Stray Thoughts 12/21: The Story of the Plumbus

  • So here are a couple of stories for your consideration. The first is this piece, which I would call a very good breakdown of inequities in the Alabama criminal justice system, which is surely a target-rich environment for such a story. The reporters observe that 2/3 of all people arrested (!) in Dothan, Alabama are black and that the DA enjoys such a cozy relationship with the local police department that he donates to the PD from a fund maintained by “fees” from people who pay him, essentially, not to go to jail. Black folks more or less have to pay him because while they make up the vast majority of suspects, they’re never on juries. In 2011 the DA bought the cops scuba gear. It’s a great, make-you-mad piece of writing and reporting that has the capacity to get a lot of bad people fired.

    The second is this, the fucking astonishing third part in a grotesquely misbegotten series at the Washington Post about how “second chance” laws are releasing violent offenders back onto the streets. It commits just about every sin of journalistic racism you can possibly imagine, from scary stats about “hundreds” of violent repeat offenders over ?? years out of ?? cases, to the conflation of “violent crimes and weapons offenses,” which is to say, violent crimes and nonviolent crimes, and then of course lurid details from the very worst crimes themselves and pictures of black people throughout. There’s one astounding photo juxtaposition of a grainy pic of a scowling black guy with a skin condition in a t-shirt and jacket and a white dude in a bow tie holding a wine glass and smiling happily. They’re obviously perp and victi—oh wait I’m sorry, they’re both murder victims. Anyway it’s all there: Personal responsibility rhetoric from wealthy white attorneys, potshots at Marion Barry, mourning mothers, angry young black men, etc. It has three lily-white bylines on it.

    I don’t want to insult Shaila Dewan and Andrew Lehren, the authors of the excellent Alabama piece. I do want to say, though, that the juxtaposition describes some of the problems with American journalism pretty inescapably: Highly educated white urbanite reporters are perfectly happy to parachute into a rural America destroyed by shitty union-busting national businesses that pay minimum wage and drive local enterprises into bankruptcy, where they can click their tongues and remind their readership how lucky they are to live in New York City once they’ve returned to a utopia subsidized by the heavily-taxed centralized finance industry whose tentacles have benefited from all that rural devastation.

    But when the black people getting arrested live down the street, well, something has to be done. I realized Dewan and Lehren are different people from the team that wrote the DC story: Amy Brittain, Aaron C Davis and Steven Rich – but I think there has been too little said about middle-class racism in the aftermath of an election pretty clearly driven at least in part by it, and if people like to think of themselves as too classy to vote for Donald Trump, they might not think twice about talking loudly about the terrible racism in places where they don’t live and ignoring, say, the unceasing brutality of urban police forces or the rate at which minority communities are issued fines. That stuff is on a continuum with believing immigrants from countries where daily life is a war-torn nightmare are either terrorists or lazy freeloaders skipping the line, or that affirmative action is unjust.

  • This Times piece on shifts in economic fortunes across races and ages is fascinating. Also, it can be boiled down to something people would rather not think about: Old white people were fired from cushy jobs, which were then made shitty and given to young people, likely black or Hispanic. From the perspective of the first group, this looks like minorities taking away my job; from the perspective of the second group, this looks like only white people get to have good jobs.
  • Don’t vote anymore, conservative Christians. Just stay home on election day. A lot of you are good people, and I know that. But you don’t understand basic civics, which is what makes you a political conservative. By all means continue to fight for less abortion in your communities – nobody likes having an abortion – but do it by reaching out to pregnant women and helping people with childcare. Give the church the means to lift poor people out of poverty. But never vote again.
  • Here are some facts in chronological order:
    –A joint LLC between Exxon and the Russian state oil company Rosneft, called Exxon Neftegas Limited, has been in existence since 1977.
    –Rosneft’s primary holdings are in the Okhotsk Sea, north of Japan, where there are three large oil fields.
    -Under CEO Rex Tillerson, Exxon tried to partner with Rosneft to drill in the arctic. Obama sanctioned Russia, which stopped that particular Rosneft/Exxon partnership.
    -Donald Trump has more or less guaranteed he will lift sanctions against Russia, paving the way for lots of new deals between Exxon and Rosneft and solidifying the current partnerships.
    -Japan’s PM, Abe Shinzō, has gone to great lengths to militarize the country. Given tensions with China and North Korea, Abe isn’t insane for doing this, though there is a nationalist element in Japan to his right that approves of it for scary reasons.
    -Exxon’s holdings with Exxon Neftegas are primarily in the Okhotsk Sea, north of Hokkaido.
    -North Korea tested a nuclear missile in Kilju, a county on the coast of the Sea of Japan, in September.
    –Trump has nominated Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state.
    -The Chinese military this week seized a US navy drone in the South China sea, which is south of Taiwan and so a ways off from Japan, but still close enough to worry everyone.

    Let me be clear: I don’t know what this means. My predictive powers are nil. I am just a guy who read the news. But this looks like escalating tensions across several different axes, private and national, to me.

  • I’ve long felt that list of “fake news” sources was woefully incomplete. Here are the ones I see most often:

    There are a bunch of other dumb ones like Liberal America or whatever that share nonsense theories about how an electoral revolt would have checkmated Donald Trump at the 11th hour instead of, say, starting an actual war, but that’s just generalized nuttiness. The sites above parrot talking points generated in garbage factories like the American Enterprise Institute and usually mash them up with some kind of vague religiosity or historicity so that the gruesomely immoral seems moral.
    Reading these sites at length makes you dumber. Taking them seriously because you’re “interested in the opposing view” or you “want to know what the other side thinks” is a losing proposition. The position halfway between a lie and the truth is a lie.

    As is endemic to people like me, I honestly don’t have any solutions, just wonky articulations of the problem. One problem here is that the DCLeaks/Guccifer 2 stuff, which is 100% true, as far as I can tell, piggybacked on already-extant hysteria over Clinton’s private email server. I don’t think most people have any idea the emails about John Podesta hanging out with Marina Abramovic didn’t come from the server, they just came from some poor dude’s email account.

    To my mind the long and the short of it is that you can hack all the Russian emails you want but unless people are really invested in their own sense of grievance over the changing US economy and completely uninterested in sussing out who’s responsible for those changes and who benefits from them beyond the same old tired anti-black, anti-immigration, anti-poor sentiment, it won’t work. The baby boomers, especially the Christian baby boomers, have honestly decided that the enemies of progress are the Great Society and the social safety net, and so they’re doing everything they can to tear it apart. Now that everyone’s pissed off at them, they’re not apologizing, they’re not rethinking their ideals, they’re not asking themselves whether their position as the most affluent generation in history in the richest nation that has ever existed should come with some responsibility beyond personal selfishness. They’re just loudly talking about their hurt feelings and parroting the same old lies as they demand the people whose lives they’ve ruined for decades to come try harder to understand them.

    And honestly there are real unfairnesses in the world directed at boomers. Ageism is a more reliable predictor of hiring bias than race or sex, believe it or not. People might take a chance on a black person or a woman in a nontraditional role but they’ll never hire an old guy, largely because stated job descriptions have increasingly less and less to do with actual duties as employers try to automate more and more and force employees into jobs that do 10% of everything, which is much harder than, say, being a guy who makes plumbuses.

    The irony here is that boomers aren’t upset about the government, which could actually do something to help them, they’re upset about the culture. They don’t care about spending, they care about the War on Christmas. The culture is only going to get worse for them; not all Nazis were Hannibal Lecter but the depiction of Nazism in contemporary culture collapsed pretty quickly into caricature (you can argue that this is actually a pretty bad thing, because it makes people believe that 1930’s Germany was a place uniquely populated with evil people, which we’re finding out rapidly is not the case). So they’ll lose their healthcare and their 401(k)s and their public drug treatment programs and in forty years a new generation of unreflective dorks will have cannon-fodder characters in action movies repeat the most cartoonish version of their political opinions before the hero blasts them to smithereens.

    I’m not saying this is cause for celebration or mourning or anything. It just is.

  • Here are my 10 best comics of the year:

Author: samthielman

Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in Brooklyn, New York. His blog is, his twitter handle is @samthielman, and if you can't find him you should check The Strand.

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