grinninfoole: (strangelove)

This is something I have been mulling over for... jeez, more than a year! (I guess I have fallen off the LJ wagon.) Since I heard about themurder of Trayvon Martin, and especially since Zimmerman's acquital. It's been on my mind especially because of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and the subsequent spectacularly unjustified armed response by that city's police department, and also since I had dinner with an old friend I haven't seen in a while, down in Atlanta, who is passionately committed to permissive gun laws.*

One of the great insights that has stayed with me since my undergraduate days was a passage from Aristotle's Politics, that runs something like this: "Just as a human hand is no longer a human hand once severed from the body, so too a person on their own is either a beast or a god." In a society that prizes individualism as much as ours, 18 year old me found it mind-blowing to consider that the full human experience demands living with other people. No matter how minimal or informal a society's legal customs, no matter how small the population with which one lives, we NEED other people.

(Mind you, I'm still a firm believer in the great American insight, that we are all unique individuals and that we all matter.)

Living with other people means living with the needs, opinions and concerns of one's contemporaries, and also with those of one's ancestors (which have probably become distilled into customs, rituals, folkways, songs, vocabulary, and so on and on). Also, because humans take so long to mature, and because our brains are so plastic, we depend on the context created by our societies to fully develop. I believe that those two truths together mean that there are many ways for us all to live together, and many ways to strike a balance between our need to be part of a group, and our need to be ourselves.

The tension between individual liberty and group needs must be a very old one for our species, but it's definitely been around since our societies became more complex, and became civilizations. The oldest story I know, the Epic of Gilgamesh, starts with low status citizens protesting oppression by their king--i.e. with people in Uruk struggling to balance their individual rights against the need to fit in with their society.

Here's where the guns part comes in: as thinkers like Hobbes and Locke have pointed out, one basic reason to put up with a society is that it helps protect its members from violence--from strangers and from the people one lives with. In a civilization, (i.e. in a more complex society with lots of strangers close by) the laws that restrict one's actions should also keep one safe. This is true in my case. I have walked the streets at night in every place I have ever lived, and never feared for my safety, and nothing bad has yet happened to me. (Obviously, that could change tomorrow, but I think 44 years is still a pretty good track record, even so.)

Let me emphasize this: I don't carry a gun or other dedicated weapon, nor do I even own one, though I easily could do. In all my life, I have never faced danger in my home, or outside it. I have had very few interactions with the police, and in none of them have I had any problems, or faced any danger that I could detect. On the two occasions that I have called them to my home (for false alarms), they were polite and helpful and prompt. I thus conclude that the civilization in which I live does a satisfactory job of protecting me.

In contrast, this same civilization clearly failed to protect Trayvon and James. Both were unarmed teenagers, shot by armed adults who confronted them. That's horrible enough, but it gets worse, because how we collectively respond to crimes when they happen matters just as much as what we do to prevent them. Misunderstandings and mistakes (whether good- or ill-intentioned) can happen in any human interaction, so I think that the mere fact of these two killings does not, ipso facto, mean that our society has a problem. The true depths of our disfunction emerge in what happened after the shootings: Neither George Zimmerman nor Darren Wilson apologized for making a horrible blunder. The police did not respond with a speedy investigation. A month afterwards, neither man had been arrested. It took at least a week for most news to cover the killings, or for many people outside the black community, to take up the subject of either killing.

Altogether, I believe that makes it clear that, as a nation, we don't take these crimes as seriously as we should, and that we aren't affording dark-skinned citizens the same protections that I enjoy. Which is another way of saying that black Americans don't live in a civilization. I don't need to tote a gun around to protect myself, but clearly Trayvon and James did. The expectations of safety and protection that I have are a privilege that I enjoy, in part because of my pale skin. People of color in the USA live in conditions more akin to pre-modern Europe, where Vikings might suddenly show up for kidnapping and murder. This is why a large chunk of white America doesn't appreciate the problems facing non-white America, because judging people who don't live in safety by the same standards as people who do is foolish, and morally backwards.

I don't think this double standard can last, so I'd really like for us to create safety for everyone else before my racially privileged upper class winds up losing this really great benefit. (I will leave it to smarter people to figure out whether white and non-white Americans live in the same society, as distinct from the same civilization. In my mind, all civilizations are societies, but not all societies are civilizations.)

*That particular issue is tangential to this post, but FWIW, I am sympathetic to the arguments that gun ownership helps preserve our liberties, and can indeed be life-saving tools of self-defense, but I get very nervous when people who carry convenient murders in their pockets are belligerent and irrational. It's something I hope to think and discuss in more depth on my in-the-works political chat show on Valley Free Radio, planned for mid-October.

grinninfoole: (strangelove)
I was summoned for jury duty today, which necessitated getting up about 90 minutes before my alarm normally goes off in the morning.  The one trial in the offing was a criminal case, and the defendant faced a slew of charges, one of which was dissemination of harmful material to a minor.  When I was asked if there was any reason why I wouldn't be able to serve impartially on the jury, I explained that I didn't see how showing someone art would merit sending them to jail.  If no one went to prison for showing kids Passion Of The Christ (and no one should), then no one should go to prison for showing another person porn .  The judge asked if I could follow the law, regardless of my beliefs, and said that I could not.  He then excused me.

i had not expected jury duty to play out like that.  While the timing would have been inconvenient, and the case sounded depressing, I was ready and willing to serve.  The rest of the charge are quite serious, and the case will, I'm sure, require jurors like me.  But, if the prosecution's other charges all fell apart, there was no way I was going to convict someone solely for smutty pictures.
grinninfoole: (Default)
Inspired by this post by [ profile] bottledgoose:

A few years ago, whilst driving around Northampton on errands, I listened to Levar Burton discussing his career on NPR’s Talk Of The Nation, and I was struck by one the story told by one woman who called in.
She said that her daughter, who was perhaps 5 or 6 at the time, loved Star Trek, and in particular Geordi LaForge. The woman and her husband, who is an engineer in real life, gave her Geordi action figures, etc. Shortly before calling in to broadcast to which I was listening, she had asked her daughter what she had wanted to do when she grew up. The daughter spouted off half a dozen careers, none of which had been “engineer”. The mother asked: “Don’t you want to be an engineer, like Geordi?”
The daughter replied: “I can’t be an engineer, Mom. I’m not black.”
So, kudos to Levar Burton, and every other person of color who puts up with god only knows what crap, because just by being there where the world can see you, you open up all kinds of new possibilities in our tiny minds. Most especially, thanks to Nichelle Nichols, for putting up with three years of William Shatner, just to show the colors (as it were), because Dr. King asked her to. (And while I’m at it, kudos George ‘I grew up in a US interment camp’ Takei, too.)
grinninfoole: (Default)
With the final voting in, my home state has retained its position as the coolest of all 50 united states today.  For details, see the following:,,-6709483,00.html

grinninfoole: (Default)
This is a press release from my old union about the NLRB decision yesterday. I guess the only good thing about this is that grad student unions at private universities are not illegal, merely no longer accorded official status as unions, which means the schools are not legally compelled to bargain with them in good faith.

Local 2322 Outraged at NLRB’s Decision to Deny Protections of Federal Labor Law to Graduate Teaching and Research Assistants

For immediate release

Please contact James A.W. Shaw at (413) 534-7600 or (413) 582-9853

AMHERST, Mass. (July 16, 2004)—UAW Local 2322, which represents 2,500 graduate student employees at University of Massachusetts Amherst, is condemning a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that graduate teaching assistants are not employees covered by federal labor law.

The NLRB concluded that graduate student Teaching and Research assistants in the private sector are primarily students, and do not qualify for the protections under federal labor law afforded most workers.

“This decision shows that the NLRB is out of touch with reality,” said James A.W. Shaw, a graduate assistant in the department of sociology. “Graduate employees are workers like any other, and deserve the right to form a union just like any other worker.”

Graduate TAs and RAs pay taxes, and are covered by workers’ compensation, health and safety laws, and other workplace laws. The NLRB is now the only government agency that refuses to recognize graduate employee’s employee status.

The decision covers only graduate employees in the private sector, and does not affect graduate students in the public sector, such as those who work at UMass Amherst. Graduate employees at UMass Amherst have been organized since 1989.

“TAs and RAs at UMass have greatly benefited from having a voice in their working conditions through unionization,” said Jennifer Turner, president of Local 2322’s Graduate Employee Organization (GEO), which represents graduate TAs and RAs. “It’s clearly anti-union for the NLRB to take away the right of collective bargaining, which has improved the working lives of graduate employees across the country.”

“The NLRB’s decision has revealed yet again the anti-union agenda of the Bush administration,” said Ron Patenaude, president of UAW Local 2322. “This decision was openly partisan, and reflects George Bush’s mission to undermine labor unions.”

The original decision to grant collective bargaining rights to TAs and RAs in the private sector was made by a bipartisan panel of the NLRB under the Clinton Administration.

“All of the union’s legal and moral arguments were right on,” Shaw said. “However, these Bush appointees allowed their extreme right-wing ideology to interfere with their duty to uphold the National Labor Relations Act.”

GEO’s history highlights the fact that this NLRB ruling actually does not prohibit graduate employees at private universities to form unions. In 1977, the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission (MLRC) ruled that graduate employees at UMass Amherst were not employees and could not form legally recognized unions, just as the NLRB ruled this week. In 1989, however, graduate employees at UMass organized and demanded that the university voluntarily recognize the union.

After a strike, UMass conceded to an election sponsored by a private agency, rather than the government. For four years, UMass and the UAW had a bargaining relationship with each other that included negotiating numerous union contracts. All of this happened even though the state government at that time refused to recognize the right of graduate employees to form a union (In 1994, the MLRC ultimately recognized that right.)

“Despite the NLRB’s ruling, we hope that graduate employees at Brown, Columbia, Penn and other campuses continue their fight,” Shaw added. “Forming a union is a fundamental human right recognized by most nations and the United Nations. Grad TAs and RAs at private campuses should not be deterred by a Republican administration’s wrongheaded decision. Rather, they should fight on.”
grinninfoole: (Default)
Board Overturns TAs Union Membership

Associated Press Writer

July 15, 2004, 3:57 PM EDT

WASHINGTON -- Graduate teaching assistants at private universities do not have the right to form unions, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled, reversing its 2000 landmark decision that resulted in thousands of new union members.

The board, in a 3-2 decision along party lines, ruled that a unit of about 450 graduate teaching and research assistants at Brown University in Providence, R.I., could not be represented by the United Auto Workers because the members were school students, not employees.

"Because they are first and foremost students, and their status as a graduate student assistant is contingent on their continued enrollment as students, we find that they are primarily students," the decision said.

Brown University did not immediately have a comment. A UAW official in Washington was unaware the decision had been made, but said the union disagreed. "We strongly disagree with it and we think it reflects this administration's anti-labor orientation," said Alan Reuther, the union's legislative director.

Organized labor had sought and won the 2000 decision by the NLRB under the Clinton administration, allowing graduate teaching assistants at New York University to unionize. It was the first private school to do so.

The NLRB under the Bush administration said that decision was wrong because it reversed more than 25 years of board precedent.

"In our decision today, we return to the board's pre-NYU precedent that graduate student assistants are not statutory employees," the decision said, adding that this "longstanding approach changed abruptly" under the 2000 ruling.

The decision was sent to the involved parties on Tuesday.

Unions have been active on college campuses trying to recharge the labor movement. Union membership has been declining, and labor leaders view recruitment of younger, part-time workers as a way to reverse that trend. The UAW and the American Federation of Teachers are the leading unions courting graduate teaching assistants.

Some state-supported schools allow graduate teaching assistants to unionize and some don't depending on various state laws.
Copyright © 2004, The Associated Press
grinninfoole: (Default)
The Supreme Court has ruled 6-3 that the Guantanamo detainees have a right to a court hearing. It's a small step, but I'm really pleased, thankful that six justices still know their asses from their elbows. (I'll bet a quarter that the three dissenters are Rehnquist, Thomas and Scalia.) Maybe there's hope for the future, after all.


grinninfoole: (Default)

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