Monday, February 23, 2015

Farewell, Pawnee: The Essential Parks and Recreation

As the final season of NBC’s critically acclaimed comedy draws to a close (with more of a whimper than a bang, it must be mentioned, as the network has been churning out two new episodes per week in an incredibly transparent effort to clear the way for more reality TV), it’s more than worth taking a look back at some of the moments, the magic, and of course the laughter the show has provided in its seven season run.

I’m going to try and narrow it down my recommendations to one episode per season, for those who don’t have unlimited time to binge-watch (or re-binge-watch). 

Season 1: "The Banquet"
I think most people’s instinct for the sometimes painfully awkward first season is to ignore it completely, or to name “Rock Show” (the season-ender) as their favorite. But if “Rock Show” is the biggest indicator of the better show to come in season 2, that progress is because of the notes the writers and actors hit during “The Banquet.” This episode, number 5 of 6, has a little bit of everything we’ve come to know and love – Leslie’s early insecurity and need for her mother’s approval, Ron and his love affair with all things meat, Tom being his best schmoozy self, and even some character development thrown in for good measure (this is the episode where Ann begins to realize her relationship with Andy is headed for a dead end; when Mark seems to see the sadness of his bachelor lifestyle; and of course when Leslie and Ann realize that best friendship does come with the occasional dispute, and a need for honesty). It’s also got Leslie being mistaken for a man all night at the titular banquet because she’s gotten herself a “political powerhouse” hairstyle for the evening, so there’s that.

Season Two: "The Master Plan"
Loathe though I am to give Rob Lowe any kind of credit, the arrival of his Chris Traeger and Adam Scott’s Ben Wyatt really did complete Parks in a way  I hadn’t fully realized it needed. These two new characters show up in Pawnee right on the brink of Leslie’s anticipated triumph in this episode, wherein she is preparing a proposal for Pawnee’s “master plan” for the upcoming fiscal year. Unfortunately the two are state auditors, there to slash the very budget Leslie is hoping to utilize to build her park. She immediately can’t abide Ben in particular, which in obvious sitcom fashion must mean (spoiler alert!) they will eventually fall in love. Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that this episode also features some fantastic comedic moments with April and Andy (and Ben Schwartz’s Jean Ralphio).

Season Three: TIE – "Fancy Party", "The Fight"
Season three is when the show really found its groove, so obviously I can’t pick just one episode to recommend. "Fancy Party" features April and Andy’s surprise wedding, and apart from having a soft spot for them, it’s just a very unexpectedly charming event. Everyone comes together to celebrate without questioning the rushed nature of the nuptials – everyone except Leslie, but even she eventually comes around.

"The Fight", on the other hand, features a far less pleasant party. Everyone converges on the Snakehole Lounge (“The Sexiest and Most Dangerous club in Pawnee”) to support Tom, who has invented his own alcohol. As you might expect, this is a terrible idea, as the drink’s potency leads to a range of shenanigans, most notably Ann and Leslie’s biggest fight to date. It’s played both hilariously and relatably by Amy Poehler and Rashida Jones, and the supporting cast provides just enough comic relief to take the edge off.

Season Four: "Win, Lose, or Draw"
I’m recommending the season finale for the 4th season not because it’s the most standout episode, but because Parks’ fourth season is the most cohesive, narrative-wise, with each episode building on the last, chapters in an overarching story following Leslie’s campaign for city council. Thus it all culminates in “Win, Lose, or Draw” wherein we see all of the hard work and support put in by Leslie’s team pay off in a big way. I won’t lie to you, I cried at the end of this episode, and you might too.

Season Five: "Emergency Response"
While it’s very tempting to pick “Ben and Leslie” (I just love everything about the two of them together, okay?!), I didn’t think this list needed TWO wedding episodes. I’ve therefore selected the episode preceding their wedding, “Emergency Response.” This episode has Leslie at her finest crazy, aided and abetted by the gang as they try to cope with a hypothetical city-wide emergency situation. It also features Ron's fabulous turn on Joan Calamezzo's show, doling advice out to Pawnee's citizens.

Season Six: "Moving Up"

Picking the season finale again, not because every episode of the sixth season is equally strong, but because most of them are a little weak, in a way I have some trouble articulating. There was just something missing from the back half of season six, and it took the finale (both the storyline and the rebooting time jump) to really pull me back in. "Moving Up" has a bunch of blink-and-you'll-miss-them call back to earlier moments in the show's history, and an intriguing scene from 2017 that bucks the show's usual tradition of tying things up neatly at season's end. This is an episode that could've been a series-ender itself, but instead became the framework for season seven, which has proven both innovative and heartwarming. 

I haven't picked a favorite episode for season seven yet, mostly because I don't think I'm ready to acknowledge that the journey's almost over. Saying goodbye to a long-running show is, for a TV lover like myself, a uniquely bittersweet experience. One thing I'm happy about as a viewer is that Parks and Recreation has been given the chance to go out on their terms, something that didn't seem possible back in the early stages of its tenure, when premature cancellation seemed inevitable. I know a lot of people who, like myself, have come to consider this their go-to "happy" show, pulling up an episode on days when they just need to smile for a few minutes. I think people underestimate the amount of diligent, dedicated work that has gone into this show over the past seven years, and how much everyone who's a part of it cares about the fans, the characters, and just telling the best story possible. This is a show that has taught us that following your dreams isn't necessarily a fool's errand - after all, we began this journey with one woman and her ambition to build a park. Seeing how far Leslie and the gang have come has been hilarious, entertaining, and just so rewarding. Thank you, Parks team, and thank you, NBC, for letting us share in that joy for as long as you did. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review: Suspicion Nation by Lisa Bloom

If you’re going to read one book about the sad state of race relations in America, you should probably read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (I don’t think Lisa Bloom would begrudge me that, since she recommends the book herself). But if you’re going to read two books about race in America - and given the current state of affairs, it certainly couldn’t hurt - you should absolutely pick up a copy of Suspicion Nation by civil rights attorney Lisa Bloom.
The book is an exploration of the new brand of racism in America, tracing its course from something that was blatant and almost a point of pride for some bigots (think George Wallace), to something subtler and, in many ways, just as sinister. Our racial prejudices have become so internalized, so institutionalized, that they are part of daily life and a routine aspect of the criminal justice system. Bloom uses the tragic case of Trayvon Martin to illustrate just how the fears and suspicions we keep (involuntarily, in some cases) in the secret corners of our minds can affect our viewpoints, our judgment, and can be the deciding factor between life and death. George Zimmerman wasn’t acquitted because it was successfully proven that he wasn’t a racist; he was acquitted because his perspective of the world, colored in prejudices he might not even be able to articulate or acknowledge, was shared by his attorneys, the prosecution, and the majority of the jury members who elected not to punish him for Trayvon’s murder.
What Suspicion Nation succeeds at is pinpointing precisely why the Zimmerman verdict feels like a punch in the gut. It’s not just because a murderer escaped justice (that, sadly, happens all the time); it’s that an entirely winnable case was lost due largely to a refusal to address our nation’s race problem. Trayvon Martin was denied justice because it was absurdly easy to persuade the six female jurors that an unarmed seventeen year old constitutes a threat simply based on his race.
In the first half of the book Bloom walks through the case step by step, providing an idiot-proof guide to how this trial ought to have been conducted and the numerous places the prosecution went wrong. She highlights the alternative, more logical approach a better prosecutor might have taken, providing suggestions and analysis that make you wish fervently that she’d been the one in that courtroom advocating for Trayvon, the only person in the case who could not speak for himself.

The sheer number of times the prosecutors dropped the ball is disheartening, to put it mildly. And while Bloom refuses to speculate that this incompetence might have been deliberate, I’m not entirely convinced.  Basic facts were ignored every step of the way, and game-changing arguments that could have turned the tide (and the jury) against Zimmerman were thrown completely out the window. The jury, which ought to have been a carefully selected group of individuals with no prior knowledge of the case, was littered with preconceived notions about not only race and the nature of Florida’s laws, but about Trayvon and Zimmerman themselves.  The state needed only to find six individuals who could go into the trial with the ability to listen impartially to the evidence, and it seems they failed even at that, which may have sunk them long before they were able to selectively and sloppily present the facts of the case.
The logic of dismissing race as a factor is beyond me. Yes, I can understand that intent is difficult to prove in many cases – you can hardly crack open a defendant’s brain and see what they were thinking at the time of the crime—but in this case intent was a crucial part of the case and, Bloom argues, fairly easily proven. The defense claimed, and the jury believed, that all that mattered in the altercation between Trayvon and Zimmerman was “who was on top and who was on the bottom.” This is a factor, to be sure, but then so is the fact that the altercation would not have existed in the first place if Zimmerman hadn’t followed Trayvon, if the teenager hadn’t suspected he was in danger, and if Zimmerman didn’t have a demonstrated history of expressing suspicion toward members of the black community. The prosecution had evidence supporting all this, by the way; they simply failed to use it. As an amateur who has yet to see the inside of a law classroom, even I can see that this was at best negligence, and at worst a determined obfuscation of the facts so the narrative would conform to Zimmerman’s side of the story.
Bloom interjects at several key points to lay out a hypothetical prosecution strategy so simple that a pair of trained monkeys likely could have pulled it off. So why couldn’t the state’s team of prosecutors? While Bloom generously pleads the fifth on a real answer to this query, I have a different one: was it a question of can’t or won’t? It seems only too clear that even the prosecutors ostensibly trying to prove Zimmerman guilty couldn’t completely dismiss the notion that his suspicion of a young black man was reasonable. And that question of reasonableness, Bloom emphasizes, was the key to unlocking the self-defense argument. 
If you’re like me, this book will make you angry. You’ll page through it torn between disbelief and the kind of rage that makes you want to shake someone, perhaps the prosecutors, and tell them to wake up and smell the racial profiling. But after you’ve finished reading, you’ll be haunted by it, by the specter of buried prejudice that exists in every corner of society. The media, the government, your friends and family, even yourself – when it comes down to it none of us is completely innocent of experiencing traces of the ‘suspicion’ Bloom details. The book’s conclusion acknowledges that we have a long road ahead of us when it comes to repairing this damage, but it also ends on a note of hope that we can and will repair the damage we’ve done:
“We can prevent our country from making the same mistake by deciding that the scourges of racial bias and rampant gun violence are intolerable, and that the life of each of our children, every single one, matters and is worthy of our passionate protection” (297).
Let’s hope she’s right.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The First Step is Admitting There's a Problem: Why We Need to Build a New America

I'd like to share a scene from "The Newsroom" that feels just as relevant today as it did two years ago when it aired. This is the very first scene from the very first episode, and you can watch it at this link if  you'd prefer watching it to reading.

A student asks what makes America the world's greatest country, and Will dodges the question with glib answers. But the moderator keeps needling him until...snap.
It's not the greatest country in the world, professor, that's my answer.
[pause] You're saying—
Let's talk about—
Fine. [to the liberal panelist] Sharon, the NEA is a loser. Yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paychecks, but he [gesturing to the conservative panelist] gets to hit you with it anytime he wants. It doesn't cost money, it costs votes. It costs airtime and column inches. You know why people don't like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so fuckin' smart, how come they lose so GODDAMN ALWAYS?
And [to the conservative panelist] with a straight face, you're going to tell students that America's so star-spangled awesome that we're the only ones in the world who have freedom? Canada has freedom, Japan has freedom, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, Belgium has freedom. Two hundred seven sovereign states in the world, like 180 of them have freedom.
And you—sorority girl—yeah—just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know, and one of them is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we're the greatest country in the world. We're seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies. None of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are without a doubt, a member of the WORST-period-GENERATION-period-EVER-period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don't know what the fuck you're talking about?! Yosemite?!!!
We sure used to be. We stood up for what was right! We fought for moral reasons, we passed and struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world's greatest artists and the world's greatest economy. We reached for the stars, and we acted like men. We aspired to intelligence; we didn't belittle it; it didn't make us feel inferior. We didn't identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn't scare so easy. And we were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one—America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.

Will's right - well, Aaron Sorkin is right. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore. The case could reasonably made that it never truly was. But he's also right that it can be. It has the potential. We have people who are smart, who are brave, who are compassionate, and we have them in droves. They just don't seem to align recently with the cardboard cutout of who and what our culture values. They don't seem to have the voice or the power they ought to, and in an unfortunately growing number of cases, they lack the energy to do anything but fall in line, to keep quiet and allow the status quo to persevere.

We have to be better. We have to pay attention, and we have to speak up when we see injustice being done. I'm getting really and truly sick of people who proudly say "oh, I don't care about politics" or "I don't watch the news" like these things are some passing fad. Believing that is a mistake, and a dangerous one. The only way to change things for the better is to participate, to care. These are the conversations and the elections and the stories that will determine what this country IS  for the duration of the time we'll spend here. Doesn't that merit at least a fraction of the attention we give to celebrity gossip or our local sports franchise?

Maybe I sound self-righteous, or judgmental. But that's because I've made a life of actively striving to not bury my head in the sand, and the way this country works, the votes of those who do choose ignorance carry exactly the same weight as mine. I love that about America, the idea that we might all - in theory, at least - get an equal say, but that doesn't mean I want to stand by and watch that opportunity be squandered.

There is a reality that has taken hold in the United States of America in 2014 that the majority of us are flat-out ignoring, even though it's right in front of our faces. Equality, the kind the founding fathers dreamed about and the kind people from all over their globes risked their lives to come here seeking, is crippled, on the verge of extinction. It's slipping away, and for the most part we're letting it. We as a nation are content to wander around with our eyes closed and our hands down our pants, more concerned about this week's eliminated contestant on The Voice than the fact that innocent men and women are being killed by the people who are supposed to exist to protect and serve us. The knee-jerk reaction is to assume that the victim must have had it coming, or that there has to be a justification, because we'd rather not fathom the possibility that someone in a position of authority is capable of truly monstrous behavior.

I'm not going to debate the Mike Brown or Eric Garner cases here (though for the record I am appalled at the lack of even an indictment in either case), not because I think I'd lose or because I know I'd open an entire can of ignorance-soaked worms on my social media outlets, but because it isn't my tragedy. I am a white woman, and as such will never ever be able to fully comprehend the horror of what's happening to African Americans in this country, the terror that must exist in knowing you can be targeted at any moment and that the perpetrator will, in all likelihood, walk away without punishment. I'm an ally in this fight, and I stand beside the protesters and individuals who continue to lead brave and vital discussions on these topics; but I lack the authority of personal experience. I can say there is no question in my mind that we need some serious changes in this country, both in terms of race relations and in terms of establishing once and for all who watches the watchers, and ensuring they do their job in a manner that doesn't cost innocent lives.

Will said it in the speech above, and it's one of the founding principles of any recovery program worth its salt:  the first step is admitting that you have a problem. America, we have a problem.

A lot of people might think I lack patriotism, that I hate America and that's why I'm constantly criticizing it. That actually isn't true at all. I love America, but I love it the way Will McAvoy loves it - for all that it has the potential to be, rather than what it currently is. We can create a world in which equality exists, in which we celebrate our differences but don't allow them to overrule our comprehension of the basic rules of right and wrong. It's possible to do that, it really is. But we can't do it in one day (we haven't been able to do it in multiple generations, after all), and it'll be hard work. At its core, though, America has the tools to do this. We have the power to change our laws and to influence the way this country treats its citizens, no matter who they are or what they look like.

I'm not exempting myself from this. We have to tug ourselves out of this apathetic hole we've fallen into, and it's hard to listen to bad news day in and day out without feeling discouraged. I know it would be easier to stay at home under the covers finding out which Kardashian is getting divorced or pregnant this week, but I can't do that. I can't sit still anymore knowing that these kinds of injustices are becoming the norm in the country.

I guess this is my promise to stay awake, to pay careful attention and spread as much factual and helpful information as possible, and to do whatever I can to keep fighting the good fight. My congresspeople will be hearing from me - hell, I'll send a letter a week if I have to until something budges, and I will not be silent. If we can bring ourselves to care, and we can push ourselves to stand up and speak out, someone eventually has to listen.

Let's stop pretending America is the greatest country in the world when it clearly has such a long way to go, and instead force it to become that country, in reality, once and for all.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

True Life: I Just Fell in Love with a Pop Album

(I did warn you this blog was eclectic.)

I'll preface this by saying that no, I don't listen to a lot of pop music. I don't drive, and when I do listen to radio it's usually in a gym or bar, where I have no control over what I'm hearing. That said, I've heard enough snippets of Ariana, Iggy, and Katy to know that there's not a lot of substantial stuff in Top 40 pop right now.

At least, that's what I thought prior to spending this past week streaming "1989" and finding that I couldn't stop listening to it. I've been wandering in a fog of infectious tunes for seven days, unable to get the words out of my head (though to be fair I haven't been trying that hard).

I was embarrassed to admit it at first, but now I'll say it for god and everyone to see: this is a fantastic album. I'm not being ironic; I truly like the music, and I like Taylor Swift herself a lot better having listened to it.

It's not that I've ever harbored a particular dislike for Swift, I just thought a lot of the hype was unfounded. Sure, her previous songs have been catchy and cute, but they just weren't for me (probably because I'd long since left my tweens by the time she arrived on the scene). The most notable memory I associated with Taylor Swift was the media circus a few years ago when she was releasing an album and the blogosphere devoted a significant amount of time and research to figuring out exactly which celebrity fling each song was about. Cue exaggerated eye roll.

But "1989" is different. It's a full pop album, for one thing - and I think the best decision Swift and her team made on this record was to lean into that 110%. Every song has a catchy, current hook, and I have no doubt that any of the tracks would fit in just fine with the current fare on the radio. But what sets it apart from the bunch is what Swift brings to the mix: not just the palpable sincerity she brings to each song but the lyrics themselves.

If you've been waiting for this record in the hope of more sappy ramblings about various celebrity boy toys, you'll be disappointed. Sure, some have combed the songs for hints of this, but I think to approach the album this way is to miss the point. To put it in a very simplistic way, this is a much more mature album. Sure, a lot of the songs still have that trademark romantic overtone, but even the ones that are most reminiscent of Swift's earlier work have a new layer to them, an acknowledgement that sometimes you make mistakes in love, and sometimes relationships have to end, and both of these things are okay. Apart from finding this refreshing myself, I love the idea of 15-21 year old girls hearing these kinds of things, and hopefully taking their cues from them.

As for Taylor Swift's "scandalous" love life? Don't worry, it's addressed on this album in a way I don't think she's ever done before. Don't get me wrong, the record is far from being a "fuck you" album, but the way Swift handles it is almost better, and certainly classier. She faces the popular perception that she's boy-crazy and confronts it head on, namely in the track set to be released as the album's second single, "Blank Space". The lyrics to this track (possibly my favorite on the album) are sharply sarcastic, and it really gives a great insight into how Swift has decided to handle her media-imposed identity. She's done pretending it isn't true that she's dated around, and she's done trying to apologize for it. Taylor Swift knows she's a player, and she's openly mocking our singular fascination with that aspect of her life. That kind of empowerment is something I can't help but applaud.

I think the other misconception about Swift is that she's somehow less intelligent than other musicians, perhaps because of the themes she tends to write songs about. While that not only seems like a ridiculous generalization (I do hate the idea that being smart or "worldly" means wholly dismissing notions like romance), you only have to listen to "New Romantics" to see that Swift is smarter than most people give her credit for. The song is a ridiculously danceable commentary on the Millennial generation, and one of the better commentaries I've seen to boot. The titular comparison between the current generation and the Romantics of the 19th century, angst-ridden and eager for stimulation, is astonishingly apt and I could probably write another several pages on that, but I won't.

I guess what I'm saying, and why I felt compelled to write this when I usually stick to literature and politics, is that I think it's time we give Taylor Swift the credit she deserves. By that I mean not just giving her our money or our ears, but giving her actual respect as a feminist, as an artist who has come into her own and made the praiseworthy decision to use her staggering fame to really make a mark rather than simply searching for the next big hit. She knows that there are literally millions of young girls out there being inundated with competing narratives of what a woman should be, and she's choosing to wield that power in a deliberate, responsible way. In my opinion, that's a pretty big deal.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Required Reading: Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko

"No, America today isn’t a police state. Far from it. But it would be foolish to wait until it becomes one to get concerned." 
(Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko, pg. 336)

I don't usually review nonfiction books, particularly ones about topics on which I consider myself such a novice, but the pure dismay and frustration this book has inspired in me has forced me to change my policy, to advocate for this book as required reading for anyone who cares about the country we live in, and the ways which that country has chosen to enforce law, order, and justice.

If you've been watching the coverage of events like Ferguson and wondering why so many in positions of authority seem downright accustomed to seeing cops in full riot gear, armed to the teeth and more than willing to utilize force and other excessive measures, Balko provides the simple yet alarming answer: no one who makes or enforces law is outraged because they are the ones who have allowed police militarization, who have been allowing it for decades.

Balko manages to walk the line between keeping things interesting and anecdote-based, and peppering the stories he tells with cold, hard, well-cited facts. His book doesn't fall victim to what I'll call "documentary syndrome", where about 1/3 of the way in the point gets lost amid some dry analysis; rather, incident after incident is detailed with care, and every step of the legislative process which has made the militarization of America's police forces such a rampant problem weaves in between, painting a picture of gradual corruption for which responsibility is splashed across departments and divisions from the smallest peon town precincts to the men and women of the federal government.

Historical context is provided, from the origins of policing forces in the Roman empire to the founding fathers of the United States and their fear of a standing army within their new nation. This gives way to a discussion of legislation which began largely following the second world war, laws which allowed for never-before-seen powers for police officers including no-knock raids, laws regulating search warrants which have been weak at the best of times, and eventually the birth of the SWAT team in America. Looking at the evolution of police forces from this progressive perspective, it becomes clear that we've been building to events like Ferguson for years. And a surprising amount of otherwise reasonable people have done almost nothing to stop it.

It is unsurprising that Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were quick to jump onto the militarization band wagon, obsessed as they both were with delivering a victory in the war on drugs (which was essentially just a war on the counter-culture of the sixties loathed by both of them). What seems more astonishing is the fact that liberals Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were and have been just as eager to prop up these laws and even increase police authority in the context of a changing world. Consider that "by the end of his first term, Barack Obama had overseen more federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries in four years than George W Bush had presided over in eight" (301). Sounds strange, right? Balko also reminds the reader of the startling fact that one of the main proponents of much of the legislation that has done away with civilians' fourth amendment rights in police matters is none other than the man currently one heartbeat away from the presidency, good old Joe Biden. Support for law enforcement's use of excessive measures has managed to become one of just a handful of issues that somehow transcends party lines as well as standing the test of time. As recently as 2011 funding was increased for programs enabling and encouraging the Defense Department to transfer their excess military equipment to police departments across the country, and there does not seem to be an end in sight.

More than anything, though, the theme of aggression in the incidents Balko details is striking, even as the names, dates, and purported offenses begin to stack up. Police officers have come to think of themselves as soldiers, as enforcers of the law against agitators who are "other" to them, men and women with whom they do not feel even a remote sense of camaraderie. They use their suspicions of citizens as part of circular reasoning which allows them to justify violent raids which come without any warning and which often result in property damage and even injury or death to individuals who have not even been charged with a crime. Profiling, heavy reliance on questionably reliable informants, and policies which encourage an "intimidate first, ask questions later" strategy, have created an atmosphere in which people fear the police, and in which they are in legitimate danger of getting on the wrong side of an officer who has literally been trained by military personnel, equipped with gear and weaponry that belong in Fallujah, and who thinks of himself as a warrior first and foremost.

Balko tackles the defenses of the continued support of police militarization with similar efficiency and logic. The war on drugs, of which the majority of these policies have been in service, has not only not been "won," but the small victories that have been claimed have really not been victories at all. Drug usage and peddling are still very much alive in this country, and he cites some sobering statistics illustrating just how far the government and the media have gone to oversell the successes in terms of actual drugs, money, and stolen property recovered, even when the facts themselves just don't line up. The other major defense he cites is the oft-repeated notion that cops are in incredible danger on the job, that our increasingly well-armed public poses a volatile threat to them virtually any time they are out in the community. It's due to this perceived risk that many are in support of their local police donning battle gear and driving armored vehicles, reacting with sometimes lethal force during confrontations with suspects. But the statistics don't support this justification. Shootings of police officers by civilians or suspects, while of course tragic when they occur, just don't take place that often. They've been decreasing nationwide for years, and on the whole police officers are not in much greater danger than the majority of citizens they are tasked with protecting: "In fact, of the seventy-four US cities with populations of 250,000 or more, thirty-six have murder rates higher than that of police in America. You’re more likely to be murdered just by living in these cities than the average American police officer is to be murdered on the job” (271).

Police militarization has become such an ingrained part of our society, and it is a systemic issue that will not be solved overnight. Before any real action can be taken, attitudes must change, and before that, people have to pay attention. We can and should be questioning our law enforcement authorities and the way they comport themselves on the job. We should be calling for greater accountability, including but not limited to cameras on the officers or their vehicles, and a detailed federal database of any and all incidents involving a police officer discharging a weapon against a civilian. That's the least that can be done. The way we look at violence needs to change, too. We have become too accustomed to it; we expect it, especially from the police. And if we allow our expectations to continue to align with the policies currently in place, we will only see more of the same treatment, more of the same mistakes, more of the same violence against potentially innocent people.

It's important to note that this is not a problem to be solved by responding with the same kind of violence and ignorance to which many of these officers have been trained to default. Calling all cops pigs, or antagonizing the local beat cops you see on your walk to work, will not fix what is a corrosive problem that trickles from the top down, and not the other way around. Balko is particularly adamant on this point, including this in the book's conclusion:

"In the Introduction, I noted that this is not an anti-cop book. And it isn’t. Despite all of this, there are still good cops. A lot of them. But we have passed laws and policies that have elevated police officers above the people they serve. As Tim Lynch has written, you could make a good argument that police should be held to a higher standard than regular citizens. And you could make a good argument they should be held to the same standard. But it’s hard to conceive of a convincing argument that they should be held to a lower one. But that’s exactly what we’ve done” (336).

Maybe you think people like Balko and myself are overstating the problem. Maybe you trust the police to do what's in your best interest, despite all the empirical evidence to the contrary, or maybe the possibility of police abuses and brutality is just something you don't like to think much about. But even if that's true, this is a matter of our constitutional rights being bent, manipulated, and at times outright ignored. A quote from a Philadelphia PD spokesperson appears in the book's concluding chapter that sums it up pretty well: "Officers’ safety comes first, and not infringing on people’s rights comes second." Sentiments like that from high-ranking members of law enforcement may not worry you, but if you're paying even a little bit of attention, they really should.

Monday, September 1, 2014

People, Not Property: Why Clicking That Link Makes You Part of the Problem

Maybe it stems from the mythology of Adam and Eve -- Eve was produced from the rib of Adam, and therefore was an extension of him. Maybe subconsciously men still think women are theirs to create, theirs to control. It wouldn’t surprise me, given this latest scandal.

Since I read the first post about this latest celebrity photo leak, I have felt absolutely sickened. I wasn’t thinking about the men who are trying to profit off the photos, or the many voices that have chimed in across the internet arguing the semantics of what it means to put a woman’s nude photo on a public forum without her consent. I was thinking about the women in question, whether they spent the weekend hiding under the covers, afraid to leave their houses and go out to face the world; or even worse, if they have to go to work today or tomorrow and wonder if their colleagues - people they know and trust - looked at the photos, if they’re thinking about them, if they shared them with other strangers.  The mere thought of that level of humiliation makes me want to curl into the fetal position, so I cannot possibly imagine what they are going through.

Even if you think of yourself as a person who would never end up in this situation (although this belief in itself smacks just a little bit of victim blaming), think for a minute about your own life, your own embarrassing moments, of things out in the world you know could one day come back and haunt you. Think of a photo you took because you wanted to spice things up with your significant other, or even just a photo you took because damn, your ass looked really good that day. Think of the silly text messages you send to your friends which, taken out of context, could easily be misconstrued as something bizarre or even mean.

Because the problem is that yes, these women are in the public eye, but that in no way means they’ve surrendered their right to privacy when it comes to this. The point, and the reason many women across the world are appalled by this leak and the way it’s been handled, is because those photos were never intended for public consumption, much less public judgment. These women were taking photos intended for their partners, or maybe even just for themselves, and to think that you, the anonymous masses of the web, have somehow earned the right to invade that personal, private space, is both delusional and cruel.

The issue in this particular case comes down to body autonomy, something all people are entitled to, but which women in our society are rarely granted in full. Members of the female gender should have just as much freedom as men to make choices about their bodies, whether those choices emerge in the arena of reproductive rights, sexual activity, or merely the ability to choose who does or does not see them naked. Maybe these actresses take pride in the fact that they haven’t done a nude scene in one of their films or tv shows; maybe they just don’t care to become another body for the world to pass judgment on. The point is, it’s their choice, and when people commit acts like this, when other people conspire and spread access to photos like this, they are actively and maliciously taking that choice away. It might be well-disguised by the sleek veil of modern technology, but this photo leak is essentially no different from taking an upskirt photo on public transit, or peeping in someone’s bedroom window in the hopes you’ll get to see them changing clothes. You wouldn’t hesitate to call a person who pursues those sorts of things a creep (or worse), so it begs the question: if you were one of the people who clicked over to look at these celebrity photos, if you were one of the people who used them in some manner for your own enjoyment (or even just to attract traffic on your own media platform), what exactly does that make you?

Monday, June 30, 2014

What Moral High Ground? The Hypocritical States of America

(appropriately for the below discussion, this comes up on the first page of google images for the word 'america')

Before you ask, yes. Yes, of course I'm angry about the gender equality implications of today's Supreme Court ruling. I am livid, because I have half a brain and I know what the word 'freedom' means, and I know that today was a gargantuan leap backward in the pursuit of it.

But plenty of reactions sharper and more insightful than any I could throw in the mix have already been entered into the cybersphere. I'm glad that my fellow women (and many men) are angry. I'm glad people are paying attention. What I'm more interested in, though, is what fewer people are talking about; what fewer people have noticed. I'm interested in the ideological implications of a national leadership that purports to be the greatest in the world, yet attempts to justify decisions like this.

It's probably the result of the particular juxtaposition of the radio station news broadcasts I listen to at work, but today I heard about two stories more than any others: the Hobby Lobby decision, and the current goings-on in Iraq where ISIS is gaining ground each hour (at least, to hear the mainstream news tell it, that's what is happening). As I sat there at my desk, silently fuming over what idiots the people who get to run the world sometimes are (a habit of mine, I'm afraid), I realized there was a kind of nauseating irony at play.

Precisely the same people who've spent the better part of the past few weeks shouting and mudslinging and criticizing the executive branch's handling of the deteriorating situation in Iraq are the people lauding the bold decision made by the Supreme Court today. That is to say, the exact people who feel we aren't doing enough to stop a group with a specific religious ideology from infringing on the liberty of their fellow citizens across the ocean are applauding different group's efforts to do the same thing right here within our borders.

Let that sink in for a second.

The time has come for the United States government, at least the very conservative and those who allow them to run amok, to admit that they envision a nation that is so oppressive and close-minded that they might as well rip the Constitution to shreds right now. You can have religious freedom, they're saying, as long as it's freedom to be Christian and Christian only. You can be a modern woman, as long as you do it in a way that conforms to a very specific 1950's-era set of criteria and never, ever allows you to hold more power than your male counterparts. You can even be gay, and hey, we'll let you get married, but we're still going to allow the sweeping majority of the country to belittle, victimize, shame, and even kill you while we stubbornly look the other way.

The members of ISIS belong to a religious sect in Iraq that, without getting too far into the details, holds a drastically different belief about who ought to lead their nation than their opponents. They are willing to lie, cheat, and endanger lives for that belief. Is there anyone out there who truly can't see how eerily this resembles our do-nothing Congress and its perpetual thirst for trying to impeach President Obama, casting him as an "other" and calling the very foundations of the system that allowed him to become our nation's leader into question?

People in positions of authority (mostly men) keep showing up on television, on the radio, and in print insisting that we need to do something about Iraq's descent into religious sectarianism. They insist until they're blue in the face that we brought American values to Iraq so that they could be just like us, democratic and free from oppression based on trifles like their individual beliefs, or which reproductive organs they do or do not possess.

I'm not claiming that the Supreme Court, or the collection of impotent bags of hot air that we call Congress, are on a level with terrorists, at least not in terms of method. They would never be so blunt and sloppy in their machinations. I'm saying there's a similarity behind both brands of madness that we need to wake up and acknowledge. There's a lack of open-mindedness, of basic compassion, that is appalling to see in any public servant, let alone the majority. If it doesn't worry you, you aren't paying close enough attention.

The men running this country are bigoted, and obsessed with the idea that everyone else should conform to, or at least fall under the jurisdiction of, their particular beliefs. I'm just saying, if that's not zealotry, I don't know what is.