Saturday, February 26, 2011


Sometimes the sheer number of important causes in the country and around the world can be truly overwhelming to me. It’s so easy to look around and see problem after problem and feel confused about where to start. How do we decide what’s most important? Most of us don’t have the time to fight on every worthy front, and even if we did we probably wouldn’t be as effective as if we focused on just a few crucial issues. But with so many things going on in the world that make my stomach burn, how am I to prioritize? Any attempt at objective criteria feels doomed after a short while. Every problem has another fundamental one underneath it, and every problem subjectively harms someone more than someone else. If I take on the issue of immigrant rights am I neglecting the fight for campaign finance reform? If I focus on prison issues am I turning away from efforts to stop climate change? There’s no objective solution to this dilemma; you simply have to decide for yourself what’s most important to you, based on your passions, your background, what you value. It’s a personal choice. My pet issue if I have one, is war. That and the fact that the Democrats and Republicans are essentially the same thing with different accents.

About four years ago I started hearing a lot about the Working Families Party of New York. My immediate reaction was that I hated their name. It struck me as cowtowing to the welfare bashers and the way they frame the issues. I’m so tired of this shit. It’s like the mindset is, “the Republicans will say we want to just give handouts to lazy people who won’t work, so we have to emphasize that we are working people!” I hate it. It’s like we all have this permanent burden now to preemptively defend our intentions against the symbol of the lazy welfare mother who’s having another kid to get more food stamps to buy more McDonald’s extra value meals. Spare me. I also hated the “families” part of the name. I mean, I know that Working Individuals wouldn’t have quite rolled, but as a divorcee who never had any interest in having kids I find it hard to identify.

But when my disillusionment and disappointment with the party of my family upbringing reached full saturation I started looking into this Working Families business and saw a lot to like. They are active in the fight against hydro-fracking in New York. They vocally support public campaign finance, which would undoubtedly be a step in the right direction. In fact, I don’t really see much in their platform that really irks me. It’s what’s missing that I have a hard time with, namely any stance at all on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is incomprehensible to me. How the fuck can a group that calls themselves “New York's liveliest and most progressive political party” not take a stand on war! But if you look at their website you won’t find the words Iraq or Afghanistan anywhere. What the hell is going on here?

I did a little poking around elsewhere on the Web, and it turns out that at least back in 2006 WFP was quite vocal in their stance against the war, particularly in Iraq, with a campaign they called “Bring Them Home,” which included a promotional video featuring iconic folksinger Pete Seeger. Seeger also appeared in a companion mailer showing endorsements from Seeger, filmmaker Michael Moore and anti-war mom Cindy Sheehan. Only trouble was, they neglected to mention that at that time Cindy Sheehan was officially endorsing the Green Party at the time and WFP had to do some serious damage control to keep from appearing to have misrepresented Sheehan as being one of their spokespeople. I’m guessing Sheehan was a good deal responsible for the mistake as well. She liked some WFP candidates and had only recently become a public personae. But the people at WFP should have known better. It was a botched job to be sure. But although you can still see the Seeger video on You Tube, the webpage on the WFP site that once carried the “Bring Them Home” message is nowhere to be found. You can dig and dig in the website and you won’t find anything about war. Every day people die in Afghanistan from US military and NATO actions and New York’s “liveliest and most progressive political party” doesn’t feel it’s still worth mentioning now that everyone is too distracted by the economic crunch they’ve basically forgotten there’s a war on. The people in Afghanistan and Pakistan sure remember.

After digging really hard (in vain) to see if the WFP website actually took a position on the wars (it doesn’t), I posted as my Facebook status message: “I’ll get behind the Working Families Party when they get behind ending war.” One response from a very intelligent young friend of mine made a point in response that I’m sure a lot of people buy, namely that since they aren’t really a national party, but mostly a New York-based organization, they don’t really comment that much on big national issues and don’t say much of anything about foreign policy for this reason. Sounds pretty good until you take into account that they endorse, through voting fusion, candidates for the US House and Senate. Plus, soldiers from our state are killing and dying in the wars and that makes it a state issue. Third, they did take a stand on the war when war was a big issue on the minds of voters. In August of 2006, according to CNN, 60% of Americans disapproved of the Iraq war, and most approved a timetable based pullout. To stand for ending the war was to stand with the majority. What about now? Well, the same group, CNN, released a poll on January 3rd which revealed that 63% of Americans currently oppose of the war in Afghanistan. So where are the Working Families? I became curious to see what the other so-called third parties in New York had to say in their websites about the war, so I looked them all up. The results were sad and surprising.

Of the seven parties with ballot access in New York outside the Red and Blue color wheel, most did not mention war at all, finding it more urgent to fill page after page with rhetoric about everything from paid sick days (WFP) to railing about the evils of human cloning (Right To Life Party). Down the line, they are:

Conservative Party - considers winning the "war on terror" a top priority.

Green Party - ending Iraq & Afghanistan wars explicitly listed as part of their platform.

Independence Party - the third largest party lists no position on war.

Liberal Party - almost no reference to the war at all, and what I could find bemoaned only the cost to the economy and the unwinnable nature of it.

Libertarian Party - officially opposes initiation of the use of force by anyone. Also vocally supports abolishing the Selective Service. Their website doesn’t condemn the War on Terror, Iraq War, or the Afghanistan war specifically.

Right to Life Party - no mention of war, or any other political issue not pertaining to abortion, underscoring the hypocrisy of their name and its implied defense of the "right" to life. I guess they mean it’s okay to kill babies and children as long as they’re brown and you do it with bullets and drone strikes rather than with abortions.

Working Families - no mention of war policy on their site; much policy about the fair treatment of veterans and current military personnel though.

I guess if this were a contest I’d have to go Green, but it isn’t. I don’t really see that I need to get behind a party at all. It might be fun for a while to “belong” to something, but it doesn’t really matter that much. I don’t think our real solutions are going to come through voting; I think we are going to have to find more substantive ways to act in opposition. I’m not saying you shouldn’t vote, but it’s clearly far from enough.

In July of last year the war in Afghanistan became the longest war in US history, surpassing even the Vietnam War. The promised 16-month exit became transformed into a 16-month reduction. The latest estimates I read from the DoD say they expect armed combat to end in 2014. The plan to close Guantanamo is indefinitely scrapped. Afghanistan will be our permanent punching bag, with Pakistan now getting fully rogered as well. If we are going to dare to call ourselves progressive I think we have to do something about that.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Insanity: Westboro Baptists and The Power of Words

[I wrote this a few weeks ago when every other word being uttered online was "Arizona." Sorry I'm late, but I need to get this off my plate so I can feel justified moving on to more current matters. --RR]

In the wake of the recent shooting incident in Arizona, an absurd battle began to erupt in the public arena, social networking media, and the press, regarding the subject of violent language and imagery, and its power to incite. From the common arguments we can reduce down to two basic opposing points of view: 1) the poster displayed by Sarah Palin last year with crosshairs next to members of congress, including Congresswoman Giffords, definitely played a role in the shooter's action, or 2) the role of the poster is inconclusive without further evidence. The second premise is well-supported since we have reasonable information that the shooter was insane or deluded. While this doesn't rule out the influence of the ugly semiotics of Sarah Palin as an influence, it certainly provides for the possibility that he could have been influenced as much or more by other input, or even nothing one could directly connect. For what is insanity? Insanity by its very definition is the absence of reason, the absence of rational decision, and the absence of rational cause and effect relationships between influence and action. The shooter was no doubt influenced in his faulty thinking, like anyone, by a wide array of input over the course of his (so far) short life. But someone irrational or insane often distorts this input to either support beliefs they already hold, or to dismiss information that defies their crazy beliefs. Without digressing into the question of whether religious beliefs that are disproved by factual evidence constitute insanity (don't get me started), the only rational conclusion about the Arizona shooter (based on the reliable information that he was insane) is that the role of external influence on his actions that day cannot be ascertained without a lot more evidence than has been provided so far. The proponents of premise #1 above, believe that it is conclusive enough to say that because one of the targets in the Palin poster was Ms. Giffords, then Palin's poster is partly responsible. However we do not even know for a fact yet whether the shooter ever saw the poster, or if so, what he thought of it. So even if we assume he was sane (which he clearly wasn't) then we still don't know whether the Palin poster, or the "political climate" as some have substituted for the poster in arguments, was in any way an influence on this cruel and violent act. Of course the Palin poster was meant to offend her opponents and rally her base, and it worked on both counts. The outrage of Palin's opponents has continually served to garner her more attention, and cause her influence to appear larger than it really is.

Meanwhile, a new controversy rose like a Phoenix from the ashes of this nightmare. The Westboro Baptist Church announced their intention to picket the funerals of two of the victims (the ones whose funerals were going to occur first) to advance a pretty crazy message, namely that God sent the shooter to do his deed because of the tolerance being shown to gay people in our society. These fools have done or threatened many similar actions and their power, like Palin's, lies largely in their ability to offend, since very few take their views seriously, but the Westboro Baptists know what their opponents don't, namely that once they have leveled their threat to picket they have won the game, because so many will leap to oppose them that it spreads their message widely without their having done anything more than announce an intention. Panic gives immense power to these religious nincompoops. Their message so offends people that the very threat of action is more powerful than their actual ability to act. If they appear, in the puny numbers they embody, outside a funeral of an innocent victim, and harass their mourners with idiotic anti-gay messages, it may be offensive to most, and upsetting to the mourners, but it is so overwhelmingly opposed by the public that groups have even been organized to oppose them with counter-protests that block their visibility to the mourners at these events. One group, who use giant costume angel wings, pledged to oppose the Westboro picket with their own action in order to nullify them. A beautiful example of citizen action. I mean that. Instead of denying the Westboro morons their right to assemble and speak, those opposed to their message pledged to exercise their own right to free speech in blocking the Westboro peoples' offensive message from being in the faces of the mourners. This is what properly takes place in a free society. The KKK marches down your street and you line up along the sidewalks with signs that say "go home!" Unhampered by laws, speech polices itself.

But this self-policing aspect of free speech evidently isn't enough for the fearful--mostly so-called Democrats, who may adopt somewhat left-leaning rhetoric when it comes to social welfare programs, but are seldom the best defendants of free speech. They commonly argue that "words have consequences" and use this justification to argue for restrictions on speech. One of their favorite analogies they use when trying to justify the limiting of speech is the one where someone yells "fire!" in a crowded theater. The foes of free speech love to use this ridiculous metaphor as an example of why some speech is dangerous and should be limited, completely leaving out the context. Context is huge. The analogy in fact depends entirely on there being no fire. If there is no fire, then I'm guilty of intentionally misleading a crowd and endangering them. This may be considered a crime if direct harm comes to some of the crowd in the ensuing panic, but the crime is that I mislead them, not the words themselves. After all, if there really had been a fire I'd be a hero for alerting them.

In the case of Westboro, panic set in before the offending speech was ever brought to the funerals. The Tuscon legislature quickly passed an emergency law to make protesting within 300 feet of a funeral a misdemeanor, and admitted it was a direct response to the threat made by Westboro Baptists. The irony is that this didn't diminish Westboro's power at all, it only nullified the response being organized by Tuscon's citizens. In the end, Westboro cut a deal with two radio stations to call off their protests of the first two funerals in exchange for airtime, allowing them to reach a much larger audience than they would have at the funerals, and unencumbered by "angel actions" or other counter-demonstrations, still leaving their options open for future funeral protests. Brilliant use of the power and consequences of free speech, really. By simply announcing an intention to protest, Westboro got huge press coverage, radio coverage in two countries (on of the affiliates was in Toronto) and caused a permanent law to be enacted that won't even need to be enforced now, but could be in the future against anyone of any ideology who protests too close to a funeral. Has the whole world gone crazy? Remember the advice anyone gives a kid who's being teased in school: They just want to upset you. Just ignore them and they'll stop.

There are of course deeper levels of meaning to the response by the Arizona legislature. Another bit of fallout in the wake of the shooting incident was the demonizing of Arizona characterizing it as a state that loves loose gun laws, and a lot of far-right political policy. Hard to argue with the facts there, just ask a Mexican, but politicians saw a PR problem and saw an easy way to address it. Arizona lawmakers from both sides of the aisle jumped over each other to vote for the new law prohibiting funeral protests. In this "political climate" it's going to score a lot of points. Who is going to come out against it and appear to be on the side of crazy people who think a nine-year-old girl was shot because "God hates fags?" No one, of course. Meanwhile, the same lawmakers left the loopholes in place that allow people like the Arizona shooter to easily buy Glocks, extended clips and ammo. Words are of course far more dangerous.