Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Hedgehog Used to Inflict Column

I'm going to waste this entire column talking about foxes and hedgehogs. This is not as perverse as it sounds. Last week my topic of discussion (unpopular political endorsers) left me scant few options when it came to illustrating my on-line "bloggerized" version of the column. This week I will have recourse to many public domain photos of adorable fox kits and hedge-piglets.

An ancient Greek poet (Archilochus) once said, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." I first heard this expression decades ago when it was used by a math professor of mine to classify famous dead mathematicians. Lately I have found it useful to recall the saying to answer the question I sometimes get: "What sort of mathematician were you?" In the past I would describe my actual work, launching into a set one hour introductory lecture on 2-dimensional cell complexes with finite fundamental group, and so cause the questioner to turn into glass and smash herself against a wall. Now I just say, "I was the fox sort." I knew a little bit about a lot of stuff, and relied on swiftly pouncing on opportunities.

I admit to having always held a certain contempt for hedgehogs. A hedgehog probability theorist, catching me reading out of a book on organic chemistry, told me, "Why do you bother with that? Since all chemistry reduces to elementary particle physics, and all elementary particle physics reduces to quantum probabilities, you should devote your life to studying only probability theory, as I have." I told him he was a fool. Thanks to me, he saw the error of his ways, quit math, and is now a highly successful proctologist. Hedgehogs, you may notice, have tiny, tiny, eyes. They have no need for the big eyes of a fox, since they already know everything they think matters.

The biggest trouble with being a hedgehog is that if you rely for guidance on the One Great Truth that you have determined through your One Great Prior Revelation, you can find yourself down a nasty Darwinian dead end when the One Great Truth turns out to be either insufficiently eternal or universal.

I actually was brought to the subject by a news story out of New Zealand (the same country that was terrorized by the fake suicide-bomber chicken a few years back) entitled, "Hedgehog used in non-lethal assault." By the way, I have a lot of respect for copy editors. That, in my opinion, is some damn fine titling. Not, "Hedgehog used in assault." That doesn't cut it. "Hedgehog used in non-lethal assault." By all means, we should be told at once, before any further reading, that the victim survived having had a hedgehog flung at him at high velocity.

Interestingly, it turns out that some hedgehogs, if approached by a predator, will even throw themselves at it, back first, in self defense. That plus running away and curling up into a ball form is, loosely speaking, the one big thing. Have quills, will prick. Or, run away. It's really 2 things, but Archilochus was writing poetry.

I think the hedgehog wielded by the assailant of the story served not only as a weapon, but also as a metaphor for the assailant himself. The assailant knows one big thing, namely if someone is annoying you, you can throw something at him.

I thought of hedgehogs again, especially hedgehogs curling up into balls, when I read this in the Seattle Times about the opposition of some Magnolia residents to plans to house homeless people there:

"At one community meeting, some residents... rolled their eyes when city officials asserted that such housing increases property values."

Hedgehogs in the worst way. They've never had formerly homeless people living in secure housing in their neighborhood before (or anyway, not since their ancestors drove the Indians off that used to live and fish there), but they already "know" all they need to know about them.

Quills up, stomach in.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Presidential Game

I have a new game. I watch the presidential campaign news with half my brain shut down. I don't need illegal drugs, I have a natural gift! Besides, my doctors prescribe brain-shutting-down medicine, because it makes me so darn happy. They've seen me not happy, and it wasn't pretty.

[Right: Me not happy, from the Wes Archives.]

So let's put those filters up and examine the 2008 presidential race not with our right brains or our left brains, but with our leftover brains!

I was especially excited last week when McCain camp said Obama isn't fit to be president because the leaders of Hamas have said he's the Cat's Meow. The exact quote used was a statement by Ahmed Yousef who said in an interview: “We don’t mind — actually we like Mr. Obama. We hope he will [win] the election and I do believe he is like John Kennedy, he is like Kennedy, the Cat's Meow. Of course Kennedy loved Israel and would have despised us and crushed us militarily, but hey, he was American, you take what you can get."

Subsequently McCain deflected similar charges against him by sort of renouncing his endorsement from John Hagee, the man who said "Everybody gets me wrong when I say the Catholic Church is the Great Whore. I didn't mean ALL of the Catholic Church, just most of it. Gee, lighten up people." McCain says he still likes Hagee 'cause he has that old-timey religion, but he now acknowledges that Hagee is political rat-bait. His exact words (this part I'm not making up!), in response to being asked whether it was a mistake to accept Hagee's endorsement were, "oh, probably, sure." He then went on to say that, still, he was "glad to have his endorsement."

In other election news, Hillary Clinton has charged Obama as being "out of touch" for saying working class Americans are bitter. She went on to explain, "Where was he when they came out with Prozac? I've been using it since I married Bill! Bitter? Who, me?"

Speaking of questionable endorsements, Hillary Clinton has been endorsed by none other than the ring-leader of the vast right-wing conspiracy, conservative billionaire publisher Richard Mellon Scaife, who sank millions of dollars into the effort to keep Whitewater alive. Tomorrow Barrack Obama will charge that Clinton is unfit to be president because, "That is just so whacked."

In the latest news, upon hearing Obama say that McCain would be a better president than Bush, Clinton responded with, "We need a nominee who will take on John McCain, not cheer on John McCain." McCain responded with, "We need a nominee who is John McCain; and let me tell you, I am not bitter either." Hamas responded with, "John McCain is better than Bush, but he is no John Kennedy. We never knew John Kennedy, but, look at McCain, he is surely no John Kennedy." Hagee responded with, "John Kennedy is just what we don't need. We need a candidate that won't suck at the tits of the Great Whore. I did NOT just say John Kennedy would have sucked at the tits of the Great Whore. We need John McCain." Richard Mellon Scaife responded to that with, "Twinkle twinkle little bat."

Questions for Further Abuse

1. Turn to your neighbor on your right and explain to him or her how the identity of endorsers became more important than all other issues such as the economy, the war(s), health care, homelessness, the environment, education, racism, energy, or food prices. If you have no neighbor on your right, talk to the wall until the bell rings.

2. Compare and contrast the odiousness of endorsements from Hamas, Hagee, and Scaife. Remember, comparisons themselves are odious, so wash your hands after.

3. Obtain drug treatment if necessary. Then, when you are clean and sober, listen to Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues on a continuous loop for five hours. Now you're clean and sober, and nevertheless half your brain is out to lunch. See? I told you it was possible.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Whereas, Sniggling Happens

I just spent way too much of my life rooting through 7 recently released city documents concerning "Unauthorized Camping on City Property" looking for the pony they promised, and all I found was manure.

Greg J Nickels has done it again. Another fine act of propaganda backing up a policy of cruelty serving greed.

If you've been overseas for fifteen months and just got back, here's a refresher. Sometime a year or more ago (nobody's quite sure when) Greg Nickels decided the old protocols for clearing homeless people off city land weren't good enough. So he instituted new protocols without telling the public that hired him and pays him, and without telling the city council that has a duty to oversee city affairs. When the public found out, it was only because reports of excessive sweeps prompted resort to the Freedom of Information Act, not because Greg Nickels was suddenly struck by a sense of duty. The information had to be forced from his administration, and details are still missing, and we've got no apologies yet for the trouble of squeezing what little we got out of them.

So anyway, people found out what the new protocols were and a lots got angry, and demanded answers. So Greg Nickels arranged for them to vent at city department heads. People packed a big room at the Seattle Center and one after another stood up and voiced outrage at the homeless sweeps procedures. Nickels himself didn't have the decency to be there. No apology for that either.

It was part of a belated "comment period." The comment period ended almost as soon as it began, time passed, and now, New and Improved Homeless Harassment!

It's "better" because it takes longer! That's the whole improvement. It's like "Please don't run me over with that truck!" "How about if I take three times as long to run you over with this truck?" "Oh yes!! Thank you, kind sir."

NO THANK YOU!! The whole new protocol starts out with a bunch of Whereas-s that put out the same lie that the old protocols put out. The city is doing enough to end homelessness to justify cracking down on campers. IT IS NOT.

The big propaganda: The city will add 20 new shelter beds right away.

Brilliant. That's a whole 1.7% increase in shelter beds, in Seattle. The King County Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, which the city has bragged endlessly about signing on with, requires King County's shelter bed count frozen at 2006 numbers, so I suppose those 20 beds will have to come from Renton or Burien. Meanwhile, January's One Night Count found over 2600 people sleeping outside. If they all had to use the city's generous new shelter beds, they'd each get to lie down 11 minutes every day.

You'll be hearing about the city's new definition of encampment that comes along with its New and Improved Homeless Harassment. That's because it defines a homeless encampment using such exacting legalistic language as "identifiable area" and camps being within "approximately" 300 feet.

I can't resist sniggling like the nerdy mathematician I am and pointing out that any one pair of nearby campers in Seattle, combined with any other one pair of nearby campers anywhere else in Seattle, would meet the city's idiotic definition of an encampment, because the rule only says each camper has to be close to one other in the group, not close to all in the group, and Seattle itself is an identifiable area. (So's planet Earth.) And, oh yes, two pair makes four, which is more than three.

This says it all: The Human Services Department ("Investing in People") has provided directions to the Westbridge storage facility, where those homeless people will have to go to retrieve their confiscated belongings. The protocol specifically excludes car campers from the procedures it lists. But the directions are solely for drivers.

What a failure to imagine the real lives and hardships of the people they are abusing.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Don't Need No Giraffe

At the risk of frightening away some righties, I'm going to admit, just for today, to being a lefty, and talk about lefty political strategy.

I want to talk about a subject we lefties (speaking about myself, not Real Change) feel a little uncomfortable talking about. For us, talking about this subject is like priests talking about sobriety, or social conservatives talking about chastity, because it deals with a value we cherish far more in theory than practice. I am speaking of solidarity.

Solidarity was invented as solidarité by French lefties gearing up for the French Revolution. Being a colossal dramatic mess that got everyone's attention, the French Revolution branded revolutions. So whenever anyone talked about revolutions, up until that even messier one in 1917, some form of French was needed. Had the 1917 revolution been the brand we'd be talking splochennost.

When lefties imagine social, political, or economic reform, they usually think of the word "revolution" as the Marseillaise marches through their synapses, even when they aren't thinking of armed revolution. It has become a metaphor for change itself. That's the power of a good brand.

Solidarity can be an organizing goal. If you want a revolution, you want it to succeed. So you want all the allies you can get. So you organize across classes, ethnic groups, occupations, and religions, to get the broadest possible base of support. Ideally the base should be 100%, so there won't be any resistance to the revolution at all. This never happens, because Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin always wreck it.

I'm personally all for cross-class solidarity, so long as I don't have to use salad forks, or eat snails. Where it starts getting trickier is where we are talking about solidarity in opposition, AKA the unified front.

The way the unified front works, we all have to march together in the same direction to the same beat and shout the same slogans in unison, or we're being obstructionists, or even counter-revolutionary. We have to speak the same speeches, and use the same talking points.

The idea that good working solidarity requires a unified front has gained support among lefties in recent years owing to the remarkable success that the Bush administration has had employing it. Bush got us into an amazingly unnecessary and illegal war, just by having his chorus of ninnies repeat "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud" over and over again.

But just because someone else has succeeded in building a house out of discarded toilet bowls, doesn't mean you "need" to build your house out of discarded toilet bowls. Just because the Ponzi scheme works for Ponzi, doesn't mean it works for you. Just because Michael Jackson got himself a giraffe by being pale, doesn't mean you "need" to be pale, or that you "need" yourself a giraffe. The unified front is not, strategically, the best front, although it may be the best front the Bush administration can manage. For the rest of us, though, working with what we have, we need multiple voices.

In fact, speaking in unison, in one voice, defeats the whole purpose of having solidarity. If you all say the same thing together it sounds like one speaker blessed with an amplifier. Who, with a brain, listening to the Bush administration, doesn't hear it as just one person with many mouths? The only question is, which person is it? Cheney?

What we need, as a mass movement, is to appear as a mass movement, by speaking with all our voices.

Questions for Further Discussion

1. Name three French things about revolution other than solidarité. The word "revolución" may be one of them, I don't know.

2. Research topic: Find an article by Michelle Malkin, and try to justify it in public. Let us know how that went.

3. The author was planning to mention madrigals and Renaissance polyphony. Pretending to be one or both of your parents, write that paragraph for him.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Free Thinkers

People will believe anything they want to believe. For example, some people want to believe that I am high when I write these columns. Nothing could be further from the truth!

The truth: Every Sunday I turn in early for what I call a "pre-column nap", also known as "sobering". When I've napped enough, I get up to write this thing, usually just before dawn Monday, running entirely on reheated coffee. I don't touch a drop of hooch until at least 350 words have been written and not even then until the precise moment that I can see clearly how the thing will end. Then, I do a little noa noa, open the fridge, break the taboo, and get me a cold beer.

Some people want to believe that it matters that Chelsea Clinton thinks Mom would make a better president than Dad did. I think they're wrong. Matters of such consequence should only be decided by a vote. We should have a national election at a cost of a hundred million dollars, with Bill and Hillary the only candidates. We should vote as a nation, to decide which one of the two would be the better next president. The winner would get a cover on People Magazine. Then, in November, we'd have an election to pick an actual next president. That would be the democratic way to decide. America has no royal family.

A lot of people want to believe in Heaven. I agree there should be a place where people who take religion too seriously should go. I think all the hype on behalf of Heaven is done so those people will go willingly. They'd kick up a fuss if they saw too soon that the gates lock only from the outside.

There's people (anthropologists!) who wanted, as of 1920 or so, that teenagers in "primitive, unspoiled, cultures" were as sexually promiscuous as unleashed rabbits, because a chain of reasoning from there would have it justify something called cultural determinism. They wanted to believe the cultural determinism because a) it kept annoying biologists out of their college departments, b) if culture shapes human behavior then anthropologists are the new social engineers, and c) it paved the way for 1950s PSAs, Soviet Five Year Plans, and Dr. Spock, all good. So Margaret Mead went to Samoa and believed.

Because the Dalai Lama is coming to Seattle, I am every day hearing more and more fascinating beliefs concerning Tibet and the Mr. Lama that turn out only to betray the ultimate wishes of the believers. A self-proclaimed devout Christian said yesterday in my presence she would not go see the Dalai Lama because, "They drill holes in the heads of young monks and lock them in caves for a couple of years. That's not Christian." It's not only not Christian, it's not anything. Tibetan Buddhists speak metaphorically of the opening up of the head during spiritual awakening. But there's no drill involved, unless you want there to be a drill so bad you take the metaphor literally, in which case there has to be a drill, right?

Sometimes you can witness the beliefs turning with the winds. Michael Parenti, who is quite progressive, has written a tract concerning the Tibet of the 1940s and before with Medieval Europe, touching on documented tortures, mutilations, religious wars, priests raping youths, feudal oppression, etc. Oh, yes, and the CIA gave the Dalai Lama money. It's all bad, and so the arrival of the Maoist Chinese was a liberation, right? But at the end, Parenti says old Tibet may start looking better than it was, compared to the new free market China! Whatever!

If the CIA offered me money, I'd take it. More for me, less for them. And what kind of liberation is unasked for?

Here at home, some people want homeless people to be criminals. Our government obliges by making homelessness criminal, while homeowners rest smug and satisfied that THEY aren't sleeping illegally in parks.

Praise Lager!