Vague attribution in the “how dare you care about Cecil the Lion call-outs”

I’m noticing a lot of vague attribution, like this piece from Bryony Gordon from the Telegraph: Cecil the lion’s killing tells us a lot about the wrongs of animal rights activists. Supposedly, there are all these animal rights people out there outraged over Cecil the Lion but not outraged about meat-eating or ecosystem destruction. Or aborted fetuses.

I call horse shit. You know why? Because I read in the animal ethics literature all the time, and most people who condemn hunting for sport also condemn the torture-industrial complex of factory farming, too. The controversies in that literature are almost all about cultural differences in animals’ moral standing, and whether it’s legitimate to use animals for culturally situated rituals and/or subsistence. Those are the big questions. No credible animal rights ethicist that I can think of, even the ones I think are wrong about just about everything (Holmes Ralston III) has been silent about meat-eating and then suddenly, out of the blue, became outraged by Cecil the Lion’s death at the hands of Dr. Palmer, aka the man currently regretting his vacation activities. (But, if the pictures are any indicator, he does have good teeth.) Animal ethicists, particularly feminists, have turned themselves inside out over the abortion and animal suffering duality.

Plenty of people in the mainstream have not; people hold inconsistent moral views all the time. I do, and probably you do. I do, generally, until I’ve really really worked out what I think. How can people on the right fly into a fury over abortion but just as vehemently support the death penalty? How can people on the left support abortion but oppose the death penalty? People hold ostensibly conflicting views all the time, and these positions make sense to the people that hold them. If you ask, they’ll say “Well, but a killer deserves to be killed!” or “A fetus is not a baby!” Or something that demonstrates they have prior assumptions about weighting the different moral concerns in play. How can you reconcile “Thou shalt not kill” with hunting or the death penalty? (Plenty of ethicists have taken a whack at these questions; the answers aren’t as easy as intuition might suggest.)

What IS easy is to write columns saying “A lot of people believe this, and here is how they are wrong to believe that” when, in fact, “This” doesn’t represent a carefully developed position at all and very few people actually believe “this.” People hold positions, some of them are fully consistent with some principle or another, but others are much more ad hoc, and this internet scolding strikes me as an industry for people looking for something to write about and a means to air various grievances about perceived dumb, hypocritical positions of their dumb, hypocritical political opponents.

And there’s the simple inaccuracy of it: what about the vegans who HAVE been outraged about police homicides AND systematic ecosystem destruction? Do they get a break? Or do they just get in the way of the straw man we need to construct our column this week? Or are we mad at them for not choosing which one of those outrages they should be most outraged about?

Sure, there are activists who only care about particular species, and while we can criticize them in the same way we could criticize people interested in curing cancer instead of curing obesity or being interested in “overall health.” Consequentist arguments can almost always appeal to the bigger tent of concern or utility. But that line of thinking is its own trap: yes, I murdered that kid, but hey, murder is so rare that the rest of you should stop worrying about what I did, get some perspective and go back to worrying about climate change, a much bigger issue, than delivering justice for this kid. Hey, you know African Americans are more likely to die of diabetes than being shot by the police, why not focus on that. (Because it’s not ok to shoot people, even if the world has other pressing issues. We aren’t talking about hangnails here.)

To go full circle, why do you care if I care about Cecil the Lion? If caring about him is an inconsequential thing to do in a world with Much Bigger Problems, isn’t policing that concern a similar waste of energy, attention, and focus when you, too, should be worried about Much Bigger Problems than what I am caring about right now?

Police deaths and Cecil the Lion: connected via white American entitlement

While I respect the internet chiding of those who ask why white people aren’t as outraged about Sandra Bland’s death (as in, I’m all for pointing out that there isn’t enough outrage for Ms. Bland and the numerous deaths that have occurred since hers) as they are about Cecil the Lion, I would point out several parallels.

Both deaths were unnecessary.

Both deaths are related to the reality that anything with “African” in its nomenclature can be destroyed for white plunder, white entertainment, white security.

Both deaths highlight just how much corruption there is in the US and internationally when it comes either to the global affluent or their strongmen.

No, I do not hold the same level of moral concern for Cecil the Lion as I do for Ms. Bland. And I don’t think it’s ok to be peppering Cecil’s killer with death threats.


There is something exceptionally, exceptionally dickish about destroying a beautiful, endangered animal, an animal that many in the world would love to go see live in the wild, for kicks and your own private trophy room.

Cecil’s death, like Sandra Bland’s death, epitomizes much of what is wrong with power in today’s world, and what is wrong with white American entitlement.

Charting the Relationships in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey

I re-read Walter Mosley’s The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey yesterday for the Bedrosian Book Club Podcast. Mosley is such a gifted and subtle writer, and I really liked this book the first time I read it. Rereading it was rewarding, too.

It’s a sprawling novel, and it is a little difficult to follow all the relationships. One of the negative reviews of the book, which seems to be one of those reviews that get written without anybody actually reading the damn book said “Mosely doesn’t seem to know what kind of book he wants to write here.” What does that even mean? Why does Mosely have to pick a ‘type’ of book?

Or is this one of those rules that apply to black authors but not writers, wink wink?

In order to understand all the relationships, I made a hybrid family tree and network graph. People in color are those characters that I thought were particularly important.

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Sandra Bland: Where is the Mayoral Leadership?

I doubt we are ever really going to get an accurate read on Ms. Bland’s death, but the video is enough for me: this is not how American police should act. At worst, it’s murder and a cover up. At best, if she was, indeed, mentally ill enough to take her own life, then the last thing she needed was the despicable treatment she received from that officer. I don’t care if she wasn’t polite: police should expect to see people when they are not at their best.

The police are part of the public face of a community–they are street-level bureaucrats , to use Michael Lipsky’s terminology, and the gross abuse of power that we witnessed on that video should bother us all, black and white.
These recurrent videos of police violence, the testimony of former police officers, and ridiculously juvenile pouty fit/blue flu episode of the NYPD following Bill Blasio’s legitimate condemnation of police conduct during and after the arrest/harassment of Eric Garner testifies to the nationwide need for cities, mayors, and city managers to confront policing. When cops cheat, and act as a law unto themselves, the Constitution becomes meaningless, and our cities become killing grounds. What happened with Blasio and the NYPD shows we need mayors and district attorneys to commit to outside prosectors and external review processes as single-mindedly as they do stadium deals and light rail money. We need leadership, and it’s not materializing.

Or is already too late?

Bernard Yack on Aristotle, Praise, and Blame

Bernard’s Yack’s Problem of Political Animal: Community Justice, and Conflict in Aristotle’s Political Thought has been an excellent part of my special study on Aristotle this summer. This book has so much to offer, it’s hard to know where to begin. And I’m meant to be working on the book, so I will be satisfied this morning with sharing a truly wise quote. Yack notes that there is a strong asymmetry to praise and blame, and while many contemporary commentators might note that much regarding praise and blame come down to moral luck, Yack notes that praise and blame have a hard asymmetry to them that further troubles those who would try to settle matters of desert. Aristotle has a key statement on these problems, which is honestly one of the most perceptive things I have ever read about politics: one is not a good judge of one’s own case. Not when it comes to contributions, and not when it comes to what one deserves.

From Yack:

It is not, in contrast, always in our power to do something that deserves praise. For that we need appropriate opportunities and abilities. Blame, as it were, comes looking for us; we have to strive constantly to avoid it. But praise is something that we have to seek, and may never find.

David Brooks doesn’t listen, and thus, gets to be an avatar for white America

So over the years, various and sundry people, usually men, have wondered: why does Lisa dislike David Brooks so much? (There are other high profile, clueless people I can add to my list of people I would to pinch really hard, but they are off-topic). Brooks gave me another reason for my dislike with this new piece.

Brooks clearly meant “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White” to seem to be a mostly complimentary review of Coates’ new book. Instead, it winds up being a “I’m totally listening and down with y’all, but lemme tell y’all” moment.

In your anger at the tone of innocence some people adopt to describe the American dream, you reject the dream itself as flimflam. But a dream sullied is not a lie. The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past. It abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow.

Sullied? Abandoning “old wrongs.” Boy, those black people sure know how to hold onto a grudge, don’t they?


Coates’ point: When African Americans have to fear for their lives every single day, then the wrongs are not in the past. We have nice, fresh wrongs to be focussing on. Wrongs are an everyday occurrence in a country whose ideals fail to inform its practices and institutions, systematically, for racial minorities. The problem isn’t the vision, which is what Brooks wants to bang on about; the dream Coates is describing isn’t a theoretical vision for a perfect political community; the dream, or perhaps better stated, the myth, is that our existing political community guarantees these civil liberties, and that thus, we have political and legal equality.

We don’t. Not according to the numbers. And not according to Coates’ experiences, and not according to the experiences of many, many African American writers and thinker who have to say the same things over and over to white America.

So when does the actual “listening to Coates” part of this start?

And then this line really pisses me off because it is a Brooks Tactic 101:

You obviously do not mean that literally today (sometimes in your phrasing you seem determined to be misunderstood).

Yeah, go back to writing school, Coates, cuz ya know, I just don’t understaaaaaaaaaaand you. A cheap shot, from guy who has built his career claiming the moral high ground while punching downward and indulging in cheap shots.

First, A Seed; Tuesday musings on the wonder of PhD students

PhD students really are wonderful. The world of Hollywood sees all relationships between teachers and students as either petty or predatory or otherwise paternalistic, and it’s so sad because it misses so much of what is wonderful about the academy. Sure, there are jerks. But there are jerks everywhere.

I’m thinking this morning about how great PhD students are simply because I am doing things this summer I simply wouldn’t have done had it not been the influence of two wonderful PhD students had on me.

During my class on justice, my wonderful student, Jovanna Rosen, recommended the book, First the Seed by Jack Ralph Kloppenburg Jr. . It’s a wonderful book, beautifully written, about the science and industry around plant reproduction. I’ve always been confused about how to think about GMOS as I am not a scientist and I was too old to be introduced the science in college or high school. I’ve always seen good sense in Vandana Shiva’s advocacy against global agribusiness that attempts to go in and wipe out indigeneous practices, largely way more sustainable and nutrient rich, in favor of self-interested seed and equipment sales.

I am also, however, not one of those people who thinks indigenous practices must be preserved in toto, like a little village in a snow globe. Plenty of people starved over the centuries using indigenous practices. That’s why a consumer-led, community-led science, where they identify the tools and ideas from science useful to them makes a lot more sense. Unfortunately, scientists and businesses like to get paid, too. How to formulate such a much more equitable model of food development is very difficult, and it merits more scholarly attention than it gets.

That said, I do feel like the dominant business model and culture in agri-business are broken; I lived it growing up, and Kloppenburg’s book is splendid evidence.

I was thinking about all these things as I was looking to redo the little-growing garden of mine, much of which has fallen to the drought. I’ve only been in this house 3 years, and gardens need time, and some parts look great, an other parts were planted under the (dumb) assumption that we’d be able to water. With the drought, I’ve lost hundreds of dear little plants. I’ve put in others, lots of succulents, but I am unhappy with the lack of diversity in the succulent population available. Yes, there are some specialty nurseries in Los Angeles, but you’d better be a millionaire. Otherwise, if you are at Lowe’s, you have a choice of about four.

I have been filling those out with succulents that I get from discarded living centerpieces at USC; they are cute, and the waste bothers me (after an event, the centerpieces are discarded). But they undoubtedly contract with the same florist time after time, and diversity is limited, there, too.

I began toying with the idea of planning succulent seeds. But I have no idea how well they grow from seed. Clearly they must, as the ones that flower in my yard get seed pods on them. But I have had absolutely none spread that way.

Another of our PhD students, Bryce Lowery, who is now faculty at the University of Oklahoma has a background in landscape architecture. I asked him if succulents are difficult to grow from seeds, and has he ever done it:

I have not but I love the idea. Seeds are the key to plant diversity because living from clippings just duplicates. Go for it.

When people talk about influence in the academy, they tend to assign agency to the older, more established scholar, and receptiveness to the younger ones. Or, as I noted, people just think it’s a one-way street, with the younger scholars serving the older one, doing his bidding, being prey for his unadulterated power. It has never worked that way for me. Randy Crane didn’t treat me like that, and I never see any gain to doing so with the students who have come to work with me. Moreover, I can’t believe that Aristotle did not influence Plato as much as Plato influenced Aristotle, or that Plato didn’t influence Socrates and vice versa.

As for me, here are the first seeds I’m trying. May they grow, in honor of Jovanna and Bryce, and all the others who have planted ideas in me. It’s been so wonderful working with all of you; you’ve all enlightened me so much.

(I have no idea what the seeds are. Just a mix I bought off Ebay–meant to be trees. But they are very pretty when you look at each individual one; magical, really. )

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Do you “deserve” to display a rainbow on Facebook?

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE: Everybody wins when a political community moves towards justice, even if they don’t deserve to win. That’s one of the awesome things about justice.

It seems like I am chatting more about symbols here lately than cities, but I am sure I will return to my regular programming soon.

Rainbow icons on Facebook have been controversial. The first shot aimed at celebrating people was the “Har har, you dumb people who used the Fboo rainbow icon maker, you just gave your data to Fboo, you’re so dumb” entry. This one was so amusing because it so clearly reeked of “I want to poop on the victory party so bad I can’t stand it, but I don’t want to look like a homophobe, so I need to try to find a way to make you feel dumb and me feel smart on this particular thing.”

To anybody worried about this: if you don’t want Fboo and other online services to know about you, don’t use Fboo, period. Ever. Advertisers and business pages can find audiences based on data they collect. I do it all the time with advertising my nonprofit. Your data *everywhere* are monitored and sold if you use a Starbuck’s card, when you use a charge card, when your credit rating changes, when you step on a train platform, when you use your Ralph’s card. Fboo was fairly open about the natural experiment it was conducting, so to act like it’s some sort of new, sinister thing is a bit rich.

I did not happen to participate, not because I wasn’t happy to see all my friend’s celebrating a watershed moment in civil rights and social inclusion, but because I was too lazy to fiddle with my icon.

Peter Moskowitz has an opinion up on WashPo, scolding those displaying the flag because they haven’t given enough to the cause of gay pride to do so.

I don’t know Mr. Moskowitz’s writing in general. It says he’s writing a book on gentrification, which could be very nice, but I’ve not seen his prior writings. I will say that it looks more like Mr. Moskowitz is working through what I can only imagine are complicated feelings after the SCOTUS ruling and the subsequent celebrations, and he’s not done processing those feelings. (I wouldn’t be). The comments in response are unnecessarily harsh, even if I don’t think he’s right.

Here’s the first part where I think he goes a bit wrong:

I’ve earned the right to claim pride through years of internal strife over my sexuality. Others have died in the name of gay pride. More still have been jailed, have been disowned by their families, and have sued their state governments for it. Gay pride is not something you can claim by waving a flag. The rainbow symbol is easy to co-opt, but the experience it represents is not.

That’s why it wasn’t comforting to see hundreds of my Facebook friends’ profile pictures draped in rainbows. It didn’t feel like they were understanding my struggle; it felt like they were cheapening it, celebrating a victory they had no part in winning.

They had no part in winning? Whom are you friends with, Mr. Moskowitz? I guess a few people displaying the flag icon might be clueless enough to believe that they know the struggle, but I’m pretty sure the roughly 30 Fboo friends of mine who actually are openly homosexual, and who played with the icon maker, and are much, much older than Moskowitz (since they are my contemporaries) do know a bit about the struggle. Do they get to tell Moskowitz that he doesn’t know the struggle since he’s not as old and hasn’t been in it as long? (No. It is one thing to be an old soldier; you do have more experience, but it doesn’t mean that young people’s struggles are not real and important, and you may or may not understand more. It’s not the age, honey, it’s the mileage.)

And, while many of your friends and family do not know your struggle because they didn’t experience it personally, weren’t many of your friends there for you during your struggles? If they weren’t, why are they your friends? And isn’t being there for you as friends something that matters, at least a little to you? Gay devotees of Ayn Rand here notwithstanding, we’re not even talking about allyship or active participation. We’re just talking about how people are part of your struggle, personally, not just politically, some good, and some bad.

Not all of them were supportive:

Some of the rainbow-colored faces were people I would never talk to about being gay – a relative with conservative politics, high school buddies I didn’t come out to because I feared losing their friendships. They weren’t necessarily homophobic, but they weren’t great allies either. They didn’t march during pride celebrations; they didn’t participate in the “day of silence”; they didn’t even bother to inquire about my life. If they were true allies to me or the LGBT community, where were they before Friday?

They might have been ignorant twats before Friday. They might just be bandwagon jumpers who still secretly think you are going to burn in hell.

But while they might not be hall of fame members in being supportive, the display of that symbol on their wall strongly suggests that they learned and changed, at least a little, in the vast social learning project that struggles for emancipation are. This is what political success looks like, to some degree; those who were your enemies and oppressors finally get it.

It’s also a little short-sighted to simply discount displaying the symbol as empty. One battle was won, but struggles go on. And on. Did you not read the dissents? Holy cow, there is puh-lenty of hate left.

Chances are very, very good that these conservatives who displayed the rainbow are, themselves, ensconced in social networks with people who are furious at the court’s ruling and who hate that rainbow and what it stands for. I know I have people in my extended network on Fboo for whom that rainbow is an anathema. I’m sure that I am not the only person for whom that is true. It is wrong to think that everybody can now just display the rainbow icon on their walls with no risk or consequence to themselves in an empty gesture. No, it’s not the same as taking tear gas in the face. But it is a social risk; plenty of relationships have been damaged by Fboo politics. IOW, the conservatives who put the rainbow icon up probably took a much, much bigger social risk doing so in their probable networks than those of us who are ensconced in networks dominated by lefties, allies, and openly LGBTQ folks.

So while you may not respect their past actions, this action might be braver and bigger than you think it is. Just like they are likely outliers in your network, you are an outlier in theirs, and the fact that they are willing to annoy/alienate/provoke the people in their network who make Scalia look like Saul Alinsky strikes me as a bigger deal than we allow.

Moskowitz personally has no obligation to forgive these people in his network, but just because it took them awhile to see justice does not make the fact that they see it now irrelevant or meaningless. It means that people can change their ideas, and that is important to the justice project in a democracy even if it sucks that they took as long as they did to figure things out and even if you, personally, can not forgive them for their wrongs. Even if you can’t, having them on board is important to sustaining civil rights and social inclusion.

Politicians were guilty, too. President Obama’s Facebook and Twitter pages displayed “Love Wins” messages on the day of the Supreme Court ruling, even though the president was against same-sex marriage until a few years ago (at least publicly). And Hillary Clinton’s Facebook page was awash in rainbow-themed regalia on Friday, her 2016 presidential campaign “H” logo overlain with the pride rainbow. Left unsaid on her Facebook page was the fact that she actively advocated against same-sex marriage until two years ago.

Yep, it took them a long time to figure it out. However, in fairness to Obama, he revealed his reversal on marriage equality in a highly public way, in the middle of what was, in reality, a tough re-election campaign. I fully expected him to stay quiet about it, as Obama is not somebody who takes big political risks when he doesn’t have to. Instead, he acknowledged that he had been on the wrong side of this issue for years. It was a significant moment of political leadership, not a bandwagon jump, and it could have cost him the election. Instead, the timing was right and it signaled a sea change in the way people think about same-sex marriage. He did what a leader should do: he set the tone. He should have known better sooner, but the fact that he changed his mind, owned up to it, and leant his support mattered.

When your political community’s top gun joins your side, it matters. Even if he should have done so sooner.

Moskowitz has every right to be dubious of politicians who only recently woke up, but the fact that they showed their support now instead of then doesn’t invalidate their support now. What is the point of advocacy if not to induce exactly this sort of change of heart and mind among democratic and social majorities? All the sacrifices that Moskawitz outlines as the struggle: the violence, the job and family losses, the wrongs big and small…people experience these genuine sacrifices and struggles precisely because they want to be both who they are and yet included as fully human and recognized as part of the political whole. The only way the latter occurs if those who were wrong see right and take it to heart.

In an ideal world, majorities and elites would understand the powers they hold and educate their own ignorant selves, and advocacy would center on interests, not inclusion. Unfortunately, in the real world, people have to be shown, and somebody has to do the work of educating. It is not fair. But when it works, when somebody has undertaken that work and succeeds, it is a good thing, notwithstanding.

My interpretation, based on the people in my group who used it, is that the straight people used the icon to say: “Hey! You won this one! I am happy! Congratulations!” and the gays who displayed it were saying “Hey! We won this one! I’m happy!”

The key issue here is “we” and “you.” We as a political community won when SCOTUS ruled the way it did, just as the LGBTQ community won. There are undoubtedly those who wish the conventions and traditions of their religion guided the laws and practices of the United States who think this is a great loss, and I am sorry about that, but those of us who hold the the disestablishment clause to be one of the most significant advances in human civilization don’t really owe them any more than a “sorry you feel that way.”

Of all the gestures that occurred, the one that I think bothered my conservative friends the most was the White House rainbow. It is a little mystifying to those of us who are default pragmatists: it’s not like they went to Sherwin Williams and painted it on. We’re squabbling about light bulbs here. Of all those who complained to me about the White House gesture, I could never really get a strong argument for what the big deal was or why it was so offensive to them. “I just think that was going too far” was the rationale, not more. Too far? With light bulbs? Thus is the nature of symbols. They are hard to explain, but they are felt viscerally.

Rainbows over the past week were show of political unity. Some of us are not ready for that unity. Moskowitz is not because he still feels the pain that injustices have wrought, and for him the rainbow is about identity that has not been shared. Religious dissenters and conservatives are not ready because they are not ready for the toleration that political unity under pluralist practice requires.

There is a lot of work that remains, but that rainbow meme is only an empty gesture if we allow it to be. what that rainbow stands for is way bigger than you and what you may or may not have done in the past. What matters now is whether you sustain and support inclusion and equality, or whether the icon was a one and done deal for you, nothing more.