Brexit, free trade, and Enlightenment principles

August 1, 2016 – 11:14 pm by John

As I read about the rationales given for each side in the recent "Brexit" decision as well as their respective complaints and predictions about the UK's present and future situation, one thing strikes me as particularly funny above all: All the economic and social objections to the UK exiting the EU are straight-up libertarian ones. Pro-Remainers extol trade without barriers, freedom of movement, fewer stifling regulations, and a lack of protectionist/mercantilist laws. Yet the people who seem most disdainful of the Leave voters abhor the idea of teaching free-market economics in college, much less grade school, where it might have done some good to teach Britons the value of free-market globalism and the drawbacks of more protectionist/mercantilist economies.

Maybe this is just an example of their "neoliberalism", which is more than an already overused buzzword. I think it's safe to say this term encompasses globalist, liberal economics and politics within the framework of the modern regulatory and welfare state. As Jeffrey Tucker says, their free-trade globalism isn't individualist or laissez-faire, it is centrally managed and decided. And it's true there is more to free-market economics than the four freedoms enshrined by the EU charter (free movement of goods, services, capital, and people). Low taxes, low spending, and no central banks, for starters. But on every issue that the politicians and commentariat cite as a benefit of EU membership, they come down on the more libertarian side.

It is amazing to me, and strange to admit, that the so-called elites of Europe and indeed the rest of the world are mostly right about the benefits of what we can lump together as "globalization": free(r) trade and free(r) movement of people compared to the overall world economy to this point, and especially compared to former communist states and to the mostly unfree developing world, which have benefited disproportionately from globalization in general and EU membership in particular. It certainly is strange, perhaps even paradoxical to someone like me who sees the world through a libertarian lens, that so many people in high-up corporate and government places could extol and implement mostly libertarian-ish economic policies, but only through the high-level bureaucracy of the EU and only by (more or less) forcing those policies on sometimes reluctant subsidiary jurisdictions.

The reasons for the dichotomy between the European elites' centralizing/welfare-state tendencies and their free-trade tendencies seem clear enough. First is their devotion to multiculturalism and anti-nationalism. Second, the corporate and governmental higher-ups who have created the policies of the EU approve of the results of free trade, especially as it benefits the poor but also themselves, but they don't want to relinquish their power and let the people simply travel and trade as they see fit, as they would be able to if left alone by their governments. They want to govern, in short, even if their governing, on basic matters of trade and movement, amounts to getting rid of separate national rules and regulations and making sure people and businesses aren't unduly inconvenienced. (Remember the EU has lots of labor laws, manufacturing standards, all kinds of other regulations; it's just that it requires most of these be the same for all member nations.)

I should make clear that I'm not chastising them for doing something right but not right enough according to my quixotic moral code. Policies that move in the direction of free trade—freer anything—are laudable. Their position makes sense from their perspective: they aren't anarchists or even minarchists, and they think a vital function of governments is to provide a safety net (etc.) for their peoples. From within that framework, these elites in Brussels, Washington, and elsewhere have instituted a socio-economic environment of mostly free trade, without the necessarily libertarian philosophical underpinnings to support its righteousness per se.

What results when leaders cite outcomes as the proof of a policy's correctness is that the masses also use outcomes to judge policies. Rightly or wrongly, many voters in the UK see their current status as worse than it should be, and they blame those faraway elites and their globalist system for it. What results is the Brexit vote, and probably similar ones to follow.

Jacob Levy makes a strong case that the Leave decision was entirely anti-free-market. Most of the comments to the article are also good, both agreeing and disagreeing with him. Levy's case is that libertarians should support policies or systems that create a freer society regardless of their nature (centralized vs. decentralized, supranational vs. local); that there's no a priori reason that libertarianism must always prescribe decentralization or the removal of layers of bureaucracy; and that many voters and politicians on the Leave side are vehemently anti-free-market, so there's good reason to expect the new UK to be less libertarian economically than it was before. He also notes that the rest of Europe will suffer from the UK's leaving because the UK was actually slightly more market-liberal than some other powerful countries, namely Germany and France, and now that those countries no longer need to placate Britain, they will move in the direction of less freedom in some areas.

The commenters disagreeing with him—some supporting Brexit, some who voted Remain, some more skeptical or indifferent—said some good reasons for opposing the EU are that it makes decisions in secret and without accountability; it overrules local votes on matters like the Lisbon treaty and Greece's budget; it has allowed too much entry and free passage of non-EU citizens; the UK is most likely to join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which will minimize the impact to its economy; the main goals of EU leaders are political integration, not economic freedom, so many EU-skeptics expect gradually more political power to be taken away from member states and concentrated in Brussels, irrespective of economic issues; the EU is too Utopian, with its forced integration of dozens of culturally, linguistically, and historically different nations, and is destined for disaster anyway, sooner or later; a "single market" has some good aspects, but one-size-fits-all rules for an entire continent are opposed to the libertarian idea of competition not only between firms but between policies; and while some libertarians might place higher value on market freedoms per se than on individuals' ability to impact their government and its policies, some libertarians feel the opposite, and it's easier to change laws and regulations in your own locale than in a supranational body that must account for an entire continent's desires and well-being.

It seems inconsistent for Levy to assert that the UK was holding back some EU members' more statist, dirigiste tendencies but left to its own devices as a completely sovereign nation it will implement economic policies that are less free than the EU's were. That logic is either confused or not fully explained, but either way, many think the UK will in fact become a less laissez-faire economy outside of the EU. Maybe the reasoning is that, now that the Leave side has had its victory at the ballot box, the formerly market-liberal (neoliberal) leaders will either change their tune or be voted out of office, resulting in protectionist/mercantilist policies inside the UK.

If I had to guess, I would guess that's what will happen. After all, there aren't many free-marketeers in the British voting public, though many Brexit supporters predict the UK will retain most of the economic benefits of EU membership by joining the EFTA while gaining more national sovereignty over other matters. The best-case scenario is that the UK's overall economic situation will be about like it was under the EU but with a few details changed here and there, more local sovereignty, etc., in which case Brexit will have been a good decision. After all, if I've learned anything about democracy, it's that the more things change, the more they stay the same, so maybe Britain's power elite will be about the same as it ever was, doing about the same things it's been doing.

(A good primer on the benefits provided by the EU's single market, particularly compared to traditional "free trade areas" or free trade agreements, is in this Financial Times article. If separate nations trade under, say, World Trade Organization rules, which are not the same as the EU's single market rules, then even in the complete absence of tariffs, there are other barriers to trade or legal/regulatory complexities that cost money and time and labor, necessarily reducing overall trade. Again, this is basic economic libertarianism.)

Perhaps an offshoot or extension of Levy's viewpoint would go like this: A good libertarian case for the EU—and EU-type bodies—is that in the current phase of mankind's political, social, cultural, economic, and intellectual development, nation-states aren't going away any time soon, and neither voters nor politicians will support the existence of sovereign nation-states that don't actually act sovereign; that is, we're going to have nation-states in some form, and if there's no supranational body making some political-economic decisions that are binding to collections of those nations, then what we'll have is relatively uncooperative, disconnected nations that try to act in their own separate interests by, basically, cutting off their free-trade noses to spite their faces. In other words, nation-states aren't going to assert their sovereignty in order to implement 21st-century versions of the Articles of Confederation and mostly leave people, families, and businesses alone, letting them travel and trade mostly as they wish. If given the chance, they will assert their sovereignty in order to, you know, be sovereign, and separate, from other nation-states, by passing laws and erecting barriers that protect their "national" interests, usually to the detriment of the average citizen. And so the only way to achieve free trade in this current state of mankind's development is to form supranational unions that, somehow, will allow nations to be mostly sovereign but will bestow enough, and obvious enough, economic benefits on all their members so as to enjoy continued support. The history of the EU mostly supports this case.

Conversely, a good libertarian case for Brexit is that the destiny of economic freedom is to decentralize power in every form, increasing the importance of local politics and increasing the ability of each individual and family to govern themselves and impact their local political, cultural, and economic climate to the utmost extent possible. Only then will people and businesses be able to operate freely, trade freely, move (mostly) freely, and truly take charge of their own lives and their own futures.

I strongly support the latter case more than the former, but it's not the least bit out of the question to expect that the best (only?) way to get to the latter scenario is through the former. That is, to create supranational federations in which citizens of different nations see that a global free market not only multiplies wealth far more than any less open system but spreads it more widely and more equally, while simultaneously allowing for more flexibility and dynamism in every market, so that the "losers" won't necessarily be losers for long. The success of this free-ish economic system will lead to piecemeal secession from the (inevitably overbearing and unresponsive) federations without abandoning the principles of free trade that the federations were founded on. In other words, after living under such supranational free-trade unions for decades, people will realize the truth in what Jeffrey Tucker said above: we naturally have the right to trade freely, and we don't need a government to provide that right, protect that right, or set up a system in which that right can be exercised; we need to get governments out of our way so that that right can flourish as it should. Maybe forging supranational unions to get national governments out of our way is the best way to make billions of people—especially politicians—realize the truth in this libertarian belief, and then we can get rid of the supranational unions without returning national governments to their old roles.

It could also be true that supranationalism isn't the only path to an economically free world. Maybe it'll work well enough in Europe and, say, Latin America, but not in the U.S. and Canada or parts of Africa or Asia. Maybe in some of those regions, progressive federalization, decentralization, and secession will lead the way.

I focus on dissolution and decentralization because I firmly believe that gradually dissolving political control over all aspects of our lives, starting with national (or supranational) governments and going down the jurisdictional hierarchy, rather than solidifying control in ever-higher hierarchies, is the only way for humans to achieve lasting peace and reach our greatest potential. This is why I hope that either of those two scenarios leads to super-decentralization rather than, say, a single world government or a few continental governments.

I'm sure I'm the millionth person to ask this, but if it's so obvious that the EU is better for everyone in Europe, why are similar unions across the world not better for every other region? Clashing cultures? This reason would be hard for Utopian leftists to admit, because that allows room for the same argument to be made by Europeans against other Europeans and, especially in the present context, against Middle Eastern and North African Muslims.

Or is it because other supranational unions just wouldn't work as well? Then we're back to mere ad hoc utilitarian reasons and not philosophical ones about human rights and freedom.

Or should the Americas and eventually the rest of the world move towards such unions? Then, again, I ask why not right now? If the answer is we're not ready yet, then we're back to point #2 about outcomes vs. philosophy and about how millions of UK voters didn't think the EU was right for them now, either. If any substantial number of EU stalwarts think supranational federations are the best politico-economic goal for most of the world, why have I heard so little about it? Why is such a goal not espoused vehemently and repeatedly on all available platforms by all EU supporters across the world? Because it's immensely unpopular and unrealistic? So is libertarianism, but that doesn't stop us. Stand up for yourself and say what you believe.

As with all political factions, EU stalwarts claim to support the EU and its four basic freedoms because of how much they help the poor. Why does no one seem to want to create an African Union to lift those billion people out of poverty? Because it has to be Africans who forge their own union? But a lack of an African Union is against their economic best interest. A majority of UK voters wanted out of the EU, allegedly against their economic best interest. Why is that so offensive but the lack of an African Union isn't?

I think that, as easy as it is to admit that an American Union and an African Union and other unions are hopelessly impractical now, it's hard for many people to admit that millions of Europeans feel the same way about the EU, and for mostly the same reasons: cultural differences, language differences, opposition to free immigration, and the political sovereignty problem. I think admitting that these are perfectly good reasons why other unions are impossible opens the door to admitting that they are at least fairly good reasons for Europeans to dislike the EU, and this makes people uncomfortable. But it's good to remember that it's a sign of a well-read, fair, sophisticated mind to occasionally hold contrasting thoughts at the same time, as I do about these issues. I like the idea of a single European economic community but also like the idea that a lower-level polity, such as the UK, will secede if it wishes. (I also like the idea that all the Remain voters could declare themselves citizens of the EU and all the Leave voters could declare themselves citizens of the non-EU UK, or any other government that will have them.)

Maybe people who love the EU and lament the Brexit decision don't appreciate how good it is, in and of itself, that a group of people can deliver a big "Fuck you, we're out of here" to any governing body, for any reason or no reason. True, it might not be good, in and of itself, to actually deliver that message in a specific situation. But we mustn't forget what a basic right secession is and how many power-grabs are prevented by that threat.

Actually, I think Brexit might have been the wrong solution to the right problem. It could have been an overreaction, and an overly emotional reaction, to the many problems plaguing the EU. Problems I expect will be inherent to any supranational union.

My takeaway is that it's hard for EU stalwarts to explain why the EU or any other supranational union is a good thing per se, because the reasons it is good can be equally true of a super-decentralized world in which laws are extremely permissive and most economic decisions are made on as small a scale as possible.

If the British masses had been taught the unreserved virtues of Western Enlightenment thought, including laissez-faire economics and distrust of centralized authority, they might have liked the EU for its free-trade policies, or they might have demanded even more secession and federalism. Same for Continental Europeans. Or the Leave voters might have ended up basically the same as they are today, and they would have eschewed their well-learned politics and voted in their perceived self-interest the same as they did in June, blaming 18th-century Enlightenment principles for their stagnation and frustration.

Various political philosophies and factions, including many libertarians, posit that with extreme federalism and more local, community autonomy, people see themselves as being in control of their own lives, responsible for their own destiny and that of their descendants. This agency, I think, is what is missing most of all from the various disaffected populations across the developed world, mainly in the lower and middle classes. They see their economies, their industries, their jobs, and therefore their very lives as being short-shrifted by uninterested elites far away, and they aren't content to hear that globalism takes a long time to adjust to and that change is generational. If they don't provide their children with at least a middle-class upbringing, their legacy might be generations of poverty or even extinction of their lineage. They don't care that their grandchildren will certainly be better off materially than they are in absolute terms; they want their grandchildren to be at least as well off relative to the rest of the population as they are.

Seeing foreigners take their jobs or eliminate the need for their jobs, all the while seeing kids from rich and powerful families grow up to be rich and powerful in faraway metropolises, along with a strong dose of tribalism against people who look, speak, and worship differently, has led the British masses to think the system is against them (or at least indifferent to them) and is causing their country to become something nearly unrecognizable without even logging their objections.

This is what is missing, I think, from the EU's globalist neoliberalism: agency and autonomy. The power to shape one's own future, and that of their family and country. People feel like they don't get to make political and economic decisions for themselves, and they react by grasping at whatever political sovereignty they can.

It's hard to say whether European leaders as a whole have done a good job of selling the benefits of the EU to the average European, but in the UK they have apparently failed overall. It's also hard to say whether a culture that had instilled all those Enlightenment principles throughout life would have had better success at ensuring lifelong, unwavering support for free trade. People vote emotionally, not rationally, and against their own best interest all the time. (No, I mean literally every time.)

It makes some people uncomfortable to admit that Britons might have had good (or at least understandable) reasons to support the Brexit, so predictably they resort to cries of "Racism!" They see opposition to immigration, so they shout "Xenophobia!" They see distaste for Middle Eastern immigrants and Islam, so they shout both "Racism!" and "Xenophobia!" When all you are is a race-baiting hammer, everything you see is a racist nail. (To them, "xenophobia" just means racism across borders.) It's pathetic, and it wouldn't be worth mentioning if it weren't so prevalent. From all corners, people dismiss the British masses with that type of disdain and then wonder why (a) the masses vote against those people's wishes, and (b) no one is afraid to be called a racist or a xenophobe anymore, those terms having lost all impact and almost all meaning, and in fact whole political movements have sprung up around pride in such sentiments.

The similarities between Nigel Farage's Brexit movement and Donald Trump's isolationist-autarky movement are clear but superficial or even ahistorical. Nevertheless, supporters of both would have benefited from an economics and history eduction that instilled an appreciation of the superiority of liberal Enlightenment thought, including the suspicion of authority, the right of everyone to live free of political (and religious) control, the equal moral standing of all individuals, the importance of a vibrant and robust civil society apart from the political apparatus, and, yes, the absolute moral and material superiority of free, unfettered markets compared to mercantilist (and especially more communist/socialist) ones.

Instead, the political economy that dominates and permeates our world is one of factions vying for control of the police power of government to actively shape the world according to their respective visions. In the mainstream, the central political debate is not about whether a government does or should have a certain power, it is about whether the government should go in one direction or a slightly different direction with its (assumed) power. It is about whether one side will get to wield the power over the other, or vice versa. It is, in the UK's case, about whether regulatory and spending decisions should be made by politicians and bureaucrats in another country or politicians and bureaucrats in their own capital.

In this sense, Brexit was a political decision, one about sovereignty, and one that I think most people outside the EU can't relate to very well.

I oppose the regulatory state and even the very idea that economic decisions should be subject to political approval, but I have to give credit where credit is due. Within their worldview of the necessity of nation-states and even supranational bodies, the pro-EU, pro-globalization elites have proven the case for free movement of goods and people, as former communist states and the Third World have flourished (historically speaking) and the global extreme-poverty rate has dropped below 10% for the first time. If libertarians and other people who support laissez-faire economics on principle can win over enough minds across the world, then maybe the UK, the EU, and other people who live and trade under various economic regimes will reap the full benefits of truly free trade.

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Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s column on “cultural libertarianism”

June 1, 2016 – 2:58 pm by John

I was bummed that I missed this tweet by Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown, because I would have responded to it.

Here is the column that resulted. It's a good, short read. I was surprised at the negativity, even disdain, that some of her libertarian respondents showed the concept. Or, at least, the term. Specifically, they associated it with the alt-right and people who mainly don't want to be nice, magnanimous, or welcoming to minorities and feminists and the general progressive/center-left.

I would have answered, "Laissez-faire on cultural/personal issues as opposed to economic or governmental ones." I would consider myself a cultural libertarian, though maybe I don't perceive the term the same way better-read people do. For instance, I had no idea the term had been used since at least 2001 to specify a subset of or alternative to regular political libertarianism. Brown links to a 2001 piece by Jonah Goldberg and a response by Reason's Nick Gillespie. She also links to a recent column at the Center for a Stateless Society by Daniel Pryor that lists some examples of people who would claim the label "cultural libertarian" using the same distasteful tactics as their "SJW" opponents, as well as scoffing at claims of non-governmental forms of oppression and persecution. He raises a good point: if cultural libertarians call themselves such in order to highlight important non-governmental, personal/social issues, then they should if anything be more attuned to the perils of private discrimination, sexism, racism, etc., even if they don't always oppose certain instances of them or think they even amount to discrimination, sexism, racism, etc.

I certainly wouldn't characterize my conception of cultural libertarianism as indistinguishable from civil libertarianism, as Julian Sanchez does. I think of civil libertarianism as defending and championing civil liberties—i.e., laws and constitutional limits on governmental power. A good example of the difference as I see it is the response to Curtis Yarvin's being invited to speak at coding conferences. Under his pseudonym Mencius Moldbug, Yarvin was the leader of the neoreactionary movement, which (as I gather from @ClarkHat, the only person I've read on the topic) opposes democracy and espouses constitutional monarchism, maybe? I think there's a lot about natural elites/aristocrats in there, too. Anyway, his protesters cited his overt racism and support of slavery or some such, but couldn't come up with a single quote to back it up, so we can safely conclude that whatever racist thoughts he has are safely contained and hidden behind more civil discourse.

This wasn't enough for the perpetually aggrieved, though, so they protested his invitation to speek at the Strange Loop conference in 2015 and LambdaConf in 2016. Under no definition I'm familiar with does civil libertarianism have anything to say on these matters. Cultural libertarianism, on the other hand, not only says that his socio-political views aren't nearly protest-worthy, it also says that directing protests, boycotts, and shaming campaigns at his inviters and supporters is misguided and counterproductive. He wasn't going to mention anything about politics at the talks, so his politics shouldn't have entered anyone's consideration. Actual hateful politics, advocacy of slavery or genocide or some such—those are worthy of protest, sure. I'm sure many outspoken communists have spoken at tech conferences, with nary a peep from these perpetual complainers, because their complaint isn't about hate, intolerance, racism, or violence, it's about right-wingers.

There are dozens more, and possibly even better, examples of the difference between civil libertarianism and cultural libertarianism as I see them. Most of them have to do with shaming and firing, because that's a favorite tactic of today's activists, most of whom are pretty hardcore leftists, and purging and entryism are well-worn mainstays of leftist activism.

You might counter, "Oh, so you don't approve of their politically correct, activist, protesting ways?"

No, I don't, because their activism amounts to illiberal, intolerant, conformist PC thuggery. I also don't think they should be fired, banned from anywhere, or disinvited from anything for it. I don't approve of Curtis Yarvin's politics, either. So what? My worldview espouses a culture of free speech and free expression, including open debate, civil disagreement, tolerance of people whose politics I abhor, and a generally live-and-let-live outlook on most private, personal matters. You know, like libertarianism, but for cultural issues.

I'm reminded of something I read on Twitter about "thick" and "thin" libertarians that I thought was spot-on:

Yes, libertarians who reject the labels "left-libertarian" and "thick libertarian" do value other concepts as being related or even prerequisite to liberty: a culture of free speech, a high-trust culture, strong and healthy family life, and tolerance to people with extremely different politics, to name a few. Maybe we have rejected the "thick" label because everyone who writes about "thick" libertarian values doesn't mention those at all.

I've never described myself as a "cultural libertarian" before and see no reason to start using the term now, but I do mostly agree with Caleb Brown and Grant Babcock about it, at least for now:

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Proposed 40:1 CEO:employee pay ratio law

February 1, 2016 – 12:57 pm by John

Before people support business regulations, they should listen to business owners and other people who will suffer the everyday effects of those regulations. Workers and business owners in the private sector who oppose certain regulations aren't just blowing smoke and spouting ideology; they know from experience what kinds of unintended consequences and bureaucratic waste will result from intrusions into the everyday workings of businesses.

These thoughts were inspired by these tweets from Alice Maz on January 30:

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“Rights activists”

August 16, 2015 – 12:45 pm by John

Those of us who defend and extol the free market (and even dare to call it "capitalism" sometimes) know all too well how derisive and disdainful the left can be toward the term "free market" and all that it entails. If we ever invoke the "free market" as a proposal to solve any material, structural, or organizational problem humanity faces, we know beforehand how they will scoff, "Oh, yeah, let's just leave it to the free market and let everyone starve or freeze to death." In any debate with such a person, we either avoid using the F-word or wince and cringe while using it because we know how pathetic it sounds to them.

I predict the same thing will happen to the term "rights" in general and the rights of free speech and due process specifically. Sometime this century probably, among the descendants of the current illiberal leftists who trade in identity politics and outrage/shame signaling, the term "rights activist" will become a pejorative—an insult levied at insufficiently social-justice-minded conservatives and libertarians, especially white heterosexual American ones, to stigmatize them for putting some people's rights above some (less advantaged) people's well-being, or for caring about abstract principles more than real people's "safety" or "oppression" (two words that now seem to need scare quotes a lot more often than they used to).

It's not hard to see why this might come about. Mainly, defending free speech and due process rights usually entails defending bad or at least shady people—sometimes obviously guilty ones. In an age when some of the popular leaders of the wider leftist movement claim that to be objective is to take their side, and when many Millennials seem to think their duty is to shut down debate rather than expose themselves to something unpleasant, they will become more and more entrenched and invested in their bubble of progressive-left thought. It will become more and more crucial to defend the idea that they are objectively, demonstrably correct and that anyone who opposes them must be stopped, silenced, ridiculed, and marginalized. They will see defenders of rights for all as opponents of justice for the oppressed.

Already, their goal is not increased liberty or the defense of rights but the promotion of economic and social justice and equality for historically disadvantaged groups. And already it can be seen that (negative) rights and the cultural values underpinning them are not only absent from their advocacy program but are directly anathema to it. It is only a matter of time until they come out into the open about it. It is only a matter of time until they go from scoffing at specific, narrow defenses of free speech or due process to attacking the entire free speech/due process philosophy and its proponents.

And, I must admit, my prediction might not be all that forward-thinking or insightful, because the illiberal leftists who seem to dominate college campuses and social media, if not in numbers then at least in notoriety, already do everything I'm predicting except disdainfully refer to us as "rights activists". If we point out that "hate speech" is free speech and that no such sub-category exists nor ought to exist, we get accused of promoting hate, threats, racism, misogyny, etc. If we point out that words are not, in fact, capable of harming anyone or threatening their safety (much less oppressing them, JFC...), we get accused of being blinded by privilege and refusing to see the world from a less privileged perspective. If we demand evidence, formal investigations, fair hearings, and all the other aspects of due process before shaming someone into unemployment or convicting them of a crime, we get branded racists, sexists, rape apologists, etc., as the case may be. The only thing that's left is for them to make it explicit how much they disdain both the culture and the laws supporting free speech and due process, and how obstructive both are to their social goals.

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Oh, but in a libertarian society, the rich and powerful would take advantage of the poor and weak, denying them a decent life through arbitrary rules, cronyism, and corruption

April 19, 2015 – 4:11 pm by John

The Washington Post reports that the FBI overstated forensic hair matches in nearly all trials before 2000:

The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.

Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far....

The cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death. Of those, 14 have been executed or died in prison, the groups said under an agreement with the government to release results after the review of the first 200 convictions.

The FBI errors alone do not mean there was not other evidence of a convict’s guilt. Defendants and federal and state prosecutors in 46 states and the District are being notified to determine whether there are grounds for appeals. Four defendants were previously exonerated.

The admissions mark a watershed in one of the country’s largest forensic scandals, highlighting the failure of the nation’s courts for decades to keep bogus scientific information from juries, legal analysts said. ...

Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, commended the FBI and department for the collaboration but said, "The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster."

"We need an exhaustive investigation that looks at how the FBI, state governments that relied on examiners trained by the FBI and the courts allowed this to happen and why it wasn't stopped much sooner," Neufeld said.


Warnings about the problem have been mounting. In 2002, the FBI reported that its own DNA testing found that examiners reported false hair matches more than 11 percent of the time. In the District, the only jurisdiction where defenders and prosecutors have re-investigated all FBI hair convictions, three of seven defendants whose trials included flawed FBI testimony have been exonerated through DNA testing since 2009, and courts have exonerated two more men. All five served 20 to 30 years in prison for rape or murder.

University of Virginia law professor Brandon L. Garrett said the results reveal a "mass disaster" inside the criminal justice system, one that it has been unable to self-correct because courts rely on outdated precedents admitting scientifically invalid testimony at trial and, under the legal doctrine of finality, make it difficult for convicts to challenge old evidence.

"The tools don’t exist to handle systematic errors in our criminal justice system," Garrett said. "The FBI deserves every recognition for doing something really remarkable here. The problem is there may be few judges, prosecutors or defense lawyers who are able or willing to do anything about it."

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If it ain’t broke, fix it till it is

March 24, 2015 – 1:13 pm by John

That saying doesn't perfectly apply to the broadband internet and telecommunications industry in the U.S., because I think there's plenty wrong with that industry now, but I feel completely certain that the FCC's new net neutrality rules will fail to fix or prevent whatever the advocates of such rules imagined (might) exist and will in fact create new, worse problems.

One of the FCC's commissioners, Ajit Pai, sees it the same way:

The plan saddles small, independent businesses and entrepreneurs with heavy-handed regulations that will push them out of the market. As a result, Americans will have fewer broadband choices. This is no accident. Title II was designed to regulate a monopoly. If we impose that model on a vibrant broadband marketplace, a highly regulated monopoly is what we’ll get.

(I would hardly call our broadband marketplace vibrant, given that most consumers have either one or two ISPs to choose from and the competing ISPs offer similar options, but his main point stands.)

Elsewhere, Pai has called net neutrality "a solution that won't work to a problem that doesn't exist."

The problem, as supporters imagine it, is that internet service providers could slow down content that the ISP either competes with or disapproves of, or could deny its customers access to that content altogether. But this hasn't been a problem yet, and it's bad policy to write rules and regulations, much less reclassify the regulatory scheme of an entire industry, because of something that might happen.

I've heard of two actions by an ISP, both Comcast, that net neutrality advocates cite in support of these new regulations. The first is when Comcast slowed bittorrent traffic specifically, instead of, say, slowing all traffic of its heaviest users equally. This discrimination was resolved and never repeated without re-classifying the regulatory framework of the entire broadband industry.

It should be noted that there is nothing per se wrong with an ISP limiting the speed of certain types of traffic (or instituting a monthly or yearly data cap), as some people might prefer to pay less (or more) for slower (or faster) bittorrent traffic. What was wrong with Comcast's throttling of bittorrent traffic is that it was done in secret, without any type of notification or agreement with its customers, and therefore violated both the letter and spirit of their contracts with customers.

Net neutrality advocates are completely right to point out that Comcast throttled bittorrent speeds not only to prevent some super-torrent-downloaders from hogging all the bandwidth (at the expense of other paying customers) but also because everyone knows those users are mainly downloading copyrighted movies, music, and TV shows, and large ISPs typically have a strong interest in protecting the profits of their friends and partners in the entertainment industry. This is more true than ever for Comcast, which now owns NBC/Universal and several cable channels.

At this point it is salutary to note that net neutrality advocates want the federal government to prevent ISPs from hindering access to intellectual that is an artificial monopoly created by the federal government and that is protected by laws enforced by the federal government. Good luck with that.

The second incident was when Comcast slowed Netflix service because Netflix and Comcast stalled in reaching a financial agreement under which Netflix would enjoy heavy use of a large part of Comcast's bandwidth. In the Cato daily podcast for November 12, 2014, Berin Szoka of dispelled the myths that (a) this happened the way it has been represented and (b) that what happened is even bad:

Caleb Brown: [The Oatmeal author Matthew Inman] writes, "Last year Comcast demanded that Netflix pay them millions of dollars or they were going to slow down the internet speeds of customers who were trying to stream Netflix movies. During negotiations, Comcast throttled the bandwidth of Netflix users in order to bully Netflix into paying massive fines."

Berin Szoka: Completely untrue. Dan Rayburn, independent industry analyst here, has explained this very well. What really happened is that Netflix is trying to pass on things that it's always had to pay for to people who don't use Netflix service. Netflix made a mistake last year when they started offering higher speeds: they didn't buy enough bandwidth in their deal with Cogent. And they were able to get a better deal from Comcast, one that allowed them to stream more cheaply than what they would have been able to get from Cogent. And they turned around and have suggested that broadband companies are holding them for ransom when in fact they're offering a more efficient, cheaper solution, which means lower bills for consumers. It's a cynical manipulation on Netflix's part, and it has nothing to do with net neutrality.

That market for interconnection is thriving. Prices for interconnection have fallen 1000-fold in the last—I believe it's 14 years. And it's highly competitive. There's no problem there except that Netflix would prefer to pay zero than to have to pay anything at all.

(Here's a good blag post by the aforementioned Dan Rayburn on Netflix, Comcast, and peering. In the first paragraph, he links to another, very informative post on Netflix/Comcast peering.)

Elsewhere, Szoka has written:

Title II means the very opposite of net neutrality. Even under Title II, the FCC can’t legally ban all paid prioritization — only regulate it to make sure that prices are just and reasonable. In fact, Title II would authorize broadband providers to charge some price to content and service providers for carrying their traffic to users — and there’s no precedent for the FCC from “forbearing” from this requirement in a market that it claims is a “terminating access monopoly.” Title II would raise a host of other problems, including choking broadband competition, inviting regulation of the rest of the Internet and validating Russia and China’s push to have the International Telecommunications Union regulate the Internet as a telecom service.

Yet elsewhere, Szoka has explained that

Title II also wouldn’t help Netflix get free interconnection. What Netlix calls “Strong Net Neutrality" has nothing to do with Net neutrality. Someone’s got to pay for Netflix’s streaming infrastructure, and Netflix is trying to pass that cost on (through broadband companies) to people who don’t even use Netflix (in higher broadband bills). Contrary to what Netflix claims, it (like every other large content company) has always had to pay for interconnection...."

Szoka also quotes Fred Campbell, who wrote:

Even if the FCC were to reclassify broadband Internet access as a Title II service while leaving Netflix unregulated, the FCC would lack legal authority to require Internet service providers to interconnect with Netflix at no charge.
Unlike net neutrality, interconnection has been expressly addressed by the Communications Act since its inception in 1934, and in the past 80 years, the FCC and the courts have developed an enormous body of precedent governing interconnection. That precedent indicates that Netflix would not be entitled to the type of interconnection it seeks even if ISPs were subject to regulation under Title II.

To summarize, the FCC's reclassification of broadband internet service under its Title II regulations will most likely do nothing to prevent ISPs from charging Netflix (or other content providers) for access to its bandwidth.

And why shouldn't they? Why should ISPs and content providers be prevented, or even discouraged, from reaching such agreements? I am aware of no principle or convention of business or economics that would suggest that Business B can't or shouldn't charge both Business A and Customer C for its service as middleman connecting A to C. Grocery stores charge food and drink companies for access to the store's shelves, even charging more for the right to place their products at the front of the store, at eye level, or in other highly desired spots. (These are called slotting fees or slotting allowances.) Restaurants negotiate deals with, say, Coca-Cola or PepsiCo to sell one company's drinks and not the other's. Landlords or property managers often pay rent to the real estate company that owns the land while in turn charging rent (or other fees) to tenants (or customers). There are probably better analogies to internet service and peering agreements that I'm not aware of.

The pay-to-play or paid-prioritization aspect of our supposedly non-neutral internet would seem to encourage investment in and expansion of broadband infrastructure. An even more important function of the price system than allocating present resources efficiently is to direct future production most efficiently. If content providers are willing to pay high prices for certain peering or interconnection deals, then that tells ISPs and infrastructure operators to invest in more infrastructure so that more customers will have more, faster, better internet service in the future.

Given the reality of Title II regulation and its irrelevance to what many advocates consider net neutrality, it was disappointing to see Mike Masnick of approvingly repost a bunch of pro–net neutrality cartoons. In each of them, a Tumblr user replaced some words with "the cartoonist has no idea how net neutrality works." I know that Masnick has been a vocal net neutrality convert, but the reason that particular post was disappointing is that those cartoons' refrain smugly implies that supporters know how net neutrality will work, when in fact the main point is that we don't know how the "net neutrality" regulations will work. We don't know how the federal government will use its new Title II powers and we don't know how those regulations will hamper the broadband industry. The government-skeptic position holds that the law of unintended consequences is called a "law" for a reason and that the way to improve customer choice, purchasing power, and freedom is to remove regulations, not add them. Mike Masnick, you don't know how "net neutrality" will work, because what we've gotten is an expansion of the FCC's authority in the form of Title II powers over the broadband internet industry, not "net neutrality" per se, and a good reason to oppose this expansion of power is that everything the government touches turns to crap. The form that crap will take, contrary to your smug admonitions, is something we definitely don't know.

Weren't you tipped off by the seemingly sudden about-face of the supposedly cable industry–beholden FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler? When this former staunch net neutrality opponent became the very person to lead the march toward net neutrality, didn't that seem a little fishy to you? Of course the big cable companies and other ISPs will benefit from this, and the small companies and regular customers will lose. This is always how federal regulation works.

The other main argument in favor of net neutrality, that "internet fast lanes" are unfair or anti-democratic or otherwise undesirable, is obviously nonsense. Some data is more important and sensitive than other data, and some services should be prioritized over others. If there is any bandwidth-related conflict, I want my Netflix traffic to be prioritized over whatever other generic traffic is passing into and out of my modem. So do many others, while many disagree, so let as many ISPs and network policies as possible bloom.

An important issue that Ryan McMaken of the Ludwig von Mises Institute brings up is regulatory capture:

All goods need not be allocated in response to the human-choice-driven price mechanism of the marketplace. Goods and services can also be allocated by political means. That is, states, employing coercive means can seize goods and services and allocate them according to certain political goals and the goals of people in positions of political power. There is nothing “neutral” about this method of allocating resources.

In the net neutrality debate, it’s almost risible that some are suggesting that the FCC will somehow necessarily work in the “public” interest. First of all, we can already see how the FCC regards the public with its refusal to make its own proposals public. Second, who will define who the “public” is? And finally, after identifying who the “public” is, how will the governing bodies of the FCC determine what the “public” wants?

It’s a safe bet there will be no plebiscitary process, so what mechanism will be used? In practice, bureaucratic agencies respond to lobbying and political pressure like any other political institution. Those who can most afford to lobby and provide information to the FCC, however, will not be ordinary people who have the constraints of household budgets and lives to live in places other than Washington, DC office buildings. No, the general public will be essentially powerless because regulatory regimes diminish the market power of customers.

Most of the interaction that FCC policymakers will have with the “public” will be through lobbyists working for the internet service providers, so what net neutrality does is turn the attention of the ISPs away from the consumers themselves and toward the regulatory agency. In the marketplace, a firm’s customers are the most important decision makers. But the more regulated an industry becomes, the more important the regulating agency becomes to the firm’s owners and managers.

The natural outcome will be more “regulatory capture,” in which the institutions with the most at stake in a regulatory agency’s decisions end up controlling the agencies themselves. We see this all the time in the revolving door between legislators, regulators, and lobbyists. And you can also be sure that once this happens, the industry will close itself off to new innovative firms seeking to enter the marketplace. The regulatory agencies will ensure the health of the status quo providers at the cost of new entrepreneurs and new competitors.

In the end, the opinions that I and others put forward and our reasons for having them don't matter a whole lot. Sure, it matters that we have convincing, logical, fact-based explanations for why certain things happen or don't happen, so that others can see why we were right or wrong after the fact, or so that we can possibly sway people to our side and affect policy. But what really matters regarding my predictions is whether they turn out to be right. They will. Regardless of what you think of my opinions about net neutrality, my aversion to government regulations, or my explanations for why things will go wrong, they will. The only really good argument for or against a prediction is the future course of events, and I have little doubt that events will prove my predictions right. The government will interfere into the functioning of the internet in unjustified ways, possibly adversely affecting consumers, and the new regulations will prove anti-competitive. Innovation and investment will be hampered by the new rules, the weaker competition, and the diminished importance of consumers in the new regime. The FCC's powers will only expand, and will be much harder to dissolve than they were to establish.

The only real question is whether one-time net neutrality advocates will admit that these (and other) problems have occurred, or ignore them and whitewash them as something good and desirable.

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Leftists on the modern illiberal left

January 5, 2015 – 5:32 pm by John

The word "liberal" used to mean, more or less, libertarian. Obviously both words are derived from the Latin word for "free". We now have to resort to the phrase "classical liberal" if we want to use that word to describe a freedom-minded person, especially one from the 19th or early 20th century. But now the modern left, especially the Millennial generation and older 3rd-wave feminists, often refer to themselves as progressives instead of liberals. And the word "illiberal", having had none of its meaning tainted or twisted by party politics over the years, is more useful than ever to describe the very group that at the end of the 20th century would have called themselves liberals. These linguistic/cultural/political developments have resulted in a reclaiming of sorts of the word "liberal" by those who espouse Enlightenment principles and a laissez-faire attitude toward both culture and economics.

I count myself among them. We aren't going to start calling ourselves liberals anytime soon, but we can without much confusion refer to specific attitudes, actions, and ideals that we embrace as "liberal" and certain ones that we oppose as "illiberal". Interestingly, so can many hard leftists who are equally disgusted by the modern illiberal, anti-Enlightenment, progressive social justice movement. It has been refreshing to read their indictments of modern mainstream leftism, not only because I agree with their diagnosis but also because it takes a fair amount of fortitude and candor to tear into one's own (presumptive) allies. I think it's admirable. They put their principles, their conception of right and wrong, over partisanship and labels and the potential advantages of belonging to the largest possible alliance of "leftists". I liken these disillusioned leftists to the true small-government conservatives who started disavowing neoconservatism a decade ago.

Here is Jamie Palmer, a self-described Jacobin, in a wonderful post-mortem of mainstream liberal leftism titled Stigmatise, Shame, and Silence:

Having fought for and (mostly) won parity under the law, progressive activism found itself faced with an existential dilemma. What was it now for? It was, after all, not simply a vehicle for social change; it was also a productive receptacle for anti-authoritarianism and a valuable crucible of radical thought. Where was all this energy to be directed next?

In response to this challenge, progressivism took a dismaying and thoroughly retrogressive turn. Since inequity in society indubitably persisted, often disproportionately affecting minorities and women, it became increasingly fashionable to question whether universalist struggles had actually achieved anything of consequence at all.
The arrogance of Western cultural supremacism, it was argued, was the status quo now in need of vigorous radical assault. A commitment to universalism was replaced by the fetishisation of difference and specificity; a belief in egalitarianism gave way to demands for exceptionalism and double-standards (only this time favouring the 'oppressed'); and the language of emancipation and liberty was replaced by a cult of victimhood, self-pity, and a brooding, masochistic solipsism. "We have nothing to lose but our chains" was drowned out by the resentful injunction "Listen to my suffering".

In academia, the humanities began a process of decline as the demands of rigorous and fair-minded scholarship gave way to the requirements of a stultifying and increasingly censorious political correctness. The pursuit of objective truth and knowledge fell before endlessly competing claims from subjective 'lived experiences' and 'narratives', and international solidarity fell before a grotesque cultural relativism, itself informed by a neurotic culture of self-lacerating guilt. The lexicon of political activism - originally developed to identify irrational judgements made about people based on their unalterable characteristics - assumed a metaphysical dimension. Racism, misogyny, and homophobia were no longer alterable matters of law, belief, and practice - they became immovable structural toxins, against which not even the most broad-minded liberal could be reliably immunised, and to which well-intentioned people were often subject without their knowledge.

As the Left's progressive movements splintered into a kaleidoscope of bitter, competing interests, sectarianism was transformed from a by-product of radical squabbles into an ideological imperative, and a divisive grievance hierarchy was constructed, based upon the intersection of privileged characteristics. The jargon of -phobias and -isms proliferated as every group sought to weaponise language to its own advantage, and arguments from remote etymology were deployed to police the expression of views and ideas. Over time, invective replaced argument and persuasion, and those committed to identity politics lost their ability to engage in constructive debate, to disagree, and - most damaging of all - to think critically about their own ideas and suppositions. Why bother when it is less effort to simply accuse your opponent of bigotry of one stripe or another, or of ignorance and bad faith?
When taken together, these individual cases - niggling and petty in and of themselves - speak to the flowering of a deeply sinister and censorious tendency amongst self-identifying progressives, invariably justified in the name of protecting the weak, the vulnerable, and the voiceless. In their righteous zeal to place certain people, views, and ideas beyond the pale, and secure in the complacent belief that their own opinions are beyond reproach, not one of these well-meaning men and women appears to have considered that their own liberty will, in the end, fall victim to the very same arguments they advance to silence others.
Even as they thoughtlessly stigmatise those who defend free expression as "right wing", these activists, writers, and campaigners have succumbed to the right's most regressive autocratic tendencies. Dogmatic and unbending in their misanthropic view of human sexuality and race relations; unapologetic in their advocacy of an infantilising, separatist agenda of 'safe spaces'; ferocious in their intolerance of views they deem unacceptable.

British left-feminist Helen Pluckrose wrote specifically about feminism but her admonitions apply about equally well to wider progressivism:

I have noticed a very worrying tendency within feminism to assume that men cannot be attracted to women and respect them at the same time. Any depiction of women as sexually attractive beings created by a man or watched or played (or worn) by a man is considered to demean, objectify, ostracise or harass women and the responses are vitriolic in the extreme. This has happened even when the women are cartoon characters on a shirt or characters in a video game and those female characters are armed and powerful and wearing more clothes than feminists wear when protesting (quite rightly) 'slut-shaming.'

It undermines feminism if we are seen to be inconsistent in the views we have about the right not to be judged by our clothes or by our sexuality, particularly if we consider the rules to be different for men and women.
If it is not demeaning for women to be dressed scantily (and there is no reason it should be,) and we make this point repeatedly and aim it at men, we cannot reasonably then say that men should 'know' that it's demeaning to depict women dressed scantily.

It seems that men are required to accept that such clothes do not demean women unless they enjoy seeing women wearing them in which case they do. The man's attraction is the point at which objectification occurs because he could not possibly be attracted to women and see them as people at the same time. That it is feminists discouraging men from seeing women as whole human beings with bodies and brains is truly worrying.

Even more alarming is the vitriol, the name calling, the closing down of all discussion and the defamation of many male (and female) allies that result from any man's failure to successfully navigate his way through these contradictions. Having spent so long attempting to dispel the stereotype of women as irrational, illogical and hysterical, it is very disappointing to now have to point out to my fellow feminists that:

We cannot read insult into clothes & games & lighthearted articles about annoying words and then respond by calling everyone who challenges this, ' insecure, misogynist douchebag dudebros' and consider this a perfectly acceptable way to speak to people.

We cannot accuse men of 'mansplaining' feminism when they remind us its meant to be about equality and then tell them what masculinity is, how they're doing it wrong and how they've been damaged by 'patriarchy'

We cannot take an example of a woman being presented negatively on TV or in a game, complain that this reinforces harmful gender stereotypes and then use 'men' as shorthand for 'misogynistic, murderous sex offenders' before accusing critics of being oversensitive because it should have been obvious we didn't mean all men.

We cannot take violent and sexual crimes, point out that they are committed, in the majority of cases, by men and decide that this defines masculinity, ignoring the fact that the majority of heroic and defensive acts are also done by men, and that the vast, vast majority of men are neither violent criminals nor heroic saviours but people trying to live, love, thrive and succeed and do some good along the way, just like women.

Well, obviously, we can do all these things because many of us are doing just that.

What we can't do is expect to be recognised as a movement for gender equality whilst this continues.

Julie Bindel, another British feminist writer and activist, wrote about the misguided focus on "offensive" individuals instead of real oppression and inequality:

Feminism, a great social movement, is in danger of becoming toxic and repressive. The focus on individuals, however vile they may be, signifies a shift away from the more difficult, long-term work of making institutions such as the Crown Prosecution Service and other governmental departments accountable.
The current climate of McCarthyism within some segments of feminism and the left is so ingrained and toxic that there are active attempts to outlaw some views because they cause offence. Petitions against individuals appear to be a recent substitute for political action towards the root causes of misogyny and other social ills. Petitions have taken over politics.
The “ban this sick filth” approach is starting to look more like censorship than progressive politics. Political protest and heated debate has been replaced with a witch-hunt mentality.

It would appear we have forgotten how to target institutions. The tactic du jour is to wind up a crowd and shut down any nuanced discussion or debate. Patriarchy is being left to its own devices while bad and unpalatable men are being taken to task one by one.

Last year more than 20 student unions in the UK banned Robin Thicke’s song Blurred Lines, which was widely thought to glamorise rape, forbidding the playing of the song at functions within union spaces. But when the Islamic Education and Research Academy hosted an event on University College London premises at which seating was segregated by gender, a National Union of Students delegate at King’s College London said that “gender segregation should be respected, if not tolerated, in institutions of higher education”.

Identity politics and the emergence of feminist preciousness – the tendency towards putting trigger warnings on everything and wrapping each other in cotton wool – has translated into a disproportionate focus on individuals who offend, rather than the culture that allows them to do so. That lyrics could be a more legitimate feminist target than universities that support gender apartheid is depressing.
Moral superiority and “call out” culture has trumped political activism. Feminists have a proud history of taking state institutions and corporations to task. It would seem this is being lost in a sea of vitriol. We built this movement on a desire and willingness to question and challenge old assumptions and truisms. We are in danger of becoming autocrats who would rather organise a pile-on than try to change systems. The life blood of feminism is in danger of becoming bile.

In a very personal, soul-baring essay titled "Everything is problematic", a McGill University student reflected on her descent into, and near-consumption by, radical Marxist crusader-activism:

Something has been nagging at me for a long time. There’s something I need to say out loud, to everyone before I leave. It’s something that I’ve wanted to say for a long time, but I’ve struggled to find the right words. I need to tell people what was wrong with the activism I was engaged in, and why I bailed out. I have many fond memories from that time, but all in all, it was the darkest chapter of my life.

I used to endorse a particular brand of politics that is prevalent at McGill and in Montreal more widely. It is a fusion of a certain kind of anti-oppressive politics and a certain kind of radical leftist politics. This particular brand of politics begins with good intentions and noble causes, but metastasizes into a nightmare. In general, the activists involved are the nicest, most conscientious people you could hope to know. But at some point, they took a wrong turn, and their devotion to social justice led them down a dark path. Having been on both sides of the glass, I think I can bring some painful but necessary truth to light.
There is something dark and vaguely cultish about this particular brand of politics. I’ve thought a lot about what exactly that is. I’ve pinned down four core features that make it so disturbing: dogmatism, groupthink, a crusader mentality, and anti-intellectualism. ...

First, dogmatism. One way to define the difference between a regular belief and a sacred belief is that people who hold sacred beliefs think it is morally wrong for anyone to question those beliefs. If someone does question those beliefs, they’re not just being stupid or even depraved, they’re actively doing violence. They might as well be kicking a puppy. When people hold sacred beliefs, there is no disagreement without animosity. In this mindset, people who disagreed with my views weren’t just wrong, they were awful people. I watched what people said closely, scanning for objectionable content. Any infraction reflected badly on your character, and too many might put you on my blacklist. ...

Thinking this way quickly divides the world into an ingroup and an outgroup — believers and heathens, the righteous and the wrong-teous. “I hate being around un-rad people,” a friend once texted me, infuriated with their liberal roommates. Members of the ingroup are held to the same stringent standards. Every minor heresy inches you further away from the group. People are reluctant to say that anything is too radical for fear of being been seen as too un-radical. Conversely, showing your devotion to the cause earns you respect. Groupthink becomes the modus operandi. ...

Anti-intellectualism also comes out in full force on the anti-oppressive side of things. It manifests itself in the view that knowledge not just about what oppression, is like, but also knowledge about all the ethical questions pertaining to oppression is accessible only through personal experience. The answers to these ethical questions are treated as a matter of private revelation. In the academic field of ethics, ethical claims are judged on the strength of their arguments, a form of public revelation. Some activists find this approach intolerable.

Perhaps the most deeply held tenet of a certain version of anti-oppressive politics – which is by no means the only version – is that members of an oppressed group are infallible in what they say about the oppression faced by that group. This tenet stems from the wise rule of thumb that marginalized groups must be allowed to speak for themselves. But it takes that rule of thumb to an unwieldy extreme.
If I said the same thing about another context that isn’t so simple — when the correct opinion isn’t so obvious — I would be roundly condemned. But the example’s simplicity isn’t what makes it valid. People who belong to oppressed groups are just people, with thoughts ultimately as fallible as anyone else’s. They aren’t oracles who dispense eternal wisdom. Ironically, this principle of infallibility, designed to combat oppression, has allowed essentialism to creep in.
It is an ominous sign whenever a political movement dispenses with methods and approaches of gaining knowledge that are anchored to public revelation and, moreover, becomes openly hostile to them. Anti-intellectualism and a corresponding reliance on innate knowledge is one of the hallmarks of a cult or a totalitarian ideology.

Anti-intellectualism was the one facet of this worldview I could never fully stomach. I was dogmatic, I fell prey to groupthink, and I had a crusader mentality, but I was never completely anti-intellectual. Ever since I was a child, the pursuit of knowledge has felt like my calling. It’s part of who I am. I could never turn my back on it. At least not completely. And that was the crack through which the light came in. My love for deep reflection and systematic thinking never ceased. Almost by accident, I took time off from being an activist. I spent time just trying to be happy and at peace, far away from Montreal. It had been a long while since I had the time and the freedom to just think. At first, I pulled on a few threads, and then with that eventually the whole thing unravelled. Slowly, my political worldview collapsed in on itself.

The aftermath was wonderful. A world that seemed grey and hopeless filled with colour. I can’t convey to you how bleak my worldview was. An activist friend once said to me, with complete sincerity, “Everything is problematic.” That was the general consensus. Far bleaker was something I said during a phone call to an old friend who lived in another city, far outside my political world. I, like a disproportionate number of radical leftists, was depressed, and spent a lot of time sighing into the receiver. “I’m not worried about you killing yourself,” he said. “I know you want to live forever.” I let out a weak, sad laugh. “When I said that,” I replied, “I was a lot happier than I am now.” Losing my political ideology was extremely liberating. I became a happier person. I also believe that I became a better person.

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The conservative obsession with “narrative”

December 22, 2014 – 12:14 pm by John

In response to the execution-style murder of two New York City police officers by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, many conservatives blamed the media "narrative" for inspiring the murders. Brinsley supposedly said his targeting of NYPD cops was motivated by the unjustified killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and the subsequent exoneration of the police officers who killed them. Given that much of the media's attention on these cases (and others, such as that of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio) has been on the race of the victims and officers—black and white, respectively—I'm not sure how Brinsley's killing of a Hispanic and an Asian officer was directly inspired by newsmedia, but a lot of conservatives are sure that it was:

There was apparently no "racial angle" to Brinsley's murders, either, so it would seem that he was not influenced by the media's "racial" "narrative" at all. But not to worry, conservatives have another narrative to blame: the anti-cop mentality:

I wonder: is Radley Balko part of this anti-police narrative that's to blame for Brinsley's murders? Is his denunciation of the excess militarization of police to blame for Brinsley's murders? I also wonder: was it the anti-cop mentality that also motivated Brinsley to shoot his ex-girlfriend?

Since these conservative commentators are not stupid or oblivious, they know that their claims of "media narrative" can easily be compared with the left's claims that so many rapes occur (and go unpunished) because of a "rape culture" or that so many mass murders are committed because of a "gun culture" in the United States. And despite their rebuttal that their finger-pointing is accurate while that of others is not, I think it's just as truthful to dismiss their claims as it is to dismiss the latter two. The individual is to blame for all crimes.

The term "narrative" as many on the right use it, especially when referring to the (aspects of) stories that print and broadcast journalists focus on, has a specific meaning: that the media are presenting only partial truths or outright falsehoods in order to sway their audience toward believing an untruthful or highly skewed version of reality. The accusation of promoting a narrative does not distinguish between deliberate lies and mere lapses or distortions caused by journalists' bias, incuriosity, and ignorance.

There is no doubt that different journalists and media outlets have their biases and their narratives, and no doubt that the media influence people's behavior and opinions. I'll even grant that some members of the media shamed themselves by trying to provoke conflict at the Ferguson protests. But there is also no denying that the vast majority of the reporting on Michael Brown's death, Eric Garner's death, and the ensuing grand jury proceedings has been truthful. Was Michael Brown unarmed or not? Was Eric Garner choked to death or not? Did he repeatedly say "I can't breathe" or not? Was his murderer's exoneration a laughable travesty of justice or not? Did the Ferguson and St. Louis police throw tear gas on the protestors and set up snipers on tanks or not? The media "narrative" is one of unjustified killings, excessive insulation of police from punishment, growing antagonism between police and (especially, poor) citizens, and non-indictment of officers for actions that would clearly get any private citizen indicted—if the prosecutor didn't skip straight to murder charges to begin with. That isn't a narrative at all—it's the truth.

In fact, the conservatives' claim of "media narrative" is even weaker than that: I submit that police brutality, police militarization, unjustified shootings, cronyist insulation/protection of police officers, the complete failure of the Drug War, the ruination that the Drug War has inflicted on poor communities, and the deplorably high U.S. imprisonment rate are under-reported by newsmedia. It can't be overstated how central the War on Drugs is to the antagonistic relationship that exists between citizens, especially blacks, and cops these days, and how much the War on Drugs is to blame for the oppression and victimization that poor Americans feel is directed at them by police.

How many Americans who regularly watch and read the news are aware that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, even higher than China and Russia? How many know that over half of inmates in federal prisons are in for drug-related offenses (and that this proportion used to be 63%)? How many know that Eric Garner was not actually selling illegal cigarettes at the time of his murder and that that's not what he was arrested for? How many know that the NYPD banned chokeholds outright in 1993, which did nothing to decrease the use of chokeholds by its officers (they received over 200 complaints about chokeholds per year from 2006 to 2010)? How many appreciate how an excess of laws and overzealous policing trap people in a cycle of poverty while enriching local governments? How many know that federally mandated minimum sentences, in addition to being an objectively terrible idea that unjustly ruins thousands of people's lives, are disproportionately given to blacks (who are 21% more likely to receive a mandatory minimum sentence than white defendants facing an eligible charge)? (I mean, seriously, how often do mainstream news outlets run stories about mandatory minimum sentences? I bet it's rare.) How many know that blacks tend to receive 10% longer prison sentences than whites for the same crimes? How many know that more Americans are imprisoned for drug-related offenses now than were imprisoned for all offenses in 1980? How often do the media highlight the plain fact that the War on Drugs is destroying black America? How many Americans support the War on Drugs, for God's sake? Those people obviously haven't been paying attention, and the media haven't been doing much to dispel their biases about it.

The facts that the War on Drugs continues, that state and local governments (including police departments) continue to benefit from the War on Drugs, and that millions upon millions of people reflexively side with police in controversial cases, saying "Don't break the law or resist arrest and you'll have nothing to fear"—these facts demonstrate that the media haven't been pushing much of an anti-police narrative nor a racial narrative. If the poor and minorities side with the media's "narrative", it is because they have lived it.

In fact, as Conor Friedersdorf has documented, numerous recent examples of unjustified police abuses make the case for police reform much better than Michael Brown's death does. The evidence Friedersdorf cites is limited to videos available on YouTube; who knows how many atrocities we've missed over the decades? I don't even know the names of the victims or the shooters in those incidents, and neither does hardly anybody else, because they were swept under the rug by the police departments and not investigated by journalists, much less were they distorted into a "narrative". How many people know the name Tamir Rice? Not as many as know the names Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and not nearly as many as should know it.

It's also important to realize how widespread and deep-seated the pro-police mentality is in the U.S., as exemplified by the myriad people who believe that breaking the law is inherently wrong and that Eric Garner and Michael Brown deserved to receive deadly force because they both broke the law and resisted arrest (which is blatantly false in Eric Garner's case). The intuition to side with police and hold them above regular citizens is plenty common in the mainstream media, not unlike the ubiquitous reverence of the military. For example, when a news or opinion piece mentions the danger that police officers face in the line of duty, how often do the journalists point out that a large part of that danger comes directly from the unnecessary outlawing of drugs and the increasingly adversarial relationship between police and citizens that exists because too many things are illegal, not to mention the quotas and expectations that police place on themselves?

One problem in trying to make conservative law-and-order types realize and admit the faults of the Drug War, and more generally overzealous policing and an excess of laws, is that some of them interpret the citing of trends and statistics about the poor and minorities as an accusation that white people and relatively wealthy people are to blame. But they are not to blame. The blame belongs to politicians for passing unjust laws, police departments for overzealously (and often violently) enforcing the unjust laws as well as shielding their officers from punishment, and both federal and local governments for clamoring for ever more laws and funding to enforce them. Conservatives are so used to baseless claims of racism and calls for wealth redistribution from the left that they reflexively reject legitimate arguments that our institutions and laws disproportionately victimize the poor and minorities.

The War on Drugs, the punishment of poverty, and the immunity given to criminal police officers are injustices themselves, even if they affected all races and classes equally; the fact that they do not is only a further injustice upon a mountain of injustices.

So no, the backlash against police officers is not the media's doing, and the villification of cops, especially by black Americans, is not some new thing that started in the social media age or even the 24-hour news channel age. It has been 40+ years in the making, since at least the start of the War on Drugs, and every bit of it is justified. What isn't justified is killing in situations other than self-defense or the defense of another person against imminent threat, which is why the killing of those two NYPD officers was cold-blooded murder by a disturbed, violent degenerate.

A third common claim by conservatives is that all those Ferguson and New York protestors shouting "Kill the cops!" and the like were inciting people to violence and were bound to inspire some nut to act on that impulse. Therefore, the protestors are partially to blame, and their anti-cop movement is part and parcel with the inevitable cop-killing backlash.

Further cementing himself as a respectable, honest, consistent conservative (or conservatarian, as he calls himself) who is an ally to the libertarian movement, Charles C.W. Cooke was having none of that:

(I expect we will see a little more of it, because people who commit murders out in public are usually pretty deranged and sick, and because there is a lot of hatred of cops out there.)

In conclusion, the police reform (or even police-hating) movement is not to blame for Ismaaiyl Brinsley's crimes any more than the NRA is to blame for mass shootings. If the media truly had a racial narrative, we would hear a lot more about actual, concrete, statistically proven inequalities in our criminal justice system, and several more black victims of police violence would be household names. Contrary to the stock conservative complaint about the media vis-à-vis crime, race, and police, the deficiency of our newsmedia is in its reluctance to highlight the full extent and depravity of the War on Drugs, the ubiquity of excessive use of force by police, and the effective outlawing of poverty in many jurisdictions. The War on Drugs and the associated American prison state is the West's human rights atrocity of the 21st century. The protesters are absolutely right to hate the police, and the media are absolutely right to focus on it.

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Will Wilkinson on Uber

December 20, 2014 – 12:46 pm by John

I liked this piece by Will Wilkinson at the Daily Dish on the taxi company Uber, the ignorant reactions to its "surge" pricing, and the calls for it to be dissolved into a worker collective:

There’s something about Uber, the popular ride-sharing service, that brings out the nutty in people. During the awful hostage situation yesterday in downtown Sydney, the volume of people trying to get out of Dodge by beckoning an Uber car kicked the app’s surge pricing into effect. This is most sensible. You see, the increase in demand (and no doubt the dangerous conditions) had reduced the supply of available drivers, leaving many of those desiring a car without one. Surge pricing sweetens the deal for drivers, drawing idle supply into action, helping to ensure that those who want service can get it. This does not amount to the exploitation of a dire situation. It is the best way to ameliorate it. The alternative to temporarily higher prices is a total lack of cars, not a bunch of open cars at normal non-surge pricing.
[emphasis mine]

In response to Mike Konczal and Bryce Covert's suggestion to socialize Uber by dissolving its corporate structure and giving ownership to the workers (drivers), Wilkinson writes,

There’s perhaps a problem or two with this proposal. “It takes an entrepreneur to start up ride-sharing,” Konczal and Covert write, “but not to run it as a firm. A worker collective is the obvious transition.” A system in which entrepreneurship is routinely rewarded with a forced “transition” to a worker collective is a system that is unlikely to continue to producing a valuable of entrepreneurial innovation.

But I really do like the idea of the drivers getting a bigger share of the profits. If it’s true, as they say, that “Newer ride-share ventures can piggyback on Uber’s success and take advantage of these new terms,” then it seems that Uber and Lyft drivers ought to be able to organize, finance the creation of a new app (no big deal, it would seem), and then dominate the market by charging less than those awful, useless, Silicon Valley tech-bro rentiers, all the while getting paid more. Why go through the tumult of trying to socialize Uber when a worker collective would so clearly out-compete Uber? Or maybe it’s not so clear that it would. Maybe organizing drivers, developing, maintaining, and continuously improving an app, doing all the necessary marketing, and managing the whole system isn’t really such a breeze, and by the time you take into account all those costs, which worker-collective drivers would have to cover, they’d end up keeping something in the neighborhood of 80% of their fares, just like Uber drivers. That’s my hunch.

There's nothing wrong with a worker-owned collective, nor with the corporate structure of Uber as it actually exists. I agree with Wilkinson's conclusion that "a more worker-centric Uber seems like a neat idea, and the prospect of developing one from the ground up, no matter how unlikely it may be, seems a lot less unlikely than simply stealing Uber." I wonder: if the worker-collective structure is so much more desirable, efficient, or otherwise better, why didn't a sort of free-agent taxi company arise with such a structure to begin with instead of Uber and Lyft, or why won't one yet arise to compete with or replace them? I don't doubt there are myriad laws making the formation and success of either type of company extremely difficult. We've all heard about Uber's legal battles in its effort to be allowed to compete with "medallion" taxi companies. Maybe a well-funded corporate core with a strong legal team was necessary for Uber to get a foothold in the market to begin with, thanks to the cronyist laws protecting traditional taxi companies. But I fail to see how eliminating all of those laws would put Uber at a disadvantage compared to a hypothetical worker-collective taxi service. It would only be disadvantaged if the drivers could earn more money and/or have more job security in a worker collective...which is already either true or not true, so why doesn't one form? Or maybe those two conditions will become easier to meet as time goes on?

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Great for George Clooney

December 19, 2014 – 1:34 pm by John

It's easy for me to say from my computer chair, but the response of Sony and the rest of Hollywood to the terrorist hack and to the demand that Sony cancel the release of The Interview was weak and cowardly. Giving in to thuggish, censorious demands, even when backed by threats, is sad whether it's Muslims complaining about depictions of Mohammed or hackers threatening "another 9/11" (scarcely credible) or students demanding a speaker be disinvited or anything else. Sometimes it's understandable, but it's still sad. Movie theaters and their lawyers didn't want to be held responsible, in a court of law or the court of public opinion, for a shooting spree or other terrorist attack, so they played it safe. That's the story of this decade, it seems: everyone wants to avoid challenges, avoid risks, avoid controversy, avoid standing up for anything unpopular, sacrifice liberal Enlightenment principles to people's feelings, and accord a heckler's veto to any group that speaks loudly, threateningly, or sanctimoniously enough.

George Clooney stands against this trend, and he deserves heaps of praise for it. I knew there was good reason to like him outside of his characters and movies. Until now, I just had some vague sense that he was cool and likable in an old-fashioned Sean Connery/Gregory Peck kind of way. In an interview with, Clooney has given us much more substantive reason to admire him:

A good portion of the press abdicated its real duty. They played the fiddle while Rome burned. There was a real story going on. With just a little bit of work, you could have found out that it wasn’t just probably North Korea; it was North Korea. The Guardians Oof Peace is a phrase that Nixon used when he visited China. When asked why he was helping South Korea, he said it was because we are the Guardians of Peace. Here, we’re talking about an actual country deciding what content we’re going to have. This affects not just movies, this affects every part of business that we have. That’s the truth. What happens if a newsroom decides to go with a story, and a country or an individual or corporation decides they don’t like it? Forget the hacking part of it. You have someone threaten to blow up buildings, and all of a sudden everybody has to bow down. ...

This was a dumb comedy that was about to come out. With the First Amendment, you’re never protecting Jefferson; it’s usually protecting some guy who’s burning a flag or doing something stupid. This is a silly comedy, but the truth is, what it now says about us is a whole lot. We have a responsibility to stand up against this. That’s not just Sony, but all of us, including my good friends in the press who have the responsibility to be asking themselves: What was important? What was the important story to be covering here? The hacking is terrible because of the damage they did to all those people. Their medical records, that is a horrible thing, their Social Security numbers. Then, to turn around and threaten to blow people up and kill people, and just by that threat alone we change what we do for a living, that’s the actual definition of terrorism.

Here’s the brilliant thing they did. You embarrass them first, so that no one gets on your side. After the Obama joke, no one was going to get on the side of Amy, and so suddenly, everyone ran for the hills. Look, I can’t make an excuse for that joke, it is what it is, a terrible mistake. Having said that, it was used as a weapon of fear, not only for everyone to disassociate themselves from Amy but also to feel the fear themselves. They know what they themselves have written in their emails, and they’re afraid.
Quite honestly, this would happen in any industry. I don’t know what the answer is, but what happened here is part of a much larger deal. A huge deal. And people are still talking about dumb emails. Understand what is going on right now, because the world just changed on your watch, and you weren’t even paying attention.
But to distribute, you’ve got to go to a studio, because they’re the ones that distribute movies. The truth is, you’re going to have a much harder time finding distribution now. And that’s a chilling effect. We should be in the position right now of going on offense with this. ... Stick it [The Interview] online. Do whatever you can to get this movie out. Not because everybody has to see the movie, but because I’m not going to be told we can’t see the movie. That’s the most important part. We cannot be told we can’t see something by Kim Jong-un, of all fucking people.
Everybody is looking at this from self interest and they are right in this sense. I’m a movie theater and I say, “OK, there’s been a threat. Not really a credible threat, but there’s a threat, and my lawyers call and tell me, “Well, you run the movie and you could be liable.” And all the other movies around it are going to have their business hurt. I understand that, and it makes complete sense. But that’s where we really need to figure what the real response should be. I don’t know what that is yet. We should be talking about that and not pointing fingers at people right now. Right now, it’s not just our community but a lot of communities. We need to figure out, what are we going to do now—when we know the cyberattacks are real, and they’re state-sponsored.

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Dogmatic mysticism in the intolerant left

December 18, 2014 – 11:51 am by John

Somewhere around the interwebs, I once read an analogy to the radical-left social justice movement that went something like this: Imagine you have a child of, say, pre-school or elementary-school age. He is playing in your living room as usual, doing nothing out of the ordinary, until he steps across a certain patch of carpet that you have suddenly and secretly deemed off-limits. You admonish the child, grab him, put him in time-out, take away his toys, tell him why he is being punished, make him apologize, make him feel terrible for his mistake, tell him it was his fault, make him promise never to do it again, and tell him his intentions and his ignorance of the rule are irrelevant. You also emphasize that his failure to realize he was making a mistake is also his fault and is further proof of his wickedness.

The child will apologize to avoid further admonishment and to regain the approval of his parents. If the child experiences this first-hand or sees it happening to others often enough, he will come to perceive all living rooms as fraught with unseen dangers, whose invisibility is his own fault, and will come to believe it is his own responsibility not only to avoid further such transgressions but also to admonish others who transgress, despite his vague memory that at some point there was nothing wrong with playing in all parts of the living room. Finally, the child will come to respect—or at least submit to—the capricious and obscure nature of these rules, which can have the effect of either accustoming the child to respecting and obeying capricious and obscure rules or leading the child to disrespect rules both good and bad.

Nowhere have I seen a more apt real-world example of this allegory than in the travails of Smith College President Kathleen McCartney. Her transgression? Writing in an email to the university community,

Dear Students, Faculty and Staff:

As members of the Smith community we are struggling, and we are hurting. The failure of grand juries in Missouri and New York to indict two police officers for their use of excessive force, resulting in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, has led to a shared fury – and a deep sorrow. The videotape of Eric Garner spoke for itself – or should have done. In my conversations with you, I hear discouragement as you share how your lives have been disrupted, how you have lost faith in the quest for racial equality, and how you fear for people of color. How you fear especially for children like Tamir Rice, 12 years old, who was shot November 22nd in Cleveland for holding a toy gun in a park.

We gather in vigil, we raise our voices in protest; yet we wake again to news of violence that reminds us, painfully, of the stark reality of racial injustice.

It can be easy to lose hope, but Marian Wright Edelman, who founded the Children's Defense Fund more than 40 years ago, teaches us to remain willing to work for social justice, even amidst our discouragement. She said recently, "I care, and I am willing to serve and stand with others to build a movement." Like Marian, I believe our only choice is to serve and to build, especially in times like this, as the civil rights of our fellow citizens continue to be in jeopardy.
We will do some of this work on our own and some in community. Thanks to the Concerned Students of Color Committee, we have already begun a series of programs that will continue as long as I am president. Thanks to the faculty, we have already begun a series of conversations about how to address institutional barriers to equality. Soon we will have a new Chief Diversity Officer to support this work.

Most immediately, we will:

  • Focus the readings and prayers of this Sunday's Christmas Vespers services at 4 and 7:30 p.m. in John M. Greene on renewing our commitment to social justice, and include a period of silent reflection during each service.
  • Come together in vigil at 4:30 p.m. Monday, December 8th, on Chapin Lawn, to remember Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others who have fallen; and to recommit ourselves to working toward justice and non-violence in their honor.
  • Organize a panel discussion on police treatment of people of color, particularly Black males.
  • Solicit ideas from all members of our community. I welcome your suggestions.

It is my fervent hope that the lives of Michael, Eric, Tamir and others will inspire a new civil rights movement. There are early signs that this is the case, as demonstrations across the country have illustrated.

What an insensitive, insulated, oblivious, dismissive, callous person, amirite? Any reasonable, halfway-civilized person would realize how offensive her remarks are, especially to people of color.

What's that? Oh, it was actually the last sentence of her email that riled people up:

We are united in our insistence that all lives matter.

Apparently the subject line of her email was also "All Lives Matter". You see, President McCartney didn't realize that "all lives matter" was a dismissive phrase used by some to counter the slogan "black lives matter" in an attempt to divert discussion away from the ill treatment that blacks disproportionately receive from police officers and all other facets of the American criminal justice system. She didn't realize this probably because she is not a hyper-politicized person who is in tune with every fad and fashion of the social-mediasphere.

In an entirely depressing but entirely expected development, she apologized and admitted her "mistakes":

I am committed to working as a white ally, to learning from the lived experiences of people of color, and to acknowledging mistakes, despite my best intentions.

The two student emails she quoted in her apology were thoughtful and respectful, but some comments quoted by the linked article were more accusatory and judgmental:

Two students who attended the vigil, sophomores Cecelia Lim and Maureen Leonard, agreed that McCartney was right to apologize after her original email.

“It felt like she was invalidating the experience of black lives,” Lim said.

A third student at the vigil, sophomore math major Maria Lopez, said McCartney’s first email was poorly received on campus.

“A lot of my news feed was negative remarks about her as a person,” she said, referring to students’ reaction on social media. Lopez added that McCartney, whom she called “President Kathy,” is generally well-liked among students.

“She acknowledged her mistake,” Lopez said.

To review, an eminently concerned, fair-minded, inclusive university president was driven to apologize for failing to repeat a slogan she was unaware existed; her innocent over-inclusivity was "poorly received" for "invalidating the experience of black lives" despite the fact that her entire email was about the injustice experienced by black lives and actions that she would be personally involved in to rectify those injustices; and some students concluded that this ignorance of a Twitter hashtag reflected negatively on her as a person.

This is dogmatic, illiberal, hyper-judgmental group-think. It borders on religious mysticism: you can't know what is right and wrong, so rely on the social-justice clergy to inform you—and absolve you—of your sins. It is the complaining students who are insular, ignorant, and entitled. They can't suffer any deviation from their talking points, and they interpret any such deviation as an insult to an entire class of humans collectively as well as themselves personally. They seek and therefore find slights everywhere, and they think that every transgression against their movement, whether real or imagined, and no matter how small, represents malice on the part of the transgressor and entitles them to an apology.

It would be refreshing to see the target of one of these non-controversies refuse to apologize for doing nothing wrong, just once in a while.

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The default position you take reveals everything

August 14, 2014 – 12:14 pm by John

Since I surely have nothing new to say about the events on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri, I wanted to comment on the attitudes and opinions of a certain type of commentator on this matter: those who pretend to be fair and balanced, who rush to mention that both looters and police can be in the wrong at the same time, who bend over backwards to come to the defense of the poor endangered police officers who just want to maintain law and order.

Some of them may think they are avoiding taking any default position, that their withholding of judgment constitutes carefulness, fairness, and objectivity. But I think that this evasion is itself a default position—a side taken on a substantive matter—and that this overly sensitive faux-objectivity reveals a lot about those commentators. It reveals that deep down, they really side with the (powerful) State against the (relatively powerless) citizen. Deep down, they think that peace, safety, and order come from the State. They idealize our society as one of laws, not of men, so they take a default position in defense of those who enforce the law.

As with the NSA spying scandal, the people whose default position all along has been against police militarization, against expansion of State power, have been vindicated in Ferguson, Missouri. A police state can exist in an American city. Right now Ferguson is by all accounts a police state! If these developments lead you to say, "The police might be overreacting, but the looters are definitely in the wrong too," or, "I'm not comfortable with the shutdown of media, but some type of response to rioting and looting was necessary," or, "Crowds violently attacking cops and rioting and people are surprised cops are responding accordingly? I must be missing something...", then you reveal yourself as an apologist for police militarization, as one of the tough-on-crime law-and-order types who have pushed us in this direction for 30 years. If such hedging and wishy-washiness are your default reaction to the war zone that is Ferguson, Missouri, then you are part of the problem.

Of course looting is wrong, for the same types of reasons that shooting an unarmed Michael Brown in the back, multiple times, is wrong. Of course the private property owners whose stores are being looted and whose convenience stores are being burned down are being severely, disgustingly wronged by the looters, and they must rely on the police to protect them.

But anyone who's been paying attention to the eyewitness accounts, the Twitter feeds, and the livestreams knows that the police (1) created this issue by shooting a defenseless man in the back multiple times ("more than just a couple"); (2) they exacerbated it by being secretive, refusing to release the shooter's name, and not conducting any investigation at all; (3) they made their unconstitutional/martial-law intentions obvious to everyone by blockading media from entering the city, trying to prevent anyone from photographing or filming them, even going to so far as to tear-gas reporters and dismantle their recording equipment; and (4) they exacerbated it further and created a war zone in the Midwest by pointing sniper rifles and assault rifles at protesters and even at non-protesting people just walking in their own city.

Considering such egregious police overreach on the backdrop of a city that has, at least subjectively but also by objective measures, felt wronged by a long history of racially inequitable treatment by the criminal justice system, it is easy to see how the entire town felt wronged by the shooting and abandoned—no, antagonized—by its government, and it saw the murder of Michael Brown as the last straw. A stance that glosses over everything leading up to the looting and even outright excuses the hyper-militarized weaponry and tactics of the local police is antithetical to the protection of individual rights, and is, most importantly, opposed to the protection of the citizen against the State.

The default position I take is to distrust and despise the police, especially given their terroristic and militarized weapons and responses. My default position is to focus on the militarized police forces who drive (who even want) MRAPs and point military-style weapons at unarmed protesters and bar journalists from the city and order everyone to turn their cameras off, rather than focus on the opportunistic criminals who loot and burn down stores. The latter should be mentioned and condemned, but they are not the national story. They are not turning our cities into militarized zones. They are not eating away at our constitutional rights and putting a death-grip on entire cities. They are not locking world-leading numbers of nonviolent criminals in cages for years. They are not the cause of lost rights and growing fear and an increasingly adversarial relationship between citizen and State that has been about 40 years in the making (since the beginning of the War on Drugs).

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