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ACT for America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has described as the "largest anti-Muslim grassroots organization in America", are staging a bunch of "anti-Sharia law" rallies in various locations across the U.S. this weekend. One of them is happening in Santa Clara, a few blocks away from where I live. The ACLU, CAIR, and a bunch of other organizations are sponsoring a counter-demonstration.

I am going to be there to show support for the Muslims in my community. If you're relatively local, it would be great if you could come out as well, or spread the word.
So, Dianne Feinstein was one of 14 Democratic senators who voted to confirm Mike Pompeo as CIA Director. Here is a good summary of why Pompeo is terrible in case you need a refresher.

If you're a constituent of Feinstein's, now would be a good time to get in touch with her and let you know how you feel about this. Also, since Feinstein is on the Senate Intelligence Committee, she will have some oversight over Pompeo's work in the coming years.

Below is the text of my email to Feinstein about this. Yeah, I'm totally buttering her up in my second paragraph, but one thing I know from many years of writing to her is that she's extremely proud of her work on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and I'm certainly willing to try a little flattery if it makes her more receptive to the overall message.

Dear Senator Feinstein:
I was disappointed to see that you voted to confirm Mike Pompeo as director of the CIA. I think there are serious concerns about Pompeo's views on torture and on use of surveillance data collected on American citizens. Furthermore, his history of equating Islam with terrorism and holding ordinary American Muslims to be complicit in terrorism poses a threat to the civil rights and liberties of American Muslims.

However, I know that despite our disagreement on this issue, your work on the Senate Intelligence Committee shows that you are committed to protecting the safety and security of the American people and upholding civil rights and liberties. I would like to ask you to use your influence and position on the Senate Intelligence committee to do the following over the coming years:
* Ensure that Pompeo does not amend CIA rules to allow the use of torture in investigations.

* Ensure that in our zeal to fight terrorism, we do not trample on the rights and freedoms of ordinary American citizens.

* Ensure that the CIA use of surveillance is appropriate and within the law.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.
A mosque in San Jose that's about a 20 minute drive from my house received hate mail yesterday.

There's something kind of surreal about a letter that begins, "To the children of Satan," with the "i" dotted with a cute little circle. There's nothing else funny about the letter, though. The writer promises that Trump "is going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the jews."

It just so happens that the Evergreen Islamic Center, which received the letter, is fundraising to complete the construction of a new masjid (mosque) right now. I've sent them a small donation and a message of support, and I think it would be wonderful if other San Jose residents did the same to show that Muslims are welcome in our community.


Nov. 11th, 2016 09:26 am
wshaffer: (ace)
In the wake of Donald Trump's election, I've have been hearing the usual calls for unity and "putting our differences aside", and lots of pleas to understand the grievances of the people who voted Trump, who are not all horrible racists.

I am, by nature, a consensus builder. One of my favorite phrases is, "Can we embrace the power of 'and'?". I don't believe that everyone who voted for Trump is an irredeemable racist. There may come a time when I decide that the most productive use of my energy and talents is to reach across that political divide, to try to understand that point of view.

But honestly, I am not worried about Trump voters right now. Here is a partial and incomplete list of the people I am worried about: My gay, lesbian, and bisexual friends who are worried about whether their marriages and families will be recognized as valid under a Trump presidency. My friends with disabilities and chronic illnesses who don't know whether they'll be able to keep their health insurance or get the medical care they need. My transgender friends who don't know if they'll be able to access health care or get identification that reflects their actual gender or even visit a public bathroom without being beaten up. Anyone who might experience an unintended pregnancy. My friends serving in the military who will have to serve under a dangerously volatile commander in chief. The Muslim business owners in my community who have to fear being deported or being the targets of hate. Every person of color in my community who gets up and leaves the house every day knowing that a routine traffic stop could be fatal.

I could keep going, but I'm not sure if I'd ever stop.

These are the people we need our attention and our energy right now. The Trump voters might not all be racists, and they might have many legitimate grievances. But right now, as Laurie Penny said, they are people who were "willing to fire at the elite directly through the stomachs of their neighbors." First, we need to stop the bleeding. And we need them to see that there is bleeding, not allow them to kid themselves that it's okay because they weren't actually aiming at us.

Then maybe we can talk about finding some common ground.
The atmosphere around work today was positively funereal. Every meeting I attended began with uncharacteristically glum faces and awkward silences. Everywhere I went, there were little clusters of people standing in hallways discussing the election. People who didn't know me sometimes dropped their voices to hushed whispers as I passed.

I almost didn't go to the Toastmasters meeting today. Of the current batch of regular attendees in my club, I'm the only white person and the only native-born American. I wasn't sure if I could face doing our usual round of cheerful speeches about hobbies and self-improvement and things like that while we ignored the elephant in the room, the fact that a bunch of people who look like me had just voted for a man who campaigned on hatred of people who looked like them.

But I did go, and somewhat to my surprise, we tackled that elephant head-on. When it came time for our impromptu speeches, the table topics master invited people to either speak about "Who I voted for for president, and why," or "What I think of the American electoral system."

And it was an interesting dose of perspective. I'm sure there was a certain degree of self-editing going on, because we were all speaking to a room of people whose political opinions we really don't know. But my colleagues put a much braver face on things than I felt like doing. "We don't have elections like this in China," one of them said, "so watching this one was very interesting." Hey, at least we get to vote for our authoritarian warmongering leaders. A charismatic politician has risen to power by fomenting religious and ethnic tensions? My Indian colleagues have Narendra Modi back home.

I started my speech my saying, "I want to talk about something that isn't exactly the American electoral system, but is one of my least favorite things about American politics right now." And I talked about anti-immigrant sentiment. I talked about various members of my family and my husband's family who immigrated to the United States, how it was a country that offered each of them (admittedly sometimes grudgingly) a chance to make a new life. And I promised that I would work to keep this country a place that offers people that chance.

It was preaching to the choir, in a way, but it also felt important to say that.

Now I just have to figure out ways to keep that promise. Figure out how to walk the talk.
Here's a grab bag of stuff I've been finding interesting today:

Nicholas Whyte put together a very nice guide to election night:

Regarding "making presentations more visual", my sister-in-law tipped me off to this excellent resource of diagrams for presentations: Very useful for those moments when you need a blob with four other blobs radiating out from it, and you don't want it to look like it was created by a five-year-old.

Don't watch this if you are afraid of snakes, but this snippet from Planet Earth II is the most tense action-drama I've seen all year: That un-named little baby iguana is my hero.

Fascinating interview with the lawyer who handles U.S. visas for many heavy metal bands on tour: Hardly a month goes by without an overseas heavy metal band canceling or delaying a U.S. tour because a visa issues. After reading this interview, I'm more amazed that anyone ever manages to tour the U.S. at all.

Music that is scientifically proven to reduce stress:
Regular readers may remember my slight consternation when I wrote to my senators to express my support for resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States, and got back a response from Senator Feinstein that began "Thank you for contacting me to share your opposition to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States." My consternation was only slight because her response made it clear that we actually agree on the issue.

I wrote back to make it clear that we did, in fact, agree on the issue, which seemed like a pointless gesture, but it didn't take very long, and it felt somehow important to set the record straight.

Today, something like 6 weeks later, the vast machinery that grinds through Senator Feinstein's correspondence spat out a second email, which began, "Thank you for writing to express your support for resettling Syrian refugees in the United States." And went on to give some details about various good things Senator Feinstein has done in support of refugee resettlement.

I have no idea why that took 6 weeks, but it gives me some confidence that someone is paying attention to the correspondence.
The Guardian has this fascinating article in which people who support Trump explain why. There is no way in hell that this constitutes a representative sample -- for a start, "Trump supporter who reads The Guardian" is a statistical outlier to begin with, but I'm sure The Guardian has cherry-picked the most entertaining submissions.

It's still an interesting showcase in "Wow, these are people who conceive of politics very differently from me."

I'm a bit flabbergasted by the people who are supporting Trump *because* they think he would be terrible for America. Maybe things really do need to get really terrible before the American people will wake up and fight for what's right. I'd rather fight for what's right now and skip the 4-8 years of suffering and being a global embarrassment. It's a thing to think about?

This bit is my favorite, though:

How on earth can we hope to defeat these people, with their complete domination of the national conversation and relentless narrative of “Progress! Tolerance! Acceptance! Feels!”?

Progress! Tolerance! Acceptance! Feels! How terrible! I'll tell you what that is, that's treating people with respect gone mad! Where will it lead?
The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth GapThe Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Taibbi writes with a very distinctive style - he has a gift for outlandish and vivid metaphors, and a taste for highly emotive language. Sometimes, I wish he would cool it a little, because as a reader I'm wary of being manipulated. And there's plenty of stuff in this book where the bare clinical facts are entirely sufficient to produce outrage, and I don't need the author metaphorically poking me in the ribs saying, "Hey! Hey! Are you angry yet?"

And this book will definitely make you angry (and depressed), but it's an important read. Taibbi does an excellent job of dissecting two trends in the American justice system. First, the extent to which corporate fraud and other financial crimes are prosecuted very gingerly, if at all, and second, the extent to which (often poor, often non-white) individuals can routinely have the full force of the court system thrown at them for relatively minor offenses. The causes behind this are many. There's a big dollop of flawed legal precedent: the tale of the Holder memo is an amazing case study in unintended consequences from a policy that wasn't thoroughly thought through. There are lots of skewed institutional incentives: it turns out that if you evaluate police performance on a metric of number of arrests, police will find ways to make arrests at any cost. And if you tell the Justice Department that the thing that matters most is successful prosecutions, you can pretty much guarantee that the Justice Department will only prosecute slam-dunk cases. There's a whole lot of political theater in the form of politicians scoring cheap points by going after welfare recipients and undocumented immigrants. And a great big chunk of simple racism.

I don't think that there are simple solutions to any of these causes, but having read this book, I now feel much better informed about what the causes are, and ready to join the discussion of how to address them.

View all my reviews


Jan. 21st, 2016 09:30 am
wshaffer: (Default)
A couple of days ago, I used a contact form over on the International Rescue Committee's site to contact my senators, asking them to vote against H.R. 4038, which would place additional restrictions on resettling refugees in the United States.

I got a reply from Senator Feinstein this morning which was reasonably reassuring in its substance, but also startling in its missing of my point.

Thank you for contacting me to share your opposition to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States. I welcome the opportunity to respond.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, there are currently more than 4 million registered Syrian refugees seeking assistance after fleeing five years of conflict in Syria. Over 2,500 Syrians have lost their lives while taking dangerous journeys to European countries. The Syrian conflict has led to the world's worst ongoing humanitarian crisis and the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

I understand you are concerned that the U.S. Department of State may initiate a new program to resettle Syrian refugees in the United States and that you believe this poses a threat to our national security. The President has said, for fiscal year 2016, the U.S. would accept up to 85,000 refugees, 10,000 of which would be Syrians. All U.S. refugee applicants, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, or religion, are required to meet strict criteria, including security checks through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Intelligence community, and the U.S. Department of State, in order to qualify for admission to the United States. Additionally, refugees from certain countries must meet additional clearance levels. For example, biometric information, such as fingerprints and photographs, are collected from refugees coming from Syria and compared to the U.S. vast biometric holdings on foreign nationals.

This was followed up with some additional stuff about the Visa Waiver program and how Senator Feinstein thinks that that is the real security threat that needs to be addressed. Which frankly makes me uneasy as well, but I haven't researched that properly, so I don't know how I feel about that.

I think I can probably chalk this up to a clerical error somewhere. I did write back to Senator Feinstein:

Dear Senator Feinstein:

Thank you for your message. I'm afraid my original email might not have been clear - I was writing to you in support of resettling additional refugees in the United States. I do not believe that Syrian refugees represent any kind of security threat to the United States, and I'm glad that you share my opinion that the existing screening process and security checks for refugees are thorough and adequate.

I very much appreciate your reply to my email, and the additional information that you have provided about your work in ensuring the safety and security of Americans.


Wendy A. Shaffer
Since the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday, I have been gripped with the vague feeling that I ought to Do Something. The question is, "What?" There is a school of thought that seems to think that it is very important that we should go out and Fight Terrorism. I am bothered by the extent to which this seems to translate into "bomb civilians" and also I am not the sort of person you would send to fight anything. The last thing I fought was a house fly - we went three rounds and then negotiated a settlement whereby I waved it out the front door and it left me in peace. This does not seem applicable to the current geopolitical situation.

And then I thought about changing my Facebook picture, but really what the situation seems to call for is an icon of Marianne in an Eagles of Death Metal t-shirt, and I don't have the Photoshop skills for that.

And there is a strain of thought that says that We Must Not Let the Terrorists win by continuing to be unafraid as we go around living in cities, and drinking in bars, and going to rock concerts. I can do this with great gusto, but it's hard to feel virtuous about it since it's exactly what I was doing before the Paris attacks. And as much as it entertains me to imagine little terrorist cells exchanging urgent communiques along the lines of, "Wendy is going to see Behemoth again! Will nothing stop this woman!" I cannot really imagine that they are that bothered.

But then I was looking at the news about all these state governors saying that they don't want their state to accept Syrian refugees. And I'm glad that California is not among them. I want California to accept Syrian refugees. I want California to *welcome* Syrian refugees.

So, I made a donation to the Northern California chapter of the International Rescue Committee. The IRC helps refugees all over the world, but the Northern California chapter is helping refugees find housing, education, health care right here in my own community. I can't really think of a better way to Not Let the Terrorists Win than to help the people that they've driven out of their homes makes new homes here.

(If you want to see if IRC has a chapter in your city, go to their website, click on "Where We Work", and select your location.)
Servants of the People: The Inside Story of New LabourServants of the People: The Inside Story of New Labour by Andrew Rawnsley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very readable account of Tony Blair's first term as British prime minister. Rawnsley does assume a certain level of political knowledge that might be reasonable for the typical British reader of this book. If you're not British, and things like "Clause Four" and "Ernest Bevin" don't ring even vague bells for you, you might want to keep Google handy at a few points.

Being an American who wasn't following British politics closely for much of Tony Blair's time in office, I was mostly aware of Blair when he did something that got substantial coverage in the American press. From this, I had two rather contradictory images of him. One was of a world leader who seemed to demonstrate much more focus and moral clarity during the war in Kosovo than President Clinton. The other was of a politician who made himself President Bush's willing accomplice in misleading the world about the case for war in Iraq. Rawnsley's book certainly makes it possible to square these two Blair's as the same man: it seems clear that Blair was capable of great energy and accomplishment when he was willing to wholeheartedly commit to something. However, it's also clear that he was obsessed with opinion polls and the idea of securing his future place in history, that he didn't actually have many strong political convictions of his own, and that he had a lot of difficulty dealing with conflict among the members of his cabinet.

Mostly, though, this is a book that is likely to make you want to read lots of other books. In particular, Rawnsley's account of the Northern Irish peace negotiations is riveting, but clearly highly compressed. I do hope some good books have been written dealing with that in more detail. I'm also quite eager to read The End of the Party, Rawnsley's book that picks up where this one left off.

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Apr. 9th, 2012 01:01 pm
wshaffer: (not-helpful)
I think Cat Valente's right and we're hurtling backward through time at alarming speed. And not in a fun Doctor Who kind of way. Having huge public debates about access to birth control felt disappointingly like going back to the early 1990s, but Wisconsin's repealing of its equal pay legislation feels like going back even farther than that.

I wish the single out for particular scorn the following from the above-linked article. One Glenn Grothman says:

You could argue that money is more important for men. I think a guy in their first job, maybe because they expect to be a breadwinner someday, may be a little more money-conscious.

First of all, does anyone, male or female, really grow up expecting to be a breadwinner anymore? I'd venture that most of the households that I know require the income of two working adults to keep them running, and the dollars earned by the women are just as much legal tender for rent or groceries as the dollars earned by the men.

Second, what a huge insult to all the households where women are the primary earners. Working single mothers (and, yes, Republicans, there are *working* single mothers), women whose partners are the stay-at-home parent, women whose partners can't or won't earn much income, and, of course, women whose partners are women are getting screwed by the wage gap every day. I know women in these situations, and the idea that money doesn't matter to them is laughable.

But hey, what do Republicans care for justice, fairness, or kids who go hungry because a parent of the wrong gender is supporting the household? The really important thing is that a corporation might get sued, and we can't allow that.
For most of my life, phoning the pharmacy to request a refill on my birth control pills has been a fairly dull chore. Being able to imagine a future where I'd potentially have to justify doing so to my employer makes the whole thing vastly more thrilling!

(Not that I expect that my employer would have any problem with it. The point being that problem or not, it's none of their business!)
Torture Team: Rumsfeld's Memo and the Betrayal of American ValuesTorture Team: Rumsfeld's Memo and the Betrayal of American Values by Philippe Sands

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not an easy book to read. It's a very detailed account of how aggressive new interrogation techniques came to be used on prisoners at Guantanamo and the chain of legal advice that led to those new interrogation techniques being deemed not to be torture. It shifts repeatedly from technical legal reasoning to presenting excerpts from interrogation law, with occasional digressions through the bureaucratic doublespeak of Bush administration officials trying to cover their asses. It's a fascinating look at how organizations that are supposed to have safeguards in place against the use of torture can be subverted, but bits of it will do your head in. (I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when Sands confirmed that, yes, the TV series 24 seems to have had a non-trivial influence on the interrogation techniques adopted.)

Being a lawyer who specializes in international law, Sands spends a lot of careful analysis on whether the interrogation techniques adopted by the Bush administration constituted torture or were in violation of the Geneva convention. While the ins and outs of legal reasoning are interesting, I might have preferred a book that focused more on the evidence of the complete lack of efficacy of these techniques. Because, sadly, I think that many Americans who need to be convinced that this kind of stuff is Not Okay wouldn't be terribly persuaded by technical arguments based on international law, but might be persuaded by the notion that it doesn't work.

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Appetite for Profit: How the food industry undermines our health and how to fight backAppetite for Profit: How the food industry undermines our health and how to fight back by Michele Simon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not all of this will be new information if you've read Marion Nestle's Food Politics or if you keep up on food policy news generally. Simon's book is particularly illuminating on the many ways that food companies fight attempts to regulate them, from fake consumer interest groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom to adopting voluntary guidelines that can be disregarded as soon as the political heat is off. (See recent reports about soda vending machines being ubiquitous in elementary schools, despite voluntary soda industry guidelines about not marketing to children.) Simon analyzes how, just as companies engage in greenwashing to make themselves seem more environmentally friendly than they are, food companies engage in "nutriwashing" to make their products seem more nutritious than they really are. It will definitely make you read the next feel-good press release from Pepsi or McDonalds about how they are encouraging "balanced lifestyles" with more skepticism.

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So, apparently a couple of years ago, Ohio passed a law banning milk producers from labeling their milk as free from rbST, a form of synthetic growth hormone given to cows to make them produce more milk. Unsurprisingly, the Sixth Circuit Court just ruled this unconstitutional on free speech grounds. Duh.

What was more interesting to me was that the court went further, and ruled that milk from cows treated with rbST is compositionally different from milk from untreated cows. Which directly contradicts what the FDA said when it approved rbST for use.

Now, I've always taken the FDA statement about rbST at face value. I buy rbST-free milk, but I do so because a) it tends to be the default at most of the places I shop and b) I figure that farmers who pump their cows full of artificial hormones to maximize their milk production probably aren't farmers who prioritize the quality of their products or the well-being and happiness of their cows. I really assumed that the FDA was being absolutely truthful when it said there was no detectable difference. Which actually, given what I know about the FDA and the power of the dairy industry, seems naive.

Of course, there's no reason to take the court's decision as gospel either, given what a contentious subject this is. But it's kind of sad that this kind of question has to be fought out in the courts.
Freedom for the Thought That We HateFreedom for the Thought That We Hate by Anthony Lewis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can't really recommend getting this book on audio. At least for me, the procession of court cases and dates would have been easier to follow in print, and it would have been easier for me to flip back and refresh my memory on cases that had been discussed earlier. Also, the narrative style is a bit monotonous.

However, I would recommend this book, because it's pretty fascinating seeing how our conception of freedom of speech has changed over the years. It really wasn't that long ago that restrictions on speech that we now think of as obviously unconstitutional were entirely uncontroversial. Lewis also does quite a good job in laying out the balance that has to be found between freedom of speech and other interests in cases relating to libel, the rights of journalists to keep their sources confidential, hate speech, and political campaigning. I'm not sure that I always agree with Lewis, but I do feel that he's broadened my mind in how I think about these things.

Definitely recommended if you're not an expert in constitutional law, but are interested in free speech. But get it in print, not on audio.

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So, the most recent episode of the More or Less podcast tackles The Spirit Level, a book that I reviewed fairly favorably not too long ago. The book purports to show that societies with greater income equality do better on a whole bunch of measures. More or Less presenter Tim Harford begins by noting that there's a suspicious correlation between someone's politics and how critical they are of the statistical methods used in the book. And I have my suspicions about where Tim Harford's politics are. (He writes for the Financial Times.)

However, in her interview with Harford, Kate Pickett, one of the books coauthors, comes across as a bit of a twit less intellectually rigorous than one would like. I mean, misremembering details of particular data points is understandable, but responding to "Why didn't you do a multivariable analysis?" with "Because we didn't think the other variables were important" makes you sound like you're assuming the hypothesis you're trying to prove. Sigh.

Remember people: If you're going to make sweeping statistical claims that nicely confirm my political prejudices, please be rigorous!
The Third Man: Life at the Heart of New LabourThe Third Man: Life at the Heart of New Labour by Peter Mandelson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you're only going to read one book on the rise and fall of New Labour, this probably shouldn't be it. I imagine that there are other books on the topic that are less biased and take a broader perspective. However, if you're a political junkie, this book does offer a vivid first-hand account of the reshaping of the Labour party in the late 80s and 90s, and the government's successes and later unravellings in the 00s. Particularly fascinating is the depiction of the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, which partakes of both Shakespearean tragedy and farce.

I read this book in part, because as someone who takes an interest in British politics from afar, I've never quite understood exactly what Peter Mandelson did, or why he seemed to be so hated or even feared by some people. I now have a better understanding of both of those things, although Mandelson naturally portrays himself as a pretty likeable person.

One rather odd thing about the book is how seldom Mandelson discusses policy in terms other than the impression it made with the voters. (The telling exception is when he discusses his work as a European Trade Commissioner.) For example, Mandelson praises Tony Blair's "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" slogan for connecting with voters in middle England, but never spends a moment examining whether New Labour's crime policies actually did anything to reduce crime or make Britons safer. Mandelson very specifically denies the oft-made assertion that New Labour was all spin and no substance, but his own narrative consistently focuses more on the spin. Although this may be partly because he judges that his audience doesn't want a lot of boring technocratic detail on policies that may now be irrelevant anyway.

Similarly, if you're looking for juicy revelations about the run-up to the Iraq war or about the 2010 election campaign, you won't find them here. Mandelson covers these topics, but doesn't offer any big surprises.

But if you want to know about the ins and outs of political infighting, and get a sense of the personalities that shaped the present-day Labour party, the book delivers on that.

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