Wednesday, October 29, 2014

"The Red Cross' relief effort was 'worse than the storm.'"

ProPublica exposes the American Red Cross:

In 2012, two massive storms pounded the United States, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless, hungry or without power for days and weeks.

Americans did what they so often do after disasters. They sent hundreds of millions of dollars to the Red Cross, confident their money would ease the suffering left behind by Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac. They believed the charity was up to the job. They were wrong....

During Isaac, Red Cross supervisors ordered dozens of trucks usually deployed to deliver aid to be driven around nearly empty instead, “just to be seen,” one of the drivers, Jim Dunham, recalls.

“We were sent way down on the Gulf with nothing to give,” Dunham says. The Red Cross’ relief effort was “worse than the storm.”

During Sandy, emergency vehicles were taken away from relief work and assigned to serve as backdrops for press conferences, angering disaster responders on the ground.

After both storms, the charity’s problems left some victims in dire circumstances or vulnerable to harm, the organization’s internal assessments acknowledge. Handicapped victims “slept in their wheelchairs for days” because the charity had not secured proper cots. In one shelter, sex offenders were “all over including playing in children’s area” because Red Cross staff “didn’t know/follow procedures.”

According to interviews and documents, the Red Cross lacked basic supplies like food, blankets and batteries to distribute to victims in the days just after the storms. Sometimes, even when supplies were plentiful, they went to waste. In one case, the Red Cross had to throw out tens of thousands of meals because it couldn’t find the people who needed them.

The Red Cross marshalled an army of volunteers, but many were misdirected by the charity’s managers. Some were ordered to stay in Tampa long after it became clear that Isaac would bypass the city. After Sandy, volunteers wandered the streets of New York in search of stricken neighborhoods, lost because they had not been given GPS equipment to guide them.

The problems stand in stark contrast to the Red Cross’ standing in the realm of disaster relief. President Obama, who is the charity’s honorary chairman, vouched for the group after Sandy, telling Americans to donate. “The Red Cross knows what they’re doing,” he said.

Two weeks after Sandy hit, Red Cross Chief Executive Gail McGovern declared that the group’s relief efforts had been “near flawless.”

The group’s self-assessments, drawn together just weeks later, were far less congratulatory.

“Multiple systems failed,” say minutes from a closed-door meeting of top officials in December 2012, referring to logistics. “We didn’t have the kind of sophistication needed for this size job,” noted a Red Cross vice president in the same meeting, the minutes say....

[Isaac] lingered over Mississippi and Louisiana, causing major flooding and more than $2 billion in damage. In some low-lying areas, residents had to be rescued from the rooftops of their submerged homes.

The Red Cross mobilized hundreds of volunteers, equipment, emergency vehicles and supplies. But it couldn’t marshal them promptly enough to help many Isaac victims.

When Rieckenberg arrived in Mississippi to help coordinate victim care, he witnessed the incident that so troubled Dunham, the emergency vehicle driver. An official gave the order to send out 80 trucks and emergency response vehicles — normally full of meals or supplies like diapers, bleach and paper towels — entirely empty or carrying a few snacks.

The volunteers “were told to drive around and look like you’re giving disaster relief,” Rieckenberg says.
A commenter on Metafilter quips:
I know this can't be right, because I've been told private initiative is always better than government initiative.
Yeah, except ... the Red Cross was created by the government, and it has a government mandate to work with the government (FEMA). So it's not exactly a case study in unbounded private enterprise.

Is the "affirmative consent" law going to cause rape and sexual assault to be taken less seriously?

There's a good but poorly spelled article in Reason with this headline:

Half of MIT Students Think It's Possible to "Accidently" Rape Someone (Thanks, Affirmative Consent!)
Elizabeth Nolan Brown writes:
Folks from President Obama to swearing 5-year-olds princesses have been citing a statistic that 20 percent of women on college campuses, or one in five, will be sexually assaulted while there—a stat that has also been routinely debunked. However, a new sexual assault survey from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—one of the first schools to release broad data on campus sex crimes—seems to corroborate everyone's favorite sketchy stat....

But students are confused about how alcohol and intoxication affect consent, which perhaps speaks to increasing progressive activism around the idea that drunk people can't give consent. Only about three-quarters of respondents said they feel confident in their own ability to judge whether someone is too intoxicated to consent to sex. And more than half agreed that "rape and sexual assault can happen unintentionally, especially if alcohol is involved."

I just want to repeat that one more time: Half of the MIT students surveyed think it's possible to "accidently" rape someone. When you consider undergraduates alone, this rises to 67 percent.

This is what we get when people push an idea that rape is really often a matter of consent confusion or a drunken misunderstanding and not something that one person (the rapist) intentionally does to another. This is exactly what those of us opposed to affirmative consent standards mean when we worry about it muddying the waters of consent and confusing the definition of rape. About a fifth of female undergraduates and a quarter of male undergraduates surveyed agreed that "when someone is raped or sexually assaulted, it’s often because the way they said 'no' was unclear or there was some miscommunication."
The supposedly progressive new law may actually cause us to retrogress.

As the spelling: an adverb is based on an adjective, not a noun. Thus, "accidentally," the adverb, is based on "accidental," the adjective, not the noun "accident."

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How much does it matter that Islamic extremists are only a small minority of Muslims?

Jon Krier writes:

Saying that Muslim extremists comprise only a minority of Muslims is factually accurate. Suggesting that the minority of extremists does not mean that there is a problem with Islam for the West is wrong.

There is a commonly used chestnut that "Hitler was democratically elected." In reality, the Nazis only got ~1/3 of the vote. The Nazis were a minority in Germany leading up to WWII. That didn't mean the world didn't have a Germany problem.

Marxist rebels were a minority in Russia before the October Revolution, that didn't mean the Tsar didn't have a Marxism problem.

Less than 50% of the white population of the original 13 colonies that formed the US supported independence, but Britain certainly had a revolutionary problem.

Just because an agitating group is a minority within a larger group does not insulate the larger group from blame. If the larger group does not actively work against the minority agitators then it only takes a minority to effect change...

The majority is harder to organize than a minority. It is easier to find agreement in a minority. And an organized minority is stronger than a disorganized majority....

If we want to stop ISIS and other groups of that ilk from gaining power we need to be able to talk about why they are able to rise to power. We can't get there if we treat Islam as anathema to our society. We also can't get there if we are stuck on politically correct evasions.

Friday, October 24, 2014

"White men are not the enemy"

Greta Van Susteren writes:

As election day approaches, many (not all are doing this) Democrats (and others) might want to stop denigrating ALL white males as though they are the reason for any and all woes of the nation. Any time you denigrate an entire group, regardless of what the group is, you are showing bigotry....

It seems to me that white men – as a group – are getting slapped around unfairly. Many accuse white men — as a group — of having some sort of sinister motive against others. I think it has gotten to the point where some white men feel like that have to tip toe around some topics and issues in fear of being accused of being something awful. White men are not the enemy – to women or anyone else. Some may want to step back and ‘give them a break.’
I think she's obviously right. The kind of "reverse" sexism and racism she's describing is helpful to no one. (I'd actually be happy to omit that "reverse.") I wonder if someday in the future, this kind of thing will seem as shockingly backward as we now recognize our own history of misogyny and racism to be.

And why has this been happening? Here's my theory. (Just a theory!) A lot of people have an impulse to be prejudiced. But at the same time, they're like almost everyone in that they want to avoid being socially unacceptable. So they want to vent sexism and racism somehow — but only in ways that are considered socially acceptable. And how can one do that? It's obvious: by expressing sexism/racism against men and whites only. If they'd been born long ago, they might have vented against women or blacks instead. That's why when I hear people expressing shamelessly anti-man or anti-white views, it doesn't strike me as a dramatic improvement over the expression of anti-woman or anti-black views.

And no, that doesn't mean I "don't understand the nature of historic oppression and privilege." Everyone knows that men and whites have historically gotten a lot of unfair advantages, and it's a serious problem. I just think that if your solution to that problem is to endorse the concept of sexism and racism (as long as they're directed against the right people), you lose a bit of credibility to claim that you're fundamentally opposed to sexism and racism.

UPDATE: I've deleted a long comment from someone I won't name. I generally avoid deleting comments based on my disagreement with someone else's point of view, but in this case I felt compelled to make an exception. I also want to explicitly reject the suggestion in that comment that white men's dominance has been an appropriate result of what the commenter wrongly referred to as their superior all-around competence. Any such notion has been resoundingly refuted by the successful experiment of the past century in allowing women and minorities to have the opportunity to work in fields from which they had long been barred. No one can seriously deny that minorities and women have often excelled once they've been given the freedom to prove their own merit on a "playing field" that's closer to "level." And the so-called competence demonstrated by the high social standing of white men has often been the fruits of men's subjugation and killing of other men and women and children. (White Americans' treatment of Native Americans and African slaves are obvious examples, though hardly the "only" ones.) So I stand by my view that men and whites have historically enjoyed many unfair advantages, and that this is a societal problem to be taken seriously. I'm no more responsible for being born a white male (and in some of the most affluent conditions in the history of the world!) than I am responsible for being born as a member of a historically oppressed ethnic minority group.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Why have we stopped being optimistic about the future?

Virginia Postrel writes:

I sympathize with science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson and venture-capitalist Peter Thiel, whose new books lament the demise of grand 20th-century dreams and the optimistic culture they expressed. “I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done,” writes Stephenson in the preface to "Hieroglyph," a science-fiction anthology hoping “to rekindle grand technological ambitions through the power of storytelling.” ...

[W]e have plenty of big projects. The human genome has been sequenced. Enormous libraries of books and collections of paintings and drawings have been scanned and made searchable online. James Turrell is making great monumental art in the Arizona desert. Three -- three! -- billionaires are running their own space programs. Space is so popular among his peers that Bill Gates, whose own modest goals run to conquering malaria and other tropical scourges, finds himself telling interviewers that “it’s not an area that I’ll be putting money into.” If there’s public malaise about progress, it isn’t because nobody is doing anything bold....

The reason mid-20th-century Americans were optimistic about the future wasn’t that science-fiction writers told cool stories about space travel. Science-fiction glamour in fact worked on only a small slice of the public.... People believed the future would be better than the present because they believed the present was better than the past. They constantly heard stories -- not speculative, futuristic stories but news stories, fashion stories, real-estate stories, medical stories -- that reinforced this belief. They remembered epidemics and rejoiced in vaccines and wonder drugs. They looked back on crowded urban walk-ups and appreciated neat suburban homes. They recalled ironing on sweaty summer days and celebrated air conditioning and wash-and-wear fabrics. They marveled at tiny transistor radios and dreamed of going on airplane trips.

Then the stories changed. For good reasons and bad, more and more Americans stopped believing in what they had once viewed as progress. Plastics became a punch line, convenience foods ridiculous, nature the standard [warning: New York Times link] of all things right and good. Freeways destroyed neighborhoods. Urban renewal replaced them with forbidding Brutalist plazas. New subdivisions represented a threat to the landscape rather than the promise of the good life. Too-fast airplanes produced window-rattling sonic booms [NYT link]. Insecticides harmed eagles’ eggs. Exploration meant conquest and brutal exploitation. Little by little, the number of modern offenses grew until we found ourselves in a 21st century where some of the most educated, affluent and culturally influential people in the country are terrified of vaccinating their children. Nothing good, they’ve come to think, comes from disturbing nature.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Why did the Supreme Court decide not to decide the same-sex marriage cases?

So, everyone's trying to figure out why the Supreme Court decided not to decide the same-sex marriage cases. I can't believe the reason is that the court didn't consider the issue very important because almost all lower federal courts have agreed on the issue. Of course it would be important for the Supreme Court to have the authoritative last word on the issue!

Amy Howe of SCOTUSblog says:

Strategy may have also played a role in the decision to deny review. The Court’s four more liberal Justices – Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan – may have been content to leave well enough alone, from their perspective. Put another way, they may have preferred to let the tide of decisions striking down state bans continue to flow steadily, rather than risk a broader decision which might turn back that tide altogether.
OK, that's fairly clear. I'd also add Kennedy to that list.

But she finds it "harder to imagine ... why some of the Court’s more conservative Justices didn’t join forces to grant review":
Indeed, it was nearly impossible to fathom that they would allow the lower-court decisions striking down state bans on same-sex marriage to go into effect without a fight, even if (as the conventional wisdom has surmised) they remained concerned about their ability to persuade Justice Anthony Kennedy to join them in upholding the bans. But apparently they did, and we may never know the full story until a Justice’s private papers are released, many years from now.
Here's how I see it. The 4 conservatives should assume, based on what they know about their other 5 colleagues, that any Supreme Court decision on this issue would conclude that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. And they might dislike that result, but they're smart enough to realize that's the only result that can possibly be supported by citations to Supreme Court case law. Or perhaps they basically think that'd be a fine result, but they're uncomfortable enough with it that they'd rather not be the ones to make the decision. Even if they're firmly convinced that the bans are constitutional, surely they realize that the most they could accomplish is a dissenting opinion with no legal effect; the only effect would be to tarnish their legacies and forever associate themselves with "the wrong side of history." In short, the conservatives had no good way to decide the case, so they decided they'd rather not decide it.

ADDED: One more possibility I left out: Perhaps the 4 conservatives have a strong desire for a ruling saying the bans are constitutional, so they want to do anything possible to increase the chances of that happening. And they think there's no chance with the court's current personnel, but there's some chance if at least one liberal or Kennedy is replaced by a Republican president. So they might not think they're very likely to win, but they at least want to give it a chance, and they've figured out that their chances are better if they wait.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What was so great about Duke Ellington?

This New Yorker article (a review of Terry Teachout's biography, Duke) explains:

Ellington was a dance-band impresario who played no better than O.K. piano, got trapped for years playing “jungle music” in gangster night clubs, and at his height produced mostly tinny, brief recordings. (His finest was made on a bitter winter night in 1940, in a Fargo, North Dakota, ballroom.) How did he become a dominant figure of modern music and, for many people, an exemplar of art? The typical answer used to be that he was really a master composer on the European model, all score paper and seclusion and suites. On inspection, this doesn’t hold much water. Ellington’s best music turns out to be the crystallized collective improvisation of an exceptionally ornery group of musical malcontents. To explain it all, we seem to need new categories of value, and another kind of meditation on what originality is. ...

Ellington knew from the beginning that he needed a sound, more even than a beat or a style. The individual players he employed weren’t up-to-date urban players but, often, less sophisticated New Orleans musicians, whose great gift was a distinctly human tone, often achieved with the use of homemade mutes and plungers. They never suffered from the homogenized, driving tone of the white bands.

Over the years, Ellington cultivated those kinds of players until, with the 1940 band, he achieved something extraordinary—an all-star band that played together, soloed luminously, and never sounded competitive. As critics still remark in proper wonder, at least five of the musicians—Jimmy Blanton, on bass, Ben Webster, on tenor sax, Johnny Hodges, on alto sax, Harry Carney, on baritone sax, and Tricky Sam Nanton, on the trombone—are in the running for the very best ever to have picked up their instrument.

Yet a residue of disappointment clings to these pages [of Terry Teachout’s Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington]: Ellington was an elegant man but not a very nice one, Teachout concludes, exploiting the musicians he gathered and held so close. He used his musicians (not to mention his women) often quite coldly, and his romantic-seeming life was really one long cloud of shimmering misdirection. Teachout reveals that Ellington was rarely the sole composer of the music associated with his name. Nearly all his hit songs, Teachout explains, “were collaborations with band members who did not always receive credit—or royalties—when the songs were recorded and published.” It’s long been known by fans that many of the most famous “Ellington” numbers are really the arranger Billy Strayhorn’s, including “Take the A Train” and “Chelsea Bridge,” and that the valve trombonist Juan Tizol wrote most of “Caravan.” But much of “Mood Indigo” was Barney Bigard’s, while “Never No Lament” (which became the hit “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”), “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” and “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” began as Johnny Hodges riffs and then became songs. “Sophisticated Lady,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” and “In a Sentimental Mood,” in turn, are melodies originally blown by, and rarely credited to, the alto-sax player Otto Hardwick.

None of these are obvious, all-purpose riffs, or simple blues phrases. They’re rich, melodic ideas, as complex as anything in Gershwin or Rodgers. Ellington owned them, but they didn’t start in his head, or take form under his fingers. Teachout says all the right things about how, without Ellington’s ears to hear them and his intelligence to fix and resolve them, these might have been butterflies that lived a day, fluttered, and died. But you sense that he’s shaken by the news. It seems like theft. It certainly bothered the musicians. Hodges used to make a sign of counting money when Ellington was playing the medley of his tunes.

One might be a touch more defiant on behalf of the Duke. Ellington really did take other men’s ideas and act as if they were his own. But he did this because he took other men’s ideas and made them his own. There are artists whose genius lies in exploiting other people’s talent, and we can recognize the exploitation as the genius. It is the gift of such artists to be able to energize and paralyze other people and do both at the same time. It may be true that Herman Mankiewicz wrote most of “Citizen Kane,” scene by scene and even shot by shot. What is certainly true is that nothing else that survives of Mankiewicz’s is remotely as good as “Citizen Kane.” That’s because he was writing “Citizen Kane” for Orson Welles. Johnny Hodges spent many years on his own, with every chance to keep his tunes to himself. No other standard ever emerged. Suppose Billy Strayhorn had been liberated instead of “adopted” and infantilized. Would he have had the energy and mastery to form a band, sustain it, recruit the right musicians, survive their eccentricities and addictions, give them music they could play, record it, and keep enough of a popular audience alive to justify the expense of the rest? It is painful to read of Strayhorn desolate over having credit for his music stolen by the Duke; it is also the case that Ellington had the genius not to have to cry.

Ellington’s ear, his energy, his organizational abilities, the sureness of his decisions are a case study for management school. (Consider the way he fired Charles Mingus for fighting with Tizol, fondly but with no appeal: “I’m afraid, Charles—I’ve never fired anybody—you’ll have to quit my band. I don’t need any new problems. Juan’s an old problem. . . . I must ask you to be kind enough to give me your notice.”) These are not ordinary or secondary gifts. They were the essence of his genius. Ellington had an idea of a certain kind of jazz: tonal, atmospheric, blues-based but elegant. He took what he needed to realize the ideal he had invented. The tunes may have begun with his sidemen; the music was his. This is not a secondary form of originality, which needs a postmodern apologia, in which “curating” is another kind of “creating.” It is the original kind of originality.

There’s a reason that Duke’s players mostly complained of being cheated only of the dough. Originality comes in two kinds: originality of ideas, and originality of labor, and although it is the first kind that we get agitated about, we should honor the second kind still more. There is wit, made by the head and spun out into life; and work, created mostly by fingers engaging tools as various as tenor saxes and computer keyboards. It is an oddity of our civilization, and has been since the Renaissance, to honor wit more than work, to think that the new idea “contributed” by the work matters more than the work itself.

What Johnny Hodges was doing in making those new melodies may have been more like the copying errors in ceaseless cell fission than like premeditated decision: as he set to playing the same chord changes over and over, night after night, a lucky error in a note may, one night, have touched another and become an innovation. It was a happy accident produced by hard labor. But that it reflected effort as much as inspiration should only increase its value. No author really minds, too much, seeing his or her ideas “out there,” to be recycled, and even a conceptual artist has a slightly guilty conscience about trading in that commodity alone. (That’s why Jasper Johns fans insist that it is the finish, the touch, that really matters.) What artists dislike is having their effort recirculated without recompense. It is our sentences, not our sentiments, that we ought to protect. The Duke’s men grasped this. They were glad to concede to their self-made duke all of his preëminence—indeed, his royalty. They just wanted him to hand over their royalties first.

What mattered was the band. Duke Ellington was a great impresario and bandleader who created the most stylish sound, and brand, in American music, and kept a company of musicians going for half a century. That this description seems somehow less exalting than calling him a “major American composer” or a “radical musical innovator” is a sign of how far we have to go in allowing art to tell us how to admire it, rather than trying to make it hold still in conventional poses in order to be admired.