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The Normalization of Rape Threats and Death Threats

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The only guide to Gamergate you will ever need to read (Washington Post)
Why #Gamergate won’t die (CNN.com)

There’s nothing like stating opinions online to show you the problems of socializing on the Internet. A little over two decades ago, shortly after I first got regular Internet access when I went to college for the first time, I got involved in professional wrestling discussions online because I’d never had a real-life group of friends to talk about wrestling with. One thing led to another, and I ended up launching a series of different wrestling-themed websites, and even wrote about wrestling for CBS SportsLine for a while. I never liked professional wrestling that much, though — not for the absurd amount of time I was devoting to it, at the expense of other things that I actually wanted to do — and it’s now been close to fourteen years since I left that scene for good. (Whatever appreciation I had left for professional wrestling evaporated to almost nothing in a short amount of time, and the Chris Benoit tragedy nailed that coffin shut forever.)

A good part of the reason I left when I did was because of the insane amount of harassment I was receiving. To be fair, I said and did a number of intensely stupid things back then that I deserved to be called out on, but a lot of this harassment wasn’t based on the dumb stuff I did, but simply because I dared to have a different opinion than others about what professional wrestlers or promotions were good. In some cases this harassment extended to phone calls and threats to come over to my house. Nearly fourteen years after making a permanent exit from online discussions of professional wrestling I am still getting troll emails, some from people who’ve been regularly or semi-regularly harassing me all this time, others from new people who just decided to give me a hard time even though they never read what I wrote back in the day, presumably because they have nothing better to do with their lives.

I don’t think I can truly sympathize with Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, and the countless other women who have been harassed recently over their involvement with video games, simply because the harassment I’ve received over the years has never been so systematized and virulent as what has happened to women in video games lately. What I can say, though, based on not just personal experience but also what I’ve seen others go through, is that no one deserves rape threats or death threats for daring to voice an opinion, no matter how incorrect or ludicrous anyone considers that opinion to be. There is a lot to be said about the gendered aspects of video games and gaming culture, and the controversies of the past year have opened up a number of necessary dialogues relevant to those issues. What isn’t being discussed nearly as much as it should be is how the use of rape threats and death threats towards women in video games/gaming (or those who defend them) has become systematized, widespread and, in the absence of substantial mainstream media scrutiny, effectively condoned by society.

To be clear, the problem of unbalanced people making rape and death threats is hardly a new one (I received my first death threat before I even hit puberty), and it’s hardly confined to just the Gamergate crowd and their intellectual ilk. All kinds of people make death threats, and all kinds of people should receive them, and they should never be tolerated regardless of who makes or receives them. Although it’s true that the current wave of violent harassment towards women must be contextualized in our cultural history and the still-present aspects of our culture that devalue women’s experiences, a lot of the same principles would be at work here if it were conservatives being harassed for criticizing liberal philosophy, or Christians being harassed for criticizing rap music, or African-Americans being harassed for criticizing the taste of yerba mate, or left-handed people criticizing the furniture offerings at their local office supply store. Under no circumstances should rape and death threats be permissible, and I encourage all those who have received them for merely expressing an opinion to speak out against this kind of treatment, because no one deserves it.

That being said, it’s hard to divorce the current epidemic of rape and death threats to women from its similarities to a lot of the rhetoric used by some conservatives today. The devaluing of women’s experiences — simply stating that women’s opinions and feelings don’t count because they’re women (or at least women who deviate from the conservative patriarchal norms for how women should think and act) — has gone on for ages, and the sad fact is that Gamergate-like intimidation campaigns to silence women through rape and death threats are nothing new; it’s only Gamergate’s size, visibility and brazenness that makes it so noteworthy right now. The false equivalency of the “threats” posed by Sarkeesian and Quinn and Wu for expressing their opinions or developing games that depart from the norms of video gaming offerings — by overinflating the possibility that their work will somehow result in an end to “man-friendly” games or even people coming into their homes and taking away games that they already own (and absurdly asserting that this is something Sarkeesian et al. are trying to do with their work) — with rape and death threats is an echo of how right-wing media has resounded with doomsday proclamations for every single policy President Obama has put forth in the past six years. (The correlation between “They’re coming to take our games!” and “They’re coming to take our guns!” would be funny if it weren’t so sad.)

Just like the heart of conservatives’ fever dream about the Benghazi attacks has been debunked for a long time, the key “fact” behind Gamergate — that Zoe Quinn allegedly slept with a video game reporter to get a favourable review for her game Depression Quest — was put to bed, definitively, weeks ago. Gamergaters still hold that Quinn must have slept with men to get any attention (because, according to them — and this is one of the kindest ways of putting it — all women are sluts), though, and so even provably false claims are still put forward as gospel truth, and words like Gamergate, and related words and terms like Quinn’s and Sarkeesian’s and Wu’s names, and the name of Quinn’s game, and the descriptor “social justice warrior,” are repeated ad nauseum to get Gamergaters fired up. It’s practically identical to the way right-wing media works the word “Benghazi” into every possible discussion, because they’ve trained their listeners and viewers to respond to the word with hatred bordering on bloodlust of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for allegedly laughing and celebrating while innocent Americans were murdered.

There is a lot to say for the actual substance of the arguments within Gamergate, and it’s been a good topic for discussion with my composition students this year, especially a new class I’m helping pilot that focuses on topics of gender and sexuality. More is being written and spoken about this topic as the weeks go on, and I may yet have more to say about the issue on this blog. Looking at the issue as a teacher of composition and rhetoric, though, I can’t help but be afraid about what this kind of mass intimidation campaign in a field that many young adults pay close attention to augurs not just for teaching rhetoric, but for the classroom environment (and broader social environments) that people live and work in. Teaching rhetoric is already made incredibly difficult when students come to college without previous training in formulating and expressing opinions (and from school environments that actively discourage student expression), and the American political “debate” they may have been exposed to on television is often little more than a glorified contest of who can come up with the most audacious ad hominem attack, but to ask students to formulate and express opinions, when doing so has made so many the targets of sustained campaigns of rape and death threats, may well be an impossible task.

Of all the shocking things that have been said to and about Sarkeesian and Quinn and Wu, what shocks me even more is that there has yet to be a single publicized arrest over the rape and death threats. Perhaps there have been arrests and they haven’t been made public for fear of inspiring copycat attacks, but the ideology behind that line of reasoning is undermined when the attacks are already so well-publicized (and outright celebrated). As long as the people making these rape and death threats continue to receive no significant form of sanction for their actions (even though mainstream coverage of this issue has picked up in recent days, the reports tend to understate the extent and fierceness of the intimidation campaigns), more people are going to join in harassing women in video games because no one has faced any real consequences for doing so. These kind of open harassment campaigns are likely to spread to other topics as well, until and unless the government and law enforcement act; if law enforcement lacks the resources to enforce the laws against menacing already on the books, then they need to get those resources as quickly as possible.

Right-wingers have already succeeded over the past few decades in redefining the cultural concept of “debate” in ways that have grievously harmed our country, perhaps irreparably so. If we are going to allow, through our lack of action,  rape and death threats to become a de facto acceptable way of silencing those we disagree with, then we may be a very short ways away from descending back to our simian ancestors and settling our arguments by flinging poop at one another. Come to think of it, that may actually be an improvement over the current state of affairs.

Kefka’s Million Deaths is a Statistic

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Dancing Mad: How a Video Game Character Came to be the Standard by Which I Measure All Villains (The Mary Sue)

SPOILER WARNING: This blog gives away major plot elements of the video games Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the gaming world will be forever divided into two camps: Those who believe Final Fantasy VII is the greatest video game of all time, and those who are wrong. Okay, that’s more than a little hyperbolic, and I don’t really mean it, but I think it’s safe to say that Final Fantasy VII, as arguable as the quality of its strengths and innovations may be, remains one of the most divisive video games ever made, inspiring spirited debates about elements both within the game and compared to other games (both inside and outside the Final Fantasy series) that are still going on over seventeen years since the game’s first Japanese and American release. There hasn’t been another Final Fantasy title that has inspired the sheer volume of debate over its merits.

When comparing Final Fantasy VII to other titles in the series, Final Fantasy VI is the title that invariably gets brought up. Not only were the two titles released relatively close to one another, but they were the two console RPGs that turned the genre into something truly mature, with characters and storylines that began approaching those found in literature. The games also share enough themes in common that they kind of invite comparison. As much as I try to adopt a “live and let live” attitude towards these kinds of debates, though, there’s still a part of me that gets drawn into arguments about Final Fantasy VII, particularly those that try to argue Final Fantasy VI is better in some way. It’s the same part of me that gives my students a handout of “some really, really good music” at the start of every semester because I’m still a bit of a music snob; it’s not a part of myself that I’m proud of, but at least I can admit that it’s there and it shouldn’t be.

To be clear, I think Final Fantasy VI is one of the best video games ever made. In my opinion, though, it was more evolutionary than revolutionary, and ultimately I’d even rank Final Fantasy IV (even with its myriad flaws) above Final Fantasy VI when it comes to the Super NES/Super Famicom games. A full discussion of the merits of Final Fantasy VII over Final Fantasy VI would probably end up being close to book-length, and even I don’t have the enthusiasm for a project like that, so for the purpose of brevity let’s just focus on the merits of Final Fantasy VI’s main villain Kefka, as written about by Sara Goodwin in the article above, versus those of Final Fantasy VII’s Sephiroth.

Kefka has always enjoyed a sizable fanbase because of his character design and psychotic, unpredictable behaviour; I’m not sure there’s been a good parallel to Kefka in broader pop culture except for Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, which came well over a decade later. Whereas Ledger’s Joker character had well-planned comic moments, though, Kefka’s comedy comes mostly from the kinds of lines that we were getting, albeit inadvertently, in previous Final Fantasy titles due to translation issues. (Final Fantasy IV’s “You spoony bard!” may be the most transcendent bad line in video game history.) Between that and Kefka’s evil behaviour before his gradual descent into insanity, Kefka ultimately comes across as one-dimensional, just an evil guy who gets more and more crazy as the game goes on. Contrast that with Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII learning during his time in SOLDIER that he’s the result of a bizarre medical experiment by Shinra Corporation, which ties into the game’s themes of man versus nature in a way that ultimately, even given all the horrible things Sephiroth does later, makes him something of a sympathetic character. Even by the standards of the time, Kefka was just too generic of a “pure evil” character, especially when put side-by-side with Sephiroth.

Looking at Kefka’s character arc more closely, the fact that Goodwin uses the phrase “Whedon-worthy” as a compliment almost makes me want to dismiss her arguments off-hand. She talks about the reveal of Kefka being the actual villain of the game instead of Emperor Gestahl as if it were an unprecedented twist, even though Square had done the same thing in Final Fantasy IV years earlier with Zemus and Golbez. Plot twists can be wonderful when they’re used sparingly and to good effect, but Kefka’s actions, apart from being a couple of degrees darker than what had been seen in previous Final Fantasy games, weren’t really that remarkable. The killing of General Leo, in particular, lacked any emotional impact because they literally introduced his character about four minutes before killing him off. (As for that being somehow unprecedented, has no one heard of Miami Vice? Seriously, the way some Whedon fanatics talk, you’d think the man singlehandedly invented surprise, when all he did was overuse plot twists and fourth wall-breaking so self-consciously that his shows descended almost immediately into sad self-parody, and not the funny kind of self-parody, either. By the time I finally forced myself to watch his “brown” series, I was not only able to predict all the plot twists before they happened, but about half the dialogue as well.) Compare that to Final Fantasy VII, where the first half of the game is spent building up Aeris as a central character to the narrative so that when Sephiroth kills her, we care (oh do we care) to the point where not only is Aeris’ death unquestionably one of the most iconic scenes in video game history, but it’s often talked about as the first video game scene that made players cry. Even after all these years, that scene still hasn’t lost its emotional impact.

One of the thing that sets Kefka apart from other Final Fantasy villains, and one which Goodwin spends a great deal of space talking about, is the fact that Kefka is ultimately successful, halfway through the game, of largely destroying the world, leaving only a handful of survivors. As a plot device this was unprecedented (in video games), yes, but again, the potential emotional impact of this is lost by the fact that the pre-apocalypse world wasn’t really developed that well to start with, and most of the characters you know who die in the game do so before the apocalypse. It creates stark visuals, but little else; players aren’t going to get emotionally invested in “that NPC near the flowers who talked about wanting to travel the world but isn’t there now.” The old line about a single death being a tragedy but a million deaths being a statistic is true; there’s just no reason for players to really care about Kefka’s apocalypse, whereas Aeris’ death in Final Fantasy VII invests not only the protagonist Cloud, but players as well, with a desire to see Sephiroth pay for what he’s done. It doesn’t help that the second half of Final Fantasy VI has very little in the way of narrative structure, in order to give players options in terms of which party members they seek out after the apocalypse to defeat Kefka; what that mechanic gains in open-ended storytelling, it more than loses in its inability to further develop Kefka, whereas Sephiroth continues to develop after killing Aeris in Final Fantasy VII, all the way up to the game’s final battle.

The epilogue after the game’s final battle also shows the danger of having a villain succeed in his apocalyptic vision. Final Fantasy VI doesn’t even have that much of an ending (again, a tradeoff the game developers made when they wanted to let players decide which party members to bring back for the quest to defeat Kefka, since it was basically impossible to write developed endings for all possible party setups), but in the end it feels hollow. There’s no ability to travel back in time and undo all the damage and killing Kefka has done; the world is still a shell of its former self, just a shell that no longer has the big villain to deal with any longer. Contrast that with Final Fantasy VII’s ending, where even after Sephiroth’s death the players still have to watch Meteor rapidly approaching the planet, and players are left with a couple of deliberately ambiguous scenes that allowed them to wonder whether or not the world was saved, and if so, how (possibly even by the dead Aeris). That possibility that the world wasn’t ultimately destroyed by Sephiroth’s actions gave players a sense of really accomplishing something, whereas Final Fantasy VI just ended without a palpable sense of fulfillment.

All of this is just my subjective opinion, of course, and I try not to get involved in these kinds of debates because I do get more involved in them than I should, for reasons I still don’t understand completely. I don’t mean to tick off fans of Final Fantasy VI, and I don’t know what compelled me to respond to Goodwin’s article like this. Maybe I just needed a break from talking about politics for a bit. Still, I had to say something, so there you go.

A Thousand Racist Words

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‘Beyond Outraged’ Family Of Michael Brown & Their Attorneys Release Statement (Huffington Post)

One of the few times President Obama has been out-and-out defeated in his presidency came earlier this March, when he nominated lawyer Debo Adegbile to oversee the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Republicans, as with nearly every action Obama has undertaken during his presidency, mounted a vigorous opposition to Adegbile’s nomination, seizing on the fact that he had once been part of a defence team that had successfully worked to commute the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who had been convicted in 1981 of the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Setting aside the controversy over whether or not Abu-Jamal actually committed the murder, it has always been common practice, when considering a lawyer’s ability to serve in higher office, the quality of performance in the court, not whom the lawyer represents. For example, Chief Justice John Roberts, before he became a justice, did pro bono work for welfare recipients and GLBT activists, but no one opposed his nomination to the Supreme Court on those grounds. Heck, John Adams, our second president and a conservative lion, defended the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. Still, the right-wing media pulled out all the stops to oppose Adegbile, and in the end convinced enough conservative Democrats to break away from President Obama to outright defeat Adegbile’s nomination in the Senate, despite the dangerous precedent this will set in terms of how aspiring lawyers choose which clients to represent.

Fox News, in particular, waged a month-long campaign against Adegbile’s nomination, running several segments attacking him throughout his confirmation process. As many pointed out after his nomination was defeated, though, there was a very telling thing about those segments. If you watched the Fox News segments but didn’t hear the audio, most of the time you were just watching this African-American prisoner, often walking around in chains. When you watched with the sound on, though, the word you heard most often was Adegbile’s, not Abu-Jamal’s. It was an obvious, facile attempt to link Adegbile to the dominant conservative stereotype about African-American men, so that when people in the right-wing media bubble heard his name they didn’t think of a mixed-race lawyer, but instead thought big scary black man who’s gonna rape and murder our womenfolk. Say what you will about it, but it worked, and the taint of this character assassination is probably going to follow Adegbile for the rest of his professional life, and possibly his personal life as well.

When the initial news of Michael Brown’s death came out last weekend, I wish I could say that the details — how he wasn’t armed, how he had his hands up in a gesture of surrender when he was gunned down by a policeman — shocked me that much. There was certainly a good deal of anger; I was a fan of rap music in the 1980s, and so I saw things like the Rodney King beating and the 2 Live Crew obscenity arrests through that prism. (The latter was what not only got me involved in identity politics, but politics as a whole.) It isn’t just what African-Americans have suffered at the hands of the police and the justice system, either, because I had the same reaction when Columbus police went after my friends at Antioch when they protested John Kasich’s proposed student aid cuts, and what Cecily McMillan of Occupy Wall Street went through at the hands of the NYPD. Still, the deep problems African-Americans have with the American justice system deserve special attention, but we’ve reached a point where they are now so commonplace that sometimes it’s hard to get angry unless it happens to one of your friends, or it happens in your own town.

As the days following Brown’s death passed, though, the scenes from Ferguson just got grimmer and grimmer. Police officers in military camouflage and body armor, pointing sniper rifles at peaceful protesters, choking whole neighbourhoods with tear gas, acting with seeming impunity, broadcast to the whole world some of the worst of what America is. You’ve probably heard all the statistics about how African-Americans make up two-thirds of Ferguson’s population but less than a tenth of its police force, but to me the most damning facts to come out of the police escalation were from former American soldiers who pointed out that Ferguson police had more body armor than some of the first troops who invaded Iraq a decade ago, and that they weren’t allowed to point their weapons at protesting Iraqis. That says a lot about how many (certainly not all) police treat African-Americans.

The Ferguson police’s reaction to the protesters also adds to a very troubling pattern of police response to liberal and conservative protests over the past year. The most obvious example that came to mind during the Ferguson police response was the reaction to the standoff at Cliven Bundy’s ranch this past spring, where anti-government protesters pointed assault weapons at federal agents who were confiscating the property of a rancher who had repeatedly broken the law over several years by not paying grazing fees when he let his cattle graze on federal lands. Instead of bringing in tanks and other military items in the face of this armed far-right resistance, like Ferguson police did with the peaceful protesters there, the feds backed down and allowed Bundy to continue to graze his cattle for free on federal lands. More recently, anti-immigration protesters were allowed to prevent a bus full of Central American refugee children from going to a processing station in California without police interference, but when liberal protesters in Detroit used similar tactics to try to stop water trucks from shutting off service to needy Detroiters, they were arrested. If police at a Tea Party rally had pointed their guns at protesters, does anyone doubt that the police would have been blamed for the shootout that would have inevitably followed?

The situation in Ferguson got better on Thursday when the Missouri State Highway Patrol took over policing duties in the city and allowed the protesters full legal exercise of their First Amendment rights. Things were looking up that day, but then Friday the Ferguson police dropped a bombshell on everyone by releasing video allegedly showing Michael Brown stealing cigars from a convenience store and intimidating one of the employees. Putting the racial dynamic aside for a moment, the tactic here is as old as the judicial system itself: The police wanted to put Brown on trial in the court of public opinion, thus deflecting attention away from what their own police officer did. Regardless of what Brown did, nothing justifies shooting an unarmed person, with their hands up in a gesture of surrender, and the fact that the police continue to withhold so much information about the shooting just raises more and more questions about whether or not they’re trying to hide something. All of this would be true, as many have pointed out, regardless of the colour of Michael Brown’s skin.

Once the video was released, though, it was instantly in a near-constant loop in all of right-wing media, because it gave them the angle they needed to satiate their viewers’ most base instincts. From Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to the birtherism crowd, conservatives have been preying on white conservatives’ fears with only the slightest gossamer of deniability draped over their efforts. We saw this most recently with Trayvon Martin, when right-wing media went into overdrive to try to pick out any small problems in Trayvon’s past to hold up as alleged examples of how evil he was, then plastered video screens with the most sinister-looking pictures of Trayvon they could find. The video of Brown allegedly intimidating a store clerk and stealing cigars, even if it doesn’t directly exculpate the police officer who killed him, will be enough justification for many right-wingers because even if Brown didn’t deserve to die at that moment then he was going to deserve it soon anyway because he was obviously going to turn into a gang member, a drug dealer, another violent n***** who was going to rape and murder their wives and daughters, “just like the rest of them.”

I almost spelled the n-word out there because I’m getting tired of softening the ugliness of this kind of racism. I’m sick of all this talk about the “soft racism” of conservatives, as if something as horrible as racism can even be softened. Yes, southerners may no longer be rapturously smiling to cameras in front of lynched African-Americans, but you know what? African-Americans are still being murdered. Michael Brown is dead, Trayvon Martin is dead, and as long as we allow this so-called “soft racism” to persist without a vocal and sustained response, it’s just going to mean more African-American parents burying their teenage kids, murdered by people who have been led to believe by right-wing media that they’re doing the country a service. The n-word may not be on their lips, but it’s damn sure on their minds.

I don’t condone looting or other acts of stealing or violence in response to what the Ferguson police have done this past week, but if you don’t understand why Ferguson residents, and people across America, are coming out in such large numbers and protesting what happened to Michael Brown so loudly, then you don’t understand the problem at all. If we don’t raise our voices then the next young African-American man to get gunned down in an American street could be one of our friends, or someone in our own family. Staying silent is no longer an option.

Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid (or the Water)

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Erie algae crisis a long time growing (Journal Gazette)
Toxic algae crisis isn’t over for Lake Erie or the nation (Globe Newswire via Yahoo! Finance)

For all that this past weekend’s water emergency in the Toledo area made international news, for all that a couple of our local television stations spent most of the weekend in live non-stop news coverage, this “crisis” didn’t wind up being much more than a very big, very widespread inconvenience while it was going on. There haven’t been any reports of major illness stemming from the problems with the water system, and there weren’t any significant criminal problems either. There will be a significant financial hit from a lost weekend for many businesses, of course, but that’s the kind of thing we can start sorting out now that we’ve got drinkable water again. It was significant, yes, but it could have been a whole lot worse.

That said, it shouldn’t have happened at all, and now that a reasonable period of time has passed since we got the all-clear to drink the water again, I have a lot to get off of my chest. I don’t often write about environmental issues here, but they are of deep concern to me, not just as a nature photographer and a hippie but as a resident of this planet who has kind of a vested interest in seeing the planet, you know, survive.

Let me start with a couple of local gripes. I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Marcy Kaptur, but she was spot-on during the crisis when she said that the city needed to release the testing results for the mitocystin toxin. All we were told at first was that the water had tested at 2.1 parts per billion of microcystin (and that 1 ppb is the limit for safe drinking water), and then we never got more numbers, even as we were told that the numbers were “improving” in later tests. This is information that should be, if it already isn’t, readily accessible to the public (especially water customers like us, and let me point out that the city forced my neighbourhood to switch from well water to city water several years ago, despite the flooding problems we’ve had since), and the need for that information has not diminished now that we’re “out of the woods.” The city should be testing for microcystin for as long as this algae bloom lasts, and publishing the results online each and every day, so those of us who have to use the water system know just what we’re putting into our bodies.

Secondly, I’ve yet to hear a good reason why EAS wasn’t activated during the water crisis. I’ve lost count of the number of times my cable box has cut away from something I’m trying to watch, and my cell phone has screeched at me, just to let me know an AMBER Alert has been issued all the way across the state, but that’s an inconvenience I’m more than willing to accept provided that the system is activated and works properly during a crisis like this. Yes, we live in a constantly-connected world of social media and such these days, but if the city had sent out an EAS bulletin when the do-not-drink order was first issued then I wouldn’t have brushed my teeth with the contaminated water about an hour later. The only reason I found out about the alert that night was because I got out of bed to pee right when my housemate read a story about it online. About forty-eight hours later, as another press conference kept getting pushed further and further back into the night, I had to keep insipid celebrity gossip shows on my television while I waited to hear if we were going to get the all-clear before sunrise. I can’t think of a good reason to explain why EAS never broadcast a single bulletin during the crisis.

Now for the larger concerns. Here’s an informative video report about the Lake Erie algae problem from Al-Jazeera America:

If anything in this video captures your attention (which I hope it does), consider this: That video was filmed last year. The algae problem was already that bad a year ago, and the irony is that this year’s algae bloom is actually smaller than last year’s; we just had the lousy luck of other environmental conditions causing more algae to go through the intake valve of one of the region’s biggest water treatment plants. In fact, last year’s algae bloom caused Carroll Township here in Ohio to institute a similar drinking water ban. What happened this past weekend happened here in this state less than a year ago, albeit on a smaller scale. These blooms have been happening every summer for a decade now, and all those images from space of neon green swirls in Lake Erie are nothing new.

I own up to not paying enough attention to local environmental news lately, but there have certainly been enough environmental disasters so far this year to keep me occupied. In January a chemical spill in West Virginia’s Elk River left about 300,000 residents without potable water for over a week. The following month North Carolina’s Dan River was polluted with toxic coal ash that remained in the water until cleanup efforts ended just a few weeks ago. In April several train cars containing crude oil derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia and caught fire; this happened after a similar incident in North Dakota on New Year’s Eve last year, and a much more tragic oil train explosion in Quebec that killed forty-seven people earlier that year. This doesn’t even get into any ongoing issues caused by fracking or GMO farming, among other environmental issues.

The decreased visibility of the environmental movement over the past fifteen years can be attributed to a number of factors, but one of the most pernicious is the ridiculous conservative stereotype of environmentalists as “tree huggers” overly concerned with saving Brazilian rain forests or endangered species half a world away, advancing the notion — certainly proven false by the water emergency and all the crises mentioned above — that environmental problems are not American problems. This stereotype persists to the point where even when environmentalists are proven right, such as the many who predicted that the overuse of chemical fertilizers would cause the excessive nitrogen runoff into Lake Erie that feeds the algae blooms, they’re still marginalized at best, and usually completely ignored except for the same conservative lampooning that they’ve endured since before I was born.

When conservatives aren’t trying to ludicrously game the system — insisting on 50/50 debates about the reality of man-made climate change despite the wealth of evidence against them, all the while demanding that the suppositions underpinning their core beliefs (tax cuts for the rich benefit everyone, life begins at conception) never be challenged — they’re trying to pretend that so many of these problems affecting America don’t even exist. Republicans in Washington, and in states coast to coast, continue to slash funding for environmental studies in order to make it harder to even study the short- and long-term harm caused by all these environmental problems. After all, it isn’t really a problem if no one can name it as a problem, right?

This doesn’t even touch on the right-wing media bubble so many Americans live in, where these stories never get talked about except in wildly distorted versions to provide a break between the “Hillary Clinton laughed as Americans died in Benghazi” and “liberals want to put Christians in concentration camps” stories. Denialism has been elevated to a whole new level in the lands of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and Rupert Murdoch, where anything that doesn’t fit in with these archconservatives’ predetermined conclusions — whether we’re talking about President Obama’s birth certificate or dead Sandy Hook Elementary School students — is dismissed as unreal and evidence of a “left-wing conspiracy” against the “real” Americans. I am honestly surprised that I haven’t been able to find some online community somewhere claiming that the algae in Lake Erie is some kind of liberal trickery, that our drinking water was just fine and that this weekend’s crisis was really a secret plot to brainwash Americans. Then again, given how much money right-wingers are making from all these conspiracy theories (gold investments, survival food, stockpiling weapons), it’s probably only a matter of time before the “algae truthers” start making the talk radio circuit.

Speaking of money, I’m guessing it won’t be long before local media is inundated with advertisements for home microcystin testing kits, most of which will probably be the 21st century equivalent of snake oil. The worst part is that this is completely emblematic of one of the largest problems with modern conservative ideology: If you can make money off a problem, it’s not really a problem at all. Any discussion of regulating farming practices to stop the overuse of chemical fertilizers, which would starve these algae blooms of the nitrogen they need to grow as big as they have, will be killed by Congressional Republicans in a heartbeat because they’ll claim that no matter what harm these blooms cause the general public, we can’t possibly impinge on the “freedom” of these big corporate farms to make as much money as possible. If the same companies feeding off conservative fearmongering can make some extra bucks by selling home microcystin testing kits to Toledoans, well, that’s just more proof that “the system is working.”

I don’t think living with your head continuously buried in the sand is any way to go about life, but that’s just my opinion. What these conservatives are trying to do, though, is force all of us to bury our heads in the sand with them, and I’m completely fed up with it. What happened here in Toledo last weekend could have been avoided, and now it’s going to take years, at best, to get the algae problem back under control. There will surely be more do-not-drink advisories coming in the years ahead, if not later this summer, and now we all have to stock up on bottled water and paper plates. Just like oil train crashes, just like increased seismic activity and flammable tap water in fracking zones, we are all being expected to accept this as “the new normal,” and I categorically refuse to do that.

If Republicans are going to keep destroying the environment despite the very real and immediate damage they’re causing, and if Democrats are too timid to go after conservatives on this issue (among others), then it is up to the rest of us to organize and educate and do everything else in our legal power to prevent more of America from going through what Toledo went through this past weekend, or worse. No matter how much money conservatives pump into their media bubble, we have to be louder than they are. Too much is at stake to do anything less.

Spinning My Wheels

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There have been times when I’ve had to rush just to get a blog up so I don’t go a whole calendar month without blogging, but I’ve never had to do it under this level of sleep deprivation. My life has gotten incredibly hectic in the past few months, and even though I’m on break from teaching for the next two and a half weeks, I’ve got so many other things I need to get to while I’m on “vacation” that I’m not getting much of a chance to really focus on anything here at all. The worst part is that I’ve had stuff I’ve wanted to blog about (the absurd situation with Detroit’s water, the inhumane conservative response to the Central American refugee crisis), but I haven’t had time, and now that I have the time right now, I just don’t have the focus to write about those things because I’m so sleep-deprived. All I can really do right now is ramble about my life for a bit, stick it up on the .org, and hope that I feel ready to write about more in-depth topics soon.

It hasn’t helped that this has been the worst summer I can ever remember having in terms of my seasonal allergies. This part of the country was in the news a lot this past winter for how cold it got, but we’ve had a much cooler summer than usual as well, and I think that’s led to me having more problems with pollen and such than I’m used to having. I can only afford the short-term remedies of over-the counter allergy medications, and even they don’t seem to be doing as much good as they normally do. Between that and the sleep-deprivation today, it feels like I have my own personal fog cloud enveloping my head, going with me wherever I go. It’s not a fun feeling, needless to say.

I’m also coming off of one of the most difficult semesters of teaching I’ve ever had. This past semester was the first time I had to teach a class made up exclusively of students in one particular programme at the college, and that created more challenges than I’d thought it would. I normally like challenges when I teach — if it came easily to me, I’d know I wasn’t doing it right — but I got overwhelmed there, to the point where I was more relieved than sad to see the term end, which has never happened before. The good news is that it’s yielded a lot of material for me to write about in my professional writing, but the bad news is that it took a lot out of me, and I haven’t been able to recharge my batteries on my break so far. With the new term less than three weeks away — and me needing to come up with new material for a course I’ve never taught before — I feel like I could be in some real trouble.

Speaking of writing, there have been some setbacks with The Prostitutes of Lake Wobegon that I need to write about on my Patreon soon, but that will have to wait for another day. In the meantime I’ve been trying to work on other projects that will be easier for me to self-publish, but I think I started too many of those, and then I wasn’t able to work on any of them for awhile as I dug myself out of this last semester. Now I can’t seem to pick up the thread on any of them, and I’ve got so much work to do to get ready for this next semester that I’m not sure if I’ll even be able to get back to that many of them before the fall semester begins.

In site news, you may have noticed the lack of Amazon banners in recent posts. Amazon wound up canceling my Associates account for lack of activity, so now all those links I’ve posted here since the dawn of the .org will no longer yield me any money. I need to look into another affiliate programme to use here to help me pay the bills for the .org, but that isn’t exactly a huge priority for me with everything else I’ve got on my plate at the present moment.

I think “discouragement” has been a huge word in my life for these past few months. I’ve had to deal with a good number of setbacks, I haven’t been happy with how well I’ve handled a number of important tasks, and there’s certainly been a lot of bad stuff going on in the world to make it hard to be optimistic about much of anything. It hasn’t helped that I’ve basically gone into hermit mode again, not meeting up with any of my friends for longer than I care to remember. I know that I need to work at turning things around because I can’t count on them turning around on their own, but that’s hard to do when your brain is muddled from lack of sleep, your eyes are puffy from pollen and even writing a half-assed blog like this is a struggle.

At least I got it written, though, so I can cross that off of my to-do list. That’s something, anyway. More blogs to come soon, I hope.