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Abbas Kiarostami, RIP

[ 7 ] July 4, 2016 |

The legendary Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has died of stomach cancer. Truth be told, of the internationally known giants of Iranian cinema I probably prefer the output of Mohsen Mahkmalbaf and Jafar Panahi to Kiarostami, although it’s hard to imagine Makhmalbaf and Panahi without Kiarostami. He’s best known for blurring the boundaries between fiction and documentary. Perhaps the most fascinating and intriguing (and largely successful) experiment of his career in that vein was Close-Up, which retells a historic event with the actual participants acting as themselves–a disturbed Makhmalbaf fan impersonates the famous director, conning his way into a family on that pretense, and is eventually discovered and arrested. It works just magnificently as a character study of the impersonator, but also of the family and other minor characters; his minimalism and naturalism are perfect for the subject. The Wind Will Carry Us is probably my favorite, although I’m also quite partial to Homework, Taste of Cherry, and Where is the Friends Home? I didn’t care for ABC Africa, and I haven’t seen much of his output in the last 15 years, something I’ll now seek to rectify.


A good day for Zombie Sonics haters and Kevin Durant

[ 249 ] July 4, 2016 |

As a Seattle native I’m honor-bound to root against Oklahoma City, so obviously I take no small pleasure in today’s news.

But beyond that, those criticizing Durant can go jump in a lake. Let’s recall that the terms of his initial contract–one that he had no choice but to sign, if he wanted to play basketball professionally, and one that was well under any plausible assessment of his market value–he was forced to either abandon his profession or relocate from a lovely city he by all accounts quite liked to Oklahoma. This forced relocation was the product of the machinations of a cabal of billionaires looking to punish taxpayers that dare not subsidize them to their satisfaction.

One would also hope this would finally end the practice of claiming with a straight face that the salary cap is about “competitive balance,” rather managing labor costs, but I’m not optimistic.

I suppose he’d have a pretty good handle on what not to do…

[ 26 ] June 29, 2016 |

This could potentially be a valuable service for a certain kind of religious leader:

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but it sure doesn’t feel that way when your pastor or church starts making the headlines. In today’s world, if you’re a Bible-preaching church, then it’s only a matter of time before you’ll be faced with a communications crisis of your own. Even the most squeaky clean church is susceptible to mistakes, sin, false accusations, or worse.
We’ve prepared an all-inclusive training package and downloadable resources to help your church establish an effective PR strategy and crisis plan. You’ll learn tried and true techniques that will help prepare you and your church to handle every day communications crises.

Who would you trusting to help you keep the con going protect your church?

Justin Dean is the Chief Advisor at DOXA Media Group and co-founder of That Church Conference. Previously, Justin served as the Communications Director for Mars Hill Church in Seattle where he oversaw all content, communications, social media, and public relations.

Yes, that Mars Hill.

The terrorist watch list is still a due process disaster, and trying to expand its use is shameful

[ 389 ] June 22, 2016 |

Alex Pareene is right:

The no-fly list is a civil rights disaster by every conceivable standard. It is secret, it disproportionately affects Arab-Americans, it is error-prone, there is no due process or effective recourse for people placed on the list, and it constantly and relentlessly expands. As of 2014, the government had a master watchlist of 680,000 people, forty percent of whom had “no recognized terrorist group affiliation.” This is both an absurdly large number of people to arbitrarily target in gun control legislation, and far, far too few to have any meaningful effect on actual gun ownership, let alone gun violence.

…Almost any popular and previously debated gun control measure would have made a better symbolic lost cause. Democrats could be staging a sit-in in support of universal background checks* and waiting periods, nationally standard gun licensing and training requirements, and tougher restrictions on where and how guns are sold. All of those, or even any one of those, would have been more defensible both politically and morally. Instead House Democrats are going to the mat for a shitty, racist, useless bill.

I can appreciate the political wisdom behind the choice of this bill as the subject of high-profile political theatrics; I’m sure it’s overwhelmingly popular, and it hits the Republicans on a weakness (refusal to do anything at all about gun violence) and a strength (terrorism) simultaneously. Anyone who cares about the 4th amendment or due process rights should still be disgusted by it.

On the “terrorist watch list” thing

[ 98 ] June 16, 2016 |

I really wanted to cheerlead the symbolic gesture Chris Murphy and other Senate Democrats engaged in yesterday. It’s certainly good politics, as I have no doubt the bill they were filibustering on behalf of would be similarly overwhelmingly popular. But I can’t quite do it; I’m with the ACLU on this one. The “terrorist watch list” is a due process nightmare, and it shouldn’t be used to restrict legal rights in its current form. My interest in not seeing people deprived of their legal rights arbitrarily and without due process doesn’t suddenly vanish because the government defines a particular legal right overbroadly on my assessment. It’s also troubling to see people who really should know better, like Sheila Jackson Lee, conflating “terrorist” and “person on terror watch list.”

Incidently, I was apparently on some sort of list–obviously not the no-fly list, as I was never actually denied boarding, but some sort of extra scrutiny list–for several years in the early aughts. I couldn’t check into a flight online or at the kiosk, so I’d stroll up the agent to check in. The typical process of acquiring a boarding pass began with the ticketing agent taking my ID and flight information, clicking away at the terminal for a minute or two. There was a moment where his or her demeanor suddenly changed, and I’d get a nervous “I’m sorry, sir, there seems to be some sort of problem” followed by a huddle of multiple employees, including some sort of supervisor, just out of earshot, whispering anxiously and occasionally glancing suspiciously in my direction. This would go on for several minutes, until someone got on the phone, waited a while to get through to whoever they were calling, who’d eventually, apparently, give them permission to issue me a boarding pass. I spent a non-trivial amount of time and energy trying to figure out what list I was on, let alone how to get off it, with no success whatsoever. (After a few years of this, a gate agent recommended to me I start using my full middle name, rather than just my middle initial, when booking flights. It worked; I was never subjected to this step again.)

Can this horrible primary finally be over?

[ 254 ] June 7, 2016 |

Results here. Let’s have an open thread celebrating the end of the damn primary, but for the hell of it, let’s try and experiment and refrain from saying mean things (even accurate ones!) about the horrible supporters of the other candidate.

Echoing 2008, Clinton may well pull off a surprise victory in South Dakota. The Dakota split is puzzling to me. The demographics of SD and ND are very similar, although if anything it would seem the SD demographic might be more Sanders-friendly, given the larger Native American population, which appears to be pretty pro-Sanders. It’s tempting to attribute this to caucus v. primary, and that’s obviously a big part of the gap, but as of now there’s a 42 point difference between the states (Sanders by 39, Clinton by 3) and the caucus boost for Sanders has typically been more like 10-15 points. What’s going on here?

CA prediction: Clinton by 4.

Thank you, Lummi Nation

[ 10 ] May 9, 2016 |

The Lummi Nation, in Northwest Washington, has long been among the most politically organized and active tribes in the Northwest, and today they’ve scored a significant victory, not just for themselves, but for anyone who’d like to see a habitable planet for their grandchildren, as the Army Corps of Engineers has rejected a plan to build a coal export terminal at Cherry point, on the grounds that it would interfere with the Lummi Nation’s treaty-guaranteed fishing rights. Timeline of events here. Lummi spokesman Tim Ballow II:

Because of this decision, the water we rely on to feed our families, for our ceremonies and for commercial purposes remains protected. But this is more than a victory for our people; it’s a victory for treaty rights.

Treaty rights shape our region and nation. As tribes across the United States face pressures from development and resource extraction, we’ll continue to see tribes lead the fight to defend their treaty rights, and protect and manage their lands and waters for future generations.

Contemporary Hindu Nationalism and Ambedkar

[ 97 ] May 7, 2016 |

LeeEsq in comments the other day pointed to this story in the New York Times, about a controversy over curricular choices in South Asian history.

The dispute centers on whether the region that includes modern-day India, Pakistan and Nepal should be referred to as India or as South Asia, to represent the plurality of cultures there — particularly because India was not a nation-state until 1947. It also touches on how the culture of the region is portrayed, including women’s role in society and the vestiges of the caste system.

It might seem somewhat arcane. But it has prompted petition drives, as well as a #DontEraseIndia social media campaign and a battle of opinion pieces.


On one side are advocates from the Hindu American Foundation, which seeks to shape the image of Hinduism in the United States. Backed by some scholars, they want the entire area under dispute to be referred to as India, reflecting what they say is the most important influence in the area.


But the Hindu-American group has been particularly active in trying to shape California’s history curriculum. For the last decade, it has been pushing — unsuccessfully — for public schools to give more attention in the curriculum to the Hindu religion and Indian culture.

The language at issue appears in dozens of places in the sixth- and seventh-grade history curriculum where either the terms India or South Asia could be used. Scholarly groups on both sides have submitted suggestions to the committee.

For example, a reference to “Early Civilizations of India” could be “Early Civilizations of South Asia,” or “In this unit students learn about ancient societies in India” could instead be “In this unit students learn about ancient societies in South Asia.”

“The civilization that is being covered is Indian,” said Suhag Shukla, the executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, which started the social media campaign #DontEraseIndia. “When you talk about ancient India, that’s the birthplace of Indian students,” she said.

It’s appropriate that this came up in a discussion of the memorialization of treason in defense of slavery; the parallel between the way Confederate apologists and Hindu nationalists deploy symbols and curricula to advocate for their preferred account of history. The effort to portray Caste discrimination and untouchability as something only contingently connected to Hinduism bears a distinct family resemblance to the effort to suggest white supremacy and slavery are somehow marginal to or detachable from the confederate cause. (Right down to the whole “we’re the oppressed ones in the new world order” routine.) It’s tempting to see this as evidence of the spread of right-wing Hindu nationalism, but it appears this particular fight predates the current rise of the BJP.

On a related note, on my reading list for this summer (and I hope/plan to blog about it a bit when I get to it) is the new critical annotated edition of B.R. Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste. Ambedkar is an important and ignored figure in India’s independence; the most prominent Dalit/untouchable leader of the mid-20th century, India’s first law minister, and key architect of the Indian constitution. This book began as a speech Ambedkar prepared for a conference of reformist Hindus against untouchability. He wasn’t allowed to give the speech, because it departed from the party line (embraced by Gandhi as well) that rejecting untouchability didn’t mean rejecting the Caste system more broadly) and subsequently self-published. The new edition has caused some controversy and attention in part because of the inclusion of a controversial commentary essay by noted novelist Arundhati Roy. From what I can gather, her essay has drawn criticism from all sides. Dalit activists object in principle to a high-caste Gandhian celebrity being associated with the work of their leader and hero. On the other side, her essay has been criticized for cynically using Ambedkar as a convenient stick to hit Gandhi with, rather than taking him seriously as a thinker in his own right.

This is particularly interesting to me in part because the current boomlet of scholarship on Gandhi’s political theory has largely ignored Ambedkar, which is an unfortunate (and, I suspect, potentially revealing) omission. As Gandhi became politically sainted in the Indian nationalist narrative, attention to his adversaries (even adversaries whom Gandhi clearly respected and admired, like Ambedkar) became politically difficult. There’s a large grant set aside for the project of Ambedkar’s collected works that no Indian university has yet taken advantage of). Over the course of his career he had a number of important disputes with Gandhi:

* The Sequencing of social and political revolution

Both Gandhi and Ambedkar wanted to see a political revolution (against the British) and a social revolution (against both inter-religious conflict and the horrors of untouchability). For Gandhi, political revolution was the priority; only after self-rule could India productively tackle its own social problems. For Ambedkar, who owed his opportunities and education to the British policy of employing and educating Dalits, social progress to the point that independence wouldn’t be likely to make matters worse was seen as a prerequisite for political independence. This reticence to endorse immediate political revolution has been used by hackish Hindu nationalists to paint Ambedkar as a colonial sympathizer. This is grossly unfair; Ambedkar viewed the impact of British rule for Dalits as a mixed bag at best and was clear that real emancipation not just for India but for Dalits in India, required Independence.

* Representation

In the early 30’s, Gandhi and Ambedkar strongly disagreed over a British plan to allow for separate electorates, which would have allowed Dalits to elect Dalits. Ambedkar thought this was crucial; Gandhi was so appalled by it he launched a hunger strike against it. (Ambedkar caved, agreeing to the Poona Pact, which created minimum levels for Dalit representation while abandoning separate electorates. This seems to be a turning point for him in his view of Gandhi; he gave in in part out of fear that Gandhi would literally starve himself to death if he didn’t win.) Gandhi’s strong opposition to this plan was rooted in his vision of Hindu unity; he believed separate electorates would reify existing differences. Ambedkar viewed the control to choose their own representatives as essential for self-defense.

* Untouchability and Hinduism

Gandhi viewed Dalits as a group of people who were Hindu but mistreated by other Hindus. Ambedkar viewed them as an oppressed group forced into a kind of Hindu-but-not-really identity by the dominant caste Hindus. (He speculates that the origins of untouchability might have been as a punishment/retaliation by caste Hindus for Buddhists who defied Hindu dietary law, whereas those Buddhists who ) Gandhi viewed this revisionism as an attack on Hinduism. For the last 20 years of his life, Ambedkar publicly mused about the possibility of a political conversion, at times considering various religions to convert to, often declaring he would not die a Hindu. On his deathbed he announced his conversion to Buddhism, which led to millions of immediate Dalit conversions. To this day, Dalits risk losing the rights Ambedkar fought for in the constitutional convention, which includes various protections against discrimination and access to public employment, if they publicly convert to another religion.)

* Temple Entry

In the 1930’s some of the progressive Princes in India began to promote temple entry laws. Generally, Dalits were banned from from entering most Hindu temples. Ambedkar supported such laws, employing the coercive power of the state to force Temples to allow Dalit entry. Gandhi supported entry rights, but objected to the use of state violence to bring them about, preferring a politics of persuasive protest and nonviolent resistance. A standard western liberal approach to religious freedom would have to side with Gandhi here, of course–the temples are privately owned–but that would require placing Hinduism, conceptually, entirely in the private sphere, which (Ambedkar argued) makes little sense in an Indian context.

In general, this is reflective of some of the differences in their political outlook. Ambedkar was comfortable with the use of the coercive power of the state, whereas Gandhi was an advocate of nonviolence who flirted with anarchism. Gandhi held a romanticized notion of “village democracy” whereas Ambedkar saw the future of a better India in cities, where the centuries of entrenched discrimination might stand a better chance of being reversed.

At any rate, I’m way out of my depth here but I’m convinced Ambedkar deserves more attention as a political thinker–as an advocate for oppressed peoples, for his complicated views on colonialism, his role in shaping the Indian constitution, his views on religion and politics, his feminism (just as the caste system was incompatible with the end of untouchability, in his view, caste obsessions with purity were in his view wholly incompatible with gender equality and meaningful citizenship rights for women.) and his application of Deweyan pragmatism (he studied with Dewey at Columbia and according to one biographer was working on a paper on Dewey’s influence on his thought when he died. While he wrote little about Dewey, as Arun Mukherjee has demonstrated his work often quoted or paraphrased Dewey’s work, especially Democracy and Education, without attribution), and his disputes with Gandhi. With belligerent right-wing Hindu nationalism on the rise he seems particularly worthy of attention now.

Update: Jeremy W., in comments, provides a link to a substantial excerpt from Roy’s controversial introduction.

Paying the parkers

[ 82 ] April 20, 2016 |

At some point, I’ll inevitably put up a long, boring, anguished, conflicted post about the draft proposal for Sound Transit III, an expansion of mass transit in the Puget Sound that will go before voters this fall. I’m reluctant to do so now, because I’m careening wildly between “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” and “this is horseshit for the following 17 reasons” and while I’ll probably eventually land close to the former, I’m not there yet.

In the meantime, the estimable Zach Shaner has a good write-up on the provision of parking in the package. Many of the details will be of little interest to those outside the region, but here’s the nut:

The Sound Transit 3 Draft Plan includes a lot of parking. Just how much? The agency plans to build 9,700 new stalls (8,300 net) in 16 new parking garages and two new surface lots. The total cost is $661m in 2014 dollars, or a staggering $80,000 per space. Taken in aggregate, each commuter using these new stalls could park every day for 50 years, and Sound Transit would pay them $4.38 for the privilege (and that’s on top of the capital costs of their bus or train ride, of course). If 2041 ridership attains its expected 500,000 per day and each of those 8,300 new stalls were filled daily, that’s just 1.6% of the system’s users.

I’ve written against Park and Rides here before, and I think Shaner and I are on the same page more or less. He sums up the case against them:

Parking adjacent to transit directly reduces all other means of access, reduces affordable housing potential, necessitates hostile adjacent land uses, increases transit operating costs, reinforces residential auto dependency, and (when unpriced) represents an exorbitant subsidy that the relatively wealthy enjoy at the expense of others’ access.

To that I would add that it induces greater rates of megacommuting, so the image of the P&R serving the local community; those who live outside the walkshed but near (say, 1-4 miles) from the station, thus reducing aggregate miles driven and total emissions, appears to be wrong.

Shaner offers two plausible rebuttals to the case against them (a third, that they might be needed to attract enough voters to pass the package, is presumably assumed.)

First, a social justice argument in light of the suburbanization of poverty. This is clear enough, and given that the housing shortage and attendant lack of affordable housing in the city is likely to get worse rather than better, can’t be ignored. I’d rather take that money and channel it into building more affordable housing in transit rich areas of the city, but that’s perfect/enemy/good thinking. Depending on the specific locations, this will have to enter my calculus and temper the vehemence of my anti-park and ride views. The other rebuttal is interesting, although I’m not initially persuaded:

The second argument stipulates that as a transitional land use easily torn down later, Park & Rides facilitate lifestyle change while car-dependent locales await the retrofits necessary to make them succeed without cars. Whether you think that’s true largely depends on your time horizon, and on the relative value you place on access for a few today versus access for far more people later.

It depends not just on time horizons, I’d contend, but also on how much you fear the awesome power of status-quo bias in land use policy; namely, the users of the parking managing to stave off land use changes long after it was even arguably a sensible land use choice. Retaining strict single family zoning rules in areas within a few miles of downtown Seattle is, from an environmental, planning, or affordable housing perspective, demonstrably insane and grossly inefficient, yet it stubbornly persists. Does anyone envision those massive Eastside BART parking lots being turned into affordable housing anytime soon? Can anyone seriously make the case the need for affordable housing isn’t more urgent than the need for subsidized parking in the Bay area? Perhaps I’m overly pessimistic; the movement to reduce or remove parking minimums in cities has been more successful than I would have imagined possible a decade ago. But I’m still skeptical.

Profiles in Courage: Jay Inslee

[ 36 ] April 3, 2016 |

Jay Inslee, who campaigned against charter schools in his run for Governor in 2012, had the opportunity to prevent this drain on public schools. What did he do?

Gov. Jay Inslee took action on more than 150 bills this week, but not a measure to that aims to preserve the state’s system of charter schools.

On Sunday, the bill will become law anyway.

The measure, Senate Bill 6194, looks to solve constitutional issues with the state’s voter-approved charter-school law, which the Washington State Supreme Court struck down in September.

Inslee faced a deadline of 11:59 p.m. Saturday (April 2) to either sign the bill, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

On Friday, he announced he had chosen the latter and the law will take effect Sunday.

In a letter explaining his decision, Inslee said he remains concerned about whether there will be adequate public oversight of charter schools, but said he doesn’t want to see the schools shut down.

It’s the procedural/political game he’s trying to play that really annoys me. If he made the case that the people had spoken (The bill is a legal fix for a charter school amendment that passed in 2012 but was ruled unconstitutional) and want this passed, and he’s not going to stand in the way and signed the damn thing, or if he determined he needs to do this to win re-election, I wouldn’t support his decision but I could, on some level, respect it. But trying to have it both ways with a procedural gimmick that does nothing is insulting and worthless. Inslee has also spent much of the last three years scolding the legislature for not fully funding public schools to comply with the McCleary ruling; it’s difficult to see why anyone should take him seriously if he continues to pretend to shed crocodile tears about how the legislature won’t properly fund public schools.

It’s very difficult to see how a Democrat could lose the Governor’s office in Washington in a presidential year that isn’t a Republican wave. I have a feeling Inslee’s going to make it annoyingly interesting.

Skyping with Rousseau

[ 28 ] March 31, 2016 |

Normally I try to keep in mind that one’s dreams are almost always boring to other people, but this one I think may be an exception. Not your average teaching stress/anxiety dream.

In my dream last night, the latest technological innovation was the capacity to skype with deceased persons from the afterlife. This valuable innovation comes at a very high cost; a single skype session costs a huge amount of money. Despite this cost, I petition and ultimately persuade my employer to cover the costs of a skype session with one of the canonical figures whose work I teach in my history of political theory class. I leave the choice up to students, using single transferable votes, but Rousseau is the clear winner. As I begin the process of the paperwork to arrange for the skype session, I learn from the Dean’s office that the funding has been pulled. There was evidently some concern that bring in a man who so willingly and callously discarded his own children, and spent his life prevaricating and offering various excuses and justifications, was perhaps not fully in line with our Catholic and Marianist values. I was mildly annoyed, but my students were well and truly outraged. In response to what they understood to be an affront to their academic freedom, they organized a series of in person and on-line protests, making “Dayton bans Rousseau” the viral outrage of the moment. At the moment that I woke up, I was preparing to be a guest on Morning Joe to discuss the controversy, a prospect I was really dreading. Once I was over the initial confusion of waking up mid-dream, I was mostly just relieved I wouldn’t have to go on Morning Joe.


[ 32 ] March 31, 2016 |

Today in appalling innovations in abortion law:

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert just signed a law that will require doctors to ignore best medical practice and give some women unnecessary anesthesia for abortions. This is the first time any state has tried this, even during a veritable boom of creative anti-abortion lawmaking at the state level.

The idea behind SB 234, or the Protecting Unborn Children Amendments, is to prevent a fetus from feeling pain during an abortion at 20 weeks or more. It requires a doctor performing an abortion at this stage to “administer an anesthetic or analgesic to eliminate or alleviate organic pain to the unborn child.”

The problem? Thorough reviews of medical evidence reject the idea that fetuses can actually feel pain at 20 weeks. They don’t fully develop the proper neurological structures to feel pain until later, around 29 to 30 weeks in the third trimester.

The bigger problem? There’s really no such thing as “fetal anesthesia” in standard medical practice. And the law doesn’t specify how doctors are supposed to make it happen.

“I’ve emailed the governor and asked him to tell me what to do, because I don’t know what to do,” Dr. Leah Torres, an OB-GYN and abortion provider in Utah, told Vox. “It’s like saying, ‘Take someone’s widget out using standard medical practice.’ I don’t know what that means.”

Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, told CNN that the law could amount to a “de facto” ban on abortions at 20 weeks or later, because no doctor would give a patient anesthesia who doesn’t need it.

And banning abortion after 20 weeks is exactly what Utah lawmakers were trying to do in the first place, the Salt Lake Tribune reports. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Curt Bramble, initially proposed a total ban on abortion after 20 weeks but changed it after he was told the ban would be unconstitutional.

The headline for the story suggests Utah doctors are “dumbfounded” by the new law. Perhaps they are, but if they’ve been paying attention they shouldn’t be. What’s going on here should be fairly obvious, especially in light of Donald Trump’s gaffe (and uncharacteristically speedy and thorough walkback). They understand it’d be a political disaster for them if they tried to use the criminal justice system to punish women who seek abortions, but that doesn’t mean they have to give up on punishment altogether. Punishment comes in many forms. The story here isn’t “Utah Republicans have false beliefs which lead to bad, unnecessary law,” it’s one, or both, of the following: “Utah Republicans looking for backdoor ways to enact unconstitutional abortion bans”/”Utah Republicans use doctors as a tool to administer an extra-judicial punishment.”

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