Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

Archive for March, 2010

Things You Might Have Missed

March 31, 2010 By: Mel Category: Misc

Incredibly, the NY anarchist book fair is just two weeks from Saturday.  Don’t forget to pop me over an email if you are going (

Today is both César Chávez day and The International Transgender Day of Visibility.  I think it’s sort of appropriate that the two groups who are most ignored in public discourse – transgender people and immigrant farmworkers – share a day.  Now if we can only start thinking about them the other 364 days a year.

Ansel (of Mediahacker) has a new Haiti post that is blowing up the blogosphere.

Latin America gives me hope.  Uruguay just sentenced their former president to 30 years for a coup, disappearances, and assassinations.

I am very much looking forward to seeing The War on Kids.  It would appear that this is also a war on parents.

I’ve posted a few articles over the last months about the Maoist tribals in India.  I think we just discovered what new hell the Indian government has in store for them.  Don’t you just love weapons that are clearly made for internal population control.  Soon coming to a protest near you.

This article about prison rape is just infuriating.  Well, everything about prisons is infuriating.  But this…

This post on middle class feminism really covers a lot of the reasons I don’t call myself a feminist.

Is the entire country suffering from battered wife syndrome?

Finally, if you haven’t seen it yet, this video of Anarchism in America is really interesting.

P.S. I’m trying to get better at remembering how I came to find these things (so that I can give credit where credit is due), but I really sucked this week. Sorry.

Carnival of the Godless

March 30, 2010 By: Mel Category: Uncategorized

There is a new Carnival of the Godless up at Arizona Atheist.  Enjoy.

Growing up Jewish – Passover Edition

March 29, 2010 By: Mel Category: Religion

It’s passover, the perfect time for another installment of Growing up Jewish.

Passover is a very big holiday for the Jews.  It commemorates our escape from slavery in Egypt about two gazillion years ago.  (We have very long memories).  The story goes like this.

Once upon a time the Jews were slaves in Egypt.  The pharaoh was a tyrant who ordered that newborn Jewish boys be thrown into the Nile and killed.  The mother of one little boy saved him by floating him away on a boat.  The child was found and adopted by one of the pharaoh’s daughters and was brought up as royalty.

That child was Moses.  Eventually, Moses figured out who he was and demanded that the pharaoh let his people go.  When the pharaoh refused, god turned to the plagues.  He turned the Egyptians’ water into blood.  He inundated them with frogs, lice, flies, livestock diseases, skin boils, hale, fire, locusts, and darkness.  Not sure why god couldn’t just kill the pharaoh, but…

Finally, for his encore, god killed all the newborn Egyptian babies.  That’s where the name passover comes from.  The Jewish families put a little lambs blood on their door so that god would “pass over” their homes and leave their kids alive.  So passover is about celebrating freedom from slavery AND the murder of thousands of Egyptian children because of what their Pharaoh did.

So here’s to the smiting of infants!  La Chaim!

Now, even though the Jews were free, they had picked up all sorts of nasty habits and psychological damage from slavery.  So rather than let them go straight to the promised land, god made them wander aimlessly in the desert for 40 years – enough time to kill off that generation and start fresh.  These new people would have to end that nasty pork eating habit they picked up in Egypt.  Otherwise, more smiting!

There is a litany of symbolic things that need to happen if you are a Jew who celebrates passover.  The first thing is that you have to clear your entire house of bread.  Apparently, the Jews were in such a hurry to get out of Egypt before the pharaoh came after them, they did not have enough time to let their bread rise.  So they baked flat bread.  For the eight days of passover, Jews are only allowed to eat flat bread – matzoh.

Now here’s where it really gets bizarre.  Matzoh is made of flour and water, no yeast.  That makes sense so far.  But it isn’t just that you aren’t allowed to have bread or yeast on passover.  You aren’t allowed to have flour.  So instead of flour, everyone makes things with “matzoh meal.”  Matzoh meal is what you get when you crush matzoh up, which is made of FLOUR!

In order to purify our home of all bread and (non-matzoh meal) flour, my mother would go through a two week process of cleaning that involved copious amounts of bleach and very, very bad moods.  She would also cover up all the dishes we used during the normal year (because they had touched bread) and pull out the passover dishes.  In addition to the several sets of dishes we had during the normal year for keeping kosher, we also had to have a couple sets for the eight days of passover.  I think god must have owned a dish factory.

The biggest part of passover is the seder.  Usually, you have two.  A seder is an excruciatingly long dinner where you and your most annoying relatives sit around a table and read the entire story of passover.  At various points in the reading, you stop to do symbolic things – like put a drop of wine on your plate for each of the plagues.  You also occasionally partake in a smidgen of some disgusting, symbolic food-like item from the seder plate.  Here’s a pic.

Sedar Plate

Mmmm.  Looks delicious doesn’t it?

Finally, half starved and a bit drunk from the four glasses of wine you are required to drink, the meal arrives.  It inevitably begins with matzoh ball soup* and finishes with macaroons.  You know the end is in site when you are told to go open the front door to allow Eliyahu to enter – that would be the prophet who will announce the arrival of the messiah.

Christian’s think Jesus was the messiah.  Jews say, horseshit.  If he was the messiah, the world would be at peace now. Which makes me wonder.  If Jesus is god’s son, do you think god is embarrassed?  I mean god is big into plagues and baby smiting and all that.  He’s a bit of a neo-con.  And Jesus is kind of a hippy.  But I digress.

Finally, somebody hides a piece of matzoh.   All the kids look for it.  The kid who finds it gets $1.  Since I was the only kid around much of the time, I was pretty much guaranteed the dollar.  So, at least they paid me.  Although, ironically, at slave wages.


* A guy walks into a Jewish deli and asks for their best dish.  The waiter brings him matzoh ball soup.  The guy is a little skeptical, but tries the soup anyway.  The waiter asks, “did you like it?”  The guy says, “yeah, I did like it.  What other part of the matzoh do they cook?”


Why the Legal System Does Not Work For You

March 26, 2010 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Criminalization

On Monday I wrote about how car contracts work and how people end up getting screwed.  The logical question, and the one that started this all, is why doesn’t the legal system work for you?  And the answer is…it isn’t meant to.

Who writes the laws?  Legislators.  Who are the legislators?  They are wealthier than you.  They have more powerful friends and relatives.  And, most importantly, they have a steady stream of lobbyists at their doorstep.  Ford Motor Credit Company, for example, spent $7,230,000 on lobbying in 2009.  What are the chances, do you think, that those lobbyists have no effect on what the law says?

Who interprets the laws?  You may think that it is the judge who interprets the law, but that is not exactly true.  Judges are incredibly conservative.  They would much rather be shown a pile of precedent so that they can just follow those that came before them.  Some judges would like to use more judicial discretion, to consider what is fair, but that has become near impossible in a climate where everyone screams about “activist judges.”

A judge who may want to allow someone to file bankruptcy, ignoring a technicality of the law, will feel compelled to go against their better judgment.  Criminal judges have been restricted by mandatory minimum sentencing requirements.  Over and over judges will tell you that their hands are tied by the law.

I don’t want to make judges out to be hapless victims in all of this.  One of the reasons that judicial discretion was challenged was because some judges were not being impartial.  The person who wrote the legislation that led to horrible mandatory minimum sentences was, he says, attempting to address racial discrimination related to who got out on bail and who didn’t.

Another problem with judges is that their positions have been politicized.  Many judges have to run for their office.  How knowledgeable about a judge’s history of rulings do you think the average voter is? And running for office means raising money.  Judges raise a lot of money from people who may later appear before them in court.  The other party may not even know about the relationship.  And even if they do know, it is not necessarily grounds for recusal.  (Justice at Stake is a good resource on judge related issues.)

And if you think you can avoid the perils of bad judges with a jury, think again.  The judge will determine what a jury gets to see and hear, if you get a jury at all.  Contrary to what you may believe from watching television.  You do not always have a right to a jury trial.  The right to a jury trial extends to criminal proceedings and civil cases in federal court.  Since many cases (all the car contract cases I was referring to in my previous post) are in state court, it will be governed by state rules.  What’s more, contracts typically contain language waiving your right to a jury trial.  They may even have language waiving your right to a trial period.  Check your credit card fine print.  Bet you have a provision requiring arbitration for disputes.

And you don’t have a right to an attorney either.  You have the right to hire an attorney.  If you cannot afford an attorney, and it is not a case that involves possible jail time, you have few options.  You can put your name on a list and hope that you will be one of the lucky few to get legal aid.  Otherwise, sucks for you.  (More on that issue at the website for Civil Right to Counsel.)  And even if you do get an attorney, what kind of attorney will you get.  A bad attorney might be worse than no attorney at all.

If you have a bad attorney, one who is having a mental breakdown, you might end up convicted of a felony when you didn’t actually commit one.  You might find yourself on death row, even though your attorney slept through the trial. If you have a good attorney, on the other hand, there is a very good chance things will settle out of court and with a result far more to your liking.  One of the trial attorneys I worked for had such a killer reputation that she almost never had to go to court.  Nobody wanted to go up against her.

The attorney ends up being key.  Because in a system that is focused on intricacies of overly complex laws and voluminous libraries of precedent, the person who best understands how to manipulate those laws and precedents to their advantage wins.  The law then becomes less about justice and more about wit.  And wit is expensive – Johnny Cochran made $500 an hour.  Joe Shmo probably pulls in $200.  Of course, their paralegal charges you an hourly rate and so does the associate attorney doing research.  And let’s not forget the office full of legal secretaries and other staff that are navigating the ins and outs of procedural rules – from when to file your pleadings to what color ink you need to use to sign.

It is not completely outside the realm of possibility that a lay person would be able to figure out the law and outsmart an attorney.  But they would have to have a hell of a lot of time on their hands.  And they would have to have some basic skills in reading and research.  22% of U.S. adults don’t even meet basic literacy levels.  And the poorer someone is, the more likely they are functionally illiterate.  Add to that the general financial illiteracy of the vast majority of adults.  What chance do they have?

One of the fundamental principles of the legal system is equality before the law.  It sounds good in theory, but in practice it doesn’t exist.  In those car contract cases, when you treat a lone defendant as equals with the plaintiff – a corporation which probably helped write the law, has the best lobbyists money can buy, employs hundreds of attorneys, and donates to the judges reelection fund -it’s a joke.  Treating them equal is actually anything but.

And now we arrive at personal responsibility.  I’ve managed to live without ever signing a car contract.  It is true that other people could too.  It’s true that some of the people who defaulted on their contracts just wanted a shiny new thing and didn’t really consider whether or not they could afford it.  But it is also true that many of those people just hit unexpected hard times and had the misfortune of living in a city with one of the worst public transportation systems.  And many of the people who get all high and mighty about personal responsibility don’t have any better understanding of financial instruments or the law.  They just have enough money not to suffer for their lack of knowledge.

More importantly, the real lack of personal responsibility is within the system itself.  The purchaser of a car is responsible for their actions on the day they sign that contract, but the salesman isn’t.  He’s protected by the magic of limited liability and faceless bureaucracy.  His neighbors will not shame him if he is irresponsible in his sales.  None of the people who work at the car company or the finance company or the courthouse are going to have to face the friends and neighbors of the person who gets steamrolled by the process.  None of them have any personal responsibility.

So what do I think?  I think, first and foremost, we have too many damn laws.  I think we should get rid of the vast majority of them.  As I’ve said before, we need to stop the knee jerk law passing every time something seems wrong.  Maybe something does need to be done, but it doesn’t have to mean passing a law.

I think a person should always have a right to a jury trial – something that is only practical if we don’t have so many damn laws.  Contracts should be verbal, as well as written, and video taped so that we can see exactly what the understanding of all parties was.  Precedent should be, if anything, a vague guideline and not a noose.  People who cry “judicial activism” should be made to suffer a Kafkaesque year of actually experiencing the legal system.

We need a massive grassroots effort to improve literacy (including financial literacy).  Conflict resolution should be the number one priority in education (yup, even before literacy).  People who screw people over by using their cleverness, whether in manipulating the law or inventing “creative” financial instruments, should be shunned for the anti-social deviants they are.  And we should all absolutely refuse to accept any more specialized language, specialized knowledge, and intentionally confusing bullshit from anyone.  Ever.

If it’s inaccessible, it should be unacceptable.

Finally, I tried to come up with a more widely palatable answer or short term solutions to the political/corporate clusterfuck where all these terrible laws come from.  But I just can’t.  The only solution is to take things into our own hands and stop giving our power away to those people.  So long as we keep thinking that the next politician will be better, we’ll keep having monstrous laws passed that nobody reads, much less understands.

Watts Towers Closing Down

March 25, 2010 By: Mel Category: Art

I don’t usually post on Thursdays, but I just heard that they are closing the Watts Towers (and a bunch of other art centers in L.A.) and it really bums me out.

You’ve may have heard of the Watts riots or seen Menace to Society.  But even if you live in L.A., you probably haven’t actually been to Watts.  And that’s a damn shame.  It’s a shame because people should step outside of Hollywood.  And it’s a shame because the Watt’s Towers are an iconic and internationally known piece of art.

Some kooky Italian tile setter started building them with rebar and broken things (from coke bottles to chipped tiles).  He built the towers so securely (sans architect or engineer or building codes) that a crane was unable to take them down.

Here are some pics I took a few years ago.

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Yes, I realize that people are starving and that art is not always on the top of the agenda.  But this is L.A. we are talking about.  Every mofo in that city calls themselves an artist.  A real artist would appreciate something that was done just because they needed to create, not for any kind of money.

Who knows, maybe if people made enough of a stink, Los Angeles would start paying attention to the towers and (better yet) to Watts.

Things You Might Have Missed

March 24, 2010 By: Mel Category: Misc

I spent my lunch hour (o.k., several hours) over at CATO watching a premier of 10 Rules For Dealing with Police.  Very useful info.  Usually, CATO puts up podcasts of their events.  Nothing up there yet, but I’ll give you the link here, in case they put it up.

Another video I would highly recommend is Charles Johnson’s talk at the Free State Project Forum.  He covers an incredible amount of ground.  Really good.

In Mexico, the people of the Lacandon rainforest are being cleared out to make way for plantations and eco-tourism spots.

Mike Davis documents the, now international, labor struggle of Boron miners in California.

Arundhati Roy spent some time with the tribal Maoists who are in a bitter struggle against the Indian government.  This is a story we do not hear enough about.

Georgia has decided that it can put anybody they feel like on a sex offender registry.

Flash mobs may have been cute when it was hipsters having spontaneous pillow fights in San Francisco.  But now that black people are trying to take back their streets, all hell is breaking loose in Phili.

And finally, props the Argentinian judge (or jury or whoever) that decided the proper punishment for some skinheads who vandalized a synagogue was to make them work at the holocaust museum.  Yeah, it’s coercion.  But it’s a hell of a lot better than jail and maybe something will sink in.

Car Contracts 101

March 22, 2010 By: Mel Category: Misc

A recent post over on Aretae got me thinking about the law.  Considering that I worked in it for ten years, it’s a bit odd that I don’t spend more time on it.  So let me dive in with a little 101 on my experiences with contract law.

For about four and a half years, I worked for a collection attorney.  Mostly, we collected money on car contracts, specifically on the balance left over after the car had been repossessed and sold.  Our biggest client was Ford Motor Credit Company.  We also did some work for Chrysler Credit and a few minor players.  Here’s what I learned while on the dark side.

Let’s say someone decides to buy a car.  They head off to the friendly Ford dealership.  The huckster salesperson up-sells them to a lovely vehicle that they can’t really afford.  Amazingly, even with crap credit and an $8 an hour job, they are approved by the finance company.  According to my old boss, quite a few dealerships had arrangements with Ford Motor Credit Company (a separate business from Ford Motor) wherein the credit company had to approve a certain percentage of submitted loan applications, no matter how bad the applicant’s credit was.

Faced with a contract written in legalese by a team of finance company lawyers, the buyer turns to the salesperson for clarification.  (That is assuming they can read the contract at all.  I never realized how many illiterate people there were in the U.S. until I worked in collections.)  The salesman explains things, but doesn’t really have any reason to be clear.  After all, he gets paid even if they buyer defaults.  There is no outside advice or witness to what is said by the dealership.

The dealer gets paid by the finance company.  The salesman makes their commission.  Meanwhile the car decreased in value the minute it was driven off the lot and the car contract is at 24% interest (uncommon, but not unheard of).  Escaping that interest is not an option as the contract most likely precludes paying the car off early to avoid interest payments.

If the buyer misses several payments, the finance company will repossess the car.  It will be sold at auction where the person who buys it at a bargain basement price might be with the repo company who took the car or with the used car side of the dealership where the car was purchased.

That money made at auction is applied to the total contract amount owed and the purchaser then owes the balance.  For an over simplified, made up, and slightly exaggerated calculation:

  • Car Cost   25,000 + Interest  @ 24%  6,000 = Total Contract 31,000
  • Less the Auction Price of 15,000
  • Balance owed for the car you don’t have 16,000

(Back in the early 90s, most of the files I worked on owed more like $5,000 – $7,000 on their contracts.)

The finance company tries to collect directly.  When that fails, they send the file to an attorney.  The attorney files a lawsuit and serves the purchaser.  If they do not answer within a certain amount of time, the attorney gets a default judgment for the entire amount.  That’s what happened to most people.

For those that did file a response, we submitted a motion for summary judgment and set it for a hearing.  Can’t get off work to go to a hearing?  No show meant automatic judgment.  Rarely did cases go to trial.  And I can’t recollect a single one that involved a jury.  I’m not even sure people could request a jury.

Coincidentally, I’m reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.  In it he talks about how the law was changed in the 30 years prior to the civil war in order to better suit capitalist development.  Specifically, he mentions that “judgments for damages against businessmen were taken out of the hands of juries, which were unpredictable, and given to judges.”  I suspect a little digging would find similar roots for contracts in general.

I should mention here that collections is a real paper mill.  The firm I worked for was working on file numbers in the forty thousand range for one client alone.  Everything is automated and automatic.  There is no way that the courts could handle the influx of cases if people actually started to respond to these things.  So the sheer volume of cases would surely make jury trials an impossibility.

Once a judgment is entered against you, it is recorded.  In Florida, it can be re-recorded for twenty years.  It will also accrue interest annually.  In the early 90s, in Florida, interest was about 12 percent per year.  A recorded judgment is a lien on your property.  It doesn’t have to be property that you owned when the judgment was put in place.  It is a lien on any property you have.

One poor shmuck was selling his house.  During the closing, a last minute lien check discovered an old car loan he had not paid off.  It had been sitting around collecting interest for 19 years.  He had to pay it off before he could sell his house.  Bet that took a chunk out of his earnings.

The finance company really cannot lose. In our previous example, they paid the dealership the price of the car 25,000.  They received 15,000 from the auction.  That leaves them at negative 10 grand.  (In reality, most people made a few payments before defaulting – sometimes years of payments.)  Even if you don’t pay, they get to write off the entire $16,000 as a loss.  That’s $16,000 of income somewhere else that they won’t have to pay taxes on.  And even after they write it off, there is still a good chance they will collect eventually (with the additional interest accumulated on a judgment).

Of course, this whole process starts before you actually decide to go to a car dealership.  It is next to impossible to live in many areas without a car.  And if you think that car companies didn’t use their influence to see roads built with your tax dollars, there is a lovely bridge in Brooklyn that I’d like you to see.  Every zoning ordinance and city project that promoted urban sprawl benefited car companies at the expense of public transit and (I would say) our quality of life.

There is so much wrong here, it is difficult to know where to begin.  In the interest of length, I’m going to stop here and post my thoughts on the problems and maybe even some solutions on Friday.

Things You Might Have Missed

March 17, 2010 By: Mel Category: Misc

Just making arrangements for next month’s anarchist book fair in New York.  If any of you are going to be there, drop me an email (

Lots of people refer to Gandhi as a “philosophical anarchist.”  Josh Fattal looks at the evidence.

In Anarchist Out and Proud, welshboi contradicts people who claim that anarchism has a bad reputation and cannot be redeemed.

James writes about his discovery that being an anarchist makes him a fugitive in Oklahoma.

Farmers markets can be fairly bougie and overpriced.  So I loved hearing about the Midtown Mama’s low income friendly version.  I did not; however, enjoy reading about how the cops went in and shut down the liberty market here in DC over permit issues.  WTF.

Just in case you forgot how shitty work is for the people who make your clothes, some garment workers in Bangladesh just died in a fire while making things for H&M.  (That’s how they make it so cheap ya know.)

On a happier note.  There is a surprisingly interesting piece in Time (of all places) about what our future might look like. (HT Mariana E)

And finally, I LOVE that an actual corporation is running for office.  If they disallow them for being too young, I seriously hope that another organization steps in.  That’s the way to challenge corporate personhood if there ever was one.

On Politics and Picking a Team

March 15, 2010 By: Mel Category: Politics

Politics are like team sports.

You pick a team based on some random fact like an accident of birth or the personal charisma of one of the team players.  Then, knowing little about the lives or beliefs of the people on your team, you put all your energy and quite a bit of your money into rooting for them.

The players on the field, like politicians, play the game because they sometimes win.  And even if they don’t win, they get money and benefits far out of proportion to their worth.  The owners, like corporate boards, win no matter what.  All the money you spend rooting for your team, like campaign contributions, really ends up going to owners in the end.  We build them stadiums or give them subsidies with our tax dollars, and those charismatic player/politicians make sure we do it.

We are just spectators.  We can buy a team jersey.  We can pay the salaries of the players.  We might even get an autograph or a rush when our team wins.  But we will never benefit from that win.  We will only pay for it.  And no matter how many scandals there are we keep on paying, because we are addicted to the game.

What if we stopped being spectators?  What if we took off the team jerseys and actually spoke to the other people in the stands?  Even better, what if we left the stadium and started talking to the people who can’t even afford to be spectators?  What if we all invented a new game that was just as entertaining, but that everyone could play and everyone could benefit from?

Are Atheist “Evangelizers” Feminists?

March 12, 2010 By: Mel Category: Religion

I read an interesting letter by Jim Davidson that got me thinking (HT to @BradSpangler and Diana Culda).  In a nutshell, the letter asserts that abortion is indeed homicide, but that it is justifiable homicide.  I’ll let you read the letter and ponder his arguments on your own time.  Because that’s not exactly what I want to write about.

Davidson’s letter got me thinking about the abortion controversy as a controversy over women having the power of death.  It got me thinking about the fact that women have the power over life and death.  And it got me thinking how a religious person might view that power.

So let’s say you are a man who has been brought up your entire life to believe you were the stronger, more powerful sex.  Let’s say you took for granted that your physical strength was an outward manifestation of that power.  If you believe in a strict gender binary.  If you believe in hierarchy.  If you believe that power is created and ordained by god.  Then wouldn’t the realization that your god gave women the power over life and death destroy your world?  Because wouldn’t that mean that god, having given women the power over life and death, intended for women to rule?

I don’t, of course, believe any of that.  But I do think it is fascinating.  It’s fascinating for the window it may provide into the fragile psyche of the male, anti-abortion zealot.  And it is fascinating for the window it provides into religion.  It so clearly shows religion to be about nothing more than deceiving women into believing that they were not given the powers of life or death.  It is not women, they claim, but god who creates life.  It is not women, but god who chooses whether or not a fetus survives.

Taken from that standpoint, patriarchal religion is just a cabal of men who got together to convince women that, rather than having the power over life and death, god gave them reproductive organs as a sign of their perpetual servitude (aka nurturing).  And it makes a lot more sense why so many anti-abortion extremists claim to be pro-life but support the death penalty and war.  It isn’t that they have a problem with death.  They just have a problem with women deciding who lives and dies.

So, if a religion’s fundamental purpose is to dis-empower women, then what point is there in trying to fight against the oppression of women from within the religion’s structure.  The Pope can’t cave in.  His entire purpose in life is to defend an elaborate structure that was built by men to give the illusion that they were given more power by god.  It was built so they could deceive themselves and anyone else who actually buys into their bullshit.

Which brings me to my question.  If the structure of patriarchy is built on the lies of religion, doesn’t that put the atheist “evangelizers”  on the front lines of the fight for women’s rights?