From the monthly archives: "March 2014"

DEA_badge_CDon’t celebrate the ceasefire until the prisoners are freed:

On March 13, the Colorado Court of Appeals issued a ruling that may provide a benefit for a small but not insignificant number of the people arrested for marijuana in the state. Brandi Jessica Russell had her 2011 conviction for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana overturned, and this precedent could be applied to other specific cases where the defendants had appeals in process when Colorado’s Amendment 64 passed in November 2012.

The victory will be small, since most people charged with drug possession plead out instead. But it’s progress. And in spite of some handwringing about the legal precedent set by retroactively applying a law by such dissenters as The Denver Posteditorial board, this is a good thing. As Tom Angell, the founder of the Marijuana Majority, told me by email, “The voters of Colorado … declared the war on marijuana a failure on Election Day 2012. It’s very good news that their sensible action at the ballot box will not only prevent more people from being arrested under senseless prohibition laws but will provide help to those who have been caught in the grips of those laws in years past.”

The rest over here

My pal Michael Challik, the great veteran “shooter” at KDKA TV and a born Dutchman, did me a great favor the other day by translating part of a video interview with Steinbeck-chaser Geert Mak.

Mak, a famous and renowned Dutch journalist/historian/author,  also retraced Steinbeck’s “Charley” route in the fall of 2010 and wrote a big fat, footnoted book that became a best-seller in Holland. Mak’s book, “Travels Without John in Search of America,” is being translated into English. Mak kindly mentions me about a dozen times, favorably.

Unfortunately, the book, like the video interview, is in Dutch.

Here’s a link to the video — Geert Mak talks about the journalism & politics of “Bill Steigerwald.”

And here’s the translation of the 5-minute video, courtesy of the kind Michael Challik:

 Geert Mak is lying awake thinking of the competition.

You think you have designed a great plan, but one afternoon in a little town, Lancaster, we were looking for a place John Steinbeck had stayed.  The night, a motel, pouring down rain, got out at a gas station, asked where is the motel from the 1960’s.  I can still see him, a hat on turned backwards, “Oh Steinbeck! Right?”

(The service station attendant continues.) “Yesterday, there was also somebody here.” So you think you’re the only one.  Real quickly Googled, wondering who that could be, and got the answer in about three minutes.  Bill Steigerwald, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, retired journalist.  Did exactly the same, except took off half-an-hour sooner.  We left at at 8:30…he left at 8, so we just missed him on the ferry to the mainland.

Bill wrote in his blog on the ferry at 8:45 where he met a third journalist, a guy called  John Woesdijk (sp?), who was walking the route with a dog for a dog magazine.  Later we found out that there was a fourth.  She was with the Washington Post with her Mum.  The last two I didn’t hear anything from again.  All four wanted to follow Steinbeck’s route, but Bill S., I must be honest, tried to follow Steinbeck’s whole route.  I must say I couldn’t agree with his political views, to say the least, but he did describe the route very precisely, like where Steinbeck bought his gun, with all kinds of movies, including if you would like to follow the route through his eyes.  I really recommend his website.

QUESTION: You didn’t have any contact with him?

ANSWER: Oh yeah, later on we talked a lot about it.  I really did want to talk to him because I really did find – even though he had opinions on     Obama, etc. – he was very dedicated, and he did it by himself, and he was the only one who     was roughing it, because Steinbeck stayed in hotels mostly.  Bill really roughed it out.  I got a lot of respect for him, but I thought the only thing I can do is to use him in my book…and so it goes.

But as soon as my book was finished, I wrote him – and he had also heard of me. He heard about a book in Holland, and we talked openly and frequently, and we are planning in our lives absolutely to come together, and with a great glass of beer and talk about world problems and solve them by the end of the afternoon.

QUESTION: He is an arch-conservative, right-winger Republican?

ANSWER: No, no!  He would get real mad if you tell him that, because he really didn’t like George W. Bush.  He is a Libertarian thinker.  No, No I am a half-Socialistic, latte drinking, French loving, Volvo driving, European.

So I was really different, but Steigerwald found out that Steinbeck said things in his book that were absolutely not true, and I also discovered that too.  Because if you follow Steinbeck’s journey you find, for instance, he went fishing a whole afternoon with a companion, and talks about his marriage etc., but supposedly on the same day when you follow his iterinerary he drove 400-450 miles.  You can’t be fishing in the beginning of the afternoon – and then drive 450-miles. So you find a lot of discrepancies.

15752340I have no idea why people join cults, and certainly the fear of cults as moral panic has caused its own misery (Waco being the most prominent example). But followers and leaders of Jonestown, The Family, Heaven’s Gate, and yes, the Branch Davidians themselves caused plenty of suffering. And every single survivor of these horrors that I have heard of speaks of their cults in the same fashion — they always say it was wonderful at first. They talk about how people loved each other so much.

I saw the ghastly Jonestown photos years before I learned that the members of the People’s Temple started out feeling as if they had found a place of benevolent communism and racial harmony. The Manson Family was hippie farm living for lost souls until it was stabbing Sharon Tate and painting the walls with her blood.

My mom is always skeptical about the trope of the neighbor who thought the BTK killer was just a charming fellow. She tends to think people can see who will go bad, or who always was bad, if they only look a little harder. But brainwashing works wonders, as does a mixture of kindness and cruelty and charisma. People join cults. People voted for Hitler. There’s got to be a reason, and we all endlessly wonder about the reason. Young Adult novels, with their angsty first person narratives and their action — not their “Oh my God, the suburbs are like, totally artificial, bro” whining — are a great format with which to explore why someone might give up their free will and what they do when it comes creeping back thanks to teenage hormones and rebellion.

In Gated, by Amy Christine Parker, our narrator is Lyla. Her parents, and her three friends, and the leader known as Pioneer are the main characters. Cute son of the local sheriff Cody is mostly a plot device for some serious faith questioning, but then, that’s lampshaded enough to be fairly unannoying. The whole idea there is that Lyla — “intended” toward her friend Will — has never had the pleasure of teenage attraction. It doesn’t matter if Cody is important himself, just that Lyla has been deprived of the pleasures of youth. Yes, all the teenagers in the cult are engaged to be married to someone picked by Pioneer, but this ain’t the Children of God or even the Branch Davidians. Everyone is 18 when they are married, so it’s nice and legal. But they do have an awful lot of guns! And a bunker!

Lyla, 17, and her family have been in the cult for ten years, since her older sister was kidnapped from the front yard and 9/11 happened all in the span of a week. The book opens with a demonstration of Lyla’s inability to shoot the human-shaped targets in the head and chest, and her scolding by Pioneer. (Yes, it’s Chekov’s gun-y.) Yes, well, it’s sort of silly to be unable to shoot a damn target. But we quickly learn this group is preparing for a time when they may need to shoot unworthy, desperate outsiders who may come for their supplies or to hurt them once they realize the truth — that the apocalypse is only months away.

For someone well versed in real cults and some of their disastrous endings (with or without an outside authority making things worse) the only question is how things are going to end for the group. Will it go Jonestown, Manson Family, Heaven’s Gate, or Waco? Parker mixes in hints that suggest it could be any of them, upping the tension for old fogy readers like me.

Though law enforcement characters are disappointingly not at all bad, the cult itself is pleasingly gray. Most of the people Lyla lives with she truly loves, but she and they are all true believers to varying degrees. The community is rigid, but pleasant and pastoral. Pioneer is all “brothers and sisters” and mood swings between joyful and wrathful God. (Very Koresh and Jim Jones, and most every other big and small molder of minds and sapper of free wills, it seems). Some of the best bits are when Lyla questions something small about Pioneer’s teachings, but demonstrates in that narration that she has yet to even consider that maybe the Brethren, the alien-god types, have not chosen her and her loved ones. Maybe they are not at all real. Instead, it’s maybe that Pioneer didn’t need to punish Lyla and her friends so hard, but certainly the apocalypse is only months away and the Brethren are watching from above. That slow build of questioning in someone already more skeptical than average, and less willing to harm potential outsiders, works flawlessly well. I suspect there would be levels of realization like that.

The prose is all basic, but YA-serviceable. It’s superior to the later Hunger Games novels, but not as interesting as the more flawed 5th Wave. Lyla herself isn’t a terribly compelling character, but then, perhaps she hasn’t yet become one due to her upbringing. Making her both solidly brainwashed and sympathetic is a hard narrative task, but Parker pulls it off well. Lyla’s friend Marie is also similarly deftly drawn. Marie is both a stauncher believer and more prone to small acts of rebellion (sneaking out with the boys, smuggling in verboten Coca Cola) than her friend. Lyla’s dad is clearly struggling with belief, whereas her mother, it is implied at the end, may never recover and go back into the world. They both commit unforgivable betrayals, but they both care about their daughter. They are credible people. They are good people who suffered, and began to believe something stupid, then wrong, then evil. You can make a whole life out of what’s been poured into your head from people who swear they know everything, and you are a cipher for their will — or the will of alien gods who have been telling you their will, depending.

The tension in Gated builds admirably towards what becomes an early deadline for the group to hide in the bunker and await the end. The ATF and police come, though Lyla sees almost none of it. The bunker is closed. Pioneer goes even more mad; and I have to say, I prefer either a true-believer villain, or one who knows exactly the evil he does (shades of The Operative in Serenity). A con man or someone enjoying the process of evil is no fun.

The very end (spoilers) is relatively happy. Only a few of the cult members die. And the final scenes are of Lyla and Will (not intended for marriage anymore, but friends again after his disbelief in her) staring at the stars with the other members of the group on The Day, waiting to make very sure that an apocalypse doesn’t come. This has shades of the Great Disappointment, but it’s more a melancholy moment of crumbling belief combined with hope that the real world might be worth living in after all. (Apocalypse averted is also important as a theme — hell, it’s the whole damn Cold War, now that I think about it.)

Gated is a satisfying picture of the types of people who need someone to follow, and then do so at the cost of their own lives. The strangest thing about it is how true it is to varying degrees for so many people in the world. There are people waiting for the end of the world every day, because they’re bitter or because the Messiah had tarried long enough. And there are many, many individuals who are quite keen on other individual wills being subservient to that of someone who knows better. Most people may not be alien doomsday cultists, but everyday nationalism and statism and much religion seems to be a difference in degree, not kind.

Behold the third column under “The War at Home” banner. It is about how drones are very scary, but also maybe we shouldn’t just flail and ban them as fast as possible.

As the weekly – sometimes daily – news stories never tire of telling us, domestic drones are coming. And as ABC News reported on March 17, they are arriving faster than the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) can suss out the rules over their use. Though it’s technically illegal, and the FAA may issue fines if they catch you, ABC reports that commercial use of drones is starting to happen whether or not the government approves – as long as it doesn’t notice.

In February, the FAA sent a cease and desist letter to the Lakemaid Brewing Company – the beer makers may not use drones to send ice fishermen a six-pack of cold ones. Even for such a charming purpose, their commercial use is banned at least until 2015, when the FAA will issue rules on drone integration into U.S. airspace. The FAA is also currently appealing a judge’s decision rejecting the $10,000 fine it tried to levy against a Virginia filmmaker for unauthorized drone flights. At this point, the US is actually trailing far behind the rest of the world in terms of domestic drones – we’re skittish about their dystopian potential, and our privacy laws are (relatively) strong compared to some.

The rest here

Last week, I was so ready to write a thoughtful, invariably inside libertarian baseball response to Jeffrey Tucker’s piece in the The Freeman. Or I was going to write about horrible police brutality for the various outlets who enjoy that sort of thing. But then my Montana-dwelling aunt called, and we discussed the imminent spring, and the greatness of the Coen Brothers — with me evangelizing about Ralph Stanley, and both of us agreeing that the Greenwich Village-style of folk was not the platonic ideal, being a little too earnest English balladish, and not high and lonesome enough.

And then of course politics faded from my soul, as it does. I subscribe to the Tucker and the Radley Balko school of politics (and, really, most of the Reason writers agree) which says that it is a vile thing, and the victory of libertarianism would mean an ability to ignore politics without feeling as if you were betraying your imprisoned and oppressed fellow man. I just wish I knew how to channel a career into dissecting how Ralph Stanley sounds, as opposed to how endlessly sick the prison state makes me.

I had a lovely birthday on the 8th. I had lovely people come to visit me and gather around. But before I went to my own party, my mom and I went to a church down in Pittsburgh that was doing their monthly shapenote singing sing.

Shapenote singing was a 19th century method of teaching folks who couldn’t read music how to do four-part harmony. There are some great modern and older recordings of it on the internet — One of my favorites, from the famous Harry Smith anthology of folk music, is below:

At its best, shapenote singing has am unpolished eerie quality that undermines and delightfully clashes with its stodgier sort of choral aspects. Instead of just beauty, it has roughness and resonance. Like the voice of Ralph Stanley (who grew up in a Primitive Baptist Church, which bar instruments) sometimes does, the strongest shapenote singers have this quality that can only remind me of bagpipes. It just has this huuuugh gut thing.

Mom, who used to play the saxophone and plays piano and guitar, knew enough music to be baffled. I didn’t know enough to know where to begin or how to follow, plus read, plus hear other people, plus hear myself.

In our post-O Brother Where Art Thou?, post-Mumford and Sons world, I was not surprised that the demographics of the singers were middle age nearing old age and younger, scruffier types. I was not the only singer with a pierced nose, for Christ’s sake.

There was someone who swore, and people who seemed devout Christians. The most powerful, ceiling plaster-endangering singer was a middle aged woman with long brown hair who came from God Only Knows, Alabama. She was all down home encouragement and June Carter sass.

Here’s a more recent kind of shapenote singing — less weird and ancient, more just loud:

Though the traditional text, The Sacred Harp, contains mostly songs about Jesus, and other folk I don’t know well, shapenote singing is so perfectly American and strange, and I think it’s wonderful. It is not mine, but I like to borrow it.

My birthday party had a cacophony of people I love very much talking too loudly in too small a space. It was fun, but the diminishing returns of socializing were lurking at its loudest points.

However, S.T. and J.K., musical friends from Richmond and Baltimore respectively, decided to crash and give me musical celebration. When they play together, they are called the Dirty Mallards. I drank my first moonshine in their presence one summer day in 107 degree Richmond weather. From them I learned that “Tommy” without clarification means Tommy Jarrell, the great North Carolina fiddler.

S.T. and J.K. are more libertarian than not. J.K. is more personally conservative, but he has recently attempted to go off the grid, internet-wise, and I have to assume the National Security Agency is a big reason. When I first met S.T. he seemed to have stepped out of the pages of Tony Horwitz’ Confederates in the Attic, for all that implies about his views. And that’s not all wrong, but it’s not everything about him. He’s a student of history — and some of his conclusions I might disagree on — but he’s incredibly well-read, as well a an instinctual, leave me alone libertarian. They are both good people who provided with with the best birthday present since my cousin T. got Jello Biafra to insult capitalism just for me.

Now, my one association with Jeff Tucker is that he is endlessly optimistic about the non-state. Culture, markets, music, fast food, all of these do and will continue to bring freedom and choice to people. All of this is beautiful and chaotic instead of planned from above.

So when Tucker uses his “brutalist vs. humanitarian” libertarian metaphor in The Freeman essay, he almost pulls it off. The brutalists stripped down architecture to its cold, practical essence. Brutalist libertarians do the same with their liberty. They say, I have my freedom to be as awful as possible, you have yours, we need not encourage social goodness and kindness and need not discourage racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. within libertarianism.  If it ain’t the state, who cares! Is that really what he thinks will happen in Libertopia? Is that what he thinks will happen without an implied litmus test? Does he think that defending pure liberty is implicitly saying we desire to live in small, mean tribal societies? If Tucker truly believes most, or even a lot of people would pick that, he is not the optimist I thought he was.

Though Tucker does not say as much, and his version of this question is better than any of the ones I have seen recently, the artificially of the two camps still gives me a moment’s pause. Are libertarian J.K. and S.T. and their politically incorrect jokes humanitarian or brutalist? How about my conservative-leaning libertarian father? My an-cap atheist friend who professes to hate feminism, who I recently saw defend the Duke porn star from another Facebook commenter who was calling her trash? My Christian an-cap friend with whom I disagree about gender roles and religion, and who has argued with me about that long into the morning?

Even in Tucker’s Libertopia, I would not surround myself only with the angels of tolerance who are always saying just the right things. So, I certainly don’t want to discount flawed creatures before we get to that free land. We live now in a world in which minorities of ALL stripes are put upon by the state: Religious weirdos, the peaceful, bunker-dwelling racists, the cultists, or for fuck’s sake, just the people who maybe don’t want to use college liberal terms to filter the world. I want them all in my tent as well. I want them if only because more people than any libertarian would wish think they are right-wingers — inherently suspicious, likely bad, for wanting less or no government at all.

Libertarianism and friendships both have a sort of Miller Test. Or, rather you “know it when you see it” — know the good people you want in your life, or in your fight for freedom. I can’t tell you who they are for you, and you can’t tell me either.

I think I know good people who are are not PC and who are also a net gain for liberty in the world. This is not to say that we can’t say, as individual libertarians, or as groups, say we prefer tolerance of gay people to not tolerance. This is only to say that the divisions between libertarians, like anywhere else, are rarely as purely simple as paleo vs. cosmo, conservative vs. liberal, or humanitarian vs. brutalist.  Tucker is, again, incredibly deft and fair in his piece. He doesn’t seem to be trying to kick out anyone at all. But the two camps idea still didn’t seem real enough to justify it as an exercise. There is a danger in making people, even just libertarians, seem that A) or B).

I wanted to write a political response to Tucker’s piece. I was distracted by the pleasures of voluntary culture, and life, and music instead. Hopefully that’s still the point.

policeCheck out the most recent Bad Cop Blotter:

On Friday, the district attorney’s office in Humboldt County, Nevada, agreed to return the $50,000 that had been seized from Tan Nguyen during a traffic stop on September 23, 2013. Nguyen had never been charged with a crime, much less convicted of anything—Humboldt County sheriff’s deputy Lee Dove pulled him over for allegedly going three miles over the speed limit, then searched his car without permission (though the cops claim consent was given) and found what Nguyen said was gambling winnings. The 37-year-old California resident’s luck clearly ran out when he was stopped by Dove, however, and according to his lawsuit, Nguyen was given a choice—give up his money or try to get home without his vehicle.

This wasn’t an isolated incident or a mistake on behalf of the cops. In a photo that the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department put on Facebook (and has since deleted), Dove posed proudly with a police dog and the $50,000 he had seized. The officer, who is also accused of taking $13,800 and a handgun from another driver in a similarly flimsy traffic-stop scenario, is presumably feeling less puffed-up now. On Friday, the local district attorney’s office promised that that driver, Nguyen, and another person who had $2,400 taken, would get their cash back, and that forfeiture policy would be reevaluated.

Is it good that the DA is checking on these stories? Sure. Are these Nevada horror stories particularly surprising? Not if you know the bizarre state of asset-forfeiture laws.

The rest here

6-8-07-segway-policeBelow is my debut for Rare.us, the conservative/libertarian outlet. As is often the case, I rambled on about how cops have become soldiers, and how that is very bad indeed.

Knowing what 9/11 did to America, it would be easy to assume that an overeager desire to prevent another such tragedy is why our cops look and act more and more like the military these days.

Yet the drug war — first “declared” by Richard Nixon, then militarized by Ronald Reagan — and various laws that came out of the tough on drugs and crime panics of the ‘80s is why every small town seems to have a SWAT team today. Officer Friendly has been taken over by RoboCop.

Though the push-back against the drug war has begun at long last, thanks to successful legislation efforts in Colorado and Washington state, most legislators have yet to stare down the new face of the police themselves.

One rare exception is Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). On March 10, he co-authored a USA Today editorial in which he announced his plan to introduce legislation which would hinder the Pentagon’s 1033 program that allows police departments to acquire surplus military equipment.

But how much success will legislation have when it aims to restrict willing recipients from receiving tech that might just be destroyed? Not as much as it should.

Since 9/11, cops have been given more powers and privileges for fighting terrorism. The New York Police Department (NYPD) now performs a great deal of CIA-ish surveillance in the name of preventing another attack. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg even described the NYPD as his “private army.”

The rest here

 

approvedThe Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a pitiful guest op-ed advertisement extolling the importance of young people signing up for ObamaCare on March 19.

Michael Maher of Dormont, PA,  a healthy young man of 27, told how he was saved from a life of certain blindness by the benefits of ObamaCare. He urged all young people like him to heed his tale and sign up for the Affordable Care Act by March 31.

The article’s provenance smells fishy (Maher should look for a career in newspaper editorial writing, if he really wrote it, or send a thank you card to the P-G editor who rewrote it for him).

The article also was cloudy on some of the facts that would have made Maher’s pitch a little less persuasive to those not working on behalf of the Obama administration.

Here’s the comment I lodged at PG online:

So let’s get this straight: A young man of 27 who’s smart enough to craft a perfectly written endorsement/testimonial for the Affordable Care Act was not smart enough to know that he should spend 70 bucks of his own money to have his own eyes checked?

He had to wait until the fabulous ACA came along and saved him from the possibility of a future of blindness? It’s great that he’s only paying 25 bucks a month for his government-subsidized health care; it’s great that his eyes were Ok.

It would have been helpful to have included the price of that “pricey” Optical Coherence Tomography/Nerve Fiber Analysis in his inspiring tale. It’s about $125. A latte a day at his coffee shop, no doubt.

I tried to find out if eye care for adults is covered by the ACA. It is for kids under 19. I’m not going to waste my time looking through the umpteen-thousand pages of the ACA to find out how or if healthy adults are covered.

But it looks like if you qualify for Medicaid, you can get someone else to pay for your eye care. Is our young man on Medicaid? I don’t know. That fact might spoil his testimonial.

What is that 111 dollar tax credit all about — who is paying Highmark for that each month? The state. The feds?

We’ve been told all the “good” things — all the benefits to the recipient — of virtually “free” or heavily subsidized health care. We’ve not heard about the costs.

Someone bears them, but it wasn’t our healthy young man with the suspiciously high op-ed writing skills.

And here’s what Mr. Maher is doing when he’s not writing phony plugs for the subsidized joys of ObamaCare — helping to sign up the Dormont folk for his man Obama’s Affordable Care Act….  

Organizing for Action

South Hills Get Out The Vote Meeting (Neighborhood Team Meeting)
Join us in Dormont as we talk about what’s going on in the campaign in the next two weeks, and how you can get involved in your neighborhood!
Time:
Host:
Michael Maher
Location:
South Hills Office (Pittsburgh, PA)
2895 West Liberty Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15216