Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Banned Book Week 2022

We're at the tail end of Banned Books Week, which celebrates banned and challenged books. My archive in this category is here. This year witnesses some familiar trends and some troubling new escalations. The familiar are bans and challenges to books that deal with sexuality or race. What's newer is a more coordinated effort to ban books from conservative groups and politicians, and the level of harassment of librarians, teachers and students.

The American Library Association keeps a list of frequently challenged books and updates the top 10 most challenged books every year. In 2021:

The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 729 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2021. Of the 1597 books that were targeted, here are the most challenged, along with the reasons cited for censoring the books:

1. Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
Reasons: Banned, challenged, and restricted for LGBTQIA+ content, and because it was considered to have sexually explicit images

2. Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison
Reasons: Banned and challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and because it was considered to be sexually explicit

3. All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson
Reasons: Banned and challenged for LGBTQIA+ content, profanity, and because it was considered to be sexually explicit

4. Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez
Reasons: Banned, challenged, and restricted for depictions of abuse and because it was considered to be sexually explicit

5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, violence, and because it was thought to promote an anti-police message and indoctrination of a social agenda

6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references and use of a derogatory term

7. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
Reasons: Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and degrading to women

8. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Reasons: Banned and challenged because it depicts child sexual abuse and was considered sexually explicit

9. This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson
Reasons: Banned, challenged, relocated, and restricted for providing sexual education and LGBTQIA+ content.

10. Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin
Reasons: Banned and challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and because it was considered to be sexually explicit.

It's not surprising to see that many books were challenged for LGBTQIA+ issues; that's been a trend for many years. Meanwhile, nationally in the past few years, conservatives have been coordinating more in their opposition to LGBTQ rights and acceptance. This year, Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, heavily pushed what's been dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" law, which:

. . . bans lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade as well as material that is not deemed age-appropriate.

Most educators do not expect a major change in lesson plans — one of the key reasons critics cited in saying the law was unnecessary was that teachers do not cover such subjects in early grades anyway.

But some worry it sets a tone that will leave LGBTQ teachers and kids feeling ostracized.

"The messaging of this law is horrible. It's toxic, it's discriminatory," said Gretchen Robinson, a lesbian high school teacher in Orange County. "It targets, very obviously, LGBTQ students, it 'others' them, and that is not OK."

These threats aren't theoretical. A recent PBS NewsHour segment interviewed two Florida student LGBTQ activists. One of them, Will Larkins, related that since the law passed:

I have noticed an uptick in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes and general attitude toward people.

I have always dealt with homophobia at high school. I have always been called slurs and stuff, but it has gotten worse since the school year started. A lot of things have happened. Most recently, my sister and I were followed home after a football game by 15 guys, who called us slurs, told us to kill ourselves.

It was really scary. They said they were going to beat us up. They chased us. We got lost in the trees.

The other thing I have noticed really — really that I know for a fact came from this is more of the rhetoric that's coming from the state legislature and our governor, such as the grooming rhetoric, calling queer people pedophiles, has now trickled down to the high school level, and high school bullies are using the same language as our politicians, who are pushing for this bill and other anti-LGBTQ laws.

Larkins also identifies the backlash factor:

I think it's interesting, because, most recently, for the first time ever, queer people have become mainstream. This is a new thing. This is 2010s onward.

And we have gotten to a point where we're being generally accepted by society. So now homophobic and anti-queer legislators and lawmakers are put pushing back against it. And when they're pushing back against it, it is dignifying and it is backing up these bullies. It is telling them that you are right in being homophobic, when, before, we were at a point where these people knew that they were wrong.

But now they're being backed up by Ron DeSantis.

This harassment and bullying has real consequences. As Larkins also points out:

Queer teens are four times more likely to die by suicide than their straight counterparts, and 52 percent of trans youth last year said they seriously considered suicide.

So where's that coming from? That is coming from these laws. That is coming from this rhetoric, and that is coming from the bullies who see it on TV, see it on FOX News and, pick it up, and use it to harm people like us.

On the book-banning and challenging front, Florida is hardly alone. As The Texas Tribune covers:

Texas banned more books from school libraries this past year than any other state in the nation, targeting titles centering on race, racism, abortion and LGBTQ representation and issues, according to a new analysis by PEN America, a nonprofit organization advocating for free speech.

The report released on Monday found that school administrators in Texas have banned 801 books across 22 school districts, and 174 titles were banned at least twice between July 2021 through June 2022. PEN America defines a ban as any action taken against a book based on its content after challenges from parents or lawmakers.

The most frequent books removed included "Gender Queer: A Memoir" by Maia Kobabe, which depicts Kobabe's journey of gender identity and sexual orientation; "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison; "Roe v. Wade: A Woman's Choice?" by Susan Dudley Gold; "Out of Darkness" by Ashley Hope Pérez, which follows a love story between a Mexican American teenage girl and a Black teen boy in 1930s East Texas; and "All Boys Aren't Blue" by George M. Johnson, a personal account of growing up black and queer in Plainfield, New Jersey.

"This censorious movement is turning our public schools into political battlegrounds, driving wedges within communities, forcing teachers and librarians from their jobs, and casting a chill over the spirit of open inquiry and intellectual freedom that underpin a flourishing democracy," Suzanne Nossel, PEN America's chief executive officer, said in a statement.

Across the country, PEN America found that 1,648 unique titles had been banned by schools. Of these titles, 41% address LGBTQ themes or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are LGBTQ. Another 40% of these books contains protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color.

Summer Lopez, the chief program officer of free expression at PEN America, said what's notable about these book bans is that most are on books that families and children can elect to read, not any required reading.

Florida and Pennsylvania followed Texas as the states with the most bans, respectively. Florida banned 566 books, and 457 titles were banned in Pennsylvania, where a majority of books were removed from one school district in York County, which is known as being more conservative.

Lopez said her organization could not recall a previous year with as many reported book bans.

These bans and challenges often aren't due to individual parents. As NPR highlights, citing the same PEN report and also the ALA:

According to the report, the surge in book bans is a result of a network of local political and advocacy groups targeting books with LGBTQ+ characters and storylines, and books involving characters of color.

"While we think of book bans as the work of individual concerned citizens, our report demonstrates that today's wave of bans represents a coordinated campaign to banish books being waged by sophisticated, ideological and well-resourced advocacy organizations," said Suzanne Nossel, chief executive officer of PEN America. . . .

PEN America has identified at least 50 groups working at local, state and national levels advocating for books to be removed from school curriculums and school library shelves. According to the report, this is a relatively recent occurrence. Many of the groups, such as Moms for Liberty, began in 2021.

The American Library Association also put out a report late last week that indicates challenges to books continue to rise. Based on their records, 1,651 unique titles were targeted between January and August this year — in 681 attempts to ban or restrict library resources. The ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom counted 729 challenges to library, school, and university materials in all of 2021 — which rose four fold from the prior year.

The ALA also points to more conservative political groups pushing to ban books in schools and libraries across the country. According to the ALA report, the actions from these groups are mostly focused on YA books involving race, gender, and sexual identity — echoing the findings from the PEN America study.

It's also important to point out that these conservative groups almost always argue in bad faith. In August, the PBS NewsHour had a good segment about parental rights and censorship, which featured an interview with Tina Descovich, the founder of the aforementioned Moms for Liberty, who claimed:

We do not stand by or believe that we are banning books. We want to make sure books are age-appropriate for our children.

And we're looking for solutions together, like I mentioned. There's options to put books in a place where you need parental permission or a practical opt-out or parental opt-in, whatever each local district decides, but there is no hard ban. . . .

Even educators aren't necessarily checking what's, what's in every one of these books. A lot of times, I have talked to school librarians that order books through lists that they have depended on historically.

And so they haven't read every single book that they have allowed into the library. It takes kind of all hands on deck. And when it comes to what our children, especially our youngest children, are being exposed to, parents need to have a voice in that conversation.

This is disingenuous. The NewsHour also interviewed Kelly Jensen, a former librarian and editor at the website Book Riot, which makes book recommendations. As Jensen points out:

Parents have always had a say in their education. They have always had the right to opt their children out of lessons, out of readings that they don't feel appropriate for the students. It's always been a right that they have had.

What the argument that they're trying to make now is that professionals who use professional tools to determine materials that are appropriate for students are not useful tools for determining what should or should not be in a library or a classroom.

And the argument is that librarians and educators can't rely on these tools that are created and sustained by professionals in education, in librarianship, in child develop development, and should instead listen to parents who are trying to undermine the professionals and the professional institutions of education and librarianship.

Jensen also points out that these book-banning groups are more extreme than most conservative and Republican parents:

So they have been successful in getting a number of books pulled from school libraries. And they have had a lot of pull in the legislation that we have seen come out of Florida in particular.

In Florida, here's a good example. To showcase just how small a group this is speaking on behalf of parents more broadly, in Polk County, which is the seventh largest district in Florida, reliably Republican, there are about 110,000 students. And Polk County just implemented a system where parents could opt their students out of a number of books that have come under fire.

And of all of those students, less than 160 kids have had their parents opt them out of access to these books. So, really, truly, it's a very small number. And so what they're trying to do is revoke access to this material for all students, and not just their students.

This is far from the first time we've seen a conservative minority try to impose its will on the majority when it comes to book access or otherwise. My 2011 post for Banned Books Week covered a Georgia school board that banned well-regarded books Brave New World, Of Mice and Men and Native Son due to objections from a local church minister, ignoring the recommendations of twenty educators but also ignoring that school parents gave permission to read the books. My 2015 post on Banned Books Week covered an Iowa school district that banned Sherman Alexie's book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, due to objections by a single parent, "in blatant violation of the district's own policies regarding challenged materials." These conservative groups and individuals reject the expertise of educators and librarians, and despite their claims to be fighting for parents, ignore parents' actual input in any sort of fair, democratic process.

We've explored these dynamics many times for Banned Books Week, but parents already have the right to opt-out their children from reading particular books on the school curriculum. For public libraries, parents can prevent their children from checking out certain books if they object. What book banning is really about is preventing anyone else from reading those books. To quote from my 2010 post:

These are important distinctions. There's nothing wrong with criticizing a book on aesthetic or other grounds, but it's quite another thing to try to deny other people the right to read it. Parents can choose that their child can't check out a book from the library, but they don't get to decide that for every other child, and certainly not for every other adult. For school curriculums, it can get a bit trickier, but such things as age-appropriateness are typically discussed at length. Parents (the most common objectors) have a voice, and while the specific laws and guidelines vary by state, county or school system, parental opt-outs are commonly available.

Perhaps more importantly, when a book is taught in the curriculum, it is discussed in class with students. Parents can also discuss it with their kids. The same goes for books checked out of the library - parents can discuss it with their kids, or not let their kids check a book out. Art is capable of saying more than one thing at a time, and stories often contain ambiguity and room for interpretation. These factors make literal or authoritarian-minded people uncomfortable, but they're pretty unavoidable if you study literature and poetry. It's common for English curriculums in secondary education to try to foster critical thinking skills and a tolerance for ambiguity. Parents who think of education as indoctrination - or who favor indoctrination, only the type they want – tend not to understand or like that.

I'm not dismissive of parental anxieties, but as with questions brought up by students in class, normally they can be addressed. Racial slurs in Huck Finn, The Elephant Man and Invisible Man can and are discussed in the classroom, and that's usually a better, safer place to do so. The reality is that parental discomfort generally emerges when a parent doesn't want to discuss something with their kid. Age and maturity are legitimate issues, of course, but teenagers are often more mature or informed than their parents admit. It's that same maturity, not the lack of it, that can further unnerve an anxious parent. Navigating all this is an important part of growing up for students, and a crucial part of good parenting for the parents. Challenging a book is often just a proxy for deeper issues . . .

We've also seen conservative attempts to fire librarians before (a 2008 post, which links a follow-up piece, covers Sarah Palin's book-banning efforts as Wasilla mayor). But I don't remember seeing the degree of harassment librarians have been facing, as reported in an August Washington Post article, "A Mich. library refused to remove an LGBTQ book. The town defunded it."

Two librarians had quit since the trouble began, and Kaitlin McLaughlin didn't want to be the third.

But the same term kept coming up in board meetings and on yard signs, making her feel awkward and wrongly accused: grooming.

People in this western Michigan farming town said the Patmos Library was "grooming" children and, according to fliers that one group printed, promoting an "LGBTQ ideology." They said bookshelves meant for young readers featured same-sex pornography. They called the staff pedophiles, McLaughlin said. Then one August morning, they voted to defund Jamestown's only public library, jeopardizing the institution's future as neighbors clashed over who gets to decide free speech in this deep-red corner of America. . . .

Jamestown, with a population of nearly 10,000, has Christian conservative roots. Dutch last names are common — a legacy of the Calvinists who split from the Netherlands in the mid-1800s to settle here and practice a stricter form of Christianity. The county celebrates this heritage each spring with a tulip festival.

The 22-year-old library hosts birthday parties, bridal showers, HOA meetings and blood drives. Residents praised it as a haven for all ages until controversy ignited with an award for the best teen books.

The problems started when the library director at the time, Amber McLain, ordered copies of all 10 young adult books named winners by the National Library Association, which included:

. . . a memoir about growing up nonbinary called "Gender Queer."

Pink-haired and openly queer, the 30-year-old [Amber McLain] stood out in a county that hadn't backed a Democrat for president since 1864. Yet people embraced McLain, her former colleagues and patrons said.

"She helped bring my son out of his shell," said one mother, Sara Crockett, checking out a STEM toy kit on a recent afternoon. "He'd light up when he saw her."

"I miss Miss Amber," 5-year-old Cecil said, clutching her hand.

Nobody complained about McLain until last November, after video of a Virginia mother condemning "Gender Queer" as "pornographic" took off on social media and protests against the memoir spread nationwide.

The 239-page graphic novel contains illustrations of masturbation, a sex toy and oral sex, as well as depictions of menstrual blood. Fans saw the scenes as part of the author's coming-of-age experience, while critics blasted them as sabotage to developing minds. "Gender Queer" became the most banned book of 2021.

Some parents found a copy in the Patmos Library and created a Facebook group called "Jamestown Conservatives" pushing for its removal. One of the organizers, Lauren Nykamp, declined to be interviewed but responded to some of The Washington Post's questions over text. "This is not about LGBTQ material," she said. "It is about sexualized material."

Nothing would dissuade the conservative activists, some of whom got pretty aggressive:

McLain countered that 90 out of their roughly 67,000 books had an LGBTQ keyword. She said they spent the most money on Christian fiction. . . .

A lawyer had reviewed the book and determined it wasn't pornographic, McLain replied. Still, given the mature content, she'd initially placed it in the adult section — near novels with heterosexual sex scenes. As the objections mounted, though, she moved "Gender Queer" behind the counter, making it available only upon request.

"We have to represent every segment of the population," McLain said, "not just the vast majority."

The backlash grew from there. One March day, staffers said, a woman showed up at the library, recording a video and yelling: "Where is she? Where is the pink-haired freak? Where is the pedophile librarian?"

McLain hadn't been there. The library board president told her about the incident, saying she could work remotely if she'd like. (McLain declined to be interviewed for this story but confirmed the sequence of events to The Post.) Citing harassment, she opted to quit.

So did her replacement, Matthew Lawrence, 25, who transferred to a library in another town — he doesn't feel comfortable saying where — after a tense encounter in June. A patron had demanded to know if he was gay, he said, and insisted he remove a rainbow-hued sign that said: "Please use the other door."

The environment had grown hostile, Lawrence said, but seeing the local official join the protest against "Gender Queer" ultimately motivated him to leave.

"The complaint is that kids are going to pick it up and see things they can't unsee," he said. "The easiest way to avoid that is to parent your children."

Lawrence is absolutely correct, but parenting their own children never seems to be a popular solution for conservative activists. Instead, "On Election Day in August, about a third of the town's voters turned out. A slim majority chose to defund the library." (The library has since received enough donations to stay open, but the vote doesn't speak well for the community.)

The problem isn't limited to rural Michigan. Amanda Jones, an award-winning librarian in Louisiana, has faced similar harassment and is fighting back, but she's far from alone in dealing with such attacks:

Nationwide, school districts have been bombarded by conservative activists and parents over the past year demanding that books with sexual references or that discuss racial conflict, often by authors of color or those who are LGBTQ, be purged from campuses. Those demands have slowly moved toward public libraries in recent months.

Many conservative activists have referred to people who defend the books as “groomers,” comparing them to child molesters. The Proud Boys, an extremist hate group, has barged into LGBTQ-themed reading events in several libraries, insisting they need to protect children. Some librarians have said they no longer feel safe serving in their roles.

Jones, the 2021 Louisiana Association of Computer Using Educators Middle School Teacher of the Year and the 2021 School Library Journal’s Librarian of the Year, said more than 200 librarians have reached out to her as the insults on Facebook spread. Many claimed they had been victims of similar verbal and online abuse in the past two years. More than 600 people donated a combined $20,000 for Jones on GoFundMe so she could respond with legal action.

Challenging and banning books is nothing new, but such efforts should always be fought. The increased scope and coordination of these censorship efforts is troubling, as is the sheer nastiness and sometimes outright delusion of some of these attacks. They reflect dangerous authoritarianism and bigotry in many areas of the country, dynamics we've witnessed in far too many other political arenas. Legitimate parental concerns have already been heard. But fear, bigotry and open hostility toward students, teachers and librarians – as well as toward public schools and libraries – have no value and do great harm.

(Earlier this year, I wrote about efforts to ban Maus.)

Sunday, June 05, 2022

L.A. Primary Elections 2022

The California primary elections are rapidly coming up on Tuesday, 6/7. Many Angelenos might have voted already by mail or in person, but the following resources may prove useful for the general election in November as well, even if they're more useful for the primary.

First up, one of Los Angeles' local NPR stations, KCRW, teamed up with the Los Angeles Times to a debate on homelessness/houselessness solutions for mayoral candidates.

The moderators, KCRW’s Anna Scott and Times columnist Gustavo Arellano, know their stuff. The participating candidates are U.S. Representative Karen Bass (D), L.A. City Council member Keven de León (D), and Gina Viola, a community organizer and business owner, officially nonpartisan but on the liberal/progressive side of things. Candidates Mike Feuer (D) and Joe Buscaino (D) accepted the invitation to the debate, but dropped out of the race beforehand. The most notable omission is Rick Caruso, a billionaire Republican officially running as a Democrat in this election. He's bought TV ads around the clock and has sent out a ton of campaign mail, sometimes two pieces a day. Caruso has spent a record-breaking, insane $34 million and counting, more than twice what the entire field of candidates has spent in the last competitive mayoral primary. Count me among the many who think Caruso's trying to buy the election. Caruso has claimed he'll fix the homelessness situation in Los Angeles, but he ducked this debate on that very issue and has dodged and other candidate fora. As you'll hear if you listen to the debate, glib campaign slogans only take a candidate so far, and bullshitters are likely to squirm.

If the debate doesn't play for you, use the first link above or find it on the Press Play podcast.

I was somewhat familiar with Bass and de León before the debate, and they have some decent things to say, but I was quite interested to hear Gina Viola's perspective, especially her advocacy for hearing from homeless/unhoused people themselves.

Meanwhile, as usual, local NPR station KPCC has put together useful voter resources, including guides to the candidates and ballot measures. This time, there's even a neat meet your mayor quiz, which lets you see which candidates most closely match your own positions.

As usual, I also find the Los Angeles County Bar Association's evaluations of judicial candidates quite valuable. LACBA does not endorse any candidates, but rates whether they are qualified on a four-point scale: not qualified, qualified, well qualified, and exceptionally well qualified. (The last rating is bestowed sparingly.)

Happy voting!

Saturday, April 30, 2022

National Poetry Month 2022

National Poetry Month is almost over, but as usual, I wanted to link the Favorite Poem Project and feature a poem. I was looking for good choices and came upon this one, a lovely piece I hadn't read in a long while:
somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
by e. e. cummings

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens (touching skillfully, mysteriously) her first rose
or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

Saturday, April 02, 2022

2021 Film Roundup: The Oscars and the Year in Review

I was able to see a handful of the nominees this year, but still not that many. Going to the movies is safer than it was before a COVID-19 vaccine was available, but it's still a bit daunting. Many of the nominees are not on disc yet and some of them are only available on a single streaming service. I did see Dune on the big screen, and it definitely benefits from it. I also managed to see Belfast, The Power of the Dog, Don't Look Up and No Time to Die. I expect to see Licorice Pizza, Encanto, West Side Story, Spider-Man: No Way Home and Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings later this year. I also hope to see Coda, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Drive My Car, The Worst Person in the World, Parallel Mothers, The Lost Daughter, Being the Ricardos, Summer of Soul, Flee, tick, tick..BOOM! and Raya and the Last Dragon, among others.

The Oscars this year had two big scandals. The first was the decision not to include several "craft" awards during the live broadcast, and instead record them earlier and edit the footage into the live show. The decision was widely criticized by industry professionals, and led to some Academy members resigning. The slighted awards were the three short film categories, film editing, music (original score), sound, production design, and makeup and hairstyling, as well as all the honorary Oscars. The segments were at least edited in fairly well, but excluding the categories from the live event was a horrible choice. It showed a lack of respect for the art and craft of filmmaking. And the Academy once again chose to fruitlessly chase a larger audience while alienating the core audience of film lovers. The show could have been made shorter by not adding an un-nominated Encanto musical number, for example, but it's a Disney film and Disney owns ABC. The ratings did jump up significantly from the previous year, but given the pandemic, that's hardly surprising; ratings were still the second-worst ever.

The second scandal, which obviously got much more attention, was Will Smith storming the stage and smacking comedian Chris Rock over a joke: "Jada, love ya – G.I. Jane 2, can't wait to see it." The joke fell flat in the room and it took me a minute to figure out what the intended gag was – a reference to Jada's bald head. (G.I. Jane came out way back in 1997, and pop-culture-wise, it's mostly known for Demi Moore shaving her head.) Like the audience in the theater, when Will Smith went on stage, I thought it was a planned bit, until the audio cut out and the camera showed Smith angrily yelling without sound. (You can see the footage here.) I've seen umpteen takes on this, and at least one sympathetically condemns Smith's actions while contextualizing it within his tough, even abusive upbringing, and theorizing that Smith still needs to come to terms with it. I thought Smith's actions set a horrible precedent – assaulting a comedian because you don't like a joke, or any performer because you don't like their act. I also thought it completely undercut what should have been Smith's biggest night, because he was the favorite to win Best Actor, and did indeed win it. I understand the audience being shocked and not sure what to do, but I thought it was gutless to give Smith a standing ovation after what he did. There's some disagreement over whether Smith was asked to leave and whether he refused, or if he was told to stay. Although Smith's PR team put out a well-written, contrite statement the next day, Smith himself was partying that night as if nothing had happened. He's since resigned his Academy membership and been banned from attending the Oscars for 10 years.

I can't say I'm a big Will Smith fan but don't dislike him, either – I think he's become a pretty good actor and was quite good in The Pursuit of Happyness. And his reputation had been getting steadily better over the years. I understand getting upset over a personal joke against one's self or a family member, but it's par for the course for these events, public figures should be used to it, the joke was pretty tame, and it fell flat with the audience. No one was really laughing at Jada Pinkett Smith, and most viewers probably thought, like me, that she had shaved her head and didn't know she had alopecia. The Oscar after-parties can get pretty wild, but many attendees also show up drunk or high before the ceremony, and I have to wonder if that contributed to Will Smith's astonishingly poor judgment and lack of restraint and maturity. The way to deal with a joke you don't like is to talk to the comedian afterward, or make a joke back, or to call it out in the press as a cheap shot, not assault and battery on live television… especially when you're a featured guest favored to get a big award. My sympathies are strongly with the performers for all such incidents.

Although Will Smith's actions overshadowed most of the night, it's worth checking out some of the award speeches if you missed them, particularly Ariana DeBose for Best Supporting Actress, who gave a shout-out to queer youth and the power of the arts, and Troy Kotsur for Best Supporting Actor, who hailed the deaf community. I was also personally happy to see the multitalented Kenneth Branagh finally win an Oscar, in this case for Best Original Screenplay. As for the rest of the ceremony, I thought the triple hosts of Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes were pretty good. The song-and-dance number during the Montage of Death was rousing and fine on its own merits, but a pretty bad choice in context, because it completely distracted from the images of the deceased.

In any case, I'm going to try to see all the films mentioned earlier, and I hope 2022 turns out to be a good year for film.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Maus Banned

Just in time for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a Tennessee school district has banned Maus, an amazing, Pulitzer-winning graphic novel by Art Spiegelman about his family but especially his father, Vladek, who survived the Holocaust. The Associated Press reports that the ban was...

...due to "inappropriate language" and an illustration of a nude woman, according to minutes from a board meeting. . . .

In an interview, Spiegelman told CNBC he was "baffled" by the school board's decision and called the action "Orwellian."

"It's leaving me with my jaw open, like, 'What?'" he said.

The decision comes as conservative officials across the country have increasingly tried to limit the type of books that children are exposed to, including books that address structural racism and LGBTQ issues. The Republican governors in South Carolina and Texas have called on superintendents to perform a systemic review of "inappropriate" materials in their states' schools.

The minutes from the school board meeting indicate objections over some of the language used in "Maus." At first, Director of Schools Lee Parkison suggested redacting it "to get rid of the eight curse words and the picture of the woman that was objected to."

The nude woman is drawn as a mouse. In the graphic novel, Jews are drawn as mice and the Nazis are drawn as cats. . . .

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which does not play a role in McMinn County, noted the timing of the news on Twitter. Weingarten, who is Jewish, pointed out that Thursday is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

"Yes it is uncomfortable to talk about genocide, but it is our history and educating about it helps us not repeat this horror," Weingarten said.

The U.S. Holocaust Museum tweeted that "Maus has played a vital role in educating about the Holocaust through sharing detailed and personal experiences of victims and survivors. . . .

"Teaching about the Holocaust using books like Maus can inspire students to think critically about the past and their own roles and responsibilities today."

The Tennessee school board emphasized in the minutes that they did not object to teaching about the Holocaust but some were concerned the work was not age-appropriate.

This is a stunningly bad if not entirely surprising decision. It sure seems to be yet another case of conservatives rejecting good art (and accurate history) out of prudishness and a desire to control their children. But such attempts, in addition to being harmful, rarely succeed in the long run.

As I've written before, Maus is a good introduction to the Holocaust. I used excerpts from it when I was teaching high school, at least one other colleague taught the entire series, and I knew some students read it on their own. I wouldn't give Maus to elementary school kids, but it's completely appropriate for high school students and many junior high students as well.

When I first saw the cover of Maus and heard the pitch – Jews as mice and Nazis as cats?!? – my concern was that it seemed like a cartoonish, oversimplified approach to the Holocaust. But I heard from several people who read Maus and assured me it was not simplistic, and was actually really good. That's all true, and the series is well worth checking out if you haven't yet.

Maus recounts, in detail, what happened to Art Spiegelman's father Vladek and how he survived in Nazi-occupied Poland and later Auschwitz, through luck but also ingenuity and courage. Spiegelman also depicts his fraught relationship with his father in the present day and Vladek's failings, as well as his own. Spiegelman even interrogates the creation of Maus itself and questions if depicting Jews, Nazis, and other groups as animals trivializes the Holocaust, and whether the series' success means he's exploiting a great tragedy. Maus is a complex, multilayered work, suitable for younger readers, and interesting and instructive as a Holocaust survivor's story, but it also raising some pretty significant questions about the nature of history, art, memory, and judgment. It's an engaging read, and can also be a bit emotionally exhausting, as pretty much any good, honest Holocaust tale is.

Something positive has come out of the ban, because a number of people – some famous, some not – are buying copying of Maus and donating them to Tennessee libraries. And the news stories about the ban is introducing new people to the existence of Maus. Maybe they'll check it out to see what all the fuss is about. Conservative attempts to ban something can backfire.

Years ago I lent my copies of Maus to my father, who had introduced me to comics, and he was impressed by the series as well. From where I'm sitting, I can glance over to a bookcase and see those same copies of Maus, sitting atop a copy of Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved. That's also an amazing work, but should only be read when someone's well-acquainted with the Holocaust already. Maus has a great track record in that regard, introducing people to the Holocaust. Let students read it, and may the efforts to provide more copies in Tennessee libraries and elsewhere flourish.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Jon Swift Roundup 2021

(The Best Posts of the Year, Chosen by the Bloggers Themselves)

( An appropriate Jon Swift picture for the year.)

Welcome to the 2021 edition! This year was a little saner than 2020, at least.

This tradition was started by the late Jon Swift/Al Weisel, who left behind some excellent satire, but was also a nice guy and a strong supporter of small blogs.

Lance Mannion, who sadly passed away earlier this year, provided the definitive description of our endeavor:

Our late and much missed comrade in blogging, journalist and writer Al Weisel, revered and admired across the bandwidth as the "reasonable conservative" blogger Modest Jon Swift, was a champion of the lesser known and little known bloggers working tirelessly in the shadows . . .

One of his projects was a year-end Blogger Round Up. Al/Jon asked bloggers far and wide, famous and in- and not at all, to submit a link to their favorite post of the past twelve months and then he sorted, compiled, blurbed, hyperlinked and posted them on his popular blog. His round-ups presented readers with a huge banquet table of links to work many of has had missed the first time around and brought those bloggers traffic and, more important, new readers they wouldn’t have otherwise enjoyed.

It may not have been the most heroic endeavor, but it was kind and generous and a lot of us owe our continued presence in the blogging biz to Al.

Here's Jon/Al's massive 2007 and 2008 editions (via the Wayback Machine). Meanwhile, our more modest revivals from 2010–2020 can be found here.

If you're not familiar with Al Weisel's work as Jon Swift, his site (via the Wayback Machine) features a "best of" list in the left column.

Meanwhile, if you're not familiar with Lance Mannion, the (the nom du blog for David Reilly), it's well worth checking out his work. He was a thoughtful writer who covered politics, but also wrote often about books, movies, culture in general, history and his own life. His observations were insightful and grounded in humanity. A good starting point might be his lovely post, "Robin's Last Arrow," which was read at his memorial service.

I should also mention the passing of Mike Finnigan, who was a champion of small blogs at Crooks and Liars and promoted this roundup in both its incarnations. He was a friend to many of us.

In that spirit, thanks to all the participants, and apologies to anyone I missed. (As always, my goal is to find the right balance between inclusive and manageable.) You still can join in, by linking your post in the comments. Whether your post appears in the modest list below or not, feel free to tweet your best post with the hatchtag #jonswift2021.

As in Jon/Al's 2008 roundup, submissions are listed roughly in the order they were received. As he wrote in that post:

I'm sure you'll be interested in seeing what your favorite bloggers think were their best posts of the year, but be sure to also visit some blogs you've never read before and leave a nice comment if you like what you see or, if you must, a polite demurral if you do not.

Without further ado:

Bark Bark Woof Woof
"Not Just Sitting, But Marching"
Mustang Bobby: "Remembering my father and his legacy. He died from Covid-19 on May 25, 2020. His ashes were interred in Northport, Michigan on what would have been his 95th birthday."

Show Me Progress
"Johnson County Community Health Services – Board of Trustees – August 2, 2021 – This is why we can’t have nice things"
Michael Bersin: "Images and audio from a county health board meeting in an anti-mask, anti-vaccine hotspot in Missouri. I don’t know what upset me more – that I was, in all probability, at risk for exposure to COVID-19 or that my IQ probably dropped forty points after listening to their tiresome luddite anti-science drivel."

Constant Commoner
"Love, Light, and Atheism"
Ramona Grigg: "We're not the doomed or the damned, we just don't believe in your gods. A case for reaching an understanding."

Mock Paper Scissors
"HR-1 Passed, Now It Goes To The Senate!"
Tengrain: "We had a lot of optimism and momentum in March; what a difference a Manchin makes. Also, I think this is the start of the new MPS nickname for the Republicans: The Coup Klux Klan!"

Self-Styled Siren
"Box Office Blues: Marty Was Right"
Farran Smith Nehme: "Looking at box-office trends from the 1920s to the present, in an attempt to figure out what the hell happened."

Brilliant at Breakfast Rebooted
"What should be the limits on our compassion?"
Jill: "Jill ponders the deaths of those who refused the COVID-19 vaccines out of ignorance, willfully believing misinformation, or just plain political partisanship, and wonders just how much compassion we should have for these people."

Just an Earth-Bound Misfit, I
"A Sincere Greeting to Everyone Who Has Chosen to Not Be Vaccinated Against the Coronavirus"
Comrade Misfit: "The post addresses the spread of the Delta variant (or, if you prefer, the Darwin variant) among the unvaccinated."

"If it Weren't for Double Standards, They'd have None at All"
Bluzdude: "Illustrating the double standards of modern Republicans, debunking memes on gas prices and alleged Socialism, and a Dad Story."

Hysterical Raisins
"Cheney Leaves the House of Twitler"
nonnie9999: "With apologies to Peter Paul Rubens, I have reworked his painting of Hagar Leaves the House of Abraham to illustrate the unceremonious ousting of Liz Cheney from the GOP House leadership by Kevin "Shecky" McCarthy and his embrace and promotion of Elise "The Little Slurmaid" Stefanik."

The Professional Left Podcast
"Ep 585: The Second Impeachment Trial"
The Professional Left Podcast with Driftglass and Blue Gal: We talk about the second impeachment of Donald Trump and I make an impassioned case for moving very quickly on the Democratic agenda. Plus I do a "Bible Bitch" segment."

his vorpal sword
"Beware the False Kumbaya"
Hart Williams: " Successfully (alas) predicted the increasing polarization of the past year, and explains why it will continue. It was a dire warning then; it is an urgent warning now."

David E's Fablog
"The Crying Game"
David E: "Not since Margaret O’Brien turned on the tears in Meet Me in St. Louis has the American public ever seen anything like the blubberfest provided by freelance murderer Kyle Rittenhouse at his trial in Kenosha Wisconsin."

You Might Notice a Trend
Paul Wartenberg: "Trump's electoral loss in 2020 did not end the madness driving the Republican Party into abandoning all civility and love for the United States."

First Draft
"Owning The Commies With John Neely Kennedy"
Peter Adrastos Athas: "Louisiana Senator John Neely Kennedy is not an idiot, he just plays one on television."

Strangely Blogged
"Does it Work on Brain Worms?"
Vixen Strangely: "One Weird Trick is no substitute for good science."

The Rectification of Names
"The Art of the Impossible"
Yastreblyansky: "I've spent a lot of blog time this difficult year trying to come up with ways of expressing a little hope for the political future, with respect to what the Biden administration is and isn't going to be able to accomplish, without sounding too stupid. This one from November may come close."

"The politicizing of everyday things"
Infidel753: "The left is self-destructing by embracing bizarre fringe positions which are repugnant to mainstream voters. These issues superficially seem trivial, but in fact are not, because they represent a threatening intrusion of ideology into everyday life, eclipsing the "big" issues that political activists imagine are more important. The US left's refusal to confront and address this problem makes it likely that Republicans will win the next few election cycles, creating an enormous danger to the country. This is definitely the most important political post I've written, and will probably be the last."

"I Wasn't Being Condescending. I Was Being Patronizing."
driftglass: "Honestly, being scolded about the harm my tone is doing and the need for us Lefties to temper our language by the same goofs who made a living for decades calling us everything but a child of God never stops being funny."

"It's Not True and You Know It's Not True"
Jon Perr: "History will record that on January 6, 2021, the President of the United States, 140 Republican House members and a dozen GOP Senators sought to overturn the results of the free and fair vote of the American people. But how these Republicans would seek to deny the will of the voters and trigger a failed insurrection in the Capitol—through the propagation and perpetuation of a disgusting lie—should have been clear years ago."

"Winning Over White Supremacists One Hater at a Time"
Annie: "I write about politics a great deal, and doing so is often depressing. But when I learned about the individuals and organizations featured in this post, I felt a sense of hope for our battered nation that I felt was worth sharing."

The Rude Pundit
"Why We're So Fucking Angry at the Unvaccinated"
Lee Papa (the Rude Pundit): "We're trying to save your dumb asses by getting vaccinated. And we're sick of you not helping."

The Debate Link
"Reflections on Being Victim of a Scam"
David Schraub: "I was the victim of a scam earlier this year. As scams go, mine was comparatively minor – it only involved Lego sets. But my reaction to it – in particular my powerful instinct to stay in denial even once the scam became obvious – gave me new insight into other people who've bought into far more serious scams; specifically, political scams. In politics just as much as in online shopping, it is a terrible and difficult thing to accept that the goods you bought will never be shipped."

Lotus – Surviving a Dark Time
"On January 6"
LarryE, aka Whoviating: "Reactions to January 6 written a day or two after the event."

Bluestem Prairie
"State rep Tim Miller: MN state public officials beholden to radical anti-livestock enviro groups"
Sally Jo Sorensen: "Minnesota House Republican member Tim Miller sent out an email claiming those public officials who want to restrict captive deer farms are "beholden to radical environmental groups who do not want livestock farming to exist." We examined what those public officials think about livestock farming, concluding with deer farm critic House Environment & Natural Resources Committee chair Rick Hansen, who is in business with Amish livestock farming neighbor near his place by Harmony and whose niece won the Minnesota State Fair 4H grand champion barrow ribbon. Uffda."

God's Spies, by Thomas Neuburger
"An Independence Day Reflection: How the Rich Plan to Rule a Burning World"
Thomas Neuburger: "This is a glimpse of the world being built as we watch, the view from a window that opens onto the day when the only freedom celebrated on the Fourth is the freedom of the super-rich from the rest of mankind."

Mad Kane's Political Madness
"Ousted Liz Cheney, Still Speaking Out"
Madeleine Begun Kane: "My two-verse limerick, in which I shock myself by saying something nice about a Cheney."

The Way of Cats
"Dear Pammy, Are Cats Family?"
Pamela Merritt: "Our pets teach us the limits of prejudice, and the extraordinary benefits of drawing our circle of humanity on a bigger scale."

"There's Ross Perot. Dr. Laura. Megan Mcardle. Wait a Minute – They're Not So Great."
Roy Edroso: "A consideration of Megan McArdle doing what she does best – humiliating herself on behalf of the richest people on earth."
Plus a bonus post:
Roy Edroso Breaks It Down
"Operation Overlord"
Roy Edroso: "On why Elon Musk will one day run for President (briefly, because he appeals to an up and coming and even more repulsive new generation of Republican scumbags).

This Is So Gay
"I May Not Know Cancel Culture, But I Know What I Like"
Duncan Mitchel: "The fuss about cancel culture seems to have died down a bit, but it will surely return, maybe in another guise, and people will be just as misinformed about its next stage as they were this time."

Balloon Juice
COVID-19 series
Balloon Juice readers nominated Anne Laurie for "the great service she’s done" with her "tour-de-force" series of COVID posts. You can see them through the category link above.

Vagabond Scholar
"The Graveyard of Democracy"
Batocchio: "Afghanistan has been called 'the graveyard of empires' because of all the supposedly mighty powers that have failed to conquer it. Unchecked military spending, endless wars, unnecessary wars and unnecessarily prolonged wars could aptly be called the graveyard of democracy for how they rob time, energy, money and lives that could be spent in far more worthwhile pursuits."

Thanks again, folks. Happy blogging and everything else in 2022, which we can hope is a good year.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Armstice Day 11/11/21

(Click on the comic strip for a larger view.)

In 1959, Pogo creator Walt Kelly wrote:

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.

You said it, brother.

Thanks to all who have served or are serving, on this Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day.

This post is mostly a repeat I run every year, since I find it hard to top Kelly. My new post this year for Armistice Day is "The Graveyard of Democracy."

Back in 2009, I wrote a series of six related posts for Armistice Day (and as part of an ongoing series on war). The starred posts are the most important, but the list is:

"Élan in The Guns of August"

"Demonizing of the Enemy"

"The War Poetry of Wilfred Owen"

***"Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels"

"The Little Mother"

***"War and the Denial of Loss"

The most significant other entries in the series are:

"How to Hear a True War Story" (2007)

"Day of Shame" (2008)

"The Poetry of War" (2008)

"Armistice Day 2008" (featuring the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon).

"They Could Not Look Me in the Eye Again" (2011)

"The Dogs of War" (2013)

"The Courage to Make Others Suffer" (2015)

"The Battle of the Somme" (2017)

I generally update these posts later with links to appropriate pieces for 11/11 by other folks as I find them. If you've written one, feel free to link it in a comment. Thanks.

The Graveyard of Democracy

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
– Dwight D. Eisenhower, "Chance for Peace" speech, 1953
Endless money for wars? No problem. Endless money for tax breaks for the rich? No problem. Endless money for corporate welfare? No problem. But when it comes to providing a $1,200 direct payment to the working class during a pandemic, somehow we can't afford it. Not acceptable.
Bernie Sanders, 12/10/20.

The U.S. war in Afghanistan finally, officially ended in August 2021 after nearly 20 years. The Pentagon lowballs the cost at a nonetheless stunning $825 billion. The "Costs of War" project from Brown University puts the costs at $2.313 trillion and estimates the costs of all U.S. post-9/11 war spending at $8 trillion, which includes future obligations in veterans' care and financial debt for roughly 30 years. The project also estimates the human costs of the 'global war on terror' at 900,000 deaths. Meanwhile, Afghanistan reconstruction was allocated $145 billion, however:
an October 2020 report presented a startling total for the war. Congress at the time had appropriated $134 billion since 2002 for reconstruction in Afghanistan. but SIGAR [the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction] was able to review $63 billion of it – nearly half. They concluded $19 billion of that – almost a third – was "lost to waste, fraud, and abuse."

That's pretty appalling, but looking at the U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and all the "post-9/11 war spending," it's hard not to conclude that a large portion if not most of that $8 trillion (and much more in related costs) won't have been a waste. Afghanistan has been called "the graveyard of empires" because of all the supposedly mighty powers that have failed to conquer it. Unchecked military spending, endless wars, unnecessary wars and unnecessarily prolonged wars could aptly be called the graveyard of democracy for how they rob time, energy, money and lives that could be spent in far more worthwhile pursuits.

Going to war should require a high threshold. That is the position of basic sanity and wisdom. Some war advocates do make their cases sincerely and soberly. But bad faith and bullying are endemic to the pro-war, prolong-the-war crowd. As a 2013 post on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War covered, the Bush administration absurdly claimed that the war would cost as little as 1.7 billion. More damningly:
It also isn't rare, even today, to hear conservative pundits insist (often angrily) that the Bush administration didn't lie in making the case for war, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary (and plenty of misleading, dishonorable rhetoric besides). Sure, one can quibble in some cases whether those many misleading false statements were technically lies versus bullshitting versus the product of egregious self-delusion, but in no universe were they responsible. Meanwhile, it's disappointing but not surprising that the corporate media, who were largely unskeptical cheerleaders for the war and prone to squelching critical voices, would be reluctant to revisit one of their greatest failures in living memory (let alone doing so unflinchingly).

For the Iraq War especially, it was fairly common for war advocates to go into full Joe McCarthy mode, accusing war skeptics of being traitors and un-American or even threatening them with violence. For the most part, these weren't momentary lapses of reason, but the banality of jackassery, with obnoxious hacks feeling gleefully entitled by what they felt was a pro-war climate to act like assholes toward people they had always hated. Most of their later efforts at apology were weak, self-serving or even downright insulting. (The 2013 post has a more comprehensive account, but examples one, two, three, four and five are pretty representative.)

Such ugliness should give us pause, but the lying by government officials is arguably more troubling and almost certainly more damaging. The Bush administration lied to the American public to sell the Iraq War. The Pentagon Papers revealed that, on the Vietnam War, the Johnson administration "systemically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance." (Nor was Johnson's the only administration to do so.) Vietnam veteran and then-Senator John Kerry made the point more starkly when he said, "Half of the soldiers whose names are on the Vietnam Memorial Wall died after the politicians knew our strategy would not work." More recently in 2019, The Washington Post (which also published the Pentagon Papers) published The Afghanistan Papers, stating, "A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable."

This behavior is disqualifying. On the Afghanistan War specifically, we could talk about how pundits crawled out of the woodwork in 2021 to condemn finally ending the war and the way withdrawal was handled. Coverage on Afghanistan exploded in August 2021 after being relatively low for six to eleven years, and far too much of the new coverage omitted crucial context. For example, the Bush administration could have ended the war all the way back in November 2001, not long after the initial invasion. Why did it drag on for almost 20 years? Meanwhile, the Trump administration took several actions that forced an abrupt departure. Surely that merited mentioning when discussing withdrawal? Afghanistan has a complicated history most Americans don't know, and the U.S. strategy failed to deal with competing factions and corruption in the country. Although some people continue to be sincerely concerned about the well-being of the Afghan citizenry and refugees, most of the pro-war, pro-occupation crowd has never seriously considered such issues and planned for them; they only seem to care about the Afghans as props in bad faith arguments. Withdrawal was very popular with the American public, but not with military contractors and many in the Beltway crowd. Guess which viewpoint dominated the coverage? (For more, see Digby one and two, Tom Sullivan, driftglass one and two, the Poynter Institute, The New Republic, Emptywheel, Strangely Blogged, First Draft, Jon Perr and Jim Wright.)

Criticizing the withdrawal and the Biden administration is fine, but denying essential context is not – and providing context would have flipped much of the criticism. Advocates for withdrawal were definitely challenged in a way advocates for staying largely were not. How many journalists and moderators pushed the pro-war, pro-occupation crowd with something like, "You've had 20 years, three presidents, 2.2 trillion dollars, and you still haven't been able to get the job done in Afghanistan. Why should we believe you'll get it done now? Why should we give you any more time and money?" Or perhaps, "the Afghanistan papers show that U.S. officials have been lying to the American public and have known for years that war cannot be won. Given that, how can you justify staying?" Or even, "Considering all the blood and treasure your views have already cost, why should we give your criticisms of the withdrawal any weight?"

To be fair, some critics focused on the nature of the withdrawal and did not criticize withdrawal itself. Yet while U.S. intelligence agencies did predict a collapse, they were surprised by how quickly the Taliban took over Kabul. And too much coverage focused on the nature of the withdrawal and sidestepped whether withdrawal was good or necessary, and also sidestepped that any withdrawal was going to be pretty messy. This lead to strikingly imbalanced, context-free coverage, where somehow Biden could be pilloried (perhaps justifiably), but Bush, Obama, and Trump mostly got a pass. Responsible journalism requires explaining who created and exacerbated the mess and not pretending the previous 20 years didn't happen. If that weren't bad enough, in many media discussions, there were still pundits arguing that the war was "sustainable" and the U.S. was wrong to leave. "Yeah, U.S. officials completely lied to the American public – and knew the war was unwinnable – and this has cost us trillions of dollars already – but it's still wrong to withdraw" would be an honest argument, but obviously not a convincing one. Those factors are awful on their own, but together they are utterly damning. Once you lie to the public this profoundly and pervasively about an issue as important as war – which, ya know, causes people to die, which is a fault that cannot be undone – you have lost all credibility and just need to shut the hell up. And even if we eliminate all the many liars and hacks, the act of pressing for war, or to continue war – especially with no end in sight – should be a weighty affair. War advocates should be pressed hard and held to account. As it is, advocating for war is typically granted an undeserved veneer of respectability and seriousness, even when its very real human costs are never discussed. The shallow and dishonest war advocates far outnumber the serious ones. And in some Beltway circles, being excited for a war others will fight and die in is socially acceptable or even encouraged.

It's also worth considering U.S. military spending in general. There's a saying that the United States is "an insurance company with an army." United States military spending in 2020 was a staggering $778 billion. The next closest nation was China, at $252 billion. In third place was India at $72.9 billion. The U.S. routinely outspends the next 10 or 11 nations combined every year, and some of those are U.S. allies. To use another metric, the 50th anniversary of the moon landing in 2019 lead to many great stories about the space race, and some pieces mentioned the cost, roughly $25.8 billion. But at least one commentator pointed out that during the same era, the Vietnam War cost about as much in a single year as the entire space race. It's estimated that the Vietnam War cost the U.S. $141 billion over 14 years. So the space race was much, much cheaper and produced research and innovation that had countless civilian applications and spurred many other developments. The Pentagon has never passed an audit and waste is endemic; it simply fabricates numbers but receives little pushback from Congress. This is not a new problem; Chuck Spinney started called out wasteful military spending in the 1980s and continued until his retirement in 2003. Decades earlier, Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose military credentials were impeccable, memorably warned in his 1961 presidential farewell address:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

To pick one noteworthy example, the F-35 jet is a much criticized and expensive aircraft, and the costs of the F-35 program (some of which may be hidden) keep escalating. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in April 2021 that the Department of Defense "plans to acquire nearly 2,500 F-35 aircraft for about $400 billion. It projects spending another $1.27 trillion to operate and sustain them—an estimate that has steadily increased since 2012." Despite criticism for years, the program's astronomical spending just continues.

Just imagine if military spending were reduced, still leaving the U.S. as number one, but say, to beat China and not most of the world. Just imagine if the Pentagon could pass an audit and eliminate waste. Just imagine if military spending prioritized technology more likely to have civilian applications. Imagine spending less on widgets and armaments and more on military personnel themselves, investing in salaries, education, and training, all of which could benefit both them and the country when they transitioned out of the armed forces. Imagine more investment in better health care for active duty military personnel and for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Conservatives believe in military spending for creating jobs and economic growth, but other domestic spending, more in the spirit of the New Deal, would deliver many more jobs and far more growth. Imagine investing in teachers, doctors, nurses, general education, libraries, parks, the arts, or any sort of human or physical infrastructure. Imagine if military budgets had to be justified and weren't rubber-stamped, despite the staggering amounts of money involved. Even the most ambitious proposed domestic programs typically cost a small fraction of annual U.S. military spending. Imagine if public discussions of domestic programs (such as the recent "build back better" framework, or universal health care, or many other measures) discussed the benefits to the American public and the country and didn't focus almost exclusively on the cost. Imagine if the dynamics were flipped, and we could have rational and wise discussions of the U.S. budget and what the public really wanted and needed. For years, the Pentagon has been saying that climate change is a risk to national security. Imagine if some (or much more) of the current military spending was reallocated to fighting climate change and developing green energy. That would actually accomplish the Defense Department's supposed mission of protecting the country while providing a host of other benefits as well. The U.S. is not lacking for better policies and better choices. It's lacking in political will.

Bill Moyers once observed that "plutocracy and democracy don't mix." Unrestrained military spending and imperialism dovetail with plutocracy quite easily and dangerously, especially in the United States. Imperialism and democracy don't mix, either. Strengthening American democracy requires confronting right-wing extremism domestically. But it also requires confronting unchecked military spending and endless wars if we're going to avoid the graveyard of democracy.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Banned Books Week 2021

Happy Banned Books Week, celebrating banned and challenged books! Here's the category in my archives, with posts covering issues of censorship but also specific books. The site linked above tends not to keep old content, so I prefer to link the American Library Association's main site instead for specific lists. On the frequently challenged books page, the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020 deal with issues of sexuality as usual, but this time, issues of race show up more often.

The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 156 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2020. Of the 273 books that were targeted, here are the most challenged, along with the reasons cited for censoring the books:

1. George by Alex Gino
Reasons: Challenged, banned, and restricted for LGBTQIA+ content, conflicting with a religious viewpoint, and not reflecting “the values of our community”

2. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds
Reasons: Banned and challenged because of author’s public statements, and because of claims that the book contains “selective storytelling incidents” and does not encompass racism against all people

3. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, drug use, and alcoholism, and because it was thought to promote anti-police views, contain divisive topics, and be “too much of a sensitive matter right now”

4. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Reasons: Banned, challenged, and restricted because it was thought to contain a political viewpoint and it was claimed to be biased against male students, and for the novel’s inclusion of rape and profanity

5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references, and allegations of sexual misconduct by the author

6. Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin
Reasons: Challenged for “divisive language” and because it was thought to promote anti-police views

7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Reasons: Banned and challenged for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a “white savior” character, and its perception of the Black experience

8. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Reasons: Banned and challenged for racial slurs and racist stereotypes, and their negative effect on students

9. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Reasons: Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and depicts child sexual abuse

10. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Reasons: Challenged for profanity, and it was thought to promote an anti-police message

Here's the same list presented in a short video format:

The ALA also has some neat infographics, including this one (click for a larger image):

Finally, PBS promoted a 2017 interview with Robert Doyle of the ALA about the history of the organization opposing book-banning.

Happy Banned Books Week!

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

RIP Mike Finnigan

I was very sad to hear about the death of my friend and blogging colleague, Mike Finnigan, due to kidney cancer at the age of 76. Mike was a superb musician and a fantastic, generous guy. Celebrity Access has a brief obituary that lists some of his impressive musical credits. He was sought after for his notable chops as a keyboardist (especially on the Hammond B-3 organ) and as a singer. John Amato wrote a nice piece remembering Mike and how his influence spurred John to create his popular liberal political website Crooks and Liars, where Mike was a regular contributor for many years. Mike's memorial service was 8/27/21, and the Facebook page In Memory of Mike Finnigan has videos of the eulogies, many of them funny as well as moving, as well as photos and music clips. (Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast Rebooted also wrote a brief remembrance.)

I got to know Mike from his eponymous feature at Crooks and Liars, Mike's Blog Round Up. Every day, Mike would link a handful of good blogs he found, almost always smaller than Crooks and Liars. Mike introduced me and many other readers to fine writers and blogs, and he actively solicited submissions. I often commented in the threads, and started submitting some of my own pieces (or other good posts I found). Mike was kind enough to link them, occasionally without me submitting them. A C&L link could sometimes give a small blog more traffic in a day than it'd get all year otherwise. In that era, some other popular bloggers like Digby and Shakespeare's Sister were also quite kind about linking other, smaller blogs. But Mike and Crooks and Liars was unusual in that the round up was a regular, daily feature.

Mike and I got to chatting more often in threads and email, and I learned he was a working musician, which is by itself impressive, but he was extremely humble and it took a while to learn how many people he had played with, including a fair amount of the Woodstock lineup: Jimi Hendrix; Big Brother and the Holding Company; Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Because Mike was often touring, he sometimes needed someone to cover Mike's Blog Round Up, and I was honored that he asked me to be one of those people. (He was touring with Joe Cocker at the time.) When Mike starting touring more often with Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt to make daily blogging just not viable anymore, he passed the baton to the indefatigable Frances Langum (Blue Gal), who assembled a team of people to take turns handling Mike's Blog Round Up one week at a time. I'm likewise honored to be part of that crew, and when it's been a long day or busy week and getting a post done can be challenging, it's remarkable to think that Mike did it all by himself, every day, for years, sometimes despite grueling hours on the road. The round up has often been informative, but it's also spread the luv and built community. I indirectly owe at least a few friendships to it.

We mostly talked online, but Mike reached out when he realized I was local and a "neighbor." I met him a few times in person, and he was extremely warm and kind. He urged me to come see him play at The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles when he was playing with Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt, and arranged for backstage passes. (I just stopped briefly to say hello. Like many an L.A. venue, the Greek is a pain for parking, but the acoustics are fantastic and it was a great show.) My favorite gig, though, was at a small venue in the (San Fernando) Valley. Mike was playing with the Phantom Blues Band, which originally formed to back up Taj Mahal. It was an astounding treat to listen to veteran bluesmen having a blast in an extended set in such an intimate setting.

Mike has an acerbic, biting side, although even that tended to be funny and good-natured, and his political targets were invariably deserving. A key part of being a good musician – or any type of performer working with others – is an openness and generosity, building on what you've been handed and giving energy back. Mike's memorial service made clear that he was cherished by many people for exactly those qualities in many fields: as a musician, as a blogger and political activist, as a friend, as a sobriety sponsor, as a family man. As his wife of 52 years, Candy Finnigan, said in her eulogy, "The success of a man is the way he's loved." I'll miss him and will never forget his generosity.

Much of Mike's music is on YouTube and other sites, which is nice, because the four Phantom Blues Band albums can be bought but some of the older stuff just isn't easily available. I could post clips endlessly, but here's a tour.

Here's Mike with the Phantom Blues Band in 2008 and one of his signature songs, "Part-Time Love," which shows off his B-3 Hammond organ playing, but also his chops as a blues vocalist:

Here's Mike performing "I Got News for You" with Bonnie Raitt in Long Beach CA in 2013:

Going waaay back, Mike's first band (or one of them) was The Serfs. Here's a fine version of "I'm A Man" from 1969:

Here's a sequence on Finnigan playing with Jimi Hendrix. (You can hear a bit more in this series of short clips, parts one, two and three.)

Here's Finnegan and (Jerry) Wood's 1972 album, Crazed Hipsters:

Here's the rousing "Everything Will Work Out Right" from 1976:

Mike often performed with Etta James. "You Gonna Make Me Cry" is a 2000 cover of a 1965 song and has a classic sound:

John Amato posted this clip of Mike performing "Let Me See the Light" from 1991. His high register is really impressive here, especially after you've heard his blues growl. That's some range.

Lastly, here's the Phantom Blues Band playing Knuckleheads Garage in Kansas City in 2017, which gives some sense of the personality and fun of listening to Mike and his buddies live.