"What does not change / is the will to change"
--Charles Olson, "The Kingfishers"

Monday, September 1, 2014

Are we criminalizing art and the imagination?

A Maryland middle school teacher has been removed from the classroom, placed in police custody and had his house searched -- all because he wrote and self-published a dystopian sci-fi novel that imagined a mass school shooting.

According to CBS DC (where all of the information and quotations come from), Patrick McLaw was removed from school by "Members of the Dorchester Sheriff’s Office, the Cambridge Police Department and the Dorchester County Public School board" because he "allegedly penn(ed) two books under the alias, 'Dr. K.S. Voltaer,'” one of which "depicts 'the largest school massacre' in history." (UPDATE: It is WBOC that is reporting that police said McLaw was being investigated because of the books.)

The school district says McLaw "has been placed on a leave of absence pending an ongoing investigation 'due to significant matters of concern brought forth by law enforcement.'"
Dorchester Sheriff James Phillips told WBOC that McLaw was taken in for an emergency medical evaluation but the sheriff declined to disclose the current whereabouts of McLaw. Police swept Mace’s Lane Middle School for bombs and guns on the same day McLaw was taken in for the evaluation – coming up empty in the search.

“The information we received caused us to return to Dorchester County and immediately take the following steps,” Phillips said, according to My Eastern Shore MD. “A K-9 sweep was conducted at the Mace’s Lane School looking for explosive devices and other weapons. A secondary search was performed by police and school officials looking for suspicious packages or other items. Both of these searches were negative.”

“The residence of the teacher in Wicomico County was searched by personnel,” Phillips said, with no weapons found, reports WBOC.”A further check of Maryland State Police databases also proved to be negative as to any weapons registered to him. McLaw was suspended by the Dorchester County Board of Education pending an investigation and is no longer in the area. He is currently at a location known to law enforcement and does not currently have the ability to travel anywhere.”
It is a troubling piece of news -- mostly because it appears to criminalize the creation of art. Have we gotten to a point when writers have to worry that the product of their imaginations might land them in the cross hairs of the authorities? Absent other information -- such as a more detailed explanation of "the information" alluded to by Phillips and a detailed explanation as to why McLaw may have posed a threat -- this is the only conclusion I can come to. If all police and school officials are going on are two novels penned (allegedly) by McLaw, then they are conflating thought and action. They are saying that the products of his imagination are the same as his actions or, at the very least, that his thoughts must automatically lead to real-world action.

It is an assumption that is dangerous to a functioning democracy that is supposed to value free speech and thought. While all actions might start in the imagination (as Barbara Grizzutti Harrison said -- also quoted on Criminal Minds, of all things), not all things imagined result in actions, not all art is evidence of an intention or is representative of the world. There is distinction between what we think and what we do and the law -- and the government -- needs to respect this.

By the way, there is a petition drive going on asking that the district apologize and reinstate the teacher.

Here is the press release from the district. It doesn't mention the books directly. This story from WBOC says:
Early last week the school board was alerted that one of its eighth grade language arts teachers at Mace's Lane Middle School had several aliases.  Police said that under those names, he wrote two fictional books about the largest school shooting in the country's history set in the future.  Now, Patrick McLaw is placed on leave.

Dr. K.S. Voltaer is better known by some in Dorchester County as Patrick McLaw, or even Patrick Beale.  Not only was he a teacher at Mace's Lane Middle School in Cambridge, but according to Dorchester Sheriff James Phillips, McLaw is also the author of two books: "The Insurrectionist" and its sequel, "Lillith's Heir."

Those books are what caught the attention of police and school board officials in Dorchester County.  "The Insurrectionist" is about two school shootings set in the future, the largest in the country's history.
UPDATE: The Harrison and Criminal Minds attribution after writing this.

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sick-leave rules get their biggest endorsement

California is poised to become the second state to require paid sick leave for private employees. As reported by Think Progress,

Early on Saturday morning, the California Senate passed a bill guaranteeing at least three paid sick days a year for about 6.5 million workers, sending it to Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

Brown’s office said it supports the bill, and in a statement after it passed he said, “Tonight, the Legislature took historic action to help hardworking Californians.” Assuming he signs the bill, California will become just the second state ever to guarantee paid sick leave and the law will be the tenth in the nation.
New Jersey, of course, has two of those eight municipal laws, with six more expected to pass either legislatively or by referendum sometime this year. There also is a state-wide bill under consideration that has the support of Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson).

The California vote -- and the New Jersey actions -- signal a major split, with many Democratically controlled or leaning states backing sick leave and GOP states moving to stop the effort. Think Progress says 10 states, including Florida, have passed legislation to prevent local action.

California, however, is the largest state in the nation and home to one in 12 Americans. It also has one of the largest economies in the world -- bigger than many individual nations. That could give it outsized influence in the debate, because businesses operating there may ultimately opt to apply the California rules to all of their locations.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Feds recognize domestic abuse as persecution

The nation's highest immigration court is acknowledging something that battered and abused women have always know: domestic violence is a form of persecution.

As The New York Times reports, the Board of Immigration Appeals issued a "nine-page decision (that) helps clarify the interpretation of broad and vague language in the legal definition of a refugee." Under immigration,

Foreigners may qualify for asylum if they have a “well-founded fear of persecution” based on race, nationality, religion, political opinion or “membership in a particular social group.”
Women’ now qualify as a protected group, because ongoing violence and threats are the essence of persecution.

This, of course, is something advocates for domestic violence have long understood. The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines abuse as
a repetitive pattern of behaviors to maintain power and control over an intimate partner. These are behaviors that physically harm, arouse fear, prevent a partner from doing what they wish or force them to behave in ways they do not want. Abuse includes the use of physical and sexual violence, threats and intimidation, emotional abuse and economic deprivation. Many of these different forms of abuse can be going on at any one time.
This is not materially different from the general dictionary definition of persecution: "to treat (someone) cruelly or unfairly especially because of race or religious or political beliefs."

Anti-immigration groups disagree, as the Times reports.
“A lot of these cases are undeniably horrific, but do we want to destroy our refugee system to make these ultimately political statements about domestic violence?” asked Michael M. Hethmon, a lawyer who argued in the case for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that seeks reduced immigration.
But this is a flawed argument. All legal definitions are political. They are developed based upon a series of calculations and negotiations and attempt to balance a variety of competing interests. In this case, the court decided that the threat of continued violence faced by Aminta Cifuentes, the Guatemalan asylum-seeker at the center of this case, outweighed other considerations and that the those greats -- and the threats faced by other women fleeing abuse -- deserves protection.

Anti-immigration advocates are not really concerned about this being a political statement so much as they are concerned about its impact on asylum claims. The ruling is likely to expand access to asylum and could all ultimately have some bearing on child asylum claims. From a humanitarian standpoint, this is good news -- as it is for the rights and welfare of women around the world.

Journalists need a free hand

This is unconscionable: FIU has denied press credentials to a Miami Herald reporter for the school's opening football game, offering no explanation.

This might seem a minor issue -- an insignificant sports item about a small football program -- but it's not. It represents what has become a standard effort by those in power to impose the ethos of public relations on coverage. The goal is to eliminate critical or what they believe is invasive coverage with positive press.

In response to the FIU decision to refuse credentials to the Herald beat reporter, the paper is opting not to cover the opening game. It's a difficult choice -- opting to avoid covering an event that readers may be interested in -- but it is the only leverage the Herald has.

“It’s unprecedented for any local team to refuse to credential our beat reporter without reason,” Miami Herald Executive Editor Aminda Marqués Gonzalez said of the four pro and two college teams the Herald covers on a regular basis. “The team does not get to choose who covers the program.”
And that's the key point. Teams, businesses, politicians -- no one -- should be given opportunity to select the entities that will cover them. That puts the power in the hands of the people who most need watching and potentially guts our ability as journalists to function as watchdogs. Journalists need a free hand to report, which they won't have if they have to worry that negative coverage might cost them access or credentials.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Fear-mongering in the name of xenophobia

I received this email today from an anti-immigrant group:

According to Judicial Watch, the Feds are warning of an imminent terrorist attack from ISIL affiliated groups operating out of Ciudad Juarez in Mexico.

The article states, "Agents across a number of Homeland Security, Justice and Defense agencies have all been placed on alert and instructed to aggressively work all possible leads and sources concerning this imminent terrorist threat."

The article goes on to say, "These new revelations are bound to impact the current debate about the border crisis and immigration policy."

No kidding!

Click this link to read the whole story.
I know this is supposed to scare us , but it is a pretty typical bit of fear-mongering designed to gun up the outrage machine and generate fundraising for right-wing groups. So , scary it isn't -- unless the prospect that there are thousands who are quite ready to believe this nonsense. That's what I find scary.