28 February 2007

Flogging, Ritual Amputation, Or A Good Old-Fashioned Stretch In The Pen?

I found myself quietly cheering as I read this article about a serial graffiti tagger being sent to jail. Then of course I felt slightly guilty, since the whole thrust of the article was a variation on the whole "Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?" theme pioneered by William Rees-Mogg in response to two members of the Rolling Stones being sentenced to prison for drugs in 1967 (the ensuing hue and cry resulted in the Stones being set free to take lots more drugs with relative impunity).

Do graffiti artists (or vandals, take your pick) belong in jail? The author of this article thinks not, and makes repeated appeals to sentiment, citing the offender's drug and alcohol problems (which apparently made him, in a blackout and/or stupour, pick up the spray can again even though he was on probation for previous offences and had been warned that getting caught again meant prison time), the relatively minor nature of the offence (true of an individual instance of graffiti, but what about when someone does thousands of tags, at a cost to the city and/or property owners of $100,000 or more?), the alleged fact that the more the cops crack down on graffiti, the more prevalent it becomes, and the notion that this particular miscreant is simply a misunderstood "would-be Basquiat."

Bringing in the Basquiat factor is certainly not a way to win my sympathy: I thought Basquiat's paintings (and I'm being generous with the term "painting") were ugly as sin, and the guy himself, if his biopic is to be believed, comes across as a lead-plated asshole. Be that it may, some people obviously had a high regard for Basquiat, who was essentially a glorified graffiti artist (vandal, take your pick), and the fact that some graffiti writers actually do end up as successful artists is one of the most prevalent arguments in favour of leaving them alone.

But what about the 95% or more of graffiti taggers who are clearly not artists by any conventional definition of the word, who are apparently motivated by little more than the desire to see their tag (or that of their gang) splashed all over town? Having lived in several heavily graffitied areas (most notably London and New York), I've gotten throroughly sick of the stuff, not to mention the people who do it. Still, it's worth asking: isn't it overkill to send someone to prison for an act of vandalism, especially when prisons are overflowing with more serious violent criminals?

As an abstract principle, yes. Public flogging, or, for you fans of sharia law, ritual amputation, would probably be far cheaper and more effective graffiti prevention measures. But assuming that's not going to happen (the implementation of sharia law, I mean) for at least a few more years, what can or should you do with graffiti-sraying assholes who show no inclination to stop, no matter how many times they're caught? Put them on probation once again and tell them, "This time we really mean it"?

The trouble is that no "community punishment" like probation or public service works unless there's something meaner and tougher to back it up. And short of the aforementioned flogging and amputation, what else is there besides locking someone up to reinforce the, "If you do that again, you'll be sorry" message that juvenile court judges and frustrated parents have been peddling since the dawn of time?

I guess the only other alternative is to declare cities free-fire zones (I mean for spray cans, that is) and let the graffiti writers have at it. I know some people see a certain beauty in a heavily graffitied cityscape, though it's always managed to elude me. And before you ask, yes, I probably have done some graffiti myself at some point or other in my many-chequered criminal career, but I can't remember any specific instances at the moment. And if you still think jail is too harsh for a graffiti tagger, bear in mind that you're talking to one of the only people in history who managed to get tossed in the slammer for littering.

23 February 2007

Cheney At The Beach

Not really, but maybe. Who knows; his convoy was heading in the direction of Bondi. I know people have a variety of issues with VP Dick Cheney, to which you can add the one that is burning me up today: Deadeye Dick interfered with my God-given Australian right to go to the beach.

I saw my bus coming when I turned into Oxford Street, but I let it pass because I had to run across the street and buy a stamp for a letter to Aaron Cometbus (so I suppose he's just as much to blame as Cheney). No prob, I figured; this time of day buses to my favourite beach go every 15 minutes (give or take 20 minutes, as is the wont of Sydney's delightful transport system).

So I posted the letter and strolled on to the next stop, just off Oxford Street, where I started reading today's paper. When I'd read the entire paper (the Sydney Morning Herald is no New York Times, but it's got at least a bit more heft than the SF Chronicle), it seemed about time to start wondering why no buses - not even to other destinations - had shown up for almost half an hour, I strolled back over to Oxford Street to have a look.

Just as I got there, about 7 million police officers on motorcycles, in cars, and even in some trucks that looked more like tanks came rolling by. Dozens more cars, an ambulance, and in the midst of it, not one but two Presidential-style limos with American flags on them, separated by a couple Secret Service cars. I figured one of them must have a dummy Cheney in it and the other the real dummy, but I don't know how these things work; anyway, the limos were followed by 7 million more police and assorted vehicles. The motorcade as a whole was so wretchedly excessive: I mean to have to go through all that to take one guy to the beach or a hotel where he was giving a speech or sightseeing makes you think somebody ought to be asking himself either, "Why am I so unpopular?" or "Who the hell do I think I am?" if not both. It reminded me of a scene in the film Being There, in which an even longer and more preposterous Presidential motorcade seemed to make a point (in my mind, possibly pot-addled at the time) of how far American democracy had strayed, nay, mutated from its humble and maybe even heartfelt origins.

Enough of that sentimental whingeing, however; the main point is that I was more than a half hour late getting to the beach! And even after the Bald Buzzard has long since passed by, and the police had started letting cars drive through again, the buses were still being held back? Why? I can only assume that Australian intelligence services have determined that any terrorists longing to lob bombs at visiting dignitaries would of course hop on a Sydney bus for the quickest and most reliable of getaways.

Well, the hell with him, I say; I still got to spend most of my day at the beach, and he had to go around all day being Dick Cheney. I reckon I got by far the better end of the deal.

P.S. In the interest of adding some balance to this account, let it be noted that both Mrs Cheney and his daughter Mary have spoken very highly of the Vice-President, and a local journalist who has met him several times swears the man is witty, charming and personable in real life. All of which may be true, of course, but I fear we might be straying into "Even Hitler had a girlfriend" territory here. Bring back Spiro Agnew, I say! At least the man could make a speech.

22 February 2007

Twilight Of The Donnas?

I've never been in a band that threatened to be the next big anything, so I suppose I should consider it a blessing that I also never had to be the subject of those "Whatever happened to...?" articles that get written about bands that might appear to be past their sell-by date. Like this one, for example, where the Bay Guardian tries to put as positive a spin as possible on the Donnas having been either dropped by or voluntarily left Atlantic Records (I will say that I've never heard of a major label allowing an under-contract band to leave if they thought there was any money to be made from them) and, after several years of playing arenas, being back to venues like San Francisco's 300-capacity Bottom Of The Hill.

It sounds like a sad story, though to be fair, the Donnas did have a pretty good run there, getting a chance to live out far more of a rock and roll dream that most of us ever get to witness close up, let alone be at the centre of. Personally I've never been a big fan of the Donnas' music, not because there's anything wrong with it - they're prodigiously talented musicians, and have worked incredibly hard for many years to achieve the success that they got - but because it's just not really my cup of tea. Too much rock and not enough punk would be the simplest way of putting it, I guess, but I will say that I liked them a lot better earlier in their career. Not, as it's popular among purists to say, in their pre-Lookout days, because I'm not even very familiar with their material from that time, but I thought their first couple records for Lookout showed promise.

People often ask me about the Donnas, assuming that I signed them to Lookout, but of course I didn't; they were brought to the label by the then-husband-and-wife team of Christopher Appelgren and Molly Neuman, somewhere around the time I was getting ready to leave the label (no connection, I assure you!). Would I have signed the Donnas myself? Probably not, but not because I didn't think they were good enough, just that I made it a general policy not to work with bands, no matter how great their potential to be popular, if their music wasn't something I could get fully enthusiastic about. Bands and managers were forever approaching me with charts and statistics telling me how many records they were sure to sell and/or that they sounded "just like" Green Day or Operation Ivy or Screeching Weasel, and I was forever knocking them back because if I couldn't a) enjoy working with the people involved on a personal level and b) genuinely love the music, it just wasn't worth it to me.

As far as getting along with the Donnas, I only met them once - no, not true, I met them two or three times, but only hung out with them once - and found them charming, pleasant, and fully committed to their music and the label, so (a) wouldn't have been a problem. But (b) would have been, and I've often wondered why, because many of my friends like or even love the Donnas' music. But then a lot of the same friends love Joan Jett and/or the Runaways, and I've never really got into them, either. My take on this, simplistic as it may be, is that the harder the Donnas tried to "rock" (perhaps I should render that as the corny and clichéd "rawk"), the less effective they got.

I've often explained this to those who asked as seeming as though the Donnas were trying to prove that they could rock out just like the boys (or better than the boys, for that matter), and while that's not an unworthy goal in itself, I feel it stopped them from reaching their full potential. I'd contrast them with my favourite all-girl band of all time, the Go-Gos, but the same principle would hold true for a couple other great but less commercially successful all-female outfits like Tiger Trap or Frightwig: although these latter groups couldn't have been unaware that by virtue of being all women they were an oddity in the male-dominated world of rock, they didn't bother making that an issue. They simply played their own music to the best of their ability, expressing themselves not in opposition or reaction to any kind of pre-existing dynamic or male-dominance paradigm, but as the unique human beings and artists they were. There's never been another band like the Go-Gos (or Tiger Trap or Frightwig), and this can't help partially being an expression of their female-ness, but far more importantly, it's an expression of their musician-ness and and their artist-ness.

Now the Donnas may be techically more adept than any of the aforementioned groups (though I find it hard to believe that anybody could be much better than the Go-Gos), but it always felt as though they were letting themselves be driven (in the sense of reacting to/against the male rock dynamic) too much by outside forces to fully be themselves. Or maybe it's that the specific male dynamic they were reacting to - the bombastic, butt-rock, shagging-groupies genre of rock-metal - is to me a largely worthless and uninteresting social phenomenon, certainly not one worth reacting to except to diss and ridicule it. Unfortunately, the Donnas seemed to want to emulate it, not just in their music and lyrics, but in their interviews, where they seemed to want to portray themselves as sexual predators every bit as voracious as the frat-boys-in-leather-trousers who've been dished up to us as rock idols ever since the 1970s and 80s.

It never rang true with me, either; unless I was completely hornswoggled by the Donnas' manner on the occasion I hung out with them, they weren't like that at all in real life. True, they did insist on being taken to Vancouver's rather tame version of Hooters, mainly because two of them weren't yet 21 and thus couldn't get inside an American one, but nonetheless they came across as anything but the sex and party monsters they seem bent on portraying themselves as in the media. In fact they talked mostly - in very demure terms, too - about their various boyfriends and fiancés. So I always had a problem reconciling their onstage and on-record personas with what I knew of them - or at least thought I knew - in real life. And while that sort of dichotomy or image-mongering may be quite common with mainstream bands, I've always had a problem with it when it reared its head on the punk rock scene.

Anyway, the article says that despite having left their label, the Donnas are moving ahead with making a new record, and maybe they'll surprise me with this one. Especially now that the pressure to deliver a big major-label-style hit is off, they might be able to get back to basics and make the kind of music that made them want to play rock and roll in the first place. Of course if it was always their goal to be the female equivalent of 70s butt-rockers or 80s hair-metal, I'm afraid I can't offer them much encouragement or advice, because I never understood or felt at home in those worlds. If I were their manager or producer (and I imagine they're thanking their lucky stars I'm not), I'd be urging them to think more Ramones, more Go-Gos, more Spazzys. But girls have to do what girls have to do, and despite my reservations and regrets about the way things have gone so far, I wish them all the best.

Mr Cheney Comes To Town

It's hard to get Sydneysiders agitated about much of anything apart from traffic, public transport, or their favourite TV show being pre-empted by the cricket (or, more likely, vice-versa). It wouldn't be at all unfair to portray them as having more than a bit of the lotus-eater in them, and given the 300 days a year of sunny weather, the dozens (perhaps hundreds) of delightful beaches, and the general lack of truly serious problems, who can blame them.

Thus it wasn't surprising that a rather desultory crowd of some 200 turned up to protest against the visit of one of America's least attractive and personable Vice-Presidents in recent memory, that being of course Deadeye Dick Cheney. In fact, I'd expect the folks of Sydney to be more exercised about his decided lack of charisma (anti-charisma might be the better word for it) and charm than his policies on Iraq, which are what usually get the protesters going.

I was surprised, however, that the Sydney-style protesters got themselves sufficiently worked up that 10 of them actually managed to get themselves arrested. Honestly, it's pretty hard to get yourself arrested around here, even when you're doing serious crimes, let alone standing around yelling at visiting politicians or pushing and shoving the generally ineffectual New South Wales police.

It could be that the goverment had to arrest somebody to justify the somewhat over-the-top counter-insurgency and anti-terrorist manoeuvres they've been engaged in all week in preparation for the Cheney visit, many of which involved running unlighted helicopters up and down our street at rooftop level for half the night. Or perhaps the whole night, for all I know; I eventually fell asleep dreaming that I was either in Vietnam or back in the Mendocino mountains at pot harvest time.

21 February 2007

Blueys At The Beach

Just when I'd finally begun getting used to the idea that at any moment a great white shark might rear up from the depths and bite me in half while I was having a pleasant afternoon swim comes this new menace: a plague of bluebottle jellyfish, also known as stingers or "blueys" (as opposed to a "blue," which is Aussie for a raging argument, aka a "barney" in England and I don't remember what in the USA).

The bluebottles often come drifting in on the tide in late summer, or whenever the winds consistently blow from the northeast, which they tend to do a lot at this time of year. I'd seen a couple dead blueys washed up on the shore in the past, but was never quite sure if they were what I thought they were, but I arrived at one of my usual beach haunts the day before yesterday to find not only half a dozen or so of the slimy things expiring on the sand, but an elderly gentleman patrolling up and down the sand (in the nude, no less) with a large stick. He was catching the bluebottles as they drifted near shore by easing the stick under their tentacles, then transporting them over to a nearby rock where he'd use the sharp end of the stick to crush them into a gooey, viscous pulp.

A few people were still braving the water for brief swims, but all the while casting their eyes around for the telltale blue head rising ever so slightly above the water's surface. I went in myself for a total of about two minutes each time, but that was about it, and the following day I upped sticks for a more sheltered beach that at least so far hasn't seen any stingers this summer. Unfortunately it's also the beach where the enormous great white shark was spotted last week, but he seems to have been lying low ever since consuming that dog and pelican (sounds like the name of a traditional English pub, no?), and I had a very nice swim there, marred only by the yobbos who parked their enormous cabin cruiser in the middle of the swimming area and then proceeded to drink and swear the afternoon away for the edification of everyone on the what otherwise would have been utterly tranquil beach. The problem was compounded by their deciding to play a top 40 radio station at top volume, which of course meant their conversation had to be conducted at shouting level, even though they were sitting within a couple feet of each other.

I thought of tossing a few well-placed rocks, but the fact is, people just tend to accept that sort of behaviour (the loud obnoxious bit, not the rock throwing) here. An Aussie's boat, just like his home or his car, is his castle, and he can do whatever he wants with it, regardless of the impact on anyone else. So while I would have been met with great disapproval (and probably even greater violence) if I'd tossed some rocks, if I'd gone out and bought an even bigger boat, parked it right next to the offending parties, and made even more noise, I'd be totally in tune with the Aussie way of doing things. Never mind, though; the beach was still great, and made even greater by my awareness that it's not too much longer before I return to the still cold and grey streets of New York City. So I will enjoy the beach while I can, yobbos or no yobbos.

Oh, and before I forget, while dodging bluebottles at the other beach, I witnessed another phenomenon for the first time: huge schools of jumping - not quite flying, but almost - fish attacking even huger schools of minnows only a couple metres offshore. At first I saw only a rapid-fire series of splashes, almost as though somebody had fired grapeshot into the sea, and wondered if there was a shark beneath the surface making all that ruckus. But at the same time, I noticed a brown swirling cloud that I thought might be seaweed but turned out to be hundreds of thousands of minnows swimming at breakneck speed.

Swimming for their lives, it turned out, because right on their heels (metaphorically, I'm afraid, because although they were moving far too fast for me to examine closely, I'm fairly sure they didn't really have heels) were a few dozen even faster fish, about 30 cm or one foot in length, that were tearing into the minnow cloud and, presumably, devouring sizable chunks of it. So agitated were they in the chase and consumption that they'd break through the surface and go slightly airborne for a split second before diving back down and continuing the hunt. But in that moment I was able to see that they were a brilliant, almost fluorescent green. Incredibly beautiful, though I wouldn't have thought the minnows shared my appreciation for the colour scheme of their predators.

It occurred to me, though I couldn't prove it by research, being unable even to identify the fish involved by name, that very possibly the minnows and big fish were all of the same species, were perhaps even parent and child, and that this merry life-and-death chase goes on constantly, with those minnows fast or lucky enough to survive eventually joining the predator half of the continuum and devouring the next generation of minnows. I always suspected that fish weren't quite the models of moral probity that some animal rights protesters might make them out to be, just as I've pointed out - to the disapproval and disdain of those same animalians - that birds as a genus weren't particularly nice, either.

Anyway, it makes me feel a little bit less queasy about eating fish, though I hold fast to my principles about not eating sharks or any other fish or mammal that is capable of eating me. I think I'll lay off the bluebottle jellyfish, too, although one boy recently very nearly did swallow one, and probably would have died if he had. Otherwise bluebottle stings aren't normally fatal (unlike the sting ray that felled crocodile hunter Steve Irwin, or the box jellyfish that I believe mostly hang out farther north), just very, very painful. Or so I've been told, and I'd prefer to take people's word for it and not have to find out for myself.

20 February 2007

More About Bones

I was worried that I might have sounded insensitive in the other day's post about certain indigenous people's bone fetish (and when did that ever stop you before, I hear you asking?), so I wanted to make clear that I'm not in favour of mad scientists or the secret police being able to descend upon your Aunt Tillie's remains, wherever they may be sequestered, and whatever race / religion / ethnicity / belief system you subscribe to.

Personally, if someone wants to do research on any part of my body (any part, that is, that can't be used in medical procedures to help save someone else's life), they're more than welcome. But I couldn't in good conscience approve of forcing people, each of whom has to grieve in his or her own way, to allow the corpses of their loved ones to be treated in a way that violated their religious or even esthetic values.

That's not what we're talking about when it comes to 200 (or, in the case of Kennewick Man, 9000 year old skeletal remains. Nobody even knows who these guys were, let alone who their relatives were; what is at issue is not the phony-baloney "traditional religion" being claimed by self-invented activists. The case of Kennewick Man is particularly sinister: here you have a clear case of Native Americans trying to use religion not just to argue against science (as, for example, in the case of creationists trying to deny evolution), but to prevent science from functioning at all.

In case you're not familiar with the Kennewick Man case, the skeleton in question appears to have features suggesting it was not what is conventionally thought of as "Native American." It could be that of an Asian, Pacific Islander, or even European, which, since supposedly no one was in North America 9000 years ago except for "Native Americans," kind of makes a mockery of the whole racially based mumbo jumbo that allowed Ward Churchill et al. to make their fortunes. Result: the local Indians are desperately claiming that scientists have no right to conduct tests to determine the skeleton's orgin, claiming that if the government doesn't allow them to simply bury the skeleton with suitable "Native American" ceremonies, it is showing "disrespect" for their beliefs.

Well, duh. The government is showing disrespect for members of the Flat Earth Society every time it launches a satellite into orbit; are we supposed to cancel the space program to cater to the antediluvian superstions of a few crackpots? If you need further illustration of just how ridiculous this whole thing is, imagine a skeleton is found in a field somewhere in England, and carbon dating tells us that it is approximately 1600 years old. Okay, so it could have been a Roman soldier, it could have been a native Briton or Celt, it could have been a Saxon of Viking raider, even a Pict who ranged a little far afield. So what, are we supposed to have Italy, England, France, Norway, Scotland, Wales and Ireland all fighting over who gets to bury him (again) because he was "one of us"? And considering how many religions have been and are practiced in the aforementioned countries, which one gets the nod? What about the possibility that the dead guy was an atheist, or didn't particularly want to be a part of any of your tribes?

Granted that the racial and ethnic history of Australia and North America isn't nearly as diverse as that of Europe (or at least we don't think it is, and if the various cultural fascists get their way, scientists will never get a chance to find out. Regardless, to assume that because someone's remains are found in an area claimed by some particular tribe, he therefore has to be part of that tribe is no more than a particularly primitive and pernicious form of racialism.

But barbarous practices with respect to the dead are by no means limited to indigenous or backward peoples: just think - and every time I do, I get infuriated - about the fact that tens of thousands of people die for lack of an organ transplant while at the same time millions of perfectly healthy organs are buried, burned or otherwise disposed of. If you're a good citizen, you've of course signed your organ donor card and keep it with your driving licence, and you've also told your family and friends about your wishes. But if you forgot to fill out a card, or if your family doesn't know your wishes, your body will be disposed of, and someone who could have used those organs will very possibly die.

This is completely insane and backwards. All dead bodies should be considered legitimate sources for organ donation unless the deceased person has specifically stated in writing that he or she doesn't want his organs used. The only reason this isn't done is the same atavistic reverence for dead bodies that we find in primitive peoples around the world. Yes, I know that some people have religious views that rule out organ donation, and they should have a right to opt out. But the handful of people for whom this is an important issue can certainly take the time to fill out a simple "non-organ donor" card. If they don't, it can't have been all that important to them, could it?

Sure, they'll finally get around to changing the law, but how many thousands, maybe even millions, will have to die before politicians get up the nerve to risk incurring the wrath of a few religious nuts? Oh well, I guess we're talking about the entire history of democracy here, and yes, these things take time.

18 February 2007

Mumbo Jumbo, Gobbledegook And Old Bones

Most people, at least most people who aren't fundamentalist Christians, wouldn't hesitate to write off the doctrine of creationism as being little more than superstitious nonsense. They'd probably harbour similar feelings about literal interpretations of the Bible, churches that discriminate against women or homosexuals, or basically anyone that talks about "Jay-sus" with a Southern accent.

It's odd, then, that many of those same bien pensants will bend over backwards to avoid speaking with anything other than hushed reverence about the "traditional religions" of so-called indigenous people. I mean, human sacrifice, slavery, burning and/or drowning of witches, they're all part of someone's "traditional religion" at one time or another. Yet while Anglo-European people are ridiculed if they believe in anything at all that smacks of the supernatural, the various forms of mumbo-jumbo and old bone worship practiced by certain "native" groups have to be honoured without so much as an eyebrow or a question being raised, let alone the burst of derisive laughter that, say, a Richard Dawkins or one of his followers would unleash in the face of traditional Judaeo-Christian beliefs.

Currently the Australian government is being dragooned into a legal battle on behalf of some Tasmanian nutters who are suing the British Museum of Natural History to stop it conducting DNA tests on the skulls and bones of some aborigines who died in the early 1800s. The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre wants the remains returned to Australia immediately for "traditional" burial, and is concerned that they might be "damaged" if scientists are allowed to take samples from the bones for future study.

Damaged? Hello, these people have been dead for 200 years. I'd say they're pretty much beyond damage at this point. Oh, but you say that aboriginal people believe that old bones are the resting place of the departed one's spirit, and that we have no right to contravene that belief? Well, some of my ancestors were no doubt Druids who traditionally believed that the gods had to be propitiated by blood sacrifices, and some of other ancestors were devout Catholics who no doubt thought the Spanish Inquisition was doing the work of God. Does the importance of one's nonsensical beliefs increase in direct proportion to the darkness of one's skin tone? Or is this just another example of liberal racism, where lovely, well-intentioned white people are happy to preserve people of colour in a state of backwardness because, oh, well, they're happier that way, just simple little people at heart, that's what they are.

What I find particularly egregious is that much of this "traditional religion," in the Americas as well as in Australia, was spun out of whole cloth by a coalition of self-appointed native activists and white cultural leftists who see power or profit in manipulating the history and politics of their friendly local natives. Think of Ward Churchill, for example, who may or may not have had a few drops of American Indian blood coursing through his otherwise thorougly disreputable veins, but still managed to reinvent himself into a professional Native American activist with full tenure at what had hitherto been a respectable American university. Australia is littered with such charlatans as well, shameless chancers who are as white as their convict ancestors but thanks to a good suntan or one native ancestor six generations back are now transformed into spokesmen and leaders of "Australia's traditional owners."

"Traditional owners" is the oxymoronic euphemism they have created for the aboriginal people, oxymoronic because one of the virtues constantly being ascribed to "these people" is that they had no concept of private property. We hear the same gobbledegook about Canada's "First Nations" people (even though, for the most part, they had no nations) or the USA's "Native Americans" (even though they too were immigrants who just happened to get there before the Europeans). And under our current orthodoxy, all such peoples are meant to be given a double-barreled "special" treatment: on one hand, they're treated as mental or cultural pygmies who can't be expected to develop a religion or philosophy that goes beyond worshipping old bones and doing rain dances for the tourists; on the other, thanks to (understandable) white guilt, they're absolved from all responsibility to fit into the norms of modern Australia, Canada or America.

So they're kept as perpetual children, given just enough welfare to keep them drunk and (hopefully) not starving, but seldom if ever enough help to break out of the vicious circle of poverty and backwardness in which society has been content to see them dwell for the past century or two. The reasoning - if there is any - behind this policy seems to be, "Well, we stole their land and destroyed their culture, the least we can do is to let them live on the land in their traditional ways."

The fallacy here is that there is nothing at all "traditional" about the rural slums where most aboriginal Australians and North Americans live, or the welfare payments they live on, or the tin and tarpaper shacks they inhabit, or the booze, drugs and solvents that shape their everyday existence. That's all strictly white folks' stuff, as bastardised and adapted by the crippled remnants of native culture. Face facts, folks: none of the indigenous people are ever going to go back to the land and live the way their ancestors did. For one thing, most of the land is no longer there, long since having been fenced off and paved over; for another, thanks to being pre-literate cultures, nobody really knows anymore what that traditional culture was like.

If native people are ever to prosper, then, they'll have to undergo the same process of assimilation and integration that other successful immigrants have. Doesn't seem fair, does it, since they were here first, but there are a lot of things in life that aren't fair. What's your alternative? That, as urged by the ever nuttier Germaine Greer, Australia give up its Anglo-European culture and revert to aboriginal ways? Of course, if you listen to some people, Europeans should never have set foot in Australia in the first place, being that it was already occupied.

And there's a certain logic to that. I know I would hate it if an advanced race of aliens arrived in spaceships and set about evicting me and everyone I knew from our homes on the grounds that they'd "discovered" our land and we're claiming it for themselves. But what happens if we follow that logic through to its, well, logical conclusion? In the first place, Australia today would, instead of being one of the major developed nations of the West, be an enormous preserve, kind of like a Jurassic Park for primitive hunter-gatherer societies.

Okay, you say, the world could certainly afford to set aside some portion of its surface for people whose culture hasn't developed at the same rate or in the same ways as in other lands. But is this really practical or plausible? Just suppose for the sake of argument that Australia had remained completely aboriginal, but was surrounded by the modern world. Wouldn't companies be vying to set up tours to "see the natives in their natural environment"? Wouldn't pirates and freebooters be slipping into hidden coves to trade booze or weapons for gold or women? Who would or could police such a vast coastline to prevent it from encroachment? What if one country, say Indonesia, decided to defy the international consensus and resettle some of its 300 million inhabitants on this vast and mostly unpeopled continent?

And if we're going to seriously entertain the notion of leaving Australia to its original inhabitants, why not North and South America as well? It was only a few centuries earlier, afer all, that Europeans came flooding into those continents. And if we're agreed that Europeans should have stayed in Europe, which Europeans and in which part of Europe? There's hardly a corner of the Old World that hasn't at one point been conquered or overrun by one or more compteting empires or tribes. When it comes down to it, nobody is indigenous, and everyone is an immigrant, if not an invader. And while anyone with a shred of sensitivity is going to feel shame, shock and horror over what contending tribes and nations have done to one another throughout history, it's impossible to imagine how any of us would have crawled out of the Stone Age if those nasty people who happened to discover iron hadn't come marauding over the hill with their vastly superior weaponry and their richer, more modern way of life. It's not pretty, but it seems to be the way things work around here.

16 February 2007

Why Are Our Black Youth Killing Each Other? The White Guys Made Them Do It

People often ask me if I miss London, and the answer is yes, I do, quite a lot, in fact. But there are some things I don't miss at all, and foremost among them is the way what once was a fairly peaceful and safe city has become as dangerous and brutal as most American cities. Street robberies and random assaults are now so common that people rarely bother reporting them to the police, and in recent years stabbings and shootings have become everyday occurrences.

In many ways London reminds me of New York in the bad old days: the police have pretty much given up trying to enforce the law at all, and often don't even bother turning up until it's time to draw lines on the pavement and photograph the corpse. Part of this is due to the rising tide of PC. No longer are policemen (sorry, policepersons) chosen on the basis of size, strength or the ability to command respect; instead you've got a crew of glorified lollipop ladies, all very smiley and nice, of course, but about as much use in settling down a gang of street-corner thugs as a paper umbrella in a hurricane.

But even more responsible for the dismal state of what was one of the best police forces anywhere (and the model for metropolitan police forces around the world) is the government of Mayor "Red" Ken Livingstone, which harbours a deeply held anti-police and pro-criminal bias. Pro-criminal? Am I not being a little bit strong with the rhetoric here? Only if I fail to make clear that Mayor Ken doesn't support all criminals, just those hailing from racial or ethnic minorities, because in his tiny mind, they're like little Robin Hoods engaged in revolutionary wealth redistribution.

And anyway, the poor dears can't help themselves; like left-wing white racists everywhere, the Mayor implicitly assumes that robbing and assaulting is what young black and brown men do as a matter of course, and to interfere with it would just be a continuation of the British Empire's shameful legacy of oppression. What's more, it's all undoubtedly the white people's fault anyway, for having too much money. Seriously, a popular government explanation/excuse for soaring crime rates in recent years has been, "Because we've made Britain so much more prosperous, there are more things to steal nowadays."

Of late, black teenagers have been shooting each other with depressing regularity, and you'd think that here, at least, no one would try to blame it on white people, but you'd be wrong. Mayor Livingstone's deputy in charge of policing (and you wonder why the cops are depressed) is one Lee Jasper, a professional race-baiter along the lines of Al Sharpton, minus the charm. Although he's one of the most powerful and highest-paid oiks in Livingstone's employ, his sole responsibility seems to be finding a way to make excuses for anything done by black criminals and/or pin the blame for it on whites.

This week he's excelled himself. In the wake of five brutal murders of South London teenagers, all apparently committed by young black gangbangers, here's Jasper's explanation: "I have heard one story locally which says that 600 weapons were sold off by a group of white guys in south London recently and that's why there are so many weapons about." Yes, and of course if there are guns available, then teenagers just naturally have to go around shooting each other, right? And if it weren't for those alleged "white guys," South London's black teenagers would all be safely tucked up at home, busily doing their schoolwork.

The same story goes on to repeat the popular government lie that despite all evidence to the contrary, crime is actually falling. This is standard Labour dogma, repeated ad nauseam in the Guardian; the "falling" crime rates are achieved through statistical flimflammery that lumps nonviolent property crimes like car theft, burglary, even shoplifting, in with the kinds of crimes - muggings, assaults, shootings and stabbings - that people understandably fear most. Taken by itself, violent street crime has soared to heights once thought impossible in a country once thought to be civilised.

14 February 2007

The World's Grumpiest Barber

When I first came to Sydney four years ago I noticed a very strange barber shop on Victoria Street in Darlinghurst. With its sign - "Continental Hair Dressers" - and some of its decor looking like remnants from the 1940s or 50s, I thought it looked very nostalgic, and that I might stop in for a haircut one day if I ever wanted to recapture that 40s or 50s look myself.

But then a closer examination confounded me completely: hanging all over the walls and lying on every available counter space were records, some old rock and roll, some reggae and soul, and quite a lot of punk. Posters, too, and weird pictures and ads cut from magazines, and just about every kind of collectible, objet d'art and/or piece of junk that you could imagine. Looking at it that way, it seemed more like something you'd see in Frisco back in the 60s and 70s, but then there was still the barber shop bit. You could find 60s or 70s Frisco hipsters in a lot of strange places, but a barber shop was not likely to be one of them.

There were a couple times I really needed a haircut, but the looks of the place made me just a little too nervous to give it a try until finally I asked a friend where he got his hair cut, and sure enough... "The guy's a little weird," I was told, "but don't let that put you off, because he's a really good barber."

So that was how I came to make the acquaintance of Michael, the World's Grumpiest Barber. Oh, it's not like he's snarling and fuming all the time, in fact, he even allows himself a smile - well, maybe more along the lines of sardonic twisted grin - from time to time, but mostly conversation with Michael consists of me making a seemingly innocuous observation and him telling me what is rubbish about it.

Sample:

L: Beautiful day, isn't it.
M: You call this weather beautiful? Bloody sunshine, one day after another. No wonder everyone's walking around with blank looks on their faces, the sun's baked what brains they ever had right out of their heads.
L: Yeah, okay, I guess you could get tired of the sun after while, but it's nice for when you want to go to the beach.
M: Bloody beach. Can't stand the bloody beach. Nothing but airheads and sand getting in your shoes.
L: I guess maybe Australia isn't your ideal country then?
M: Bloody Australia, this whole country's going right down the tubes, nobody cares about anything except themselves their bloody houses. They work all week and then spend all weekend shopping for the perfect taps to put in their new bathroom.
L: But it's a generally happy country, don't you think?
M: Happy? How can you call people happy when they're brain dead? There's no culture, there's no politics, there's nothing but a bunch of smug self-satisfied gits busily crawling up their own arses.

I could go on - and in case Michael is reading this, I hasten to note that I'm very freely paraphrasing his words - but I think I've captured the general tone. But the thing is, even though Michael's Mr Negative act makes me look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (or Dr Pangloss, for the more classically inclined among you), and even though at least half his opinions are of the sort that I constantly inveigh against on this blog and elsewhere, I have such a great time getting my hair cut chez Michael that I find myself thinking what a shame it is that the stuff doesn't grow in faster.

As it is, I don't have a whole lot of hair, and I keep it very short, so in principle a barber should be able to run a clipper over the lot of it in five minutes or less. But lately my sessions have been stretching out into hour-long marathons, with him ranting and raving and me gently egging him on, knowing full well which subjects (John Howard, conservative politics in general, and the vapidness of middle class Australian life) are likely to elicit the most vituperative reaction.

This year I noticed that the "Continental Hair Dressers" sign was gone, replaced by an insurrectionary red, white and black one proclaiming "Sedition." The front window was more covered up than before, so it was hard to see inside, and what I could see was even more records than before, to the point where I wondered whether he'd given up on barbering completely in favour of running a full time record shop. But no ("I'll always cut hair, mate"), the world's grumpiest barber was still plying his trade, which I was pleased to see, because grumpy or not, he's also one of the best barbers I've ever met.

But he is trying to branch out, and now the barber/record shop has taken on a third facet: poetry dive. "Yeah, I've started having these poetry nights every Tuesday," he told me. "Nothing special, no telling who might or might not turn up, or what might or might not happen. But hey, I've gotta do something to fight the rising tide of mediocrity." Next thing I know, he's urging me to come by the following Tuesday, and when I finally agree that I might, he says, "So you'll bring something to read, won't you?"

I tried to disabuse him of the notion that I would be caught dead writing, let alone reciting poetry, but he quickly revised his invitation: "I mean, it doesn't have to be poetry, just anything, you must have something you can read."

Well, I didn't know if I did, but I went home and spent a couple hours putting together a piece about growing up in Detroit - the factories, the gangs, the music, all that stuff most of you guys who've been reading me a while have heard ad infinitum but which I thought might come as news to an Aussie audience - and showed up at the Sedition Barber, Record and Poetry Shop.

Well, there weren't a lot of people there - one guy with a horn and some poems about sex, another guy who used to be in a punk band that opened for the Dead Kennedys on their first (only?) Australian tour and had poems about sex and drugs, a woman who had a two word poem, and another woman who had a whole book of poems, and I read my Detroit thing, and I guess I was right, because everybody applauded a lot more than I'm guessing they would have if I was telling the same story to my friends back in the USA.

Upshot of it is, now I've got to go back next Tuesday and do it again, only with a new piece. I'm thinking of telling some acid dealer stories this time. Again, stuff that everyone back home has heard so many times that they start rolling their eyes if I so much as mention LSD, but which just might be of interest to folks on the other side of the world. Hell, all flippancy aside, I quite enjoyed it, and am kind of looking forward to writing something new. One of the biggest downsides of writing is that most of it's done in a vacuum, and you have no idea as to how or if it's affected people until weeks, months or years after the fact. Whereas I wrote this Detroit piece Tuesday afternoon and by Tuesday evening had people giving me loud and enthusiastic feedback.

Anyway, any Australian readers (or visitors to Australia) should feel free (and I mean free; there's no cover charge) to check it out: any Tuesday night, from 7:30 or 8 onwards. And if you're not keen on poetry/spoken word/bohemian hipster goings-on, you can still stop by any day of the week to look through the vintage records or receive one of the world's most entertaining haircuts. Sedition is located on the west side of Victoria Street, just north of Burton Street in Darlinghurst, and don't hesitate to tell the world's grumpiest barber that Larry Livermore sent you.

Bay Guardian To Newsom: Take Your Quality Of Life And Shove It

When I first saw this headline in the perennially backward and wrong SF Bay Guardian, I immediately assumed that the bitter old hippies were up in arms about some Giuliani-style crackdown on the crime, drug and gang warfare-ridden Mission District.

I should have known better than to think that San Francisco's amiable but bumbling (and now, apparently drunken) doofus of a mayor would have the cojones to take even the minimal steps necessary to clean up the miserable Mission; it turns out that his idea of improving the quality of life there is to massively increase the amount of street sweeping. Yeah, I know, that's exactly the sort of thing that would really improve my spirits if I lived on a block where drugs and syringes are being sold under the noses of the police and muggings and shootings are an everyday affair.

And so I have to acknowledge that my own prejudices led me astray: I generaly assume that if the Guardian is against it, it must be a good idea, but in this case the Guardian is essentially right (though in their eagerness to stand up for the "oppressed" people, they're a little too quick to jump to the defence of the "poor" auto-owners who are being ticketed; if you're that poor, what are you doing with a car, especially in the Mission, which is within walking distance of much of the city).

So I apologise to the Guardian for thinking bad thoughts about them, though still can't help pointing out that they'd almost certainly be even more vehemently opposed if Newsom actually did finally crack down on the pervasive crime and drug problem that makes Mission and 16th (the first thing you see when you emerge from BART) compare unfavourably with large parts of the Third World. In fact they'd probably be screaming bloody murder about racism and the suppression of the lumpen proletariat (that's commie for "drug dealers"). But never mind, they needn't worry; after all, the worst block in the Mission is a whole block and a half from that big shiny new police station that the last incompetent mayor before Newsom put in, and what's the chances that the cops are going to wander that far out of their bunker? Somewhere between slim and none, I'd reckon, with the emphasis on none.

P.S. It's a measure of how low standards have fallen in SF political life that Mayor Newsom, who recently entered rehab for alcoholism, is still probably the best - okay, least bad - mayor the city has had since the days of George Christopher or (maybe, hard to tell because he didn't live long enough, but I always liked him) George Moscone.

A Cure For Ailing iPods

Let me start by saying that I'm not a big fan of iPods, and that the exorbitant price charged for what is, sadly, an unreliable piece of junk, has sorely tested my longstanding (1987) to Apple Computer and all that it stands for.

That being said, yes, I own one, and yes, I do find it useful and enjoyable, though not to the extent that many people do. I never, for example, listened to it on public transport in London because that's just begging for a mugging, and anyway, I'm not the kind of person who needs to have music blasting in my ears constantly. So I probably only listen to the thing a few hours a week, which probably explains why my $420 piece of high-techness lasted a whole two years before crapping out. Apparently this is an unusually long life for an iPod, with Apple seemingly expecting you to lay out that kind of money on an annual basis for a new one.

And to be fair, I did drop mine once, slightly cracking the screen, and eventually I could barely read the screen at all, but it kept on playing anyway until one day it didn't. I took it to the Apple shop, fully expecting (because this is apparently standard operating procedure) to be told, "It's not worth fixing, you might as well buy a new one." What I heard was only a slight variation: "The hard drive's shot; we don't even try to fix them once the hard drive's gone."

Back home, I disconsolately dumped the thing into the dustbin, then, struck with a bout of conscience about putting all those toxic materials into the landfill, fished it out again. Was there a place where this piece of crap could be recycled, I wondered? As I wondered, I slapped the thing against the table a few times, whether taking out my frustration or trying to get its attention, I don't know. Then, in a fit of exasperation, I threw it at the floor as hard as I could, enough so that it bounced about a foot (I should note that the floor, while thickly carpeted, is made of solid concrete).

Result: well, you guessed it. The little Apple logo lit up, it started whirring and humming or whatever those things do to show they're breathing, and it's been working ever since. Still can barely see anything on the screen, but since I only ever use the shuffle function anyway, that's no problem. It's been about a week now; I'll keep you posted on how things go. In the meantime, if you're tempted to try the same sort of therapy on your own overpriced piece of junk, erm, iPod, please note that (just like the Apple Corporation!) take no responsibility for the outcome.

There He Goes Banging On About The Apocalypse Again

In 376, a large band of Gothic refugees arrived at the Empire's Danube frontier, asking for asylum. In a complete break with established Roman policy, they were allowed in, unsubdued. They revolted, and within two years had defeated and killed the emperor Valens - the one who had received them - along with two thirds of his army.

So begins the rather riveting (I think I said that about the last book I read, too, but this one is perhaps even more riveting because it's true) The Fall Of The Roman Empire by Peter Heather. I've always been a big fan of the whole Romans-and-barbarians thing, ever since I first heard the rudiments of the story at age nine. Originally a barbarian sympathiser (to the point where my ambition was to be one when I grew up), I was eventually won over to the Roman side by the assiduous civilising efforts of the nuns who taught me, which in microcosm is pretty much what was going on for upwards of half a century in Europe, the Near East and North Africa.

The nuns taught a rather simplified - and yes, it might not be unfair to say simplistic - version of how Roman decadence allowed the once-proud empire to fall under the none-too-tender ministrations of the Teutonic hordes, but while, as Heather makes clear in his exhaustive but seldom exhausting chronicle, the real story was considerably more complex, the essence of it remains: the richest, most powerful and most advanced civilisation the Western world had ever known was somehow reduced to ruin by illiterate, primitive nomads.

Or, more precisely, by people who had only recently been illiterate, primitive nomads. In Heather's view, where the Romans went wrong was, as he states in his introduction, not by allowing the asylum-seeking Goths to enter the Empire - after all, Rome had long been a land of immigrants - but by allowing them in unsubdued. By "subdued" he did not mean that they had to be humiliated or enslaved - such punishments were generally reserved for more recalcitrant enemies - so much as assimilated and/or "Romanised."

Through most of their history, the Romans - much like the British, for whom they were an imperial role model - had been brilliant at integrated conquered and colonised people into the Empire, often producing within a generation or two, citizens who could be said to be "more Roman than the Romans." But though Heather doesn't say it in so many words, it would appear that Rome eventually fell prey to an early version of multiculturalism: by the latter days of the Empire, much of Europe and North Africa had become home to large masses of immigrants who neither knew Latin nor cared to learn it, who had little interest in Rome apart from the riches and opportunities for riches that it offered, and whose first loyalty remained with their tribal groupings beyond the frontier.

Not that I'm trying to draw a heavy-handed analogy or anything, but this news from North Korea reminded of another late Roman humiliation, the practice of having to pay ever-escalating amounts of gold to various barbarian tribes, most notably the Huns, in hopes that it would persuade them not to wage war or otherwise make trouble for the Empire. Of course late Roman emperors were often the victims of circumstances beyond their control - wealth and armies squandered in ill-advised colonial adventures, alliances among tribes who controlled crucial resources or territory, things, in other words, that Georgius II would know all about - but it was still deeply dispiriting, and of course only served to encouraged other barbarian leaders to try their luck at similar scams. And then as now, imperial panegyrists, aka spin doctors, tried to cast such setbacks in as positive light as possible while still rueing the state that the Empire had come to.

In the case of North Korea, it would have been simple enough for the USA in its former role as Sole Superpower to put the little dictator Kim Jong Il back in his box, preferably one buried well underground, but America no longer has such latitude, either in military terms - its army is so depleted and disheartened by the Iraq debacle that it might be years or even decades before it can confidently wage war again - or, more importantly, in diplomatic ones. Put simply, the US is no longer free to act at its own behest, or even in its own interests in many parts of the world; the reason that we're paying tribute to North Korea rather than laying down the law is purely and simply that that's the way China (and to a lesser extent, Russia) wants it. Ironically, China may have played a role, albeit unknowing, in the destruction of ancient Rome: one theory, which I have always been partial to, is that the first century Han Empire's success in driving out its own nomadic invaders, the Hsiung-nu, set in motion a mass migration and/or a chain reaction of displacement across the Russian steppes which ultimately resulted in the Huns and other barbarian tribes descending upon Europe. And, of course, proving that some things never change, another factor hamstringing the Romans was the growing strength and militancy of Persia.

Anyway, I'm just about finished with the book, and feeling very sad and wistful for all the middle-class Roman suburbanites who are sitting there waiting for the barbarians to come pillaging, raping and impaling (oh, and gibbeting, which I've just learned about and which seems to have been rather popular in those days). I also find myself looking over my shoulder for encroaching hordes, none of which I've spotted yet, thankfully. But I do find myself once more debating the question that's periodically popped up in my mind since 2001: if you were to compare America with Rome, would we presently be in the last days of the Republic or the last days of the Empire? If it's the former, we might have a few hundred years yet to wallow in our decadence, but if the latter? Well, let's just say there are some benefits to no longer being as young as I used to be.

10 February 2007

Free To Be You And Me

The response to my post about "Poverty And Profiling" leads me to tackle yet another related issue, that of individual vs. collective freedom.

Various correspondents argue that the police have no right to pick out individuals for investigation based on the way those individuals are dressed, speaking, or generally comporting themselves. I pointed out once, and will again for the benefit of those who missed it, that we all (unless we're completely divorced from reality) make character judgments based on appearance. The judgments we make may vary widely, depending on our own values and perceptions (for example, someone who follows a thug lifestyle may actually choose to hang around an area where most people look like thugs, because he feels most comfortable there), but as a general rule, we gravitate toward places and situations where other people appear trustworthy and honorable, and avoid those where they don't.

It's of course true that many people who dress or talk or act in a thuglike manner may present little or no real threat, that they're just copying a fashion they've seen on MTV or their favourite rap video. It's equally true that chances are considerably greater that thuggish-looking people will actually be thugs and present a real danger than, say, a convention of Mormon missionaries or a ladies bridge club outing.

My contention is that any sane person, no matter how vociferously he or she defends individual rights and freedoms, is going to use some predetermined criteria to decide whether to walk down a certain street, to engage in a business or personal relationship with the people he or she meets there. Because you sometimes only have a matter of seconds to make such choices, you will undoubtedly make mistakes at times, trusting or mistrusting the wrong people, but considering what is at stake - your property, your well-being, perhaps even your life - most people prefer to err on the side of caution.

As I suggested yesterday, if you're willing to engage in this sort of discrimination for your own self-preservation, how can you deny the same right to the police, who have not only their own well-being at stake, but that of an entire community? But, you could correctly point out, the worst that's likely to happen if you or I mistakenly judge someone to be a dangerous thug is that someone's feelings will be hurt, whereas once an armed representative of the state enters the picture, that someone could end up getting shot, killed, or imprisoned.

And it's a good point, though I could counter, based on my own numerous experiences of being stopped, searched, held at gunpoint and locked up by the police, that the odds of getting shot, killed or imprisoned are greatly reduced if you don't make any sudden movements, speak softly and respectfully to the police, and do as you are told. Oh, and don't be in the midst of committing a crime or carrying something illegal.

In dealing with cops, I've tried both approaches, being cooperative, and lecturing them loudly and aggressively about my "rights." I don't think it will come as any shocking revelation which of these approaches achieved better results. Thus when someone complains about being routinely harassed because they are black, or Muslim, or young, my first inclination is to wonder how exactly they responded when the police first approached them. I've witnessed enough cases where the most innocuous "Could we have a word with you, sir?" elicited a fierce "Why you motherfuckers always fucking with me, it's cause I'm black, isn't it?" to suspect that attitude plays a far larger role than appearance when it comes to what is perceived as police "harassment."

And if it were I who were laying down the rules of engagement for the police, attitude would be where I'd place most attention. Appearance would factor into it, yes, but more in the sense of, "Let's have a look at those guys," not, "Let's stop them and frisk them." If it's just a bunch of dorky kids wearing their pants falling off their asses prison-style because they're on their way to a rap concert, that's easy enough to pick up on by giving them a quick glance. If, however, they react with a lot of "What the fuck you looking at?" attitude, then maybe it's time to take them a little more seriously.

Is this unconstitutional? Should the police have to wait until the suspects in question actually mug someone or jump a subway turnstile or spray some graffiti? Good question. The trouble is, if you go down that route too rigidly, the police are reduced to being a purely reactive force rather than a preventive or proactive one. Also, there are a lot more innocent victims.

And that's where we come back to my original question, finding the proper balance between individual and collective freedom. As pre-Giuliani New York shows us, when the streets are ceded to the thugs, i.e., the thugs have more "freedom", the great majority of people lose their freedom. At its low point, whole sections of New York were no-go areas, nearly a million people moved out of the city, and many of those who remained, especially the elderly, the weak, the children, were virtual prisoners in their own homes.

Nonetheless, when Giuliani cracked down hard on the lawlessness that had overtaken New York and turned it into the safest big city in America, there was no shortage of critics to call him a "fascist" and worse. For that matter, at lefty enclaves like the Voice and the New York Press, they're still bitching about how New York's "not what it used to be," as if running a gauntlet of muggers and murderers on your way to the subway added an indefinable, intangible fillip of excitement to urban life.

But for most New Yorkers, life is miles better than it used to be, and in being able to walk in safety on most of their streets, day or night, they've re-acquired a degree of freedom that was once thought to have been lost forever (and is still missing in action from many other large American cities). Yes, for some individuals, life in New York isn't quite as much fun as it used to be. They can't stand around on corners smoking joints, drinking beer and listening to their boom boxes in the wee hours of the morning. They have to pay to ride the subway. They might even have to have a job and pay rent, which was certainly not always the case in the bad/good old days.

The thing is, almost nobody apart from a few dyed-in-the-wool Rebublicans, wants to go back to the super-regimented ways of the 1950s or earlier, even if it would mean lower crime rates and cleaner streets, and even those who would vote in favour of it might change their minds if they actually got their way. Ever since then we've seen a more or less constant trend, reinforced by numerous legal reforms and court decisions, in favour of ever greater individual freedom. The question is: is there ever such a thing as too much individual freedom? I would say yes, of course there is, and we reach that point precisely when the exercise of one individual's rights begins to impinge regularly on the rights of others.

I think we could all agree on that in principle - even the loudest punk rocker among you will probably accept that your neighbour's right to play music at 3 am doesn't extend to the point where it keeps you awake all night (especially if his taste in music is different from yours). It's only when we try to decide where exactly that tipping point falls that we are likely to fall into fractious disagreement. People have greatly differing degrees of tolerance for noise, disorder and dirt, or, on the other hand, tranquility, order and cleanliness. Some people love the sound of children playing under their window; others hear only the screeches and screams of an ill-mannered horde of young savages.

In my own life I've seen society go from one extreme in the 1950s, to the opposite extreme, one of complete self-indulgence, in the late 60s and 70s, which in turn produced a counterreaction of those who wanted to take America back to "the way things used to be." But even though it's the 60s and 70s that are most renowned for chaos, disorder, and individual freedom and/or licence, they really only ignited a trend that has, for the most part, persisted to the present. And the idea that people should be able to dress, act and speak any way they choose without having to accept any consequences therefrom, is part and parcel of that trend.

Am I advocating that we revoke time-honoured guarantees about freedom of speech or assembly? Of course not. But bear in mind that these guarantees have never been absolute. The right to criticise the President as an idiot or your Congressman as a crook wasn't necessarily intended to include the right to hang out on a corner and call anyone who passes by a motherfucker. The right to gather together to protest or organise or socialise doesn't necessarily extend to the right to colonise a street corner or the sidewalk in front of the liquor store and menace or terrorise anyone unfortunate enough to have to walk past you.

Or does it? Some constitutional purists would indeed argue that the rights of speech or assembly or expression should have virtually no limits at all, which brings me back to my original point: how can this be, if and when the exercise of your freedom restricts or destroys the freedom of others? I started thinking about this question when I ran across a definition of libertas, the Latin word for "freedom," as having a literal meaning of "freedom under the law." The most heartfelt declarations of anarchists notwithstanding, I don't think it's possible for freedom to exist without a system of laws. In the same book where I read about libertas, I was reading about the barbarians overrunning and destroying the Roman Empire; the barbarians may have been having a ball as all the old legal structures fell away, but believe me, no one else was.

Agree? Disagree? Is freedom absolute or relative. And if, as I think most of you will agree, it's the latter, where do you draw the line?

By The Sea, By The Sea, By The Beautiful Sea

They still haven't caught the giant shark that's been prowling around Botany Bay, and coincidentally, I haven't been back there to swim lately, though the latter has more to do with shifting clouds and wind patterns (the current southerlies leave my favourite beach there feeling a bit sand-blasted) than with full-on sharkophobia. In fact it was a thunderstorm that chased me off the last time I was there, since I didn't find out about the shark until I got back to town and read about in the paper.

But in the Jawsian hubbub, I forgot all about another bit of beach life I meant to tell you about. I was just arriving when a spearfisher came clambering over the rocks with an octopus writhing on the end of his spear. Having never seen an octopus close up except in the zoo or on somebody's plate, I stopped to watch.

I have to admit to not having an overwhelming degree of sympathy for the octopus, possibly because of its resemblance to a spider, only bigger and slimier. But even still, my heart couldn't help going out at least a little to this particular specimen. It couldn't have been at all comfortable having a barbed spear protruding right through your middle, let alone being suspended therefrom while the spearfishing dude showed him off to everyone on the beach.

I wondered if he was going to simply pull the spear back out the way it had gone in, which would have made an infernal mess of the octopus's internal organs, but instead he disconnected it from his gun and by means of some mechanism I couldn't see clearly, released the octopus without doing any further damage. Mr Octopus then fell onto the rocks, where his tentacles poked and prodded in all directions, trying to find a way back into the sea, while Mr Spearfisher cleaned up his equipment. Then he (Mr SF) bent over, picked up the octopus, and I thought, "Oh well, then, that's nice, at least he's going to return the octopus to the sea after shooting a hole through him."

And then, with a quick flip of the wrist he slammed the octopus back down onto the rocks with a resounding SPLAT that echoed across the beach. Several bystanders exhaled audibly with shock, but that sound was quickly drowned out by a couple more quick SPLATs as the octopus was smashed again and again into the rocks until Mr SF seemed satisfied that it was well and truly dead. He repeated the process with a couple more denizens of the deep but by then I had moved on down the beach, gently ruminating over whether to become a vegetarian again.

The thing is, I don't make a practice of eating octopus, and almost certainly won't be taking it up now, but I do eat other living things, erm, dead once-living things, after someone has killed them for me, probably by means no more pleasant than what I had just witnessed. Yet by the same token, if that giant shark out there had got hold of me, I don't think it would have stopped to consider whether I was a vegetarian or carnivore before taking a big bite out of me (although, just to be safe, I stopped eating shark meat many, many years ago, so any sharks reading this, please take note and let your friends know, too).

I suppose this could be another example of the old adage about not seeing sausage made if you want to continue enjoying the eating thereof, but on the other hand, it could also be a sign that I should confine my animal brutality to violently ripping fruits, nuts, seeds and vegetables from the ground, because of course we know that plants have no feelings (unfortunately, scientists have long ago proved that they do). Or maybe I should reach the other obvious conclusion, that I'm just too darned sensitive to live in this world, and take myself out of it by jumping off the nearest cliff. Which of course happens to be overlooking the sea, meaning that through my selfless sacrifice I'd be supplying my briny friends with at least 72 kilos of fish food. Ack. The idea of those slimy little creatures gnawing on my bones puts me right off the idea. And off my appetite, too. I think I may just give up eating instead.

08 February 2007

07 February 2007

Poverty And Profiling

I had a couple of comments on my post the other day about racist hate crimes in which, contrary to the popular stereotype, blacks are the perpetrators and whites are the victims.

The questions they posed were important enough that I think they deserve to be answered in a post of their own rather. Josh in Seattle asked if I thought "poverty plays a great role in an increased crime rate in amongst African Americans or [is it] negative socialization?" and later added, "I think you will have a hard time with any longitudinal study of a specific "high crime" population that does not take into account poverty."

He then asked if I advocated "racial profiling as an effective means of crime prevention." When I responded that I was more in favour of "behaviour profiling," i.e., stopping and questioning people who dress, speech, or manner was suggestive of an antisocial or thuglike attitude, but that if such an approach impacted disproportionately on one or more racial, ethnic or cultural groups, that was no reason not to use it, since standards of civilised behaviour should be universal, not tailored to suit differing elements of society.

Both Josh and the ever-popular Mr Anonymous responded that in their opinion, such an approach would be "unconstitutional," and Anonymous also went on to ask, "Does how a person dresses go into your formulations of the "behavior profile? What about what they drive? What part of town they live in? Whether or not they are clean shaven? Where do you draw the line between actual thug-like "behavior" and stereotypical perceptions of what a thug-like person is supposed to look like?"

Before I answer, I should point out that we're in danger of getting sidetracked here. I was originally talking specifically about hate crimes committed by blacks, and my theory (though hardly mine alone) that many muggings, while classified as garden-variety robberies, actually fall more into the hate-crime category, i.e., blacks attacking whites primarily because they are white rather than for financial gain. But I suppose I brought up the profiling issue when I made reference to the disgraceful Al Sharpton's attempts to accuse the New York Police Department of doing just that, when in fact the NYPD actually stops a smaller proportion of blacks than are reported as suspects in violent crimes.

Anyway, crime is crime, regardless of motive, and many of the same tactics apply to dealing with it, so I'll answer the questions as they were given. First off, the poverty issue. I stated my opinion that crime is a cause of poverty at least as much as the other way around. I can't prove it, nor, in my opinion, can anyone prove the opposite. Crime and poverty are often if not always correlative, but trying to prove which came first leads inevitably into chicken-and-egg territory.

But I think it's important to bear in mind that "poverty" is not some condition like eczema, that appears for no apparent reason and hangs around despite all rational efforts to treat it. It's neither constant nor unchanging - rather the opposite, in fact - and can in many cases be shown to be the direct result of actions taken or not taken. University students are often poor - albeit temporarily - yet don't usually resort to crime. A guy who quits his job or drops out of school to go live in the ghetto and be an artist is almost certain to experience poverty, but again not likely to show an increased predilection toward violent crime.

It's also an outdated fallacy to assume that "black" equals "poor" in modern America. Yes, income is lower and poverty is higher among black Americans than among whites (or Asians or Latinos), but a basic grasp of statistics makes it easy to understand that there can be (and are) many whites who individually are poorer than many blacks, and that there is now a substantial and growing black middle class in this country. Since the 1960s and 70s, educational and employment opportunities for black people have steadily expanded, and those first two decades also saw a huge expenditure on LBJ's War on Poverty and an enormous expansion in welfare benefits, especially those paid to mothers with dependent children. All of this should have alleviated poverty in the black community to a considerable extent, but it is precisely during this period that crime in that community has soared to unprecedented levels. So, if poverty causes crime, please explain why decreased poverty doesn't have the opposite effect. And as a side note, please explain why poverty is still as endemic among blacks as some people seem to believe even after five decades of civil rights laws, affirmative action, and hundreds of billions of dollars in direct and indirect financial aid?

My supposition is that an economy which provides jobs, security and stability can not and will not ever flourish in a community where the rule of law is absent, and that unfortunately describes large swathes of our inner cities which are primarily occupied by blacks. Businesses can't or won't function there, schools have to pay more attention to keeping their students from getting killed (or killing each other) than actually educating them, and the cycle of illiteracy and criminal behaviour becomes self-perpetuating as women have children despite having no means of providing for them, and men impregnate those women despite having no means or intention of helping to care for their offspring.

Now you can say that this kind of behaviour is an understandable response to desperate circumstances, but it also helps to create those circumstances. It doesn't take a college degree to know that having a baby while you have no income and no husband likely to provide one is going to leave you deeper than ever in poverty. Nor does it take a lot of brains to realise that as bad and as hard as ghetto life may be, dropping out of high school and spending your days and nights hanging out in front of the liquor store is unlikely to improve the quality of that life.

When you get beyond rhetoric and feel-good leftism and the social worker syndrome so devastatingly portrayed in West Side Story's "Dear Officer Krupke," you're faced with the unpleasant but inescapable conclusion that while black Americans undeniably have a harder row to hoe as a result of racism past and present, a significant share of the responsibilty for their state in life rests, as it does with Americans of any other colour, on their own shoulders. To suggest otherwise, to tut-tut and say sadly, "Oh, but they can't help themselves, they're poor," is patronising and insulting to the millions of poor people of all races who have ended their poverty by the simple, tried-and-true measures of studying, working hard, not getting messed up on drugs and alcohol, and showing a measure of respect for their fellow man.

Now, on the subject of "profiling." I always assumed, and I think most people would similarly assume, that part of the job of being a cop is to pick out the bad guys from the good, ideally before said bad guys have had a chance to inflict too much harm or injury on others. In less "progressive" times, when cops actually had some familiarity with the neighbourhoods they patrolled rather than simply cruising through in a car or holing up in a bunker-like station until they get a report of someone being stabbed or shot, it went without saying that cops would stop "suspicious" looking people and question them, often searching them and/or telling them to clear out of the neighbourhood if they knew what was good for them, this last instruction sometimes being reinforced by a quick boot to the behind.

Minus the boot to the behind, I have no problem whatsoever with this form of law enforcement, both because it seems like common sense to me, and also because I've experienced it and know that it works.

And when I say "experienced it," I'm talking about being on the receiving end of the boot. As some of you know, I spent most of my teenage years as exactly the kind of young thug you'll often see me railing against here. I was a pretty useless piece of work: I'd steal from anyone, including my friends if I thought I'd get away with it, I'd rob your car or your house, hell, I was even ready to shoot you if you gave me enough of an excuse, and for the latter part of my teens pretty much always carried a loaded gun to reinforce that point. I hung around with a similarly inclined gang of lowlifes, and if you walked too close (i.e., anywhere near) to our stomping grounds in front of the candy store, there was a pretty good chance you were going to end up getting chased and/or beaten up.

In other words, we were exactly the kind of people you'd expect the cops to be protecting you against, and to their credit, the cops did a halfway decent job of doing so. Once the cops became aware of our presence (which admittedly took them a year or so), they were on our cases all the time, putting us up against the wall to be searched, running endless ID checks, dragging us down to the station to throw us in the lineup even when they knew we hadn't done that particular crime ("But you've done six others we haven't even heard about yet," one cop admitted to me in a moment of unusual candour).

It didn't stop us from being assholes, or from continuing to commit crimes, but it did slow us down, a lot. That gun I carried, for example: I was such a rotten kid, so full of attitude and (usually) so drunk that there's any number of times I could have shot someone, but the fact that I was always having to ditch it because of the danger of being frisked thankfully meant that it didn't happen (the one time I tried to shoot at a carload of mouthy kids, I couldn't get it out of my pocket in time because my jeans were too tight; the time I tried to shoot out the golden arches at McDonald's and hit the parking lot instead, well, it was just blind luck and the fact that my gun was only a piddling .22 that meant no one was hurt).

By the time I was 17 I was lucky if I could get more than a couple blocks from home without the cops pulling up, wanting to know where I was going, and frisking me. And of course I hated it. I complained to my parents, my teachers, to anyone who would listen about how "unfair" it was. "They just pick on us because of our hairstyles and the way we dress," I'd cry, and occasionally some gullible adult would be dumb enough to offer some sympathy and have a word with the cops.

But my uncle, who was a high school principal and so had considerable experience in dealing with thugs, echoed the words of the cops: "Don't tell me it's just a 'style.' I see kids year after year come slouching into school with a greaser haircut and pegged jeans, and while I know not all of them are headed for trouble, I can tell the ones who are. There's a certain slouch, a certain sneer, a certain chip-on-their-shoulder tone in their voice when you ask them a question. And," he said, looking straight at me, "Mister, you've got it."

So for years I hated my uncle as well as the cops, but in time I came to admire him greatly, and acquire considerable respect for the cops as well. They may not have always been nice about it, and they definitely weren't always fair, but they almost certainly stopped me from doing greater harm to myself or others than I would have done otherwise. Were they "profiling" me? Yes, most definitely. They could see my gang-style clothes and attitude coming a mile away and acted upon it. In other words, they were doing their job.

So to specifically answer the questions from Josh and Mr Anonymous: a) I don't remember seeing any provision in the Constitution guaranteeing the right to look, talk or act like a gangsta. b) Does how a person dresses influence whether they should be considered suspicious? Indubitably. Not everyone who dresses gangsta-style is a criminal today anymore than they were in my day, but sooner or later people have to learn that how you portray yourself with your clothes carries consequences. Punk rockers, hippies, drag queens, men in business suits, girls in miniskirts, all have to learn this lesson, said lesson being: you don't want to be treated like a thug, don't dress or act like one. c) The kind of car they drive? To some extent, i.e., there are certain cars preferred by gangbangers, but I'd attach more importance to the way they drive. Someone driving aggressively, racing up to stoplights, revving the engine impatiently when a pedestrian crosses in front of them, playing the stereo at a volume to disturb the neighbourhood, all of these merit a stop. Not that they are necessarily serious offences in themselves, but they are clearcut indicators that the driver is a jerk. And people willing to be jerks in small ways are more likely than the average to be jerks in more serious ways. d) Clean-shaven or not? Until we start asking the police to enforce crimes against fashion, I suppose we can leave the beardos alone, though I suspect you're asking this more with regard to profiling of Muslims as terrorism suspects, which is a somewhat different issue. The part of town they live in? This has to be done with great care: while it's true that in certain neighbourhoods a very high percentage of, say, the young men, are likely to be involved in criminal activity, the police need to avoid alienating the innocent people they are there to protect. Unfortunately it's not always easy to make an instant assessment about someone's appearance or attitude without stopping them and (at least briefly) talking to them. Obviously the police need to be as polite and reasonable as possible without jeopardising their own safety, and to apologise and thank people for their cooperation when they've determined the stop wasn't necessary.

Lastly, though this has been partially covered already, Anonymous asks, "Where do you draw the line between actual thug-like 'behaviour' and stereotypical perceptions of what a thug-like person is supposed to look like?" Well, that's basically a lawyer-like rhetorical question, and the likely-to-be-unpopular answer is that we all draw such lines in our everyday lives, whether we admit to it or not, and there's no reason to expect the police not to do the same. Only an idiot doesn't make judgments about people based on their clothing and demeanour, judgments which determine who we trust, what streets we choose to walk down or not, etc. How could you possibly deny the police, who after all have a lot more at stake, i.e., their own lives and those of the public, the right to make these same common-sense judgments? Yes, they'll get it wrong sometimes, but the alternative is not to force them into a PC strait jacket where they have to pretend, against all experience to the contrary, that everyone is above suspicion until or unless they actually shoot someone. If you think you can do better, join the police force and show them how it's done.

One other point, harking back to the discussion about poverty: I came from a relatively poor working-class background, but by no means was I suffering from the kind of poverty I assume Josh means when he suggests it as a cause of crime. I and my fellow junior thugs didn't do what we did because we were poor or saw no hope of advancing ourselves otherwise (indeed, most kids we went to school with were from similar backgrounds but were studying hard and preparing themselves to go to college or trade school and would end up pretty successful). If there was any sort of poverty underlying our criminal and antisocial behaviour, it was a moral poverty, and even there I have my doubts, because most of our families were basically pretty decent people who worked hard and sacrificed to provide for us.

No, when it comes down to it - and I've heard precisely the same story from black ex-cons and reformed gangbangers - we were thugs because it looked like fun, because we thought we were better than other people and shouldn't have to work for what we wanted like all those suckers did, because we were jerks and assholes, and because, most of all, we thought we could get away with it. When it began to turn out that we couldn't, some of us started rethinking our options (the others are dead or in prison). And that, harsh as it may appear, is how law enforcement is supposed to work.

05 February 2007

Nazis Or Jews?

I've been reading Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, which I found it hard to put down long enough to write this post. And I'm only halfway through, so any of you commenters, please don't make mention of how it comes out.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the book, it's a first-person novel, seen through the eyes of a young Jewish boy (himeslf, actually) growing up in an alternative reality America, one in which the Nazi-sympathising Charles Lindbergh has been elected President in 1940. Instead of being embroiled in World War II, America is forging non-aggression pacts with Germany and Japan, and an ugly tide of anti-Semitism is beginning to make itself felt at home.

The growing fear with which Roth's family see this unfold caused me to wonder if Muslim families sometimes feel much the same way as it becomes increasingly common for politicians and the media to tout "Islamists" or "Islamofascists" as the root of all evil in the world today. I've done a fair bit of it myself, and though I (and most of the responsible media) make a conscious effort to distinguish between Islamists and people who simply happen to be of the Islamic faith, it might not always be easy for those who feel they are under attack to notice such gradations in language.

The budding fascists and anti-Semites in Roth's novel don't - at least not at first - attack all Jews just for the fact of being Jewish. No, they're only after the "international bankers" or the "Jews who control the media." But the individual families of relative nobodies who are lucky if they can control this week's grocery budget don't hear the distinction, either. All they know is that "Jews" are being attacked, that they are Jews, and there's no reason to believe that they won't be next on the list.

So is that what it is like for Muslims today? I wouldn't be at all surprised if it were, and it leads me to want to be more careful still when it comes to attacking the militant and dangerous aspects of Islam. Not just to spare the feelings of innocent Muslims, though that's certainly a consideration, but also because it serves no one's interest - not Muslims, not society's at large - to alienate or polarise a whole group of people.

The problem I run into, though, is that there does seem to be one qualitative difference: despite the rhetoric from Hitler and his followers (or even from the real-life Lindbergh, who accused "the Jews" of pushing America toward war), there was never evidence of any significant movement among Jews to undermine or control the countries in which they lived, whereas there's no denying that a small but significant minority of Muslims are actively seeking an Islamic Caliphate, to be imposed on the world by any means necessary.

Of course one could argue, as Hitler did, that many Jews were communist or anarchist sympathisers, and that they thus posed a real threat to European stability. This is not as far-fetched a claim as it might appear; in the years leading up to Hitler's accession to power, it may have been only the left's perennial inability to agree with itself that prevented it not only from stopping the Nazis, but from seizing power itself.

But while it's true that Jews did have a greater propensity for joining leftist and anarchist movements, it's also true that there was nothing inherently Jewish about those movements. You could get tin-hat conspiratorial and point out that Marx himself was a Jew, but he was a Jew who hated all religions, his own perhaps more than most. Whereas extreme Islamists hold up their religion as part and parcel of their ideology, and in many cases buttress it with an anti-Semitism as virulent as Hitler's.

So there we have it: we can see the seemingly inexorable rise of militant Islam as a modern-day case of "the lights going out all over Europe" (Paul Sheehan is one of many who make that case; Paul Berman is perhaps the most articulate and well-reasoned of the lot), or we can see individual Muslims and their families as potential victims of a rising tide of Islamophobia. Perhaps there is some - or even a lot - of truth to both views.

"Punishing Blacks"

I don't know how much attention this story has got in the States. I vaguely rememember reading something about it last time I was there, but now that the young black perpetrators of a racist attack in Long Beach have been found guilty of hate crimes, the Australian press has taken a detailed look at the case.

It seems like a fairly even-handed treatment of a particularly ugly issue, but one glaring error stuck out: the labeling of racist attacks by blacks against whites as a disturbing "new" trend. It may be new that the mass media are talking about, but attacks of this sort have been going on for almost as long as I can remember. Anyone who regularly travels the streets of most big cities (on foot or on public transport, not in a hermetically sealed steel cocoon) knows this is true unless they are dwelling in a) the suburbs; b) an ideologically blinkered alternative reality; or c) cloud-cuckoo land.

Any hippie or artist or punk who's ever moved into a previously mainly black neighbourhood knows that those perceived to be white interlopers are not always welcomed with open arms. I'm thinking, for example, of one friend who moved into Oakland back around 1991, at a time when it was fashionable for young white punk rockers to go about parroting the slogan "Kill Whitey," or even scrawling it on their clothes. It meant, one earnestly explained to me, not that white people should literally be killed, but that we should all be struggling to expunge the whiteness from ourselves, much as was argued by William Upski Wimsatt, a white dilettante who with implacably oblivious racism argued that we should show our solidarity with "oppressed" black people by dropping out of school, moving into the slums, spray painting neighbourhoods with graffiti, and generally behave in a completely antisocial manner (you know, just like all Wimsatt's imaginary black people do).

It was not long after my friend moved into Oakland that he was chased for several blocks by a gang of black teenagers chanting "Kill Whitey." Shortly after that, a brick came crashing through his front window in honour of the Rodney King riots. That same day another friend and I were in downtown Berkeley (one whole block from the Berkeley police station) when we nearly walked into a baseball bat-wielding mob of young blacks looking for some white people to kill a la Reginald Denny.

So no, racist attacks by blacks against whites are nothing new. In fact if you count - as I'm inclined to do - a large percentage of black-on-white muggings as hate crimes rather than economic ones, they've been going on for a very long time. Left-wing romanticists prefer, when they can no longer obfuscate their way out of the unfortunate fact that blacks commit roughly five times as many violent crimes as whites do per capita, to imagine that black robbers are heroic members of the lumpen proletariat valiantly trying to obtain a crust of bread for their struggling families by pulling a Robin Hood on the overprivileged white oppressor. In reality, most muggings are more about power than money, and young muggers are as often as not more expensively dressed than their victims.

But the leftist ideology of the 60s dies hard, especially when it comes to sensitive racial matters. In that world view, we are only meant to see blacks as victims. Even when a black person commits an unconscionable act, we as whites are meant to look only for what faults in ourselves or in "our" system might have driven him to it. Thus we have the Los Angeles Times agonising that using hate crime laws in cases like the Long Beach attack might end up "punishing blacks."

In fact, they're being used as they should, to punish racists, no matter what their colour. If we're ever going to grow beyond the obsession with race that has strait-jacketed American political, social and cultural evolution for much of its history, evenhanded enforcement of the law, regardless of whose racial ox is gored, is essential. Expecting black people to obey the same laws and behave with the same decency that we would expect of any civilised human being is the opposite of racism.

Try telling that to the egregious Al Sharpton, who despite having long ago been exposed as a fraudster and compulsive liar, is still held up as a "leader of the black community." Rev. Al is at it again this week, trying to stir up outrage over the release of records showing that 55% of people stopped and questioned by the New York Police Department last year were black. "Racial profiling!" screams the demagogue, ignoring the other half of the story, that 68% of all crimes involved black suspects.

If Sharpton cared remotely about the black community, he'd be hailing the NYPD and thanking them for their efforts that have made New York the safest big city in America, because that change has disproportionately benefitted black people, because it is they and their communities who suffered most when crime was out of control back in the 70s, 80s and early 90s. Possibly because he's a borderline (I'm probably being generous here) criminal himself, Sharpton makes the same mistake that white racists like William Upski Wimsatt (and the editorial board of the LA Times?) make: assuming that there is something congenitally criminal about black people in general.

But that's simply not true. While crime is undeniably far more prevalent among black people, for reasons that may or may not be debatable, the great majority of blacks want, just like people everywhere, to live in safe, clean, healthy communities. Unfortunately, that requires locking up or otherwise restraining the relatively small number of thugs who have historically been allowed to run wild in the ghetto and its surrounds because "it's their culture."

I add as what should be but perhaps isn't an unnecessary postscript, that my own negative encounters with black racists have been very few. I can think of maybe five in the last 40 years, and all but a couple of those were really pretty minor. Contrast that with the hundreds, or probably thousands of encounters in which I was treated with complete openness and friendliness, or at worst a cool politeness, and I personally don't have a lot to gripe about. But at the same time, I could name dozens of friends or acquaintances who've been physically or verbally attacked for no apparent reason other than the colour of their skin. A handful of them are black or brown, but the overwhelming majority are white. My point is not to start an argument over who suffers or perpetrates the most racial attacks, it is to reiterate what in a sane society would be blindingly obvious: that it shouldn't be happening to anybody.