Monday, July 20, 2009

Some People Get It...

I recently bought the Cthulhu shirt from Teach The Controversy (thanks to PZ for pointing it out) mostly on the grounds that I like the design. After wearing it in public for the first time I've also realized that it's an incredibly specific tribal marker; a few people get it immediately and you can't really explain it to the rest. My barrista asked me what it was but, in trying to give her some context, I discovered that:

  • There's too much backstory on Cthulhu to explain in one or two sentences.
  • Talking about elder gods and H.P. Lovecraft makes you sound crazy even if it's immediately germane to the conversation.

So I settled for "Yeah, it's a squid".

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Hyperbole Much?

Right now I'm listening to Morning Edition Weekend (yes, I'm one of those) and they're doing a segment on the use of unmanned drones on the Canadian border. Michael Kostelnik, the assistant commissioner for air and marine operations at U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, just referred to a particular type of marijuana ("B.C. Bud" IIRC) as "lethal". Right...

Good god... that's the kind of dreck that the War-On-Everything folks have been reduced to spouting. And shame on you, Liane Hansen, for letting him get away with such a stupid characterization.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Disability: Models and Phrases

Something about disability rights advocates and their mode(s) of argumentation really drives me up the wall, though I have a hard time putting my finger on it. I've tilted as this particular windmill before (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) with edifying results and now a new poster at Feministe, amandaw, gives me cause to revisit the issue. I don't have any particular agenda at the moment other than to look at what ey's writing to see if I can tease out what it is, specifically, that is raising my hackles.

Let's start out with eir 2009-07-02 post and go from there. Right of the bat ey makes the following statement about the various models of disability:

There are a number of models, but the two primary models are the medical model and the social model. These are the two most often discussed because of the particular ways they conflict with one another.

The medical model centers around the individual. The medical model defines disability in opposition to the normal body/brain, as deviating from that model of normalcy, and any problems that arise in your life are seen as arising from your deviation. Thus, these problems are to be solved by addressing that deviation - by bringing your body/brain closer to the normal model.

The social model centers around the structure of society. The social model does not seek to define disability: instead, it proposes that the problem is that society is built such that many people are prohibited from full participation in society because of their differences. Under the social model, the problem is not the difference, the problem is that society does not accommodate that difference. -The problem is not the person- is a common refrain from champions of the social model.

In short, you might say: The cause of exclusion is not the disability. The cause of exclusion is how the rest of society treats disability. Therefore, what needs to be addressed to eliminate this exclusion is not the individual person’s condition. What needs to be addressed is how society is set up in such a way that this person faces trouble when attempting to exercise hir right to participation equal to that of a non-disabled person. What do you change? Not the person. Society.

I'd like to start by questioning the assertion that the medical model and the social model necessarily conflict with each other. These two models attribute the problems facing the disabled to different sources, and thus recommend different solutions, but both models can operate in tandem without raising a logical contradiction. Indeed, many enabling solutions for the disabled involve the combined application of both models. An archetypal example would be the wheelchair/wheelchair ramp. A wheelchair is a device that seeks to compensate for the inability to walk and is thus a solution arising from the medical model. A wheelchair ramp represents a modification of a traditional architectural element (stairs) specifically for the purpose of making buildings more accessible to the disabled; the widespread implementation of such ramps represents a change at a cultural level and thus derives from the social model.

While I suppose its possible to critique the above example, and welcome anyone who cares to do so, I think it amply demonstrates that the medical and social models can rub along together quite profitably. amandaw's presentation of the two models as fundamentally in conflict excludes this middle ground, effectively narrowing the range of acceptable discourse to the extremes at each end of a broad spectrum of possible solutions. Whatever genuine tensions exist between the two models can be greatly reduced by recognizing that the social model is appropriate for dealing with bona fide discrimination while the medical model is, perhaps, more appropriate for the rest.

My second issue with the above excerpt is that it doesn't stop to consider whether one model or another accurately describes external reality. This treatment of the various models appears to be endemic to the disability rights community at large; I've run across the same behavior in my previous encounters with them. They seem to take one of three major positions with regards to the question of empirics:

  1. The models operate apart from an independent, external reality; the question of how well they describe it is fundamentally meaningless.
  2. The models have an empiric component, but the degree of conformance is only one of many factors to consider when selecting the model that is most appropriate.
  3. The models have an empiric component which is of critical concern in selecting the best model.

I've run across many more people subscribing to some form of 1 or 2 than 3, and getting those who hold that third position to admit it is often like pulling teeth.

Which brings me to a criticism of the social model as defined on the Models of Disability page to which amandaw linked. This page provides two definitions of "disability" under the social model:

"the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the normal life of the community on an equal level with others, due to physical or social barriers."


Under the social model, disability is caused by the society in which we live and is not the ‘fault’ of an individual disabled person, or an inevitable consequence of their limitations. Disability is the product of the physical, organizational and attitudinal barriers present within society, which lead to discrimination. The removal of discrimination requires a change of approach and thinking in the way in which society is organized.

Both definitions treat disability as an exclusively social phenomena, a position which, to speak plainly, is demonstrably false. A one-legged person will still have a tendency to fall over regardless of how society perceives eir condition; failure to acknowledge this fact is a glaring flaw in the social model.

Why the reluctance to say as much, even in passing? My take is that to do so undermines the general goal of people who hold to the social model. It's very easy to ask for unbounded accommodation if all of the problems that the disabled face are the result of society's bad attitude... who's in favor of perpetuating bigotry? However, if some of the challenges faced by the disabled are due to nothing more than physics, it suddenly becomes much more difficult to justify radical social change to make the lives of the disabled easier.

Before we move on from the discussion of models I want to call amandaw out on what seems to be a throw-away line:

You can try the Wikipedia page, but it appears to be written from an abled perspective, and of course the one model they promote besides the two above is the "market" model - how quintessentially white-American-male of them. A lesson in lenses.

What, specifically, makes the article "quintessentially white-American-male" and why does ey judge it to be written from an "abled perspective"? Making unsupported assertions do nothing to educate people, it's just preaching to the choir.

The other big chunk of eir post that I want to respond to is this section regarding the word "disability":

Think about the word "disability." There are so many problems to identify with using this particular word to describe a certain category of people. It uses negative language - the prefix "dis-" - to describe them, which sets the tone for all the discussion that follows. The word necessarily implies a lack of something, which is a screwy way to describe a set of people and leaves all sorts of trouble in its wake. And the assumption that people with disabilities do not have ability is kind of silly, isn’t it? Ability to do what? Maybe certain folks with disabilites cannot walk - or talk - or perform certain self-care tasks - or work for pay. But those people do have the ability to do a host of other things. Why is it only that-which-exists-in-opposition-to-abled-people which is important to identify? And why can these differences never be positive?

I'll be upfront here and state that I think a lot of the furor around "disability" and related words is the result of a) bad linguistics and b) special pleading. Let's start amandaw's concerns over the use of the prefix "dis-"; it denotes a lack of something, this is true, but I don't see much to justify eir assertion that it's "a screwy way to describe a set of people". People can also be "disempowered" and "disenfranchised"... does amandaw object to those words as well? The rationale behind these constructions is that people generally are/should be empowered/enfranchised, in which case we create words to highlight deviation from the expected. Ultimately this is a (subconscious) expression of a basic principle in information theory, that the amount of information contained in a symbol is inversely proportional to its frequency. We create symbols for anomalous events ("disenfranchised", "disabled", "disempowered") because its useful to be able to talk about them. Far from being screwy, its simply more efficient from a linguistic standpoint to note deviations from the norm.

And this, I think, goes back to what I was talking about earlier, the notion that there is an objective norm. "disability" and friends are only useful if the absence to which they refer is the norm in the statistical (as opposed to normative) sense. That this is true in unarguable; the majority of human beings share a stock set of capabilities derived from an underlying, shared anatomy. But to acknowledge this fact through the use of such words as "disabled", "disability", etc. undermines the contention that all disability is socially constructed, hence the reluctance to recognize the validity/utility of these descriptions.

I'm also going to take exception to eir analysis of the meaning of the word itself. Eir contention that the word connotes or denotes the complete absence of all capabilities is just balderdash; neither common usage nor dictionary definitions provide any support in that regard. Using eir method of analysis I can make the same claims about the words "disenfranchised" and "disempowered", though its clear that when we say that someone is "disempowered" we don't mean that they lack power in every place, time, and circumstance. Nor is "disability", as ey claims, a marker of difference from a specific group of people (the abled); rather, it marks deviation from an expected set of capabilities. If a person sprains eir ankle, and I say that ey are "disabled" as a result, I'm not comparing that person to a group of people but rather to emself in a previous state.

Anyhow, this post turned out to be much longer than I originally anticipated, so I'm going to leave it there for the time being. I may pick this up at a later date, because amandaw has at least one other post to which I'd like to respond.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

On Honduras, Democracy, And The Designation of Wankers

I felt the need to respond to this post at Daily Kos calling various people to task for being insufficiently supportive of the democratic process. Specifically:

Sen. Jim DeMint:
On what basis does the [Obama] Administration demand [ousted Honduran President] Zelaya’s reinstatement? His removal from office was no more a coup than was Gerald Ford’s ascendence to the Oval Office or our newest colleague Al Franken’s election to the Senate.

The best explanation of what's going on in Honduras that I've seen to date is this post by Jim Lindgren at The Volokh Conspiracy. If what Dan Miller writes is to be believed (and I've seen no counter-argument as of yet) then there's nothing undemocratic about the removal of Zelaya from office. If Zelaya really was trying to alter the Honduran Constitution through extra-legal means, and his actual removal was ordered by the Honduran Supreme Court, then asking why the US is supporting him is a legitimate question. Rather than just asserting that Sen. DeMint is being antidemocratic Markos should, in the very least, provide a few sentences in support of that proposition.

I'd inititally intended to limit this post to the material above, but further reflection makes me want to explore the underlying behavior a little bit more. What does it mean that Markos feels comfortable calling people undemocratic without offering even a sentence or two by way of argument? To be fair most of the diarists at Daily Kos, especially the ones that make it to the front page, don't do that, but there are other parts of the progressive blogosphere where such behavior is common. Atrios is a particularly egregious example; he's developed the habit of calling people "wankers" without so much as a word of explanation.

Atrios finds it unnecessary to justify his opinions, which necessarily implies that he believes that his audience shares his worldview to a large extent. This, in turn, reveals that there's no actual exchange of ideas going on; Atrios is preaching to the choir. That thought-leaders of the progressive blogosphere can get away with this in such a blatant fashion doesn't increase my faith the progressive cause1. I suppose that's one of the reasons why I decided to start writing this blog in the first place, because the progressive portion of the blogosphere has a whole lot of monologue and not a whole lot of dialogue.

1 In fairness I'll also acknowledge that Duncan Black's ability to throw up a one-liner and get 300 comments arouses equal parts annoyance and envy.

Adventures in Jury Duty

A couple of weeks ago I got a summons from Pierce County; I was to report to the courthouse at 8:30 AM on Monday morning for jury duty. I generally don't worry about jury duty all that much; when I've had to report in the past I inevitably end up being quickly voir dire'd off and sent on my way. Much to my chagrin it doesn't work like that in Pierce County; when they say "2 weeks" they mean "2 week regardless of whether you've already rendered a verdict or been kicked off a panel". That's annoying, but the annoyance is compounded by the fact that they can't actually tell you what days you'll have to report ahead of time. You've got to wait until 4:30 the night before to find out if you have to report the following day. Not so good if you need to (re)schedule meetings and such.

When I announced that I was going to be out on duty some of my colleagues suggested that I could get out of it by ranting about my name being in upper case on the jury summons. I argued that was low-grade, garden variety loonery. If I really wanted to get out I'd start arguing with the presiding judge about the gold fringe on the courtroom flag instead. That'd put me way out into militia territory; if you're going to be crazy, do it right.

Rather than go that route, as briefly entertaining as it might have been, I just showed up at 8:30 with the rest of the pool and waited for the festivities to being. While I was sitting there in the jury holding tank I couldn't help but notice how fricking white all the prospective jurors were. I live in Tacoma proper, a short ride on the #3 bus from the county courthouse, and the surrounding area is tremendously varigated. But looking around in the waiting room there were only four or five non-Caucasians in the lot, which surprised me until I remembered that a lot of Pierce County is lily white. I couldn't help but think that a lot of the defendants who were going to go through court were pretty much screwed from the start on account of that particular demographic quirk; so much for a jury of your peers.

Anyhow, after a little while the orientation-related-program-activities began, which generally reinforced my belief that the social contract is in tatters. The jury coordinator in charge of orienting us spoke at an eighth-grade level which, sadly enough, proved to be too much for some of the prospective jurors to follow. The entire process was tremendously paternal; the coordinator spent an inordinate amount of time telling us where we could park and where there were places to eat and so on as if we weren't capable of fending for ourselves. At one point she actually went so far as to say, in describing the role of the courthouse personnel, that "we're like the moms and you're like the children". And let's not forget to give a big cheer for the civil service! The coordinator made a point of telling us not to look for her after 4:30, cause she's always bolts at that time so she can make her 4:34 bus home.

The actual description of how the process worked was equally inane; on more than one occassion the process of being selected for a trial was likened to "dating a courtroom". The meat of the orientation process was a rehash of 6th grade civics: we got some handouts, watched a video, and received a verbal explanation all covering the same material. Maybe I'm being unduly harsh but shouldn't people, as a matter of general knowledge, know the definitions of "plaintiff" and "defendant" (or the difference between "civil" and "criminal" for that matter)? That they feel it necessary to go over such basic concepts makes me cranky because it implies that the majority of people selected for jury service are tremendously out of touch with the workings of government.

Moving on... during my term of service I was selected for two panels, one for a DUI and one for a domestic violence case, both if which were interesting in their own ways. I don't know how typical this is, but during the selection phase of the DUI trial it was plain to see the main outlines of the prosecution and defense cases. The prosecuting attorney got up and started delivering a monologue about the elements of the crime, what it meant to be "driving" and "impaired" and so on, to the point where I though "huh, this guy's basically giving his opening statement". Same thing with the defense attorney; based on the questions she asked it was pretty clear that they were going to claim that some amount of physical activity prior to his arrest, rather that intoxication, resulted in the defendants poor performance on the field sobriety test. I was dismissed from this particular case after questioning; it's impossible to know why for sure, but here are some answers that I gave that made me stand out from the rest of the jury:

  • I knew that a can of Bud Light had less alcohol than a typical IPA. Based on some comments that the prosecutor made about the effect of drink size and type it may have been the case that the defendant had a few pints of something strong-ish rather than a couple of Buds.
  • I objected to being asked to rate the degree of required certainty about the prosecution's case on a scale of 1 - 100. If it was anything I said this was probably the answer that did it; I told the defense attorney that judgements of that type were incommensurable with a numeric scale. Based on responses that she later elicited from other potential jurors it sound like she wanted people to be 100% certain that the prosecution had proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Which is part of the reason that I objected to the question; what does it mean to be 100% certain about a predicate ("beyond a resonable doubt") that already has a degree of inherent uncertainty? As I said, that's probably what got me kicked off.
  • I knew that there have recently been issues with field alcohol tests and BAC meters, having read a Slashdot article on that particular topic not so long ago.

I made it onto the actual jury for the domestic violence case. This is probably because the only questions I answered were what I did for a living and my feelings about being summoned1. It was surprising how many people on the jury pool were intimately accquainted with domestic violence; 3 people out of a panel of 15 were dismissed for cause on this account, and a few more who were not dismissed immediately had immediate experience with the issue. One woman in particular was tragicomic: she'd been arrested for abuse, her daughter and son-in-law had bother been arrested for beating each other, and her son had been arrested as well. So after dismissing some jurors for cause and (likeely) eliminating others through peremtory challenges the odds of me getting on were pretty good.

The facts of the case were not particularly interesting. The long and the short is "Police see defendant beating a woman, defendant claims that she fainted and he was trying to revive her". Not a whole lot of courtroom drama; the two officers gave their testimony, the defendant gave his, and then we were off to the jury room. The victim was strikingly absent; if the entire incident was a big misunderstanding you'd think she'd show up and say something to that effect.

I wonder if the defense attorney was new on the grounds that she asked a lot of open-ended questions during cross examinationn of the police officers. Granted that the extent of my legal education is doing Mock Trial, but one of the things I remember very clearly is that you're supposed to ask "Yes or No" questions on cross because allowing hostile witnesses to explain themselves generally doesn't do your side any good. Same deal here, she'd ask the cops about some contradiction or inconsistency and then allow them to explain the contradiction away.

I was vaguely annoyed with her by the end of the trial because she kept asking the police officers why they didn't take the victim to a hospital or something if she'd been assaulted. This was even after they explained that the victim refused treatment and that the law prevented them from doing anything more unless she was a danger to herself or others. Which is another reason why I think the defense attorney might be new, because she raised the issue again in closing even though she had to know that the police officers were correct as a matter of law. That's not aggressive advocacy but rather arguing in bad faith; it didn't earn any points with me.

Once in the jury room the major question was whether we should believe the officers, the defendant, or both. No one had accused the officers of just making shit up; the defense's contention was that they had indeed seen something going on, but had mis-interpreted an attempt to aid the victim as an assault. That was the bit that didn't stand up to scrutiny; it seemed highly unlikely that, given the circumstances, the officer could have mistaken a woman screaming and getting slapped for anything other than what it was. Moral of the story, kids, is don't beat up people in front of police officers... it's probably not going to work out for you.

In addition to the assault charge we also had to decide whether or not the defendant was resisting arrest. There's no doubt that he was, but that's in large part due to the fact that the relevant statute is pretty fricking draconian. In Pierce County, at least, the appropriate response to a cop telling you that you're under arrest is to roll over and take it; compliance has to be immediate and complete or else you're technically in violation of the law. Sure, the arrest has to be lawful and they have to identify themselves, but officers are under no obligation to tell you why you're being arrested or even give you time to comply. Requiring someone to yield to authority without a reason rubs me the wrong way but, from a pratical standpoint, I don't know that I can think of an alternative. In the very least, however, there needs to be appropriate weasel language which provides people with time to actually comply with any sort of directives officers might issue.

This was the first time I've actually been on a jury, so it was edifying to watch the deliberation process from the inside. The foreperson leads the discussion of each charge, which gives em first mover advantage in terms of framing the deliberation if ey choose to do so; as a matter of process the foreperson can have a lot more influence on the outcome that the other jurors in the room. I wasn't foreperson, but my fellow jurors were pretty wishy-washy and seemed to be easily swayed by articulate talk; I get the sense that it wouldn't have been difficult to talk them out of the resisting arrest charge if I'd had a mind to. I wish the case had been less open-and-shut; it would have been far more informative to see a prolonged deliberation where people were actually in disagreement about the charges.

1 "An interesting excercise in civics, but I do have working piling up back at the office."

See, This Is What I'm Getting On About

Public programs are fundamentally illiberal; when people become dependent on them it provides the government with yet another lever for controlling behavior. If you trust an arbitrary government to govern wisely then this might not be an issue for you, but history strongly suggests that the public sector is made up of people who are, at best, no more virtuous that the rest of humanity. It follows from there that we can curb the misapplication of power by not granting it in the first place.

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