Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sunday Reading

Happy Mother’s Day — Brandon E. Patterson in Mother Jones reports that Black Lives Matter is bailing out women for Mother’s Day.

Black Lives Matter has a big gift for some moms this Mother’s Day—their freedom. Groups affiliated with the police and criminal justice reform movement have been bailing black women out of jail ahead of the holiday on Sunday. The nationwide effort, dubbed National Black Mamas Bail Out Day, seeks to reunite the women with their families and raise awareness of the disparate impact of incarceration and the bail system on black women.

So far, more than 50 women around the country have been bailed out by the Mother’s Day effort. Organizing groups in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, New York City, Oakland, and 13 other cities, have been raising money through an online fundraising campaign. So far, they have brought in nearly $500,000 for the campaign, with $25,000 set aside for use in each city. The average bail paid off has varied widely; organizers in Atlanta bailed out 19 women with their pot of money, whereas 4 women have been bailed out in Oakland.

Activists have also raised money individually as well. Members of the Atlanta chapter of Southerners on New Ground (SONG), an LGBT-focused racial justice group, canvassed neighborhoods and collected small donations in a hat, according to Mary Hooks, an organizer with the chapter who came up with the idea for the nationwide initiative. “Black people have a tradition of using our collective resources to buy each other’s freedom,” she says, referring to the slavery-era practice of free black people saving money to purchase the freedom of their enslaved family members and friends. “We have an opportunity to do that when we understand how the cash bail system works. The sooner we can get folks out, the ability for them to mitigate their cases increases and the less collateral damage they are likely to incur.”

The organizers have drawn on their existing relationships with other criminal justice organizations to identify women to bail out of jail. In Oakland, the public defender’s office sent organizers names of women in jail, says Gina Clayton, an organizer with Essie Justice Group. Essie Justice organizers also sat in on arraignment hearings to identify women who would need to be bailed out. One of the people bailed out in Oakland was a mother of two who was jailed on a $10,000 bail about a week earlier, Clayton says. When organizers visited the woman to tell her they were paying her bail, she cried. Organizers with the Oakland office of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, an immigrants’ rights group that focuses on black migrants, bailed out a Haitian woman who had been held in a detention facility in Southern California. The woman had fled domestic abuse in her home country, according to Devonte Jackson, an organizer with the group. BAJI bought the woman a bus ticket to Florida so she could visit her family for Mother’s Day.

The term “mama,” as it’s used by the National Black Mamas Bail Out Day campaign, is broadly defined to include not just women with biological children, but all women—including trans women—who are linchpins for their families and neighborhoods. “It’s about knowing and naming that black women play such a critical role in our communities,” Hooks says.

The number of women behind bars in the United States has increased 700 percent since 1980, according to the Sentencing Project. More than 100,000 women are currently in jail. Many have not been convicted of anything but are unable to make bail, and a disproportionate number of them are black. Eighty percent of incarcerated women are mothers, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

Nationally, the median bail set for a felony charge is $10,000, almost a year’s income for the average person unable to meet bail, according to the Sentencing Policy Initiative. Nearly 90 percent of inmates awaiting trial can’t afford bail; The average bail amount in felony cases has nearly tripled since 1990.

Bail reform is a key part of the national policy platform released last summer by the Movement for Black Lives, a broad coalition of groups affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of the groups bailing out women this week are also working on efforts to pass local and state legislation that would abolish cash bail in their jurisdictions. Earlier this year, New Orleans and New Jersey eliminated cash bail requirements for a range of low level offenses.

This weekend, organizers in some cities are holding events to welcome newly freed women back home. In Atlanta, organizers are hosting a picnic for the women and their families on Mother’s Day. Volunteers will help connect the women with resources for housing, employment, and legal assistance, Hooks says. The groups are also raising money for a possible bail-out effort to commemorate Father’s Day on June 18.

He Is What He Is — David Roberts in Vox on the tendency to overanalyze Trump.

We are not accustomed to having someone so obviously disordered in a position of such power. Trump is surrounded by people — not only members of his administration but Congress, the press, pundits, conservative ideological groups, industry lobbyists — eager to invent stories to make sense of his behavior.

Politicos and journalists need a story in which Trump’s stumbling and grasping can be construed as a savvy media strategy, a “distraction” from some other wrongdoing he has going on, or a “pivot” from his current omnishambles. Those are all versions of political maneuvering with which they are familiar. They need for Trump to want things, to be after things, to have a plan.

Politicians, journalists, analysts, the public — everyone wants some kind of story, some Theory of Trump. And so Trump surrogates try to provide it, scrambling to weave a coherent narrative around his careening, erratic lies.

But there’s no there there. He’s lunging this way and that, situation by situation. Firing Comey? Trump just got mad. He wanted Comey and the Russia investigation off his TV. There’s no deeper story than that.

This is an utterly terrifying conclusion. A Machiavellian Trump — one who was merely acting the fool, manipulating the public and media in service of some diabolical long-term agenda — is less frightening than a purely narcissistic and impulsive one.

No agenda guides him, no past commitments or statements restrain him, so no one, not even his closest allies (much less the American public or foreign governments) can trust him, even for a second. He will do what makes him feel dominant and respected, in the moment, with no consideration of anything else, not because he has chosen to reject other considerations, but because he is, by all appearances, incapable of considering them.

This makes him, as many others have noted, extremely vulnerable to being manipulated by whoever happens to talk to him last, whoever butters him up and makes him feel important. (And that includes the TV.)

It’s one thing when that involves a wild Twitter accusation or the firing of a staff member. All Trump’s crises so far have been internal and self-inflicted, more or less.

But what will happen when he gets into a confrontation with North Korea, when Kim Jong Un deliberately provokes him? Will his response be considered and strategic? Will he be able to get information and aid from allies? Will he be able to make and keep commitments during negotiations?

There’s no sign of hope for any of that.

More likely he will prove, as he has in literally every confrontation of the past several years, congenitally unable to back down or deescalate, even if doing so is clearly in everyone’s best interests.

More likely he will be desperate to maintain face and will listen to whatever his security staff whispers in his ear.

More likely he will make rash and fateful decisions with insufficient consultation and no clear plan.

That’s who he is: a disregulated bundle of impulses, being manipulated by a cast of crooks and incompetents, supported by a Republican Party willing to bet the stability of the country against upper-income tax cuts. We need to stop looking for a more complicated story.

Expletive Not Deleted — Alan Burdick in The New Yorker on why swearing is good for you.

By several accounts, Donald Trump has spent a decent amount of time in recent weeks screaming at his television. Almost certainly he’s been swearing at it; what else do you scream at your television but expletives? Besides, the President doesn’t often censor himself, even in public. On the campaign trail, he vowed to “bomb the shit out of ISIS,” suggested that U.S. companies that move their operations overseas should “go fuck themselves,” and proposed to begin trade negotiations with China by saying, “Listen, you motherfuckers.” As he told the audience at February’s National Prayer Breakfast, “The hell with it.”

Melissa Mohr, the author of “Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing,” has noted that cursing can be a handy rhetorical strategy: it’s common parlance, so employing it makes Trump seem more like a man of the people. But perhaps the President has also been reading about the analgesic benefits of profanity. In 2009, Richard Stephens, a psychologist at Keele University, in England, asked a group of volunteers to plunge one hand into a bucket of ice-cold water and keep it there for as long as they could. Sometimes Stephens instructed them to repeat an expletive of their choice—one that “they might use if they banged their head or hit their thumb with a hammer,” according to an article he wrote about the study. Other times he had them repeat a neutral word, like “wooden” or “brown.” With few exceptions, the volunteers could hold their hand in the water for longer when they cursed—about forty seconds longer, on average.

Swearing, Stephens thinks, may be a form of pain management, maybe even empowerment. Last week, he and a colleague, David K. Spierer, of Long Island University, described a new study in which swearing seemed to bolster physical strength. One group of volunteers pedalled an exercise bike for thirty seconds against intense resistance; sometimes they repeated a curse word, and other times they repeated a neutral word. “It’s a hugely difficult task,” Stephens told me. “Your heart rate goes through the roof.” A second group was challenged with a hand dynamometer, which measures grip strength. Swearing improved the performance on both tasks—between two and four per cent for the cyclists, and eight per cent for the squeezers.

It’s perhaps not so surprising that profanity has these occult powers, since it differs from the rest of language in a number of ways. For one thing, as Benjamin K. Bergen, a cognitive scientist at U.C. San Diego and the author of “What the F,” has pointed out, vulgarity bends the usual rules of grammar. For instance, the common expression “Fuck you!” is the rare sentence in which the verb has no subject. It’s not like “Curse you!” in which the “I” is understood; who’s fucking you in this case? The expression isn’t even a proper imperative. (That would be “Fuck yourself.”) Or consider the sentence “There’s too much work in this fucking class.” Is “fucking” an adjective? An adverb?

Swears are also unique in their effect on the human body. In 2011, researchers at the University of Bristol found that saying aloud the words “fuck” and “cunt” (but not the words “glue” and “dumb”) prompted a silent emotional reaction from the people who said them, detectable as an increase in the conductivity of their skin. One leading idea about swearing is that it is the fundamental language of emotion, and it seems to be generated by the parts of the brain from which emotions arise.

Indeed, sometimes, when the rest of language is stripped away, profanity is all that’s left. One of the earliest studied cases of aphasia, from 1843, involved a French parish priest who had suffered a stroke. He could say just two words: je (“I”) and foutre (“fuck”). In a similar case from the nineteen-nineties, a patient known as R.N. was left with a vocabulary of six words: “well,” “yeah,” “yes,” “no,” “shit,” and “goddammit.” Language is assembled in different parts of the brain, but obscenities seem to occupy a bin of their own; so long as neurological damage is limited to the regions governing intentional speech, the obscenity bin stays intact. In “What the F,” Bergen describes the case of a patient, E.C., who had the entire left half of his brain removed. In the process, he lost most, but not all, of his language abilities. He would open his mouth, say a few words, struggle to string them together, and then, with a burst of emotion, clearly express a series of expletives, including “goddammit.” “You don’t need your left hemisphere to talk as long as you’re swearing in frustration,” Bergen writes.

Stephens took an interest in swearing a dozen years ago, while his wife was giving birth in the hospital. The labor was prolonged—more than twenty hours—and her swearing was profuse. Afterward, she was “a bit embarrassed,” Richards said; she apologized to the midwives and doctors, but they kindly brushed it off. “‘They said, ‘We hear this all the time. This is a completely normal part of giving birth.’ That made me start thinking about swearing and pain. People instinctively swear when they hurt themselves. They must do it for a reason.”

Stephens’s first major study on the subject was the 2009 ice-bucket challenge. In the course of it, he found that the heart rates of the volunteers who swore went up relative to those who didn’t—an indication that swearing had indeed engaged the parts of the brain involved in emotion. Notably, the volunteers weren’t shouting the curse word but were merely repeating it, without affect. The physical effect seemed to result from the word itself, not from the manner in which it was expressed.

Next, Stephens turned the logic around: if swearing increases one’s tolerance for pain, and if swearing is ultimately emotional language, then making volunteers emotional should increase their pain tolerance. To test this idea, Stephens had one group of subjects play a first-person-shooter video game—Medal of Honor—for ten minutes and a second group play Tiger Woods P.G.A. Tour 2007. Afterward, the Medal of Honor players reported feeling more aggressive; when Stephens submitted them to the ice-bucket challenge, they could withstand it longer than the golfers could. In January, Stephens and his colleagues published a related study showing that Medal of Honor players also did better on what’s called a swearing fluency test: they could list more swear words in a minute than they could after playing the golf game. (All told, the test subjects came up with sixty swear words, although the paper notes that nineteen of them—including “feck,” “fuckaroo,” “asstaxi,” “wanko,” and “penis”—were “deemed not to be a recognized linguistic form of swear word.”)

Both studies were consistent with Stephens’s theory that swearing eases pain by triggering aggressive emotions, much in the way that the mere act of smiling can make a person feel happier. The aggression, in turn, triggers a fight-or-flight stress response, releasing adrenaline, which is known to increase physical performance. But his latest study, involving handgrips and stationary bicycles, complicates that story somewhat. In previous physical-challenge experiments, volunteers who swore had higher heart rates than those who didn’t—telltale signs of the fight-or-flight response. In the recent study, however, they didn’t. “Our latest findings are an effect but without an explanation for it,” Stephens said. There are at least two possibilities, he added. One is that swearing aloud may distract people from their pain, enabling them to better tolerate it. Or “it could be that swearing brings about a general disinhibition,” he said. “People feel less uptight when they’ve been swearing, and that lets them go for it a little bit more.”

Either way, Stephens said, the profanities traditionally considered most vulgar are losing their power to shock. Even the Democrats are trying to capitalize on the trend. Bernie Sanders has publicly denounced the President’s “shitty budget.” Politicorecently highlighted a New York magazine profile of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that “included one ‘fuck,’ two ‘fucking’s, one ‘bullshit,’ one ‘pissed off,’ one ‘they suck,’ and a ‘what the hell is going on?’ ” In April, with children standing behind him, Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told a crowd that Trump “doesn’t give a shit about health care.” (For thirty dollars, the D.N.C. is also selling a T-shirt that reads, “We give a shit about people.”) Feigning offense, Fox News has complained that Democrats want to “make using profanity a new normal.”

Will profanity lose its pain-relieving magic along the way? At one point in his research, Stephens found that people who swore more in the course of an average day didn’t gain as much of an edge in the ice-bucket challenge, but he’s since had trouble replicating that finding. Odds are, though, that if profanity begins to fail us, we’ll find a way to upgrade it. “We’re getting to the point where the four-letter words are diminishing very much in their meaning,” Stephens said. “But there will always be new taboo words and phrases. We might be in a kind of plateau at the moment, before new oaths and profanities and whatever come along. But they will.”

 Doonesbury — No clue.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. Profanity, eh? I must be in a lot more pain than I thought. My favorite line now days is Judas Priest! And as goes with Harry S. remember how Bess told the lady it took 25 years to get Harry to say manure. Harry must have been in a lot of pain too!

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