Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Population control, American style

Organizations like Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League—if one assumes that they believe in the teachings of the messiah, Margaret Sanger—are proponents of population control, particularly of life unworthy (or at least that is the philosophy promulgated by Sanger in The Pivot of Civilization). "Birth  Control:  To create a race of thoroughbreds" was one of the slogans of the early incarnation of Parenthood. Who was Sanger referring to as “borderline cases” who were a “greater menace” than “imbeciles’? Racial minorities? But we won’t dwell on such speculations at the moment, since Republicans, right-wing extremists and the National Rifle Association also have a “plan” at reducing the population. 

Some people are not as sanguine about this as others; I occasionally listen to “A Prairie Home Companion” hosted by Garrison Keillor, which usually airs on Saturday afternoon on NPR; back in the day when radio was the principle form of media entertainment, some of those old shows were wickedly clever in the way they drew laughs or terror in order to hold the attention of the listening audience.  In the humor department, “Companion” gives you an idea of what “old time” radio was like. This past weekend the show aired an advertisement for a “shoulder-mounted automatic hunting rifle” for the hunter whose “aim is not what it used to be.” The rifle comes with a 250-round drum and a flamethrower, so you can kill game and cook it at the same time; thrown-in for free is a metal detector—so you can more easily find your kill, or what's left of it. An old geezer says his new rifle comes in handy since “I used to hunt with a shotgun before my glaucoma got so bad.”  

Obviously this is a spoof on how gun rights activists insist that assault rifles with 50-round drums have some useful purpose and are driven crazy by the idea that such weapons should be banned from civilian ownership; nobody intends to go hunting for “game” with such weapons, unless it is human game—as we have seen dozens of times too often in the past decades. Polls show that a majority of Americans support a ban on these weapons, but because the fanatical core of its constituency opposes any regulation on gun ownership, the Republican Party continues to block action on gun legislation in the wake of the Connecticut massacre. It’s the same old story: After a shooting rampage, people wail in sorrow and demand something be done, the media exploits it for ratings, and the NRA chimes in that it is just some lone madman and the solution is not less, but more, guns.  

When the inevitable next carnage occurs, the country goes through the same mendacious cycle again. And again. And again.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Death by a thousand cuts

One thing you can always count on in this country is the fact that people are so enamored with their rights that the they choose not to anticipate events and act to prevent them, but wait to until after the fact—and then place a band aid on the problem before putting off actually dealing with it in a serious manner until it becomes a problem again. The self-imposed March First deadline for striking a debt deal before mandatory budget cuts kick-in is fast approaching, and a deal to even raise the debt ceiling—a usually “routine” procedure—continues to be used by Republicans as a means to conceal the party’s impotency.  Tea Partiers will jump for joy at the prospect of deep cuts, but then again they can’t be accused of being deep thinkers.  

Republican governors who are sober—especially in low-service, low-tax Southland—are unhappy about willy-nilly cuts that effect their states;  this isn’t necessarily because Republican governor care about the less rich—most of them oppose Medicaid expansion for the uninsured—but they can always use federal money for their tax-starved states. I heard one simpleminded reporter snidely asks if a measly one billion dollar cut is really going to hurt the U.S. Department of Transportation; well yes, if it means that a state that is depending on millions of dollars in  federal grant money to build a bridge doesn’t receive it. 

Currently there are no serious discussions on closing the gap between the Democratic and House Republican debt reduction schemes—mainly because Republicans only want deep cuts on social safety net programs, education and infrastructure, and no additional revenue increases; what is there for Democrats to “negotiate” on?  Tea Party favorite Rep. Paul Ryan’s updated “Path to Prosperity” proposal is little different in substance than his first one,  calling for scrapping the health care reform bill and giving people a “choice”—to trust their Social Security to the same Wall Street banksters who nearly bankrupted this country; this simply an unacceptable starting point in discussions.

I wonder if the Republicans intend to allow sequester after sequester to occur; I wouldn’t put it past them, having witnessed over the past four years their preference for dysfunctional behavior for the pettiest of reasons (their failed campaign to insure that Obama was a one-term president). Of course, it is not just on the federal level that we see Republican perfidy, and voters who elected them acting as if they never saw it coming. Take a look at what is happening in Wisconsin right now. Wisconsin voters who gave Gov. Scott Walker a pass by voting down his recall are probably ruing that now, given all of his continuing lies and deceptions. Walker’s entire term as governor—with the help of a Republican-controlled legislature—has been spent in efforts to strengthen Republican power by voter suppression and weakening any organizations that might act as a counterbalance the uneven power of corporate America. 

Republican reliance on deception to get votes in “swing” or otherwise “blue” states is nothing new, but that fact doesn’t seem to stop voters who seem to learn nothing from past experience. Walker never mentioned his plan to cripple public employee unions during his campaign in 2010. Voters were fooled once, but could they allow themselves to be fooled twice? That’s what the failure of the recall effort seems to have suggested. After he escaped the vote, Walker claimed that “he wouldn’t pursue any new bills on public or private unions in the coming legislative session.” No, he’s letting Republican legislators—who retook the state Senate after briefly losing when a few Republican senators lost their recall elections—are doing the “talking” for him now. Wisconsin—once known as the hub of progressive legislation—is now a hothouse of reaction. Republican legislators are  now “fast-tracking” a bill that will permit employers to cut hours of private industry union workers without their consent; although Republicans are claiming to have altruistic motives—preventing layoffs and using public funds to cover lost hours (an ironic use of tax payer money to support the private sector), many see this as an opening ploy to peck away at private unions’ negotiating rights, just has already been done to public unions. 

People need to open their eyes and see what is happening here. This isn’t just about unions. It is in keeping with Republican efforts to suppress voting, whether it is ID laws, voting apparatus controlled by companies that bankroll Republican campaign coffers, or concocting new “qualifications” for who can or can’t vote. They are using their power to suppress anyone and anything they view as a “threat.” This is not how a democracy is supposed to work. Along with Citizens United, the Republican aim is to create an oligarchy of corporatists, which right-wing politicians serving as their enablers. 

Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina—whose state has the fifth highest unemployment rate at 9.2—decided to do something about his lackluster record and recently signed a law that cuts eligibility for unemployment compensation to 20 weeks, when the national  average number weeks a person is unemployed is 35. The law also cuts the maximum benefit from $535 to $350. It isn’t like the state was being “hurt”; the federal government would foot the bill. Republicans claim that the new law will “force” people to find jobs. Of course, those jobs might not exist at the moment, but if these people simply “drop out,” get a low-paying temp job, move in the parents, or join the homeless roles, then Voila!—problem “solved.” Just make ‘em disappear.  Or feed them The Constitution. McCrory is justifying the law by claiming that it allows the state to pay back federal funds it owes three years ahead of time. It's cheap political capital to make himself look “good” to voters who don’t give a damn about anyone but themselves. That pretty much sums-up what the right has always been about.

The "demise" of the Republican Party has always been overstated; during much of the Great Depression, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 3-1 in the U.S. Senate and House. Today they pick like crows and vultures over the carcass of democratic principles and simple human decency. It has been a slow, sometimes almost imperceptible process; but that it is occurring cannot simply be ignored without a price to paid for foolishly falling for the same tired propaganda of paranoia and fear.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Sports hype and reality

As has been well publicized by now, Danica Patrick won the pole position for the Daytona 500 stock car race next week. This was “historic” because she became the first female driver in NASCAR to do so. There has always been the suspicion that because she is the lightest driver on the circuit, she has a “measurable” advantage over her male competitors in how fast her car runs, although driver skill and good fortune probably plays a greater role in who wins a race. There has been some grumbling about all the notoriety she has garnered; in fact if you ask someone who is not a race car fan to name a driver, Patrick is likely a name that will come up, given all the television commercials she has done. Many sports commentators have pointed out the hype-to-accomplishment ratio is extraordinarily high in her case; her one victory occurred in what was for all practical purposes an exhibition race in Japan, with Patrick the better of a mediocre field. The fact that it is rarely mentioned as a serious accomplishment indicates how insignificant the race actually was. 

But if Patrick is overhyped, she is hardly the only, or even the worst example; we don’t even have to mention Anna Kournikova’s name (oops, I just did). I always felt that one of the most overhyped athletes was Joe Namath. In fact, his career was rather similar to that of Lynn Dickey, for whom Namath was an idol. Both had strong arms and could throw the ball anywhere on the field. When they were on the field and healthy, the game could be quite entertaining—although not always for positive reasons. Both had one great statistical season; for Namath, it was the season he became the first quarterback to throw for 4,000 passing yards, and for Dickey it was in 1983 when he led the NFL in yardage and touchdown passes. He also led the league in interceptions; like Namath, he was an interception machine, but that was all part of the “entertainment” when you had a strong-armed guy at a time when coaches hadn’t yet learned how to tame the wide-open game.

Both Namath and Dickey were injury-prone throughout their careers, and both ended-up with what by today’s standards would be considered at best mediocre statistics. Yet Namath is still a name people instantly recognize (even if they don’t know what he did for a living) and Dickey is only remembered by Packer fans who actually saw him play. That is because Namath had one great accomplishment: His Jets won Super Bowl III, and it legitimized the upstart AFL as a credible competitor to the old NFL. And it did not hurt that it was for a team in the biggest media market in the country, if not the world. But that’s it. Without that Super Bowl, Namath would be just another historical footnote.

There are examples of sports overhype that don’t even have the fig leaf of one notable accomplishment in the professional ranks. One of those who were stripped naked and left with their hands over their privates was Brian Bosworth. Bosworth was a two-time All-American linebacker for the Oklahoma Sooners during the 1980s. He was also well-known for his publicity stunts, like his weird hairdo and his criticisms of NCAA rules. Bosworth tested positive for anabolic steroid use in 1986, but what got him thrown off the team for his senior season was wearing a T-shirt with the logo "National Communists Against Athletes." In 1988 Bosworth admitted to extensive steroid use, but the knowledge of this did not prevent covers on sports magazines and inclusions on lists of the greatest college athletes of all time—or having the supreme arrogance of announcing what teams he would refuse to play for if they drafted him.

One of the teams not on this list was the Seattle Seahawks, who drafted him in 1987; the Seahawks signed Bosworth to at the time the richest rookie contract ever—10 years and $11 million. Given the massive rock star hype surrounding him, nothing less than instant stardom was expected from him. The problem wasn’t that Bosworth was awful with the Seahawks (except in that infamous Monday Night Football game against Oakland, when Bo Jackson ran for 221 yards and three touchdowns), but that he was the product of steroid use. Without them, he was a fraction of the player that the hype machine made him out to be. He lasted but three years in the NFL, but found new life as a Z-movie actor in a couple of action flicks. 

Another infamous example of hype not matching reality was Tony Mandarich, an offensive lineman out of Michigan State, and was the second pick in the 1989 draft. Mandarich was even more muscular than Bosworth, and was dubbed “The Incredible Bulk.” He was the subject of a front page story in Sports Illustrated, which anointed him the greatest offensive lineman in memory. At over 300 pounds, he ran a 40-yard dash faster than some wide receivers, and his other measurables had people believing he was the greatest athlete anyone had ever seen. Like Bosworth, he was his own PR machine—even challenging then heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson to a fight. And also like Bosworth, he was a head case, refusing to report to Green Bay after the team drafted him, calling the town a “village.” When he finally did show up, he wasn’t fit to play save on special teams for a year. He lasted all of three years with the Packers before being cut; it was only years afterward that he admitted that like Bosworth, he was largely the product of steroid use.

But in my mind, the “greatest” example of hype in overdrive that was not justified by performance was golfer Michelle Wie. Like Tiger Woods, she started playing golf before she entered Kindergarten; unlike Woods, those who predicted she was destined for greatness were proven badly wrong. Wie was usually physically more imposing than most of her female competitors, and this physical difference enabled her to compete competitively at a young age with adults. She won a few amateur tournaments by the time she was 11, and even qualified to play in an LPGA in Hawaii, and at the age of 13 she became the youngest player to make the cut at an LPGA event. By then the hype machine was in full swing; 60 Minutes would spotlight her not once, but twice in three years. Nike gave her a multi-million dollar endorsement contract. She was paid millions more for just showing up at international tournaments. She was the center of attention at every golf tournament she appeared in—especially the more obscure PGA events that she was given an exemption to play in. She not only claimed that the LPGA wasn’t good enough for her, she even boasted that by the time she was 20 she could beat Woods.

I’m not going to rehash the way Wie subsequently made herself the laughingstock of the golf world—you can read about that in my post “Catching up with Michelle Wie” from last May, except to add that she played in 23 LPGA events in 2012 and made the cut only 13 times with just one top-ten finish; it still appears that she made more money in endorsements from Nike in one year than she has in legitimate tour winnings in her entire career. I would also say I was surprised that the media did not report that she was better at making four-letter expletives than birdies on the course during the 2012 HSBC championship, which “shocked” some family-friendly observers; perhaps after finishing 32-shots behind the leader in a tournament she actually made the cut in last year, this is her way of staying “relevant.” One thing that is not "funny" about the Wie story is that it is an example of how mediocrity can translate into a net worth of over $10 million.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Crime, human trafficking and media exploitation

I occasionally listen to one of the local news radio stations to catch the weather report, although I’m not sure why because it is almost always wrong; they must employ astrology rather than meteorology, and maybe consult an Ouija board to make sure. One thing you can be certain about in regard to local reporting is that it will exploit any female victim of a crime (preferably a violent one) for ratings. Not that some women don’t mind being exploited in this way, but it does tend to give an impression that doesn’t necessarily represent reality; an even bigger problem with such reporting is that it damages its credibility and causes a cynical response from those demographics who are ignored by the media.

For example, according to the records of the King County Medical Examiner’s office, in 2011 there were 54 homicides among the 2,000 or so deaths that they came under its jurisdiction, such as those that could not be explained by hospital records under a doctor’s care; this number is down from the 93 homicides that occurred in 2002 and 2003. Not all were perpetrated with “criminal intent.” This apparently includes those killed by police, like John T. Williams, “involuntary manslaughter” or “self-defense.”  35 of the deaths were by guns, 9 by stabbing. But the gender breakdown remains fairly constant with the FBI’s national statistics: Males comprised 74 percent (40 total) of the homicide victims. We can discuss who did what to whom, but the fact is that the media offers a skewed picture of violent crime by focusing its reporting resources on women  victims (Suicides in King County, by the way, accounted for 265 of the deaths handles by the Medical Examiner in 2011—the highest figure in the last 10 years; this number does not include those who died of so-called “assisted suicide” due to terminal illness. 72 percent of the victims were male).

There have been various explanations for the media’s fixation on female victims. Some claim that the media has established a “hierarchy” of victimization that it believes “plays” better, in the belief that women are more significant consumers of news; on top of the period are white females. White females are regarded as the “ideal” victims by the media, because they are seen as more “innocent” than others—like, say, the victims of gang crime. Victim advocacy organizations play a role in this; in the search for publicity and donations, it is necessary to resort to “hype,” particularly since violent crime is actually decreasing in this country. 

This goes hand-in-hand with devaluing or ignoring other demographics who are more likely—or in the case of blacks, much more likely—to be a victim of a violent crime.  It is interesting to note that in regard to female perpetrators, a 2009 study by Pauline K. Brennan and Abby L. Vandenberg examined select newspapers and found that the media is more likely to use “neutralizers” in their reporting on white female perps. Forty percent of news stories involving female criminals either denied or minimized the white female’s “responsibility” for a crime, and the degree of victimization caused was similarly adduced. Responsibility for criminal acts is often explained away by “external” factors and “forces beyond her control.”  She is often a “sad/mad” person rather than malicious. This is true in cases of homicide in which men are the victims, and in child murder, such as the Andrea Yates case. There is also more frequent condemnation of the accuser in these cases. If men were the victims, there was greater effort to “make it seem like these men suffered no injury and, as such, are not victims.” 

Anyways, there are some crimes that white females have a harder time being made the center of attention of. Thus we see a slight uptick in the current press concerning human trafficking. But as I noted in my “Human trafficking and the problem of counting” post, there is a great deal of “interpretation,” guesswork and hype involved—with an emphasis on “hype.” Take for instance the story that appeared on the front page of the Sunday Seattle Times this week, which discusses the United Nations report on human trafficking. Times reporter Christine Clarridge writes that “Women and girls together account for about 75 percent of all trafficking victims, both for sex and for labor, the U.N. report said.” Thus the entire focus of her story is on female victims, and in particular on sex trafficking, which naturally women are more likely to be “employed” in. 

The problem is—as I pointed out in my previous blog—is that the numbers are not generated from scientific analysis, but by partisan assumption by advocacy groups, passed on as “fact” by the UN, the media and anyone else who will listen. The numbers they offer tend to overestimate the number of female victims while underestimating the number of male victims. For example, thousands of boys from Bangladesh are kidnapped to Middle Eastern countries and trained as camel jockeys, because of their light weight; the UN “statisticians” do not count these boys as victims of human trafficking. Nor does it count the boys who are “recruited” to fight in the various civil wars in Africa; some of these boys are as young as 12: Girls may be recruited for sex trafficking, but boys are for cannon fodder. I can’t tell which is worse. 

The Times continues to be irrelevant to me, not the least because it tries to sell papers with its frequent gender exploitation stories, just like this one. No one is going the question the worst-case local anecdotes it can dredge-up, particularly since the female victim on the front page was only one of a group of both male and female human trafficking victims. This tendency to inflate one side of the equation was the topic of the May 2011 report by the Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law entitled “Fact or Fiction: What Do We Really Know About Human Trafficking?” which I discussed at length in the aforementioned post. For those who might desire to be better informed, I’ll rehash what the report found. 

It found, for example, that the numbers generally put out are mostly invention, and that 64 percent of all the world's statistics on human and sex trafficking are made up right there on the spot; unfortunately, “82.4 percent of people believe them whether they're accurate statistics or not.” The report found no substantiation for claims that “600,000 to 800,000 people trafficked across international borders annually, (that) 80 percent of victims are female, and 50 percent are minors.” It admits that exaggerated claims are made to draw attention to the issue, but it is still exaggeration. In the UK, “NGOs, politicians and the media in the United Kingdom proclaimed (without producing evidence) that up to 25,000 ‘sex slaves’ were in need of rescue and that 80,000 women were in sex work. However, the Operation Pentameter II police raids that looked for the 25,000 sex slaves only located 351 women, all of whom variously absconded from police, went home voluntarily, declined support, were removed by the UK Borders Agency or were prosecuted for various offences. The 80,000 figure was also shown to have no basis in fact.”

In fascinating story from 2009, Nick Davies of The Guardian wrote of how a tiny number can become a huge number in the human trafficking counting business. Two females academics in Britain managed to somehow extrapolate how 71 women detained on suspicion of being “victims” of human sex trafficking was actually 1,420—and  that 71 became 25,000 in no time once politicians and the media got a hold of it. When this number came under critical scrutiny, Davies reported how “Fiona Mactaggart, a former Home Office minister, in January 2008 outstripped MP Denis MacShane’s estimates, telling the House of Commons that she regarded all women prostitutes as the victims of trafficking, since their route into sex work ‘almost always involves coercion, enforced addiction to drugs and violence from their pimps or traffickers.’” But Davies noted that “There is no known research into UK prostitution which supports this claim.”

The tendency to over-report your everyday prostitute as a victim of sex trafficking was also addressed by a 2007 report by the American Sociological Association. Although it did not question that some women enter the sex trade against their will, it added:

“Plenty of evidence challenges the notion that prostitutes, across the board, are coerced into the sex trade, lead lives of misery, experience high levels of victimization, and want to be rescued. These patterns characterize one segment of the sex trade, but they are not the defining features of prostitution. Sex workers differ markedly in their autonomy, work experiences, job satisfaction, and self-esteem. It’s time to replace the oppression model with a polymorphous model—a perspective that recognizes multiple structural and experiential realities."

A lot of the hyped numbers are the product of “junk science.” Take for instance an “independent study” conducted by the Women’s Funding Network in regard to online sex-trafficking. When it was exposed, the group admitted that its numbers were bogus, using the data to mislead the media and commit perjury before Congress. Why? For free publicity and public funding. "We pitch it the way we think you're going to read it and pick up on it," said activist Kaffie McCullough. "If we give it to you with all the words and the stuff that is actually accurate—I mean, I've tried to do that with our PR firm, and they say, 'They won't read that much.' "

Another problem is once you get into individual cases, the “evidence” of human trafficking is often a matter of interpretation, and who is doing the interpretation.  Take for instance the case of Lamyaá Ennassime, a Moroccan girl brought into the country illegally by her uncle, Abdenasser Ennassime, who owned an espresso stand in Lakewood, WA and had just acquired his U.S. citizenship. According to the FBI and local reporting, she was a victim of human trafficking—held a virtual prisoner in a room the size of a wall closet, and forced into slave labor. That was the story she told her friends who visited her at the espresso stand, who subsequently contacted authorities. 

Yet Ennassime would eventually be sentenced to community service and probation—relatively light given the hype surrounding the story. In an otherwise negative portrayal of the uncle and aunt, an AP story noted that  Lamyaá  “came to stay with her aunt and uncle at age 12 in September 2001, with the understanding that she would help care for their young son and help with the housework in exchange for lodging and a chance for a good education. She made breakfast and dinner, did laundry, cleaned the house, and worked weekends and summers without pay at the espresso stand.” No doubt she was apparently raised in a strict Muslim way (after all, she was far from her parents who had certain expectations of her upbringing and safety) that most Americans would find unbearable; but it is also true that teenagers (especially girls) are drama queens at that age.  Both the uncle and his wife considered the girl ungrateful. Tonya Ennassime claimed that she and her husband “had treated Lamyaá lovingly, as their own daughter, and that they were terribly hurt by her unfounded allegations.” The one “good” that came out of all of this is that the notoriety gained the girl legal residency in the country instead of deportation in the care of her family in Morocco—even after the father traveled half a world away to take her home. 

I’m not one of those masochists, self-flagellants or misandrists who doesn’t question deliberately inflated numbers used for exploitation purposes, especially in regard to gender politics. Remember the CDC report last year on intimate partner violence that not only showed that men reported to be the victim of various forms of domestic violence nearly as often  as women, but in the previous 12 months 25 percent more men than women reported being the victim of domestic violence. Yet the media only reported on sexual assault figures, and completely ignored the people who are more legitimately the silent victims in this society.