Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I've Copped Feels

Disclaimer: I suck at philosophy.

I learned this crucial fact in my first college class of my first day in college. I was enrolled in what I would now call Philosophy 101. The professor, whom I would now call Baldy, told us at the outset that every freshman who had enrolled in the course expecting an easy breezy A writing incoherent papers dripping existential BS would show themselves most philosophic by dropping the course immediately. I stayed. As a result, 32 years later, I still wake up shuddering from a recurring nightmare in which I am called upon to write one single correct sentence explaining the point of Socrates' dialog with Gorgias, and then the horror continues on, as I realize I can't do it wide awake either.

I spent 5 weeks not learning anything about said dialog and spent the remainder of the course not learning anything about John Stuart Mill's Liberty and Henry David Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience. I really had high hopes for Thoreau's dealy, because the book was just the kind I like, being small in all three dimensions and exceedingly light. But all I could come up with when called upon to explain what I had read was some 500 words to the effect that civil disobedience was a really nifty idea.

I think part of the problem was that Mr. Thoreau's examples were chosen from a time I had not existed. If he had used examples from, like, you know, now, it would have made more sense.

I have since acquired a better feel for the subject of civil disobedience. I have copped a feel, you could say. I would like to share, in a little Socratic exercise.

I will cite three examples from times when I have existed. My apologies to younger people who missed these. 1) Rosa Parks won't get up for white people, 1955. 2) Dr. Michael Lippman spraypaints a Seattle Camel cigarette billboard to say "... a whole new world OF CANCER", 1986. 3) Cheney and friends torture detainees for half this decade or more.

I'll start with the last first. Cheney's justification for waterboarding, etc., is straight out of Civil Disobedience For Dummies. In essence: "Yes, we signed and ratified treaties outlawing it. Yes, (perhaps) those treaties have therefore the force of law, in accordance with our Constitution. But when American lives are at stake, a Higher Law must prevail." Cheney imagines himself as a Rosa Parks of a Post 9-11 World, innocent by virtue of bravely defying an unreasonable and unjust law for the sake of the people, to save lives. The torture memos were just a hedge allowing the "(perhaps)" to be inserted.

Dr. Lippman was caught and charged with a misdemeanor. He pled innocent on the grounds that cancer kills and cigarettes cause cancer and only by making that warning in large letters on that billboard could lives be saved. The law that said he may not deface that billboard, as it was someone else's property, had to give way to a Higher Good. He was innocent by virtue of defying a petty and unreasonable law unjust in its application, in order to save lives. And now nobody smokes.

Many liberals in Seattle then compared Lippman to Rosa Parks. To those of you too young to recall and who haven't had the history lesson, in 1955 Rosa Parks deliberately violated a law that said that a non-white person seated on a bus had to give up their seat to white people when told to do so by the driver, just as if all white people were disabled. She did it because the law was wrong, and she jailed and later convicted of disorderly conduct and fined. And now we have a black president.

So here's the deal. Before you can pass Practical Philosophy For Everyday Applications, you have to figure out whether these are all justified uses of civil disobedience, and if one or two are not, why not?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Swamp & Circumstance

I don't usually like to write about my current life. My life is like the lives of most people, in that it resembles a game of pick-up sticks. I'm afraid anything I say about it will throw the delicate balance off and the whole mess will come tumbling down.

Also, a lot of my current life, like the current lives of most people, consists not of detached documented fact and learned history, but of rumors and speculations, guided by feelings that reek of self-interest and last night's chili. I don't know what's happening or why. I don't know if they're out to get me or if it's my neighbor they want.

Sometimes, though, my current life gets all up in my face, and I feel compelled to stare it back down while typing about it with one hand behind my back.

So, lately, on Sundays I've been opening the Real Change office to vendors, for two hours. This has been going on ever since last fall. It is a fact that Anitra "As Seen On The Amy Goodman Show" Freeman and I come to the office Sundays. I sit behind the desk selling papers to the vendors. In case you haven't heard yet, your vendor pays 35 cents for this paper. At the same time that I'm handling the papers, Anitra is usually on a computer alternately killing Balrogs and writing devastating critiques of the political views of sadly misinformed people, while being on call to run to the back for supplies.

A typical exchange. Me: "WE NEED SUGAR, ANITRA! CAN YOU GET SOME SUGAR? PLEASE!" Her, from across the room, "JUST A MINUTE, I'M IN THE MIDDLE OF SOMETHING!" Ten minutes later, the vendors have sugar for their coffee. I drink mine black. Life goes on.

That's the documented and certain core of my Sundays. What else happens is morass. Swamp and circumstance.

This past Sunday started well. Everyone was psyched that Real Change had been written up twice in the mainstream news last week, once for rocking in general, and once for rocking specifically because our writer, the lovely and talented Rosette "XXX Cupcake" Royale, won a major national award. For his writing! Vendors were selling Real Changes out of their right hands, holding Rosette's picture on page B1 of the Seattle Times in their left.

Before I could start selling, one of the staff phones began ringing. We let it go to voice mail. It rang again. So Anitra picked it up. As I run back and forth I see a look on her face that tells me something bad has happened. I'm wondering what it could be. Did someone get arrested? Am I going to be arrested?

A week earlier a vendor was badly beaten. What now? While I'm trying to figure this out, I can't just ask Anitra what's up. I have to be all about, "5 papers is $1.75," "8 dollars and a nickel gets you 23," "I'll take badge numbers for chores in 7 minutes 33 seconds," and, "Don't use the microwave until the coffee is done; the fuse will blow."

It's especially disturbing that the phone that rang too much that Anitra was on was our vendor coordinator's phone. I had heard that Michael had been hit by a car recently. I thought he was OK. Was I wrong?

Finally, Anitra came off the phone, and walked to the front of the office, and told us that Michael had died in his sleep.

Michael had been vendor #9347 before he was hired to be vendor coordinator. His two pet rats are sharing our director's office because the place where Michael has been staying wouldn't allow them. One time I had a bird in the office. A couple of years ago at a staff and vendor retreat, Michael and I were paired off during one exercise to tell each other our life stories. We both ran overtime. Ever since then, I've known him forever. Everyone should.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Homeless Don't Belong Near Homes?

I just took an online quiz to find out how Malaysian I am. I am 25% Malaysian, it said. That's good to know, isn't it? We all struggle with our identities. Now if I can only figure out what my other three quarters are.

One of the things I've struggled with is how liberal or conservative I am. I've decided those labels are used wrongly all the time. I've decided I am both conservative and liberal, and everyone who isn't both simultaneously is a fool.

Some self-identified conservatives are saying Obama makes America look weak by admitting to other nations that we have made mistakes in the past. How is it conservative to go around saying you have never made mistakes? That's not a political stance at all, it's a character flaw.

Other "conservatives" are saying both that "getting through this recession will take sacrifices from everyone" and that "taxing the rich more is not the answer." Taken separately these do indeed resemble familiar conservative propositions. But together they just prove a kind of schizophrenia. What sacrifices are the rich going to make if not higher taxes? Should we draft them for a shovel-and-pick carrying economic army, a mandatory public works program for the super rich? Will Bill Gates and Paul Allen and friends lay the asphalt for the new Mercer Boulevard? Oh please, say it's so.

The poor, in fact, are sacrificing already, by being poor and getting poorer. So for the "sacrifices from everyone" to ever kick in, the rich have to sacrifice. Again, what? Well, what do they have? Duh, money.

Here's your conservatism: You pick the country you want to live in and you pay for it. You want an America that looks like a Third World country? Fine, that's free. We can abolish all taxes and you can have pregnant barefoot beggars on every street corner. You want an America that has a middle class to aspire to, and HDTVs for all the masses, to keep the revolutions in check, and restore the consumer class to buy the crap your overseas factories make? That's extra.

I started down this rant because of another "Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY)" story in the news. The NIMBYs this time were residents of Ferndale, Minnesota. A church there wants to set up a daytime service for homeless people, and the neighbors said, "Homeless people don't belong in a residential neighborhood."

Would that be a conservative position? It's a call back to a simpler time, certainly, when people could say things like "[insert plural of racial epithet] don't belong in a residential neighborhood" and not have to mumble or hide their heads in shame among their white brethren, but it is a slander against conservatism to equate bigotry with the philosophy just because conservatism means to conserve values and bigotry has been a past and passed-up value.

Real conservatism should mean to conserve good values, only. My ancestors, and yours too, if you go back about two hundred generations, valued their enemies' heads for trophies, hearts for food, women for two minutes, and their children for slaves. But those are not values that any non-criminals now want to conserve, so we can remove those values from the discussion of what conservatism means.

Can we please do that with the NIMBYs' "values" too? If homeless people don't belong in any residential neighborhood, where the freaking hell do they belong? A swamp? A big pit with a lid on it? This is not a conservation of a good value; this is just plain asinine unreflective boneheadedness.

Of course they belong in a residential neighborhood, they're residents of this land, they're human beings, humans make neighborhoods. The value you need to conserve is the value of humanity and neighborliness. You let them into your neighborhood and you help them not be homeless, and when you have succeeded in helping them not be homeless, voila! -- no homeless people in your neighborhood!

Done the right way.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Resistance Is Futile

A lot of people believe Greg Nickels is Absolute Ruler of Seattle, maybe because he makes policies without consulting the rest of our alleged government or us, or because he nevertheless uses the royal "we" constantly. But no! It isn't true because sometimes he doesn't immediately get his way. It can take up to a year.

For example, Seattle was put on track to charge 20 cents per plastic grocery bag by the start of this year. But the American Chemistry Council stopped it with a petition. Turns out there was no shortage of people who didn't want to pay a tax without any prior public discussion.

So at this writing the Seattle City Council is poised to vote to let voters vote on whether the plastic grocery bag tax will happen, so that the voters will have the opportunity to bow to Greg Nickels' will on this issue, so that he can get more creds for being the nation's greenest mayor, and so maybe get a bigger plaque. Or maybe he could land a job in Washington, D.C., coming up with better ways to manage their waste -- not a bad outcome.

Meanwhile, it doesn't work that way. That is, if the city council votes to not have a vote, or if they have the vote and the voters say no to the proposed tax, the tax will happen anyway, because it's already been decided. The fact is, Mayor Nickels is going to get his creds if he has to get on his knees to beg Paul Allen to buy an election for him.

The opinion just asserted, that the fix is in, that it's always in, can neither be proved nor disproved, because nobody in or out of Seattle's government really knows what goes on there. This is not entirely because information isn't public, or the dog ate it. It's because you can't access it unless you know whom to ask, the one thing nobody in government can ever tell you.

It's as if you have a hundred experts and one simple question, like, "¿Dónde está el baño?", and you have to go down the line asking one after another, because there's no one designated "expert expert" to tell you which expert has the answer. And then he says his dog ate it.

After minutes of hard thinking I have come up with two insights regarding this matter.

I got this insight while riding on a bus: If our government had an expert expert, or a central office to direct questions about the workings of our government, that would look at first like an addition to the bureaucracy, which you might think would slow government down. But actually, how cool would it be if all the city's departments and agencies could know what each other was doing? It would in fact save us all sorts of false starts, and speed things up!

It would also save time for the rest of us. For instance, we might ask the question, "Who are our true masters?" The expert expert could direct us to an official able to tell us that, since 1962, Seattle has been a ruled by an advance army of the Fat Faced Fungal Hordes from Crab Nebula. Then we could locate one of their representatives, learn that they wish us to pay the tax, and that if we did not we would be incinerated. Knowing that resistance is futile would be a huge time saver, and we could get back to doing what we really enjoy, trying to figure out which celebrity is most totally sexy.

My other insight is that, meanwhile, I have a lot of leeway describing what goes on around here.

As an example, did you know about the plan to raise the $64 million needed to fund the Mercer Street Project? To do it, they're going to sell Magnolia back to the Duwamish, who will use economic stimulus funds from the Obama Administration. Sounds like a win-win-win to me!