Whose Money?

I’m sure you heard the news from last week that Jeff Bezos – founder, chairman, CEO, and president of a dotcom called Amazon – and his wife MacKenzie, announced that they are divorcing after 25 years of marriage. Since Bezos founded Amazon only 24 years ago, that counts as “community property” and should entitle MacKenzie, when they split, to half the wealth of the world’s wealthiest couple.

jeff-mackenzieI read an interesting take on the divorce aftermath from a feminist writer, Jill Filipovic, published in The Guardian on January 12. Filipovic thinks it is right that “any assets accumulated during the marriage are communal and divided 50-50 if the marriage ends.” I don’t disagree with her conclusion or her rationale:

What divorces like these show us is how little we value the often invisible and unpaid labor that so many women do to enable their husbands to build wealth and find professional success. … But would he [Bezos] have been able to have a stable, happy family and build a prosperous company without the work of his wife? … MacKenzie, in other words, made significant sacrifices to make Amazon work. … Her own career was stymied so that her husband’s could flourish. … It’s rare that you see men making the “choice” to scale back their ambitions and radically decrease their earnings so that they can be home with their kids.

This is undeniable. And, as Filipovic points out, as if we need to be reminded, “We live in a capitalist country, and so we measure value with dollar figures.” So, does that mean that Jeff is worth more, or entitled to keep more, than MacKenzie?

Filipovic says no, and again I agree. But I think Filipovic fails to take her rationale to its logical conclusion.

What about the workers Bezos relied on to build and maintain his business? And I’m not talking about just the elite executives, but everybody from the stockroom staff to the sanitation slaves. Could the Bezos business thrive without them? Put another way, “would he [Bezos] have been able to have a stable, happy family and build a prosperous company without the work of his [workers]?” … “[Bezos’ workers], in other words, made significant sacrifices [in income and health] to make Amazon work.”

I ask, what is a fair share of the wealth of the world’s wealthiest entrepreneur that he should share with the workers who made Bezos’ success possible? What is a fair distribution? Is it fair that his warehouse workers make maybe $15/hour and he makes $4,474,885/hour? Is it morally justified that Bezos should make 298,325 times what his warehouse workers do? Or could he squeak by on only 100,000 times what they make?

Or, put another way, do Amazon’s workers not deserve a living wage? If you still believe the world is divided between “leaders” and “lifters,” and that the rich got that way solely because they have worked harder, smarter and longer than the non-rich (in spite of clear evidence to the contrary), then this outcome, for both workers and ex-wives, will not surprise you: “Just watch,” Filipovic predicts. “If she goes for half, MacKenzie Bezos will be swiftly branded a gold digger.”

I might say Bezos doesn’t make the rules, he just enjoys them. (And he can tell his own side because he owns the Washington Post.) But when you accumulate wealth like a compulsive hoarder, that’s sociopathic. And then you tend to subscribe to the “Wizard of Id” parody of the Golden Rule: Whoever has the gold makes the rules. Or I might say, in answer to Bill Maher’s quip, in the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, “How much of my wealth does Mr. Tim feel he is entitled to?”: What makes you think it is your wealth?

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Beauty in the Eye

The January 2019 issue of Baltimore Magazine has me perplexed. In this self-described Beauty Issue, all the “models” are beautiful (in my humble opinion), although it is a mystery why they are smiling without showing their teeth, as if Baltimore is not proud of the beauty of its dental work.

baltimore beautyissueBut that is not what has me perplexed. There is a white model, two black models (one delicately called “plus-sized”), and an Asian model, along with a fifth model of uncertain ethnicity. What seems “off” to me is the way they dress: all five models are dressed in white, but only four of them are saying, simply, “Look at me, I am beautiful.”

The fifth model, who not only shows no teeth but shows no hair because she wears a ḥijāb, seems to be saying, instead, “Look at me, I am Muslim.”

No other model feels it necessary to proclaim her religion; indeed, no other model is included to balance out the multiple religions of Baltimore. Only the woman wearing the distinctive and unmistakable sign of submission seems to be saying, “Islam is a race.” But Islam is not a race, it is a religion. So, again, why?

Never desiring to be accused of failing to read what I presume to criticize, a disease chiefly afflicting the right wing of the political flock, I did dive into the cover story. Edited by Lauren Bell, and beginning on page 84, her first question confirms my thesis that religion, when it comes to Islam, is being equated with race. Bell asks the round table of five women how their upbringing affects their ideas of beauty. The African-American entrepreneur/blogger Dayna Bolden decried being called “pretty for a dark-skinned girl.” Event planner Alexis Wilkins, the large, African-American woman, added that she hears, “You’re pretty for a plus-sized woman.” But then hijab-wearing Lauleh Aslani adds, “I used to get, ‘You dress really nice for a Muslim hijabi woman.’ [and] ‘You dress really nice for someone who wears a hijab.’”

To her credit, Aslani, Executive Health Coordinator at Sibley Memorial Hospital,* describes herself as American first, and recognizes being Muslim as her religion and being Persian as her ethnicity. But if Aslani is clear on the difference, what mixed message are the editors of Baltimore Magazine conveying to their readers? Clearly, they are conflating race and religion in the person of a Muslim woman, presumably in the service of being inclusive. But if the issue is beauty – and I have no quarrel with the fact of beauty inhabiting all shapes, sizes and ethnicities – are the editors saying “Contrary to popular belief, Muslims can be beautiful, too”? And, if so, why are they not saying “Jews can be beautiful, too”? Or “Christians can be beautiful, too”? If not, is the message not just a bit condescending?

omar“No one puts a scarf on my head but me,” Ilhan Omar tweeted last November. “It’s my choice – one protected by the first amendment.” I’m sure she believes this. The first member of the US Congress to wear a hijab – the 181-year ban on headwear of any type in the House was lifted to accommodate her – left a refugee camp in Kenya in 1995, when she was about 14. Fourteen years of religious indoctrination works just as well on Christians, too.

It can be argued that a “Beauty Issue” is a superficial way to promote Baltimore, Maryland, my beloved home town. Subverting this objection, all the women modeling on the cover are identified within the magazine as professional women, too. And, to clarify my position as a secularist, I have no objection to discussions of Islam (or any religion) or the depiction of Muslim women on the covers of magazines. What seems “off” to me, as I asked before, is why religion is being conflated with race/ethnicity in a magazine article about concepts of beauty?

As I said, I am baffled, puzzled, bewildered – perplexed, if not vexed.

– – –
*Sibley Memorial is affiliated with Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins Hospital, but is geographically located in Washington, DC. So, this quibble: Could Baltimore Magazine not find any Persian/Muslim/hijabi professional women who actually work in Baltimore?
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Thinking About “Game of Thrones”

My eyes are bleeding. That’s because I have been persuaded to binge-watch “Game of Thrones.” I have read that the source material for George R. R. Martin’s series of epic fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, reimagines the wars and intrigues of the imperial dynasties of medieval Europe, the Middle East and Asia, with the addition of some fantasy elements, such as zombies and dragons, and a surfeit of gratuitous violence and some quite watchable nudity. I did like two of the characters – Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) – but chiefly because they use brains rather than brawn to survive.

GoT

I’m thinking that what attracts many to watch “Game of Thrones” is what repels me: it is a celebration of monarchy, feudalism and war. Even as a fantasy meant solely for entertainment, “Game of Thrones” portrays monarchy as the highest form of government, feudalism as the supreme economic system, and war as an occupation both glorious and efficacious. I cannot account for the popularity of a TV series with these themes, especially in the USA, where we fought a bloody war against monarchy!

Just once… I’d like to be treated to a TV series about a democratic republic with no games and no thrones; a drama in which nobody is better than anybody because of what family they were born into or how many people they slaughtered; a drama celebrating great achievements of the mind, particularly achievements in science and technology, economics and politics.

I’d like to be treated to a TV series in which the drama does not hang on the brutalizing of rival clans but on facing down nature, including human nature, and on prevailing over environmental and social adversity; a drama in which the heroes and heroines, rather than forging weapons of war, forge freedom and liberty for all; a drama in which social unrest is quelled by economic justice rather than by fire and sword.

I’d like to be treated to a TV series in which the storyline, rather than being tailored to the incurious—those mind-numbed by violent, sexist video games, who rarely crack a book—is instead fitted to the insatiably curious, those yearning for learning about how to better the human condition; a storyline attractive to humanist minds, to those who aspire to make the world a healthier, more sustainable one, in which the whole species may survive.

I’d passionately watch something like that. You could even throw in some gratuitous nudity. But I’m guessing that a TV series matching that description will never be popular: it would not speak to the primitive passions of those who believe justice emanates from arrow and blade, that social progress is as real as walking dead people and flying fire-breathers, and that genealogy trumps genius.

Still… that’s my ultimate “fantasy” TV show.

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Leaving Facebook

Facebook_logoOn June 10, 2018, Facebook gave me a time-out. Ostensibly, this was for posting a link to an article about a nude fundraiser in Ireland – to raise funds for “cash-strapped parents of cancer-stricken children visiting [Dublin] for extended hospital stays.” There was nudity, granted. But nude protest, at least, has a venerable history – not that you can teach history to an algorithm that can’t even distinguish a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph from child pornography (Phan Thị Kim Phúc running from a South Vietnamese napalm attack in 1972). But in my posting, the pictures showed ant-sized people, and it was only a link. I guessed that that would get the point across without making anybody uncomfortable with full frontal or full backal nudity.

I was wrong. I was kicked off of Facebook for violating their community standards, or some such nonsense. And, after giving my hiatus some thought (that’s what a time-out is for, right?), I extended my time-out to … forever. And, thinking about and reading about Facebook, I started thinking about Alex Jones.

Yes, Alex Jones, who was de-platformed by Facebook (and Apple and YouTube and Spotify), presumably for violating their community standards, but likely for defaming and endangering the parents of the children killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The reason doesn’t really matter. That fact that corporations as large and powerful as Facebook could censor – yes, censor – the free speech of a private citizen, should alarm everybody.

But only the government can commit censorship, you say? Facebook is a private corporation and can do what it likes, you say? I used to say this, too. You see, Facebook is not some supermarket community bulletin board: it has more than 2.2 billion monthly active users (as of January 2018); it has a net worth of $190 billion (as of 2016). That’s a lot of power and money. If Facebook decides to do it, you could pretty much disappear – or at least your speech could disappear.

Screen Shot 2018-08-27 at 6.31.27 AMAlthough Facebook is a publicly traded, private company, its power is akin to that of a government. It behaves like a public utility, but makes private profits. And that makes me believe that Facebook does not have the right to decide, privately, who gets to speak and who does not, without the transparency you only get from government (ideally). Facebook is, in fact, a monopoly. And as Jimmy Dore pointed out (August 16, 2018, including YouTube and Google), “What we should do is break them up. But we’re not going to do that. So, then what we should do is treat them like a public utility, just like the Internet. You can’t just take someone’s public utility away from them. If you’re AT&T, you can’t just turn off the phone on someone because you don’t like what they’re saying.”

Screen Shot 2018-08-27 at 6.50.15 AM

Facebook has evolved way beyond a social network to become the closest thing we have to a democratic, public forum. But in the hands of a private company, democracy dies: democracy is bad for business. As Jimmy Dore also points out, “We warned you and we predicted that once censorship starts and everybody’s cool with it, it’s not stopping.” Shutting up Alex Jones was an easy call. But that was the camel’s nose of censorship poking into the tent of democracy. Corporations today are more powerful than governments, if not actually in bed with them and getting the private sector to do what the public sector cannot. And private corporations like Facebook, YouTube and Google should be held to the same standards of public accountability and transparency when it comes to free speech.

Deciding who gets to speak and who doesn’t really is a simple call, but even liberals and progressives get it wrong: you don’t have to like Alex Jones to recognize that there is a vulnerable principle under attack here. Censoring free speech never ends well, as Matt Taibbi pointed out recently. Because if you don’t defend the speech you hate, sooner or later somebody will censor the speech you love.

I no longer love Facebook. I’m done.

Posted in Politics, Rant, Uncategorized

Impeachment: The Impossible Dream

Reality check time: If you want to impeach Trump, you have to take these steps:

  1. Prove that the president has committed “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” A simple majority of the House can approve an article of impeachment. Democrats do not have a majority in the House and, even if they did, (considering all the times they have enabled Trump—e.g., with the weakening of Dodd-Frank banking restraints and the 2017 tax gift to the wealthy)—it’s is not a sure bet they will approve articles of impeachment.
  1. Get two-thirds of the Senate to vote to convict. In a presidential impeachment trial, the (Republican) chief justice of the Supreme Court presides (over a Republican majority). Again, Democrats do not have a majority in the Senate (remember the Dems lost Congress during Obama’s term of office) and, even if they did, it’s is not a sure bet they will vote to convict.

ImpeachThe Russia investigation has yet to turn up a shred of publicly available evidence that Trump “colluded” with the Russian government to win the 2016 election. (IMO, I’d rather see an investigation into the well-documented collusion between the Trump junta and Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.) “Russian collusion” is not going to save the USA from Trump. Indeed, whatever other crimes he may uncover, when relying on the Mueller investigation to prove “Russian collusion” fails, what is left of Democrat credibility will likewise fail.

I know impeachment is an establishment Democrat wet dream, because it gets Dems off the hook—for foisting on their followers the worst candidate in their history, for losing in 2016 to a con-man and clown, for losing 69 out of 99 state legislatures during the Obama presidency, and for alienating some 94,000,000 registered voters who chose “none of the above” over HRC—but considering the spinelessness of the current crop of Democrats, this is just not going to happen!

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Gun Rights vs. Women’s Rights

Women Rights vs Gun Rights“I Dream One Day Women Will Have the Same Rights As Guns” says the sign held up at the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017. Of course, it’s a ridiculous argument on its face, given that inanimate objects don’t have rights. Granting that the sentiment was inelegantly stated, does it have any merit?

Gun rights fundamentalists would say women in the USA enjoy more liberty now than at any time in human history and that, conversely, the freedom to own guns is constantly under attack and more restricted now than in the past. Both points are quite a bit overstated.

But if we give full credit to the woman holding the sign, we have to admit that while inanimate objects don’t have rights (or responsibilities), their owners do—and that that is the inequity she was protesting. For example, Florida’s “Firearms Owners Privacy Act” prohibits physicians from inquiring about patients’ gun use and/or ownership—a “physician gag law” pitting the community’s concern about public health against some unwritten and previously unknown individual gun owner right to privacy.

Yet, if a woman seeks an abortion in Florida (as in many states), somehow the community’s rights are more important than an individual’s rights. The Affordable Care Act (ACA or “Obamacare”) can only cover abortion if the woman’s life is endangered (or rape or incest); the parent of a minor must be notified before an abortion is provided; a woman must undergo an ultrasound before obtaining an abortion; the provider must offer her the option to view the image; there is a 24-week cutoff, after which an abortion can be performed only if the woman’s life or health is endangered.

We don’t see any similar restrictions on gun ownership. Indeed, many members of Congress are willing to assure the rights of gun owners, but not necessarily those of women: the ACA includes a section entitled “Protection of Second Amendment Gun Rights” that guarantees rights to gun owners, while denying privacy rights to women. Furthermore, in spite of the statistical evidence of the dangers of gun ownership, the ACA also prevents insurers from counting gun use as a risk factor in setting health premiums.

Another example: while the USA is one of only three countries that offer constitutional protection to gun owners (that hallowed but much-misinterpreted Second Amendment), 131 other nations explicitly guarantee gender equality in their constitutions. But not us. As for equality under the law, the late (unlamented) Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia authored the opinion in Walmart v. Dukes, which decided that women did not have standing to sue for equal pay because they didn’t have enough in common.

What does this mean in practical application?

Take the case of Jessica Gonzales, a Colorado mother whose three children, ages 7, 9 and 10, were abducted and shot to death by her husband. The husband had a protective order against him, but the police refused to enforce it—saying it was a privacy issue. Gonzales sued the police department. When the case reached the Supreme Court, in 2005 it was decided that this mother of three dead children had no constitutional right to protection from law enforcement. Indeed, in the first case brought by a survivor of domestic violence against the USA before an international human rights tribunal, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) found that the United States violated the human rights of Jessica Lenahan (née Gonzales) and her children.

Still think women have more rights than gun owners? The risk of a woman being murdered in a domestic violence situation increases 500 percent when there’s a gun in the house, according to a study by the American Journal of Public Health.

Last point: in August 2014, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson made explicit the contrast of women’s rights vs. gun owner’s rights: in a decision preventing Alabama from enacting a harsh anti-abortion law, Thompson pointed out that a policy limiting firearm sales to just two cities probably wouldn’t be very popular among gun enthusiasts, but that is what would happen to constitutionally protected abortion rights for women under the proposed abortion restrictions.

“The right to abortion cannot be exercised without a medical professional,” wrote Thompson, “and the right to keep and bear arms means little if there is no one from whom to acquire the handgun or ammunition. In the context of both rights, the Supreme Court recognizes that some regulation of the protected activity is appropriate, but that other regulation may tread too heavily on the right.”

Amendment 2Indeed, between 2011 and 2013, states passed more anti-abortion laws than during the previous decade. These laws restricted abortion access for an estimated 9,000,000 women of reproductive age living in the South. But it got even easier to own and carry a gun during that time. Since the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, Congress has passed just one major law that strengthens regulations on firearms. There are more waiting periods to get an abortion than there are to buy a gun.

Still think the protester in the picture is wrong? Then maybe prospective gun purchasers should be subjected to comprehensive background checks, mandatory counseling sessions, mandatory waiting periods, forced psychological counseling, and regulations on where, when and how to buy firearms—in the only two shops legally allowed to operate in the state.

PS: To those of you who decry my contrast of gun rights with abortion rights (which are just as legal under current U.S. law), what is the small-government “conservative” obsession with regulating the bodies, lives and choices of women? Especially if you are a man, it is literally none of your fucking business!

Posted in Politics, Rant, Uncategorized

Stupid Conservative Memes …

I presume from the source (Fox News) that this is meant to demonstrate that guns are no worse than knives; that if you take away guns, the criminals will still kill, only with knives.

Knives

The logic is flawed: you cannot kill 17 people in seven minutes with a knife; only a gun can do that. If the homicide rate was higher in London than in New York City, isn’t that a testament to the efficacy of strict gun laws in the largest US city, rather than some comment on the relative deadliness of knives? Furthermore, knives have a purpose beyond killing PEOPLE; high-capacity, rapid-fire guns do not. And nobody is advocating taking away all guns (that is paranoia); we are advocating sensible gun control.

Yes, London has strict gun control laws. But, according to news reports, the rise in knife attacks in London has more to do with the drug war in the UK than with any inefficacy of gun control.

You’re welcome.

Posted in Politics, Rant
John Mill