Bring a cleric.
Murder was the case.
No, wait. Mockery was the case.
Somebody was mocking Rhode Island state Representative Scott J. Guthrie. And not even because of his 'stache! No, someone put up a clearly satirical Facebook page about Guthrie, mocking him and attacking his political positions.
Guthrie, as an adult, a responsible citizen, and a government official who cares about the public fisc, laughed it off and talked to reporters about how it demonstrated that his ideas are right.
No, wait. That's the bizarro-America response.
This is the real America — the America of butthurt, the America of snivelers, the America of "I'm entitled not to be offended," the mewling o-help-me-nanny-state America.
So Scott Guthrie went to the cops, and the cops conducted a full investigation — including subpoenas — before realizing that putting up a satirical Facebook page is not a crime, even in a world where we have broad and vague and unprincipled "cyber-harassment" laws.
How extensive was the investigation? Consider the police report yourself.
It turned out that the satirical page was created by Republican Sen. Nicholas Kettle. Guthrie is a Democrat. Kettle, naturally, faced no official consequences; the young communications director who helped him make the page was fired. The communications director used legislative resources, a computer, to create the page, you see. There was no consequence for Guthrie using substantial law enforcement resources to investigate being made fun of.
Kudos are due to law enforcement for resisting the demands of a state legislator:
But on advice of a lawyer in Attorney General Peter Kilmartin's office, they concluded the creation of this fake Facebook page did not constitute "cyber-harassment."
After reviewing the case, "I was informed that a majority of the posts were constitutionally protected activity," and the others "would not have caused substantial emotional distress which is another required element of the crime," the lead detective, Kevin Harris, wrote in a report obtained by The Journal on Tuesday.
After speaking to Assistant Attorney General Ronald Gendron, "it has been determined that there is insufficient evidence to go forward with charges at this time," Harris wrote.
It would have been nice if they had come to that obvious assessment earlier, after a smaller expenditure of taxpayer funds. In their defense, they do far better than most.
But Guthrie may not be done:
But the case may not be over. Kilmartin spokeswoman Amy Kempe said Gendron provided an "initial assessment," but the attorney general intends to review the case. Guthrie said he may now take his complaint to federal authorities.
Scott Guthrie, you petulant, pusillanimous prat, you're a disgrace. You're a disgrace to adulthood. You're a disgrace to American citizenship. You're a disgrace to public service. Stop spending the taxpayers' money as an unguent for your butthurt and react like a grown up with some grasp of American values. Retaliate with a page about Kettle. It should be easy. Dude looks like a spotty douchebro.
(Hat tip to Nicholas Cote.)
There's a traditional column you see repeated two or three times per year. The author and publication may vary, but the basic structure never changes: the column asserts that the First Amendment is not absolute, and that other countries prohibit various types of speech that offend or wound feelings, so Americans ought to as well.
This time the venue for the column is the Daily Beast, and the author is Fordham University Professor Thane Rosenbaum. Professor Rosenbaum wants us to follow the example of France and Israel and suppress more ugly speech, and argues we should rely on unspecified studies that show that speech can hurt.
There is nothing new under the sun. Professor Rosenbaum's argument resembles that of Anthea Butler or Eric Posner. In my series "A Year of Blasphemy," I have examined worldwide blasphemy prosecutions over two years to demonstrate that the norms these academics wold have us adopt are typically used to oppress religious minorities and the powerless under the thin guise of solicitude for feelings.
Scott Greenfield has already cheerfully demolished Professor Rosenbaum's very silly column. I will only address it to discuss just two of the common legal tropes Professor Rosenbaum clumsily deploys in support of an apologia for broad censorship.
First, there's the shoutout to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.:
There is no freedom to shout “fire” in a crowded theater.
Back in 2012 I wrote at length about the context for that Holmes quote. First of all, Professor Rosenbaum — like most Holmes fans — truncates the quote to render it vague. What Holmes actually said was "[t]he most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic."
But more importantly, Professor Rosenbaum — like most who misquote Holmes — ignores the context. To summarize rather than make you read my lengthy post: (1) Holmes made the analogy in deciding a shockingly brutal and censorious series of cases that are no longer good law, in which the Supreme Court gave the government free reign to jail people who criticized or agitated against American participation in World War I; (2) Holmes later repented of that position, undermined that line of cases through decisions he wrote or joined, and articulated a far more speech-protective line of authority that remains the law today, and (3) if you are fond of Holmes' rhetorical flourishes, you ought to know he was the sort of statist asshole who said things like "three generations of imbeciles are enough" whilst upholding the right of the government forcibly to sterilize people deemed undesirable.
In other words, when you throw around the "shout fire in a crowded theater" quote, you're echoing the rhetoric of a tyranny-cheerleader whose logic was later abandoned by everyone, including himself.
Next, Professor Rosenbaum invokes another favorite trope, "fighting words":
Certain proscribed categories have always existed—libel, slander and defamation, obscenity, “fighting words,” and the “incitement of imminent lawlessness”—where the First Amendment does not protect the speaker, where the right to speak is curtailed for reasons of general welfare and public safety.
The "fighting words" doctrine gets thrown around a lot to justify broad speech restrictions. The people who invoke it rarely tell you — and may not know themselves — how narrow it is, and how the courts have refused to extend it.
The "fighting words" doctrine comes from the Supreme Court's decision in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire in 1942. Fans of censorship like to quote the broader language of the opinion:
There are certain well defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or "fighting" words — those which, by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.
But censors generally don't quote the later language of the opinion narrowing the First Amendment exception:
It is a statute narrowly drawn and limited to define and punish specific conduct lying within the domain of state power, the use in a public place of words likely to cause a breach of the peace. . . . A statute punishing verbal acts, carefully drawn so as not unduly to impair liberty of expression, is not too vague for a criminal law. . . . .
Nor can we say that the application of the statute to the facts disclosed by the record substantially or unreasonably impinges upon the privilege of free speech. Argument is unnecessary to demonstrate that the appellations "damned racketeer" and "damned Fascist" are epithets likely to provoke the average person to retaliation, and thereby cause a breach of the peace.
This is the heart of the "fighting words" doctrine — a prohibition on face-to-face insults likely to cause a brawl. In that sense, it's entirely consistent with the Supreme Court's subsequent clear and present danger doctrine, in which advocacy can only be punished when it is "directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action."
People who cite the "fighting words" doctrine never tell you how it has been treated in the courts for the last half-century. The Supreme Court has refused every opportunity to rely upon it to uphold censorship, and in fact has consistently narrowed it. It was already narrowed by 1970 in Cohen v. California, when the Court refused to use it to justify punishment of a man who wore a jacket bearing the words "Fuck the Draft." The Court made it clear that the "fighting words" doctrine was narrowed to direct confrontations likely to provoke violence:
This Court has also held that the States are free to ban the simple use, without a demonstration of additional justifying circumstances, of so-called "fighting words," those personally abusive epithets which, when addressed to the ordinary citizen, are, as a matter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke violent reaction. Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U. S. 568 (1942). While the four-letter word displayed by Cohen in relation to the draft is not uncommonly employed in a personally provocative fashion, in this instance it was clearly not "directed to the person of the hearer." Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U. S. 296, 310 U. S. 309 (1940). No individual actually or likely to be present could reasonably have regarded the words on appellant's jacket as a direct personal insult. Nor do we have here an instance of the exercise of the State's police power to prevent a speaker from intentionally provoking a given group to hostile reaction. Cf. Feiner v. New York, 340 U. S. 315 (1951); Termniello v. Chicago, 337 U. S. 1 (1949). There is, as noted above, no showing that anyone who saw Cohen was, in fact, violently aroused, or that appellant intended such a result.
Later, in Texas v. Johnson, the Supreme Court refused to use the "fighting words" doctrine to justify a ban on flag burning:
Nor does Johnson's expressive conduct fall within that small class of "fighting words" that are "likely to provoke the average person to retaliation, and thereby cause a breach of the peace." Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 574 (1942). No reasonable onlooker would have regarded Johnson's generalized expression of dissatisfaction with the policies of the Federal Government as a direct personal insult or an invitation to exchange fisticuffs.
These cases reveal a common thread running through Professor Rosenbaum's familiar defense of censorship. The line of Holmes decisions he references upheld the government's right to suppress draft resistors and war critics. The cases narrowing the fighting words doctrine — Cohen and Johnson — involved government attempts to suppress criticism of its policies. Professor Rosenbaum and his ilk may attempt to convince you that their project is to defend the feelings of religious and ethnic minorities and the dispossessed. But the most charitable interpretation is that they are the useful idiots of tyranny. Just as the blasphemy norms they endorse are employed to abuse minorities and the powerless, the justifications for censorship they tout have been used to suppress criticism of the state and its power. Read Professor Rosenbaum's closing, and contemplate how his approach to speech would be used by any government we have ever known:
Free speech should not stand in the way of common decency.
Last week I talked about the British controversy over Maajid Nawaz, a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate who tweeted a link to the satirical cartoon Jesus and Mo, which depicts conversations between a cartoon Jesus and a cartoon Mohammad to explore religious beliefs and attitudes.
The United Kingdom's Channel 4 News decided to run a story about the controversy. Naturally they showed a picture of the cartoon so that viewers could make an intelligent assessment of the claims of offense.
Well, sort of.
In Channel 4 News' story, at about :25, the reporter says:
This is the cartoon that is causing outrage. We have taken the decision to cover up the depiction of Mohammed so we don't cause offense to some viewers.
Channel 4 News has begged the question in classic form: it has censored a cartoon right at the start of its coverage of a debate about whether the cartoon should be censored. It has blacked out a depiction of Mohammed right at the start of putatively covering a debate over whether the few should be able to demand that the many not depict Mohammed. It has yielded to claims of offense right at the start of a discussion of whether society should yield to those claims of offense.
Even though Channel 4 is owned by a public body, this is not exactly state censorship: it is an exercise of terrible journalistic judgment rather than an act compelled by the state. But it is troublesome nonetheless. Channel 4 has pretended to cover a debate, but has actually presumed the validity of the arguments by one side of that debate. It has assumed, in a discussion of whether a cartoon is so offensive that it ought not be shown, that the cartoon is so offensive that it not be shown. It has decided to yield to a religious minority's demands about what can and cannot be depicted.
I have some questions for the alleged journalists at Channel 4 News.
1. Do you censor artistic depictions based on claims of offense even-handedly? If, for instance, you were covering a local council's decision to prevent a performance of the Reduced Shakespeare Company's show The Bible: The Complete Word of God, would you yield to demands of a few that you not show any clips or screenshots of the play, because it is offensive? Would you, like the Guardian, depict Serrano's "piss Christ" in covering the controversy over it?
2. At what point is a group big enough, or its claim of violence loud enough, for you to censor content based upon it? The United Kingdom has a significant American expat community. If I get enough of them to say that depictions of burning the American flag are offensive, will you avoid showing that on the news?
3. Does the safety of your employees, or of bystanders, play any role in your decision? Are claims of offense by some groups more likely to be accompanied by death threats and even violence?
4. If the answer to 3 is "yes," isn't that news?
5. For two years — here and here — I have done an annual review of how "blasphemy" like depicting Mohammed is treated both by states and, occasionally, by mobs. I submit that evidence shows that the notion of blasphemy — primarily, though not exclusively, as defined by Islam — has been used as a justification for abuse of minorities and the powerless. Have you considered whether your decision to yield to blasphemy norms and censor content makes you a party to that norm, and an implicit supporter of that abuse?
Some of those questions may be offensive to some of your viewers. I can show you how to black them out if you like.
Conservative author and speaker Dinesh D'Souza has been indicted in federal court in New York for campaign finance violations. More specifically, the feds have charged D'Souza with what is frequently called donation laundering. They assert that he reimbursed other for their donations to his chosen United States Senate candidate, thereby exceeding the statutory limit on personal donations. They also assert that he caused a false statement to be submitted to the feds, in that as a result of the alleged donation laundering the candidate's Federal Elections Commission statement identifying donors was rendered inaccurate.
Some people are suspicious that D'Souza is being singled out for his strong criticism of the Obama Administration, including his polemical documentary "2016: Obama's America." I hold no brief for D'Souza — I find him to be a crass, Coulteresque, unconvincing bomb-thrower. But I do not find it difficult to believe that the United States Department of Justice would single out an American for prosecution based on political views that are unpopular or offensive to those in power. My view is absolutely not limited to the Department of Justice under this administration. Selection of anyone for prosecution based on their views — whether I like their views or not — is an abhorent abuse of power that could easily be turned upon me or upon people with views I like.
A federal defendant who feels targeted based on protected speech may file a motion to dismiss the case for "selective prosecution." But it's a very difficult motion to win.
Federal prosecutors have extraordinary broad discretion in deciding whom to prosecute. However, they can't target people for prosecution based on constitutionally prohibited factors:
As we have noted in a slightly different context, however, although prosecutorial discretion is broad, it is not “ ‘unfettered.’ Selectivity in the enforcement of criminal laws is … subject to constitutional constraints.” United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114, 125, 99 S.Ct. 2198, 2205, 60 L.Ed.2d 755 (1979) (footnote omitted). In particular, the decision to prosecute may not be “ ‘deliberately based upon an unjustifiable standard such as race, religion, or other arbitrary classification,’ ” Bordenkircher v. Hayes, supra, 434 U.S., at 364, 98 S.Ct., at 668, quoting Oyler v. Boles, 368 U.S. 448, 456, 82 S.Ct. 501, 505, 7 L.Ed.2d 446 (1962), including the exercise of protected statutory and constitutional rights, see United States v. Goodwin, supra, 457 U.S., at 372, 102 S.Ct., at 2488.
Even though prosecution based on impermissible factors like race or protected speech is prohibited, the standard for proving it is high. The Supreme Court has announced that prosecutorial decisions are cloaked with a "presumption of regularity," and that courts must "presume" they have acted rightly absent "clear" evidence of discriminatory targeting. The Supreme Court explains:
Judicial deference to the decisions of these executive officers rests in part on an assessment of the relative competence of prosecutors and courts. “Such factors as the strength of the case, the prosecution's general deterrence value, the Government's enforcement priorities, and the case's relationship to the Government's overall enforcement plan are not readily susceptible to the kind of analysis the courts are competent to undertake.” Id., at 607, 105 S.Ct., at 1530. It also stems from a concern not to unnecessarily impair the performance of a core executive constitutional function. “Examining the basis of a prosecution delays the criminal proceeding, threatens to chill law enforcement by subjecting the prosecutor's motives and decisionmaking to outside inquiry, and may undermine prosecutorial effectiveness by revealing the Government's enforcement policy.” Ibid.
Sometimes, when you devote so much concern to the state's interest in unfettered prosecution, there's not much concern left for the defendant. Judges are only human, after all.
Under this regime, to show selective prosecution, a defendant must establish by "clear" evidence that "similarly situated individuals" without the prohibited characteristic were not prosecuted, and that the motive in this case was impermissibe. In a case alleging racial selective prosecution the defendant would have to show similarly situated people of a different race weren't prosecuted. In a case like Mr. D'Souza's the defendant would have to show both that (1) similarly situated people who didn't engage in the protected speech weren't prosecuted, and (2) the decision to prosecute was based on animus towards the protected speech. This is a tremendously difficult standard to meet. How is a defendant supposed to know whether other people have committed the same crime and been passed over by the government, particularly when the government's investigations are secret and when the conduct in question is difficult to detect?
A defendant can demand discovery from the government about whether it has passed over other people who committed the crime. But the Supreme Court has set a high bar for entitlement to such discovery. To force the government to produce statistics and other information about its prosecution decisions, the defendant must produce "some" evidence in support of both prongs of the selective prosecution test — that is, some evidence that others similarly situated are not being prosecuted, and some evidence of improper motive. In U.S. v. Armstrong in 1996, the Supreme Court held that it was not enough that defense lawyers in Los Angeles showed that the defendants in federal crack cocaine cases were almost all African-American; to get discovery they also had to supply some evidence that the feds were passing over white defendants.
In short, a mere suspicious appearance — like the indictment of a vigorous critic of the administration — is not enough to show unconstitutionally selective prosecution. D'Souza's attorneys should certainly explore the issue, but it will not be an easy motion to win. The system only nominally protects rights; for the most part the system protects the system.
When I oppose things like European prohibitions on denying the Holocaust, or "hate speech" laws, people tell me that I Don't Get It, that these laws address unique situations and unique historical dilemmas, and that they do not represent a wholesale abandonment of the value of freedom of expression.
The problem is that censorship is legally and culturally self-perpetuating. Once you accept that it is legitimate to ban speech because it is offensive, or ban ideas as historically dangerous, that decision is used both as a legal precedent and — invoking the values of fairness and equality — as an argument for banning other offensive speech.
This week's case in point: the United Kingdom. Maajid Nawaz, a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate, tweeted a link to the cartoon Jesus and Mo. That cartoon depicts Jesus and Mohammed having conversations, often in a way that subverts religious doctrine and attitudes. I have previously written about how it has led to calls for censorship over in the U.K. This time, Nawaz' tweet — which said quite reasonably "This is not offensive & I'm sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it" — has led to death threats and abuse.
There's a petition on the ever-optimistic Change.org that illustrates my point. Demanding that Nawaz be removed as a candidate, the petitioners ask this:
2. Is it right that questioning the official 6 million figure in favour of e.g. 4 million, is tantamount to Holocaust Denial which is a criminal offence in Europe?
3. Was is right that the play Behzti was cancelled due to the sensitivities in the Sikh community?
4. Or that the poem "Education for Leisure" was removed from the AQA's (Assessment and Qualifications Alliance – an Awarding Body for GCSEs and A-Levels) Anthology, after complaints were received?
Though the argument requests action from a party, not from a government, it mirrors the argument we see put to the government all the time. Muslims demanding official censorship have have asserted this justification for censorship before. Why shouldn't they? It's an appeal to the Western value of equality and fairness. How can we be solicitous of offense to one group, but not offense to another? We're not racists or something, are we? Are we only protecting the people we like?
We can't control how other people will feel, or what they will find offensive. We can only govern what we do about it. We can only condition people to expect from us defense or free expression, on the one hand, or official and punitive solicitude to hurt feelings, on the other. Once we start using the force of the state to punish people for being offensive, we should expect everyone who has ever been offended to come knocking on our door, asking "What about me? Don't I have feelings?"
Kudos, at least, to the extent these protesters are only demanding party action — which is a form of party politics and freedom of association — and not state punitive action. But the Liberal Democrats might want to consider what they'll be asked to punish next.
One of the most consistent messages I offer here is about interactions with law enforcement, and can be expressed in two words — shut up — although "oh you dumb son of a bitch will you for the love of God shut up" might capture the flavor better.
1. The First Amendment protects you from government sanction, either directly (by criminal prosecution) or indirectly (when someone uses the government's laws and the courts to punish you, as in a defamation action). It is currently in vogue to exclaim "NOBODY IS ARGUING OTHERWISE" when someone makes this point. Bullshit. People are consistently saying that private action (like criticism, or firings) violates the First Amendment, either directly or through sloppy implication. Promoting ignorance about our most important rights is a bad thing that we should call out, even when we're currently upset about something. Our rights are under constant assault on multiple fronts, and when we encourage citizens to misunderstand them we make it easier for the government to whittle them away.
2. The phrase "the spirit of the First Amendment" often signals approaching nonsense. So, regrettably, does the phrase "free speech" when uncoupled from constitutional free speech principles. These terms often smuggle unprincipled and internally inconsistent concepts — like the doctrine of the Preferred+ First Speaker. The doctrine of the Preferred First Speaker holds that when Person A speaks, listeners B, C, and D should refrain from their full range of constitutionally protected expression to preserve the ability of Person A to speak without fear of non-governmental consequences that Person A doesn't like. The doctrine of the Preferred First Speaker applies different levels of scrutiny and judgment to the first person who speaks and the second person who reacts to them; it asks "why was it necessary for you to say that" or "what was your motive in saying that" or "did you consider how that would impact someone" to the second person and not the first. It's ultimately incoherent as a theory of freedom of expression.
3. Notwithstanding #2, the concepts of proportionality, community, dialogue, love, charity, grace, empathy, forgiveness, humility, and self-awareness are all values decent people ought to apply to a discussion. They aren't about free speech or the First Amendment; they are about humanity. They are more powerful and convincing when applied consistently — when you do not demand grace of others than you aren't willing to extend yourself. That doesn't happen much.
4. The marketplace of ideas assigns consequences to all participants. That means, for instance, that A&E might suffer market consequences for its behavior. That's a feature, not a bug.
5. A substantial percentage of outrage is bullshit. So is a substantial percentage of outrage about outrage, and so on. Outrage is often about consolidating political power and promoting the view that your political opponents are horrible people. Much of the dialogue about Mr. Robertson being suspended from A&E consists of partisans eager to use the opportunity to argue that (1) people like Mr. Robertson are horrible people or (2) people who criticize Mr. Robertson are horrible people. Outrage is often an occasion for "THIS JUST PROVES WHAT I AM ALWAYS SAYING ABOUT THEM," with the particular case a thin disguise. Yes, when I do it, too.
6. Companies make decisions about hiring and firing based on both money and company culture. Sometimes these decisions are "right" in the sense that the decisions accurately predict what outcome will please the most customers and advertisers and keep revenues up. Sometimes the decisions are New Coke. Often the stated reasons for the decisions are hypocritical bullshit, as in the case of A&E. That's the way it works. Discussions about corporate decisions in the wake of controversy are dominated by (1) people who normally excoriate corporate decision-making but suddenly applaud it when the outcome suits their political beliefs, and (2) people who normally celebrate the market and promote the privilege of corporate decision-making but suddenly find it unpalatable when it produces a result that offends their politics. Some of the people applauding A&E are people who last week were furious at the concept that companies have First Amendment rights. Some of the people trying to conflate A&E and the government are people who last week were vigorously arguing that companies should not have to insure birth control if it offends their religious sensibilities.
7. Bad behavior is not a zero-sum game. If a person is a public relations executive, and identifies themselves as their employer's public relations executive on their Twitter account, and then uses that Twitter account associated with their employer's name in a way you'd use a private account — being edgy, vulgar, saying things that might offend people, and what have you — then they are bad at public relations and doing their employer a disservice. Being a corporation's public relations executive is not a vehicle for self-expression. But if people offer a wildly disproportionate, unmerciful, un-empathetic, graceless, ugly response — like the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet, salivating over knowing the precise moment someone learns she has been fired for her very stupid behavior — then they are still deplorable. The bad judgment of the PR executive does not diminish the deplorable behavior of the voyeurs, and the deplorable behavior of the voyeurs does not diminish the very bad judgment of the PR executive.
8. The fact that a viewpoint is contained in your holy book does not insulate it from criticism. The fact that a viewpoint is part of a person's faith tradition might lead you to consider proportionality, love, charity, grace, empathy, forgiveness, humility, and self-awareness in framing a response to it. On the other hand, it's reasonable to exercise proportionality, love, charity, grace, empathy, forgiveness, humility, and self-awareness in thinking about how your faith doctrines make other people feel. "You're going to Hell, but you shouldn't be offended when I say so, because it's in my holy book," is not a cunning argument. Also: maybe there's someone who is consistent about all holy books when arguing "you should cut them a break because it's in their holy book," but I personally have not met this person.
9. Most major American political groups participate in the politics of outrage and the tactic of "look how this person represents Their Side." Maybe there's someone capable of a principled empirical analysis of who does it more, but I doubt it. I don't trust your gut about who does it more, and you shouldn't trust mine.
10. You have no right to be free of offense. You also have no right to be free of people telling you that you are offensive. You only have a right to govern how you will react.
I'm on hiatus. I hope to be back in January.
Talking around the edges of what's classified is all the rage these days. See, for example, the commercial for the NSA that ran on 60 minutes tonight.
In that vein, a former employee of Tailored Access Ops explains (within Info Assurance guidelines) what he did at the NSA and why he's ok with it.
Insufficiently discussed in most rants about the NSA is this question: if the only way to find the needles in a haystack is to store the entire haystack, and if you're against storing the entire haystack, and if you insist that it's vital to find the needles, then given the size and growth rate of the haystack, how do you propose doing that?
Some are ok with storing the haystack. That's the status quo.
Some are against the haystack and also don't think finding the needles is all that important. After all, more die at the hands of swimming pools and ladders, etc….
But for those who think proactive action against malevolent actors is desirable, how (apart from surveilling a subset of exhaustive data) shall we winnow them out of an ever-increasing crowd and discern their voices in an ever louder din?
If not this way, then how?
According to Google, socialist realism is "the theory of art, literature, and music officially sanctioned by the state in some communist countries (esp. in the Soviet Union under Stalin), by which artistic work was supposed to reflect and promote the ideals of a socialist society."
Let's remove the term "socialist," and replace it with "government." Does the government have a theory of art, literature, and music officially sanctioned by the state, by which artistic work is supposed to reflect and promote the ideals of the party in power, and government in general?
Ask the Department of Health and Human Services, which awarded Erin McDodald a "Grand Prize" for her Youtube video, "Forget the Price Tag!" encouraging the poor, meaning young Americans, to buy overpriced insurance they probably don't need in order to subsidize the rich, meaning their parents and grandparents.
The lyrics read as follows:
Seems like everything's about to change, in the health care industry.
When coverage expands, and they can't reject you for conditions that are pre-existing!
You're young and wild and free, but you need to stay healthy!
There's no excuse to be uninsured. Just stop for a minute and think!
You're not immuned [sic] to all disease. Take advantage of this opportunity!
Keep your mind at ease and get some security!
Don't need a lot of money, money, money!
To stay young and healthy, healthy, healthy!
We just want to make it more fair, with affordable health care.
Ain't about the, UH!, cha-ching, cha-ching.
Ain't about the, YEAH!, bling, bla-bling.
Affordable Care Act, don't worry about the price tag!
I know we're in our prime, about time we open our eyes.
We got to invest to be the healthiest! You can't put a price on life.
Why is everyone so oblivious?
Living without health care is serious!
Can we all slow down? Take time now, guarantee we'll be feelin' all right!
You're not immuned [sic] to all disease. Take advantage of this opportunity!
Keep your mind at ease and get some security!
Don't need a lot of money, money, money!
To stay young and healthy, healthy, healthy!
We just want to make it more fair, with affordable health care.
Ain't about the, UH!, cha-ching, cha-ching.
Ain't about the, YEAH!, bling, bla-bling.
Affordable Care Act, don't worry about the price tag!
This is what literary critics refer to as, "bad poetry!"
But on a more practical level, the UH! cha-ching, cha-ching, and the YEAH! bling bla-bling! are exactly what most young people are worried about, at least if the ones asking me for a job are representative. They seem to be very much worried about the money, money, money! because of the students loans, student loans, student loans! And while they're not immuned [sic] to all disease, they do seem to be aware that no amount of money, money, money! will allow them to "stay young." They age as rapidly as I do, and they seem to want to be where I am when they hit the ripe old age of 46.
More's the pity.
In any event, on watching the Grand-Prize winning video by Ms. McDonald, I was struck by its message. Don't think of yourself, your family, or the family you'd like to have some day, if you can get out of your parents' house to afford such a thing. Think of the government! Think of the state! Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.
Don't worry about the price tag! MARRY! REPRODUCE! OBEY!
I think I've mentioned that I don't acknowledge the legitimacy of the US government for Spooner-like reasons, and I consider most LEOs thugs.
…and yet, after watching this, I find that there's a part of me – a very small part – that really just wants to curb-stomp Natural Law protesters.
Get off my
lawn side, you damned hippie kids!
Msgr. Falda: The language of the Necrogenomicon is arcane; its meaning recondite. If we give it, in its many variants, into the hands of the people, there's no telling what they may do with it!
Bro. Laxman: But, with respect: it already resides in their hands, and hearts, and indeed in all parts of them. It lives in them, and through them, and they in and through it. Most literally.
Msgr. Falda: But it requires interpretation. Trusted interpretation. Authoritative interpretation….
Bro. Laxman: To be sure, many details of life benefit from the wisdom and insight of experts. But nobody wants to do away with authorities and experts. It's merely that the people want to read the language of the text themselves, and perhaps consult with others who know more than they.
Msgr. Falda: This cannot be! If the people read for themselves a text they do not, and probably cannot, comprehend– and if they follow the guidance of whomever they will rather than that of a rightful shepherd of the flock– then they may go astray, not only in understanding but most certainly in action as well!
Bro. Laxman: But the people may already consult whomever they will, and go as they choose, and understand according to their lights, and act, possibly, in manners untoward.
Msgr. Falda: Precisely! And uncovering these truths to them all at once, in bulk, and without appropriate commentary may mislead them further! What if one of them comes to a false understanding and seeks to cut off his right hand?
Bro. Laxman: We already govern the chirurgeons, my lord.
Msgr. Falda: But… but what if one of them seeks to foment rebellion?
Bro. Laxman: We already regulate the militia, my lord.
Msgr. Falda: And what if one of them, for want of understanding, annoys a deacon with babble and the ill-gotten fruit of a meandering mind?
Bro. Laxman: Then he will tell him to stop, my lord. And perhaps help him to understand the limits of his own horizon. Knowledge is seldom fatal, and even a false understanding will seldom bring about grievous harm….
Msgr. Falda: But we are the gatekeepers, Bro. Laxman! We are the gatekeepers.
Bro. Laxman: And each of the people, my lord, is the gate. Shall we keep it closed and guarded as for war, or open as for peace, its perimeter defended?
The FDA reckons that the product provided by 23andme is medical equipment, and that some subset of the corresponding service constitutes medical advice. So the FDA wants
a piece of the actionto be sure that the people are protected from the dangers of possibly false or misleading information coming through unauthorized, unregulated channels. 23andme has been draggin' its feet in response to FDA demands, perhaps because of disagreement about whether personal genomics, a new application of new technologies, actually falls squarely within the current regulatory regime.
BoingBoing provides a cartoon and a cluster of links to articles that offer a fresh and useful overview of the issues at hand.
A bunch of dead people gave me their chromosomes. Ever since, I've been trying to figure out to how organize and use them. Not too long ago, I sank a Frank' into the "Health and Ancestry" personal genomics kit from 23andme. Just in time, since the FDA has asked them to stop making sriracha until the neighbors' complaints can be mollified. Last I heard, 23andme is making nice in words about compliance and cooperation but declining actually to comply… for now. "Can't we all just get along? I'm sure there has been some sort of misunderstanding. We've made a hash of it with our tardy replies, but we do, genuinely, truly, from the bottoms of our heart, love and respect you. It's not you; it's us."
(BTW, feel free to use me as a referral once they sort things out! That'll add $5 to my book-buyin' fund. ;) )
Did the results of my test solve any deep mysteries? No, although I learned some things about my ancestry that I hadn't previously known and have since confirmed genealogically. Did health information spur me to bum rush the medical staff at my PCP's office and demand that they do X, Y, and Z forthwith? Not at all. Was it entertaining and informative? You betcha! And did it prompt me to try to learn more about genetics, genomics, and gymnastics? Indeed, it did. I was floored by the exercise, which set a high bar, and I wouldn't call my efforts so far a ringing success, but that's ok since I'm just horsin' around.
Herewith, some observations. First, 23andme takes a conservative approach to analysis; if you download your genome info, upload it to GEDMatch, and run some alternate analyses offered as freeware by genetic hobbyists or rogue professors, you may see more– or different– information about haplogroup classifications and ethnic origins. Using a different commercial service, such as FamilyTreeDNA, may likewise provide more granular results. But for 99 clams, 23andme delivers the essential and allows some speculative tweaking to see alternate results. That's good enough for the casual consumer; those on a mission may need more.
Second, the community forum at 23andme.com is fairly primitive. For example, email notification for followed discussion threads is an all-or-nothing affair. Searching is non-existent. Redundant threads occur because there's no fast, non-awkward way to find out whether an appropriate thread already exists.
Third (and this is probably true of all personal genomics communities at present because this industry is larval), the points of light are far outnumbered by the blobs of smog. To phrase it with greater diplomacy, the discussion forum is overrun by understandbly curious and uninformed users whose questions, and whose answers to others' questions, are flat out wrong. In the midst of all that noise, a few valiant and well-informed hobbyists (plus the occasional professional) who have dedicated themselves to the task try to set things right. Sadly, the forum software sees those contributions fade rapidly into undiscoverability.
I trust the quality of discussion will improve there, and elsewhere, as education improves and interested parties take advantage. Indeed, 23andme provides a number of informative introductory videos and simple essays that lay out the basics while identifying some of the limitations and nuances. But reading and watching videos are homework, and nothing guarantees (nor should guarantee in that sort of forum) that everyone who speaks has done that homework.
Do you have some experience with personal genomics services? What was your experience? Did you learn anything surprising or interesting that you'd like to share? What do you think of the policy issues underlying the FDA's attempt to regulate 23andme?
Someone once said — and I wish I could figure out who it was — that all satire is a shared joke between the writer and the reader at the expense of a hypothetical third person — the dupe — who takes the text at face value.
Of course, sometimes the dupe is not hypothetical.
Now and then I write about a conflict between "multiculturalism" — as that term is understood by some — and certain core values. Those values include the rule of law, and the equality of all humans before it, and freedom of expression, and freedom of worship.
"Multiculturalism" and "core values" need not conflict. Rationally understood, multiculturalism is simply an openness to ideas and contributions from cultures other than our own, and an interest in the history, artistic expression, and philosophy of other cultures. Multiculturalism encourages us not to be hostile to or afraid of something because it originates from somewhere else. Multiculturalism is not having a shitfit because salsa is more popular than ketchup now, and not assuming that a culture is doomed based on ethnic demographic shifts..
Improperly understood by some, multiculturalism encourages abandoning core values at the demand of another culture that doesn't share them. Demanding that a book be destroyed because it teaches girls how to play didgeridoos and girls aren't supposed to play digeridoos in Aboriginal culture is an example. Demanding that Western countries respect non-Western values and enact laws criminalizing blasphemy is an example. People who oppose our core values everywhere are perfectly capable of exploiting this unprincipled view of multiculturalism:
So, please respect our religions, cultures and traditions by keeping your homosexuality out of our country.
This month brings the latest example: universities segregating public meetings based on the culture-based demands of the speakers.
For some time there as been controversy about universities in the United Kingdom allowing Islamic speakers to require gender segregation of public events using university facilities. Recently Universities UK — an advocacy group for UK universities — published a policy that encouraged accommodation of speakers who wished to demand gender segregation of events on university campuses. Bear in mind we are not talking about meetings of a student group — which might be governed by values of freedom of association — but outside groups using university facilities for public events. I quote at length, because the mushy and unprincipled discussion is lengthy:
Aside from freedom of speech and the s.43 duty, the paramount issue is to consider how equality obligations apply, and how those interact.
• For example, under the Equality Act 2010, the first question is whether the segregation is discriminatory on the grounds of a protected characteristic within the definition of the Act. Segregation in the context of the facts outlined above would only be discriminatory on the grounds of sex if it amounts to ‘less favourable treatment’ of either female or male attendees.
• It will therefore, for example, be necessary to consider the seating plan for any segregation. For example, if the segregation is to be ‘front to back’, then that may well make it harder for the participants at the back to ask questions or participate in debate, and therefore is potentially discriminatory against those attendees. This issue could be overcome assuming the room can be segregated left and right, rather than front and back (and also ensuring that appropriate arrangements are made for those with disabilities).
• Consideration will also need to be given to whether imposing segregation on everyone attending the event is required (see below). If it is required, this may amount to less favourable treatment of other attendees because of a protected characteristic. On the face of the case study, assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating. Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way. However, one cannot rule out the possibility that discrimination claims will be made on other grounds. For example, it is arguable that ‘feminism’ (bearing in mind the views of the feminist society referred to in the case study), or some forms of belief in freedom of choice or freedom of association, could fall within the definition of ‘belief’ under the Equality Act. This would in turn mean that applying a segregated seating policy without offering alternatives (eg a nonsegregated seating area, again on a ‘side by side’ basis with the gender segregated areas) might be discriminatory against those (men or women) who hold such beliefs. However, the question of whether such beliefs are protected under the Act is unclear without a court ruling. Further, an act of indirect discrimination can be ‘objectively justified’ if it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, meaning the institution should also have regard to its other obligations under the Equality Act and the s.43 duty to secure freedom of speech, for example.
It should therefore be borne in mind – taking account of the s.43 duty, as well as equality duties and Human Rights Act obligations – that in these circumstances, concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system. Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully. Those opposed to segregation are entitled to engage in lawful protest against segregation, and could be encouraged to hold a separate debate of the issues, but their views do not require an institution to stifle a religious society’s segregated debate where the segregation accords with a genuinely-held religious belief. The s.43 duty requires an institution to secure freedom of speech within the law.
Notice a few things about this. First, see how utterly useless it is as a guideline to any actual human being making a real decision about a real-world event. Second, see how academicians can simultaneously kowtow to and insult identity groups — for instance, the scare quotes around feminism. Third, note how the ethos of Universities UK create a ill-defined protected right to segregate at public events at a university, a right that must be "balanced" in some obscure way against values like equality of access. Note also how the Universities UK approach results in an unprincipled and self-parodying jumble of interests groups, in which yielding to a gender segregation demand is objectionable not because universities shouldn't be gender-segregating public events in 2013, but because gender-segregating might lead to impaired access for the disabled.
Universities UK has reacted to criticism by claiming that it doesn't promote gender segregation That's right: it doesn't promote it, it simply advocates accommodating it on the premise that a group's culture-based desire to segregate a public meeting on a university campus is of equal value as the university's core value of equality of access. Or at least, Universities UK wishes to accommodate some cultures. Let's be clear: this is not about equal respect for all viewpoints. There is precisely zero chance that Universities UK would have drafted this policy to support the beliefs of Christian or nativist groups. Universities UK is not going to write feckless hand-wringing policies about accommodating the BNP in excluding non-whites from speeches, nor should they. Universities UK is not going to write drivel explaining how to balance the desire of some fringe Christian group to exclude gays from speeches, nor should they. [Edit: as a commenter points out, a fairer analogy would be the BNP or religious groups insisting that non-whites or gays sit separated from others at the speech.] Universities UK and other groups of its ilk are proceeding from foolish and wrong view of multiculturalism: that the requisite respect for other cultures includes accommodating demands that violate core values, whether that means segregating public events on university campuses or pursuing deeply embarrassing and ridiculous anti-offense policies.1
University UK's input is quite controversial and has been roundly condemned. This brings predictable and unserious smears from the sort of people who think that multiculturalism requires uncritical deference to practices that violate core values:
In allowing its website to be used to petition against the right of Islamic Societies to determine the running of their own meetings, Avaaz is endorsing cultural imperialism and side-lining of an entire culture within our Universities. The petition represents an attempt to force Western culture into the meetings and events of women and men who subscribe to another culture. This is not tolerance, freedom or any other form of positive. Never underestimate the ability of White Men to use Women of Colour as a means to espouse racism and cultural superiority.
Look: if you want to have a private group that segregates, have a private group that segregates. If you want to determine the determine the leadership of your own group, determine the leadership of your own group. But if you want to hold an event open to the public on a university campus, and you want to demand that the university cooperate with and enforce your segregation requirements, then fuck off. If that's cultural imperialism, then hand me a pith hat and quote me some Kipling. The same goes for demands for censorship. My respect for your culture ends when you use it to demand that my nation censor speech to meet your tastes and join a system of brutal and minority-oppressing anti-blasphemy laws.
The post-9/11 world has triggered a lot of anti-Muslim dipshittery, from the increased prominence of anti-Muslim lunatics to paroxysms of idiocy over things like turning a Burlington Coat Factory into a mosque. It's good to call out and criticize that, and generally to resist the siren call to demonize The Other. But on the other hand, open-mindedness and charity towards other cultures doesn't require us to abandon the values that ought to be at our core. Should we look at the censorious and prejudiced motes in our own eye before picking at the eyes of others? Certainly. That's only honest. But we need not adopt censorship or segregation ourselves just because someone else says that's their cultural value. That view of multiculturalism is entitled to no respect.
Hat tip to Ophelia Benson for her coverage of the issue.
In 2008 I pointed out that the TSA's pseudo-scientific "behavior detection" program seemed almost indistinguishable from random chance. Five years and millions of gropes-by-government-agents later, the General Accounting Office agrees:
The program called Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) trains TSA officers to identify suspicious behavior that could reveal a terrorist. While it has been criticized for years for alleged racial profiling, TSA officials say it is a key part of screening airline passengers.
The Government Accountability Office reviewed 400 studies over 60 years that found people are only slightly better than chance at spotting deceptive behavior. And a Department of Homeland Security study in April 2011 intended to validate the program was unable to demonstrate its effectiveness because of unreliable data, according to the new GAO report.
The program has cost a billion dollars. The TSA can't demonstrate that it works using accepted scientific means. The TSA's reaction is unsurprising: "yeah, well, our other methods are even worse:"
Behavior Detection Officers also operate a program called Managed Inclusion which evaluates passengers at the checkpoints and allows some to enter the faster Pre-Check lanes.
"Defunding the program is not the answer," Pistole said. "There would be fewer passengers going through expedited screening, there would be increased pat downs, there would be longer lines, and more frustration by the traveling public."
Or, put another way, a piece of shit is better than no piece of anything:
The union representing TSA officers defended the program.
"An imperfect deterrent to terrorist attacks is better than no deterrent at all, " said American Federation of Government Employees National President David Cox, speaking in a conference call after the hearing. "Is it a perfect program? No, but until we have a better program, we shouldn't just trash and burn this program."
That's so sciency! "Well, I can't prove this hypothesis. But until I come up with a better hypothesis, I think we should stick with this one."
Meanwhile, in Texas . . .
. . . did you just say "aw, shit, this is gonna be awful, because it's Texas?" Perhaps you did. Perhaps you are not completely unjustified in leaping to that conclusion. But you're wrong. Texas, it turns out, passed an innovative law to allow prisoners to attack convictions premised on discredited junk science spouted by prosecution "experts." Last week, using that law, a Texas court overturned the convictions of four women caught up in the "ritualized child abuse" scare of the 1980s and 1990s:
Indeed, at the original trial of the San Antonio Four, a pediatrician testified that the victims exhibited physical signs of sexual abuse. This expert testimony provided the prosecution with much needed corroboration of the two girls' stories. Such medical testimony, however, has now been debunked by new understandings in the field of pediatrics. If the two girls had been physically examined using today's standards, the medical testimony would no longer corroborate the allegations of sexual abuse.
Like many of the defendants in ritualized-abuse cases, the San Antonio Four faced bizarre and fanciful claims that should have triggered skepticism — had not "think of the children!" drowned out all critical thought. Like many such defendants, junk science and bizarre and facially questionable allegations combined with innate identity-based hostility:
A witness for the prosecution, pediatrician Nancy Kellogg, testified that the two young girls’ injuries were used in satanic rituals prevalent among lesbians.
I don't claim to be a scientist. I'm functionally scientifically illiterate. But I know enough to understand that science is about questioning and proving, and that when it's the government that shows up with the snake oil, we too often accept it without scrutiny. That may be because the government usually packages junk science with fear.