Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Drone Menace, Redux

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

OK, this whole drone thing is getting out of hand.
You may recall that, back during the U.S. Open, I wrote with some amusement about the Pinehurst Village Council’s attempts to ban drones from the event. Seems they might have been more prescient than I thought. A recent spate of news stories makes one think that drones are moving from the category of “expensive toy for people with more money than sense” to the category of “menace.”
Take, for example, an item from fire-ravaged Southern California. According to NBC Los Angeles, the efforts of firefighters battling the so-called “North Fire” were hampered when planes deployed to dump water and chemicals on it were forced away from the blaze by no fewer than five drones of unknown origin hovering in the area (no doubt to take pictures or videos).
“This is serious,” said John Miller of the U.S. Forest Service. “[Aircraft] can strike one of these things and one of our aircraft could go down, killing the firefighters in the air.” One fire captain said the drone-caused delay “definitely contributed” to the fire’s jumping of the 15 Freeway.
On a less catastrophic but still disturbing note, there’s the story of William Merideth, from Hillview, Kentucky. Merideth apparently took exception to someone flying a drone over his property (and, according to some accounts, ogling his teenage daughter sunning herself on the deck).
“When he came down with a video camera right over my back deck, that’s not going to work,” Merideth said. To illustrate just how much that wasn’t going to work, he blasted the little buzzing nuisance out of the sky with his shotgun. A few minutes later, according to Merideth, a carful of angry men pulled up, with one demanding if he was “the [bad word] who shot my drone.” In traditional Kentucky fashion, Merideth met the group with his Glock on his hip, declaring, “If you cross that sidewalk onto my property, there’s going to be another shooting.”
Unfortunately, Merideth ended up being the one arrested, charged with “criminal mischief” and “wanton endangerment.” He’s vowed to fight the charges in court. “What other recourse do we have?” he asks.
This is one of those areas in which the law simply hasn’t kept up with issues raised by modern technology. We’ve never really had to deal, for example, with the question of just how high up your property line goes. No one would seriously claim an airliner flying at 10,000 feet over your house is trespassing. But what about a drone hovering over your yard at 50 feet, snapping pictures? Exactly how much force are you allowed to use to keep some jackass from annoying, harassing, or otherwise being a jerk with his new $1,500 quad copter?
Not much, it appears, since the National Transportation Safety Board recently ruled that even private drones are considered aircraft, and therefore subject to FAA regulation. As you might imagine, shooting down an aircraft is a pretty serious crime, with penalties of up to 20 years in prison, and the law doesn’t currently seem to make any distinction if said “aircraft” is some dude-bro’s expensive toy.
No one’s been prosecuted yet under federal law for dronecide, and an FAA spokesman has opined that that would be more of a “destruction of personal property issue and out of our jurisdiction.” However, we are talking about a federal bureaucracy here, so anything’s possible, especially if it’s stupid. Meanwhile, the California legislature is trying to catch up; they’re considering a bill to allow firefighters to “disable” drones that are getting in their way.
In light of the Drone Menace, a variety of companies have jumped in to answer Mr. Merideth’s question, “What recourse do we have?” Idaho’s Snake River Shooting Products has begun marketing a special “Drone Munition” shotgun shell. “Prepare for the Drone Apocalypse!” their advertising blares, alongside pictures of threatening drones hovering nearby with glowing red “eyes.”

A company called Droneshield can sell you a “net gun” to snag drones out of the sky. If you really want to go whole hog, the German company MBDA has tested a “laser effector to acquire, track and defeat a free-flying mini-drone.” It’ll probably only set you back a few million. It should be noted, however, that the FAA also frowns on you turning a flying object into a couple hundred pounds of flaming wreckage over populated areas.
As few as five years ago, if you’d told me that clueless goobers flying hopped-up toy helicopters controlled by their cellphones would even be a thing, let alone a societal problem, I’d have laughed in your face. But these are the times we live in. What next?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Two Sides of the PC Coin

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

Republican leader Donald Trump tells us that “the big problem this country has is being politically correct.” Not the deficit, not ISIS, not Iran — being politically correct. So let’s talk about political correctness, what it means, and what its limits are.
To begin with, let me just say that when anyone prefaces a statement with “I know it’s not politically correct to say this,” it’s a safe bet that the next words are going to be something racist, misogynistic, or just generally awful.
“I’m not politically correct” is basically just code words for, “I am a terrible person who’s going to try and make being a terrible person look edgy and daring.”
To that end, fantasy writer Neil Gaiman suggested that you see how it sounds when you replace the words “political correctness” with “treating people with respect.” A bright young New Zealander named Byron Clark responded by creating a web browser extension that does just that. So you get altered headlines like “N.C. Senator Compares Treating People With Respect to Nazi Book Burning”; “Trump Says Treating People With Respect Big Problem”; and “‘Black Lives Matter’ Movement Is Treating People With Respect Run Amok.”
Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Ah, but then on the other hand …
I also read an article recently in The Atlantic describing the process aspiring comedians go through to try and get on the lucrative college circuit. There’s apparently a big convention for the National Association of College Activities (NACA) where representatives of “more than 350 colleges” come to audition various acts — including comics — to play their campuses during the school year.
“But the students’ taste in entertainment,” the article notes, “was uniform. ... They wanted comedy that was 100 percent risk-free, comedy that could not trigger or upset or mildly trouble a single student.”
Well geez, what fun is that?
Not much, as it turns out. The article talks about a prospect named Kevin Yee, “A young gay man with a Broadway background,” who delighted his audience with funny songs, including his closing number about “the close relationship that can develop between a gay man and his ‘sassy black friend.’”
According to the article, “The kids roared in delight, and several African American young women in the crowd seemed to be self-identifying as sassy black friends. … But afterward, two white students from an Iowa college shook their heads: No. He was ‘perpetuating stereotypes,’ one of them said, firmly. … ‘That thing about the sassy black friend? That wouldn’t work for us.’”
(Notice how it’s two white kids setting themselves up as the guardians of black people’s feelings and sensibilities here? That should raise a bit of a red flag in and of itself, no? But I digress.)
So there’s the dilemma. Certainly we want to show respect for people and their feelings. On the other hand, we don’t want to kill comedy. Comedy’s important.
And here’s the thing: Comedy is supposed to be disrespectful, and very good comedy may very well make you a little uncomfortable. The best examples I can think of are the late Richard Pryor (who could do a 15-minute story about his own heart attack and leave you rolling on the floor right along with him) and, more recently, female comics like Amy Schumer and Tig Notaro, who take solid aim at uncomfortable topics like sexism and even cancer (in Notaro’s case) and hilariously make then less scary or insurmountable by making them ridiculous.

But where does the line lie? At what point does even comedy turn into just being a jerk? After all, isn’t “Gee, can’t you take a joke?” one of the other verbal warning signs that you’re dealing with a bully or otherwise awful person?
There’s no hard and fast answer. But one thing to consider is: In which direction are you punching? Up, down, or sideways?
Punching up is making fun of the powerful and pompous, like, say, Donald Trump. Punching down, in contrast, is mocking those less powerful than you, like minorities, women, LGBT people, or the disabled.
(And no, white straight male Christians, those people are not more powerful than you are in America, despite whatever claptrap Fox News and other right-wing fear merchants have sold you. Believe me, you’re still on top of the American food chain.)
Punching sideways is making fun of yourself or people like you — as when Jeff Foxworthy talks about things that show “you might be a redneck” while members of his audience laughingly point at each other and go, “That’s you, Cousin Bubba! That’s you!”

Punching up or sideways is fine. Punching down doesn’t make you “politically incorrect”; it just makes you a bully and a jerk. That’s true whether you’re trying to be funny or not.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

And When You Lose Control, You'll Reap The Harvest You Have Sown

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

You know, you can say what you like about Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Sen. Jim Webb and that dude from Maryland whose name escapes me right now, but at least for the moment they’re campaigning like grownups. In contrast, look at some of the wacky antics of the Republicans:
John McCain calls Donald Trump’s supporters “crazies.” Trump shoots back that McCain’s really not a war hero because “he got captured. I like people who didn’t get captured.” Lindsey Graham responds by telling Trump to stop being a “jackass.” Trump turns on Graham and calls him an “idiot” and a “lightweight.”
Rick Perry calls “Trumpism” a “mix of demagoguery and nonsense,” whereupon Trump says Rick Perry’s “only wearing glasses to try and look smart.” Ted Cruz calls Mitch McConnell a “liar,” whereupon McConnell tells Cruz his mama’s so ugly they’ve got to tie a pork chop around her neck to get the dog to play with her.
OK, I made that last bit up. But it does seem as if the party that at least tried to market itself as serious adult leadership for America during the Reagan years is acting these days like a bunch of poorly socialized 13-year-olds sniping at each other on Twitter.
The coarsening of dialogue between the Republican candidates has been described by some pundits as “the Trump effect.” Some candidates see Trump’s poll numbers increase with every bullying sneer and insult and think, “Hey, I need to get me some of that.”
But The Donald is merely reaping the harvest that’s been sown over the past 20 years by talk radio and the Internet, where the competition for ears and eyeballs has become so intense that wingnut politicians seem to be straining their brains trying to find something to say more horrible and outrageous than the last thing.
It’s what the Internet calls “trolling”: trying to shock and enrage in order to get attention, even if it’s of the negative kind. It’s an environment in which supposed “pundits” like Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin get air time and book contracts because “they make liberals angry.” It’s a climate of drama and hysteria, in which every political defeat simply must be portrayed as the exact same thing as the Holocaust. Or slavery. Or both.
Witness, for example, Mike Huckabee’s ridiculous claim that the multilateral Iran nuclear deal is, and I quote, “marching Israel to the door of the oven,” a line which even the Anti-Defamation League called “completely out of line and unacceptable” and the Israeli ambassador said was “inappropriate.” But hey, it got headlines — and, Huckabee is no doubt praying, the same bump in the polls that Trump gets whenever he comes out with something that makes people look at each other and go, “Did he really say that?”
For years, the Republican Party has turned a blind eye to, and occasionally even embraced, the crudest attacks on its opponents, from Congressman Dan Burton referring to then-President Bill Clinton as a “scumbag” on the floor of the House to Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” and demanding that he be allowed to watch her have sex if the health insurance for which she worked and paid was required to cover birth control.
All this time, of course, these same Republicans would fall onto their fainting couches and clutch at their pearls in distress at the mildest harsh language directed at them. It’s more than a little ironic that many of the same people who cry like little girls over “name-calling” now embrace Trump, the candidate who’s made it his campaign strategy.
The rhetorical monster the GOP has nurtured is now fully grown and, as monsters do, it’s escaped the lab and is attacking its creators. Add to this the fecklessness of the so-called party leadership as exemplified in the utterly ineffectual Orange John Boehner and the equally helpless Mitch McConnell, and you have the perfect recipe for the current disarray in the GOP.
So who will benefit the most from the chaos? Obviously, whoever ends up with the Democratic nomination. Right now, that still looks like Hillary Clinton. On the Republican side, however, you’ve got two candidates — former Ohio governor Jon Kasich and John Ellis Bush, aka JEB! — trying to position themselves as the grownups in the race.
Will either emerge to give Mrs. Clinton a serious run, or will they be eaten by the GOP rage monster, leaving the nomination to one of the “crazies” who’ll alienate the general electorate and hand the presidency to the Dem nominee?
Stay tuned. But my money’s on the monster.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Its The End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

The Pilot Newspaper: Columns

First, a correction from last week’s column.
In that column, I reported that Donald Trump was polling second in the crowded field of Republican candidates. Between the time of the writing of the column and its publication date on Sunday, Trump became the front-runner.
This columnist regrets the error, but probably not as much as the GOP regrets having Trump in the lead for the nomination, since the same poll shows Hillary Clinton beating him by 17 points. Anyway, on with the show.
Well, I expected a complete freakout on the right after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision striking down bans on same-sex marriage. But I have to say, the drama queenery, raging paranoia and hysteria exceeded even my wildest expectations.
Some of it took the form of dire predictions of what happens next, as if the legal sanction of lifelong monogamy between consenting adults is the key that will inevitably unlock the floodgates to practitioners of every imaginable perversion.
This wingnut trope was most bizarrely expressed by former Texas Rep. and “Dancing With the Stars” contestant Tom DeLay. DeLay told Newsmax TV that he’s found a “secret Justice Department memo” that reveals “they’re now going to go after 12 new perversions, things like bestiality, polygamy, having sex with little boys and making that legal. … LGBT is only the beginning.”
It should be noted that DeLay only specifically mentioned three out of the 12 “new perversions” the DOJ is preparing to “legalize.” Wonder what the other nine are? On second thought, probably best to just let that go. Imaginations like that are best left unexplored.
Not content to torment themselves with fevered dreams of what nasty things others might soon be doing legally, a certain segment of Christians is pretty much convinced that the gays and the liberals are going to treat them pretty much the way they’ve advocated treating LGBT people. Some are even convinced the Christians who don’t back gay marriage are going to be jailed for their beliefs.
In fact, Donald and Evelyn Knapp, owners of a for-profit wedding chapel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, have filed a lawsuit claiming they could face up to 180 years in jail under the town’s anti-discrimination ordinance for refusing to perform a same-sex wedding.
Only problem is, no one’s threatened the Knapps with any such penalty, the ordinance in question specifically exempts “religious corporations” like the Knapps’ “Hitching Post Wedding Chapel” from its coverage, and the very Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage specifically states that “religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.”
That, however, doesn’t stop people like Republican presidential candidate and Ted Nugent sideman Mike Huckabee from repeating the falsehood that the Knapps are being threatened with almost two centuries of jail time, apparently by the voices in their heads.
Finally, there are the people predicting that, because of the action of the Supreme Court in lifting bans on same sex marriage, God himself will either smite our country or allow evildoers to do so, leading to thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of deaths.
“God’s hand of protection will be withdrawn,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, “as future actions from external and internal forces will soon make clear.” (Texas again. What IS it with these people?) Fox News pundit Todd Starnes even blamed recent heavy rains and flooding in the D.C. area on the Lord’s pique over the Supreme Court decision.
“Anyone got an ark?” he quipped.
This particular style of “prophecy” has always bugged me, by the way, as it implies that God will indulge his wrath by indiscriminate slaughter of both the just and the unjust, including, one supposes, opponents of gay marriage. I’m glad I don’t follow that God, because I’ve got to tell you, that one’s kind of a psycho.
Look, folks, the day Obergefell vs. Hodges, the landmark case legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states, was decided, I woke up, kissed my wife, and took her to her doctor’s appointment. Later that day, we took the dog to the vet together. (Everyone’s fine, thanks for asking). The week after, I helped my son move. Nothing that happened at the Supreme Court affected my marriage or my obligations to my family in the slightest. And it doesn’t affect you.
If you don’t like same-sex marriage, then don’t do it. If you’re a member of the clergy and you don’t want to perform a same-sex wedding, then don’t. It’s that simple. There’s no need to panic, file lawsuits to prevent things that aren’t going to happen, or flee the country to avoid God’s fiery and indiscriminate wrath.
It’s going to be OK, y’all. Really.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Beware Twitrage

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

Happy Sunday, friends, and welcome to “This Week in Twitrage,” where once again we report on people’s propensity to go off half-cocked (sometimes as little as one-quarter or one-eighth cocked) and take to the Internet like Cheeto-stained Paul Reveres to spread the alarm about some outrageous story they’ve heard.
Said story, more often than not, turns out to be a total hoax, fabrication, half-truth or crazy rumor being reported as fact by our incredibly credulous news media.
Last week was a fertile one for Twitrage, what with the continued fallout from the Charleston terrorist attack, the controversy over the Confederate battle flag, and the Supreme Court’s bombshell decision upholding the right of same-sex couples to marry.
First, there was the picture making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook after Amazon.com, among other retailers, announced that it was pulling Confederate flag merchandise off its site.
This latest expression of Neo-Confederate butthurt claimed, and I quote: “You can’t buy a Confederate flag on Amazon, but you can buy this ISIS flag,” followed by a supposed screenshot of an Amazon page offering to sell one of the terrorist group’s amateurishly designed black and white flags. And the thing wasn’t even eligible for Free Amazon Prime shipping. The nerve!

Pretty outrageous, huh? If you can purchase one symbol of a group violently hostile to the United States, why shouldn’t you be able to grab another, right? Well, as it turns out, you can’t buy either on Amazon. I myself did a search for “ISIS Flag,” “ISIL Flag,” “Islamic State Flag” and “Daesh Flag” (hey, I’m already probably on a half-dozen watch lists, so what harm can it do now?)
No results. The folks at the urban legends site Snopes.com dug a little deeper and found an archived page for a vendor selling ISIS flags that went up in May — and was quickly taken down. So no, as of right now, you cannot buy either a Confederate flag or an ISIS flag on Amazon.
Then there’s Don Stair of Little Rock, Ark., who was mightily offended by the actions of his local TV station when they adorned their logo with what he called the “gay colors” of the Rainbow Flag after the Supreme Court’s historic decision. “Just stay out of it,” Don tweeted furiously.
Problem is, the station in question, KARK-TV, is an NBC affiliate, the logo in question is the NBC peacock, and that rainbow color scheme has always been part of it.
I recall it as far back as my own childhood, when the network used the Bird (as it called it) to tout that its programming was presented “in living color!” 

Hey — who knows? — maybe they were all gayed up back then, too.
The left had its own episode of Twitrage over the alleged “coddling” of accused (and admitted) Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof. In particular, people were unhappy with reports that Roof, who’s white, had been “taken to Burger King” on his way to the police station after being apprehended. They point out that a lot of the black suspects we hear about lately have tended to get shot, asphyxiated, slammed around inside of police vans, and otherwise killed. And this murderer gets to “have it his way”?
Well, as it turns out, Roof wasn’t exactly taken to the drive-through and given a gift card. Some officer may have gone and gotten Roof a burger while he was locked in a conference room in the Shelby, N.C., Police Department waiting for the feds and the Charleston police to arrive, but you know what? That’s not all that unusual, especially with a subject you’d really like to get a confession from.
And let’s face it, you can’t just starve prisoners in your custody, even ones accused of mass murder. So once again, there’s less to this “outrage” than meets the eye.
Look, folks, “I saw something on the Internet” is not a reason to automatically get your dander up. I’ve seen pictures of rabbits with antelope horns and a video of a little gray alien peeking in a man’s window on the Internet, too. It doesn’t mean we have to believe in either of those things.
The World Wide Web is full of useful information. It’s also full of useless and dangerous lies. Take the time to keep calm, do the research, and learn which is which.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Taking Down That Flag Is Just a Start

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

Last week, an avowed white supremacist walked into the Mother Emanuel Church of Charleston, S.C., spent an hour in prayer with members of the congregation, then pulled out a gun and started shooting, explicitly stating, “I’m here to kill black people.”

This terrorist — there’s really no other word for him — later told police he wanted to start a “race war.” It’s gratifying to see that people don’t seem inclined to oblige him. Even relatives of the victims told the admitted shooter, a wormy-looking little gobshite named Dylann Roof, that they forgave him, thus showing that they’re better people than me.
That’s admittedly not a high bar. But still, it’s pretty impressive. In the wake of this terrible tragedy, there are a number of discussions we could be having. Discussions about race, of course. Discussions about the easy availability of guns to people who have so many obvious screws loose that you’re surprised they don’t rattle as they walk down the street.
Curiously, however, the issue that people seem to have fixated on is the Confederate battle flag, and whether it’s appropriate for a state government to display it. I get that it’s relevant, because Roof, like many racists, seems to have a particular affinity for the battle flag. Still, I can’t help but wonder if maybe we’re missing a chance to make a larger point.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley reversed her previous stance on her state government’s display of the flag, which was basically, “Eh, no one really cares.” Now, she’s all for moving the flag off the state Capitol grounds and putting it in a museum with other relics of the past.
She’s not alone. Even South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who last week was insisting that the battle flag is “part of who we are,” suddenly realized he was going to need black votes in the South Carolina presidential primary and thus was standing beside Gov. Haley as she called for its removal.
Mississippi is reported to be considering a similar move. [note, after this column was turned in they decided to keep the flag]. I hear that our own Gov. Pat McCrory has even suggested that the battle flag be removed from North Carolina’s special commemorative license plates, and Virginia may be about to follow suit.
Corporate America, it seems, is getting on the bandwagon. Amazon.com announced it was pulling all Confederate battle flag merchandise, as did Sears, eBay and even the mighty Walmart.
All of which is fine, because like it or not, people do care. The battle flag is a symbol to an awful lot of people of a legacy of slavery and brutal oppression. You may say it’s about “heritage, not hate,” but for African-Americans, particularly in the South, that’s actually the problem. Hate and violence directed against them are inseparable parts of that heritage.
By the way, if you’d like to use this topic as a springboard for expounding about how the Civil War wasn’t “really about slavery,” please don’t even try do so until you’ve looked up the Declarations of Causes of the various Southern states, in which those states, explicitly and at great length, tell everyone that they’re leaving the Union because of slavery.
Seriously, look them up. They changed my mind on this issue, and if they don’t change yours, there’s no hope for you.
Then there’s the whole treason thing. Sorry, but there’s really no way around this: The U.S. Constitution defines “treason” as, among other things, “levying war against the United States.” The Confederate battle flag is a one under which people “levied war” against the U.S. It’s a bit strange to loudly declare your love for your country and your adherence to the Constitution and still fly the flag of the people who committed treason against it as defined in that very document.
So, if the battle flag does get taken down from every state house, license plate and Walmart and is relegated to Klan rallies and performances by third-rate Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute bands, I won’t mourn. But it’s not enough.
I’m not trying to be Benny Buzzkill here, but I’m wondering if the battle flag is being used as a sacrifice, something no politician really cared about deep down and that they’re now willing to throw under the bus to make it look as if something’s being done about racism.
When the last battle flag comes down. racism will still be here, will still be a cancer on our society — but, I fear, will still be unaddressed by the people in power, who’ll be going, “What the heck do those people want!? We stopped flying that flag like they wanted!”The battle flag needs, at last, to come down. But if that’s where the dialogue ends, then the memories of the nine who died at Mother Emanuel Church will not be well-served.