Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Santa Clara University's Law School Dean: Lisa Kloppenberg

The art of evading questions isn't hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to dissemble that their substance and character are a disaster. I apologize to Elizabeth Bishop for the aforementioned lines, but not to Dean Lisa Kloppenberg of Santa Clara Law School, who has mastered the art of the non-answer answer. (She signs off emails with "LEARN LEAD SERVE" in all caps, as if her subconscious is trying to tell her something.)

All across America, institutions have failed. I'd write that they "are failing," but the election of Donald Trump and nomination of Hillary Clinton reveals we are in a post-past tense, past participle situation. Local leaders aren't much better, but thus far, the public has been lulled to sleep by milquetoasts using federal loans and tax breaks (e.g., nonprofit status) to rule with an ivory fist. 

We are now at a point where an alumnus who has given his alma mater one hundred or so thousand dollars cannot park on a mostly empty campus without receiving the kind of treatment for which soldiers on the East German side would have been honored. For more, scroll all the way down for the first email and work your way up. Castigat ridendo mores

Bonus: the references to Germany are deliberate and extend beyond Dean Kloppenberg's last name. Santa Clara University is a Jesuit/Catholic institution. From William Hinckle's If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade (1973). 



Given a choice between an evasive, asinine answer and receiving excrement in the mail, I'd choose the latter every time--it's more honest. Your non-response response--the hallmark of ineffective leaders everywhere--misses almost every complaint I raised: 

1. By charging seminar/event attendees for parking while charging others nothing, SCU is seeking profit opportunity through arbitrary discrimination. Any institution that acts arbitrarily loses the moral high ground, an interesting point to note for a campus proud of its ethics center. (On another note, if you see me at a seminar on campus, I wandered in by mistake after using the cafe.) 

2. By charging alumni for parking at all rather than providing it free to those who can show an alumni card during non-peak parking hours, SCU is weakening ties between itself and its alumni--and therefore its own brand. (I'm not a dean, but I can deduce that brand destruction shouldn't be part of the job description.) 

3.  The campus security employee should have called his supervisor immediately when requested to do so rather than escalate the situation by demanding the alumni's name and license plate number. (Fascism comes in many forms, but it often creeps up slowly around manicured lawns until it drives away all dissenting voices.) 

I'm sure you have bigger and better ideas to contemplate, but I'm also certain a leader who cannot resolve simple issues or who avoids them entirely will not garner the respect necessary to take on meatier issues. Good luck. 

Matthew Rafat, Esq. 
Class of 2002

On Tuesday, April 24, 2018, 11:11:46 AM PDT, Lisa Kloppenberg <lkloppenberg@scu.edu> wrote:

Dear Matthew,

I've looked into the reasons for the charge. SCU charges a fee to attend all for parking to attend events on campus and that after 5 p.m. the fee is $5.00. I'm sorry that this distresses you, although (as I mentioned), there is ample free parking available after 5 p.m. on the streets near campus. No money goes to the Law School from the parking fee and it's not something we can change. 

I'm glad you attended, and hope you enjoyed the Privacy Law event. I was glad to hear that our student organizers warned people ahead of the time about the fee on the event page. Registered attendees also received email reminders 2 days prior to the event including the parking fee (although if you registered last minute you may not have seen this). 

I realize that this won't resolve your underlying concern about why SCU charges, but I hope that on balance it's worthwhile for you to return to campus and attend select events. I understand that we did not charge or require any IAPP membership for SCU persons who registered, which is in itself a nice value that we provide for alumni.

Best wishes, Lisa

On Wed, Apr 18, 2018 at 8:55 PM, Matthew Rafat <willworkforjustice@yahoo.com> wrote:
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today about parking. I am not a dean or law professor, but it doesn't seem logical to bilk only law seminar attendees for parking after 5pm while giving others with similarly reasonable reasons a free pass for being on campus. 

Additionally, it doesn't make sense to charge alumni for parking on campus at all unless there is overcapacity due to an extremely popular event. In my case, I had to argue with the security guard and request he speak to his supervisor multiple times before I got any kind of response, after which he and his supervisor decided the "right" course of action was to take down my license plate and get my name. Here is the video: Santa Clara University: Charging Parking Only to Seminar Attendees 

An institution's reputation is contingent on its alumni and how it treats its alumni. Your school is becoming a haven for people who follow orders and rely on connections and money rather than a place where wisdom and courage flourish. Please forward this email to Philip Beltran, Director of Campus Security. He and the rest of campus security staff lack public email addresses. 

Matthew Rafat, Esq. 
Class of 2002 

Lisa A. Kloppenberg
Dean & Professor of Law
Santa Clara University
School of Law
(408) 554-4362


Random Thoughts Edition (Daniel Ellsberg, George P. Schultz) (April 2018)

1. Humanity's most damning flaw in the modern information overload era is its over-reliance on sight and visual images. Such over-reliance on a single sense leads to an inability to understand the varied reasons a result has occurred. 

For example, most Americans waste time mocking the current--or any--President when it should be clear his or her views are the culmination of numerous variables and their interplay over the last fifteen years. After all, no four-year data set could justify both 2016 presidential candidates turning so quickly against international trade (e.g., TPP) or immigration while Canada moves in the opposite direction, nor any other "shift" (i.e., globalization and technology have been with humanity as long as it has existed). And yet, almost every single commentator or writer discussing North America's political landscape speaks in short-term tongues. One cannot arrive at an effective solution if one cannot ask the right questions. 

2. A simplistic example of hubris is as follows: a person will argue that Australia is safe because it has strict immigration laws, while another person may argue Australia has been unable to generate Canada's economic gains because of its failure to increase skilled immigration. After a rigorous debate, both sides may agree to an increase in skilled immigration but with stricter regulations and better-trained staff to sort through each applicant's submission. Both educated participants will walk away satisfied not only that they have resolved the issue, but that others ought to follow their example. 

Neither one will realize the reason Australia can discuss a certain immigration policy is because of its geographic location--in the middle of nowhere, walled off from unwanted intruders by an all-encompassing ocean. Neither one of them will realize that without discussing refugees (as part of a shared international responsibility), illegal immigration (which occurs despite anyone's best efforts), assimilation, and funding (for the immigrants and increased staff to vet application), they have not begun to create any comprehensive solution. Finally, neither will realize the role of interest rates, trade agreements, international investment, and other complex economic issues that affect how new immigration staff would be funded. In a world more interlinked than ever, "first-world" educational and employment systems sincerely believe in models where experts study only one or two subjects for years (often from educators often lacking recent experience even in their subject areas) and where the private sector retains a fragmented approach. 

Humility is the opposite of hubris, and humility comes from knowing every situation is Rashomon-like. Furthermore, even if every angle is understood, one still cannot know all the variables that led to a present-day situation being x instead of y. The tragedy of humanity is that its imagination is its greatest asset but to stay comfortable, the brain's limited nature seeks a specific rationale, which then renders imagining a just-as-likely alternate scenario almost impossible. 

3.  Speaking of the inability to understand the reasons for the present-day situation, America looks to be firmly on a path to its new role as the USSR, but with new and improved propaganda. Modern history teaches us that an economy driven by military spending will eventually fail. I'm not going to write about all the different ways America is emulating the USSR's failed model--the deliberate use of sports rather than art, philosophy, or literature to bring the nation together; a disdain for religion, which often provides a cost-effective way for non-elites to discuss timeless issues and to create jobs with a long-term outlook; a willingness to allow the mafia or underground economy to prosper, which then justifies a larger security state than necessary; executive contempt for checks and balances, including from journalists; and excessive rates of risk-taking and alcoholism--but I urge you to think about why nations that succeed in defeating their enemies often become like them. 

4. I'll end on a happy note: I met one of my heroes, Daniel Ellsberg, last weekend in San Francisco, California. 
Ellsberg is still going strong at 87 years old, his mind sharper than ever. Before explaining that "miracles are possible by ordinary people taking chances," Ellsberg covered wide ground. He spoke of modern-day nuclear weapons able to wreak unimaginable havoc disrupting the world through environmental and food shortage effects, not just immediate murder; the March 10, 1945 firebombing of Tokyo during WWII, a deliberate attack causing the murders of 100,000 civilians, more than Hiroshima; Gorbachev being the most recent Russian leader who would work with the United States (and Reagan) on nuclear de-proliferation; Reagan's proposed plan to shift funding for nukes to missile-defense shields to protect both countries from rogue actors, technology he would then share with Russia (Gorbachev was skeptical about the promise of sharing); his inspiration coming from 5,000 Americans willing to be jailed for their opposition to the Vietnam War; and the CIA's attempt to "terminate [him] with extreme prejudice," to "neutralize," or to "incapacitate [him] totally," a fate he escaped because the CIA assets may have believed they were being set up to take the fall for Nixon. 
How would this American hero want to be remembered? As "part of a movement that ended the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons." Will we honor him and his sacrifices by helping conclude what he started?
Bonus 1: "I firmly believe in sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll but I always wear a condom, never take illegal drugs, and can't sing or dance." -- Anonymous 

Bonus 2: at the seminar, I had lunch with Philip Zimbardo and several others, including a now-discharged military enlistee. To give you an idea of the level of conformity in America post-9/11, I'll share the following story: 

Prior to the Iraq invasion, a 2002 meeting was held with George P. Schultz in attendance. (Mr. Schultz is often viewed as the GOP's strongest living intellectual.) After the military enlistee (now an art dealer) raised his hand questioning the invasion, Mr. Schultz accosted him, pointed a finger in his face, and said, "You've been watching too many Gary Cooper movies--we're not going to wait for them to hit us first." The art dealer said he was shocked at the aggressive reaction to his question and now realizes why almost no one questions the prevailing orthodoxy--they don't want to be kicked out of their "tribe." 
"He who walks in the middle of the roads gets hit from both sides." -- George P. Schultz 
Anyone who doesn't understand power only lasts if it stress-tests itself is unworthy of admiration. 
April 24, 2018
To prevent history from repeating itself, our youth must answer the following question: "How do we create a country that can stress-test its ideas even when its leadership is under severe pressure to take immediate action?

Friday, April 20, 2018

Book Review: Dan Gable's A Wrestling Life 2

If you're a wrestling fan, you will enjoy this second installment in Dan Gable's autobiographical series. If you're not a wrestling fan or not involved in the sport (as a parent, student, coach, etc.), you should probably skip this book--it's heavy on details that would appeal only to people interested in American Olympic and collegiate wrestling. 

Before I share the most pertinent non-wrestling details below, I will confess I really like Coach Gable. In contrast to the Brands brothers ("If somebody loses a tooth or breaks a finger, it's not intentional [wink wink], but it happens. It's a tough sport."), Gable stands apart for his decency. This book burnishes his already glowing stature in several ways: 

1.  Coach Gable is a teetotaler. This fact garners special relevance when one discovers that Iowa's Tom and Terry Brands--both mentored by Coach Gable--were raised by an alcoholic father and, perhaps emulating Gable, do not touch liquor. 

2.  Gable is a fan of Mountain Dew. (Why Pepsi hasn't already recruited him, I don't know.) 

3.  He lifted award-winning writer John Irving's spirits at a time when Mr. Irving needed a morale boost, demonstrating Mr. Gable's capacity to inspire people of all stripes. 

4.  He plays by the rules: "I was the type of guy to take it to the limit, but not break the rules." Contrast Gable with the Brands brothers, currently the University of Iowa's wrestling coaches: "It's in their nature to be violent. Brutal, savage, ruthless is how they described themselves on T-shirts at Iowa..." (Sports Illustrated, June 3, 1996, Franz Lidz) 

Note: I attended the World Cup in Inglewood, California, where the U.S. lost to Iran. The Brands appear to have instructed Jordan Burroughs, a wrestler adored by Iranian fans in America and abroad, to stare down the audience during the finals. The audience was shocked by Burroughs' uncharacteristically unprofessional behavior. (At least one of the Brands has flipped the bird at a foreign audience during an international competition.) I'm not calling the Brands unwashed hillbillies, but if I did, I think they'd take it as a compliment. 

5.  In the most shocking bombshell in the book, Gable discusses how he was recruited by the Republican Party to run for office in Iowa, only to have Karl Rove put him off. Rove told Gable, "[Y]ou are done thinking... You do what we tell you now." Gable demurred. 

Coach Gable, a Republican, had somehow been registered as a Democrat and switched when it came time to contemplate a run. He states his political contacts "were all one-sided and have been so since Bush." 

Still, when it came time to take a stand, Coach Gable did so against his own party. He may someday regret openly disclosing working with President Trump's team, but his honesty on matters of importance is undisputed. Stories like these are part of the reason I'm a fan of Coach Gable--he has principles that transcend race, expediency, and politics. Most importantly, what you see is what you get. 
In Iowa City, Iowa. (April 2018)
6.  Above all, Coach Gable cares about his wrestlers. During the University of Iowa's title runs, he appears to have been thinking each second about maximizing every one of his wrestlers' potential. Whenever the University of Iowa's wrestling team failed, Gable expressly blames himself. This habit, this reflexive inclination towards perfection, is another reason so many people are fans of Coach Gable. 

7.  If you've made it this far, take a deep breath. We know Coach Gable always looked for ways to motivate his wrestlers, right? Now listen to this: "Watching Uetake [one of the most successful wrestlers in Japanese history] is where I learned the coaching technique of cracking your athlete across the face to get their [sic] attention or to get them ready." 

Before you become indignant, remember that with any other public figure, such words would be interpreted as malicious or not spoken publicly at all. With Gable, nothing is discounted as a tool to motivate his wrestlers, and like any good coach, he sought to interpret his wrestlers' individual temperaments to maximize performance. Coach Gable, like Coach Bobby Knight, is part of the same breed of old-school Americana: too damn honest to be politically correct, and unapologetic believers in their systems' ability to transform personal and athletic lives.
In the end, it's not just Coach Gable's success that attracts so many fans--he lost to Larry Owings, to Bobby Douglas, and in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1971--his popularity comes from his authenticity, a trait few public figures possess today. America could use more people like him, people who embody America's best traits: getting the job done, and being uncompromising on the issue of work ethic. 

Friday, April 13, 2018

Iowa: Once Fertile, Now Barren

In 2009, after California allowed marriage discrimination on the basis of sex while Iowa's Supreme Court struck down a similar attempt, I wrote, "People keep asking how this could happen in California when supposedly more conservative Iowa allows greater protection for same-sex couples... Gay marriage is a 'threat' if you think your own marriage is falling apart and need an external boost to prop it up. On the other hand, if your marriage is fine, and your friends' marriages are doing well, you probably don't feel the need to butt your nose in anyone else's business. Iowans--who basically gave President Obama the Democratic presidential nomination and therefore his eventual election--are probably on the right side of history again." 

In 2010, I continued to praise Iowa, writing, "The more I learn about Tom Harkin (D-IA), the more I respect him. (What is it about Iowa that seems to produce reasonably progressive people instead of the scorch-the-earth-to-change-the-world California types?)" 

Oh, how quickly things change. It seems an everyday occurrence when Representative Steve King embarrasses himself, protected by a lack of diversity allowing him to make statements that could be described as historically Teutonic. Across the street from the Amana Heritage museum celebrating German pacifist refugees' resistance to local demagoguery, a store sells signs warning intruders they will be shot and the police not called. (I am not making this up.) 
America's Christians used to be non-hypocrites who actually read the Bible.
It gets better: when I was in the audience at Iowa City's World Cup wrestling tournament--Russia didn't show up because Senator Chuck Grassley couldn't secure visas or we're in a new Cold War--an overweight, drunk white man responded to my criticism of horrendous refereeing by ending his sound and fury with the motto of American white supremacists everywhere: "boy!" (Unsurprisingly, the main intermission room at Carver-Hawkeye Arena was filled with beer can totem poles.) 
Iowa, despite its honorable Quaker population, allowed the KKK, including in Dubuque.
The caption states, "Anonymous Gift." 
Iowans will tell you that Iowa is a great place to live, but not to visit. I take the exact opposite view. (I don't try to be a contrarian, but it happens so often, either I'm crazy or the rest of the country has lost its damn mind.) I loved the Hoover Presidential LibraryPresident Herbert "Bert" Hoover and his spitfire wife, Lou, might be the most underrated couple in American history. The Hoovers saved 10 million people worldwide from hunger and built America's reputation for charity: "National character cannot be built by law. It is the sum of the moral fiber of its individuals."
The more things change...
The Amana Heritage Museum, mentioned previously, is small but one of the best organized museums in the entire country. (A gap exists regarding the post-communal Raytheon buyout, but I quibble.) 
Why socialism doesn't work, in a nutshell.
If you have kids or enjoy mechanical engineering, Waterloo's John Deere Museum is a fun family outing, as is Cedar Rapid's National Czech & Slovak Museum
I like big tractors and I cannot lie.
I haven't even mentioned Iowa's best tourism spots: the relatively large Amish and Mennonite communities, testaments to the tolerance Iowans used to possess before they lost their damn minds and the Quaker reserve they were known for. I have always liked Oklahomans, but the Mennonites (not so much the Amish) are competitive when it comes to the title of "Friendliest Americans." Children on their way to school all waved to me, and when I entered a classroom unannounced, a young teacher made his way past sturdy, giggling students to shake my hand. 
Self-sufficient at a young age.
I preferred Kalona to the Amana colonies, which are far more touristy, but I recommend visiting both if you're near Iowa City. (I loved the general store's wild chokecherry jam but the gooseberry flavor didn't take.) 

If Iowa is a nice place to visit, why isn't it also a nice place to live? For one thing, Iowa's landscape is white and colorless, much like its people. It has always relied on outsiders to strengthen its appeal. Almost all the writers from the Iowa Writers' Workshop--including its most successful graduate, Jane Smiley--were born outside the state. Even Iowa's most celebrated homegrown writer, Bill Bryson, spent most of his life in Great Britain. Recently, Iowa's most famous sports underdog, Ali Farokhmanesh, announced he'd be leaving to Colorado with his family. The winters don't help: "Winters were cold enough to kill you," wrote a Writers' Workshop graduate born and raised outside of Iowa. A lack of color may provide the perfect setting to paint your own picture, but it can also present a harsh climate that blinds and repels if a blizzard of hate emerges. Indeed, in the past forty-plus years, other than the wonderful Dan Gable, Iowa has been unable to grow and keep its talent--the up and coming Spencer Lee is Coloradoan by birth--and with Oklahoma City thriving nearby and presenting a kinder and more interesting landscape, it's doubtful things will change. 

Iowa's downward trajectory has impacted even its most sacred institutions: corn and wrestling. In collegiate wrestling, Penn State and Ohio State are the clear leaders, and when Dan Gable dies, it's unclear why anyone would want to join Iowa State when they can learn from Penn State's undefeated Cael Sanderson, be close to Ohio State's charismatic Tom Ryan, or be part of Oklahoma State's rich history of pioneering diverse champions (Kenny Monday, Yojiro Uetake, Bobby Douglas, Eric Guerrero). 

As for corn, it runs on a billion dollars a year from Washington, D.C., a form of white welfare. Today, John Deere's headquarters are in Moline, Illinois, not Iowa. (Someone snarkier than I might remark that Iowa isn't sending America its best people--just drunk farmers on foreign aid.) 

Speaking of billions, Iowa's proximity to two other states with more to offer doesn't help matters. Nebraska's and Oklahoma's philanthropic billionaires seem to possess limitless energy, and it shows. Everyone knows about Warren Buffett, but the reason an NBA team is called the Thunder and not the Supersonics is because of Clay Bennett, one of America's most humble men--and we haven't even mentioned George Kaiser yet. Iowans will point to Harry Stine, but if he's done anything noteworthy in Iowa, I haven't seen it. 

In short, if you're in Iowa, you probably have a 50/50 chance of meeting a coldneck or a decent person. Given that most of Iowa's outperformers are from out of state, I'll take my chances elsewhere. Until Steve King is banished from political office, you should, too. 

Bonus 1: Economists who want to understand Iowa's backward trajectory in such a short time must remember two rules of modern economics: 1) as capital flows into x place, it attracts not only other capital but successful, ambitious people; and 2) the dislocation of a successful person from Place A to Place B results in a 200% variance even before considering first-generation offspring. For example, if an Iranian Muslim or German Jew with sought-after technical skills leaves Iran and comes to America, America receives a +1 while Iran receives a -1. This dislocation results in a gap of 200%--not the 100% your intuition might tell you--a gap made even more cavernous if the immigrant's birthplace expended tax dollars or revenue educating him or her.

Please note Iowa's relative lack of domestic and foreign immigration as well as its proximity to more attractive magnets like Chicago, Minneapolis, and Oklahoma City. 

Bonus 2: In Iowa City, I stayed in a hotel under the Marriott brand. (I usually stay at a Hilton, but I couldn't find any rooms nearby the wrestling tournament.) At the hotel, I was surprised to see several members of Ohio State's baseball team visiting for a game against the University of Iowa. Seeing Ohio's taxpayers pay for posh accommodations made me realize why Midwesterners and Southerners lionize college sports: in a land of domestically and internationally weak private sector activity, sports dictate opportunities for teenagers and young adults where none might otherwise exist, certainly in travel. The same argument, but applied to adults, could explain why voters in these areas are so comfortable increasing military spending. 

Bonus 3Almost no one understands pacifism today, and that's why the Amana Heritage Museum is a must-visit. Without understanding history, a country forgets its character and rehashes old conflicts that should have remained settled and buried. If time is a valuable commodity, humanity cannot expect to spend it rehashing the same issues and evolve in an intelligent way. 

Democratic systems, a relatively new concept, matter because in the absence of corruption, they provide perhaps the only objective view into a city or country's tolerance levels. Residents and would-be residents can rely on voting results to decide whether to move or stay, creating a competition between places that would not otherwise exist in any objective format. (See Bonus 1 above.) The history of humanity is, at the end of the day, the history of refugees searching for physical and ideological safety. Those who moved at the right time and to the right place often strengthened their adopted homes while those who stayed behind suffered the worst fate of all: being forgotten at the world's ofrenda

With respect to the Amana colonies, its original residents first moved from inhospitable Germany to New York and finally to Iowa. Along the way, their beliefs changed, manifesting a delicate dance between local authorities and ironclad belief. 
This dance, this jarabe, is the sum of all human civilization. If the Amana believers would have been able to negotiate with New York authorities, they would have stayed, and the history of New York might be completely different. It is impossible to know whether the German immigrants' pacifist beliefs would have influenced New York in ways that might have led to an alternate universe where 9/11 did not happen, but we shall never know because of the way New York authorities responded to the different-minded people in their midst. 

One could even argue integrity in its most elemental form is the knowing the difference between blind allegiance to the whims of the polity and the appropriate time to diverge. The Amana settlers are still in Iowa, their pictures at America's ofrenda, despite vicious demagoguery because a small band of local sheriffs knew the difference just mentioned, and their courage created a testament to Iowa's tolerance. In their numerous twists and turns while dancing with native Iowans, Amana's refugees gave birth to several noteworthy soldiers and inventions, including the microwave and America's first upright freezer. One of America's remaining Whirlpool plants is in Iowa and not somewhere else because the police and Amana settlers danced the jarabe skillfully a long time ago. 

People want to believe one person can make a difference, but it's probably true in ways we don't imagine and cannot predict. We know, however, that the Eliot Nessian willingness and courage of a few different-minded individuals who stand together against the tide of unthinking mobs and the intolerance of people who talk, look, and act like them, has changed history. 

The pattern is so obvious, it's a cliché. In Muhammad Ali's case, federal authorities wanted to jail him but he was saved by local stalwarts, more specifically a small band of Kentucky police and Louisville lawyers. Today, if anyone calls a Kentuckian barren or backwards, s/he has a two-word argument that will win every time: Muhammad Ali. What will Iowa's two-word argument be? And what are you prepared to do? 

Bonus 4: from The Iowa Review, Winter 2017/2018, Cammy Brothers' interview with James Alan McPherson in 1987: 
Hmmm, no "Anonymous Gifts" from Aryan Nation members? 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Comics: Dennis Hopeless as the Great White Hope

After one too many forced crossovers and marketing gimmicks (another death/resurrection?), I gave up on comic books about fifteen years ago. I know I sound like an irascible curmudgeon--and yes, get off my lawn, please--but I don't understand how video games have become so much better while comic books have declined. Have teenagers' tolerance for low quality products increased, or do they not realize how bad modern comic book writing is? 

We all remember Todd McFarlane's ill-advised switch to writing, and it stood out precisely because it was an unusual, one-off event. Today, comics routinely lack the subtle intellectualism I took for granted growing up. For example, Superman had a villain named Doomsday--as in a Doomsday device--in 1992, so young readers could contemplate difficult questions indirectly and sans black-and-white newspapers. Spiderman's Green Goblin could have been lifted straight from the military's secret experiments, while Tony Stark could be any major defense contractor CEO over the past 50 years (or, in an alternate universe, Elon Musk). Professor Xavier's Cerebro? The NSA's PRISM, of course. The "H" in S.H.I.E.L.D.? It stands for "Homeland." Even "lowbrow" publications like The Punisher provided insights into the mafia through the simply-named Kingpin. 

It wasn't just real-life crossovers that hooked me on comics. As an immigrant, I credit comics for teaching me colloquialisms I might never have learned otherwise. (Heck, I learned yesterday that "bakey" in "wakey wakey, eggs and bakey" means bacon--thanks, All-New X-Men: Inevitable!) 
You can imagine my surprise when I opened a Joker comic at Lee's Comics in Mountain View, California and saw the eponymous character bragging about committing a crime in front of disabled kids--expressly, right there in a speech bubble. The old Joker didn't need such crass dialogue. It was implied he'd try to provoke the Batman however he could. How such unnecessary bluntness--the kind that makes it impossible for readers to view villains as complex alter egos, like Magneto--made it past an editor, I'll never know. Nevertheless, its publication supports my thesis: the adults have left the asylum, and the inmates are in charge. 

Thankfully, I've finally discovered a writer I enjoy in the comics universe: Dennis Hopeless. He's just one man, but his presence gives me hope. I pray Marvel doesn't put him in an alternate universe, kill him, and then resurrect him in "limited run" editions with eighteen different covers. If it happens, though, I won't be surprised. Kids today don't know any other world, one where such gimmicks were isolated incidents rather than constant revenue generators, and where writing met minimum standards. Excelsior, indeed. 

P.S. Yes, I know about Ms. Marvel and Black Panther. It doesn't change my overall thesis: good comic book writing is declining, and a few new characters don't change the trend when so many "new" series are just mashups or rehashes of old characters. Look at the blurb for Rogue & Gambit? Are they trying to tick people off?

P.P.S. Long before school shootings became a regular occurrence in America, The Spectacular Spiderman #71 explored gun violence--in 1982. It was my first introduction to the 2nd Amendment and gun violence issues. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Chaos Theory: Politics in America

I sense people trying to achieve an intelligible synthesis of actress Stormy Daniels, the President of the United States, and society. Let me make it simple for you: it's none of your business.  

Western society has declined because of backlash against elitist judgment that reaches through our private doors and knows no limits. It's not democracy per se that failed, but the lawyers, judges, journalists, newscasters, media executives, and teachers whose job was minding the store while everyone else did the real work that created a sustainable community. 

Gossip is nothing new, of course. Brandeis still has the best lines on the subject: 

When personal gossip attains the dignity of print, and crowds the space available for matters of real interest to the community, what wonder that the ignorant and thoughtless mistake its relative importance. Easy of comprehension, appealing to that weak side of human nature which is never wholly cast down by the misfortunes and frailties of our neighbors, no one can be surprised that it usurps the place of interest in brains capable of other things. Triviality destroys at once robustness of thought and delicacy of feeling. No enthusiasm can flourish, no generous impulse can survive under its blighting influence.

What is Stormy Daniels but trivial gossip? Unlike Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky's affair, not a scintilla of wrongdoing exists between herself and the current president. There is no unequal bargaining power, no lies, and no alleged force. We have only a publicity-seeking character arrested for domestic violence--admittedly a tame episode where we learn the "star's" husband's father was washing laundry in a house not his own--eagerly anticipating a payday even larger than the generous one already received. (Say what you want about Ms. Lewinsky, but her 24 year-old self never wanted or needed cash or publicity: "I never expected to fall in love with the President. I was surprised that I did."

I am well-aware I am defending a man whose actions and words are often indefensible, but unlike my so-called liberal colleagues, I also understand the man comes with an office, one that will remain long after a Presidential library is defiled with a copy of The Art of the Deal. In short, permanence exists even if every gear within its structure cranks towards the chaotic, and it is because of this permanence that we must act according to some principle other than prurience. 

Consequently, anyone supporting Stormy should note two uncomfortable details about the current media storm: it is Ms. Daniels who breached an agreement and violated its terms; and it is Ms. Daniels who was paid 130,000 USD and violated her word, not for a higher principle or to expose wrongdoing, but for more publicity and more money. One doesn't need a high IQ to realize what ought to been a private affair has now become yet another meandering distraction threatening to further erode whatever credibility mainstream journalism and media have left. Furthermore, I do not know who or what will bring down a president, but a person who lacks integrity is not--and should not be--the vehicle that ends this car crash Americans call a presidency. 

I have now wasted my time writing about an incident that should have remained between two consenting adults, with or without an NDA. How many interesting, good people have avoided pubic office because Americans have normalized their role as third parties to the violation of someone else's privacy? More importantly, what principle does America stand for in the year 2018? Obviously not privacy or integrity. Why, then, is anyone surprised the presidential office is held by someone the natural result of such a void? George Carlin once remarked, 

Now, there's one thing you might have noticed I don't complain about: politicians. Everybody complains about politicians. Everybody says they suck. Well, where do people think these politicians come from? They don't fall out of the sky. They don't pass through a membrane from another reality. They come from American parents and American families, American homes, American schools, American churches, American businesses and American universities, and they are elected by American citizens. This is the best we can do folks. This is what we have to offer. It's what our system produces: garbage in, garbage out. If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you're going to get selfish, ignorant leaders. Term limits ain't going to do any good; you're just going to end up with a brand new bunch of selfish, ignorant Americans. So, maybe, maybe, maybe, it's not the politicians who suck. Maybe something else sucks around here... like, the public. 

In my previous post, I scolded an 84 year-old politician for bullying an American basketball player. I knew then I was wasting my breath, and I know I'm wasting my breath now. A society that cannot self-regulate its voyeurism will soon lose respect for privacy and other essential values. Its lawyers will spew more paper, but their paper-pushing will be worthless without a greater menace: a growing and expensive police state ready and able to carry out their words, diverting funding from more useful or compassionate enterprises. A best case scenario where insurance companies run the country even more than they do now isn't palatable to anyone decent. 

I remember speaking with an insurance company lawyer's daughter when I was in law school and mocking her father's chosen profession. She later told me her father wanted her to ask me, "How exactly does he plan on changing the world?" I didn't have an answer then, but I have one today: "By not being an insurance company lawyer." Similarly, you, too, can have an answer when presented with an opportunity to judge a person's bedroom behavior or any other consensual behavior between two adults: "Just say no." 

Over a long enough timeline, given a choice between being a moral busybody and an agent of chaos, I--and anyone else desiring a life worth living--will pick chaos every single time. Apparently, so will the American people. Would that they had better choices. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Chuck Grassley (IA) vs. Dianne Feinstein (CA): the Peacock & the Self-Restrained

Many Californians--plagued by party conformity across political offices and two Senators in office for decades (Boxer: 1993 to 2017; Feinstein: 1992 to the present)--seem unable to understand issues that ought to be simple. I happen to like Dianne Feinstein, will vote for her again if given the chance, 
and know tenured Senators are not unique to liberal states. For example, Iowa's Charles "Chuck" Grassley, in office since 1981, plays the part of cranky old man very convincingly. 
And get off my lawn!
Would Senator Feinstein ever publicly criticize a female college basketball for insufficient patriotism? Probably not. Feinstein's tenure as one of the longest-serving female Senators in American history has been marked by class, dignity, and the kind of intelligence one wishes Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren had. 

Notably, unlike Warren and Clinton, Senator Feinstein's job is secure, and such security allows the taking of difficult, controversial positions; in contrast, jostling for higher public office requires more secrecy and more PR, which favors image curators over truth. We are lucky Senator Feinstein has, more often than not, restrained herself and her staff from using her power to target private citizens--including but not limited to college basketball players--and decided the title of "Senator" was a comfortable enough perch for her ambition. 

Senator Grassley also enjoys a secure Senatorial seat. (America's two major political parties utilized data mining and analysis--the foundation of gerrymandering--long before hackers decided to enter politics.) Because of his political security, Grassley can use his power to go after private citizens who disagree with his views--including female college basketball players in a different state. I am not as old as Senator Grassley, but I come from a time when a powerful man inciting hatred against young female college athletes in any jurisdiction would be considered disrespectful and impolite. Perhaps Iowans--who also elected
Steve King aka "Trump before President Trump"--have different views on Midwestern hospitality. 

Regardless of your political views, it should be plain the problem isn't tenure or even gerrymandering, but the concept of power itself. I do not know Senator Feinstein, but I imagine growing up during a time when women were not respected as equals to men professionally gave her ballast and a sense of justice not easily replicated by the kind of man who would go after a college athlete in a different state merely because some Iowans sent him emails after a basketball game. (Clinton and Warren show that environment matters, but not decisively.) At the same time, there is no doubt the same security that allows Senator Feinstein to take substantive, difficult positions without suffering Russ Feingoldian consequences is the same phenomenon that allows Senator Grassley and Representative Steve King to act recklessly. A system that does not actually constrain power will always be at risk of violating the very principles the system was designed to promote. This is true in any time period and under any system, whether it is Thomas Jefferson using the law to own slaves, FDR authorizing Japanese internment camps with the express approval of the Supreme Court, or Senator McCarthy doing one better than Senator Grassley on the issue of insufficient patriotism. 

But why have politics at the ground level become so heated, so divisive? The power of television and images, magnified by greater technological access, plays a part, but the issue is simpler. Politicians who act as political peacocks, flaunting their colors rather than their principles to get elected, eventually need brighter feathers and louder calls to accomplish the same result. Senator Feinstein, a woman of substance, need not raise her voice at the podium--her experience and record speak for themselves. Only a man frightened that opponents may offer better siren songs bellows without thinking, and we can infer from Senator Grassley's behavior that Iowans may be looking for alternatives. Indeed, Senator Grassley's share of votes has been steadily declining: he was elected by a 70% share in 2004; a 64% share in 2010; and a 60% share in 2016. 

I started this article trying to educate liberal-minded readers but ended up scolding Senator Grassley and praising Senator Feinstein, even though Feinstein also voted for the war in Iraq. (See here for journalist Glenn Greenwald's numerous counterarguments against Feinstein.) My original intent was to share a thought experiment showing why American communities have become fractured. I will end with it below, though the main lesson I had hoped to impart should now be clear: in politics, the exercise of power is key, not the system or party itself. The thought experiment below may impart other lessons, and I leave it to you to determine the content of those lessons.

City 1 has 100 people, including 5 police officers and 5 firefighters. It is 100% white and Christian. 

City 2 has 100 people, including 5 police officers, 5 firefighters, and 5 grant-receiving non-profit organization officers to handle language translation, parks and recreation, and other social issues promoting assimilation and harmony. Its residents are a perfect mix of diversity, and I leave it to the reader to render his or her own demographic utopia. 

City 1 responds to each police call with an investigation. If an investigation does not occur or is not done to the citizen's satisfaction, citizens feel comfortable going to the mayor's office to ask for intervention or greater oversight. 

City 2 investigates only major crimes. Theft under 500 USD is recorded but not investigated due to allegedly insufficient resources. Complaints to the mayor go nowhere at first, but as petty thefts increase, the mayor is forced to take action. She cancels one of the nonprofit's grants and transfers the funds to a specialized unit investigating petty crime. The nonprofit lays off 5 people and criticizes the mayor for canceling the grant as well as the police department for not utilizing existing resources efficiently. The police criticize the nonprofit and hire a media manager to defend their conduct. Slogans ("All Thefts Matter") are chanted by both sides, and the city's readers and viewers see angry complaints on television and in print. After the backlog of petty thefts is finally resolved, the mayor reinstates the nonprofit's grant and unemployment returns to 1%. The mayor decides to issue a bond and raise taxes in the future to prevent similar conflict. Unbeknownst to her, some of the city's residents have left to City 1, citing less tension there. 

Even with its new entrants, City 1 realizes many of its young residents are leaving and decides to hire a consultant to create more "culture" to convince them to stay. The consultant recommends issuing grants to nonprofits to promote arts and culture and laying off a police officer to free up funding for the consultant's recommendations. The council, in a divided vote, accepts the consultant's recommendations. 

To handle the increased workload while maintaining morale, the police department decides it will not investigate thefts under 500 USD. Residents soon complain that outsiders have corrupted the city and say they no longer feel safe. The young and new employees hired by the nonprofits realize their funding may be pulled and criticize the police department's productivity, demanding the mayor look into police officers' schedules and use of time. Soon, residents who experienced petty theft refuse to listen to anyone who supports arts and culture projects and respond to criticism of police productivity with unwavering allegiance to law and order. There is even talk of supporting a new media channel dedicated to conservative values. 

The nonprofits continue to push forward with projects that provide the town with options other than big box stores and strip malls. The mayor wonders why he didn't just issue a bond or raise taxes, but he realizes his city is more conservative and disfavors debt. He asks the police department to change its policy but the police department, encouraged by national police unions, sues him, claiming the mayor's requests violate state law. City 1's lawyers now spend less time responding to day-to-day matters and more time on litigation. Soon, the lawyers request additional headcount, leaving the mayor looking into outside law firms and promising residents such fees will be temporary.

Will the mayor keep his job in the next election? What values other than self-restraint appear necessary for sustainable growth?