The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

4 October 2017
by skzb

Not About Gun Laws

The debate about changing gun laws goes on, and there is a great deal to be said and this isn’t the place to do it.  Comments about changing gun laws are liable to deletion.  I want to talk about something else.  I’m taking as a premise the following: the US has a problem with mass shootings, and, whatever your position on the 2nd Amendment, its value, and its interpretation, you ought to agree that it isn’t the only problem.  This is a place to talk about what else can be done.

Here are my suggestions:

1) Universal health care combined with improvements to mental health treatment*.

2) Stop treating war as a normal condition, and an entirely reasonable way to secure profit, which is like broadcasting a message from the top levels of society that human life has no value. Of course, this will require an immediate end to war in the Mideast, and war crimes trials for those responsible.

3) End police militarization, murder, and terrorism, which also send the message that, to official society, individual human lives mean nothing. Disarming the police is a good start.

4) End poverty, unemployment, and homelessness, major contributors to stress, desperation, mental breakdown.

5) Better education. While learning is far from a complete cure for bigotry and xenophobia—the cause of many mass killings—ignorance certainly provides a good breeding ground for those conditions.

ETA: 6) A comment by David Hajicek reminds me that eliminating capital punishment should also be on the list for much the same reasons as 2) and 3) above.


*In case it isn’t obvious to you, it is possible to object to stigmatizing people with mental health issues and still believe that there is a crisis in the US in terms of inability of the society to properly diagnose and care for people, and that people who randomly shoot down strangers are suffering from some form of emotional or neurological or psychological problem.

18 September 2017
by skzb

Predictability is Death

I’ve been watching Torchwood for the first time, and most likely the last.   It has various problems: I find none of the characters except Jack engaging, there is little or no display of the kind of the competence that makes us love teams (Leverage!),  and I keep getting the impression that Torchwood made things worse more often than better.  However, it was early in the 2nd season (Episode 3) that I was able to isolate the biggest reason it kept irritating me.

Look at it this way: It is perfectly all right, sometimes, to have the audience emotionally engage with a character , then kill off that character.  It can be cathartic, and it can also raise the stakes—it lets the audience know you’re serious, that no one is safe, that the danger is real, and so on.


If the only time there is emotional engagement you know that it will turn out bad, that there’s no chance of it working out, then all of a sudden you’ve lowered the stakes, usually to zero; I find myself saying, “Oh, look.  It’s a sweet romance; I guess that he’s going to leave so I can feel all sad for her.  Whatever.”  Or, “Hey, an extremely likable character.  He’s going to die.  Yawn.”

Just as the possibility of sorrow increases the tension and makes us engage, if there is no possibility of happiness, we just stop caring.

24 August 2017
by skzb

Free Speech, the ACLU, and Nazis

There’s this thing going around where someone says, “Would you quit talking about freedom of speech? The First Amendment is only about what the government can do.” This is like saying, “Would you quit bringing up social media? I already said I don’t like LinkedIn.” I mean, it isn’t exactly a non-sequitur, but one feels the question hasn’t been addressed.

There is clearly a great deal of confusion around these issues, and a lot of failure to think things through. There are still those who see free speech as some sort of idealized principle that stands above the class struggle, as well as those who are willing to chuck it out entirely because it’s inconvenient at the moment. In particular, the American Civil Liberties Union is coming under attack from various quarters (including the ACLU in California) for insisting that the government not prevent white supremacist organizations from holding public meetings. I keep hearing the question posed as if the only choices are to use the legal system to prevent them from speaking, or to give them free reign to spread their hate and permit them to grow. I would like to state my vehement oppositions to both of these programs.

Nazis are often spoken of as a hate group that wants to kill people. I think this is because they are. They want to murder African-Americans and Jews, often Muslims and First Peoples, frequently Gays, probably trade unionists, and certainly Communists.

But legally, it gets kinda tricky, on account of they don’t publicly say, “You, in the White Power tee-shirt, go kill that Muslim standing next to the tree. Do it now.” Since, in essence, they are saying that, but couching it in terms such as, “purity of the races,” and “we will not be replaced by Jews,” and, “make America great again,” the law has a bit of trouble.

Many liberals are reacting to this by saying, “If we can establish, through history, and action, and by reading their propaganda, and other means that they really want to kill, and are inciting others to kill, then we should be able to use the law against them. If the law does not, at present, permit us to do so, let’s reinterpret or change the law.”

At which point those of us with even a working eighth-grade knowledge of history become very, very frightened, because we know what will happen when the law changes to permit that sort of interpretation. Hint: It isn’t the right wing that suffers.

But there is good news. Not only is changing the law (or selectively enforcing it, or reinterpreting it) not the only way to fight Nazis, it isn’t even the best. Not by miles. In fact, it may well be the worst.

By using the state against these people, it gives them “anti-establishment” credentials, at a time when millions of people are becoming more and more hostile to the established order. It allows them to pretend to be oppressed, and many people have a habit of giving sympathy to the oppressed.

Nazis and white supremacists prey on the backwardness and ignorance of society, pulling in the most repulsive elements and then recruiting among the hopeless and the angry and those desperate for a way forward. The way forward does not involve relying on the capitalist state—the state that exists to defend the system that gave rise to the very miseries that provide the breeding ground for fascistic elements (as for its opposite, the fight for socialism).

The way forward involves the masses, the oppressed, the working class, organizing and moving directly against white supremecy and Naziism. Anyone who paid attention to what just happened in Boston knows how effective this can be.

To ask the state to use its power against them is to give the state more weapons to use against us. To shut white supremacists down and shut them up with our own power—with the united force of masses—is not only the best way to defeat them, but it is a springboard for further struggles.

9 August 2017
by skzb

A Quick Note on Free Speech

Free speech absolutists (I’m not one, by the way), believe in the moral principle that no one should be prevented from expressing an opinion by violence, fear of violence, or economic or legal coercion. The First Amendment only protects against the last (and not always that). Thus, when someone is arguing for free speech, to point out that it is not a case where the Bill of Rights applies does not answer the argument.
If you wish to answer that argument (which, of course, you are under no obligation to do), you must show that what is being accomplished by suppressing that speech is more important than the moral right being denied. I believe there are such cases, but I also believe it is a scary and dangerous road to start down, so we need to be bloody damn sure we’re right when we do it.