28 September 2016

When All Else Fails, Blame Ghosts

Abuses at a Pueblo center for people with severe intellectual disabilities included a resident performing a sexual act in exchange for a soda and another burned with a blow dryer in an attempt to raise her body temperature, according to a federal report obtained by The Denver Post. 
A group of men, some who are nonverbal, had words scratched into their skin, including “die,” “kill,” and “I’m back,” federal investigators found. When questioned, three staffers said they believed the markings were the result of “paranormal activity.” Staffers had posted photos of the etchings on social media, the report said. 
The incidences of abuse at the Pueblo Regional Center — one of three centers in Colorado that are home to adults with developmental, physical and intellectual disabilities — occurred before November 2015. Yet federal investigators who visited the home in April found safety protocols still lacking. They notified Colorado Medicaid officials in an August letter that they were enacting a moratorium on new residents at the center and that Colorado must repay millions of dollars in Medicaid funding. 
“These are some of our most vulnerable people in Colorado,” said Stephanie Garcia, executive director of The Arc in Pueblo, a nonprofit advocacy group for people with developmental disabilities. “To read some of the things going on, it’s shocking.
When all sorts of signs of serious abuse are discovered at a Pueblo, Colorado regional center for the severely intellectually disabled and 5% of the residents die from neglect, do the government employees who have total control over the facility take responsibility?

No.  Of course, not.  They blame the abuse on ghosts. Really, no kidding. Fortunately, this time, in 21st century Colorado, federal investigators did not buy this story.

I was in Pueblo for a trial and reading the local papers when this story broke originally, but many of the details were shrouded in secrecy at the time.

Decapitation Is The Wrong Way To Fight Organized Crime

According to the Chicago Police Department, 85 percent of the city’s gun murders in 2015 can be attributed to gang violence — a statistic that suggests a return to the bad old days while obscuring how profoundly the nature of Chicago’s gang problem has changed in the intervening years. While experts say the Latin Kings, a Hispanic gang, continue to run a large and rigidly organized drug-selling operation on Chicago’s West Side, the majority of Chicago residents who call themselves gang members are members of a different type of group. Rather than sophisticated drug-selling organizations, most of the city’s gangs are smaller, younger, less formally structured cliques that typically lay claim to no more than the city block or two where they live. The violence stems not from rivalries between competing enterprises so much as feuds that flare up with acts of disrespect and become entrenched in a cycle of murderous retaliation. 
Many close observers of Chicago’s violence believe that, as well-intentioned as it was, the systematic dismantling of gangs like the Disciples led directly to the violence that is devastating the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods in 2016. Taking out the individuals who ran the city’s drug trade, the theory goes, caused a fracturing of the city’s criminal underworld and produced a vast constellation of new entities that are no less violent, and possibly even more menacing, than their vanquished predecessors. 
“Every time they hit these large street gangs, they’d focus on the leadership,” said Lance Williams, an associate professor at Northeastern Illinois University, and the co-author of a book about the rise and fall of the Black P Stone Nation, a gang that was eradicated in the 1980s. “It’s like cutting the head off a snake — you leave the body in disarray and everyone begins to scramble for control over these small little areas. And that’s where you get a lot of the violence, because the order is no longer there.” Williams added: “When you lose the leadership, it turns into chaos… What we’re dealing with now is basically the fallout of gang disorganization.” 
The proliferation of small gangs has created a complicated and ever-changing patchwork of new alliances and rivalries, and instilled in many young people — predominantly poor, black men — a sense that they are vulnerable at all times to lethal attacks by members of opposing factions.
From here.

It is counterintuitive, but whether you are fighting gangs in Chicago, cartels in Mexico, drug dealers in the Philippines, or Chechen rebels in Russia, taking out the leadership is frequently the worst thing that you can do.

Leaders of big organizations rein in the worst of their subordinate's conduct to limit the incentive of authorities to crack down on them, and more equally important, you can only negotiate a surrender with a group that has a leader strong enough to enforce it (as Putin did with the Chechen rebels in Russia). Kill the leaders and you get a hydra in which violence accompanies the succession and the new leaders don't have the same authority to control their subordinates.

Fictional (and non-fictional) portrayals of anti-terrorist and anti-gang campaigns often portray a defeat of the leader as a great victory, and U.S. military doctrine mostly agrees with that approach. But in this case, the Batman TV series prequel "Gotham" is one of the few exceptions that makes this accurate point on a regular basis, posing difficult moral quandaries for our heroes.

When gang members kill gang members, and most of the time both the perpetrators and the victims in Chicago are poor, young black men, it is hard for police to prosecute cases. Neither the offender's gang nor the victim's gang want police involvement. 

It is hard for police to feel much enthusiasm if a gang member who may have murdered someone for another gang is murdered himself, at least until innocent bystanders become targets. Also, political pressure to take action against gangs may be modest when the lion's share of the victims are gang members in neighborhoods riddled with poverty that have even less political power than they do money. 

Of course, lots of people can be mistaken for targets by a gang enforcer for offenses as innocent has wearing the wrong colors in the wrong neighborhood. And the more gangs there are, the more subtle displays can be appropriated by one gang or another, which makes these kinds of mistakes even easier for gang enforcers to commit.

27 September 2016

Colorado Voting Starts In About Three Weeks

It is six weeks until the November 8, 2016 general election day in Colorado today, but the state's mail in ballots will start arriving and people will start casting their votes starting about October 19, 2016, about three weeks from now.

This makes all poll results between now and then in Colorado particularly important.

Old Wine In New Skins

A new security threat has emerged at high society weddings: drones.  

These drones could have paparazzi cameras intruding on the privacy of the gathering, or could either have weapons or be used to provide guidance to remote guided weapons.

One of the new solutions to this security threat, however, is decidedly old school.  An anti-drone falconer.

Historically, a falconer hunted birds with a trained bird of prey called a falcon who attacked the target birds out of the air and either returned them to the falconer or allowed the falconer to retrieve the prey from the ground.  Now, the falcon is trained to take out drones rather than birds, to achieve a similar result.

The Hillbilly Elegy Take Three

Discrimination is real. But, so is the fact that in any given context, some cultural norms and practices are more functional than others.

The Appalachian Hillbilly culture J.D. Vance examines in "The Hillbilly Elegy" is valuable, in part, because it provides an opportunity to look at the consequences of "a culture in crisis" that is no longer functional in most of the world where it finds itself, disentangled from the confound of the often more overt discrimination that comes up in other contexts.

But, a recurring theme in the book is the extent to which the issues faced by members of this culture in crisis mirror those of our nation's African-American communities, a culture in crisis in the United States that is in many respects dysfunctional in many of the same respects as white Appalachian culture, white Southern culture and rural Western and Great Plains whites are, but with the added kickers of ongoing discrimination and more meager community economic wealth to build upon.

In the larger scheme of things, the crises that are facing the several cultures of honor in the United States, shows strong parallels to those faced by the Muslim world, in dysfunctional regimes in many countries where they are dominant, in violent conflicts where it cohabits with other faiths in places from the African Sahel to Malaysia to the Philippines, to tensions and discrimination faced by Muslim immigrants to the West.

In each of these cases, men are struggling more to adapt to modernity than women. In each of these cases, escalation to violence is triggered more easily than in the dominant culture and both public and private violence are less unequivocally taboo, in each of these cultures men tend to be more often resistant to the dominant cultures style of providing an education, and in each of these cultures "normal behavior" often equates to lacking the "soft skills" needed to hold down a job like expected etiquette and punctuality.

There is ripe irony in the fact that demagogues like Donald Trump, his running mate Governor Mike Pence, conservative talk radio hosts, and Evangelical Christian clergy aim their fear and hatred so strongly at the African-American community and Muslims, with whom they have so much in common and who face so many of the same struggles, rather than the dominant American culture that is strongest in the Northeast and Pacific states of the United States.

Discrimination is a tricky thing. Part of it flows from ignorance, but it is more complex than that. When a culture is dysfunctional in a given context, this gives rise to stereotypes and those stereotypes are then applied indiscriminately to the detriment of everyone in the stereotyped group. And, once someone is discriminated against based on such a stereotype, whether or not its basis is actually applicable to them individually, the incentive to function well in a given context fighting the pulls of culture and expectations from insiders and outsiders alike can prove to be not worth it leading people to embrace the stereotype and give justification to further discrimination. In the absence of strong prohibitions against discrimination, it can be difficult or impossible for an individual to overcome this vicious cycle.

But, the opposite can be true as well. If a culture reforms itself, or if some subset of the stereotyped group finds a way to visibly set itself apart and defy the expectations society has of them (one of the most notable historical efforts along these lines was Malcolm X's effort to create a culturally distinct community of African-American Muslims), discriminatory perceptions can shift as well.

The point is not to somehow deflect blame for the circumstances that got us where we are, to be frank and recognize how complex a task it is to find solutions.

Ultimately, framed as a clash of cultures, in each case there are three possible solutions: reform of the aspects of the culture in question that make it dysfunctional from within, conversion to a more functional culture, or perpetuation of the status quo even though this leaves members of this culture at a disadvantage in modern society - respecting tradition and providing a hedge through societal diversity against the possibility that the context may change and with it the relative functionality of the cultures that exist.

Reform from within does happen.  Southern Baptists and Mormons have disavowed past overtly racist doctrines. Young Evangelical Christians are far less concerned about homosexuality than their parents and their grandparents generations. Turkey, under the guidance of Ataturk went from having values and norms typical of their Arab Muslim neighbors to the South to having one of the oldest and most secular Islamic democracies in the world with a population whose views are among the most moderate in the Muslim world.  Similarly, the Iran of today, while not a liberal as it was in the several years before the Shah fell in the Islamic Revolution, is also much less conservative and fundamentalist religiously than it was in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution. The ancestors of the people whose culture now seems perfectly suited to modernity in places from New York to Munich to London to Stockholm ended up with the culture they have through painful transitions now forgotten by almost everyone but cultural and economic historians.

Conversion happens too. J.D. Vance, himself, is a classic convert from his own culture to dominant American culture. Another high profile convert is Taylor Swift who started as a country singer from Nashville but transitioned to become a pop singer based in New York City who embraces her new culture's values. Southerners who go to colleges in the North usually try to shed their accents. Most of the non-white and first generation college students displayed in the view books of selective colleges and universities have chosen the path of conversion, even if that conversion is never total in the first generation. National media and the Internet and economic migration of Northerners to parts of the South like North Carolina's research triangle, suburban D.C. in Virginia, Atlanta, and oil boom towns in Texas all create pressure for dilution of local culture, ultimately leading to assimilation into the national culture. Conversion is the norm among immigrant populations - with those parts of the culture that do not convert often omitting reforms that happen in the old country after the main wave of migration.

And, certainly, some people stick stubbornly to their traditional unreformed cultures, but as often as not, this is an ugly story of despair and cultural crisis, as much as it is something to celebrate.

Bringing about these changes is not a straight forward matter, and lead to a lot of political and social strife. But, some choice has to be made, and these are pretty much the only options.