Wednesday, February 23, 2005

You Can't Say That!

It's a good time to recall the standard disclaimer: the author of this column, me, Dr. Wes Browning, is solely responsible for its content. Real Change, its management, staff, and volunteers have all said on many occasions that I, Dr. Wes, am nuts, and they assume no liability for anything I say here or anywhere else.

I had just finished saying, last week, that Susan Sontag was right about something and that Ed Koch may or may not have been. I also mentioned the Planters Nut Company. What you all may not have known, because I didn't tell you, was that last week's entire column was an attempt to write about Ward Churchill that got sidetracked.

Ward Churchill is the Colorado University professor who has taken a lot of flak for an essay he wrote after the 9-11 attacks in which he pointed out that the Pentagon was a military target and added that many (not all) of the people in the World Trade Towers at the time of the attack were willing participants in "America's global financial empire." One particular phrase that fetched Mr. Churchill a heap of heat was "little Eichmanns."

"Oh boy, talking about this will be fun!" That's what I've been thinking. I thought, "Let's talk about Nazi technocrats and the Americans who can be compared to them, ha, ha!" That's when I remembered what Susan Sontag said and got distracted.

Now Bill Maher has got back in the news and distracted me. Bill Maher said essentially the same thing that Sontag said, that the 9-11 attackers had not been cowards, whatever else they were, and got his show yanked from TV. Now he's back with a new TV show and he's getting himself in deep by disparaging evangelical Christians, and the conservative Christians are romping all over him.

OK, he said something real bad about Christians in general, and it was TOTALLY inappropriate. Christians do NOT all have neurological disorders. Bad talk-show man! BAD! No talk-show man cookie!

As if that isn't distracting enough, Chris Rock gets picked to host the Oscars and he lets fly that he thinks no straight black man would ever watch the Oscars and that, in general, awards for art are f-ing idiotic. You might think that would mostly offend gays, but actually right-wing conservatives are doing most of the complaining, with the same ones calling for his dismissal from the Oscars as are calling for Bill Maher's new show to be cancelled.

Just as I'm hearing about all this and I'm reassuring myself that everything is all right, we still have First Amendment protection of freedom of speech in this country, I find out that the House of Representatives passes a so-called Broadcast Decency Act which will give federal regulators power to levy massive fines against broadcasters for airing material they deem indecent.

Remember when conservatives used to oppose regulation of markets?

There I go again, digressing. Which as I see it is the continuing problem, and what's wrong with the whole picture.

Instead of having a serious national discussion about what Ward Churchill said, we are immersed in a war of words over whether he should be allowed to keep his job, having said that much. We are all forced to join the fight to keep the debate open rather than debating. Things like the Broadcast Decency Act only serve to prove that we are right to be concerned. Today they would fine CBS for an exposed breast; tomorrow it will be for a quote from Chris Rock (or even Alfred Kinsey); the next day it will be for "unpatriotic" speech.

All of which keeps all of us from talking about the extent to which Ward Churchill was right, and in all the confusion no one notes what the corporations that built the World Trade Towers do to the rest of the world in our names.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

My Place in Hell Is Reserved

Six weeks ago, annoyed by some injustice or other, I was moved to prattle on and on about the idea of justice and what I didn't know about it. Now let's talk about another subject that I know nothing about, even though some people who claim to love me say I incarnate it: Evil.

One reason I don't know anything about Evil is that it doesn't exist. There, I said it. I'll say it plainer: evil (small e) exists, in the sense that there are things in the world that I must by my nature oppose. But no objective Evil exists.

Here is where I insert the "prattling on" part. Going back to six weeks ago, I then said some words to the effect that righteous outrage is a moral neutral like a 5 on the gray-scale, whereas all the different kinds of justice in the world put together would be a moral rainbow, or maybe a Jackson Pollock.

To at least one reader on our very own "editorial" committee, that discussion was reminiscent of the late Susan Sontag's comments on the 9-11 attackers. Sontag was not talking about righteous outrage; she spoke of the moral neutrality of courage. She said the attackers didn't lack courage and couldn't be called cowards. Our reader, let's call her L with one big L, thought that I might have even cribbed from Susan, but actually I cribbed from some old friends of mine who hadn't heard of her.

But I'm interrupting my own prattle. The point is that moral neutralities are a lot more common than most folks in these parts give them credit for. That's because most folks in these parts are dualists. They believe there's Good and there's Evil and everything lies on one side or t'other, as my mother would've put it.

So let's say we contemplate a thing, like a bag of rice. A bag of rice has got to be Good, or a bag of rice has got to be Evil. Or take a box of ribbed grape-flavored condoms. It's got to be Good or Evil. Or take Susan Sontag, before she died. Susan Sontag has got to be Good or Evil. Well, which is she?

Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York, decided a while ago that Susan Sontag was Evil, based on other unspecified but presumably similar statements she'd made concerning Israel. In fact he said that upon her death she would occupy the Ninth Circle of Hell for all eternity. That would be the innermost Dantean Circle of Hell reserved for traitors to family, country, guests, lords and benefactors, which is also the Circle occupied by Satan himself. I'm sure that Mr. Koch didn't change his mind when Sontag made her remarks about the 9-11 attackers.

What others identify as treason in Sontag's remarks was actually reason and the honesty to speak it. Courage IS morally neutral. A charging bull elephant doesn't earn a special place in heaven for disregarding the elephant gun. The 9-11 attackers were on a suicide mission. To deny the courage that their mission required is to forever deny a key ingredient in understanding them and understanding what happened.

Here are some prattling questions to round out the discussion. Would you think I was Evil if I said that peanuts kill people? How about if you were the head of Planters? What if I were an employee of Planters? To be a traitor you first have to be a loyal servant. But what if you serve an Evil master? What if you serve Satan? Does disloyalty to Satan get you into the Ninth Circle?

[No, I am not suggesting that Planters is Evil. There IS no Evil!]

Incidentally, this column should get me to the Seventh Circle of Hell, for violence to God, art, and nature. Two more Circles to go, and I'll make a bull's-eye – maybe next week.

Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Mammary Metaphors Amok

For a long time I've been hearing about the "Continuum of Care." The expression only seems to come out of the mouths of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) officials and people who are busy trying to suck money out of them. As best as I can determine the Continuum of Care is meant to be like the Space-Time Continuum, all smooth and easy to swallow in every bit, but in reality it's much lumpier and full of big chunks of cockroach butt and old tennis shoes.

Here's how it works. First, we pay taxes. Yes, even I have paid taxes. My taxes may not have been as much as yours were, but I'm sure they hurt as much. Second, the federal government allocates a fraction of your taxes to HUD. Then HUD turns back around and gives your money to your local community in order to provide a "Continuum of Care."

Now, here's the tricky part. Let's say that HUD has decided that, after giving your own particular local community money to provide a "Continuum of Care" last year, your local community did not in fact fully achieve the sort of "Continuum" HUD had in mind. Then HUD withholds a whole bunch of your money from your local community to punish it for having such lousy services. This then in turn guarantees that your local community will have even lousier services next year, hence less of your money, hence more cockroach butt, more old tennis shoes, on your horizon.

Or, you could move to California.

California has just seen an increase in HUD funding for homeless services. Arnold Schwarzenegger takes credit for this, saying that he is the "Collectinator" for the state of California. He also says he has succeeded in sucking more money out of HUD because of the way he has been "nurturing" the relationship between California and the federal government since gaining office.

The whole situation has me confused. If Arnold is a better nurturer than the rest of us, doesn't that make him a girlie man? On the other hand, if it's sucking he's doing, and it is, shouldn't we understand that the nurturing is being done by federal government? Hey, let's run with that analogy!

In fact, HUD has the nipples. There are two. There is the Continuum of Care nipple. There is the Emergency Shelter Services nipple. And the rules as they stand now grant access to the nipples only to the strongest babies. Let the weak get weaker, until they starve to death.

For example, Louisville, Kentucky, is a weak baby and HUD will starve it. Louisville is weak because it only got 81 out of 100 points for its latest HUD grant application, in part because HUD has determined that the city has failed to move families quickly enough from temporary shelters into permanent housing. So Louisville had its funding for homeless programs cut by more than $3 million this year, amounting to a 55% reduction from last year's funding.

That's supposed to teach those slackers in charge of homeless services in Louisville that they should be moving more people into permanent housing like the federal government told them to do. But, aw shucks, turns out there never was any permanent housing to move people to. And now the situation has just gotten worse. The weak baby will get weaker. Thank you HUD, Mommy Dearest.

Meanwhile, Bush wants to cut HUD grants drastically over the remainder of his term. In particular he wants to cut Section 8 funding by a third, on top of recent roll-backs. But the Section 8 program is the only program that actually creates the kind of affordable housing that's needed in order for cities like Louisville to get a decent score on their HUD applications. So the cutbacks proposed will guarantee failure for every other city and state.

Except maybe California, because the Collectinator nurtures so much better than you do.

Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Goodbye Carrot-Head

We've got your Real Change right here! Out with the Old! In with the New!

When I started writing this column in the dim past I was beardless and thin and my head somewhat resembled a carrot. Thus "carrot-head man" was born as a self-portrait and we used him to represent me all these years on this page. But I am now bearded, fat, and my head somewhat resembles a bell pepper. Moreover, I can't draw bell peppers. So, goodbye carrot-head man. Hello some photograph, one that we will try to doctor to keep from scaring anyone.

As Real Change marches forward into its brave new future of weekly publication, I find myself pausing to reflect on the past. Mostly when I do this I reflect on my own past because other people's past would be history and I would have to study to reflect on that.

I reflect on poorer days, when I would sell myself to university psych professors and students as an experimental subject. I did so occasionally when I was a homeless college student. It made more sense to me than being a medical subject, because I figured they'd be less likely to do permanent damage. Plus, on my campus, they always paid $5 just for applying, even if they turned you down.

I got turned down once because I knew too much. The experimenters wanted someone who hadn't heard about Milgram's study of obedience to authority. That was the one where Stanley Milgram found that more than 60% of people studied, when told forcefully enough to do so, would administer dangerous and painful electroshocks to innocent strangers, even when it appeared that the victims might die. Since I knew that all I got was $5 that time.

All of this jumped into focus this week when I read an article in the Seattle P-I about a new study planned to find out if believing in God helps you deal with pain.

Now, a lesser-known aspect of Milgram's study and it's spawns were indications that the more religious subjects in such experiments were more likely to obediently torture their victims than were the less religious.

Of course, religious doesn't equate with believing in God. Still, I see a host of ironies rising up to drag me into a fiery pit of flaming sulfurous irony-hell.

In the new study volunteers will submit to pain and experimenters will see whose brains show the most pain activity, those of the believers or those of the non-believers. Then, to make things more interesting, they'll show various religious symbols, to "see if that helps."

What a great idea! Let's show a crucifix to a guy in agony and see if he gets the message! How about a nail or a martyr's knuckle? OK, maybe we should consider other sorts of symbols. How about one of those pictures of a lamb being led by Jesus? That would probably work.

Isn't it just wonderful that religion has now come full circle since the Inquisition? In the Olden Days it was a bitch rounding up heathens for torture. Nobody wanted to hurt. But now everyone wants to be the newest and best Jackass for Jesus.

First, you get paid. All of these kinds of studies pay their "volunteers," who are invariably impoverished college students and poor people living near colleges. Secondly, if you are at all religious, this is your chance to prove to the world that your gospel/doctrine/prophet/or whatever really works the one miracle everyone wants the most: numbness.

This might work: apply, but tell them you're a masochist. Get disqualified, take the $5 and run.