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Sandy Hook, National Neuroses, and the Militarization of Everything

By: cpetrella Saturday December 22, 2012 6:04 pm
One Nation, Under Guns

One Nation, Under Guns

What does it say about the ubiquity of modern violence that Amnesty International, arguably the world’s most notable pro-peace movement, organizes its central purpose around a “mission statement,” an organizational articulation originating in military strategy? (How about a statement of purpose???) Such an abiding paradox demonstrates the depth of the contradictory cultural cues that inform our civil conduct.Thinking about “the militarization of everything” in these dialectic terms forces us, for instance, to extend and reevaluate our understanding of “military recruitment.” Conscription into both obvious and occult militarized cultural norms, institutions, and interpretive frameworks is perpetuated at the most inconspicuous moments. From fashion (pea coats, camouflage), to exercise (military press), to entertainment (NCIS, Homeland, Call of Duty), to sports (military sponsorship of Dale Earnhardt, fighter jets over baseball diamonds), to card games (“war”), and even to unwitting martial tropes (“god’s army,” “spearheading a campaign,” “on my radar”), our very cognition seems bounded and branded by military metaphor and method.

It’s possible to argue that our imperceptible absorption of these contradictory everyday “ways of being” has generated a certain type of national neurosis. In light of the “militarization of everything,” why are we surprised that of the 64 individuals involved in “mass shootings”*** since 1982, 24 were serving, had served, or claimed service in the U.S. Military—a  3700% over-representation relative to the military eligible U.S. population share? Moreover, why are we bewildered that 55 of the 64 assailants used military-grade weaponry and/or donned military-grade regalia in enacting their violence?

Here’s the point: We say we want “peace” but when pressed to define it we can’t, and then remain frustrated by having not achieved it. This is the textbook description of neurosis. Neuroses are compromises with unconscious conflicts that generate satisfaction by their very perpetuation.

So, what do we really want? What do you really want? Is it peace? Freedom? Security? Bullet-proof backpacks? Armed officers in every school?

As major media networks continue to report on the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, maybe we need to turn off the television and step in front of a mirror. Any conversation worth having needs to begin by taking an inventory of our collective values and squarely confronting our national neuroses, those generated by preaching peace, but living, playing, wearing, and watching war.

 

***The FBI defines “mass shootings” as four or more murders occurring at roughly the same time.

 

Sandy Hook, National Neuroses, and the Militarization of Everything

By: cpetrella Saturday December 22, 2012 2:40 pm

What does it say about the ubiquity of modern violence that Amnesty International, arguably the world’s most notable pro-peace movement, organizes its central purpose around a “mission statement,” an organizational articulation originating in military strategy? Such an abiding paradox demonstrates the depth of the contradictory cultural cues that inform our civil conduct.

Thinking about “the militarization of everything” in these dialectic terms forces us, for instance, to extend and reevaluate our understanding of “military recruitment.” Conscription into both obvious and occult militarized cultural norms, forms, institutions, and interpretive frameworks is perpetuated at the most inconspicuous moments. From fashion (pea coats, camouflage), to exercise (military press), to entertainment (NCIS, Homeland, Call of Duty), to sports (military sponsorship of Dale Earnhardt, fighter jets over baseball diamonds), to card games (“war”), and even to unwitting martial tropes (“god’s army,” “spearheading a campaign,” “on my radar”), our very cognition seems bounded and branded by military metaphor and method.

It’s possible to argue that our imperceptible absorption of these contradictory everyday “ways of being” has generated a certain type of national neurosis. In light of the “militarization of the everyday,” why are we surprised that of the 64 individuals involved in “mass shootings”*** since 1982, 24 were serving, had served, or claimed service in the U.S. Military—a  3700% over-representation relative to military eligible U.S. population share? Moreover, why are we bewildered that 55 of the 64 assailants used military-grade weaponry and/or donned military-grade regalia in enacting their violence?

Here’s the point: We say we want “peace” but when pressed to define it we can’t, and then remain frustrated by having not achieved it. This is the textbook description of neurosis. Neuroses are compromises with unconscious conflicts that generate satisfaction from their perpetuation.

So, what do we really want? What do you really want? Is it peace? Freedom? Security?

As major media networks continue to report on the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, maybe we need to turn off the television and step in front of a mirror. Any conversation worth having needs to begin by taking inventory of our collective values and squarely confronting our national neuroses generated by preaching peace, but living, playing wearing, and watching war.

 

***The FBI defines “mass shootings” as four or more murders occurring at roughly the same time.

82 Percent of the “Town Hall” Presidential Debate Audience was White (and Why that’s a Problem)

By: cpetrella Wednesday October 17, 2012 9:10 pm

Since last May the Obama and Romney campaigns have intransigently refused to release their “Memorandum of Understanding” governing the 2012 presidential debates.  The Commission on Presidential Debates—the corporate-sponsored organization brokering the legally binding contractual agreement—has also remained silent. I can only assume that the candidates were a bit chagrined last week to learn that Time Magazine’s Mark Halperin obtained a copy of the closely guarded document dictating the rules and procedures for this season’s four debates.

Among other principles, “Rule 7, Subsection (f)” dictates that the October 16th town hall debate “will take place before a live participating audience of persons who shall be seated and who describe themselves as likely voters. These participants will be selected by the Gallup Organization (“Gallup”), using a methodology approved in writing by the campaigns. Gallup shall have responsibility for selecting the nationally demographically representative group of voters…” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/15/presidential-debate-memo-released_n_1968323.html

Yet even a cursory glance of the “town hall’s” audience reveals a disquieting truth. The crowd was almost entirely white. Although racial designations are always imprecise, elusive, and subject to contestation and revision, live footage suggests that out of 82 total participants, 65 were white, 5 were black, 5 were Latin@, 4 were Asian, and 3 were racially ambiguous. Zero appeared to be Native American. Not only did Gallup fail to meet its most basic legal obligation of composing a “nationally demographically representative group of voters,” but more troublingly, the organization single-handedly distorted the racial composition of the American electorate in front of 60+ million viewers.  Misrepresentations like these insidiously reinforce the notion that only racially privileged bodies (read: white) are worthy of democratic participation and capable of self-governance. The field of racial representation is one arena in which struggles over the very meaning of democracy are waged. My sense is that if we’re truly committed to producing and maintaining a healthy representative democracy then we must prioritize proportional and honest racial representations in media.

The following table of “U.S. Census racial designations” indicates that the racial composition of last night’s debate neither approximates U.S. population demographics writ large nor those of New York, the state in which the town hall was held. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html

 

UNITED STATES

“White persons not Hispanic” 63.4%

“Persons of Hispanic or Latino Origin” 16.7%

“Black persons” 13.1%

“Asians persons” 5.0%

“American Indian and Alaska Native persons” 1.2%

 

NEW YORK

“White persons not Hispanic” 58.0%

“Persons of Hispanic or Latino Origin” 18.0%

“Black persons” 17.5%

“Asians persons” 7.8%

“American Indian and Alaska Native persons” 1.0%

 

AUDIENCE OF TOWN HALL DEBATE

“White persons not Hispanic” 82.2%

“Persons of Hispanic or Latino Origin” 6.3%

“Black persons” 6.3%

“Asians persons” 5.1%

“American Indian and Alaska Native persons”0%

 

Whereas white individuals were overrepresented by about 30 percent, people of color (according to this methodology) were aggregately underrepresented by about 50 percent. This is unacceptable.

Misrepresenting national demographic trends—particularly racial proportionality—in front of 60+ million viewers is shameful and yet again demonstrates that the creation of a racially egalitarian, open, accessible, and accountable democracy is incompatible with private companies making decisions in the interest of the public good.

A Short “Education Reform” Primer for the 2012 Presidential Election

By: cpetrella Tuesday October 16, 2012 1:53 pm

Though politicians bloviate abstractly on the theme of public education, it’s pretty clear that they’re often unprepared to address explicitly their policy proposals or the unspoken ideological assumptions upon which they rely. Sadly, education policy discourse has become vacuous and apolitical. It finds expression in platitudes aimed at dissolving the relationship between individual educational experiences and the larger structural forces that produce, preclude, and inflect them. “Honk for Education!”—a popular protest sign in my neighborhood— epitomizes this sort of depoliticization.

Below is a guide for mapping today’s competing visions of “education reform” and a few modest suggestions for “repoliticizing” the national conversation:

In February 2009 Congress passed a stimulus package (as part of President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) reserving $4.4 billion for “education reform.” President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s initiative, dubiously dubbed “Race to the Top,” currently requires states to “compete” for federal grants through eligibility criteria that tends to subjugate learning to assessment, process to product. States wishing to qualify for federal funds under the program must allow student performance on state-based standardized tests to determine teacher evaluations, effectively, as a means of imposing merit pay. Of course, standardized tests have had a long and well documented history of class, cultural, and racial bias. Not only does affixing a standardized test score to normative forms of student achievement devalue the knowledge of those excluded from the dominant class, race, and gender bloc, but it also introduces a monetary disincentive for those of us who choose to teach in low-income communities and/or low-income communities of color.

The unstated ideology behind “Race to the Top” is arresting. The rhetoric of merit pay seamlessly diverts attention from structural issues of inequity—like rampant poverty or our burgeoning wealth gap—by placing the burden of performance on individual educators whose resources are often substandard directly as a result of structural issues of inequality. “Race to the Top’s” ideological presumption 1) obscures a structural problem by individualizing it and 2) attempts to justify itself through a post hoc fallacy.

States receiving federal dollars under this program are required to use at least 50 percent of the award to provide sub-grants to charter schools and other “local educational agencies” thus siphoning money from already cash-strapped districts. Further, many charter schools are jointly subsidized by corporations like Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo, who, are able to influence decisions made at the curricular level. We’ve all heard the refrain: “But aren’t charter schools better than public schools?” Well, according to the well-respected sixteen state CREDO study conducted by Stanford University, only “17 percent of charter schools studied provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.” http://credo.stanford.edu/reports/MULTIPLE_CHOICE_EXECUTIVE%20SUMMARY.pdf

My own research findings suggest that “Race to the Top” funds rarely go to the most economically deprived states. Though this relative-benefit mismatch is self-defeating, it’s rarely discussed. Of the 15 U.S. states with the lowest per-pupil educational expenditures, only 6 have been awarded federal funds under “Race to the Top.” http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/index.html President Obama and Secretary Duncan’s marketized approach to public education elides the reality that poverty is the single largest factor in educational outcomes. http://www.amazon.com/Ghetto-Schooling-Political-Economy-Educational/dp/0807736627 I’d argue that poverty reduction and/or social assistance programs like EITC, SNAP, WIC, TANF, and Unemployment Insurance, among others, should themselves be considered types of education policy.

Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford University, recently demonstrated that the gap in standardized test scores (an imperfect model, to be sure) between affluent and low income students has grown by about 40 percent since the 1960’s and is now double the testing gap between black and white students. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/10/education/education-gap-grows-between-rich-and-poor-studies-show.html Class, income, poverty, wealth, and race, to a lesser extent—choose whichever index you like— matter in educational outcomes. It’s difficult to learn on an empty stomach. Real talk.

Mitt Romney has never directly criticized President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative. During the first so-called Presidential “debate,” in fact, it actually represented one of the few policy areas on which they managed to find common ground.  Mitt Romney has assured the electorate that he will “take the unprecedented step of tying federal funds directly to dramatic reforms that expand parental choice” by investing in corporatized charter schools and “rewarding teachers for their results instead of their tenure” http://www.mittromney.com/issues/education by instituting a merit-pay structure similar to President Obama’s.  And the President and Secretary Duncan continue to argue that “Race to the Top” is working just fine by “rais[ing] standards [and] rewarding innovation and positive reforms in local schools.” http://www.barackobama.com/education?source=primary-nav

But education isn’t in the first order about standards or parental choice. It’s about whether or not every educable child has a right to access the conditions that make a humane, politically relevant, and democratic education possible. Meeting this objective will require us to shift our political worldview from the logic of “individual resolutions to collective social problems (i.e. teachers can solve everything) to an analysis of the socioeconomic structures that conform to the requirements of modern capitalism. A truly relevant and democratic education is antithetical to the supposed dictates of “the market.” If we aspire to a public education that redounds to the benefit of children everywhere, then we first must work to expand what counts as education policy. We must demand that any education policy deserving of national attention include provisions aimed at slashing childhood poverty, hunger, and homelessness.

Reducing our obscene childhood poverty rate of 21.9 percent (16.4 million children)—a notion that neither major candidate nor third party candidate finds fit to mention—represents the first and best “education reform” worthy of the name.

Presidential Debate or Corporate Echo Chamber?

By: cpetrella Wednesday October 3, 2012 1:00 pm

If you’re planning on watching the first so-called presidential “debate” tonight, just remember this:

1 . Presidential “debates” are organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a private bi-partisan (as opposed to non-partisan) corporation financed by Fortune 500 companies like Anheuser-Busch http://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/summary.php?id=D000042510 and Southwest Airlines http://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/summary.php?id=D000000785 .The lobbying activities of both companies over the course of the 2012 election cycle have disproportionately benefited the Republican Party and conservative candidates.

2 . The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is co-chaired by Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr. and Michael D. McCurry. Fahrenkopf chaired the Republican Party from 1983-1989 and currently serves as the president and CEO of the American Gaming Association (AGA). He’s the pre-eminent national advocate for the commercial casino industry and de facto affiliate of the alcohol lobby. (Anheuser-Busch is by far the largest sponsor of tonight’s “debate.”) Michael McCurry served as White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton from 1994-1998 and chief lobbyist for “Hands Off the Internet,” a now defunct organization that opposed net-neutrality and was supported by major telecommuncations giants such as Verizon http://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/summary.php?id=D000000079 and AT&T http://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/summary.php?id=D000000076 . Both companies, as well as the anti-net neutrality lobby, disproportionately contribute to congressional republicans.

3 .  One CPD criterion http://www.debates.org/index.php?page=candidate-selection-process for debate participation is evidence of at least 15 percent electoral support prior to the first debate. Electoral support, according to the CPD, is “determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations’ most recent publicly-reported results at the time of the determination.” The problem?  Third-party candidates are rarely, if ever, publicized by the polling agencies on which the CPD relies. Over the last two years Gallop http://www.gallup.com/poll/election.aspx has polled public support of third-party candidates just twice,  CNN http://www.cnn.com/POLITICS/pollingcenter/index.html once, and Rasmussen, http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/obama_administration/daily_presidential_tracking_poll not at all. These structural limitations subvert any meaningful opportunity for an open and broad political debate.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) represents yet another reason why corporatism is radically incompatible with truly democratic values like transparency, accessibility, and accountability.

Michelle Kosilek, Gender Non-Conformity, and Prisoner Rights

By: cpetrella Friday September 28, 2012 3:24 pm

After appealing her case for nearly ten years, Michelle Kosilek, a Massachusetts inmate serving a life-sentence for a murder she committed in 1990, finally won the right to sexual reassignment / gender confirmation surgery subsided by the Massachusetts Department of Correction.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/17/michelle-kosilek-inmate-robert-kosilek-legal-fees-sex-change_n_1890043.html A district court recently ruled that Michelle Kosilek, born Robert Kosilek, is entitled to her procedure on the grounds that it serves as the “only adequate treatment” for her “gender identity disorder.” (The nomenclature makes me cringe.) The absence of sexual reassignment / gender confirmation surgery, the court found, would violate Kosilek’s Eighth Amendment right to protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Over a week has elapsed since this story first broke and in that time I’ve read around fifteen articles—some supportive, some antagonistic, and all clunky in their application of transgender terminology—on Michelle Kosilek’s victory.

Now, although I’m by no means a scholar of gender or sexuality, I’m sorry to say that most op-eds miss the point entirely.

At its core, this story isn’t about a unitary publicly-financed medical procedure for a Massachusetts inmate; all prisoners (county, state, federal) benefit from taxpayer-subsidized health care plans that cover extraordinarily expensive surgeries. I ask: are taxpayers really that apoplectic about paying for an M->F sexual reassignment / gender confirmation procedure that costs between $10,000-15,000 when they already fork over, on average, roughly the same for already existing, legally required inmate health care? Have a look: http://www.lao.ca.gov/laoapp/laomenus/sections/crim_justice/6_cj_inmatecost.aspx?catid=3

Situating the court’s ruling as a matter of public “fiscal” concern has served as a marvelously successful diversionary tactic.

The real debate here is about the public’s perception of normality, disorder, and gender non-conforming individuals. What does it mean, I wonder, that Michelle Kosilek’s legal team won their case only by framing their appeals in and through the language of “disorder?” “Gender identity disorder,” after all, is formally classified as a “medical disorder” by the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10) and the Diagnostic and Statistically Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). Could Ms. Kosilek have won her lawsuit without leaning on the rhetoric of pathology, deviance, aberration?

Simply put, the public’s general vitriol of Ms. Kosilek’s legal demands hinges on collapsing the distinction between what is “normal” and what is “common.” Arguments grounded in appeals to the “common” should not a priori invite assertions of normality. Normality is a question of value; commonality is a question of statistic variation.  (As an aside, I’m fully aware that Kosilek’s conviction of murder strongly attenuates public notions of deservedness and so I wonder how reactions to Kosilek’s lawsuit might differ had she been convicted of a non-violent crime.)

Contrary to popular belief, that which is deemed socially “normal” relies on a series of political judgments that may not actually reflect what is “common.” Here’s an example: Although it’s normal to vote in a presidential election (voting is a subjective value maintained by our collective support of the democratic process), it is not common (typically less than 50 percent of eligible voters actually cast a ballot). In order to accept the position that (cis)gender or (hetero)sexual conformity is “normal,” however, it must first be naturalized. And a norm can only be naturalized if it’s thought of as a fact, rather than a value.

But this story isn’t about immutable social facts; it’s about the evaluative criteria we use to mark human bodies as “normal” or pathological. It’s a story that demonstrates which types of bodies and behaviors are politically legitimate and worthy of the rights, immunities, and protections guaranteed by the Constitution.

Prisoners are people. Transgendered individuals are people. And if the Eighth Amendment doesn’t protect all people, then it’s quite frankly unconstitutional.

www.christopherfrancispetrella.net