Tuesday, January 12, 2016

El Niño hits Skid Row: How "Service Resistance" is used as cover for inaction

Are the uncontacted tribes of the Amazon "service resistant"?
If you read about the homeless in Los Angeles, all you hear is service resistance, service resistance, service resistance. Why can't the city solve the homeless crisis? Because the homeless resist services, we're told. Despite our best intentions, you can't argue with service resistance.

When someone turns down social services, we have two options. One, ask whether we have adequately served someone by inviting them into a labyrinth of moralizing and underfunded social programs. Or two, we call them service resistant.. Let's read a real life example to find out what happened.

The LA Times reported a homeless woman named Barbara Brown died from exposure in the El Niño rain while sleeping on Skid Row last week, about which nothing could be done. The LAPD said they encouraged her to a shelter before she died, but she service resisted. The story mentioned her alcohol and mental health problems, someone said she had been "brainwashed" by bad experiences, and it was reported she once spit on somebody for offering her a blanket. Translation: she was crazy, crazy, crazy. End of story. A tragedy, of course, and nobody's fault but her own.

I didn't know Brown, but I know how homeless shelters feel about drunks. They don't like them. But supposing there was a shelter bed, and Brown knew where it was, and public transportation could get her and her possessions to it, and that the shelter could accommodate her possessions (a virtual impossibility), would she be allowed to address the deadly threat which delirium tremens pose to a sixty year old woman?

When Jesus promised the building of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, nobody thought he meant homeless shelters. But here they are, and like Saint Peter at the pearly gates, they deliver the righteous to peace while casting the wretched out to face the elements. Brown's literal mortal sin was alcoholism, categorically denying her a shelter bed. Strange that only the homeless are subject to these trials. Yet, the arbitrary court of the homeless shelter intake continues judging the homeless. In Brown's case, she knew it wasn't worth the effort (better to prepare for the storm than waste an evening tracking down a fresh humiliation), and was sentenced to death in absentia.

But supposing some misfiring sense of morality led Brown to face her suffering in sobriety, she would still need to beat incredible odds to be awarded a shelter bed. Like the moral conundrums of Saw movies, where a prisoner must kill another prisoner to save a third prisoner (or something), the shelters are only complicit in Brown's unfortunate end if they denied entry before they were at capacity. Which did not seem to be the case.

Peter Lynn at the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority insisted emergency shelters are not at capacity, despite a report by the Los Angeles County Grand Jury that showed the opposite. But how exactly is that morally distinct from reality? If the city built shelters that a significant number of people don't feel comfortable with, then they've clearly failed at their task. At a minimum, they can't hide behind accusations of service resistance.

In academic literature, service resistant simply means sub populations who are more difficult to reach, like homeless LGBT, who historically have been victimized by the state while being disconnected from other homeless individuals. It does not mean those who are impossible to reach, as the city has used it. It's as if you explained to someone to be careful with a delicate teapot, because it was old and precious, and they reacted by slam dunking it on the floor on the grounds that it was likely to break anyway. I mean, it says right in the name that they're only resistant, not unreachable.

For those who need a recap, here's the score. First, the Los Angeles City Council is forced to declare a state of emergency this September and divert $100 million in funds to address the homeless crisis. Then, Garcetti announces the city will not be meeting its goals of reducing homelessness by 2016 as promised. Then, the Los Angeles County Grand Jury calls what preparation was made for the homeless before El Niño, "unconscionable and grossly inadequate." Then, a sixty year old homeless woman dies a horrible and unnecessary death, which everyone from her neighbor to the police to the Grand Jury saw coming. Somehow, it's her fault.

Friday, December 25, 2015

A Jukebox Stole My Job, or: why must you insist that automation only targets boring work?

From a Atlantic profile of Silicon Valley billionaire and progressive activist Nick Hanauer:
“In a sufficiently prosperous society where people specialize sufficiently, and where enough of the crappy work is done by machines, all work becomes art,” [Nick] told me at one point.
To which: how's that?

Technology has shouldered hard work since Prometheus, but it also made a lot of creatives redundant.

An example: playing guitar in a band would be a cool job. Too bad somebody invented jukeboxes, because venues won't pay for live music when canned jams will do. Live musicians get paid, but only sometimes, because most of the time, two speakers and a CD player will play better for less money.

And what is a guitar, anyway? A threat to the job security of choir singers, who need to team six deep to best the harmonic complexity of a lone banjo. How the luddite backup vocalist, cuckolded by a lute, must have warned music aficionados to resist the ersatz harmonies plucked from the instrument's catgut strings. I'd have called them toy choruses to shame their operator's into eschewing the bawdy sound that sprung from that sensuously silhouetted sound box, but thus the market spake.

Photography put out painted portraiture, and the printing press killed poetry. Oh, ever since the invention of the bench that seats two has one standing been able to tell a story to the two sitting, leaving a fourth with no audience for a story they could tell to the sitting second had the second not been listening to the story the standing first was telling to the third! And now there's television, making it worse.

Many of those would-have-been artists now aren't artists, and those that will be artists will mostly be doing it for free, meaning artists needing to work on their art now need to work to work on their art, which makes you ask why were we doing this in the first place? We could subsidize them, but then I don't know why we made TV. Only if robots could focus on taxi driving and iPhone making before there's no work left not solving CAPTCHAs.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

How politically connected developers are forcing homeless out of Downtown Los Angeles

It's called a business improvement district, and it's enough to make Ayn Rand believe in collectivism. In the same way the radical poetry of Woody Guthrie has been reappropriated intothe  banjo bathos of Mumford and Sons, business improvement districts, or BIDs, use the strategies of labor unions for corporate ends. They are privately controlled, levy taxes, and wield massive political power in their jurisdiction. For all the business class's fear-mongering about the unchecked power of labor unions, it shouldn't surprise us that they might want one of their own.

Downtown Los Angeles has a business improvement district: the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, or the DCBID. And the DCBID has an enemy: those who threaten property values, the homeless. DCBID president Carol Schatz wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the homeless and their possessions are sources of, "disease, vermin and crime." Downtown is terrorized by the homeless, most of whom she claims are, "seriously mentally ill or drug addicted, and most of them have resisted efforts to house them." She recalls a restaurant forced to spend and implausible $12,000 a month on security to keep patrons safe from the homeless. The stated enemy is the powerful homeless lobby, led by civil rights attorney Carol Sobel, whose advocacy Schatz claims "is tantamount to condemning the unfortunate to a lifetime of slow, deliberate deterioration." However, her prejudice keeps getting the best of her, when she claims that if legislation is passed which "enables" the homeless (i.e., helps them), you ought to, "watch where you walk." (Given that she attributes the glacial revival of Downtown to the agents of "disease, vermin, and crime," one wonders why she keeps bloviating about their threat to polite society.) The primary task of the DCBID is to eject the homeless from the Downtown area and to develop and circulate the moral rationale for doing so.

Schatz's justification for expunging the undesirables should be familiar to any student of American foreign policy. In a domestic twist on imperialism, the script is as follows:

  1. Identify untapped resources (in this case, historic architecture and valuable proximity to major transportation infrastructure)
  2. Take resources without regard for local population
  3. When locals inevitably resist, claim you have been forced to remove them, while denying any initial provocation
It's like the Vietnam War, but in Downtown L.A.

Like any good nation builders, the DCBID has its own militia, the Purple Patrol. A minimally armed force of "beat up old guys," they keep the riff-raff out with technically legal harassment and threatening to contact actual cops. A favorite tactic is to flank panhandlers they've deemed unseemly and distribute anti-charity literature to would-be philanthropists, warning them that the vagabond they are surveilling will likely use the alms on terrible drugs which perpetuate the cycle of poverty. DCBID director of operations Don MacNeil tells the Los Angeles Downtown News that the Broken Windows theory of criminal justice, the zero-tolerence used to criminalize poverty under Giulliani in New York, informed the development of the Purple Patrol.

But the DCBID only uses the Purple Patrol on issues too small to justify the big guns. Of the estimated $100 million in resources the city expends each year interacting with the homeless, $87 million is used by the LAPD. A recent report by City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana shows the scale of police oppression, where the homeless, representing less than half a percent of Los Angeles' population, are subject to 14% of arrests. Earlier this year, the city passed a controversial "sweeps" law, which gives law enforcement the right to take large property from the homeless without warning. Carol Schatz defended the law on AirTalk with Larry Mantle, saying the laws were necessary to deal with "service resistant" people who could only be motivated with force. Despite criticisms from advocacy groups, the Los Angeles Times editorial board, and a federal task force on homelessness, the law remains largely in place.

When Eric Garcetti became mayor in 2014, he promised he would end veteran homelessness by the end of this year. Given the anti-homeless efforts under his administration and a compliant city council, it is unsurprising that he admitted last month that the city would be unable to reach this goal. Early on, long-time Garcetti goon Mitch O'Farrell co-sponsored a bill which would have made it illegal for groups like the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition to provide food to the homeless without meeting onerous sanitation requirements. It was only after a public outcry that the embarrassed O'Farrell ran a pathetic Twitter campaign, claiming that the legislation was misunderstood, while simultaneously dropping the idea. It's what you'd expect from a councilman who was once called -- in an endorsement (!!) -- a candidate who "focused much on the needs of residents other than those with clout, money and the right to vote." It was O'Farrell, who worked for Garcetti in the 13th district for 10 years before becoming a councilman himself, who promised to boot the homeless out of Barnsdall Art Park, and O'Farrell again who recently came down a San Pedro activist who decided take the problem into his own hands by building them what are essentially large doghouses for the homeless.

That last strange image -- streets lined with tiny houses inhabited by those society forgot -- is useful because it discredits a lie so subtle you might not challenge it if you heard it from someone you trust. O'Farrell was reported saying it in the Los Angeles Times:
Councilman Mitch O'Farrell said that not everybody wants to leave the streets. Officials offered shelter to inhabitants of a freeway underpass encampment in his district, but the offer was "largely declined," he said.
Carol Schatz repeated the party line in that AirTalk with Larry Mantle interview, describing the homeless with the clinical phrase "service resistant." This gets repeated a lot without anyone to bother to back it up. As it happens, there is a lot of evidence to the contrary. A study commissioned by the Union Square Business Improvement District (I guess they're not all bad) in San Francisco found that of homeless panhandlers canvassed in Union Square, only 3% said that the were homeless as a matter of choice. In Utah, which has pioneered a Housing First strategy, homelessness has been reduced 91% by simply giving the homeless housing. If 91% of people can be convinced to accept services by the state of Utah, why do Schatz and others keep insisting that these people are unreachable? If the homeless are so keen to sleep outside, how are they being convinced to move into tiny houses? Service resistance is a non-issue, emphasized by the DCBID and city hall as a way of justifying inaction.

There's another lie worth pointing out. Symbiotically attached to the story of Utah's success with its Housing First program is the claim housing the homeless is always cheaper than eating the cost of repeatedly arresting and hospitalizing them due to problems exacerbated by living on the streets. Unfortunately, this may not be true. Housing First saves Utah about $6,000 per person per year. Housing is significantly more expensive in Los Angeles, and it is possible that if tried here, Housing First would indeed be more expensive.

But if your interests are aligned with the interests of Downtown real estate developers, you're getting a very good deal. The problem isn't mismanaged government funds, or a misinformed business class that can be talked down with patience explanation. Homeless can be solved, but when the city bends to the whims of the Downtown business community in forcing the homeless into the poverty neutrino of Skid Row, the humanitarian crisis is irrelevant.

Los Angeles' financial and political class is trying to punch its way out of a dumb investment. They were trying to second guess the hipsters, and they guessed wrong. The most powerful people in this city are among those who've dumped countless funds into Downtown investment. Just take a look at the inscrutable subway system, which has been significantly expanded in the past decade to get more people Downtown. Despite the huge effort, it's still too expensive and too lame to be a home for anyone except those with more money than sense. There's a lot of political will that's been blown on Downtown, and there's no sign that anyone is getting their money's worth.

Those purple shirts were a bad sign. Nothing says, "I don't understand what cool is" like bringing in an army of rent-a-cops. After the passing of 1999 Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, which allows Downtown investors to more quickly convert old buildings into theoretically trendy lofts, the feeling must have been that the only thing standing between Downtown and gentrification was the homeless. That's the Old West attitude about success: you have to be willing to kill to get what you want. So the investors started kicking the homeless, and that didn't work, so they kicked harder, and then harder and harder than that, and it was like when a skydiver has a faulty parachute and he keeps tugging the broken ripcord in a blind panic and by the time he's reached the ground he's already torn his vest in half and dislocated his shoulder in the process.

It wasn't like they were going to accept that they had made a massively stupid investment. Families would rather have a house, young people can't afford it, and Hollywood would rather live in the hills. I've only known one person who lived downtown, in a low-income-but-still-expensive unit in the Alexandria Hotel. He tried to justify it by telling me Marlene Dietrich used to live there. Yeah, but now it's full of bedbugs and people are trying to resist the urge to call mom and move back to Pennsylvania. I tried to cheer him up by telling him that from his window, it looked sort of like Brooklyn. I can count three times I caught him crying in that studio.

If there's any mercy in God, the investors who keep trying to resuscitate Downtown will finally realize they've placed a bad bet and give up. Then maybe the pressure will let up enough that people can find the escape velocity to get out of the misery singularity of Skid Row. Skid Row is the most terrifying place I've ever known in my life, an abomination caused by economic catastrophe. It also has a culture, and is a community. If that God enjoys irony, the refugees brutalized by gentrification will find Downtown abandoned by the DCBID's invented community, move in, and reanimate those buildings with their actual community.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Post-Mortem of a Moral Panic, or Hell Hath No Fury Like Miss Piggy Scorned

The problem with writing about panic about outrage is that, by its nature, is short-lived. I imagined this post less than a week ago, and already the events which it comments on have become largely irrelevant. Yet, it is the disposability of these stories that makes them so hard to understand; before you have the time to make sense of them, they have already evaporated.

That's why I'm going to ask you to indulge one more story about Kermit's new girlfriend, Denise. You might be reading this years in the future, and say, "but this is in the past, and I'm in the present." This is a reasonable observation, but it was also a reasonable observation only hours after the events unfolded. As of press time, this story is no longer timely. For these reasons, I ask you then to read this as a post-mortem of a moral panic.

A Panic About Panic

Kermit has a new girlfriend. Why the romantic entanglements of a fictional frog conceived during the Eisenhower administration should concern anyone is best answered by a piece that appeared in People. In short, it's a joke. The report, which describes Miss Piggy's and Kermit's breakup and his new girlfriend, is written as if the Muppets were actual celebrities, who -- protests of culture doom's dayers notwithstanding -- we presumably care about more than that of Muppets. There is no indication that the piece was sponsored, but the fact that the Muppets are to appear in a new television series this fall, and reliance on one's common sense, would suggest that this was a straightforward attempt to generate buzz. This piece isn't about the lazy blog posts, like this one in Jezebel, which express mock indignation over Kermit's insensitivity, but about the slightly more calculated pieces which clutch pearls over feminists who reportedly can't take a joke. We're discussing outrage about outrage.

This article in the National Review, titled, "People Actually Upset That Kermit the Frog’s New ‘Girlfriend’ Is Thin," is a good example as any of this phenomenon. There are at least a dozen others reporting feminists variously outraged, angry, and furious about Denise, who I am led to understand I, as a feminist, hate. These stories don't amount to much alone, but when understood in the context of similar reports of feminists upset over of Louis CK monologues, mansplaining statues, and calling a child "princess", a larger narrative is being told of a feminist menace. A growing killjoy culture which seeks to crush everything that resists its ideology of perpetual outrage. The irony here is that the National Review hopes to captivate readers with their own outrage.

Of course, the purpose of this very article is get you outraged. Outrage at reactionary outrage at feminist outrage, but outrage nonetheless. The point on which this hangs is whether the feminist outrage is genuine. Giving the paucity of evidence, I think the answer is no. The smoking gun is a couple tweets, mostly from accounts with relatively few followers, and a single article that appeared in the Guardian. The tidbits they've assembled hardly imply that we're on our way to sending men the feminist reeducation camps, where mixed gender teams force inmates to admit 2+2=5 and that there's nothing unusual about the work of Georgia O'Keefe. Given the 500 million tweets published daily, the outrage documented by the National Review is better understood by recalling that story about typewriting monkeys stumbling upon Shakespeare.

I suppose we could defend the Guardian article, but what exactly would be the point? The value of feminism, as a subject of study and the political action informed by it, is not determined by the strength of one writer. There are good feminists and bad feminists, just as there are good and bad cartographers. Feminism is not a monolith. Anyway, to consider the wisdom of casually sexist comedian Patrice O'Neal, comedy is improved by people being allowed to fail without fear of censorship; certainly the same must be true of feminism.

As it happens, the Guardian piece isn't bad, it just suffers from largely ignoring the one useful piece of information in the People story: that this scorned Miss Piggy story is a joke. That's the point of the National Review post, right? That feminists might be getting angry over a joke. It's not groundbreaking stuff, but it's a joke, all right. And that's what makes the National Review's choice of tweets so frustratingly hypocritical

Does the National Review beleive that one @Lauren_Kendra's tweet, "Fucking skinny slurry where. Die Denise die," represents a serious feminist reaction to the Muppets stunt. It is either someone who understands that the Muppets aren't real and is enjoying playing along with the joke, or, if we are being less generous, someone who simply doesn't like Denise. The National Review, however, is so single-mindedly obsessed with repeating the narrative as feminists killjoys being incapable of taking a joke that they themselves are incapable of understanding something said within the context of that same joke. The lack of self-awareness is dizzying.

Protecting a woman, by the way, doesn't make you a feminist. Neither does simply disliking this Denise. There is no shortage of men with very old fashioned world views who take protecting women very seriously, as you might worry about protecting your car. Yet, the National Review is happy to label any defense of Miss Piggy they've found as feminist. I don't take pleasure in excluding people from Club Feminism, but the definition isn't "any person who doesn't immediately disregard the humanity of a woman based on weight." It's the same worthless definition of feminism that includes Hillary Clinton despite her record on women's rights. Being a female CEO isn't necessarily feminist, being an unmarried woman isn't necessarily feminist, and being a stay-at-home-mom-because-feminism-means-I-decide isn't necessarily feminist either. You have to, you know, do feminist stuff.

The battle for Kermit to date without the intervention of feminists will soon be forgotten, but the war between National Review readers, bearing a mighty banner of free speech, and their invented crypto-fascists will certainly continue. Lord knows they'll always enjoy tilting at windmills. I tell ya, it's an outrage.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Why "Feminism is Stupid" is Stupid

Against my better judgement, I was reading the comments, and saw something so stupid that it makes you pause. The commenter said, "feminism is stupid," and it occurred to me that it wasn't only wrong, but a Russian doll set of being wrong. Not just wrong in the sense in which he probably meant (that he opposed gender equality), but wrong in believing the idea that a field could be stupid.
Feminism is an academic discipline, and the activism informed by it. It aimed to study a woman's roles in society, and has branched out considerably from there. The political movement aims to address issues identified by the academic discipline.
As such, feminism is a neutral term, or at least neutral to the degree that you accept studying a women's roles in society in worthwhile. Supposing you do, you can no more say feminism is stupid than you can say geography or mathematics is stupid. Just as there are good and bad geographers, there are good feminists and bad feminists. Good feminists are intellectually honest and work on effective solutions to problems identified through feminism. Bad feminists are less honest, and as such are incapable of imagining effective solutions to these problems.
I'm sure you can find plenty of examples of bad feminists, who rely on lazy thinking to come to plans that probably aren't that practical, like "KILL ALL MENZ." Sometimes these bad feminists are still fun to read, because what that lack in intellectual rigor they make up for in passionate abandon for their beliefs. A good example is the SCUM Manifesto, written by the lady who later shot Andy Warhol, which advocates killing all men and relying on artificial insemination to create an all female species. This is obviously a bad idea, but is a good read because you at least get where she's coming from. It's sort of like the album Straight Outta Compton, which advocates some heavy handed solutions like killing all cops. Killing all cops probably wouldn't do much good in the long run, but we can still listen to Straight Outta Compton to understand the frustration of young people living in the ghettos of American cities.
There are also good examples of feminism. Some of these even critique lazy feminists who don't take their own ideas seriously. Andrea Dworkin, for example, wrote about why killing all the men is a silly idea, despite having a enchanting straightforwardness to it.
Feminism, as a community of writers and artists and so on, has good and bad parts to it. The trouble is that the good parts aren't found on Tumblrs and hastily written CIF pieces. A lot of the classics are online. Much of it is very readable, written in a particular breezy-urgent style of writers who had a lot of ground to cover but extremely motivated to get things moving immediately. Dworkin is a good example of the feminist style. The breeziness is in the breadth of her analysis. Like Bolivar, she thought in continents and centuries, unlimited by time and space in dismantling the patriarchy.
The urgency is where it should be, right in front of you. Her first book, Woman Hating, is urgent. Urgent like shaking you in your bed, yelling, "get up! The house's on fire!": 
This book is an action, a political action where revolu­tion is the goal. It has no other purpose. It is not cerebral wisdom, or academic horseshit, or ideas carved in granite or destined for immortality. It is part of a process and its context is change. It is part of a plane­tary movement to restructure community forms and human consciousness so that people have power over their own lives, participate fully in community, live in dignity and freedom. The commitment to ending male dominance as the fundamental psychological, political, and cultural real­ity of earth-lived life is the fundamental revolutionary commitment. It is a commitment to transformation of the self and transformation of the social reality on every level.
There wasn't a better intro to any work of art, music, or literature until Straight Outta Compton opened, "you are now about to witness the power of street knowledge." It's no wonder she later had to make chiding speeches to the radfems saying, "now, sisters, we wouldn't really want to kill all men."
This style has its roots in the writing of Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Woman has basically been the foundation of feminism as we know it. She also exposed the fraud of Edmund Burke, considered the father of modern conservatism, in A Vindication of the Rights of Man, which should have ended his intellectual legacy if she wasn't ignored by her people who didn't actually want to think about things anyway.
But that's the problem. Feminism is stupid, says the commenter, because the conclusion that we need to smash patriarchy, is stupid. So feminists get ignored, or internet commenters lobotomize themselves by only reading the daftest articulations of feminism they can find, deep within the recesses of Tumblr. 
If teenagers hashtagging #KillAllMen on is feminism, then "feminism is stupid" is rhetoric.

How the New York Times Got A Drug Story Wrong Just One Word Into The Headline

Drug reporting! It's the time of year I get to condescend to New York Times columnists, because the boys out of Columbia don't know the first thing about the hard stuff.

Today's headline: "K2, a Potent Drug, Casts a Shadow Over an East Harlem Block." One word into the headline, and they've already got it wrong. K2 is a brand name of spice, not the name of the drug itself. It's like calling drunk driving accidents, "Smirnoff-caused Ford Focus Collisions." Admittedly, spice is a brand name, too, but it is the one that has become generisized like "elevator" or "thermos." It's an oversight that set the tone of things to come.

"Potent drug" is a meaningless phrase, and the shadow metaphor is an unnecessary editorialization that doesn't even make sense in this context. Spice isn't obfuscating anything in East Harlem, which can't be said of the New York Times. A more honest headline might read: "Homeless Can't Afford Pot," or even, "Being Homeless Blows."

The story recounts homeless people who are smoking spice, which is basically lawn trimmings sprayed with whatever chemicals aren't illegal yet. Why are they smoking spice? The Times reports because it is cheaper than marijuana, and you can get it legally from the bodega.

This revelation fits within the Times "socially liberal" platform. Legalize weed (but not any "hard drugs"), and the spice problem will go away. It's a stance which cunningly dodges the actual question by instead telling us why people are smoking spice instead of marijuana. It allows the Times to appear progressive while ignoring the social failure that put these people on the streets in the first place.

The actual answer to the question, by the way, is because being homeless is boring and miserable. Spice, by all accounts, isn't all that fun. It's a barely step up from salvia, a drug so unattractive that most states haven't gone through the trouble of making it illegal. The fact that anyone would make a habit of it tells us two things: homeless people don't have much money, and that being coherent while homeless is worse than smoking spice.

The habit of criminalizing stopgap solutions the homeless have resorted to is going on the West Coast, too. Los Angeles councilman Mitch O'Farrell has continued his tenure as captain of the Bulldoze the Homeless Brigade by defending the criminalization of so-called "tiny houses." He says that the self-contained mobile homes are unsafe and have been subjected to arson, which is true, but misses the point that homeless people choose to live in them because it's still safer and comfortable than sleeping on the street.

The homeless, underserved by local government, are forced to rely on services not designed to solve homelessness. Anyone who has ever been in a public library knows this, as does anyone who has ridden a bus in Los Angeles after 4:00 in the morning -- when the subway stations which serve as shelters stop running -- and become mobile hotels. The solution isn't to legalize spice so homeless people don't have to face their utter misery, but to do something to make them not homeless. Like, give them housing.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The SAE Video: A Comedy in Three Acts

I'm not going to sit here and pretend I haven't watched this video on silent hundreds of times in a row. It's a comedy in three acts which runs with the emotional efficiency of a Superbowl ad.
A video posted by David Smith (@soonerdave25) on
Act One, the Coward. A boy-mongoose hybrid, inexplicably entrusted with a microphone, jabbing his fist arrhythmically in a way that is simultaneously venomous and limp-wristed. Ripped from the pages of The Great Gatsby, he is a monocle short of a caricature of wealthy indifference so broad as to be unbelievable. His awkwardness with violence, like a baby giraffe learning to walk, might make him sympathetic if it wasn't for his despicable surrender to tradition which has made this child a vessel for institutionalized racism.

Act Two: the Hero. We learn about the person operating the camera, presumably David Smith. On the tenth or twentieth viewing, you'll notice his role is foreshadowed when his hand waves in front of the lens. His place in this bus full of future war criminals is seen through the coward, whose windmilling hand (is that how he gestured at the help?) slowly comes to a rest. Has our Banquo stirred the forgotten feeling of shame in the coward? So great is the boy-mongoose's reptilian sense of self-preservation that one struggles to identify any hint of betrayal on his face.

Act Three, the Patsy. In a poorly written deus ex machina ending, a third character is introduced with the sole purpose of telling our hero to stop filming. He realizes the coward has stopped chanting, so the suck-up hops into frame to wave the hero down. The irony, of course, is that the only reason this boot-licker's face made national news and disgraced his family is because of his suicidal attempt to protect the coward. Blinded by the fog of war, he could have escaped without being forever associated with bigotry if he had only shared the coward's instinct for survival. It is in these moments of panic that we can see one's true character.

But of course, there is a broader context with which to understand the clip if you watch it with the sound on. One is struck by how dated the lyrics are, particularly how they stick the landing on the r in that racial epithet. Growing up in Los Angeles, I have more often heard that word used to caricature racism than as unironic hate speech. Then there is this talk of lynching, a form of violence long ago abandoned in place of the more efficient use of police violence.

There are no black people in the SAE, or very few any way, not because of any official policy, but because of structural barriers. Instituting an actual ban on African Americans joining the frat would be redundant and make as much sense as erecting an electric fence around Pluto. Yeah, it would probably deter people from going to the distant dwarf planet, but they're probably more hindered by several billion miles of lifeless space between it and Earth. Black people and most people are unable to join the SAE because they lack the advantages to go to college, the connections to join the frat, and the money to pay the dues.

What then is the point of these idiotic chants? Simply, a display of power. We live in a society where one can't go around shouting racial abuse, thank god. To shout racial abuse without consequence demonstrates that you have power over society, and don't have to play by the rules. The chanting has the same purpose as the frat house gang rape and the use of god-awful cocaine: not for the sake of sexualized violence or the fun of taking drugs, but to signal one's power. I don't mean to suggest that these boys aren't racists, because they obviously are, in the same way that the fraternity (called "Sexual Assault Expected" on some campuses) is home to actual rapes. Rather, that their attacking societal norms are the point in of themselves.

Conversely, the joy of seeing these utter cowards dash (if you'll believe randos on social media) into the arms of police protection is in the fact that society is not helpless against these ugly thugs. Yes, these boys will probably be fine in a few years time, likely returning to college to sexually assault and dehumanize wherever they go, but for the moment their actions have consequences. If ignoring the basic rules of society by shouting racist bile gets you exiled from that society through expulsion from college, then the collective we has some measurable power over ruling elites. It's not the Reign of Terror, but it's a start, and that is enough to celebrate