“Blue Apron” Food Stamps. Refugees. School Shootings. For the GOP, Meanness is The Goal

On Valentine’s Day, which will forever be known to the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland as the day their young lives became forever associated with trauma, Allison and I decided to watch something old, and romantic, so we could not talk about the daily horrors for a few hours. We had that luxury, of course.

We quickly picked Casablanca, which neither of us had seen for years.  What struck me watching it again, beside how great it still is, is that beside the main three (or four) characters, you are meant to deeply sympathize with the young couple trying to get out of the city.

Real people (2/3rds)

We’re primed to sympathize with them, to feel their plight, to feel the agony of their neverland time in Casablanca. This isn’t just because they are young and attractive, but because the opening narration perfectly lays out their situation.

With the coming of the Second World  War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately,  toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point. But not everybody could get to Lisbon directly, and so, a tortuous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up. Paris to Marseilles, across the Mediterranean to Oran, then by train, or auto, or foot, across the rim of Africa to Casablanca in French Morocco.

Here, the fortunate ones, through money, or influence, or luck, might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca — and  wait — and wait — and wait .

You can feel their desperate pain. These are people whose lives have been upturned by the horrors of war, by the mad headlong rush of violence into their lives. They are broken and shattered and scared and lost, half-dead, barely clinging onto hope. We feel for them, because they are human, and we can see ourselves in them.

We have the same situation in Syria, today. Millions of people have had their lives turned inside out, blown apart by a savagely cruel war. They spent their lives under the cadaverous pallor of the Asad regime, and when some rose up, peacefully, they were slaughtered. Over the next 7 years, their country has been turned into a charnel house, ripped apart by warring factions inside the country (especially the regime), transnational groups like ISIS, and international actors like Russia, Iran, the United States, Saudi Arabia, now Turkey, maybe Israel.

They fled across the self-same Mediterannean. They fled to Europe, many with eyes toward America. But we didn’t see them as people. We saw them as others, verminous danger, and closed our doors.

Not real people

That’s clear in the latest budget, and it is clear in, say, the dozens of refugee resettlement centers that are being closed under Trump and Paul Ryan.

But that’s the GOP. That’s who they are as a party, and it is clear in issue after issue: cruelty is the point, and empathy is a weakness. It is not a coincidence, nor a distortion, that their President is a man entirely incapable of empathy, and whose primary instinct (other than self-aggrandizement) is to be cruel to those he thinks are weaker than him.

It’s how he became President after all, and in every move he makes and every reaction he has, and in every piece of policy crafted in the head of Paul Ryan, making the lives of actual humans even worse is the primary goal. Punching down, and pulling the last shreds of a decent life from those who have so little.

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A brief note on “politicizing tragedy”

A lesson we’re all going to learn again in the next few days is that a tragedy can’t be “politicized”, or at least that it is ok to do so, if the shooter involved is Muslim and says “ISIS” before killing people, even if he has nothing to do with actual terrorism, even if that is just the thin reed to which he clings in the tidal wave of his own hatred and madness.  Then it is ok to call out political opponents for being weak on terror, and not being manly enough. Then it is ok to score points. Not when a mentally unstable kid shoots up a schoolhouse, killing 20 kids, or a theater or a black church. Then we are politicizing tragedy.

It’s always correct to bring politics into tragedy. Politics, in a society like ours, is the result of our collective action and will. It’s the outcome of our ideas and beliefs. It is messy and angry and at times like these stained with bitter tears. But to not be political, to not try to find reason in the face of horror, is to give up, to abdicate our duties as citizens. There should be, and will be, fights about this. And that is good and healthy. We just need to make sure that we always have these fights, because that is the only way things will get changed. “Politicizing” the shooting at Emmanuel African helped bring down a flag of treason and slavery. It does make a difference.

As we said in regards to FlintBut any human-caused tragedy is inherently political, and response to it needs to be. Accusations of politicizing events are a dodge, an intellectual grift, designed to keep whatever policies caused the tragedy in place. It’s better to just say “it’s a terrible thing”, as if there was some kind of free-floating miasmatic tragedy fog that just happened to land on a place. 

As citizens of a democracy, it is our duty to create a political response to the actions of human, especially when those actions target a group vilified by so many. That’s not to take advantage of the dead, or turn them into unwitting martyrs. We don’t- I certainly don’t- speak in anyone’s name. We just need to be able to try to turn an unimaginable massacre into a better place, where it is harder and harder to kill so many people, to destroy so many lives, simply because you want to.


A Wild Howling Madness: It Does, and Doesn’t, Matter That Orlando Gunman Pledged to ISIS


Omar Mateen, the alleged Orlando shooter. Image from The Washington Post

At least 50 dead. At least 50 more wounded. As the staggering numbers gutpunched their way in this morning, and America woke to the reality that in a violent nation, we reached another grim milestone, people struggled not just with the enormity of pain and sorrow, but with what to call this. Was it a hate crime, targeted as it was at an LGBT club? Was it an act of terrorism, as we learned that the shooter had a Muslim-sounding name? Was it a mass shooting?

The last two seemed like they could be in opposition, while a hate crime can apply to both. The problem is that it is (most likely) all three. While this is (as of the writing) unconfirmed, it seems that Omar Mateen called 911 to pledge allegiance to ISIS shortly before the shooting started.

A few things about this make it less an act of international terrorism, and more the actions of a sick and depraved man influenced by many factors, including the religious nihilism of ISIS. But there doesn’t seem to be any training, and certainly not any real membership in ISIS. Not to be glib, but one doesn’t join ISIS by calling 911. They generally don’t relay the message. You have to actually join.

(Obviously, there is a real danger of people actually joining ISIS and receiving training, and possibly using it in the homeland. Foreign fighters are a key part if ISIS strategy. This isn’t that. It’s a different danger.)

This idea is furthered by Mateen’s father, who said that the crime was more motivated by a hatred of homosexuals.

“We were in Downtown Miami, Bayside, people were playing music. And he saw two men kissing each other in front of his wife and kid and he got very angry,” Mir Seddique, told NBC News on Sunday. “They were kissing each other and touching each other and he said, ‘Look at that. In front of my son they are doing that.’ And then we were in the men’s bathroom and men were kissing each other.”

Seddique added, “This had nothing to do with religion.”

But…of course, it does. ISIS is explicitly opposed to homosexuality, and punishes it by death, as does al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and even “friendly” regimes in many Islamic countries.  Christian ones, too, if you look at Uganda. And you barely have to twist the radio dial to hear religious-based (or at least justified) hatred of gays throughout the country. Liberal laws about transgender rights have sparked an upswing of hate speech about them as well, with Republican candidates tripping over each other to issues the loudest condemnation. A hatred of gays is both created by, and justified by, religion.

And that, to me, is why it does and it doesn’t matter that he “pledged” himself to ISIS. For years, terrorism experts and laypeople alike were wondering why there weren’t mere lone wolf attacks in the name of Qaeda or ISIS. Now, that door has fully opened, and the number of people carrying out mass shootings in the name of ISIS is going up. I think it will certainly increase. But let’s not say that this is a sign that ISIS is getting powerful, or more absurdly, that it means we are “losing” in struggle against radical fundamentalism. We may be, but these are not signs of it.

What they are signs of is that it is extremely easy to kill a lot of people in America. It happens all the time. There is a sickness and violence in our culture, a roiling anger at immigrants or gays or Muslims or Southerners or just fucking life in general, just the dispossession of a post-industrial and unequal society, where binds are breaking, and every day we hear the snapping tendons of what once held us together.

Some of these people will identify as Muslim, and decide to tell 911 or Twitter that they love ISIS before billowing out into a hurricane of murderous insanity. Some will tell a Mens’ Rights message board. Some won’t tell anyone but the diary they keep next to a dog-eared copy of misread Nietzsche.

Of course, this is what ISIS wants, by telling anyone that they are “part” of ISIS if they pledge allegiance in public. But that’s even more to the point: they are taking advantage of a sickness, of people who feel weak and helpless and want to be part of something bigger. It’s little different than Eric Harris or Adam Lanza or Jared Loughner or Dylan Roof.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which imaginary idol is being propitiated by violence, whether that is white pride, Jesus, or Allah. The slaughtered are no more or less dead due to which angry god is invoked. The suffering of the families is no more or less real. We will argue, in the days and weeks, as to whether this is terrorism, or a hate crime. Liberals will hear smug lectures about how we should now see that terrorism is bad, as if we didn’t already know that. That he pledged to ISIS will be a data point in people’s absurd spreadsheets about winning or losing, and we won’t look at the main question, the one that is truly about ourselves, about the dark heart thumping madly in the center of this nation.

Shooting in Chicago: The Times reports on a violent city facing the brink of summer



Image from NYTimes

On Sunday, anyone who subscribes to the New York Times (or fine, reads it online, in which it is a huge multi-media piece) saw a huge, front-page special report on the violence in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend, in which more than 50 shootings left six people dead as the long and hot summer juddered into a violent beginning. This has already been an apocalyptic year in Chicago, for reasons we’ll explore as the summer moves on.

The story is a series of excellently-reported rapid-fire vignettes, weaving in and out of the shootings, which are of course concentrated almost entirely on the south and west sides (though three of the fatalities, oddly, are up north, one near O’Hare). This is where I admire the Times piece, as it only briefly mentions that most of Chicago is very peaceful, and many of us are not touched even obliquely by violence. It instead portrays the city as a nightmare of murder, of random gunfire, of targeted killings and counter-killings, as a place of escalating violence where nihilism runs the streets and decent citizens live in expectation of being next. It’s easy for those not affected by it to shrug it off, saying that there are two Chicagos. The Times piece forces us to confront as a problem for the city, not just a problem somewhere in the city. It removes all remove.

To me, one of the most striking parts is the reaction people have to being shot. “Babe, they shot me” or “I’ve been shot!” I know- what else are you going to say? But I imagine for many of us our reaction would be bewildered terror, an inability to comprehend what is going on. One minute we are watching TV in our homes or standing on the porch or driving down Lake Shore, and the next, gutshot and bleeding. I doubt I’d understand what happened when a stray bullet caught me. That everyone in the story is instantly aware is a sure signifier of the huge gulf in our lives, the shame of Chicago, and of a country that has bred this vicious nihilism.