Nashua Alderman Siegel on police militarization

In the wake of the Ferguson events, people are starting to question police militarization, so this is a good time to bring pressure to roll it back. In this spirit, I wrote to the Nashua, NH Board of Aldermen asking if it’s possible to get rid of the Lenco Bearcat armored vehicle which the police department possesses. I sent a link to Lenco’s promotional video, which shows that the vehicle is sold to be used in military-style assaults. Alderman Ken Siegel was kind enough to reply to me. His message runs out of coherence before the end, but it appears that he’s a firm champion of military equipment in the hands of local police officers.

Mr. McGath,

Thank you for contacting the Board of Aldermen. I am responding to your note but I am doing so as an individual member of the Board. The views I express are my own.

You may not be aware that in Nashua, the police are governed by a Police Commission. There are three Police Commissioners and they are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Executive Counsel. By statute, we have no authority over the police department. By extension, we have no authority over their tactics or choice of equipment.

Fair enough. If the city government really has no ability to limit the police department, that’s a serious problem, but one that has to be addressed on its own terms. It may help to explain why New Hampshire police departments are able to run wild. Concord is apparently different; there the acquisition of a Bearcat had to be approved by the City Council. Still, so far it’s a coherent and fair answer. (I haven’t double-checked its accuracy yet.)

In response to your concern about the use of former military technology, I would point out that the message you sent us was delivered using the IP protocol. This was developed by DARPA to deploy a survivable mesh communications network under battlefield conditions. I think it is safe to say this technology was successfully transitioned to civilian use.

Here his reasoning gets distinctly strained, though I give him points for technical knowledge. But he’s drawing a bizarre equivalence between the IP protocol and a vehicle designed for military-style attacks, as if there’s no difference between putting one and the other into the hands of police officers. From here on he just plunges into incoherence:

In regards to the acronym which describes the former military vehicle, I think that is an unfortunate reason to dismiss the utility of the technology. There may be other reasons as you have endeavored to point out. I don’t see an acronym as one of them. Perhaps, rather than focus on that acronym with its perceived negative connotations, you might consider another acronym as a means to spread a different message:

Obligated to
Continue to
Prejudice is

By forming a group of like-minded SOCKPUPPETs, perhaps you can bring the goal of beating swords into plowshares to fruition. Then, our officers would no longer need Bearcats. They may suffice with nothing more threatening than aluminum foil hats for protection from the ills of a more progressive society.

Here it’s only possible to pull fragments out of his rant to get a clue about what he means. I think he’s saying that the Lenco’s designation and promotion of the Bearcat as an attack vehicle is irrelevant. He also seems to be implying that my message actually came from a “sock puppet,” in spite of the fact that I gave my address in Nashua, which he can readily check is real. I could understand his claiming to the other aldermen or the public that I’m not an actual Nashua resident, but what does he gain from implying it to me, when we both know it’s false?

Also, he implies that our officers do need Bearcats (plural) and offers the false alternative of having police with armored vehicles or police with no weapons at all. Normally I’d take that kind of writing as the gibbering of a 14-year-old Internet troll, but this person is part of the city government where I live.

The only encouraging thing is that if that’s the intellectual level of the advocates of military-grade police weaponry, we’ll have no trouble winning the argument. The discouraging thing is that with people of this level of thinking ability, winning an argument on its merits may not change much.

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“Tomorrow’s Songs Today” launch: September 2

I’ll be starting up the IndieGoGo campaign for Tomorrow’s Songs Today on Tuesday, September 2. That avoids having its first few days drag over the Labor Day weekend.

A pre-announcement

Update: The campaign is now live!

Some of you may have heard about this already from my email or semi-public channels, but here’s the first public pre-announcement.

There’s no book-length treatment of the history of filk. There should be. I’ve started working on one, with the working title Tomorrow’s Songs Today. After considering the traditional paper option, I’ve decided to go with another crowdfunding campaign for an e-book, like the one for Files that Last. These days that makes more sense for a small-run book.

There will be one difference from FTL: This time I will be giving the book away if the goal is reached! I’m betting that there will be enough enthusiasm in the filk community to give the support needed to pay for copy editing and cover art and have something left over to compensate me for the time. I’ve been talking with the FTL team, and they’re willing to do it again.

So far I have a couple of chapters written, and I’ve compiled what I think is the biggest list of past filk conventions ever. I’m planning to interview lots of people, mostly by phone, to get as complete a picture of filk history as possible. There will be lots of interesting stories, but I’m not after dirt. I’ll have to deal with the Off Centaur mess of the eighties, but the focus will be on where it went wrong as a business, not the personality wars.

A stretch goal will be a higher level of editorial support, reviewing the chapters for content, not just for coherent writing. Another might be artwork and photography. Premiums could include mention in the book, mugs or T-shirts, and a hardcopy version of the book. At the high end, perhaps I’ll offer something like creating a personal songbook for contributors.

This is just the pre-announcement. Starting up the actual campaign and asking for money will take some work to make it look good, especially creating the video. (If you’re local to New England and can help make the video, please let me know.) I’ll keep you posted if you’re following this blog. Please help to get the word out.

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The Ballad of Market Basket

Here’s a new filk video on the Market Basket controversy. I don’t have any business connection with the supermarket except that I used to shop there regularly, but it’s important to me for personal reasons. Even if you don’t share those reasons, you might enjoy it as filk. There’s also a cat in it. Sorry about the low resolution; I did what I could with Apple’s free movie tools.

Thanks to Vixy for permission to use “Mal’s Song,” and I hope Joss Whedon’s lawyers don’t mind my use of the tune from the Firefly theme.

View the video on Vimeo.
Or buy Mal’s Song from Vixy and Tony. It’s much better sung than my version.

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It’s not just Ferguson

Unarmed man holding hands up in front of four men in full military gear Libertarians have been warning about the dangers of militarized police for years. Now it’s exploded in a way that no one can ignore. (Except that some idiots have seamlessly jumped from “Why are libertarians so paranoid about police power?” to “Why aren’t libertarians saying anything about this?”) Peaceful demonstrators have been tear-gassed and had guns pointed at them. Reporters have been arrested. It’s Selma, Alabama all over again.

This isn’t unique to Ferguson, though. The signs have been plain enough. SWAT teams have come to be used routinely. Police departments in small, peaceful cities and towns have been acquiring federally subsidized attack trucks. Concord, NH got a Bearcat armored vehicle, for the stated purpose of protecting the city from the Free State Project. Six cities in the Boston area were shut down, residents ordered to remain indoors, during the Tsarnaev manhunt. Ferguson is just the full expression of these trends, which so many people are so happy with.

You want to be “safe from terrorism” at any price? Well, this is the price: Living in terror of the police who are “protecting” you. If you now see that there might be a problem, better late than never. Pick up a copy of Rise of the Warrior Cop for a look at what’s been happening all over America.

I’m seeing calls for a “day of rage” now. That can only make things worse. We need moral outrage, but not rage.

Group “identity”

Sometimes the best way to learn what people are thinking is to pay close attention when they’re talking about something else. When a subject is their main topic, they might be saying just what they think they should say, but at other times they might be more off their guard and candid. Recently I was reading an essay by Suzanne Romaine, called “Revitalized Languages as Invented Languages,” in a book called From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages (my review here). It refers to the notion of group identity as a side issue to its main topic. Her comments about “identity” struck me precisely because she wasn’t grinding an axe about them.

Some examples: “People feel a key part of their traditional culture and identity is lost when that language disappears.” “Although the term identity derives from Latin idem ‘same,’ identity is primarily about constructing differences between ourselves and others.” “Hence, identity planning goes hand in hand with language planning.” “The power of identity to imagine and invent both nations and languages is by no means confined to the past.” “The interests of those learning Catalan, Cornish, or other revitalized languages for the sake of identity are not identical with the interests of native speakers.”

She takes it for granted that identity consists of group membership, and that it’s about how your group isn’t like other groups. It’s psycho-epistemological tribalism, “us vs. them” as a basic mode of thinking. I don’t mean that it’s necessarily hostile, but it’s the idea that the answer to “Who am I?” is found not in my personal capacities and values, but in how my kind is different from your kind. It easily leads to hostility.

This approach gets nasty when it’s applied to “race identity.” If people’s identities are their physical differences from you, you end up seeing not an individual human being but a breed, a specimen of a group. When people have internalized this way of thinking, the best they can do is say, “You are the Other, but I reach out to you anyway,” which is condescending. The worst they can do is horrible.

“Race identity” advocates are perversely prone to accusing other people of racism. While this is often just a convenient smear, it might also be a result of premises so internalized that they can’t think outside them. If you can’t imagine treating people as individuals rather than specimens, then the only alternatives are “good” racism, the privileged people reaching a hand downward to the unfortunate lower groups, or “bad” racism, reaching a foot downward to stomp on their faces. The idea of treating people just as people is outside their grasp, so they think of the condescending approach as non-racism, and imagine that anyone who disagrees with it must be a racist of the face-stomping kind.

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My mind is not a junkyard

Once I ran across a song called “My Mind Is Not a Junkyard.” I had high hopes for the title, but it turned out to be just a complaint about Internet porn. What I hoped for was something about treating one’s own mind with respect. Maybe I’ll write that song myself.

What reminded me of that this week was a comment in an article by Andy Ihnatko. It’s nominally about whether religious people can believe in evolution (of course they can), but the part I want to focus on here is:

The folks who subscribe to that kind of idea readily concede that it’s a matter of personal faith, not a matter of provable science, and they know that the correct answer to the demand “Prove it!” is “Why?” You only need to prove something when you’re trying to convince the rest of the world they’re wrong, or impose your personal beliefs on them. And I think most religious people are secure enough in themselves and their faith to see the vulgarity of such motives.

He’s saying proof is only for persuading others, and even then it’s vulgar. Most people don’t say so outright, but it’s common for people to think of proof as something for public discourse, not for themselves. This amounts to making second-class citizens of their own minds. They’re granting a higher level of respect to other people’s minds than to their own.

It takes courage and practice to follow one’s own judgment. For most people, it’s easier to take something they’ve heard from someone else and toss it onto the debris pile of their minds. They don’t think about how well-supported it is till someone challenges it, and even then they’re more likely to care about winning an argument than checking their own premises. Or they may not even care that much about proof, taking the bumper-sticker attitude of “God [or some other authority] said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” They’re the mental equivalent of hoarders, hanging on desperately to whatever is inside their heads.

Lying tweet from People magazine about Market Basket protests

People ragazine has sunk to outright lying. (It may have been doing that for a long time; I don’t pay much attention to it.) It tweeted:

Market Basket grocery chain workers are rioting – because they want their beloved fired boss back

There has been no rioting or violence. The worst that’s happened is one incident of possible reckless driving, which ended in a dismissal of charges, and some unnecessary rudeness to people applying for jobs. The new management says job applicants have feared for their safety, but as far as I can tell they haven’t substantiated this claim. I have been at two of the rallies and haven’t seen anything remotely resembling a riot.

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Guerrilla preservation

Occasionally I’ve toyed with the idea of a writing project about “guerrilla archiving” or “guerrilla preservation.” In an earlier post, I wrote about the rescue of valuable documents in Timbuktu, with a mention of the Warsaw Ghetto Archive. Stories of people without special expertise or resources rescuing pieces of history are inspiring to me. Sometimes they do it well, sometimes ineptly, but if they keep some treasure from being lost, they deserve credit.

Lately I’ve come across some more stories of the same kind. The story of Anne Frank’s diary is well known, but not all the details are. When the Nazis discovered and arrested the Frank family, SD officer Karl Silberbauer grabbed a briefcase to stuff valuables into. He emptied its existing contents onto the floor; these included some of Anne’s writings. Miep Gies, one of the employees at Opetka where they had been hiding, took the papers and locked them in her desk. Later she instructed the senior warehouseman to get her any other papers from the hiding place before the Nazis cleared it out. Anne’s father Otto was the only family member to survive the war; Gies gave him the papers when he returned from Auschwitz, making their publication possible.

Much of Franz Schubert’s unpublished music went into the hands of the brothers Anselm and Josef Hüttenbrenner after his death. They didn’t always take the best care of it. His incidental music for Claudina von Villa Bella was partially lost in 1848 when Josef’s servants used Acts 2 and 3 to kindle fires. In 1823 Schubert sent Anselm the score for two movements of a symphony, which just sat in his collection for years. In 1865, when Anselm was 70 years old, the conductor Johann Herbeck visited him and looked at them; later that year, he gave their premiere in Vienna. The existence of a sketched score for the third movement shows that Schubert intended to finish it as a full four-movement symphony, but for some reason he never did. As it stands it’s still one of his greatest compositions, and without Anselm Hüttenbrenner and Herbeck we might never have known of the “Unfinished Symphony.”

Franz Kafka also died leaving a lot of unpublished material, but he gave his friend Max Brod strict instructions to burn it all. Brod instead published the three novels, The Trial, The Castle, and Der Verschollene (aka Amerika). In 1939, just before the Germans closed the Czech border, he left Prague with a suitcase full of papers and took them to Palestine. These were the subject of a long legal battle between Brod’s heirs and the National Library of Israel, which reached a decision only two years ago and, as far as I can tell, is still under appeal. As in Kafka’s fiction, the legal process never ends.

Other papers of his ended up with Dora Diamant, his girlfriend during the last year of his life. She told Brod that she had burned them, but she secretly kept them. The Gestapo seized them in 1933 while looking for Communist material. The search has continued for years. According to the Kafka Project at San Diego State University, “if Kafka’s lost writings still exist, they are safely buried among top-secret documents in closed archives in Poland.” (I’m really not very impressed with Kafka’s work, but it’s undeniable that he’s had a significant influence on our culture.)

In all three cases, if people hadn’t done what they did, parts of our cultural canon would be missing now. There must have been other works, some matching them in value, that we’ve never heard of because there was no one to save them from oblivion.

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