Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Gentrification takes Imagination

Let’s talk about moral philosophy!

During my too many years of post high school education I got to know several philosophers as well as I could bear, and in all that time never met a moral philosopher. So it strikes me as a relatively unexplored field. That attracts me. It’s fun to shine light into previously unseen dark nooks of the world.

What I especially don’t see in what passes for moral philosophy is the flip side of moralizing: they’ll devote pages and pages telling me what I MUST or MUST NOT do, but never offer any ideas about making morality fun. What kind of philosophy is it that won’t tell you how to have a good time?

An unimaginative philosophy, that’s what. It’s an ingredient missing in most accounts of moral philosophy: they account for human failings, but not for human potential. You’d think that imagination plays no role at all in real world moral considerations, when it’s actually everything.

In fact some of the most interesting real world squabbles arise from conflicting imaginings of potential good. An interesting case has arisen in NYC’s East Village. For some time a Mr. Gregg Singer, a real estate developer, has wanted to replace an old East Village public school with a 19-story college dormitory. But locals have resisted, and now P.S. 64 has been declared a historical landmark.

That made Mr. Singer mad. While he sued the city to get the ruling overturned, he announced he would meanwhile use a previously obtained permit to strip the building of its ornamentation and promised to start up a new homeless service on the premises. He created a website showcasing the homeless agency he would start, naming it the “Christotora Treatment Corporation.” The name imitates the name of the Christodora Condominiums, where some of his local opponents live.

Gregg Singer claimed to have been inspired by the knowledge that the condominiums had long ago been a settlement house, established to serve the poor, and by the fact that his own Great Grandfather Louis Singer had once established a shelter for the elderly. But he has made it clear that his intent is to get East Village residents to side with his original plans by exploiting their NIMBY fears of the homeless. As he says of the battered woman who graces the front page of his website, “Yeah – she’s a bum.”

What we have here is imagination at work in unfolding history.

Settlement houses were themselves a work of moral imagination. The idea was that people who were so rich they had nothing but free time could move into poor neighborhoods and set up services for the poor neighbors.

Gentrification is an imaginative evil spawn of the idea of settlement houses. Once you can get rich people to come in to a neighborhood to help the poor, you can get more rich people to move in next to the first rich people, to displace the poor. Pretty soon no poor, not in that neighborhood anyway. Imagine that! People do imagine it, and many go on to the idea that they’re entitled to gentrification, entitled to live without any trace of poverty around them, and NIMBYism is born.

Then comes Gregg Singer imagining NIMBYism forward, turning it into a weapon. His idea for Christotora also springs from knowing one way to make morality profitable, if not fun: there’s money in selling shelter spaces to large non-profit corporations. Not as much as the money you can get from selling dorm spaces to non-profit universities, but it will do as an alternative. Hey, anyway, if you get enough money you can buy the fun, right?

Only the imagining doesn’t stop there. This is the East Village we’re talking about, not Boring Heights. They LIKE the shelter plans; they can see a great future in it. The residents of the condo are even lining up to volunteer at the promised shelter! What book on moral philosophy could have prepared you for that outcome?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Step Up to the Hate

“Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a humor column about hate crimes out of my hat!” “That’s not a humor column, Bullwinkle!”

OK, hate crimes aren’t remotely funny. I think that’s a given. But hate can be amusing. For example, I have come to realize over the years that my hatred for Steven G., who was my next-door neighbor when I was 11, has assumed comic proportions. That’s because, in the 45 years since he got two buddies to hold me down so he could punch me in the face without getting punched back, Steven G. has become my personal metaphor for all that is evil in the world. While others denounce Satan, I denounce Steven G.

Some days I spend hours thinking up delicious revenges upon Steven G. I imagine Steven G. coming to my building to see me, to ask if I could come out to play, just like he always used to do. And I would say no just like I always did, because even before the punching incident I hated him, because all he wanted me to do was come outside and worship him, and be dazzled by the cool way he dressed, and be awed by how many girls he promised he would have in the coming years, once he had managed to have any; that was his idea of “playing,” and I despise being that bored.

So in my fantasies I would say no, but Steven G. wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, just like every day 45 years ago. But, unlike 45 years ago, this time I would get all Quentin Tarantino on his ass. Oh, yes, I’d come out to play all right. “Bring it on, Stevie G., I’m coming out to play! Look, Stevie G., I have a pound of peeled garlic, a vice, a couple of crowbars, and a tube of Super Glue! Guess what game were going to play!”

My point is that hate can be amusing because it’s just an emotion. It’s not whether you hate; it’s whether and how you act on it. Since I haven’t yet really stuffed a pound of peeled garlic up Steven G.’s nostrils, or done the other things with the vice, etc., thinking about it can still be entertaining.

Here’s a purely rhetorical question: If hate crimes are bad because they involve hate, does that mean that stalking, a “love crime,” is good?

Seriously, no, it doesn’t. But the question might help explain why the general public is confused about the issue. People are constantly writing to tell editors of newspapers, “We don’t need hate crime legislation; all violent crimes are hate crimes, therefore all violent crimes should be treated the same.”

Here’s the difference: if I Super Glue Steven G.’s face to the front of his tight, purple, package-revealing, hip-huggers, I will have committed an act of violence against one Steven G., but I will not have terrorized all Steven G.s everywhere in the process.

If I had my way, advocates for hate crime legislation would stop using the term “hate crime” and start talking about terrorism. The reason the crimes call for more severe penalties is that they are acts of terrorism against groups. The immediate victim is intended to represent the rest of the group and the crime meant to terrorize the whole group.

Until I get my way, It would really help the debate if opponents of hate crime legislation would stop attacking the misnomer, and deal with the real purpose of the proposed laws. “Why make hate a crime?” makes as much sense as “Why do we have anti-trust laws? Isn’t trusting good?”

Here’s an unfunny factoid: Right now, in this country, homeless people are being murdered, for being homeless, at a rate (per their total numbers, per year) comparable to the rate at which Blacks were lynched between 1882 and 1968. America commits its pogroms on a personal scale, one at a time, up close.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Magic, Mushroomed

As many of you know, I am not currently homeless. I am in a 52-unit DESC building very similar to the one DESC, the Downtown Emergency Service Center, is proposing to create in Rainier Valley, and it really ticks me off to hear that some residents out there think people like me wouldn’t make good enough neighbors. So I bet you think that I, director of Rant Central, will write about that.

Ha! Fooled you. No, I chose to take my blood pressure meds early this morning, and focus my thoughts on sweet things like baby bunnies, adult bunnies, pretty flowers, and dead Eyman-initiatives. And with my thoughts so cleansed and cheerified I chose to use the remainder of my space to cherish the magic.

I was inspired to do this when DESC workers delivered a brand new “Magic Chef” refrigerator to the woman that drew me to my housing, Anitra “Co-Conspirator” Freeman, and she said, “What’s magic about it? It’s not even energy-efficient! Doesn’t DESC know they’re wasting power and money by buying cheap energy-inefficient refrigerators?”

Poor, poor, jaded Anitra does not see the magic! Here she has a box that sucks invisible stuff out of the wall and turns it into coldness! You don’t have to feed it ice to keep the inside cold! In fact if you give it water it will turn it, magically, into ice!

There is so much magic in our lives. Our running water for example. We have a cold stream and a hot stream in our apartments! Right inside our apartments! Next to our toilets!

Thinking about these things made the weird neurons in my head (the ones in the back) zap my amygdala, or so it felt. I was motivated to ask, “What’s the most magical thing ever in all of our lives?”

The answer I gave myself was, “Volition.” I didn’t have to give myself that answer; I did it anyway, because I WANTED to. Isn’t that amazing?

People can make choices, then tell themselves -- tell their own dumb bodies -- to do what they decide, and their dumb bodies do it! Like magic! It goes on all the time every day, week after week, year after year!

I’ll give some examples. I’ll give you a second to contemplate baby bunnies before reading them.

Right. Lt. Ehren Watada became a Lieutenant of his own free will, by enlisting in the Army in 2003, by some accounts AFTER the Iraq War started. Now by his own free will he is ready to go to prison for refusing to join in that war. And he probably WILL go to prison! Volition: magic!

Here’s another example: The United States Senate consented overwhelmingly (89-2) to the UN Charter in the summer of 1945, making the UN Charter a part of US law. Since then there has been only sporadic and relatively insignificant popular protest of that action. So it can safely be said that the vast majority of the current populace of the US either agrees that the UN Charter should be US law, or is too apathetic to give a damn one way or another. Volition: magic!

Of course, that means that it is “our” choice, the freely-willed choice of this vast majority, that preemptive wars be illegal. Our government signed it in 1945, and we have since, as a people, freely consented to it! We’re enlisted! When does the warmaker go to prison? Volition: magic!

One more example. Pharmacists on the Washington State Pharmacy Board want to give pharmacists in the state the power to refuse lawfully prescribed medicines, when they feel like it, one at a time, just by referring patients to another pharmacist, who could also refer them to another, and another -- effectively depriving the patients of THEIR power to make the moral choice themselves, and violating the principle, “my body, my choice, you bastards.”

Yo, Pharmacists, you enlisted! If you don’t like the duty, you can will yourselves to resign. Volition: magic!

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

It's on the Tip of My Tongue...

What should we call our new form of government?

This can’t be a Republic any more. I’d say the Republic died November 4, 1952, when Truman let the National Security Agency start up without the knowledge of the citizens or most of Congress, but that’s just me.

Some other folks say the Republic ended the first time Congress neglected to either declare or put a stop to a war. Others blame Congress for a hundred years of dragging its heels on civil rights legislature forcing the people to fall back on the courts. Unexpected results: (1) George Bush, 5-4, 2000. (2) The Eminent Domain Principle neutered, 5-4, 2005. (3) The obliteration of First Amendment rights enabling public employees to protect the public, 5-4, last week.

Need more proof? Our executive branch now conducts searches without warrants and regularly tries to deny habeas corpus. Our elected president abuses signing statements to excuse the selective enforcement of laws, openly defying the power of Congress to make those laws.

It’s now deemed illegal to exercise the right of free speech except in a “free speech zone.” Military funerals have been nationally designated, now and forever, as free from free speech. Cries of “Protestor!” from security at the president’s appearances are signals to use violent force to remove and arrest such people as wear anti-Bush T-shirts, who are treated as enemies of the state.

Many have already been asking the question I began with, and come up with ideas of their own. Some say we should imitate Rome and call our government Empire. I think that the Romans were not precise enough; yes, it was an empire, but it was so much more. Let’s be precise where the Romans weren’t, because we care more about who we are.

Some say we now have a Fascist government. They point first to Mussolini’s definition: the repudiation of pacifism, the glorification of war, the claim to nevertheless be pro-life, the rejection of class struggle and explicit rejection of collective responsibility, the idea that citizens need to be preemptively deprived of freedoms that might only potentially be “harmful,” and the right of the state to assert itself in the world, by virtue of its power.

If all that doesn’t get you to buy the name, proponents point to Dr. Lawrence Britt’s Fourteen Defining Characteristics of Fascism, all of which apply to our government, from (1) “Powerful and Continuing Nationalism,” (2) “Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights,” all the way through to (13) “Rampant Cronyism and Corruption” and even (14) “Fraudulent Elections.” (Note the universal use by both parties of gerrymandering to lock incumbents into office -- a war on the representational system.)

I don’t think we should call our government Fascist, even if it fit everyone’s definition, because Fascism comes from the Italian Fascismo, and by golly, we speak American here. So we should have our own American name for our form of government.

“Totalitarianism” is technically valid, but like “Empire” hardly descriptive enough, and our leadership is not so narrow as the kind of one party dictatorship the term usually conjures up. George-Dick Bush-Cheney is not solely in control. He/it has to share power with Judge Roberts, Exxon, Halliburton and even some Democrats, like Zell Miller, for example.

So we would need to refer to what we have as some kind of oligarchy, but what kind is it?

For a clue I looked up the origin of the word “Republic.” It comes from the Latin res (meaning “thing” or “matter”) + public (meaning “public.”) So it means a Public Thing. Clearly, what we’ve got now is no kind of Public Thing. What we’ve got is a secret, private thing. We have a government of dissembling and disguise.

So my own recommendation is (tada!): Redissimulation.

Here it is, used in a sentence:

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to The Redissimulation for which it stands, one oligarchy under Bush’s imaginary God, entrenched and unaccountable, with liberty and justice, but not for long.