Thursday, September 13, 2018

What Just Happened in Northeast Massachusetts [UPDATED]

Dozens of fires and explosions broke out in three small Massachusetts cities tonight. Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover have been evacuated, and power has been cut off to prevent more houses from blowing up. People are injured. Many have lost their homes. And at least one man is dead, because his chimney fell onto his car.

The news isn't talking about causes except to say it was an overpressurized gas line. How did the gas line get overpressurized? How did it get so overpressurized that dozens of separate buildings, across three separate municipalities, actually exploded? No one is willing to say yet, because the obvious culprit is an energy company and speaking too soon might get a paper or TV station sued. The Governor of Massachusetts has gone on TV to say that we can talk about causes after people are back in their homes, which is fair enough as far as it goes. But there's still no timeline for getting people back in their homes.

But it's hard to see a whole lot of other explanations here. Columbia Gas of Massachusetts was planning to do some upgrades in the area today, and now all three cities are a disaster area. And the company's enjoying a whole lot of public deference, considering those facts.

I still have friends in that area, because I went to high school in Lawrence. I was actually planning a visit for next week.

For those of you who aren't from the area, Lawrence is one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts, with a heavy minority and immigrant population. It's squeezed right up against the very affluent Andover and the more economically mixed North Andover. Lawrence has three times the population of the other two cities, squeezed into a smaller area. It was basically carved out as a separate city for factory workers back when the Merrimack River was a booming industrial belt. The point was that those workers would not share a town with their more affluent neighbors.

Lawrence is more than three-quarters Latinx. It has the lowest per-capita income in Massachusetts. Andover is more than ninety percent white, with a median household income over a hundred and ten thousand a year. And it's the home to an extremely wealthy prep school, Phillips Andover Academy. Phillips Andover is the boarding school where the Bushes went. So somehow this disaster managed to set both a poor city and a rich one on fire.

I'm not going to exaggerate Lawrence's poverty. It's not some fearmongering cable-news fantasy of The Ghetto. It has some perfectly nice middle-class neighborhoods. The school I went to, a regional Catholic school, has a good share of affluent students. But Lawrence definitely did not need this, and it won't be easy for a lot of the people affected to recover. This is a major disaster, and Columbia Gas needs to explain.

[UPDATE: Columbia Gas of Massachusetts is now officially the villain here, just because their disaster response has been so un-responsive. The Governor, Republican Charlie Baker, has declared the region a disaster area so he can take cleanup away from Columbia Gas and hand it over to another, more functional, gas company. This happened after Baker and Elizabeth Warren got a tour of Lawrence 1. filled with catastrophic damage and 2. empty of Columbia Gas repair crews. The Mayor of Lawrence denounced Columbia at length, in damning detail, on live TV. So the most likely suspects behind the disaster have been conspicuously unhelpful in fixing their damned mess.]

cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, not here.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

I Am Part of the Resistance Inside King Lear's Court

King Lear is facing a test to his monarchy unlike any other faced by a fictitious British monarch. It is not just that he parceled out his kingdom and left himself nothing. Or that the country is bitterly divided between his scheming, ungrateful daughters. Or even that the kingdom may soon be overwhelmed by French invaders.
The tragedy – which he does not fully grasp – is that many of his own followers are working diligently from within to frustrate his goals.
I would know. I am one of them.
To be clear, ours is not the mealy-mouthed “resistance” of Cordelia and her sore-loser followers. We strongly believe in the division of this kingdom into unstable warring duchies. But we believe our first duty is to unchecked, unreasoning monarchical authority, and the King’s continued ravings bring autocratic one-man rule into disrepute. That is why many of his followers have vowed to do what we can to preserve tyrannical feudalism while thwarting King Lear’s more misguided impulses until his o’erburdened heart cracks and can bear no more.
The root of the problem is that the King is outdoors, yelling at clouds. We are not even sure if he knows it’s raining. But whatever he is shouting for us to do, we’re not doing it. We could be hit by lightning out there. If he asks later, we’ll just pretend we don’t understand iambic pentamenter.
Don’t get me wrong.  There are bright spots. Both Regan and Goneril are pretty hot – like, at least eights. We’re all much bigger deals at court than we were before everyone got banished. And seeing the old Earl of Gloucester’s eyes put out was, face it, pretty hilarious.
But these good things have come despite – not because of – King Lear’s leadership, which is impetuous, petty, and obsessed with setting up obscure punch lines for his Fool.
He veers off into long, ranting monologues that force us to check our footnotes. He shows up to important meetings dressed mostly in wildflowers. And he can angrily berate the furniture under the impression that it is part of his family.
This erratic behavior would be more concerning if it weren’t for unsung heroes like us. Some of his courtiers have been cast as villains. But in private, we have gone to great lengths to keep his demented soliloquies out on the storm-tossed heath where they belong.
It may be cold comfort as Britain descends into bloody civil war, but you should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to keep King Lear from messing it up for us.
So when King Lear say orders us to execute a stool for the crime of being an ungrateful child, we definitely don’t do that. And we don’t go bothering Goneril or Regan. We just take away the stool. Problem solved! And also, more office furniture for us.
Also, whenever Lear has one of his crazypants "character-growth" insights about doing more for the poor naked wretches or whatever, we don’t do that either. I mean, that money could go for something useful. We just say, “Ooooh, Your Majesty, how profound! It’s like the mad have really been the sane ones all along! Who’s really blind here, and who’s, like, symbolically blind?” Then he forgets and moves on to something else.
This isn’t vulgar flattery. This is artful, steady flattery. Thou. Art. Welcome.
Given the instability many have witnessed, there were early whispers of crowning some capable, legitimate successor in King Lear’s place to guide our country back to peace and sanity.. But no one really wanted to precipitate a dynastic crisis, especially when basically we already have one. So we will do what we can to steer this monarchy until -- one way or another -- it’s all over. Really, how much worse could it get?

cross-posted from Dagblog; all comments welcome there, not here

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Some Bodies Matter More Than Others: The Judith Butler Thing

This week I started an online petition calling for Judith Butler to resign as president-elect of the Modern Language Association. If you're a member or past member of MLA, I'd invite you to sign it and to share it as widely as you are comfortable doing. Here is a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education making a similar case.

I started this petition because Butler and a bunch of other leading scholars sent a letter to NYU to intervene in a Title IX investigation in which a professor had been found responsible for sexually harassing a graduate student. [NOTE: Link opens Word document.] The case had already been adjudicated, and the verdict was in. Butler and various other big-shots were trying to lean on NYU to minimize the harasser's punishment. They should all know better. But what sets Butler's action apart is not just she was the first signature on the letter but that she explicitly signed as:

Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor, Department of Comparative Literature, University of California, Berkeley, President-Elect, Modern Language Association (2020)

The last part is the biggest problem for me. Because the point of including that title is to add more clout to Butler's signature. That letter is about marshaling clout on the abuser's behalf. And it is beyond outrageous to use the Modern Language Association's collective authority to try to protect a senior scholar who's abused a junior one.

The other signatories of that letter have embarrassed themselves, maybe disgraced themselves. But they were not explicitly speaking as the leader of a major scholarly organization. Butler was. And that makes it impossible for her to lead that organization effectively after this.

I have no particular connection to this case. I don't know the victim, or the harasser, or Butler. I am an obscure scholar, rather than a star like Butler and her co-signatories. I am just a concerned bystander: a member of the MLA who has grown tired of the endless excuses made for sexual harassment in our profession. I heard too many of those excuses when I was a graduate student and couldn't speak up without ending my own career. Now I'm far enough along to have tenure and be safe from reprisal, but perhaps not so far along that I've completely forgotten how this looks from the bottom. If you're another scholar who's tired of the excuse-making and wagon-circling, please sign.

Most of the attention this case has gotten has been about the role-reversal angle, because in the accused harasser is a woman and the harassed student is a man. That's extremely rare. The vast majority of academic sexual harassment cases involve male professors harassing female students. There's also an unhealthy share of male students being harassed by other men and female students being harassed by other women. (For what it's worth, the victim in the NYU case is a gay man, a traditional target of harassment.) Female professors harassing men is not something that never happens, but it's very unusual, because that particular abuse of power turns out to be harder to get away with than the others.

But the gender switch didn't affect Butler et al.'s letter in the slightest. It slavishly follows the establishment playbook used to get male harassers off the hook. It talks about how brilliant and important the harasser is, it talks about what a great person the harasser is socially, threatens the university with blowback if they dare to punish the offender, and personally attacks the harasser's victim. It's the familiar structural problem of professors abusing doctoral students (who are extremely professionally dependent upon their dissertation director, and therefore extremely vulnerable to harassment) and then trying to use their pull to escape consequences. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Many people have various beefs with Butler that I don't. Some people are hostile to feminism, and want to use this incident to discredit feminism. Some people are hostile to literary theory, and want to discredit theory. Some people are hostile to Butler over the boycott-Israel movement, and would like to see her discredited ... you get the idea. I don't share any of those agendas.

Judith Butler is very smart. Her work is useful. I've taught it to students, and would teach it again, this instance of bad behavior notwithstanding. Literary theory is useful and valuable. Feminism is great. And I have no position on the boycott and anti-boycott movements; I am much more interested in the fight against sexual harassment in the academy. The MLA should fight to protect its junior members. If it won't, it doesn't matter to me what resolutions the organization does or doesn't pass.

Nor do I think for a second that feminism itself is discredited by this incident. Butler, and the other high-powered feminists who signed that letter, are not the only smart feminists in the world, and you can find lots of feminists fiercely objecting to their behavior.

Men harassing female students is by far the biggest problem here. But you can't end that problem while giving the rare women who harass men a pass. Yes, women have much less power in the academy than men, and still face enormous misogyny. And that is exactly why letting an occasional powerful woman off the hook will make it impossible to stop men's abuses.

It will never be the case that women in the academy are allowed a set of privileges that men are not. Men will always get away with at least as much as women, and almost always more. There is no achievable future in which women can still harass students but men cannot. Social privilege doesn't work that way. (By the same principle, there is no achievable future in which queer faculty can get away with sexual harassment but straight faculty can't.) If you preserve the old excuses and dodges for a handful of abusive women, abusive men will keep running wild.

Precisely because the number of female abusers is so small compared to the number of female victims, gender-neutral enforcement of Title IX rules still represents an enormous win for women. Holding a small number or powerful women accountable is a small price to pay for protecting thousands, and it is literally thousands, of less powerful women.

Remember, abusers can't do it alone. They rely on enablers, and in academia the enablers have been extremely reliable. We talk about the abusers themselves and the administrators trying to make problems go away quietly. But the real infrastructure of abuse is provided by colleagues. Sexual harassment flourishes in our profession because the rest of us run interference. We look the other way. We hope the rumors aren't true. We give colleagues the benefit of the doubt, but give their victims only doubt. We write letters of support. We have a friendly word with the Dean. Or we just keep our head down and stay out of it, as if staying out were an act of neutrality. Abusers flourish in our field because of our collective connivance, because of what we do but most of all what we fail to do. As a dearly-missed professor once said to me about a case of sexual abuse in my old graduate department, "These are supposed to be enlightened guys, but they stick together like the fucking mafia." It's not any one criminal act that's the problem. It's the ongoing structure of conspiracy. And women, as well as men, have helped to protect the abusers.

The abuser in the NYU case is one person who harmed another. The letter trying to get that abuser out of punishment is an institutionalized response aimed at enabling future abuses. Protesting against one instance of punishment is only a means to the larger end of preserving senior faculty's privilege of impunity. That is what needs to end. No more letters to the deans pleading for harassers. No more lending our reputations to wrongdoers' cause. Judith Butler wasn't just standing up for one colleague in trouble. She was standing up for an old, corrupt, and long-standing way of doing business. The time for doing business that way is over. We should never look back.

cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, not here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The International League of Dark Money

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are bent on destroying the peaceful international order that the United States built after World War II. They're hostile to the World Trade Organization, NATO, you name it. But Trump is not the only complicit American here. Because Trump and Putin are champions are a very different, more lawless international order, which many wealthy Americans participate in and derive benefit from: the international league of dark money.

Whatever else does or doesn't bind Trump and Putin, they're united by their dependence upon international money laundering, which moves large amounts of cash across borders in disguised transactions. Putin's oligarchs routinely move their dirty money into the West through shady means, and Trump's real estate business has become heavily dependent on Russian customers whose money should not be examined too closely. The Trump Organization may not actually launder money, but they accept a lot of well-fluffed money straight out of the laundry room. Both Trump and Putin have strong vested interests in keeping the dark money flowing and keeping it out of sight.

They're not alone. There is a robust international infrastructure of shell companies, off-shore banks, and shady middlemen devoted to moving money around while disguising where it comes from. This is especially convenient for people who can't admit where how they got that money or even that they have it. Money laundering allows corrupt government officials in Russia or Nigeria to spend their graft in the West. It allows organized criminals to spend their profits from drugs, gun-running, and human trafficking. And it allows international terrorists to fund operations overseas. So there are strong reasons for the world community, working through the post-WWII international order, to close the flow of laundered money down.

Without access to money laundering, big-time criminals would not be able to use most of their ill-gotten money, because to spend it they would need to explain where they got it. Without access to money laundering, money stolen by corrupt officials could only be spent in the same country those officials help to impoverish. Without money laundering, terrorists could not support sleeper cells in foreign countries or fly volunteers to battle areas. A world where every bank transaction was transparent and on the level would be a better and safer place.

But the money-laundering infrastructure also enables tax evasion. (I mean, no one launders money so they can pay taxes on it.) And many wealthy and prominent people in America and the rest of the developed West use their legal resources to evade taxes. They use shelters and shell companies and foundations to avoid paying their full share of the tax burden, to pass on multi-million-dollar inheritances tax free, and to disguise some of the ways they spend their money. Take a look at the Panama Papers some time, which opens to a window on a single law firm's efforts to get around tax laws for its clients. You see both Russian oligarchs and Western celebrities and politicians, including a former British Prime Minister, in those pages. Lots of nominally law-abiding people rely on offshore accounts and tax havens and largely fictitious legal entities to keep from paying taxes like the rest of us. Closing down the money-laundering system on criminals and terrorists would also close down the tax-evasion system on otherwise legitimate rich people. After all, they're the same system.

Trump and Putin want a world where legal and financial accountability stops at every border, where moving money overseas moves it out of the authorities' sight forever. The existing maze of international loopholes, which already allows tens of billions of secret dollars to flow through anonymous bank accounts, is still too transparent for them. So they want to destroy any lawful international agencies which might have the tools to close down the dark money. They want a world without effective international institutions, because only international institutions can effectively fight money laundering.

But you will find plenty of well-placed Americans and Europeans who don't want international financial controls, either. They want their shell companies and make-believe charitable foundations and secret accounts in the Caymans. They might not care much for Putin. They might detest the jihadists or the Mafia or the Crips. But they won't support the steps necessary to close down Putin or the Crips, because that would mean closing down other businesses that they actually own. It is just one of the many ways that elements of our ruling class are complicit in Russia's attacks on this country.

cross-posted from Dagblog; please comment there, not here

On the

Sunday, June 10, 2018

What Kim Jong-Un Wants

What does Kim Jong-Un want from this week's summit from President Trump? More than anything else, he wants what he has always wanted, like his father and grandfather before him: to split the U.S. off from its allies South Korea and Japan. The worst part is, he is already getting what he wants.

Now, I am not in any way an expert on Korea. But no Korea experts are involved, or apparently allowed to participate, in Trump's North Korea summit. Trump himself has openly refused to prepare for this summit, raving about how his first impression of Kim's body language will tell him everything he needs. [Pro tip: if you are planning to make a crucial strategic decision based on an adversary's body language, do not let the adversary know that. Too late, I understand.] That I know more about Kim Jong-Un's goals than the President of the United States is a scandal. I'm just a random person who tends to remember what he reads in the newspaper.

One of North Korea's longstanding diplomatic goals, maybe on a tactical level their most important goal, has been bilateral peace talks with the United States, meaning two-way talks, just us and them. The United States has refused, insisting since the George W. Bush administration on six-way talks instead. And for many years, we did participate in those six-way talks, refusing North Korea's requests for one-on-one sidebars. Our official reason for demanding six-way talks has been that if the North Koreans are building nuclear weapons, all of North Korea's neighbors need a seat at the table. I mean, that's true enough.

The six-party talks from 2003 to 2009 involved the U.S., North Korea, Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan. Why would we insist on the presence on Russia and China, who aren't always particularly helpful to us? Because we refused to be in a room with North Korea without South Korea and Japan there. The North Koreans could bring their friends, because we weren't showing up without ours. If North Korea wanted to talk to us, they have to talk to our regional allies, too. Because we were never hanging Japan and South Korea out to dry. That was our longstanding, bipartisan position.

Trump's two-way summit gives the North Koreans what they have long wanted: a chance to deal with us separately from the South Koreans. Just giving them that is a major concession. A lot of people have focused on the fact that giving them a presidential-level meeting is also a massive gift, and that the normal plan would be for Kim to have to earn a face-to-face with POTUS by giving concessions and having a deal almost done. But any meeting with the North Koreans that doesn't involve the South Koreans is an even bigger concession, maybe the biggest.

Kim Jong-Un wants, more than anything, to get the United States out of his potential sphere of influence. Because what he ultimately wants is South Korea. He doesn't want to negotiate peaceful reunification. He wants to unify Korea by taking the rest of it over, and the thousands of American troops in South Korea make that impossible. If he could do that without a shooting war, negotiating reunification on his terms by using the threat of military force, I think he would. But he may also like his chances in a straight military rematch with South Korea. But he knows he can't fight us. He wants us to leave, so he can use his military muscle on South Korea (and, secondarily, to intimidate Japan). This is why there was a flare-up a few weeks ago after regularly scheduled joint drills between the U.S. and South Korean military. Kim hates that most of all.

Now a normal president of the United States roped into two-way talks with the North Koreans would still not sell the South Koreans out, or the Japanese. Obama and Bush refused to hold two-way talks with Kim's government, but if they had they would have kept America's commitments to its allies clearly in mind. But those commitments have never fully entered Trump's mind. He does not value America's international commitments and instinctively dislikes them. Jis recent misbehavior at and after the G-7 summit makes that all too clear. And Trump is, unfortunately, stupid. He is more than capable of giving away Japan and South Korea's security without thinking.

In fact, he is stupid enough that he's eager to do that. He's already mouthed off about pulling all US troops out of South Korea, which would be Kim Jong-Un's geopolitical wet dream, and Trump is not smart enough to make Kim trade for that. He's talked about that as something he wants. It's like holding a summit with Fidel Castro in 1964 and suggesting, during the run-up to the meeting, that it might be easier just to get rid of Miami.

Can Trump be trusted to protect South Korea's interests? Two years into his administration, he has not appointed an ambassador to South Korea. I don't mean hasn't gotten one through the Senate. I mean, hasn't given the Senate a name. Any name. And Japan is one of the G-7 countries at which he was venting his intemperate toddler fury this week. You tell me: can a man who gets into a fight with our closest ally over milk be trusted to protect the security of our Asian allies?

Kim Jong-Un has already won. This week, he gets to find out how much he's won.

cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, rather than here.