Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Cops Out of Control

I just watched a fuzzy video of two policemen beating an unarmed man with batons while he lay on the ground. One cop hit him at least 20 times, the other at least 15 times. They kept on hitting him after other policemen arrived. The most appropriate word in my vocabulary for this scene is sadistic.

This happened on November 12 in San Francisco. The man is a criminal, who had apparently stolen a car, led police on a chase at high speeds, and injured another policeman in attempting to flee. But the beating had nothing to do with arresting him. It was about inflicting pain.

I had seen this video before, but forgotten the particulars. When I searched for it by Googling “police beat man”, I found many similar videos of police brutalizing people they had caught.

In Inkster, MI, in January, Floyd Dent was pulled over on a traffic stop, yanked from his car and punched at least 16 times while being held in a chokehold. He was shocked three times with a taser. At the police station, he was stripped and made fun of, with no attempt to treat his injuries.

In Philadelphia in April, two officers beat an unarmed man who had been riding his bike on the wrong side of the street. Eventually 11 police cars and 26 officers gathered to deal with this one man.

In Salinas, CA, in June, a man who had been fighting with his mother was whacked many times with a billy club by a policeman. He was on the ground, and the policeman was standing over him, waiting for him to move, swinging the club with both hands like a baseball bat, then waiting and whacking again. Another policeman stood by and watched. There was no attempt to handcuff him. This was simply a beat-down. After three other police arrived, he was beaten further with a billy club, still lying on the ground.

In Brooklyn in July, two policemen punched a man suspected of stealing a piece of pizza and hit him with a baton, when he had his hands up in a gesture of surrender. In Chester, PA, that same month, a man who was driving the wrong way on a one-way street was repeatedly punched and shocked with a taser by four policemen while he was lying on the ground. That’s a selection among a longer list of incidents of violence by police this year, that happened to be recorded on video, in San Bernardino, CA, for example, and in a Target store in New York.

In most cases, the victim was doing something illegal. In each case, multiple policemen beat up the victim with weapons or fists while he was unarmed and defenseless. Although one of Floyd Dent’s police assailants was charged with assault, in most cases nothing happened to the violent officers.

None of these victims was killed. Media attention to violent police tactics has become much more intense recently because of a number of deadly incidents in 2014, such as the choking of Eric Garner in New York in July, and the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, in August. The Guardian has tried to list every person killed by police during 2015, tallying 202 unarmed victims.

In May, a 39-year-old woman led police on a high-speed chase in Wyoming. Her tires were deflated by spikes, and she emerged from her car with a knife, confronting five police. She was shot with a taser, but still did not drop the knife. Then she was shot twice and killed. Ten women armed only with knives were shot and killed by police in 2015.

I wonder about shooting to kill in those circumstances. As in the Wyoming case, often more than one officer was involved. How dangerous is a woman with a knife versus several police with batons? What about shooting in the leg?

The violence in these cases appears grossly excessive. It was not necessary to beat Floyd Dent, or any of the other victims mentioned above, before handcuffing them. It was not necessary to kill Michael Brown or Eric Garner. It was not necessary to kill all 10 women or the 125 men armed with knives who were killed in 2015.

Racism means that in all of these situations, African Americans are more likely to be victims of excessive police violence, more than twice as likely to be killed as whites. But twice as many whites were killed as blacks in 2015. The problem is larger than racism. When a group of heavily armed and highly trained police confront a suspect, even one armed with a knife, death should not be the result. Police should never hit someone multiple times with a club when they are down.

Policing is a dangerous business, every day and every night. Excessive police violence, now caught increasingly on camera, does not make it less dangerous. These incidents reduce the trust between police and the people they are paid to protect. The reluctance of police administrators and courts to get rid of violent cops makes policing less effective.

There are about one million police in the US. These incidents do not reflect normal interactions between citizens and police. But if we can watch a new video every month of groups of police brutalizing unarmed citizens, then we have a police problem.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 24, 2015

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Can We Talk About Fat?

I don’t know how to talk about fat. I’m missing an opportunity to be a healthy influence on my students’ lives. But speaking thoughtfully about fat is hard.

When Megyn Kelly criticized Donald Trump for calling women “fat pigs”, he responded, “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.” That line earned loud applause from the conservative audience.

American culture is fixated on skinny as a moral virtue, and encourages the denigration of those who weigh more. I too am critical of people who use worries about weight as a weapon to assert their superiority. That makes me an enforcer of “political correctness”.

I don’t think there is such a thing as Political Correctness as it’s used by conservatives to criticize liberals. Let’s just remember the speech codes of the 1950s. As I was growing up, the legal rules restricting what could be said in print, in schools, in movies, and on TV were enforced with severity. Lenny Bruce was arrested in San Francisco in 1961, in Chicago in 1962, in Los Angeles in 1963, and in New York in 1964, where he was sentenced to 4 months in a workhouse, all for saying words in public performance that were against the law.

But saying things which intentionally slandered whole categories of people was fine. I heard adults use every possible form of demeaning racial and sexual expression in public. I thought that was bullshit, a word rarely spoken then except among friends, but I take no credit for originality. It seemed like my whole generation saw the hypocrisy in that combination.

We are freer today than ever before to use our own voices. But conservatives have never forgiven the youth of the 1960s for rejecting their speech codes, their power to say what they wanted and regulate what everyone else said. People who call themselves libertarians don’t applaud the libertarian impulses of the 1960s, when we not only demanded more liberty, but were willing to stand up for it. They don’t celebrate the increased freedom from rules by authorities, the greatly expanded sphere of liberty in speech and in print. Many conservatives don’t recognize the moral value of today’s social codes, which hold racist, sexist, and generally misanthropic speech up to ridicule.

One of their more successful tactics has been to invent Political Correctness. By turning correctness into something negative, they convert their moral errors into a virtue. We are now more aware than ever of what deliberately hurtful speech sounds like and how it works. Why do so many conservatives retreat into familiar patterns of expressing superiority, and defend them with this invented claim of Political Correctness?

I think it’s fear of speaking. But they’re not the only ones who are afraid. I feel anxious when I think about talking about fat. How do I tell some of my students that medical experts say they are putting their health at risk by gaining so much weight?
I have seen these students since they came to Illinois College. In class, I am concerned about their intellectual development. Beyond class, I care about their youthful welfare. I have watched as they have gained significant weight in just a few years. These students are men and women, black and white. I make no moral judgments or psychological diagnoses. There is nothing wrong with weight, except that the National Institutes of Health say that being overweight increases the risk of heart attacks, heart failure, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke, various cancers, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, infertility and gallstones.

A new study shows that obesity is linked to 1 of every 5 American deaths. Obese 20-year-olds have a life expectancy that is shortened by 6 to 8 years. Worse, their expectancy of a healthy adult life is shortened by about 15 years. Women who develop anorexia as teenagers might lose up to 25 years of life. Overweight is the second leading preventable cause of death in the US, just behind smoking. Weight is important.

The inventors of PC try to make life difficult for anyone who says fat should be discussed thoughtfully as a health issue, not as a social stigma or moral weakness. But that’s not the only reason why few people in our society can talk comfortably about fat. Speaking to relative or friend about weight swings up or down is difficult or dangerous. There is so much psychological baggage attached to weight that conversations about health easily slide into lectures about good behavior.

So far I’ve said nothing to anybody. I don’t know if I will in the future. The health risks of overweight are preventable. But the risks of addressing someone else’s extra weight are daunting.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 17, 2015

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Science, Large and Small

Science is unbelievable. Physicists track particles so small that billions of them fit on the head of a pin.
In fact, the pin is composed of them. Astronomers describe places in the universe so dense that light cannot escape their gravity – and there are billions of these black holes scattered across a universe so large that light would take 100 billion years to get across. Scientists can’t see either atomic particles or black holes, but they nevertheless can tell us how big they are, how they behave, their births and deaths.

Amazing. Science is a uniquely human invention. My dogs can also learn about the world around them. But they can’t communicate this knowledge to each other, much less build it up over generations.

Humans have been building science for millennia. The architects of Stonehenge in England five thousand years ago knew precisely where the sun would shine at the summer and winter solstice, and preserved that knowledge by transporting enormous stones weighing many tons more than a hundred miles before precisely placing them in a circle. We know much more now about the movements of the sun and earth, but we still haven’t figured out exactly what the Stonehengers were doing. A new scientific tool which can x-ray the deep underground may soon reveal their knowledge and motives.

All of the science I just described includes uncertainty. That goes beyond the so-called “uncertainty principle”, which says that it is not possible to measure with certainty both the position and the movement of tiny particles. The properties of the Higgs boson are not fully known, although its existence is necessary to confirm the theoretical model used by nearly all physicists to describe the atomic structure of the universe. Most astronomers believe that so-called “dark matter” includes most of the matter in the universe, but it has not been actually observed because it is invisible. The very ability of scientists to speculate about things which cannot be directly observed demonstrates the power of science to unravel the unbelievably large and small mysteries of our universe.

Nobody argues that the science of atomic particles or dark matter is a hoax. Nobody claims that the complex computer models needed in astrophysics are just guesswork. Nobody adds up the numbers of the world’s scientists who agree completely on the properties of the Higgs boson. Nobody convenes conferences of dissenting scientists or pseudo-scientists to argue alternative explanations of the observed phenomena. Nobody suggests that these remaining uncertainties demonstrate that physicists and astronomers don’t know what they are talking about.

There is nothing political about dark matter. Whether it makes up 23% or 27% of the total energy content of the universe doesn’t appear to interest American politicians. But as soon as we begin to discuss the earth’s climate, politicians suddenly have very definite scientific opinions. The same kind of scientific inquiry which has produced remarkable advances in our understanding of distant stars and tiny particles is suddenly unbelievable. Political leaders with high school science educations make pronouncements about the value of scientific research whose most basic features they don’t understand.

Why? Because climate science, unlike atomic science, has political implications. New studies show that the Middle East could become too hot for human habitation in this century. Across the world, 100 million people could be driven into extreme poverty by the increasing heat. If political decisions to change the way we produce and consume energy are not made soon, we will bequeath a deadly world to our descendants in two generations. And that prospect has turned some politicians into scientific geniuses.

Donald Trump says warming is a “hoax”. Ted Cruz says scientists are “cooking the books.” Ben Carson, who doesn’t believe in doing anything about climate change, says about scientists, “They are welcome to believe whatever they want to believe. I’m welcome to believe what I want to believe.”

That’s the whole point. Carson and other conservatives don’t want to believe that anything needs to be done about climate change, because it will be expensive and will involve government action. So they argue that science is just what they want to believe, what conveniently fits into their political ideology.

My dogs would make poor scientists, because they can be individual learners at best, unable to profit from the knowledge gained by other members of their species. But they are better scientists than Republican know-nothings, because they learn from the world around them without political filters and ideological blinders. They can’t work with computer models, but they recognize when someone is all wet.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 10, 2015