Links: California’s drought, the ROM’s MIA donations, retiring at 30, building trust between police and communities

Links have moved to Mondays!

From Matt: From bad to worse (Ivan Semeniuk, The Globe and Mail): With this year’s snowpack around 5% of what’s considered normal, California’s drought is about to get a lot worse. Already, this is estimated to be the worst drought in 1200 years. Statewide water restrictions have been introduced for the first time in the state’s history. The Globe and Mail did a nice in-depth piece on the drought this past week, explaining what is causing it; what it means for California’s residents (myself included), farmers, and the consumers of California’s agricultural products (most of us); and what climate change has to do with it (a fair bit).

How to retire at 30 (Ian McGugan, The Globe and Mail): Also from the Globe, a very interesting interview with Mr. Money Moustache (an internet pseudonym), a Canadian engineer who was able to afford to retire at age 30 by saving aggressively, living frugally, and investing over his short 9 year career. In both the Globe article and Mr. Moustache’s blog (tag line: “Early retirement through badassery”), there are some great tips for living a happy, comfortable life within one’s means. I found Mr. Moustache’s story to be a breath of fresh air in what has been nearly a decade of bad news for young people trying to scratch out a living in today’s economy.

From Ian: Healing the rift between police and communities

The US Department of Justice recently released its reports on the investigation of the Michael Brown shooting and its broader review of the practices of the Ferguson police department. A fairly detailed analysis of both reports can be found in The Atlantic. The latter report, which was widely publicized, detailed numerous alarming, discriminatory, and sometimes unconstitutional practices disproportionately targeting the residents of the poor, primarily African American neighborhoods. It showed that “many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.” While it received much less publicity, the first report offered a complete exoneration of officer Darren Wilson. After conducting a detailed review of all evidence, including forensic evidence and witness accounts, the report concluded that several important aspects of Wilson’s account were supported and determined the use of force was justified. “The investigation concluded that there was no evidence to contradict Wilson’s claim that Brown reached for his gun. The investigation concluded that Wilson did not shoot Brown in the back. That he did not shoot Brown as he was running away. That Brown did stop and turn toward Wilson.”

If there is one clear lesson that can be taken from these detailed reports, as well as from the numerous other publicized incidents involving police lately, it is that relations between the police and the community need to improve. The community, including its poor and minority residents, deserve to feel that their police are there “to serve and protect” them, not harass them. On the other hand the police deserve the respect of the community – in fact they need it to avoid making their incredibly difficult and dangerous job even more dangerous. This respect includes the understanding that by resisting an officer’s orders, even when unarmed, you are putting yourself and the officer in danger. Building trust, mutual understanding and empathy between the police and the communities will require all parties to consider those who have different perspectives than them and to put themselves in the shoes of the other side. For a small number of people, like black police officers and their families, understanding of both of these perspectives may be easier to come by. However for most of us, repairing these rifts will require a concerted effort to get out of our echo chambers and try to better understand experiences and perspectives that differ from our own.

Encouraging recent initiatives have begun to sprout up from police and community groups to assist in building this mutual understanding. For example, the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund started running an initiative that invites journalists to train in a simulator used to prepare police officers for use-of-force situations. After numerous news stories over the past year questioning use of force by police officers, these programs aim to give reporters a better understanding of the challenges officers face on a daily basis and the split-second nature of these use-of-force decisions. As part of a similar program, prominent activist Rev. Jarrett Maupin was invited by an Arizona police department to participate in similar types of scenarios, one in which he gets shot, and another in which he ends up shooting an unarmed man at point-blank range. I found watching these exercises quite eye-opening and I encourage you to watch them as well. After completing the exercise, Rev. Maupin was asked what he took away from the exercise: “I didn’t understand how important compliance was. People need to comply with the orders of law-enforcement officers”.

If there is a secondary lesson in this experience, it is that media recognize the influential role they play in these situations, and that this influence comes with a responsibility to use it with care. With Ferguson, the intense media scrutiny may have accelerated reforms of discriminatory police practices in Ferguson and other communities, and the media deserve credit for this. However, one place where media perhaps deserve criticism is in the vast disparity between the initial sensationalist coverage of the accusations against Darren Wilson and the relatively quiet coverage of his exoneration. Far from unique to this case, this is a widespread pattern of media coverage of criminal allegations that turn out unsubstantiated: loud, damning and highly speculative publicity of accusations, and then barely a peep about the eventual exoneration. This may be a great way to get ratings, but it literally ruins lives, particularly when the ultimately unfounded accusations involve violent or sexual offences. Just ask John Furlong, who was recently exonerated of child sex abuse charges after it was determined the complainants did not even attend the school where they alleged the abuses took place. Luckily for him, the second part did receive some coverage. Many others are not so lucky.

From Niya: Last week The Globe and Mail released an investigative report into the Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) ongoing struggle to collect funds pledged to their capital campaign to build the Micheal Lee-Chin crystal from a number of high profile donors, including Mr. Lee-Chin himself – who has since made other significant donations to other cultural organizations. Over the course of the campaign, all of the donors have received substantial recognition for their gifts, even though pledges remain outstanding over 10 years later. Since the campaign ended, taxpayers have assumed the ROM’s debt and filled a $23-million void left by these donors. Today the Globe published a follow-up piece noting that the ROM has made a complete debt payment for the 2015 year – suggesting that some of those pledges have been received, at least in part.

I made a comment last week on Matt’s thoughts re: public shaming and the impact it has on indicating what socially acceptable behavior. Since then I’ve been thinking about the role that scandal and public shaming plays with regard to accountability. Scandals, by their nature, require individuals in positions of power and authority to do something they should have known better than to do – and to do so with the arrogance/confidence/self-delusion that leaves a trail for an intrepid reporter to track. In the case of the ROM, each of the donors were party to an agreement and as such would have known better than to delay their payments by over a decade. But was publicly exposing delinquent donors the best course of action?
One one hand, it established a level of accountability and deservedly negated some of the positive press those donors received during the course of the campaign and in the years that followed. On the other hand, new donors may less inclined to support the ROM and similar cultural institutions because they have no way of knowing if other donors are receiving equivalent recognition for a much lower commitment.
In a different vein, have we done ourselves a disservice by switching our cultural institutions from a model that is directly supported by tax revenues to a revenue-generating model? Publicly-funded cultural institutions can be public education focused; donation-funded institutions often lose curatorial/other education support and increase in more ‘accessible’, less rigorous programming. It seems we have placed institutions like the ROM in a difficult position, where they court donors who gain significant social capital through the appearance of supporting the arts and leverage the associated institutional brand while holding those organizations hostage with the threat of delayed pledge fulfilment in the event that the institution does something they do not agree with. It will be a tough sell to return to a tax dollar funded model, but it may ensure sustainable institutions that deliver on programming that is in the public interest.
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11 thoughts on “Links: California’s drought, the ROM’s MIA donations, retiring at 30, building trust between police and communities

  1. One quick comment on Niya’s piece. I really like the point she makes about the constructive role that scandals play in putting a check on abuses of power: “Scandals, by their nature, require individuals in positions of power and authority to do something they should have known better than to do – and to do so with the arrogance/confidence/self-delusion that leaves a trail for an intrepid reporter to track”. I do think however, that power and proportionality need to be considered if we are to draw the line between a scandal ‘exposing’ abuse of power and/or bigotry and a shaming that is itself more of an example of an abuse of power and bigotry than the activity being shamed. For example, there is a big difference between drawing publicity to wealthy donors who have not actually paid the promised amount for the museum named after them and large media outlets trolling mom-and-pop pizza places trying to get a ‘gotcha’ moment when they speculate about whether or not they would cater gay weddings (how many mom-and-pop pizza places cater any weddings at all, even straight ones btw). In the latter example, it is the news outlet that is abusing a position of power and essentially acting as bigots. Jon Ronson’s book (which I just finished) contains a lot of examples of the latter, where the response is disproportionate to the ‘crime’ and the outrage is being peddled by the powerful against the less-powerful. Adria Richards’s shaming of ‘Hank’ (as well as the subsequent trolling against her) and the shaming of Lindsey Stone are good examples of the latter. Richards’s (Hank’s) case is also a great example of probably the more common case where both parties are blameworthy and victimized to some degree and illustrate why moral absolutes (e.g. ‘powerful and powerless’, ‘victim blaming’) are generally not a constructive way to think about human conflict.

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  2. Thanks for the comment, Ian. I agree that power and proportionality, especially when it comes to the role the media plays, should be considered. I’d add another critical aspect, one that helps me determine the difference between a scandal and the virulent public shaming that the internet facilitates. The notable difference, for me (and perhaps Laura Kipnis who authored “How to Become A Scandal”) is the significant level of self delusion by the participants (the ROM donors,Senator Weiner or President Clinton) that does not manifest for the targets of public shaming (Justine Sacco & her AIDS tweet, Ms. Lewinsky). Further, scandalous figures often court the media and prolong the coverage by supplying material (Senator Weiner is a great example) for far longer than targets of public shaming.

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  3. More articles on the drought: one from the NYT by a former colleague of mine on how our farms can be more water-efficient (http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/04/07/can-farms-survive-without-drying-up-california-13/to-save-water-all-farmers-should-borrow-techniques-from-organic-agriculture), another from the Globe and Mail, on what the sought means for Canadians (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/what-the-california-drought-means-for-canadians/article23820879/)

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  4. Thanks Matt and Niya for the links. I thought I would add one more link on Rolling Stone, from Catherine Porter http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2015/04/06/the-rolling-stone-article-and-the-damage-done.html (normally not someone I agree with on a lot of things, but this is definitely an exception, I guess like Matt and Margaret Wente). She makes the point that, even had the story been true, it would have done damage by furthering the notion of the ‘perfect victim’ and ‘perfect perpetrator’. One unintended but good lesson about this story, and Ederly’s overzealous desire to find the ‘perfect’ story of victim blaming, is that, even though the notion of the perfect victim is listed as one of the leading rape myths in feminist literature, some of the terms commonly used in the feminist literature (and by feminist writers in popular media) unintentionally further these myths when they are described to the general public (the term ‘victim blaming’ is a great example of a term that has this unintended effect). Part of the reason for this is that there is comparatively little literature and publicity on the point of view of the perpetrator/accused when this issue is presented. As a result, it is often framed solely from the alleged victim’s perspective, which leads to a portrayal of an imperfect victim, but a perfect perpetrator. Without allowing any options for the accused in between perfect villain and perfectly innocent, the dichotomy tends to backfire on the victim, pressuring her (or him) to once again either be portrayed as a perfect victim or a complete liar. Even the way the statistic “only 2-8% of reports are false” is presented can have this unintended consequence of forcing people into boxes of perfect victim/perfect perp or perfect liar/perfectly innocent, when it implies ‘perfect’ guilt in the other 92-98% of cases. In reality, a significant portion this 92-98% includes cases where the alleged victim’s account is deemed accurate, but the events described do not constitute sexual assault or misconduct (which is a also a false report from the POV of the accused) and cases of honest-but mistaken belief in consent. These two categories, falling under the idea of “confusion about consent.” as Porter puts it, covers the majority of cases in a recent survey of Canadian Universities. Added on top of these are the he-said-she-said cases, where what happened is unclear, but confusion about consent.

    It is fitting that Columbia did the review, because the coverage of the allegations associated with the “carry that weight” campaign at Columbia was a good example of where the reporting was much better, as much as a media trial can be done anyway: everyone’s side of the story got aired and the public was able to judge a ‘realistic’ case in all its complexity (and in my opinion her version of events comes off looking more credible, but there are doubts as there generally is in these cases).

    Finally, RE drought: Speaking of counterproductive messaging: conservatives and free-market proponents need to stop the climate change denying! It is only serving to undermine anything meaningful they might have to add to the conversation about the role of markets in addressing climate change, and how to balance the competing concerns of addressing climate change and achieving energy independence/geopolitical stability (actually a very anti-imperialist argument). It also serves to make their opinions easier to sideline on other issues like identity politics where they actually do have a lot to add. (I guess the flip side is that the more progressives are seen as anti-evidence ideological outrage machines trolling mom-and-pop pizza places on topics of identity politics, the more they undermine their important, evidence-based and urgent messages on climate change, where the outrage really is warranted and complacency isn’t an option). Science just came out with an editorial suggesting we had better start thinking about setting up international regulations on geoengineering – scary! (this will be one of my topics in my next links post, which will feature all sorts of new interactions between science, ethics, policy and law)

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  5. And we can always count on Barbara Kay for a more blunt take on the story http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/barbara-kay-thou-shall-not-bear-false-witness-except-against-men although she too could do a better job discussing nuance instead of peddling the ‘perfect falsely accused’ trope. This one from Laura Kipnis is old, but does a much better job in this regard http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2004/03/the_anxiety_of_sexual_influence.html

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  6. One more link, with detailed analysis on the demographics of traffic stops, separated into two categories: those aimed at safety and traffic laws (e.g. excessive speed, running a red light) vs. investigatory stops, where minor violations (e.g. tail lights) are used as pretext to perform search and questioning related to other crimes, the goal being prevention of these other crimes, not the small violations. In the former case, there is little demographic dependence on risk of getting puled over, only behaviour dependence (the more you speed the more you get pulled over), whereas in the latter case, there is significant profiling, with men and minorities being pulled over significantly more than women and whites, black men with by far the highest risk. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2015/04/north_charleston_shooting_how_investigatory_traffic_stops_unfairly_affect.2.html

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