Busara Road

Posted by Sappho on April 22nd, 2019 filed in Africa news and blogwatch, Books, Fiction, Quaker Practice

Busara Road, by David Hallock Sanders, is a Bildungsroman whose themes range from grief to sexual awakening to the aftermath of colonialism.

In the wake of the death of his mother, 11-year-old Mark Morgan is uprooted from Philadelphia to a small town in the rain forest of western Kenya, as his father seeks to bury his grief in Quaker missionary work. Initially unhappy about the move and scared of his new neighbors, Mark comes to develop a deep love for his new home and his Kikuyu and Luo neighbors.

The book displays a variety of Quaker characters (Quakerism in Kenya proves different from Quakerism in Philadelphia!) who both display serious flaws and sincere devotion to their faith. Also varied are the villagers Mark encounters in his new home, who range from devout to possibly atheist, and who are sharply divided in their response to the aftermath of colonialism. It is this violent colonial past and the continuing impact of the wrongs done during that time that drives much of the plot of the book, as Mark grows in his understanding and appreciation of his new home.

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On Marx and Adam Smith and changing my mind, or not changing it

Posted by Sappho on April 18th, 2019 filed in Economics, History, News and Commentary

“And that is why, when I first registered to vote, I registered for the Communist Party,” my friend tells me.

We’re talking about what it’s like to work a customer service job. How customer facing jobs mean getting less pay to take more crap. How part of the deal can be having maybe a quarter of the customers you’re helping treat you as if you’re not quite human.

And that isn’t, not really, what this post will be about. This post is about changing my mind. About how, sometimes, “changing my mind” isn’t as simple as changing a single position to a different one. Not as simple as, say, being wary of nuclear power because, what about nuclear waste, and then deciding we actually need nuclear power, even more of it, because coal is doing much more harm. Sometimes, instead, a change of mind means moving to a different point on a spectrum, but not all the way to the opposite side. Or changing the nuances with which you hold a particular position. A complicating of your perspective, rather than a reversal of your position.

So let me talk about how my perspective has shifted on three matters: Marx and Marxism, libertarianism, and markets and free trade.

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Posted by Sappho on April 7th, 2019 filed in Quaker Practice

“The clergyman is expected to be a kind of human Sunday,” said Samuel Butler. It’s one of the two quotes from The Way of All Flesh that stick in my mind. The other one is a bit longer:

His wife, too, did not recover rapidly from her confinement; she remained an invalid for months; here was another nuisance and an expensive one, which interfered with the amount which Theobald liked to put by out of his income against, as he said, a rainy day, or to make provision for his family if he should have one. Now he was getting a family, so that it became all the more necessary to put money by, and here was the baby hindering him.

But back to being a human Sunday. I’m glad that the clerk of a meeting is not expected to be any kind of human Sunday, because I’d be a bad one. As it stands, my main job is to clerk/facilitate/guide the monthly meeting for business, and beyond that, I close meeting for worship, give reminders to committees to get started with things, and do various little tasks. And people are kind when I do them imperfectly.

Today was one of those imperfect days. Quaker Explorations looked promising: One of our members was slated to talk about refugee assistance in Orange County. And I arrived ten minutes late. And it turned out that arriving ten minutes late was a blessing, because, while a bunch of other people were taking part in Quaker Explorations, a couple of other Friends and I hung out in the social area talking to a member who was back, whom we hadn’t seen for weeks. And it turned out that was an important conversation to have.

It’s the first Sunday of the month, when we normally read the Queries first during and then after meeting for worship. And this month I forgot – bad clerk! – but my assistant clerk remembered for me, and fetched me a copy of Faith and Practice, and so, though we didn’t have the reading during meeting for worship, we did read queries and have a brief discussion afterward. (This month’s queries: Harmony with Creation.)

Little things (and I’m imperfect in ways much bigger than these), but useful small reminders that sometimes imperfection works out fine. Sometimes a little worse (probably better if I had remembered about those queries), sometimes unexpectedly better (a good thing I didn’t miss that conversation).

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Christchurch and immigration

Posted by Sappho on March 20th, 2019 filed in News and Commentary, Race

Christchurch shootings: Jacinda Ardern calls for global anti-racism fight

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called for a global fight to root out racist right-wing ideology following last week’s deadly attack on two mosques in Christchurch.

In one of her first interviews since then, she told the BBC that she rejected the idea that a rise in immigration was fuelling racism.

Fifty people were killed and dozens more wounded in Friday’s gun attacks.

Ardern is right. I’ve said in the past that I’m not “open borders” as I understand the term (which would mean suddenly removing all existing border regulations, and addressing border issues in terms of “what interferes least with people’s right to move wherever they please” rather than in the cost/benefit terms I favor). And also that I’m very much “open borders” in the everything-to-the-left-of-Donald-Trump sense. But what I’ll say now is that the past few years have convinced me that a) the cities and regions that are actually getting the most immigration aren’t the ones most alarmed about it, and b) cracking down on immigration does not crack down on racism. If there were some magic amount of immigration that would be low enough not to trigger the racists, and some slight amount more that would? Of course I’d pick the somewhat lower amount, to keep my own country together. But it seems that immigration restrictions only empower the racists more, to attack people in their own countries and to spread their poisonous ideology to other countries. Paying their price doesn’t make them go away.

And that is called paying the Dane-geld; but we’ve proved it again and again, that if once you have paid him the Dane-geld you never get rid of the Dane.

Rudyard Kipling

Not paying Danegeld to people who shoot up synagogues and mosques.

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Quaker meeting kids

Posted by Sappho on February 20th, 2019 filed in First Day School

We now have an active group of kids, full of enthusiasm for projects of their own choosing. Within the last couple of months:

They raised money for water filters in a place short on clean water.

They put together homeless hygiene packs.

Several of them did a local version of the spreading international school strike for action on climate change.

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About Yizkor books, and Zikhron Saloniki

Posted by Sappho on January 27th, 2019 filed in Yizkor

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. One of the cities hard hit by the Holocaust was Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. When my grandmother was growing up there, the Jewish population was large enough that my grandmother spoke fluent Ladino (a Jewish version of Spanish). By the end of WWII, the Thessaloniki Jewish community was almost entirely gone.

One way that Jewish communities are remembered is through the writing of Yizkor books, which preserve a record of the communities as they existed before the Holocaust. One such book is Zikhron Saloniki, written by David Recanati and others, and published in Israel in 1972. I am the project coordinator for a JewishGen project to translate this book from Hebrew and Ladino to English. You can find the pages already translated here.

You can donate to this project, and as many other Yizkor book projects as you like, at this page.

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Baby Hitler

Posted by Sappho on January 19th, 2019 filed in Moral Philosophy, Speculative Fiction and Other Geekiness

I don’t find the question “Would you kill Baby Hitler?” especially interesting as a moral question. As Will Wilkinson said

Why is it “kill baby Hitler” rather than “make Hitler’s mom fall in love with YOU” or “kidnap Hitler’s grandpa and strand him in Nepal just before he meets Hitler’s grandma”? People lacking in imagination should not have time machines.

Sure, you can add the hypothetical conditions to ensure that killing baby Hitler will absolutely for sure prevent the Holocaust and nothing else will, but why would I want to do that? Because why would I want to imagine myself killing babies? Sure, it’s a way of posing a philosophical question about doing evil so that good can result, but if you don’t want to do evil that good may result in the real world, why would you change your mind based on a hypothetical that would never happen? Conversely, if you would do evil for some cause that you consider good (maybe even are doing evil to real toddlers because it suits your political goals), the baby Hitler hypothetical, precisely because it can never happen, gives you an oh so easy opportunity to imagine that you’re really not an end justifies the means person, because you would never, ever kill baby Hitler. Given that you can’t kill baby Hitler, this is an easy choice.

I’m more interested in the speculative fiction and alternative history aspects of the “baby Hitler” hypothetical. Speculative fiction: If I’m killing baby Hitler (or, in a gentler version, diverting a somewhat older Hitler into a painting career), how do I get around the time travel paradox that I wouldn’t exist (because my father would never have come to this country) without WWII. If time travel exists, what kinds of temporal alterations are even possible, given that many temporal alterations would pop the time traveler right out of existence? Do time travelers carefully check their genealogy before setting off to alter time, so that only someone whose existence doesn’t depend on Hitler gets to kill him?

For me the most persuasive resolution of this problem, assuming time travel, is a many worlds version of time travel, where you never alter your own timeline, however many times you kill baby Hitler, but rather simply spin off an alternate timeline.

And that leads to the question I find even more interesting, the alternative history question: What would it take to actually change the past? If we live in a multiverse, in which all possible alternate timelines exist, which alternate timelines are actually possible, and what were the changes that made them work?

This ties into a real question about how you view history. What are the driving forces? Implicit in the baby Hitler hypothetical is a “great man theory” of history, where history is explained, for good or ill, by the impact of highly influential individuals. In contrast, “history from below” emphasizes the impact of masses on the leader. From Tolstoy (for whom history is guided by Providence) to Herbert Spencer to Karl Marx (for whom history is driven by shifts in economic forces), the great man theory doesn’t lack for critics. If you believe in “history from below,” killing baby Hitler only ensures that someone else fills his role. But that doesn’t mean that an alternate timeline is impossible; you just need a different sort of change to build that alternate timeline.

In fictional alternate histories, sometimes the change is a shift in a decision in a particular battle (which fits with the great man theory), but other times it’s something else; Years of Rice and Salt takes its point of departure from a more virulent Black Plague, leading to a world without European civilization as we know it.

In our own lives, we sometimes need to act as if the “great man theory” is true (a President Hillary Clinton would have been materially different from Trump, and only a modest number of votes would have needed to shift, in the right states, to put us in that timeline). But we also sometimes need to act as if “history from below” is true, and not everything hangs on whoever is currently President.

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Last round up of the year

Posted by Sappho on December 29th, 2018 filed in Blogwatch

Year end thinks from my friend mama sdb

But the more confusing one was the “leader” who asked me what I was doing to “work on my gift.” Now, I know I haven’t been trained in these things, but I’m pretty sure if it is a gift, that means I didn’t work to earn it.

Also, here is that pesky honesty again. I know what he was really asking me: was I working on  conforming of all the expectations of that God Club. 
And see, I am kind of a contrary thinker about things. I mean, they told me that grace was unearned favor. I was told over and over again that it wasn’t by “might or power, but by the spirit.” That doesn’t seem to leave me a lot to work on.

Some good news on Twitter from Jay Ulfelder

Johan Maurer highlights some of his 2018 posts, from “What’s so urgent about sex?” to “Have we seen his glory?”

Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns, and Money on Anything Good Happening on the Environmental Front?

It’s the day after Holy Innocents Day, but that makes it only a day too late to share Coventry Carol

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Posted by Sappho on December 16th, 2018 filed in Feminism, Music, Sexuality

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

‘Tis the season for arguing about whether “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” should be appreciated as a romantic period piece or rejected as a date rape song. Let’s look at the lyrics

First, let’s look at how the song lyrics tell you that the “mouse” really does want to stay with the “wolf,” and how it makes the “wolf’s” pursuit gentle. Then, I’ll look at the two lines that make the song creepy as all get out in a #MeToo era.

First (because it’s the more straightforward role), the “wolf”: Most of his pleas are either compliments to the “mouse” (“Your eyes are like starlight now”) or references to how very cold it is outside (“Look out the window at the storm”). There’s only one “What’s the sense in hurting my pride?” Imagine if the frequency of these lines were reversed (as they actually sometimes are, when someone is badgering someone to change a “no” to “yes”). There would be nothing romantic about that (and “How could you do this thing to me” would turn from what’s probably meant to be a compliment to an angry demand that the mouse stop rejecting the wolf).

Now, here are all the cues that the “mouse” supplies that her heart isn’t in her rejection:

“I really can’t stay”: Here “really” isn’t an intensifier, but the opposite. If you want to eat another holiday cookie, you say, “I really shouldn’t,” and the person offering says, “Go ahead, it’s Christmas.” Unless the words are “no, I really mean it,” we don’t usually use the word “really” when we really mean it (paradoxical though that may be).

“The neighbors might think”: All of the mouse’s reasons for wanting to go are phrased in terms of concern for her 1940s reputation. Not only isn’t this the way a woman talks who really doesn’t want to have sex; it’s not even the way a woman talks who does on some level want to have sex, but who has reasons of her own (whether doubt about the man, or convictions about when it’s appropriate to have sex) for waiting.

“But maybe just a half a drink more”/”I wish I knew how to break the spell”: At the same time that the mouse tells us that other people would want her to leave, she also drops suggestions that she does want to stay.

“Baby, it’s cold outside”: The dead give away that she’s actually persuaded, and wanted to be persuaded, comes when she joins in on the chorus.

So, with all these cues that show that the song is, yes, of course a 1940s period piece in which a woman who wants to have sex puts up a token resistance for respectability’s sake, what’s the problem?

“The answer is no”: If someone’s saying “I ought to say no, no, no sir,” that’s a sign that the answer may not be “no.” But when she flat out says “the answer is no,” you should take no for an answer, not a negotiating position.

“Say, what’s in that drink?” Obviously the creepiest line in the song, in a #MeToo era. I’m told that, in the time period in question, it’s supposed to mean that there’s nothing in the drink, but the woman is pretending there is, to justify staying. Honestly, that doesn’t make the line less creepy to me. If the signal for “I really do want sex” (I’m drunk! I’m drunk!) is that close to the signal that I really should be left alone (I’m too drunk to take care of myself), then that’s a problem. When I listen to the song as a period piece, I like to imagine “Say, what’s in that drink?” as the mouse saying, “Say, that looks like a really tasty drink, maybe I’ll stay and have some more,” because it’s the only way I can make the line non-creepy to my own sensibilities.

Affirmative consent: The song lyrics do a lot of work both to show you that the mouse’s protests aren’t about her own desires and that she actually does want to stay. In real life, though, when you start interpreting every ambiguous sounding “no” as a “yes,” you wind up pressuring a lot of people who did mean “no” but were trying to phrase their “no” to sound nice. A social convention that treats “no” as a bargaining position harms a lot more people than it helps. (And, as Professor Khachaturian used to say, in the Human Sexuality class at Stanford, “When I came to this country, I had grown up with a custom that you always say no to an extra helping of food, and get talked into taking it. When I saw the plate moving away when I said no, I changed.” If there really are still women who say no when they mean yes, they’ll change their practice if their no is taken seriously, and everyone will be happy, since the women who really mean no will get their no taken seriously.)

Bottom line: Enjoy the song as a period piece if you like, or change the radio when it comes on if you’re in the “this song is creepy” camp, but either way, don’t take it as a template for how to behave on a date.

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G K Chesteron on Democracy

Posted by Sappho on November 30th, 2018 filed in Quotes

This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves — the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.

G K Chesteron, Orthodoxy

This passage is found in Chapter 4, “The Ethics of Elfland.” Immediately following it comes Chesterton’s famous description of tradition as “only democracy extended through time” and “giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” And that point offers an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, there’s some sense to it, as there may, at any given time, be swings in opinion that are best checked by a due regard for “the democracy of the dead,” mistakes made in one age that aren’t made over time. On the other hand, how do we avoid making regard for tradition the perpetuation of real injustice. Also, how do we balance the possibility that those of us currently alive may be missing some wisdom that we would gain from “the democracy of the dead” against the possibility that we may think differently because we are in different circumstances, and the fact that we’re the ones who have to live with our decisions? I can’t say I’d want to let the dead always outvote me. Maybe just to give them a chance to give me pause? To make sure I fully understand them before I dismiss them? And if we talk about democracy of the dead, it needs to be democracy of all the dead – the enslaved as well as the enslavers, those who suffered from Jim Crow as well as those who benefited from it.

At any rate, setting aside the interesting question of what regard we do or don’t owe to tradition, I like the way Chesterton puts his argument for democracy. It’s not that a democratic government will always be right (is any government?), but that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary people themselves.

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Gridlock is better than tyranny

Posted by Sappho on November 23rd, 2018 filed in News and Commentary

Not long ago, after it had become apparent that Democrats had won the House, someone I know, someone who thinks considerably better of Trump than I do, made one of those remarks that comes naturally, when you like a President and see the opposition gain in the midterms. I don’t remember the exact words, but the general sense was that now the Democrats were simply going to block things. And I made the obvious reply, if you’re in the opposition: Gridlock is better than tyranny.

Checks and balances. They’re a good thing.

I got challenged, though, on the word “Tyranny.” At the time, I didn’t care to take the time to reply. If you don’t see Trump as an authoritarian threat to democracy, you’re far enough from me, in your perception of him, after we’ve had two years in office to see what he’s like, that I’m not likely to persuade you to think differently.

Still, at some point it’s worth giving my account of Trump the authoritarian, two years into his Presidency, if not to persuade any of his fans, then to make a record of what I see, as I did at the end of the first year of his Presidency.

Someone said once on Twitter that watching Trump in action is like being a dog in a room of bouncing tennis balls; as soon as you have chased one outrage, another comes down the pike. It’s hard even to narrow down all of my objections to him, as there are so many. But I do want to organize them.

First, let’s divide all of the ways Trump is wrong into two categories: normal things, and things peculiar to Trump.

Normal things aren’t minor. They’re much of what we argue about, come election time, for good reason. The Trump tax cut is skewed to the rich (and whatever cut ordinary folks get will, a) expire over time and b) be more than made up for by the increased taxes from Trump’s tariffs). Preserve healthcare for people with preexisting conditions. Don’t cut Medicare. Etc. And they including some ongoing institutional issues (the deterioration of our Supreme Court nomination process), and one looming disaster: climate change. They’re simply “normal” in the sense that Trump, personally, isn’t outside the norm, here, for a Republican President. And so, though they’re worth talking about, they’re probably better put in a different post from the one that talks about Trump the authoritarian. Trump’s authoritarianism makes all of these problems worse, but they’d still be problems even if we had a considerably less authoritarian President than the one we have.

Things peculiar to Trump aren’t things completely peculiar to Trump. It’s not as if Trump invented racism, or was the only President ever to try to overreach his Constitutional limits. But they are things where Trump is way outside the norm, relative to other Presidents, ways in which he’s a much worse President than most. And, while I can list lots of ways that Trump is a bad President, I’m going to follow the Rule of Three, here, and pick three important Trump flaws, with a few examples of each.

First, Trump is particularly self-serving.

Second, Trump is particularly white supremacist.

Third, Trump is particularly authoritarian.

The obvious examples follow.
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On Julian Assange, Wikileaks, and giving the Devil benefit of law

Posted by Sappho on November 17th, 2018 filed in News and Commentary

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons

Julian Assange should be no one’s hero. Accepting Russia’s weaponized leak of hacked information and timing its release for maximum damage to Hillary is only part of the reason. There’s also the misogyny, the anti-Semitism, and the list goes on. But he’s been a man who should be no one’s hero for a long time, well before the 2016 election. And that’s not the same thing as being a man who should be indicted in the US for a crime. Before you applaud any indictment of Assange, you need to be sure that said indictment isn’t going to cut down protections that we need – that journalism needs – to stand upright in the winds that would blow.

The flip side, though, to the “I’d give the Devil benefit of law” argument is that, once you have given the Devil benefit of law, once you’ve ensured that you haven’t cut your laws flat in your pursuit, and that you have them all for protection if the Devil turns round on you, well, then, go for it.

Balancing these two considerations, the only thing that I can say about the news that sealed charges have been made against Assange is – I have no opinion one way or the other until I know what the charges actually are, and what’s the evidence backing them up. A charge under Section 793 of the Espionage Act of 1917 would be disastrous in First Amendment terms. Other charges might or might not have bad First Amendment implications, depending on the charge.

Some relevant links:
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On Doxing: UPDATED

Posted by Sappho on November 10th, 2018 filed in News and Commentary

UPDATE: Rebecca Kavanaugh goes to the police report of the incident at Tucker Carlson’s house and finds that “it completely contradicts him” and that the police report has “no mention whatsoever of any damage to the front door of Mr. Carlson’s residence. Not a scratch.” and “no mention in the police report of anyone chanting anything about pipe bombs or chanting any sort of threats against Mr. Carlson.” The protesters did spray paint an anarchist symbol on the driveway. This considerably changes the severity of the incident (and, if Matt Yglesias was judging the incident from having read the police report while others were judging it from Tucker Carlson’s account, that might explain their different perspectives on the circumstances of Carlson’s wife). Don’t spray paint other people’s driveways – but spray painting a driveway is still much less bad than threatening to use a pipe bomb. So I stand corrected here. My original post is below, and I stand by everything I said about what principles should be applied to doxing.

Favorite take pervading my mentions today is, “That guy *deserved* to get harassed for saying that other guy deserved to get harassed.”

Will Oremus on Twitter

There are, of course, worse things than what just happened to Tucker Carlson, and what subsequently happened to Matthew Yglesias. There are always worse things. Just this week, about 90 miles from my home (California is big), a mass shooter killed a dozen people. One of my blogging and Facebook friends is mourning one of those who died, a student at his school. A huge fire has been sweeping through Malibu, and another huge fire has been sweeping through northern California (wiping out the town of Paradise, where my grandfather once built water generators). There are always worse things.

There’s also some debate over exactly what the protesters did at Tucker Carlson’s home. Did they actually try to break down his door, in an attempted home invasion (really awful), or merely knock on the door and stand outside the home chanting (still scary for his wife who was home alone, but considerably less bad than trying to break down the door)?

So why blog about these incidents? Because they give me a chance to talk about first principles, concerning a much subject that has lately been much debated on the Internet: doxing.

Why is doxing wrong? And are there any exceptions to the “doxing is wrong” rule? If so, what are those exceptions?
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“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest!”

Posted by Sappho on October 27th, 2018 filed in News and Commentary

Here’s how it works: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” And…someone goes out and kills Thomas Becket. The king gets plausible deniability, the deed is done. In an emotionalized, politicized climate, the least stable will take the first actions. And the speaker gets to say: “who, me?” This is why the tone of speech matters, and our leaders are responsible for setting it, always. Unless the violence is randomly distributed…yeah, partisan politics matter.

Author Steven Barnes, on Facebook

In recent years, a term has begun to circulate to capture this phenomenon — “stochastic terrorism,” in which mass communications, including social media, inspire random acts of violence that according to one description “are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.” In other words, every act and actor is different, and no one knows by whom or where an act will happen — but it’s a good bet that something will.

Eyal Press, op-ed in the New York Times on 10/25/2018

Just this week:
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They’re bombing my childhood now

Posted by Sappho on October 24th, 2018 filed in Memory, News and Commentary

I was going to make one of those snarky posts on Facebook: Marked safe in the California riots. A wry reference to the “sanctuary city riots” that aren’t happening here. Then I lost my sense of humor, when a terrorist started roaming northern Westchester, bombing my childhood.

New Castle is a small town, containing the hamlets of Chappaqua and Millwood. (You can walk between these hamlets in a pinch, and I used to do so when I was a teenager, particularly when I was training for the March of Dimes walk.) It has forests, once roamed by the legendary Leather Man, a Buddha who seems your own special secret when you discover him as a kid, streets where all the Scouts assemble to join the rest of the town in the annual Memorial Day parade (I marched as a child), a Quaker meeting house, and Horace Greeley, my high school, one of the best public high schools in the country. Neighboring New Castle, in different directions, you can find Mt. Kisco (where my family went to church), Ossining (now best known as the hometown of Don Draper in Mad Men), – and Bedford, another town, whose hamlets include Katonah.

I grew up in Millwood, went to school in Chappaqua, and, starting in middle school when my parents divorced, every weekend I would go to my father’s house in Katonah.

On Monday, someone delivered a bomb to the Katonah house of Holocaust survivor and prominent philanthropist George Soros.

On Tuesday, similar bombs were delivered to the DC home of former President Obama, and the Chappaqua home of former President Bill Clinton and former First Lady Hillary Clinton (the bomb was addressed to the latter).

These bombs could have killed their targets. Or the staff who opened the packages. Or someone else in the neighborhood. (I’m not sure how far the Soros house is from its neighbors, but the Clinton house is right in a residential neighborhood, not so far from the high school I attended).

Katonah and Chappaqua are right near each other.

A terrorist is stalking northern Westchester, bombing my childhood.

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Utopia and Its Discontents

Posted by Sappho on October 20th, 2018 filed in College Life, Memory, News and Commentary

More than thirty years ago, during the summer after my sophomore year in college, I spent two and a half weeks in utopia.

A day before yesterday, I arrived here by train from New York. Now, as I lie here on a Twin Oaks made hammock and listen to music from Jesus Christ Superstar drifting out from Llano, sometimes drowned out by the noise of hammers and saws from Tachai, I don’t really know where to begin in setting down my thoughts.

This particular utopia, Twin Oaks, a commune in Louisa, Virginia, had been founded in 1967. At the time I visited it, it was nearly fifteen years old, already longer lived than most 1960s communes. I have not been back since my visit, but it’s easy to see from articles and the community’s own web site that Twin Oaks is still going strong 51 years after it was founded, even though all of its eight founding members have moved on or died. It’s longevity, I think, is due in part to an inspiration that it had already largely abandoned by the time I visited. Twin Oaks, alone among 1960s communes, was inspired by a utopian novel by behaviorist psychologist B.F. Skinner, Walden Two.

utopia 1 often capitalized : a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions. 2 : an impractical scheme for social improvement. Meriam-Webster

“Utopia” comes from the name of a famous novel by Sir Thomas More. Utopia, “nowhere.” It has two meanings. So, if I ask you, what’s your utopia, you might take me to mean, “what’s your view of ideal laws, government, and social conditions”? What are the ideals and dreams that inspire you?

Or, you might take me to mean, “OK, there, tell me your impossible dream, and why you think it’s practical.” What’s your dream that’s blind to reality, false to human nature, for which you would sacrifice the joys and lives of real people?

We use “utopia” in its first meaning, generally, when we talk about “utopian novels” or (for all their imperfections) “utopian communities.” (Hence, though Twin Oaks is of course not everyone’s human ideal, you don’t think I’m sneering at the community if I lightly refer to it as “utopia.”)

We use the word in its second meaning when we talk about utopian politics. Whatever our dreams, none of us think our own politics are utopian. It’s always the other guy’s politics.
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Voting! Election 2018 information

Posted by Sappho on October 18th, 2018 filed in California Ballot Propositions, Democracy, News and Commentary

Last Saturday, I was at a local small town fair registering voters. So I’m delighted to see the news: California sets record as voter registration tops 19 million

This midterm election is an important one. Here are some resources to help you in voting.

Vote.org lets you check your registration status (do this even if you’ve been registered and voting for years – names get removed from voting lists, and yours may have been removed in error), find your polling place, register to vote or to get an absentee ballot, and sign up for election reminders to ensure that you never miss an election again.

California voters can get both information on ballot measures and information submitted by candidates in all those pesky down ballot races at the League of Women Voters education site Voters Edge. You can get the facts before you vote, and fill out your own sample ballot (your intended votes are stored locally on your device, not on the Internet).

For voters across the US, the League of Women Voters site Vote411.org is your friend.

Ballotpedia is an excellent site for finding information on ballot measures and races anywhere in the country. Want to follow the money and see who is funding what? You can find it all here.

The Institute for Governmental Studies at Berkeley tracks California ballot propositions for every election. Check out their chart of ballot measure endorsements for November, 2018. You can then find the web sites of the organizations in question if you want, for instance, more detail on why a particular paper or organization recommends for or against rent control related Proposition 10. Or any other proposition of your choice.

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Kavanaugh hearing transcripts and other links

Posted by Sappho on October 1st, 2018 filed in News and Commentary

Many people like to judge the truthfulness of the two parties, Ford and Kavanaugh, by watching them, listening to them, and getting whatever sense they can from their voices, body language, and general demeanor. I know that I am not good at detecting lies in this way, so I prefer to skip the TV and go for transcripts. Here are some links (a few days late, so you may have read them all, but I’ll save them here for my benefit):

WaPo: Kavanaugh hearing: Transcripts

Vox: Every time Ford and Kavanaugh dodged a question, in one chart (you can click on each line colored pink for a dodge and see whether you agree)

Not directly about Kavanaugh, but related because discussion of Swetnick’s allegations raised some general discussion of date rape drugs, here’s an old Five Thirty-Eight article relating that Rapes Assisted By Drugs Or Alcohol Are All Too Common but actual use of date rape drugs much less common. I suspect that often the actual “date rape drug” is a larger dose of alcohol than the victim thought she had, sometimes because she miscalculated her tolerance and sometimes because, for example, she was given mixed drinks with a stronger than usual dose of alcohol, or her beer was topped off when she wasn’t looking, etc. Of course, date rape drugs or none, “having sex” with someone who’s actually incapacitated by alcohol or drugs is rape. (In at least some cases, a woman may be truly raped, telling the truth about her suspicion that date rape drugs were used on her, but mistaken about that suspicion.)

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On being clerk of a Quaker meeting

Posted by Sappho on September 23rd, 2018 filed in Quaker Practice

I fear I may have lost most of my readers, with my long silences on this blog. It’s been nearly three weeks since my last post, and I’ve been busy with, oh, everything. My sister is still recovering in a nursing home from her multiple spinal fractures (and could still use support for her GoFundMe. I’m still doing all my usual activities, including work, Toastmasters, DBSA, Stanford Professional Women of Orange County, etc. But right now I want to tell you about an activity I haven’t spoken about much.

You know, if you have been reading this blog for a while, that I’m a Quaker. Well, for the past year and a half, I have also been clerk of my Quaker meeting.

“Clerk” sounds, in modern language, like a secretarial role, but the Quaker term “clerk” goes back to the 17th century, when the word had a different meaning. As clerk, it’s my role to facilitate our monthly meeting for business (or meeting for worship on the occasion of business), and also to be a central point of contact for the meeting.

Other roles of the clerk vary from meeting to meeting (and may vary depending on who is retired and who is still working – in my case, I’m employed full time, and our clerk of Ministry and Oversight is retired but still energetic, so she does probably more to keep the meeting going than I do). As clerk, I serve ex officio on Ministry and Oversight Committee. When I attended Palo Alto meeting in pre-cell phone days, the clerk’s phone number would become the phone number to reach the meeting. Now, we have a meeting cell phone, which currently lives in the home of a couple who serve on Ministry and Oversight, and we are considering whether to switch to a Google Voice account. In our meeting, it’s the clerk’s role to close meeting for worship; at one point at Palo Alto Friends Meeting, this task was rotated among Ministry and Oversight.

As clerk, I respond to email to our meeting (but not phone calls, as Al and Dee have the cell phone), sort mail, keep track of the meeting calendar so that I can confirm that our committees start their various tasks (nominations, budget, etc.) at the right times, and share in various Ministry and Oversight tasks, including membership applications and coordinating care of members in need (this might be an elderly couple moving into a retirement home or a member going through a hospitalization). And of course I take part in the ordinary things that I was already doing as a member of meeting (just yesterday I staffed a table at the World Religions tent in the Irvine Global Village festival). When decisions come up in meeting for business where we don’t find unity easy, I may need to be involved in conversations between meetings for business to determine the best way forward.

Because a lot of this activity is shared with Ministry and Oversight, and because the pastoral care part of what Ministry and Oversight does is confidential, some of what I do in any given week may not be something I can share in a blog post, the way I can share my usual political arguments. But this is the general gist of the job.

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My sister

Posted by Sappho on September 4th, 2018 filed in Daily Life

On August 22, 2018, my younger sister Jessie had a severe fall and fractured her neck, and back, and broke her foot, and hit her head. She has had to have an operation to fuse her vertebrae and faces months of rehabilitation. Please hold her in the Light, pray for her, send good vibes her way, according to whatever your spiritual beliefs may be.

Jessie’s GoFundMe page

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Bang the Drum Slowly

Posted by Sappho on August 26th, 2018 filed in RIP

I meant to ask you, how when everything seemed lost,
And your fate was in a game of dice they tossed,
There was still that line that you would never cross
At any cost.

Emmy Lou Harris, in “Bang the Drum Slowly,” a song about her late father

Perhaps you’ll remember him like this: John McCain, war hero, political maverick and GOP standard-bearer, dies at 81

Or perhaps you’ll remember him more like this:

The party of Donald Trump began almost 10 years ago to the day, when John McCain tapped Sarah Palin to join his ticket.

As we watched McCain slowly approach his death of the same illness that killed Teddy Kennedy and my husband’s mother and grandfather, tributes to him poured in from across the political spectrum for our straight talking maverick and man of principle. But so, too, did criticisms. Some were crass and not worth hearing (foremost among these the petty sniping of President “I like people who weren’t captured” Bone Spurs, and those among his followers who seemed to think that McCain’s loyalty was owed not to his country but to his President). But others came not from people seeking blind loyalty to Trump but from people who regretted one or more of McCain’s policy choices.

“De mortuis nihil nisi bonum” is a rule best applied to the funerals of private individuals, and not to the obituaries that take the measure of public figures. A man like McCain wields great power over our lives for both good and ill, and it is fair, now that he is dead, to remember him as both the hero of Hanoi Hilton, who even at great cost refused to be released before his fellow prisoners and as a member of the Keating Five, cleared of wrongdoing but admonished for bad judgment. To be grateful for his deciding vote in preserving the ACA and regret his bad judgment in choice of Vice Presidential candidate.

Fair, too, to note that some of the tributes that come to him after death come from those who did not always show him the same respect in life. When Rove used push polls to suggest that McCain’s Bangladeshi daughter was an illegitimate black child, well, the appeal to racism had a reach that stretched beyond McCain’s family.

“The evil that men do lives after them,” says Marc Anthony in Shakespeare’s version of his funeral oration, “The good is oft interred with their bones.” I always found it an odd statement. Jane Austen’s “Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of.” strikes me as truer to how we usually speak of the dead. Not only the young but those who, like McCain, live to a ripe old age, are bound to be praised at the moment of death.

And yet perhaps there’s a touch of truth to Marc Anthony’s speech when it comes to public figures. They can do so much harm when they fail us that we sometimes, in mixed cases, remember most vividly their worst acts. And so Herbert Hoover is remembered far more for his central failure as President, facing the Great Depression, than for his relief work in Europe after World War I.

So don’t hush people speaking of McCain’s faults (though we’re allowed to disagree on what those faults are), or tell them they must wait till after his funeral to raise them. Part of the cost of fame and power is having people take your full measure, for good and ill, at the moment of death. But if there’s anything to be taken from “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum,” as applied to public figures, it’s that it’s good to remember the good as well as the bad, and that if “the evil that men do lives after them,” the good is not interred with their bones.

In McCain’s case, that good is not hard for me to find. There’s his moment of heroism as a prisoner of war in the “Hanoi Hilton.” There’s the grace under pressure of his concession speech to Obama on winning the Presidency “of the country that we both love.” There’s McCain’s persistence in opposing torture, with a moral force that no one could supply better than he, at a time when some Democrats wavered on the issue. There’s the fact that, when Michael Steele grew concerned about the results of his investigations, McCain was the one who could be trusted to put country before party and deliver the “dossier” to the FBI to review the truth or falsehood of the findings. There’s his rejection of birtherism at a time when too many Republicans played coy on the issue. There’s that vote preserving the ACA. And there’s the grace in defeat that led him to choose both the men who beat him in Presidential races to deliver his eulogies.

You may have a different list. You may also have a different list from me of McCain’s failings (for me, “Bomb bomb bomb Iran” was a low point).

The man was far more hawkish than I wanted in a President, and I’ll never regret voting for Obama over him. But at the same time, I never doubted his love for his country, and I never doubted that he had lines that he would never cross.

Here’s McCain roasting Obama at the Alfred E. Smith dinner (be sure to check out the part where he gets serious, around the 5 minute mark).

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