Unreasonable Debts

St. Peter don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go.
I owe my soul to the company store.

— “16 Tons“, usually attributed to Merle Travis

This week’s featured post is “Can We Overthrow the Creditocracy?

Thanks to the Diary of Mindless Minions number 2703 blog, who named Maria Popova and me as “Two People Who Make the Internet Better“.

If trends hold, “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” will get its 200,000th page view this week.

This week everybody was talking about terrorist plots in Europe

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France, Belgian police launched a series of raids on suspected terrorists, including one at Verviers that resulted in a firefight with men described as “extremely well armed”.

What seems to be different in the current European terrorist threat is that it’s a mixture of foreign-based and home-grown. Belgium turns out to have a comparatively large number of residents who either are fighting in Syria or have fought and come home. They’re Belgians, but their Syrian war connections give them access to heavy weapons and training in how to use them. Across Europe, we’re talking about maybe 5,000 people, 300 or so from Belgium.

and here, sort of

Twenty-year-old Christopher Lee Cornell from Ohio was arrested Wednesday for planning to kill people at the U.S. Capitol. Allegedly, his plan was to set off pipe bombs in or near the Capitol, and then shoot people as they evacuated.

Cornell apparently came to the attention of the FBI months ago for making pro-ISIS statements through social media. He devised his plan in discussions with an FBI informant, and was arrested when he bought two assault rifles. That was the first physical manifestation of his plan. He hadn’t yet bought any materials to make the pipe bombs, and was thinking he might hit the Capitol next December. According to the L. A. Times:

He was charged with the attempted killing of a U.S. government officer and possession of a firearm in furtherance of an attempted crime of violence.

I have mixed feelings about this news. On the one hand, it’s great that Cornell was stopped before he could kill anybody. On the other, it points out the unsettling vagueness of our anti-terrorism laws. Think about it: What did Cornell do, exactly? He had a violent fantasy, “plotted” (i.e., talked big to somebody he thought would be impressed) with an FBI informant, and bought two legal firearms.

For this, he gets national TV coverage and is known far and wide as a dangerous terrorist. Having been a young man myself once, I’m not sure this example is going to discourage would-be imitators.

These kinds of crimes carry very real sentences. Rezwan Ferdaus of Massachusetts is serving 17 years for a 2011 plan to attack the Capitol with radio-controlled airplanes. Again, he conspired only with the FBI. He was arrested when he took delivery of “grenades, six machine guns and what he believed was 24 pounds of C-4 explosive” from his FBI “partners”. Not only was no actual high explosive involved, it’s not clear he would have known how to get any without the FBI’s help.

I wonder how many people we could send to prison if we treated other kinds of “plots” this way. Imagine you have a bad week at work, and while you’re out drinking Friday night, you blather about how you’d like to go into the office some day and shoot all the people who bug you. (I’ll bet bartenders hear a lot of “plans” like this.) Suppose the guy on the next stool is a police informant, and starts asking exactly how you’d do it. A week or two later, you think it might be therapeutic to buy a gun, go to a shooting range, and imagine the target is your boss’ head. As you leave the gun store, police arrest you for starting to carry out your “mass murder plot”. “Police Avert Deadly Rampage” say the next morning’s headlines.


In an unrelated case, an Illinois teen-ager was arrested at O’Hare Airport before boarding a plane to Turkey, where he hoped to join ISIS.


Vox reports:

Writers at Vox have indeed been bombarded with threats for our Charlie Hebdo coverage. But not one of those threats has come from a Muslim or in response to publishing anti-Islam cartoons. Revealingly, they have rather all come from non-Muslims furious at our articles criticizing Islamophobia.

and still talking about Charlie Hebdo

One of my long-term wishes (that started to come true in 2014) has been for The Weekly Sift to develop a commenting community that consistently adds value to my articles. A good example of what I have in mind is last week’s “Am I Charlie? Should I Be?” While many commenters agreed with my main points, several had thoughtful disagreements concerning French language and culture, and provided links that are well worth reading.

A few French-speaking commenters — I’m a puzzle-out-with-a-dictionary reader of French, and can’t say much more than oui — discussed the correct interpretation of cons, which Vox translated as “idiots”, but seemed closer to “cunts” to me and the Saturn’s Repository blog. The truth seems to be that cons is more vulgar than “idiots” but not nearly so offensive as “cunts”. eganvarley and FrancoFile defended “idiots” as a translation, while SamChevre compared cons’ level of vulgarity to “assholes”, and Chum Joely interpreted it as “dumbasses”.

The interpretation of the images in Charlie Hebdo cartoons was another point of contention. eganvarley linked to Adam Gopnik’s article on Charlie. Jeremos linked to a discussion of the Boko-Haram-sex-slaves cover, velvinette to a collection of cartoons establishing Charlie‘s left-wing anti-racist bona fides, and orionblair to an explanation of the French context of some of the cartoons that seem most objectionable to an outsider. Several other commenters also disputed my criticism of Charlie. I apologize for not listing everyone.

Some of the articles made an analogy to this famously controversial New Yorker cover published shortly after Barack Obama had sewed up the Democratic nomination.

People who didn’t know the political context — including a lot of fairly well-informed Americans — interpreted it as a viciously anti-Obama cover: He’s dressed as a Muslim and his wife as a terrorist, while they burn an American flag in the Oval Office fireplace. But hipper viewers saw a parody of over-the-top anti-Obama rhetoric. “This is what you want us to believe? Really?” Several of the apparently racist Charlie covers similarly would be seen by in-the-know French readers as ironic critiques of their surface meanings.

While appreciating their main points, I have two quibbles with the links. First, there’s a tendency to equate bigotry with the Right, and to assume that once we establish that Charlie was on the Left, we’ve proved it wasn’t bigoted. (Talk to Alec Baldwin about that.) Similarly, being anti-racist in general doesn’t inoculate you against all specific forms of bigotry. To me, the appropriate American comparison isn’t the KKK, it’s Bill Maher. Bill is liberal on most issues and denounces bigotry wherever he sees it; but when it comes to his own bigotry against Muslims, he just can’t see it.

Second, privileged people tend to assume that when someone takes offense at what they say or do, all that really matters is their own intent. (If people think I insulted them, that’s only because they’re too stupid to realize I didn’t. Les cons!) This is one of the defining traits of privilege: the belief that your own point of view is paramount; if other people have a different interpretation of what I say or do, they’re just wrong.

But that easily assumed right-to-self-interpretation is only a dream for members of a marginalized group like French Muslims. Jamie Utt asks the right question on Everyday Feminism:

[I]n the end, what does the intent of our action really matter if our actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around us? … [M]aking the conversation about intent is inherently a privileged action. The reason? It ensures that you and your identity (and intent) stay at the center of any conversation and action while the impact of your action or words on those around you is marginalized.

Reportedly, one of the reasons Dave Chappelle gave up his TV show in the middle of taping the third season (and walked away from a pile of money) was his realization that his intent didn’t always define his humor. Skits that he intended to satirize racial stereotypes might reinforce them to some of his less enlightened viewers.

Now, the fact that out-of-touch foreigners like me don’t appreciate the full implications of a French cartoon is no fair criticism of the cartoon. However, French Muslims did feel insulted, and brushing that off with a “They don’t get it” isn’t an adequate response.

But I don’t want any of that criticism to cause readers to lose sight of the first point of “Am I Charlie? Should I Be?“: Nothing that people say or write or draw should get them killed. Whether or not I have undermined that point also came up in the comment stream, as Dan wondered how my criticism of Charlie differed from the victim-blamers who say that a raped woman “used bad judgment”. I replied:

The difference between the woman and the cartoonists is that the cartoonists knew exactly the risks they were running. The “bad judgment” comment implies the woman was foolish, while I think the Charlie cartoonists were courageous.

A better analogy would be to a soldier who volunteers to fight in what I believe is an unworthy war — but he obviously thinks it is worthy — and dies in that war. I honor his personal courage and respect his sacrifice. But if you ask me to identify with him, to say in effect “I am G. I. Joe”, then I have to ask if that means I have to support the war now. If it does, I can’t say it.

Thanks, everybody. I learned from you even when you didn’t completely persuade me.

and I should be careful what I wish for

because another commenter, Lady Mockingbird, nailed me for overstating my case in last week’s summary. I was summarizing James Fallows’ “The Tragedy of the American Military” which makes the case (and supports it well) that in the age of a volunteer military whose members make multiple deployments to war zones, comparatively few Americans have a personal connection to our troops under fire. I overstated that point like this:

Increasingly, wars are fought either by the underclass (who need a place to start their careers and have few other options) or by men and women from families with a military tradition. Outside that small caste of military families, middle-class and upper-class voters — the people whose opinions count most in our semi-oligarchic system — can have opinions about war with no consequences, or can ignore the military altogether.

Lady M pointed out that I had no support for  that “underclass” point, and she’s right. So I went looking and got surprised.

The Heritage Foundation is not one of my trusted sources, but I don’t have any reason to doubt that their Center for Data Analysis can do arithmetic. Their 2008 report noted that the U.S. military doesn’t keep data on the economic background of recruits, but you can make inferences from their home census tracts, which are reported. Using median census-tract income as a substitute for household income, Heritage-CDA computed that the richest 20% of the country contributes 25% of recruits while the poorest quintile contributes 11%.

Now, I don’t trust Heritage not to manipulate statistics, and quintiles are often used to hide the very wealthy among the upper middle class. So I still doubt that many children of the 1% are getting shot at. But even so, what I said last week is not right.


A friend pointed out in private email that my quick summary of where French police were in their pursuit of the Charlie Hebdo suspects was also muddled. Rather than list my mistakes, I’ll just recommend that you go to the Wikipedia article and get the story straight.

What can I say? My final editing pass last week may have been affected by a slowly rising fever as I developed the flu. I’m fine now, so any mistakes this week are inexcusable.

and you also might be interested in …

MLK Day: The perfect time to link back to “MLK: Sanitized for Their Protection“. King was much more radical than today’s media lets on.


It’s official: Globally, 2014 was the hottest year on record.


Friday, it got easier to visit Cuba.


Here’s a general rule about funerals that you’d think everybody would know: If you’re not in the casket, the service is not about you.

We’ve seen that rule violated in national news stories twice recently: December 27 when police turned their backs on Mayor de Blasio’s eulogy for murdered officer Raphael Ramos, and January 13, when Pastor Ray Chavez of Lakewood, Colorado’s New Hope Ministries interrupted the funeral of Vanessa Collier when he found out she was a lesbian. According to The Denver Post:

The memorial could not continue, Pastor Ray Chavez said, as long as pictures of Collier with the love of her life, the spouse she shared two children with, were to be displayed.

Chavez said there could be no images of Collier with her wife, Christina. There could be no indication that Collier was gay.

Mourners picked up everything and moved the service to the funeral home’s chapel. It was cramped, but there were no further interruptions.

In general, if something at a funeral offends your politics, sit quietly and bitch about it later. Or if you absolutely can’t endure it, slip away discretely. Nobody came here to be your audience.


chescaleigh explains how to be an ally to a marginalized group.


Chattanooga came to my attention in a good way and a bad way this week. The good way is in this graphic of internet speeds in various cities:

Chattanooga, Kansas City, and Lafayette also have surprisingly affordable internet, compared to the relatively slow internet in the rest of America. How come? Matt Yglesias explains what these cities did right:

The American cities that are delivering best-in-the-world speeds at bargain prices are precisely the cities that aren’t relying on Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Time-Warner, etc. to run their infrastructure. In Kansas City, Google built a state-of-the-art fiber optic network largely just to prove a point. In Chattanooga and Lafayette, the government did it.

Your city could do the same, and the federal government could help by providing low-interest loans (the way it did for rural electrification in the 1930s). But Matt notes that Verizon et al. pay big bucks to lobbyists to make those policy choices impossible.


But the bad news about Chattanooga was in the talk “The State of Black Chattanooga” given recently by Tennessee State Professor Ken Chilton. If you define “college ready” as reaching the college-readiness benchmarks on all four parts of the ACT, last year zero students from two predominantly black Chattanooga high schools were college ready.

My sister, who taught in the Chattanooga public schools (and brought this article to my attention), comments that the Tennessee statewide average of 19% college-ready is nothing to brag about either. But zero — that should make people sit up and take notice. Will they do anything?


This week I discovered Slate’s “Ask a Homo” video blog. Current question: Do gay men like cat-calling? Unsurprisingly, the answer is: “It depends.” But the factors that come into play are interesting.

Naturally, the question is a response to the viral video “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” that documented all the un-asked-for comments a conservatively dressed young woman hears just by walking silently down public sidewalks. (It has gotten over 37 million views on YouTube so far.) A lot of men responded to that video by saying they’d be happy if female strangers were constantly complimenting them and trying to strike up conversations — which ignores the whole power-imbalance you-exist-for-my-entertainment angle.

Asking how gay men react is a different way to approach the issue. Here’s another: Suppose you’re a straight man and gay strangers are constantly telling you what a nice butt you have. Is your main reaction to be flattered by the compliments? What if the uninvited commenters outnumber you and are much bigger than you are?

and let’s close with something awe-inspiring

From Red River, New Mexico.

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Comments

  • Jess  On January 19, 2015 at 1:51 pm

    I’d argue that saying women don’t understand they take a risk whenever dressing in less clothing, going to places where alcohol is served, inviting men over, etc is doing an injustice to female intelligence.

    Nice set of articles otherwise though.

    • weeklysift  On January 20, 2015 at 8:15 am

      I think the accusation that a woman “used bad judgment” implies that she didn’t appreciate the risk she was taking. So while I agree that such an implication insults female intelligence, I don’t think it’s my insult. I also don’t think I’ve ever heard such women described as “courageous”.

  • jpeg  On January 19, 2015 at 2:48 pm

    A couple of points on that Heritage graph. First, the lower quintile is extremely misleading. The lower quintile is likely underrepresented not because of desire but because they don’t meet the educational requirements the Army sets. Second, the upper quintile is extremely misleading. I’m not sure where they got their quintile information from, but why does it stop at $246K? The lowest of the top 25 richest neighborhoods in America at that time period is $388K and that’s a neighborhood that’s 40% Latino.

    http://www.businessinsider.com/richest-neighborhoods-in-america-2011-5?op=1

    (It’s a little scary how underrepresented blacks are in rich neighborhoods. Nothing to see here, please disperse.)

    Also, check out Heritage’s 2005 analysis which looks into pre vs post-9/11 recruitment and shows a more level playing field for income levels pre-9/11 and also shows that neighborhoods with lower high school graduation rates over-represented in the Army even post-9/11.

    http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2005/11/who-bears-the-burden-demographic-characteristics-of-us-military-recruits-before-and-after-9-11

    My guess is that post-9/11 statistics are an abberation due to overwhelming feelings of patriotism and nationalism and we will get back closer to pre-9/11 numbers in the next few years as we continue to have more and more vaguely defined bad guys to go after.

    • weeklysift  On January 22, 2015 at 6:36 am

      I’m not sure how Business Insider’s richest neighborhoods — based on the American Community Survey — match up to census tracts. But they list several neighborhoods above $388K in New York State, while WNYC News says the highest-income 2010 census tract in New York State comes in at $243K. So it’s possible Heritage’s $246K peak is legit, especially since they’re probably using the 2000 census in 2008.

      You don’t know how it pains me to be defending the Heritage Foudation.

      http://www.wnyc.org/story/174508-blog-census-locates-citys-wealthiest-and-poorest-neighborhoods/

  • Lady Mockingbird  On January 20, 2015 at 12:50 am

    Mr. Muder, Thanks much for reading my comment and for adding the correction regarding the demographics of who serves in the US Armed Forces. I’m glad you found something of interest while looking into it.

  • David Dorfman  On January 21, 2015 at 1:34 pm

    In response to the correction on your comment about demographics of military volunteers there may be another factor.

    My Son recently joined the US Army because it presented the best possible career path. We are upper middle class, but his chosen profession was best supported by the Army. It turns out a lot of people view the Army as a great step up.

    From my perspective I found the enlistment process to be very rigorous and since the Army is currently in a size reduction mode they are very carefully screening and selecting candidates. One thing that was clear was there willingness to rule out candidates for the smallest prior infraction such as a juvenile conviction ( self reported ) or inability to navigate an increasingly complex enlistment process which requires some technical skills and Internet access.

    Is it possible that the lowest Quintile of Americans are losing access to the Army as a means of self improvement, while the middle class is increasingly seeing the Army as more attractive given the high cost of education and health care. Could this be another sign of the widening gap between the two Americas as the middle class “elbows out” the 5th quintile for a smaller number of Army opportunities?

    • weeklysift  On January 22, 2015 at 6:21 am

      Thanks for that perspective. I also think it would be interesting to know how family income affects where you wind up in the military, i.e., are you carrying a rifle into a combat zone or serving as a medical technician at our big military hospital in Germany?

  • Anonymous  On January 21, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    I’m a fairly recent lurker and my appreciation for your insight is growing. Interesting article. My only complaint: You skipped over the perfect headline: Beyond a Reasonable Debt.

  • Michael Wells  On January 22, 2015 at 6:38 pm

    Bill Maher provides viewers with many reasons to criticize him, but not the criticism you make. (I would prefer that he shun and not give publicity to those like Darrell Issa, John Fund and S.E. Cupp). Maher is a “non-denominational” basher of all religions. See http://www.salon.com/2015/01/18/bill_maher_is_right_about_religion_the_orwellian_ridiculousness_of_jesus_and_the_truth_about_moral_progress.
    And, as I noted in a previous comment, he has some support for his view that a significant minority of muslims (in some countries, a majority) believe that use of terrorism is justified in some circumstances.

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