she was in Iraq, she could have been flown to Germany and eventually to the US to have the surgery and probably not return. Instead, she found a doctor "in-country" to do the surgery. So not only was the structure of the army such that "opting out" was not an option, the internal pressure not to flake on Williams' brothers in arms was an added twist to what civilians think of as the ability to make life choices. On the other hand, Williams does describe an incident where she is asked to participate in interrogation techniques that she considers torture.  She is asked to assist, and she goes along with it, partially because she believes that her skills as an Arab linguist will be helpful, and partially because she knows people who have been injured by IEDs in Iraq and thinks maybe there will be intelligence to be gained. She quickly realizes that the prisoner has "limited" intelligence, and realizes that the HUMINT interrogators have quickly crossed a line. She knows about the Geneva Conventions, unlike the MP's at Abu Ghraib, and she feels empathy for the prisoner, who reminds her of her Palestinian ex-boyfriend. She stops participating but is aware that just by standing there, she is useful to the interrogators as a "prop": a blonde woman threatening to the powerless prisoner's masculinity. Williams does not participate in anymore interrogations, and tells the interrogator that what he is doing is illegal. He brushes her off. She walks away, but knows was complicit.
I guess I interpret my own refusal to continue to participate in these interrogations as, in fact, the more unusual response.
However, I did not file a complaint.
I did not go higher.
I did not do anything to stop those interrogations. I did not stand up and say: "This is not okay. It must stop."
I did not do anything like that. All I said was: "I am not going to be a part of it." I did not blow the whistle on anybody.
So how morally culpable am I?
I don't think Williams would let the MPs at Abu Ghraib off the hook as easily as I have: time after time she stands her ground against shitty superiors who put her in danger. She has a clear sense of morals, and knows that the war she is supposed to be fighting is wrong. She knows that the higher-ups are wrong when they make these Rules of Engagement: "If you see a guy on the side of the road on a cell phone, point your weapon at him. And if he won't get off the phone, you can shoot him. He might be calling in your location to somebody else... you are authorized to shoot him." But she doesn't let herself or any of the officers off the hook for engaging in those rules unethically. She keeps her humanity in the most difficult situations. It's a testament to humanity that a soldier like Williams can do this, when the powers like President Bush can put her into an untenable situation. If Bush had a quarter of Williams' humanity, we wouldn't be where we are today. More liberals and knee-jerk antiwar pacifists like me should read books like this so we can back up our theoretical claims with lived experience.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris: The Ballad of Abu Ghraib

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When I started writing book reviews on this blog, in 2007, part of the goal was to help me get through my unread books so that I wouldn't keep buying books. (I see that I still had facebook at that point- wow!) This was largely successful. In December of the past year, I fell off the wagon a little, but mostly, I've been reading unread books and going to the library. Another reason I started reviewing books was to avoid accidentally rereading books. I read a lot of books and don't have a very good memory (although I did feel a lot better after reading "Moonwalking with Einstein," because it sounds like most people can't remember the last book they read, either), and fear that without writing down what books I have read, I would reread most of them. This also worked well, I think. Until today, when I sat down to write this book review and realized that I had indeed read "The Ballad of Abu Ghraib" before. I didn't realize it till literally the moment I started filling in the tags next to the blog. I usually start writing by doing this as it seems to help the writing start flowing. Let's just say "Errol Morris" isn't a common tag. I had had a sense during the book that little chunks of it were familiar, but the Abu Ghraib story is very familiar by now, and Philip Gourevitch often writes for the New Yorker, and many New Yorker authors who write books basically re-publish their articles with some stuff in the middle. Basically, I had no idea I had already read this book. Which is slightly scary.

I read this book differently the second time. I won't summarize the book because I've done it before, and because Abu Gharib is pretty much common knowledge now, for better or for worse. The first time I read this book, and as the details about who got charged and sentenced for the crime, I felt a couple of things: disgust with George Bush's United States and a sense of "we got what was coming to us" for a ridiculous and unjust war as the world's opinion about the US sunk lower and lower. As details came out, it was unclear whether these were truly rogue officers like the government wanted us to believe or whether the higher up's knew what was going on, but "The Ballad of Abu Ghraib" left no doubt that only a tiny few would take the fall for what was indeed a structural policy of embracing torture. This time, I read the book and two things stuck out at me: one, the importance of images, both for the photographer and the viewer, and secondly, the importance of the chain of command.  When I first read the book, I had only worked animal control for a police department- a para-military organization- for about a year and a half, and my department had only just begun to really formalize and be recognized as part of the department. Now, although I'm done with animal control, I understand more about what it means to be part of a chain of command. Reading "The Ballad," I could almost understand.

Saying that I could understand people that tortured other human beings is a huge statement. I don't mean I get it, and I can't even really comprehend joining the army, anyway, but there's this thing about chain of command that most people don't understand: you can't say no. Where I worked, we had a lot more leeway than really any other police organization else I've ever heard of- partly because it was just animal control, and partly because as I mentioned, the police department was just realizing animal control existed, and animal control was just realizing they were part of the police department (this is very common- when I was back east for school, I volunteered for a shelter who had just severed their ties with the police department because neither wanted anything to do with the other). For example, I was once threatened with discipline for insubordination because a sergeant, not my sergeant, told my commander that dispatchers couldn't locate me on the radio. In fact, the sergeant was not on the correct radio channel, as I had just announced my location. I tried to explain this to the sargeant who went to my commander and told her of my insubordination. I was warned, and not disciplined, which was technically incorrect: I should have been disciplined. Everyone in the department knew that shit rolled down hill- I'm pretty sure everyone in EVERY para-military organization knows that- so speaking up was always risky. I chose to work for a police department, and "subordinate" myself. At the end of each day, I got to go home and sleep in my bed. I could not be court martialed for anything I did, I was not subjected to a brig, or hard labor.  I wasn't even real police: I didn't carry a gun.

The soldiers at Abu Ghraib were operating as real police, with very real guns, under a very serious chain of command. As Gourevitch and Morris lay out, the chain of command extended all the way up to then-President Bush, but the soldiers involved and punished for the incidents caught on camera were at the very bottom of this chain of command. One of the first things you learn about a chain of command is that you don't skip levels. In a normal job, if you don't like the answer you get, you can go to your bosses boss. It might be awkward, but you can do it. It might not be condoned, but you won't be disciplined for it. In this situation, there are rules against it, even if what you're being told to do is illegal, or against your own company's (the military's) rules, not to mention your ethical code. And the soldiers at Abu Ghraib couldn't leave. They could not leave their positions, their duties, or the country. They couldn't say "no" without immense consequences. When one soldier asked to be reassigned, he was, months later, allegedly because of his request, but possibly as punishment. In the meantime, his duties, including those involving torture, continued. In my position, I had quite a bit of flexibility, both in speaking to my superiors about things I had qualms about, but also about which calls I would handle.  I could stand down. Soldiers cannot stand down.

So when I say I understand, I'm saying that I have a more nuanced view now. If Lynndie England and Javal Davis and Sabrina Harman (household names now) say "I did what I was told to do," and this sounds like a shitty excuse, well, it's a shitty excuse. But it's also true. Some of them did raise questions with their superiors. One kept a log in addition to the official log, that was available for anyone to see with the detailed descriptions of what went on. The superiors told them to keep on doing what they were doing. Their commanders saw them do what they did, and condoned it by not stopping it. They condoned it by intentionally creating policies that allowed for and encouraged torture. They condoned it by not passing out the policies and briefing their soldiers on them. I was shocked to read that JAG officers were often present when the torture and abuse was taking place. The soldiers knew the JAG officers were there.  The soldiers did their duty, and the commanders watched. In this kind of structure, the commanders are on the hook. Only the shit rolled downhill, as it does, and the soldiers got the blame.

I don't think we should let the soldiers off of the hook. But I'm not sure what options they had. I always say "there are always choices." Louisa Thomas wrote the book about conscientious objectors, and there would certainly have been a way for the soldiers to have taken an extreme stance like refusing to perform their duties, which certainly would have resulted in discipline and/or dishonorable discharge (I'm not sure how these things work).  There could have been a team effort to keep on complaining up the ladder, but this would have eventually reached a stopping point, as Gourevitch and Morris are clear that the "intelligence at any cost" direction went all the way to the top, and it's unlikely that Bush would have changed direction based on some lowly MPs and their pictures. (I'm not convinced that torture isn't ongoing, and the whole world knows now.) Basically, my point here is, and my take home from my (second) reading of this book is that the choice of non-participation, or even being part of the solution of stopping the problem, was not necessarily available. Maybe saying that I "understand" is too strong. Perhaps this reading just gave me further insight into how deeply Bush sunk our country, chewing up and spitting up individuals like these.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Bill James: Popular Crime

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Bill James is a man with obsessions. Lest you think that I'm throwing stones in glass houses, because themacinator is a woman with obsessions, Bill James is a man that admits to having read something like 2000 "Crime Story" books. This is in addition to being The Man behind popularizing baseball statistics, as in THAT Bill James, the guy behind sabermetrics, the guy who came before Moneyball, who made the Red Sox viable, who said that 27 was the number... yeah, that guy. You have to be kind of obsessed with baseball and numbers to be that Bill James. You have to be obsessed with crime and reading to read over 2000 crime books, and to write a 500+ page book about it, with the kind of detail that Bill James has written. I feel justified in writing that Bill James is a man with obsessions.

Before Bill James came along, baseball nerds depended on the box score and the traditional scout. People who only know baseball from the Moneyball movie can kind of relate to this- the guys who just had a "feeling" about a guy are no longer. The box score included some interesting stuff- wins, losses, hits, RBIS, errors, stolen bases. And it was fun to read them, and if you were a real baseball nerd, use that kind of stuff in your fantasy league team, which meant you were a REAL nerd. This isn't really a book review about how Bill James changed all that, but it is meant to point out that Bill James changed all that. If you go over to the awesome Todd Van Poppel Rookie Card Retirement Plan blog, you probably won't be able to keep up with the stats, and it's not just nerds who talk about this stuff with their fantasy league teams. If you read "Popular Crime," you'll get it: Bill James wants to change how we think about crime and the justice system in the same way that he changed how we think about, and even how we (they) play baseball. If James could do this to baseball- one of the most tradition-entrenched American systems- what's to say he can't have a similar impact on the criminal justice system?

Bill James starts with the premise that, similar to the situation with scandal, we pretend that we aren't interested in popular crime at our own risk. "Serious people," as he calls them, and I'm certainly guilty of this, look down their noses at the mass fascination of Americans with popular crime. I learned more about JonBenet Ramsey from this book than I knew about her and her murder from all of the media surrounding her case that has gone on for years. Because I'm a "serious person" and think that this kind of thing is beneath me. But, as with scandal, James believes that "Popular crime stories are an expression of our impulse to draw a protective circle around ourselves. The interest that we take in a crime is therefore proportional to the sense it creates that our sanctuary may have been violated. If we suspect that our perimeter has been violated, we are immediately concerned to locate, identify, and rectify the problem." In this specific instance, he's talking about why crimes against attractive women and children get so much more attention than other crimes, but more generally his point is that popular crimes is about the violation of boundaries: we are not like THOSE people that would commit crimes. Our kind of people wouldn't do that. In fact, crime is about defining who "our kind of people" are. The focus on crime is about reinforcing those boundaries. Serious people, he says, should pay more attention to this- the rest of the world is.

James has a lot of insights into how the criminal justice system works, and/or fails to work. "Popular Crime" covers big crime stories from 1880-2010, and James knows a lot about a lot of crimes. He has developed a lot of theories about things, and some of them are a little odd, but I respect this, as themacinator is someone who has a lot of theories about things, many of which are a little odd. Themacinator, on the other hand, has not spent twenty years reading every single piece of literature about any one thing, thereby giving her the knowledge to justify any one of the odd theories that she comes up with. James has. For example, James has an idea about why murder rates between 1840 and 1885 in America shot up at a rate much faster than the murder rates in Europe at the same time. First, guns were cheap. Second, the civil war led to a serious lack of law and order, which then to what he calls a "circle of legitimized violence." But what I found most intriguing was the last reason he gives: America was expanding: it took a vastly larger number of officers and a vastly different kind of policing to take care of law enforcement to take care of the rapidly opening frontier. Europe didn't have this problem. James, baseball statistics man, knows how to analyze the numbers.

That being said, James makes it all the way to page 45 before introducing a mathematical way to deal with trials. A trial, he writes, "is rather like a basketball game at which no one keeps score, but at the end of the game the audience is asked to vote on which team has played better." Only it's worse in a court of law (and I'm sure James intended that pun), as at least in a game, baskets actually have a numerical value assigned to them, so a "real" score can be determined, and that can have some weight in the "playing better" value judgement. In a trial, there's this nebulous standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt," and there's "evidence." He absolutely abhors the "means, motive and opportunity" schema, and feels that it should be abolished as a way of proving guilt. At best, it's a starting point for investigators to look for evidence, at worse, it's a catchy acronym: MMO. Instead, he suggests a 100 point system: convicting a person beyond a reasonable doubt takes 100 points, and each piece and type of evidence is allotted points. James has a seven-step way of analyzing evidence that I won't go into, but let's just say that James is good at designing mathematical systems. He introduces this system during the discussion of the Lizzie Borden story, which took place in 1892. By the time he gets to the crimes of 2010, you're left wondering why we don't use this system in courts now. Well, as I mentioned earlier, the law is one of those bastions of tradition, kind of like baseball. As James writes, "The world will reject these ideas; lawyers will scoff at them, judges will ignore them, juries will never hear of them..." but the bottom line is, they're good ideas.

James also has a slightly complicated argument about how the liberal Warren and Burger courts royally screwed up the justice system by trying to reform things that were accepted by mainstream, which led to later conservative courts making the penal system outrageously bad like it is today. I wrote about it, then accidentally deleted this blog post, which has left me sad for a good 24 hours. So I'm not going to rewrite it. This has been enough. Plus, this book is so good, and so long, that at last count, I've accrued $1.50 in library fines, and that is crime enough for me. What I will leave you with is the fact that this is a great book, that covers a lot of disciplines, not least literary criticism. If you like true crime, you've got to read this book, because it covers the genre nicely, and also because it will give you a reading list a mile long. If you like baseball, you should probably read it, too, but not because it's about baseball. And if you like law, or philosophy, or both, you should read it, as well. Here:
We do not have the ability to figure out what happened in every case. Sometimes we will try, and sometimes we will fail... Let me then ask another question: Is it wise to construct a judicial system upon the premise that the pursuit of justice can be perfected? It seems to me that this is what we have done... The real problem is not that trials are imperfect, but that we declare them to be perfect... I am stepping outside the circle of the law to ask a more difficult question: was this a smart idea to begin with? The "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard pushes the system toward the pretense of certainty, rather than allowing it to recognize the reality of doubt. Should we perhaps have started with a different assumption: in many cases we simply do not know what happened. [italics in original]

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Year of the Bugs: Metaphoric Sofafree

metaphoric sofafree

If you think that doesn't look like a sofafree, you're right, it doesn't. Partially it's because it's not, and partially because you have to look at it through the eyes of an extremely tired themacinator to see The Real Thing. The picture that was supposed to be there was that same sofa, either outside or in a truck, but because themacinator is extremely tired, she forgot to take either of those pictures, so this is what you get: a sofa, free from his old home, basking in the light of his new home.

It's been a whirlwind month, but both the sofa and I have found ourselves caught up in foreclosure fever, something that I've been privileged enough to deal with only from afar. Sofafrees, abandoned animals, sketchy banks: these things didn't happen to me, partially because I'm economically privileged and partly because, I thought, I was a renter. Little did I know that renters who rent from nice men for 5 years aren't always renting from nice men who pay the bank. Sometimes these nice men decide to make smart business moves- these nice men rent properties for a living- and without telling their tenants, foreclose their properties. So one day I found out that my house was being auctioned, which is not the first step of a foreclosure: it's nearly the last. My landlord hadn't been paying the mortgage for a very long time. I have paid the rent every month. It may (or may not) surprise you to know that there is no law that says landlords have to use rent money to pay the mortgage. It surprised me. When I received this notice, I had lived in my house for five years and had no plans of moving. Suddenly a move was in my immediate, even though I might not have had to move: the bank or new owner may have offered me a lease. This option seemed less than desirable, for a variety of reasons, but Oakland *is* a "just cause" city, which means that there are only certain things that are cause for eviction, and foreclosure is not one of them. If you want to learn about, or need resources for, or want to support an awesome organization, check out Causa Justa: an Oakland nonprofit who was extremely helpful and knowledgeable and reassuring during all of this.

Bottom line, I moved. Mac moved, and my sofa moved. A whole lot of other stuff moved, courtesy of the best sister ever, the best almost-brother-in-law ever, a not-so-bad boyfriend, and a friend of a boyfriend, and two lifted trucks. The sofafree isn't really free. The seating isn't free, it's not free from any normal sofa environment and you can't just sit on it on the street, but if you ask really nice, you can sit on it anytime. And bonus round: no bedbugs.