Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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We must design our lives…

September 16, 2011

From Jane Mansbridge in 1996

We need worry far less about the compromises we make between the good and the best or between the bad-but-livable and the better, when those compromises are, roughly speaking, utility-driven—when we are only giving up one good to get another.  But when we compromise with justice, we must design our lives and our institutions so that the justice that is compromised remains nagging, in the margin somewhere, in a bracket that does not go away, to pique our souls and goad us into future action.

 

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The real “other side”

May 26, 2011

Every now and then, there are rumblings about passing a law that would prohibit unions from using member dues to make political contributions without the written permission of the member.  For those of us who’ve been exposed to the portrayal of unions as corrupt special interests (think The Wire, Season Three), this makes some sense.  I admit to thinking that I could see where the impulse for such legislation might come from when I first heard of it.  For me, the two sides were: constrain political contributions or don’t.

Flying Whale, not surprisingly, was able to put it in context much more quickly, responding, “Are we going to require shareholders to sign something before corporations can make political contributions too?”  For Flying Whale, the two sides were: constrain both opposing powers or neither.

Initially, I was confined to a narrower scope, that of limiting union corruption, when imagining the other side of the argument.  Flying Whale was working from a broader and, I think, more robust understanding–that the other side was really about keeping opposing powers balanced.

The conversation reminded me that I really do think it’s a skill to be able to see the real “other side,” not the one embedded in the frame someone else is using.

Cynthia Crossen’s book, Tainted Truth, of which I’ve admittedly only read a few chapters, really made this point for me.  In her discussion of polling, she explores how poll results are affected by question wording.  Old news, right?  But I was surprised by how difficult it was for me to spot the less egregious slants.  For example, in Chapter Five, Crossen explores the public opinion polling that surrounded the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill scandal/accusation.  Regarding a question from a New York Times/CBS News poll:

“Some people say Anita Hill’s charges should not be taken seriously because she did not make them years ago at the time she said the incidents happened.” (So far, so good.  That, indeed, was a popular argument against Anita Hill’s case.) The question continues: “Other people say the charges should be taken seriously even though they were made for the first time just recently.”  This second sentence is supposed to be the other side of the coin–the reason Anita Hill should be taken seriously.  Instead, it simply restates the negative point–she took a long time to complain.  But what would the results have been if the second part of the question had read, “Other people say the charges should be taken seriously because women sometimes have reasons to delay reporting such behavior?”

Once Crossen points it out, it’s so clear.  But just the “Some people say…other people say” structure had me fooled into taking it as an even-handed question.

Knowing that you’re susceptible to being duped certainly helps, but I’m finding this to be a slow skill to acquire.

Jonas

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The Racism Matrix

March 30, 2011

This particular post was supposed to be Flying Whale’s task, but unfortunately I need it to exist now, so that someone else can use it now.

But before we get to the racism matrix, we need to talk briefly about structure and agency.  Structure and agency are just fancy sociologist words to describe the fact that people make choices in their lives (agency), but that those choices are constrained by the rules and systems that govern society (structure).

The most helpful metaphor for this that I know is that society is like a river, flowing downstream.  Individuals are like a swimmer in that river.  They can choose to swim with the current or against the current, but ultimately, their movement is within the context of the current’s flow.

Enter the racism matrix:

Racist Anti-racist
Active
Passive

Pretty straight-forward.  Two columns by two rows.  And so we begin trying to fill it in.

What’s active and racist?  Being a member of the KKK.  Calling someone a racist slur.  Refusing to hire someone because of their race.

What’s passive and racist?  Letting an employee at a car dealership serve you first, even though an African American was in line before you.     Being a member of an association that doesn’t allow membership for people of color.  Staying silent when a friend tells a racist joke.

Then what’s actively anti-racist?  Participating in the Civil Rights Movement.  Signing a petition that demands an investigation when a white police officer kills a person of color under suspicious circumstances.  Supporting affirmative action for people of color.

Which leaves the passively anti-racist cell.

The point of the Racism Matrix is that the passive anti-racism cell doesn’t exist, that it’s impossible to be passively anti-racist.  Which is to say, in a racist society, being passive and doing nothing will support the momentum of the status quo and will therefore have a racist effect.

Think back to the swimmer and the river.  You can swim with the current (active racism) or you can swim against the current (active anti-racism).  But if you just float on your back, you’re going to be pulled along with the current (passive racism).

There’s no way to float against the current.

At a conceptual level, this means that one of the ways in which structure intervenes into our lives is that it removes one of our cells of action (or inaction, as the case may be).  But as a teaching tool, the Racism Matrix says this: if you don’t like a system you see playing out in your society, you have to DO something to counter it.  Otherwise, you are supporting it.

Jonas

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Firdos and Tahrir

February 8, 2011

Tumblr_lfyhanYdob1qdxs88o1_500I’m very taken with this photo comparison, as are many folks.  I’ve poked around enough to know that the zoomed out shot of the square in Baghdad was available from Reuters all along.  Why, then, were there news reports comparing this event to the fall of the Berlin Wall?  Why was only the cropped shot published or streamed on TV?  At what level did the deception take place?

Lucky for me, the New Yorker decided to take on the myth of Firdos Square last week.  The article pretty decisively dismisses the circulating stories about the entire event being staged by US psychological operations teams. Rather than the government, it was the media that created the lie.

Primed for triumph, they were ready to latch onto a symbol of what they believed would be a joyous finale to the war. It was an unfortunate fusion: a preconception of what would happen, of what victory would look like, connected at Firdos Square with an aesthetically perfect representation of that preconception.

We’re all relatively accustomed to the myth-making that happens when history is reinterpreted with the benefit of hindsight.  In the article, Wilson Surratt, senior executive producer in charge of CNN’s control room in Atlanta that day, says that “at some point, you’ve got to trust the viewer to understand what they’re seeing.”  But should the viewer really have to ask whether they’re being shown a deliberately cropped frame that hides a dissonant context?  The article’s author, Peter Maass, writes:

Propaganda has been a staple of warfare for ages, but the notion of creating events on the battlefield, as opposed to repackaging real ones after the fact, is a modern development.

And I would add, one that we’re not well equipped to protect ourselves from.

There is another question embedded in the article–about whether the event itself–as it really happened, not as it was falsely reported back home–was impacted by the presence of the media.  Any of us who have ever smiled for a camera or cheered when the video swung our way know that the answer is yes.  But the implications for responsible journalism are less obvious to me.

Thoughts?

Jonas

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Today the Supreme Court will decide whether AT&T is people, too.

January 24, 2011

From my view of the world, corporate personhood (and its continued expansion) causes serious problems–not least of which is it’s application in the Supreme Court decision Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission.

That said, Dahlia Lithwick does a great job of tracking a small setback in the advance of corporate personhood at the Supreme Court this week.  The whole thing is worth reading; here’s a taste:

But AT&T felt, passionately, that turning over these materials would violate the corporation’s “personal privacy.” One of the exemptions to FOIA—exemption 7(C)—provides that records may be withheld if their release would represent an unwarranted invasion of “personal privacy.” But since this exemption has only ever been invoked to protect human privacy rights, never corporate ones, AT&T has to persuade the courts to extend the right to “personal privacy” to corporations as well as people. So it’s a big day: Because today the Supreme Court will decide whether AT&T is people, too.

Speaking of, I’m interested in all this enough to read more than the Wikipedia article on it.  Does anyone know of a respectable defense of corporate personhood?

Jonas

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Just ink, no action: the Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights

November 16, 2010

In 2007, Minnesota passed the Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights (PWBoR).

But congratulations aren’t really deserved.

Tonight, at an event sponsored by the Midwest Human Rights Coalition, I heard John Stiffin from the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) talk about what has happened in the three years since the law’s passage.  His answer was appalling.  Basically, meat processing plants (called packinghouses here) have each been mailed an English poster of the PWBoR which they are required to post.  And–honestly–I think that’s the extent of it.

Let me start out by saying that I understand that the PWBoR was an unfunded mandate.  I understand that the DLI hasn’t been given many resources and I understand that real enforcement requires such resources.

But tonight I’m focusing in on the little things.  The inexcusable things.  The large impact-small cost failings that prevent policy changes from being as effective as they could be, even absent adequate funding.

  1. The poster isn’t included on the webpage with all other mandatory state posters from DLI for download or order.
  2. The poster wasn’t provided in any other languages, even though all other mandatory posters are.  Employers are expected to provide a translated version in the language of their workers.
  3. There has been no outreach to the Karen population, despite their recent and rapid concentration in meat processing centers such as Worthington and Albert Lea.
  4. Although the majority of packinghouse workers are from Mexico, Guatemala, Somalia, Sudan, or Southeast Asia, the single staff person was deliberately NOT hired from any of these ethnic groups to avoid the “appearance of favoritism.”
  5. There has been no collaboration with the staff person coordinating an nearly identical Bill of Rights in Nebraska.
  6. There is no proactive enforcement.  Compliance with the PWBoR isn’t integrated into OSHA’s compliance and a credible complaint is required to initiate an investigation.
  7. There is no protection for workers who file complaints, other than that the DLI “isn’t likely” to actively pursue information about their immigration status.

So maybe 6 and 7 aren’t really small cost criticisms.  But the others are.

And that’s just what I learned in a 20 minute rambling conversation.  And it doesn’t include individual-level complaints like Stiffin’s justification for not translating the poster into Spanish: Puerto Rican Spanish is different than Mexican Spanish, so translations are hard.  Right.  Because there is no such thing as Standard Spanish.  And we were really hoping the poster would be translated primarily in slang anyway.

Three years out, we should be talking about visa alternatives for workers who report violations (like the U-visa for survivors of domestic violence).  The PWBoR should be fully integrated in OSHA compliance.  And the coordinator should be able to articulate his outreach strategy to the workers, not just a one-time mailing to the employers.

Instead, we learn that there have been no complaints in three years.  Not a single one.  From one of the most dangerous industries employing some of our most vulnerable residents?  Despite John Stiffin’s reassurances, hardly proof of transformative legislation.

Jonas

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Recently starred in Google Reader

November 2, 2010

We try not to do relatively thoughtless posts like link dumps too often, but I’ve got a critical mass of things worth reading and I figured it might be time. And only one election-related link (but it’s perhaps the most must-read of them all)!

Flying Whale