Nine thoughts about the police shooting of Kajieme Powell

Huffington Post reports:

St. Louis officials have identified the 25-year-old man shot dead yesterday in an officer-involved shooting that happened only a few miles from where Michael Brown was killed by police earlier this month.

Authorities said Kajieme Powell stole donuts and energy drinks from a store yesterday afternoon, which prompted the owner to call police, according to KSDK. When two officers arrived shortly before 1 p.m., they said they observed Powell acting erratically. He refused to put down a knife when commanded to do so, police said. [...]

In a statement delivered yesterday before a crowd near the scene of the shooting, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said that both officers opened fire on Powell after the suspect came within three or four feet of police while holding the knife in an “overhand grip.”

TRIGGER WARNING: This is a cell phone video of the police officers shooting Kajieme Powell. It shows some context both before and after the shooting. The shooting itself is filmed at a significant distance from the camera and cannot be seen in graphic detail. Nonetheless, the video shows a young man being shot to death, and is disturbing to watch.

A few comments:

1) The video shows that some of what Chief Dotson claimed was not true; Powell was not within four feet of the police when shooting began, nor did he appear to be using an “overhand grip” (which to me indicates a knife raised as if to stab downward, like an overhand throwing motion).

2) Nonetheless, I think the shooting was legal. Powell had a weapon (a steak knife), he didn’t drop it when ordered to, and he moving towards the police officers. As I understand it, police have a legal right to defend themselves, with deadly force, under that circumstance.

3) Nonetheless (again), I think the way the police acted here, while legal, was horribly wrong. Powell wasn’t an immediate threat to anyone until the police arrived; this was not a violent life-or-death situation until the police arrived. If the police make everything worse by showing up, then something is wrong with their policing.

4) For example, why did the police get out of their car so quickly, or at all? They obviously perceived getting out of their car as dangerous, since they drew their guns as they got out, and police aren’t supposed to draw and point their guns if there’s no danger. But when they pulled up, no one was in immediate danger. There was no need to force an immediate confrontation. A slower, calmer assessment of the situation from within the car, or from a greater distance, might have been better.

5) If the police are justified in using deadly force in response to any level of physical threat to police, then police have a huge moral responsibility never to knowingly put themselves in that situation, unless it’s already a life-or-death matter.

6) I’m sure someone will say “what if it had been you there, with only seconds to make a decision?” I have a lot of sympathy for officers forced to make split-second decisions; it’s a terrible burden. But sympathy shouldn’t exempt police decision-making from criticism or skeptical examination.

7) If, instead of a couple of American cops, Powell had been facing a couple of British Bobbies, who do not typically use guns when carrying out their duties, odds are overwhelming that both the police and Powell would have survived the encounter.

8) Impossible not to suspect that a white suspect might have been given more of a chance.

9) Ezra Klein writes:

It is impossible not to wonder what would have happened if the police didn’t have deadly force on their hips, if all they had were tasers or batons. It is impossible not to wonder what would have happened if the police had simply never shown up at all.

It is easy to criticize. It is easy to watch a cell phone video and think of all the ways it could have gone differently. It is easy to forget that the police saw a mentally unbalanced man with a knife advancing on them. It is easy to forget that 20 seconds only takes 20 seconds. It is easy to forget that police get scared. It is easy not to ask yourself what you might have done if you had a gun and a man came at you with a knife.

But there is still something wrong with that video. There is something wrong that the video seems obviously exculpatory to the police and obviously damning to so many who watch it. The dispute over the facts in the Michael Brown case offers the hope that there is a right answer — that Wilson either did clearly the right thing or clearly the wrong thing. The video of the Powell case delivers a harder reality: what the police believe to be the right thing and what the people they serve believe to be the right thing may be very different.

This man needed help. He had a knife, but he also, clearly, had an illness. After watching the video, Vox’s Amanda Taub said, “I keep thinking about the times when I have called 911 because I have encountered a mentally ill person in public who seems unsafe. I don’t know how I would live with it if this had been the result.” There has to have been a way for the police to have protected Kajieme Powell rather than killed him.

Posted in In the news, police brutality | 14 Comments  

Must-Read Jamelle Bouie Article On The Decades-Old Context For Ferguson

ferguson-police-dog

Ferguson protests over Michael Brown won’t end soon: The black community’s anger is rooted in a history of racism.

This longish (well, longer than a blog post) article by Jamelle Bouie, about the long history of official racism in Ferguson, does the most to supply context for the protests (and even the looting) in Ferguson of any article I’ve seen.

Somewhat related: Nobody Knows How Many Americans The Police Kill Each Year | FiveThirtyEight. The fact that we don’t even have an effective system to track deaths caused by police is appalling.

Both links via Obsidian Wings.

Posted in In the news, police brutality, Prisons and Justice and Police, Race, racism and related issues | 1 Comment  

A quick note on Michael Brown’s death and “plausibility”

ferguson-protestor

Dorian Johnson was walking with Michael Brown when they were stopped by Officer Darren Wilson. According to Johnson’s eyewitness account:

…a police car pulled up alongside Brown and him, and the officer—who has been identified as Darren Wilson—allegedly told Johnson and Brown to “get the f–k on the sidewalk.”

The two men told the officer that they were only minutes away from their destination. Johnson said that Wilson backed up his car and asked Brown and Johnson what they just said. Johnson claimed that Wilson then tried to open his car door but the door ricocheted off of Brown’s body and closed again.

Johnson said that Wilson pulled Brown through the car window by his neck, and Brown began to try to pull away. Johnson said that Wilson shot Brown during the scuffle, and Brown managed to break away from Wilson’s grip. Brown and Johnson then began to run away from the police vehicle.

Johnson said that Wilson got out of his car and began to shoot at Brown while Brown was running away. Brown then stopped, put his hands in the air, turned around and pleaded with the officer to stop shooting, since he didn’t have a gun.

Johnson said that Wilson continued to fire several more shots before Brown’s body fell to the ground.

That account is from The Root. The article there includes four other eyewitnesses collaborating parts or all of Johnson’s account.

Some right-wingers have doubted those accounts. On The 700 Club, Pat Robinson discussed the Michael Brown shooting:

“The facts aren’t totally clear,” he admitted. “But this great big guy — this gentle giant, they call him — went into a convenience store where he wanted some cigars. So, he stole some cigars. And when the clerk tried to stop him, he pushed the clerk aside, pushed him down, walked out into the middle of the street.”

“Now, was he high on some kind of drugs?” Robertson asked. “That hasn’t come out yet… But the next thing we understand was he was walking down the middle of the street and obstructing traffic, which says to me he probably was high on something.”

The televangelist speculated that Brown “knew he committed a crime,” but “the police maybe didn’t know about it yet.”

“So then, did this giant man charge the police officer, and the police officer tried to defend himself?” he wondered. “It doesn’t seem like there was some kind of wonton act of assassination or execution. That just doesn’t fit the pattern.”

Over on Ethics Alarms, Jack Marshall makes a similar case:

The witness accounts of the death of Mike Brown that have received all of the publicity suggest that the unarmed teen, after being shot in a police cruiser while resisting arrest, bolted from the car and was shot dead by Officer Darren Wilson as he tried to escape, even after the victim stopped and appeared to surrender.[...]

To those who are convinced that the police are evil, jack-booted racists and that a police officer with no record of equivalent misconduct would shoot down an unarmed and surrendering teen in public, this undoubtedly seems like a plausible scenario. It sure doesn’t to me. I can see one way it might have happened this way: After Brown, who was huge, hurt and frightened Wilson in the car when they fought, Wilson lost his composure, and fired in rage. If that was the case, then he should be prosecuted for murder. Nothing in even that scenario proves or even suggests racism, but Brown was black and the officer was white, and for too many in the African-American community, that is proof enough.

Now another account has surfaced, on that might support Wilson’s account. It is also more plausible, because it both explains and even justifies the shooting. That account suggests that rather than turning from his flight and surrendering, Brown charged Wilson, placing him in legitimate fear of bodily harm.

In both Robertson’s and Marshall’s accounts, that the police officer Wilson might have been the aggressor and acted irrationally is dismissed as not fitting “the pattern” and not a “plausible scenario.” However, neither of them comments on how implausible it seems that Michael Brown, suddenly and for no apparent reason, decided to essentially commit suicide by cop.

Someone claiming to be a friend of Officer Wilson has been telling what she says is Wilson’s side of the story. CNN somewhat confirms this, saying “A source with detailed knowledge of the investigation later told CNN the caller’s account is ‘accurate,’ in that it matches what Wilson has told investigators.”

In this version of the story, which has been widely reproduced by conservative news sources, Brown literally dares Wilson to shoot him:

And then Michael just bum-rushes him [Darren] and shoves him back into his car, punches him in the face. And then Darren grabs for his gun. Michael grabbed for the gun. At one point he got the gun entirely turned against his hip. And he shoves it away. And the gun goes off.

Well, then Michael takes off with his friend and gets to be about 35 feet away. And Darren’s first protocol is to pursue. So he stands up and yells, “Freeze!” Michael and his friend turn around. And Michael was taunting him, ‘Oh what you’re gonna do about it. You’re not going to shoot me.’

And then all of a sudden he [Michael] just started to bumrush him [Darren]. He just started coming at him full speed. And, so he [Darren] just started shooting. And he [Michael] just kept coming. So he [Darren] really thinks he [Michael] was on something because he just kept coming. It was unbelievable. So he finally ended up, the final shot was to the forehead. And then he [Michaelo] fell about two, three feet in front of the officer.

To suggest that a cop would suddenly and for no apparent reason shoot an unarmed teenager is, right-wingers like Robertson and Marshall say, outside “the pattern” and not “plausible.” But somehow, they don’t find it implausible that an unarmed black teenage boy for no apparent reason charges an armed cop, virtually (and in some accounts literally) begging to be shot.

I don’t know what the truth is. It’s possible that Brown irrationally attacked Wilson (and the witnesses to the contrary misunderstood events); it’s possible that Wilson irrationally shot Brown; we just don’t know for sure, and maybe we won’t ever know. But to say shucks golly, it’s just plain implausible that any cop would ever act like that, while not finding anything at all implausible in thinking that a college-bound black kid suddenly decided to attack an armed cop, is an obvious double-standard.

Of course, a similar double-standard was in play after George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin. We were told over and over again that it was ridiculous to suggest that Zimmerman started a fight with Martin (even though Zimmerman was the one stalking Martin in the dark with a gun), but the same people had no problem accepting that Martin attacked Zimmerman for no apparent reason. For young black men to suddenly and for no reason commit irrational attacks is never seen as “implausible.”

* * *

Some more Ferguson-related links:

Missouri GOP: Michael Brown Voting Registration Booths ‘Disgusting’ The person objecting to voter registration is Missouri RNC executive director Matt Wills. Nice.

Michael Brown and the Danger of the Perfect Victim Frame – COLORLINES

When it comes to police mistreatment and harassment, Blacks and whites live in entirely different universes. Which relates to my post above: The white conservatives who declare what stories are and aren’t “plausible” believe that they’re speaking from a neutral, unbiased view. But actually they’re speaking from the perspective of white people who aren’t in a position to be aware of even a small fraction of the irrational police harassment Blacks face.

A comment on “Black-on-Black crime”

Here is a list of donations, protests, and petitions that you can do to help the people in #Ferguson…

The Ferguson Police Department’s Top 10 Tips For Protester Relations

Documenting the arrests of journalists in Ferguson – Boing Boing

Police are operating with total impunity in Ferguson – Vox

Trayvon Martin’s Mom writes an open letter to Michael Brown’s family: ‘If They Refuse to Hear Us, We Will Make Them Feel Us’ | TIME

A local public defender on the deeply dysfunctional Ferguson court system – Vox

Say What?: On Speechlessness, Racism and Respectability in #Ferguson | The Crunk Feminist Collective

The Timing of Elections Matters (Ferguson Edition)

Ferguson: Survey says white people in US have way more confidence in police than black people – Boing Boing

[Post later edited to add in Dorian Johnson's account. --Amp]

Posted in In the news, police brutality, Prisons and Justice and Police, Race, racism and related issues | 32 Comments  

Sa’di’s Most Famous Lines Hang on the Wall of the United Nations

I am a few days late with this post because we had some renovation issues to deal with in my house last week and they left me no time at all to write. The extra time, however, did help me understand better what I want to say about this week’s Sa’di Says, which contains Sa’di’s most famous lines. Here is my translation:

All men and women are to each other
the limbs of a single body, each of us drawn
from life’s shimmering essence, God’s perfect pearl;
and when this life we share wounds one of us,
all share the hurt as if it were our own.
You, who will not feel another’s pain,
you forfeit the right to be called human.

These lines are woven into a Persian carpet created by Mohammed Seirafian, which the government of Iran gave to the United Nations as a gift. There’s a picture of it at the top if this post. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a larger image that I could use to show you where on the carpet the verses are. The carpet originally hung in the main hall in the UN building, but, according to the UN Visitor’s Center Facebook page, renovations have made it necessary to hang the carpet in the entrance of the temporary building on the North Lawn. In 2009, President Obama quoted an older translation of these lines in the first off his Noruz messages to the people of Iran:

You can read some other, more contemporary translations of these lines here–mine is among them–and listen to a lovely musical setting of the original Persian here.

While it would be an exaggeration to say that Sa’di’s reputation rests on the strength of these lines alone, it would not be inaccurate to say that the sentiment they contain, which is found throughout his work, is why people all over the world have been celebrating his work for centuries. Indeed, who would disagree that we are all–or at least that we ought to see each other as all–part of the same body, possessing the same innate humanity, and therefore worthy of the same compassion. Given the ways in which the US and Iran have been dehumanizing each other since the Islamic Revolution of 1979-80, you can understand why President Obama chose to use these lines in the first conciliatory message a sitting United States president had sent to the people and government of Iran in thirty years. Had President Obama placed these lines in their original context, however, while his message might still have been appropriate, it would have appeared far less conciliatory. In his Golestan, Sa’di places these in the context of the following narrative:

An Arab king notorious for his cruelty came on pilgrimage to the cathedral mosque of Damascus, where I was immersed in prayer at John the Baptist’s tomb. The king prayed nearby, clearly seeking God’s assistance in a matter of some urgency:

The dervish, poor, owning nothing, the man
whose money buys him anything he wants,
here, on this floor, enslaved, we are equals.
Nonetheless, the man who has the most
comes before You bearing the greater need.

When his prayer was finished, the monarch turned to me, “I know that God favors you dervishes because you are passionate in your worship and honest in the way you live your lives. I fear a powerful enemy, but if you add your prayers to mine, I am sure that God will protect me for your sake.”

“Have mercy on the weak among your own people,” I replied, “and no one will be able to defeat you.”

Sa’di, in other words, did not write the lines President Obama quoted as a gentle admonition to all people to remember the humanity that connects us all. Rather, he put them in the mouth of a fictionalized version of himself speaking truth to a tyrant trying to use religion to escape the consequences of his own tyranny. The next two stanzas make that truth more explicit:

To break each finger on a poor man’s hands
just because you have the strength offends God.
Show compassion to those who fall before you
and others will extend their hands when you fall down.

The man who plants bad seed hallucinates
if he expects sweet fruit at harvest time.
Take the cotton from your ears! Give
your people justice, or justice will find you.

It’s almost too easy to make a list of people in power here in the US and around the world to whom these lines could apply. What is not so easy is to be responsible and accountable for what those lines mean, not just because it can be dangerous to speak truth to power, but–and this is why the real power of Sa’di’s most famous lines only becomes evident when they are read in context–because it means a commitment to human equality based not on some abstract, intellectual argument, but on the fact that we each have a body that is more or less the same body and that any politics not rooted in this shared physical reality represents, by definition, both a failure of imagination and a failed humanity:

All men and women are to each other
the limbs of a single body, each of us drawn
from life’s shimmering essence, God’s perfect pearl;
and when this life we share wounds one of us,
all share the hurt as if it were our own.
You, who will not feel another’s pain,
you forfeit the right to be called human.

Posted in Iran, Writing | 2 Comments  

Robin Williams, 1951-2014

robin-williams

Oscar-winning actor and comic Robin Williams died Monday at 63 of an apparent suicide, the Marin County Sheriff’s Office confirmed.

Posted in In the news | 10 Comments  

There’s More To Being A Feminist Than Favoring Equality

Cartoonist MariNaomi, who I’ve been anthologized with, makes an argument that’s popular among feminists.

MariNaomi-feminist-cartoon

I think we should stop making this argument, because it’s kind of a cheap shot, and it’s not really true. Scott Alexander, in his pre-Star-Slate-Codex blog, makes a persuasive argument:

Here, let me draw a handy table.

Obviously Reasonable Feminist Beliefs
- Women are not doormats.
- Women should not be forced to stand around in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant.
- Women deserve equal civil rights including the right to vote.
- Rape is bad, the victims must be helped, and the perpetrators must be punished.
- Domestic violence is bad, the victims must be helped, and the perpetrators must be punished.
- Women should have equal opportunities and earn equal pay for equal work.
- Etc.

Feminist Beliefs Currently Controversial In Our Society
- Abortion rights are important and need stronger protection.
- Current pay gaps are mostly the result of discrimination and should be met with government action.
- Women need better access to contraception, possibly with government support.
- There are no significant biological differences between male and female brains.
- Gender roles are not biologically determined.
- Incidents that look like male oppression of women should be punished more severely, and we should be less willing to accept male excuses that it was innocently-intentioned or misinterpreted.
- Etc.

Obviously Unreasonable Feminist Beliefs
- Men are all without exception horrible people.
- Women are biologically superior to men.
- Men can absolutely never be the victims in cases of intersex conflict.
- Everything men do is about rape or phalluses or the patriarchy.
- It is acceptable to use violence to pursue feminist ideals

Some people might classify one statement or another under a different heading, but my point is less that everyone must agree with my definition of “obviously” than that some feminist beliefs are much more socially palatable than others.

Which of these three groups most genuinely represents real feminism? Although the correct answer is that the question is meaningless, the practical answer is that the Feminist Beliefs Currently Controversial In Our Society group is what most discussions of feminism are actually about. There aren’t many people arguing for the Obviously Unreasonable Beliefs, there aren’t enough people arguing against the Obviously Reasonable Beliefs, at least not out loud where people can hear them, so most arguments between the people who identify as feminist and the people who don’t are about the Controversial Beliefs – and those are also where feminists are putting the most effort into changing our society. [...]

In other words, opponents of feminism use straw men to make feminism look wrong beyond any possibility of controversy. Proponents of feminism use straw men to make feminists look right beyond any possibility of controversy. But they’re both straw-manning the other side and in reality feminism is controversial.

I don’t agree with all the details of Scott’s chart (in particular, “Incidents that look like male oppression of women should be punished more severely” seems like an odd argument that I’m not sure many actual feminists make), but his general argument seems correct to me. If feminism stood for nothing but the abstract principle of equality, then feminism wouldn’t be very controversial, at least in the U.S.. But as Richard pointed out in comments, the policy stances implied by equality, in the feminist view, are a lot more controversial.

Posted in Feminism, sexism, etc | 36 Comments  

This is (Potentially) a VERY Big Deal: Hamas drops call for destruction of Israel from manifesto

ETA: When I first read the Guardian article, I carelessly did not look at the date, which is January 12, 2006, and so this is not so much a big deal now. Nonetheless, it is significant that Hamas has taken this position. I will write more about that in the post I am working on, which I mention at the bottom of this post.

From The Guardian:

Hamas has dropped its call for the destruction of Israel from its manifesto for the Palestinian parliamentary election in a fortnight, a move that brings the group closer to the mainstream Palestinian position of building a state within the boundaries of the occupied territories.

The Islamist faction, responsible for a long campaign of suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis, still calls for the maintenance of the armed struggle against occupation. But it steps back from Hamas’s 1988 charter demanding Israel’s eradication and the establishment of a Palestinian state in its place.

The manifesto makes no mention of the destruction of the Jewish state and instead takes a more ambiguous position by saying that Hamas had decided to compete in the elections because it would contribute to “the establishment of an independent state whose capital is Jerusalem”.

Here’s the hedging and the nuance, but I don’t think this changes the fact that this shift on Hamas’ part is still a very big deal:

Gazi Hamad, a Hamas candidate in the Gaza Strip, yesterday said the manifesto reflected the group’s position of accepting an interim state based on 1967 borders but leaving a final decision on whether to recognise Israel to future generations.

“Hamas is talking about the end of the occupation as the basis for a state, but at the same time Hamas is still not ready to recognise the right of Israel to exist,” he said. “We cannot give up the right of the armed struggle because our territory is occupied in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That is the territory we are fighting to liberate.”

But Mr Hamad said the armed resistance was no longer Hamas’s primary strategy. “The policy is to maintain the armed struggle but it is not our first priority. We know that first of all we have to put more effort into resolving the internal problems, dealing with corruption, blackmail, chaos. This is our priority because if we change the situation for the Palestinians it will make our cause stronger.

“Hamas is looking to establish a new political strategy in which all Palestinian groups will participate, not just dominated by Fatah. We will discuss the negotiation strategy, how can we run the conflict with Israel but by different means.”

I have been working on a longish post about the current Israeli invasion of Gaza, but now I need to go back and rewrite some, and I am glad for that.

Posted in International issues, Palestine & Israel | 4 Comments  

This copyright dispute is funny because monkey

macaque-selfie

Andrew Charlesworth at The Conversation nutshells:

Whilst visiting a national park in North Sulawesi wildlife photographer David Slater had his camera stolen – not by a thief, but by an inquisitive crested black macaque. The resulting selfies are causing controversy and raising questions about the ownership of images on the web. So just who does own the copyright when a monkey gets trigger-happy on your device?

Slater was photographing the endangered monkeys when he left his camera unattended. One of the monkeys began playing with the camera and, fascinated by its reflection and the noise produced when it accidentally took a photo, it snapped hundreds of images of itself. Most were blurred and out of focus, but several of the photos produced unique up-close and personal self-portraits of the rare creature.

But Slater now finds himself in a dispute with Wikimedia, the organisation behind the Wikipedia online encyclopedia. Wikimedia has made the images available online in its collection of royalty-free images without Slater’s permission. It argues that Slater does not own the copyright to the images as he did not take the photos.

Although initial news reports made the photos sound like a lucky accident, Slater now says he deliberately created the circumstances for the macaques to snap the photos.

In either case, if we must have copyright law – and I’m not sure we must, but that’s a separate discussion – then it seems clear to me that Slater should own the copyright to these photos.

Even if the macaque taking the pictures was pure luck, in order for that lucky accident to happen Slater had to 1) spend years honing his craft as a nature photographer 2) travel to North Sulawesi 3) spend days traveling with the troop of macaques, making them comfortable both with him and his equipment 4) realize that photos taken by a macaque were of interest and 5) spend the time going through hundreds of macaque-taken photos to find the few that were in focus.1 That David Slater wound up with these photos may have been lucky, but it wasn’t pure chance; Slater put an enormous effort and skill into being in the right time and place to be able to get lucky.

Charlesworth makes an interesting analogy to machine-created artwork:

Another possibility would be to look to the section on computer-generated works in the CDPA. This tells us that if a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work is generated by a computer, the author is the person who makes the arrangements that are necessary for the work to be created. That might be the computer programmer, for example.

While the act says nothing about animal-generated works, it seems a plausible argument that the owner of the camera, who took his camera into the wild, allowed an animal to handle that camera, recovered the camera and downloaded the pictures, should legitimately be able to claim a copyright, rather than an entity which is unaware that it is exercising any creative function. In other words, animal-generated photography should be treated no differently to machine-generated photography.

As Charlesworth points out, this is a case where the original purpose of copyright law – encouraging artists to create and distribute new work – applies. Because it takes so much effort (and expense) to get macaques to take photographs, it’s important that photographers feel they can profit, so that more of them will go through the trouble and we’ll all be rewarded with more macaque selfies to look at.

For a disagreeing view, see Techdirt.

  1. I’ve seen several news accounts state the photos weren’t “edited” by Slater; I’d argue that going through hundreds of photos to find the best few is a form of editing. []
Posted in Free speech, censorship, copyright law, etc. | 3 Comments  

I’ve Lived Until The End of My Desires

I’ve heard more than a few jokes about men who, after finding the proverbial genie in a bottle, manage to screw up their three wishes. The one that comes to me now involves a man who walks into a bar with another man, who is about twelve inches tall, sitting on his shoulder. Without a word, the first man takes out of a case he is carrying a small piano and a stool that he places on the bar. The foot-high man climbs down from the other one’s shoulder, also without a word, sits down at the piano, and begins to play the most beautiful music that anyone in the place has ever heard. Inevitably someone asks the regular-sized where he found this musical treasure, and he explains that he was walking alone on a beach in the Mediterranean when found a bottle with a genie inside. The genie granted him three wishes. I don’t remember what the first two were, but the last one, the man explains, produced the piano player. Someone asks him why he wished for a twelve-inch tall piano player and he says, “Well, it was just my luck that the genie was hard of hearing. He thought I asked for a twelve-inch pianist.” Ba dum dum.

There’s another one, though I only remember the punchline, where the guy gets turned into a tampon because he doesn’t recognize the ambiguity in how he phrases his desire for heterosexual prowess, and there are at least two more hiding somewhere in the back of my brain, absolutely refusing to let me tease them out, so I’m not sure if they also poke fun at the absurdities of conventional male heterosexual desire or if they just poke fun at greed. I am, however, reasonably certain that their humor lies, just like the two examples I gave above, in marking the difference between asking for what you think will make your life easier or better or more immediately profitable and having the courage and honesty to ask for what you really want.

The thing is, of course, that it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. A man with a small penis who has endured the teasing and humiliation that will inevitably fall on him in this society may truly believe he needs those twelve inches, if only to silence his tormentors, both past and future. More to the point, though, his desire to silence them, if he allows it to consume him, would very likely blind him to the fact that a large penis would still not guarantee him love or happiness or even good and frequent sex.

I am, though for reasons that have nothing to with sex, confronted with this distinction between what I think I need and what I really want right now. Like almost everyone else I know, I could use more money, not because I want more luxury in my life, but mostly because I have debt that I need to repay. It’s honest debt, in the sense that my wife and I incurred it to pay for things we could not afford at the time but that we could not put off doing any longer; but it is debt nonetheless, and it is heavy, and I spend more time and energy than I would like thinking about what we need to do to get ourselves out from under it as quickly as possible. Inevitably, this thinking leads to fantasies of all the ways that enough money to pay off the debt might fall, or that I might facilitate its fall, into my lap. These are not paralyzing fantasies, by which I mean they do not prevent me from doing what I need to do to pay the debt off responsibly, but I am conscious of how frequently they grow beyond the goal of balancing our budget to become stories about how “if only we had enough money, all our problems would be solved.”

Continue reading

Posted in Iran, Writing | 11 Comments  

Rob Hayes Is In Jail, And Would Like To Hear From People

bank_robbery

(Honestly, I would rather have illustrated this post with this cartoon. But it looks like that cartoonist hates having his cartoons reproduced, so…)

Several “Alas” folks have asked me if my old college friend and frequent “Alas” comment-writer Rob Hayes is all right.

I’m sorry to say, Rob’s in bad shape. He’s had ongoing problems with money (or, more precisely, with lack of money) and with drug addiction, and in May was arrested for bank robbery.

Yes, you read that correctly. It took me a while to believe it, too. (Insert joke about the free market not being that free here.) It’s worth noting, if you missed it when you read that article, that this wasn’t armed robbery; no weapon was involved.

Rob will be in the system for a while – if all goes well for him, I’m told he could be out in a year – and I hope will get the help he needs. Meanwhile, I’ve been in touch with a friend of Rob’s, and she thinks it would help Rob a lot if people would write him. I know that Rob is fond of the “Alas” community, and I’m sure he’d enjoy hearing from us.

So please use the comments here to post well-wishes or comments to Rob, or even to find some old comment of his you disagree with and give him a counter-argument (If I were Rob, I’d love a good argument.) Short comments are welcome, too. I will print out the comments and mail them to Rob, and I’ll also post any responses I receive from Rob.

Please keep in mind that the usual civility rules of “Alas” remain in effect!

Posted in Prisons and Justice and Police, Whatever | 20 Comments