Arrival in San Francisco, 1989

On the first day I arrived in San Francisco, I wandered down to Fisherman’s Wharf, where I bought a sandwich, and sat on a bench with my book, reading, eating it and enjoying the salt air. A small black man, ragged, seemingly homeless, approached me, and asked for my sandwich. Which I refused to give him. So he started shouting, at the top of his lungs, “RACIST! RACIST” and all the tourists waiting on line to catch the boat to Alcatraz stared at me angrily, racist that I was. He wouldn’t stop, so I walked briskly away, and he continued following me, screaming “RACIST! RACIST!”, until I started running and ran up a hill and finally lost him and settled in at a nearby cafe where I had a cup of tea and caught my breath.
As I was sitting there, addled by this distressing experience, and trying to calm down, a man came up to me and without preamble said:
If you were going to get a pet
what kind of animal would you get.
A soft bodied dog, a hen­­––
feathers and fur to begin it again.
When the sun goes down and it gets dark
I saw an animal in a park.
Bring it home, to give it to you.
I have seen animals break in two.
You were hoping for something soft
and loyal and clean and wondrously careful­­––
a form of otherwise vicious habit
 can have long ears and be called a rabbit.
Dead. Died. Will die. Want.
Morning, midnight. I asked you
if you were going to get a pet
what kind of animal would you get.
And then smiled, bowed, and left the café. What an extraordinary city, I said to myself, and looked out the window into the overcast sky, a sky I would come to know so well. And I tried for a long while to find the poem, which I did, finally. It turned out to be by Robert Creeley, a poet from San Francisco and environs, and it was called If You.
I know it by heart now, and it was difficult to fathom. What was so unsettling about it? Why was it so rich in meaning?  It starts off so innocently, like a question by a grandmother to a child: the world is gentle and kind, and in order, and in the world are pets, so dear to us, and one can choose one as a friend. Suddenly you’re presented with a hen, which is not a pet at all–disconcerting–and then the author tells of animals breaking in two. Pets are animals, after all, and what is an animal? Hoping is introduced, and it fails by force of vicious rabbit. Death comes, finally, in all its forms, but then–the bliss of returning safely to the question again–a recovered innocence, and back again to the safety of being able to choose, and not have things happen to you.
Oh it is a magnificent poem. I was profoundly struck by it then, and every time I think of it. What a gift the stranger gave me, my first strange day in San Francisco.

Harassment, Redress & Roman Law

It seems as if, on the internet, harm can be done to others immediately, continuously, thoughtlessly, and unceasingly, and worse, without consequence to the perpetrator, who enjoys only satisfaction, righteousness, and immunity. It seems that a willingness to participate in conversations online is an implicit agreement to be subjected to harassment and abuse. Countless people–let me just say, most people I know with active online lives–have suffered this. People have committed suicide because of this abuse, old and young, but especially the young; countless people have withdrawn from both the online and offline world after having been subjected to online bullying; the victims, most often coming from the most vulnerable, protected groups, continue to suffer and retreat further from the full embrace of the world and its possibilities.

Those who suffer from racism, sexism, harassment and a daily parade of micro-aggressions have no recourse under any company’s Terms of Service, not to mention the law, unless an actual assault has taken place–and as is well documented, few of those cases are prosecuted, and of those, a vanishingly small number result in conviction. The punishments mostly accrue to the victim reporting the crime.

Online, in the various communities I’ve participated in, built and managed, I’ve written a half dozen Community Guidelines, and spent countless hours thinking through this problem. I’ve kicked countless perps off a dozen web sites, banned, muted and used secret troll-thwarting ninja techniques to perma-ban awful people using robust, well designed admin interfaces. I’ve even reported bad actors to the FBI.  I couldn’t think of how, under the law, the people who suffer from these agonies could be protected from, or receive redress from the thugs whose wrongs they had endured.  But today I happened upon an article about sexual harassment and Roman law, which presented a vision of the law that I hadn’t thought possible: Here’s what it said.

From its earliest codification in the Twelve Tables of 450BC, Roman law gave people a right to recover damages for personal injury.

The law expanded over the centuries to protect an increasingly wide range of personal rights by means of an action known as the actio injuriarum (or action for injuries). By the time of the publication of the Digest of Justinian in 533AD, the action protected three groups of rights:corpus (bodily integrity), fama (reputation), and dignitas (dignity).

This is where the major difference lies between our English-based law of torts and Roman law: although the law of torts allows a plaintiff to sue for bodily injury and defamation, it offers no protection for dignity and therefore no right to sue for verbal insult, no matter how offensive.

The actio injuriarum lives on in modern legal systems. A good example is South Africa, whose legal system is based on Roman law. There, the action has been used to recover damages for sexist verbal insults, unwelcome propositioning for sexual intercourse, and unwelcome exposure to pornography. The action also protects privacy, so it has been used to recover damages in cases involving peeping Toms, stalking, and the publication of intimate facts about people’s private lives.

 

Great Things, and “The Everglades”, by Marjory Stoneman Douglas

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From a review by Michael N. McGregor in Tin House of The Everglades: River of Grass, a book by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, whose name is probably familiar to you now, because of the massacre of students at the school which bore her name. I was struck by this passage, which McGregor quoted, of the men who came to drain the Everglades:

Before that, in all those years of talk and excitement about drainage, the only argument was a schoolboy’s logic. The draining of the Everglades would be a Great Thing. Americans did Great Things. Therefore Americans would drain the Everglades. Beyond that–to the intricate and subtle relation of soil, of fresh water and evaporation, and of runoff and salt intrusion, and all the consequences of disturbing the fine balance nature had set up in the past four thousand years–no one knew enough to look. They saw the Everglades no longer as a vast expanse of saw grass and water, but as a dream a mirage or riches that man men would follow to their ruin.

To do Great Things. It has a powerful, irresistible appeal, but is almost always interpreted wrongly, and used to justify waste and destruction. In its name the Everglades were sold to conquistadors who made fortunes selling the plumes of ibises to society ladies for their hats, and hides of alligators for their shoes; the wildlife died off, the fires came, and the salt intrusion of the oceans.

David Bull & Ukiyo-e

Through my online pal Gripper’s Findery post, I learned of the YouTube channel of David Bull, who practices the traditional art of Ukiyo-e. I grew up in a house full of Japanese woodblock prints, and, as an artist and as an early member of the Etsy team, I have a love of the handcrafted. One of the best things the internet has done is made it possible for people like David to make a living practicing ancient arts.

David runs a YouTube channel, which has videos of him and his team carving the wood blocks, painstakingly laying down each color, talking about new editions from his collaborator, Jed Henry, and telling stories about his experiences meeting elderly masters of the art in his friendly, impassioned and charming way.

I sent away for one of the prints, which I received today. It is gorgeous.

David Bull Print 2

Massive Stars more Common than Believed

When the news gets you down–and it’s been getting me down consistently since November 8, 2016–it’s good to be reminded of how insignificant all of this is on a galactic scale.Here’s today’s “let’s put it in perspective” news story: Massive Stars are more Common than Believed. We’re talking huge stars, 15-200x larger than the sun, that were just discovered using the Very Large Telescope.

Ponder this: The diameter of 30 Doradus is 600–700 light years. If you put it at same distance to Earth as the Orion nebula (about 1300 light years away), Schneider calculates it would cover 60 full moons of the night sky. It would be so bright it would cast shadows.

Big! Wow!

Harassment: ways to cope

How to raise a feminist son. Unfortunately, raising feminist daughters doesn’t have much effect unless we also raise feminist sons. Dads! Husbands! Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.

• How to make things right if you’ve made a mistake. Dale Dougherty, the CEO of Make Magazine and those (awesome!) Maker Faires wrote a tweet & made assumptions based on a sexist world view, realized his mistake, and wrote a blog post in which he explained his mistake and  committed to making amends. People make mistakes, but can make amends too. A model of how to do it.

Experts in the Field. An account of sexism in the writing world. The article begins on the topic of Trump’s ascendency:  “I knew he would somehow win,” she said, “because my life has been continually shaped and distorted by the greed and ignorance of men like him, in positions of power, taking everything they can get, whatever they want, whenever they want. What am I, what is my very life, if not a projection of and product of the desires of such sick men?”

• What to do when you witness harassment in a public place. This is about Islamophobic harassment, but it works for all kinds:

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• In dealing with harassers, abusers and other people who’ve hurt you, first, recover as best you can. If you want to do the world a favor and talk to the offender, which is not your responsibility in any case, one approach is this. It is derived from a passage in the Bible, that old manual of the patriarchy, Matthew 18:15-17:

1. talk to the offender. If that doesn’t work:
2. bring other witnesses and talk to the offender again. If that doesn’t work:
3. take it to a neutral aribiter (mediator, priest, judge, council of elders, family council) If that doesn’t work:
4. dissociate yourself from that person.

Here’s the original:

15. Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
16. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
17. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

Matthew 18:17 was written by patriarchs in a different era. To translate, publican would mean “tax collector”. Non-church members, replace the word “church” with whoever is your community’s neutral arbiter, and “heathen man and a publican” in contemporary parlance would be “someone you should avoid”.

•  Always remind yourself that history is written by those in power and you should find the hidden stories of those not represented and mentally correct it.

“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

– Homegoing, p. 226-7 by Yaa Gyasi

•  Thomas Pynchon wrote about the Herero genocide in V and Gravitys Rainbow, without writing like a colonizer. Literary geniuses, take note!

 

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