Monday, December 5, 2016

Our Prison Population

Here's an email from Senator Cory Booker, NJ, sent on White House stationery.

It's about the huge increase in the US prison population and the Obama administration's efforts to reduce these numbers.

Thank you to my brother Jim for this piece.

If someone had pulled aside the signers of the Declaration of Independence 240 years ago and told them that, one day, the country they founded would be home to the largest number of imprisoned people in the world, they might have been more than a little disappointed.
Yet this is where we find our country today: The United States, founded on the basis of liberty and justice for all, suffers from that distinction. Twenty five percent of all imprisoned people on our planet are imprisoned right here in America. And the fact of the matter is that, at the federal level, the majority of those imprisoned aren’t hardened, violent prisoners. Far too many are nonviolent, low-level drug offenders. 
Thanks to policies enacted by Congress, our federal prison population has exploded by nearly 800 percent over the past the 30 years. And to pay for it, we’ve had to increase our prison spending by almost 400 percent. But the fact that these polices were enacted by our government in the first place should serve as a reminder that we have the agency to change them.
Momentum is building across America -- in states, in the federal government, in both political parties -- to change this misapplication of justice that so grossly misrepresents our priorities as a nation.
A diverse coalition of individuals, groups, and organizations -- ranging from Democrats to Republicans to law enforcement officials and clergy -- have come together to call for a comprehensive change in the trajectory of our justice system. And under President Obama’s leadership, the collective vision of these groups has found a home and a voice in the White House.
I have been proud to stand by President Obama as he has taken courageous steps in recent years to make our justice system more just.
Today, the White House is announcing that over 300 companies and organizations have signed the Fair Chance Business Pledge, a commitment to eliminate unnecessary hiring barriers facing people with a criminal record. Along with this step and a series of Administrative actions to enhance the fairness and effectiveness of the criminal justice system, he’s shown that the federal government can lead the way to progress.
President Obama has created a legacy of bold action that we must carry on to elevate the cause of criminal justice reform, from Congress to statehouses across the country.
But the conversation can’t stop there, and neither can the work. We must once again declare that we are a nation of independence, rooted in the spirit of interdependence. What happens to any of us, happens to all of us -- and we won’t get where we want to go faster by leaving anyone behind.
I look forward to standing shoulder to shoulder with you in this fight to reclaim our criminal justice system in the years to come.
Thank you,
Cory Booker
U.S. Senator

Dangerous Professors

"I am a dangerous professor," reports George Yancy in a column yesterday in the New York Times Sunday Review.

Some of his students have placed him on a new "Professor Watchlist" designed to "oppose voices in academia that are anti-Republican or express anti-Republican values."

As an African-American professor of  philosophy, Yancy is used to being pulled over for driving while black and being harassed in other ways.

But this attempt to intimidate him out of teaching truth is new to him.

He compares it to the way Socrates was put on trial because "he would not cease to exhort Athenians to care more for justice than they did for wealth or reputation."

He cites George Orwell's 1984 with the phenomenon of New-speak--designed "to diminish the range of thought."

Yancy, like Socrates, vows to carry on: "Well, if it is dangerous to teach my students to love their neighbors, to think and rethink constructively about who their neighbors are... then yes, I am dangerous, and what I teach is dangerous."

I too was a dangerous professor, asking my students to rethink Genesis 1-3 and II Timothy, to reconsider Israeli-Palestinian relations, and to understand Islam and gender issues within Islam.

It was difficult, and I got plenty of negative feedback as well as considerable complete lack of comprehension.  I'm grateful no longer to be fighting on that front.

In this context, I would like to honor a professor who lost his life three days ago to a student who had taken a violent dislike to him.  Dr. Bosco Tjan was technical director of the neuroscience center at the University of Southern California.  (See my comments on Dec. 3.)

Like journalists, professors are endangered by those who don't like their message or methods.  

This right-wing "Professor Watchlist" is scary.  Its founders may intend only to intimidate and silence, but the crazies on the fringe may take these names and commit murders.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Taxation without Representation

Excellent analysis by Steven Johnson in the New York Times Sunday Review today about how the blue states are losing economically as well as in their unequal status in the Electoral College:

"'s the blue state citizens who are funding a system that by law undercounts their votes," he concludes.

For every dollar New Jersey pays in taxes, it receives 61 cents in federal benefits and spending, while Wyoming spends a dollar and gets $1.11 back.

Yet every voter in rural Wyoming has more than 3 times the weight in the Electoral College as a voter in New Jersey or California.  

Being taxed but under-represented is called taxation without representation.

Why are we Californians, Minnesotans, New Jerseyans, New Englanders and others putting up with this system?  

Down with the electoral college!  We need a one-vote-equal-to-all-other-votes system, like the other democracies of the world.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

In Memoriam: Bosco Tjan

A professor of neuroscience does not expect to become a martyr.

He does not expect one of his grad students to come to his office and stab him to death, but this happened yesterday to Bosco Tjan, technical director of the neuroscience center at the University of Southern California.

He was a kind professor, 50 years old, who spent extra time with struggling students, the kind of professor who could be found in his office at 4:30 pm on a Friday.  Thank you to James Queally and Amina Khan for interviewing his colleagues and 

He had been born in Beijing, raised in Hong Kong, and emigrated to the US as a teenager with his family.  He earned his doctorate in computer and information sciences at the University of Minnesota.

His research focused on helping people with retinal degeneration.  He left behind a wife and child.

At USC, some faculty have speculated on "whether Brown attacked Tjan after receiving a 'less than stellar' review from the committee that evaluates graduate students." 

Investigation has not yet been done, but poor grades are the usual motive.  

I remember the ire of students who got a B or B- when they had expected an A.  They hounded me, quibbled over points given on quizzes and exam, told me how they were applying to law school or some other graduate program and needed this grade.

They asked friends what grades they had received and argued that their work was as good as someone else's.  

Tjan's death reminds me of the shooting death of UCLA professor William S. Klug last June.  The assailant was a disgruntled former graduate student.

As scholars in graduate school, soon to be professors, we pursue ever more narrowly defined specializations, but no one trains us in how to identify dangerous students, channel them toward help, and protect ourselves.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Handy Definitions

Definition of the new "alt-right" -- as formulated by New York Times reporters and editors, as tweeted by Raju Narisetti.

And here's the word we will use increasingly as these four years wear on: fascism.


Also found in: ThesaurusLegalFinancialEncyclopediaWikipedia.
Related to fascism: Neo fascism


1. often Fascism
a. system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, a capitalist economy subjectto stringent governmental controls, violent suppression of the opposition, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism.
b. political philosophy or movement based on or advocating such a system of government.
2. Oppressive, dictatorial control.

Grim 4 years ahead...

It's going to be a grim four years.

Today's headline in the Los Angeles Times:

White House billionaires club: Wealthiest Cabinet will be tasked with serving populist agenda

Thank you to Don Lee for reporting on "the most wealthy group of people who have served in a presidential Cabinet in history," as historian Robert Spitzer describes it.

The New York Times describes how dt yesterday "soaked up the adulation" of his followers, "unabashedly gloating about the 'great' victory he had secured.

"He boasted about himself in the third person.  He sneered at the opponents he had vanquished.  He disparaged journalists and invited angry chants from the crowd, grinning broadly at calls of 'lock her up'and 'build the wall.'  He ridiculed the government's leaders as stupid and dishonest failures."

Thank you to Nick Corasaniti and Michael D. Shear for their excellent reporting and writing.

I don't see how I can bear to read coverage about this upcoming presidency.  I have turned off my television, and I quickly switch stations on my radio when I hear his voice or his supporters.

I still read the newspapers, for now.  

Making Money from Lies

How to handle liars?

This is the problem facing US news media this year and in the coming four years.

If someone such as dt speaks outright lies in an interview televised live, do you turn off the camera?

Do you follow with fact-checking to try to counteract the effect of the lies?

The hairline victory by dt in November was built on lies and on promises the candidate did not intend to keep.

On Wednesday evening, journalists and politicians gathered for "what is a typically staid postelection conference at Harvard," according to New York Times reporter Michael M. Grynbaum.

Much anger was directed at CNN president Jeffrey A. Zucker for making about $1 billion in profit this year, much of it from election coverage.

"At what point do you say you cannot come on our air anymore because you have told too many lies?" demanded Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post.

"You showered hours upon hours of unfiltered, unscrutinized coverage of Trump!" shouted a top advisor to Marco Rubio.  

As Zucker noted, lies sell.  Showing dt day after day during the primaries lifted CNN's ratings.

The panel's moderator Sasha Issenberg quipped, let's move on "to a less contentious subject, fake news."

US government is veering off the charts in many ways as a result of this election.  Just one of those ways is having a president who lies freely, often in impulsive tweets.

May God save us, and may the Fourth Estate step up to the task and expose the lies.

Unfortunately, journalists are fewer in number and finding it harder to land paid jobs as print journalism shrinks and online media, websites, and bloggers run rampant, often with facts unchecked.