Phillip White Is the Symptom Not the Problem

Phillip WhiteI suspect you’ve heard about San Jose police officer Phillip White’s comments regarding his commitment to protect and serve the community. He started by tweeting, “Threaten me or my family and I will use my God given and law appointed right and duty to kill you. #CopsLivesMatter.” And he followed it up with the even more charming, “By the way if anyone feels they can’t breathe or their lives matter I’ll be at the movies tonight, off duty, carrying my gun.” Yet he has been known as a supposedly good cop who was profiled in the San Jose Mercury News “for his good work with local schoolchildren.” But these tweets were not just a matter of having a bad night; he has a bit of a history.

BuzzFeed documented weeks of tweets by White ridiculing and attacking protesters. It isn’t hard to know what’s going on here. As long as Officer White feels respected by everyone, he’s fine. But if he feels disrespected, he acts like a spoiled child. In other words, White is entirely typical of law enforcement officers in this country. In fact, you might say he is more generally typical of this country. I continue to marvel at my fellow Americans’ constant inferiority complex — best illustrated by the frat boys chanting “We’re number one!” after Osama bin Laden’s death.

The situation with Officer White is a cause of great concern — but not in the way that most people claim. I’m sure that what he tweeted was entirely typical of what police officers say amongst themselves all the time. He is, in other words, not a “bad apple.” He is an entirely typical example of the apples in our national law enforcement barrel. And it is so rotten that it is emitting methane, which catches fire every few days. So I have a hard time getting excited about White being fired. What is the message that it will send to the law enforcement community? We all “know” the citizenry to be a bunch of subhuman scum, but don’t say that in public!?

Breathe Easy: Don't Break the LawThis goes right along with Jason Barthel, a police officer in Indiana. He also owns a clothing business, so he started selling the charming shirt that is illustrated on the right, “Breathe Easy: Don’t Break the Law.” Barthel claims to mean no offence, “We’re here to protect the public and we want you to breathe easy knowing that the police are here to be with you and for you and protect you.” Of course, that’s not what the shirt says. To be very clear: the shirt says, “Eric Garner wouldn’t be dead if he hadn’t sold un-taxed cigarettes in the past.”

The sad thing is that I’m sure Barthel actually thinks that his shirts represent a positive message. And certainly there has been no reporting of him getting pressure to stop making money (I assume) off the death of Garner. And that, my friends, is the problem with policing in this nation. It is too insular. Officers see the world as being “us” against “them.”

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had bad experiences with the police. Maybe it is my anti-authoritarian personality. But it still doesn’t make much sense, because I have gone out of my way to get along with the police. They want unearned respect, I give them it. They want unwarranted submissiveness, no problem. They want unconstitutional cooperation, it’s theirs. Yet in 80% of the cases, they still act like complete jerks. It’s because being in the police is more than a job — it’s a lifestyle. And its a lifestyle that provides them with undue power. And the only thing that power craves is more power. So there is never enough respect, never enough submissiveness, never enough cooperation.

So let’s not get too lost in outrage over Phillip White. He’s just a symptom of a far deeper and more pernicious problem — the angry side of Jason Barthel and his “inoffensive” shirts. I suspect we will go on doing as little as possible to address that problem. And people will continue to wrongly die at the hands of the police. And individual officers will ignorantly go around claiming that they are just misunderstood. And also threatening to murder us at the movie theater.

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Bush 2016: the Terri Schiavo Choice!

Jeb BushNow that Jeb Bush has jumped in the race to decide if he is going to jump in the race, do I have to take him seriously? I really don’t want to. It isn’t that I think he is especially worse than other Republicans. But if he actually became president, that would be the third Bush. As it is, I’m not that keen on Hillary Clinton just because she would be the second Clinton. But maybe I’m all wrong.

Maybe having a second Clinton or a third Bush would be perfect. After all, what is my problem with saying to the world, “We are a hereditary aristocracy!”? It is only that I don’t think that is what America should be. But I know full well that that is exactly what America is. There is less economic mobility in the United States than there is in most other advanced countries. So why try to hide it? America is not the land of opportunity: Bush 1988! Bush 1992! Bush 2000! Bush 2004! Bush 2016! With the missing dates there, it doesn’t sound so much like 18th century England as 21st century Russia: Putin, Putin, not Putin, Putin. The conservatives should love it!

But we should remember what a great guy Jeb Bush is. (That’s sarcasm, folks!) His career as a businessman is pretty much the same as his brother’s: his father is a well-connected ex-president and people want to suck up to him by handing money to the son. As much as my own life may suck, at least it is my own and not something gifted to me based upon my dad’s accomplishments. As for governor, well, Bush did for Florida what his brother did for the country: he moved money out of the public sector and gave it to his cronies. But that’s what we expect from a Republican, right?

In what is supposed to be a very positive look back on Bush’s eight years as governor in The Washington Post, Linda Kleindienst wrote:

Bush’s back-to-back terms were marred by frequent ethics scandals, official bungling and the inability of the government he downsized to meet growing demands for state services, including education and aid for the infirm and the elderly…

He championed tax cuts that chiefly benefited business and the wealthy, trimmed the state’s payroll, stripped job protection from thousands of mid-level civil servants, gained more power over the judiciary, exploited his Washington connections to prevent the closing of military bases and launched the nation’s first statewide private-school voucher program…

“He led the enactment of tax cuts that will drain the state of needed revenue for health care and children and senior citizens — and we already rank at the bottom of the nation in those services,” said Karen Woodall, a lobbyist for migrant workers and the poor…

Though he proclaimed himself the “education governor,” Bush’s legacy in this field was mixed at best… Florida’s high school dropout rate and per-pupil spending continued to rank among the nation’s worst. While Bush sought spending increases for public schools, they barely offset steadily growing demands on school districts, including the soaring cost of health and property insurance…

Perhaps Bush’s most grievous blunder came with the enactment of One Florida, a plan to end affirmative-action preferences for minorities in university admissions and state contracting. It sparked a sit-in by two black legislators in the governor’s executive suite — and hundreds of black college students in the hallway outside his office — and the largest ever protest-march, led by the Rev Jesse L Jackson, on the state Capitol in 2000.

One Florida was a prime example of Bush’s shoot-first, take-no-advice method of governing. It tarnished his image in the black community and alienated voters…

But that really is nothing, in my mind, compared to his behavior regarding Terri Schiavo. She was the woman in a vegetative state who Bush used all his power to make political hay out of. You probably remember that after years of making its way through the courts, Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed. But Bush got the legislature to pass a special law allowing Bush to have the feeding tube put back in. The law was found to be unconstitutional. After a few more twists and turns, Schiavo was allowed to die. At the autopsy, doctors found just what the fMRI had shown: that literally half of her brain was gone.

I found out something new today in an Think Progress article, Terri Schiavo’s Husband Speaks Out On Jeb Bush’s Presidential Bid. After the whole sad affair was over, Bush used his position as governor to investigate Terri’s husband Michael to see if the state couldn’t charge him for something because maybe he didn’t call 9-1-1 fast enough when she had her initial heart attack:

The state’s attorney found no evidence against him and closed the case. “The propriety of using your office to hunt and harass people, as the governor did to Mr Schiavo after his wife’s death, I think raises significant questions about his judgment and his character,” [Michael Schiavo's attorney at the time George] Felos said.

It raises more than questions. It ought to be disqualifying. Of course it isn’t. The only thing that disqualifies a person from being president is a lack of money. And that’s why we stand a very good chance of having another Clinton or yet another Bush in the White House. America: the land of the aristocrats, and the home of the serfs.

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The Torture Prosecutions That Couldn’t

Charles PierceIt is axiomatic, or it certainly ought to be, that people who torture are fundamentally cowards, and that the people who order torture are more cowardly still since they subcontract their crimes to people they consider little more than hired hands, and who they will gladly serve up to maintain the fiction of the few bad apples that spoil the whole coffin-sized box. We are seeing this in real time now. Cheney makes sure we know Bush knew. Yoo says the CIA people went too far beyond the careful legal infrastructure he’d built. And this brings us, sadly, to the moral calamity at the heart of the Obama Administration, the final, tragic consequence of Looking Forward, Not Back. And the deepest tragedy about it is that it was inevitable.

It is clear from what we’ve heard from these creatures over the last week that, if they’d ever been tried for the crimes against humanity they committed, in any courtroom in the world, they’d have turned on each other in a New York minute. You wouldn’t have to waterboard Cheney to get him to give you Bush. He’d do it for a steak. You wouldn’t have to blow pasta up John Yoo’s hindquarters to get him to roll on the people who relied on his instructions to carry out their orders. I’m willing to bet a considerable bag of nickels that there are a few dozen anonymous CIA operatives who are feeling very hung out to dry at the moment, and who would be willing, at the price of a reduction of their sentences, to sing a lovely aria. This might have been the easiest prosecution in the history of the world.

Alas, as we also have learned from the polling over the past week, it would not have been an easy prosecution to sell to a public that is more willing to trust a television show than it is to trust the Geneva Conventions… That is what made the moral calamity of the Obama Administration inevitable. The president is not an amoral man. Neither is he stupid. He knew full well, despite all his glowing rhetoric about the fundamental decency of the American people, that, for its own scurvy purposes, the previous administration unleashed the darkest collective human impulses that the country possesses, that the previous administration made good use of fear and ignorance, and the anger that is their monstrous stepchild, and that it profited politically and personally for having done so. He also knew that, somewhere, deep in the heart that he is sure the United State till possesses, a kind of national shame was building up to a level pretty close to critical mass and that, if it detonated in an uncontrolled explosion, the power of it could be terribly misused.

So the moral calamity of the Obama Administration is one that was forced upon it by the nature of the transformation of the country that was wrought in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, a transformation that never was going to be temporary, since an endless war requires a permanently transformed country. Reading the polls today makes a mockery of the notion that there ever has been a president elected to office who would have had the raw political courage to hand these gutless bastards over to the Hague to be tried for war crimes, or to prosecute them ourselves for criminal conspiracy… And that political establishment has resisted the court because it knows full well that the court has no constituency in the United States, an exceptional country that does not torture or commit war crimes, an exception country that has guaranteed that a moral calamity will be at the heart of every presidency for the next 100 years, because there is no constituency for law that is stronger than the constituency for vengeance.

—Charlie Pierce
The Moral Calamity of The Obama Administration

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Steve Biko

[After everything that has gone on with the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and John Crawford III — along with the release of the torture report — I’ve decided to reprint a slightly edited article I wrote three months ago on the anniversary of Steve Biko’s death. It goes along with South African comedian Trevor Noah, and his appearance on The Daily Show about how we’ve managed to create an apartheid state without having to enact explicitly racist laws. We do it all with heavy doses of implicit racism. —FM]

Steve BikoOn this day in 1946, the great political activist Steve Biko was born. He worked against the apartheid regime in South Africa. In the late 1960s, he helped to form South African Students’ Organization and was its first president. By 1972, his political activities were so successful that he was thrown out of college. And the following year he was “banned” by the South African government. That meant he was forbidden from speaking to more than one person at a time. And he was confined to his township. And he could not write for or speak to the media.

Let us take a step back from this. In the United States at this time and for another decade and a half, conservatives in the United States spoke of apartheid South Africa as though it were the shining light of democracy in Africa. According to these conservatives, the rulers of South Africa were the modern incarnations of the Founding Fathers. But we all know what was really going on. The rules were white, so it didn’t matter what they did. And the oppressed were black, so it didn’t matter what was done to them.

Despite these restrictions, Biko continued to organize. The Soweto Uprising was highly successful, and was put down by the regime with its characteristic restraint by setting dogs on the school children and then shooting them. At least a couple hundred where killed and over a thousand wounded. After this, the regime decided that they really needed to go after Steve Biko, even though he was not directly involved.

On 18 August 1977, Biko was arrested at a check point under a law that ought to sound familiar to Americans who have been paying any attention to events in America over the last several decades, Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967. He was tortured for 22 hours. This resulted in Biko slipping into a coma. Then he was chained to a window grill for a day. Just short of four weeks later, he was transported 700 miles to a prison that had hospital facilities. He died the next day — 12 September 1977. Wikipedia provides the following tragic but entirely typical conclusion, “The police claimed his death was the result of an extended hunger strike, but an autopsy revealed multiple bruises and abrasions and that he ultimately succumbed to a brain hemorrhage from the massive injuries to the head…” You know: the police never do anything wrong. And they can never be held accountable regardless, “After a 15-day inquest in 1978, a magistrate judge found there was not enough evidence to charge the officers with murder because there were no eyewitnesses.”

The one good thing about Biko’s death was that it really did publicize just how awful the apartheid system was. Over 10,000 people came to Biko’s funeral. So he was a martyr to the cause that he had worked his whole adult life for. So I can see the beauty in his life and ultimate sacrifice. But it mostly just fills me with rage.

Nevertheless: happy birthday Steve Biko!


Here is Peter Gabriel’s song “Biko”:

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Mars Discovery Is Very Exciting — to Me

Curiosity Rover Image of Martian LandscapeIt has long been speculated that the existence of methane on other planets and moons could be a sign that life may be present now or have been present in the past. This is because the methane in our atmosphere comes primarily from life functions like the digestion of cows or termites. So scientists are very interested in Saturn’s moon Titan because of the methane in its atmosphere and the probable methane seas. But yesterday we got some very interesting news from Mars, Curiosity Rover Detects Spikes of Methane at Mars.

What the little rover is seeing is methane levels shooting way up and then coming way back down — below even the average global concentration. Sushil Atreya of the Curiosity team said it “tells us there must be some relatively localized source.” Even if it is of biological origin, it could be an ancient source of the gas, which is slowly being released or cycled through the environment. Or it could be of totally non-biological original through a source “such as interaction of water and rock.” So we want to be cautious here, because the news is interesting but doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

Nicholas Heavens at The Planetary Society had a few choice words of caution even before he found out what the discovery was, Like A Bad Penny: Methane on Mars. I think he is far too cynical, but he does provide a nice overview of the methane-related discoveries on Mars. They start with the measurement of the methane concentration in the Mars atmosphere that is half of what it is here on earth. But that is less impressive than it sounds because the Mars atmosphere is so thin and concentrations are reported as (very very small) percentages. Heavens concludes, “Mars had some methane, but not very much of it.” Like I said: cynical!

He went on to discuss some of the potential problems there were with the initial measurements of methane. The main one was that there was a fairly high level of variability in them. Again, he wrote this before seeing what the new research showed. But now that we do know, it at least partially explains the methane variability. But Heavens’ main concern seems to be that people go hog-wild with the little information we have. Caution is good advice. It makes me think of a sequence from Cosmos about the same thing regarding Venus, “Observation: you couldn’t see a thing. Conclusion: dinosaurs.”

The main thing to remember here is that as exciting as this all is, it is unlikely that any of it indicates that life exists on Mars right now. But it is more data that suggests that Mars did indeed have life on it at one time. And it was a high tech civilization that created canals to move water from the poles! And they flew around on jetpacks like in The Jetsons! And they had domesticated dinosaurs that children rode on at the fair! Stop, stop, stop! I got carried away there. None of sentences the that end with an exclamation mark is true. But the next one is:

Mars might have had some kind of basic microbial life on it at one time!

And that is enough to be very very excited. And I doubt that Nicholas Heavens would disagree.

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Peshawar School Attack Not Religious

Peshawar School AttackThe Peshawar school attack yesterday was truly horrific — in the same way that the Sandy Hook massacre was. Except this one that the patina of politics that makes it seem worse. I’m not sure that it is (except in that there were many more deaths). Adam Peter Lanza, in his messed up mind, must have had reasons for killing a bunch of people. And the Pakistani Taliban have their reasons. The stated reason is that it is revenge for the Pakistani army’s killing of the Taliban’s own families. Just as I don’t think torturing is right just because “they” do it, I don’t think revenge killing is ever justified — especially of the children of those revenge is sought against.

What I don’t really understand why this attack is framed as religious in nature. You can hardly go anywhere in reading about it without tripping over Muslims claiming that the attack was “un-Islamic.” It’s a funny claim anyway. The Quran is a big book. I’m sure you can find all kinds of text in it that would lead one to believe that killing children is wrong — emphatically so. Just the same, I find it hard to believe that you can’t also find text that justifies killing children. I don’t know the Quran, but all the Abrahamic religions are pretty bloodthirsty. Here’s Isaiah 14:21, “Prepare for his sons a place of slaughter because of the iniquity of their fathers.” That was God talking. There is more.

But a fundamental problem I have as seeing this as a religious attack is that it is Muslims on each side. We in the west have such a tendency to see Islam as this monolithic thing. I discussed that yesterday, The Bigoted “Muslims Condemn” Ritual. But clearly, in this case Muslims on one side are acting the way the United States does. And on the other side, Muslims are acting as terrorists. As I have tried to explain over the years, terrorism is a tactic of relatively impotent groups. Such groups would wage wars in more “civilized” ways if they had the ability.

The main thing is that terrorism isn’t something that comes out religion — much less a specific religion. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have all used terrorism when the tactic suited them. And they have just as quickly condemned it as a tactic when it suited their political interests. And atheists use it too! I am sick to death of the idea that terrorism is something specific to Islamic faith when it is actually that Islam is the religion of a lot of places where people have a lot of political grievances.

I came upon a great article from last year by Owen Jones, Not in Our Name: Dawkins Dresses Up Bigotry as Non-Belief — He Cannot Be Left to Represent Atheists. It discusses many of these issues in a general sense. But I want to highlight one that is perhaps most annoying. It is the idea that people like me give Islam a pass — that it is just our liberal nature forcing us to see the poor Islamic world as oppressed.

I’m often asked why I don’t take a stronger line against Islamism: that it is one of my blind spots. In truth, I think that issue is pretty much covered. The alleged threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism has been debated to death ever since several Saudi hijackers crashed planes into the Twin Towers over a decade ago. Polls show that support for political Islamism is tiny among Britain’s Muslims, and they are as likely to support violence as the rest of us. Terrorism is being dealt with by the security services, and a few articles by me isn’t really going to contribute very much. My fear, however, is all I would achieve is magnifying a marginal problem among a small religious minority, contributing to a climate where Muslims generally are portrayed as extremists and potential terrorists.

To this, I would add something else. I still find it offensive that Americans are so concerned about religious extremism over there, when we have so much of it here. The common counterargument is that our Christians are not violent. First, that isn’t true; it is just that we carve out an exception for every act of violence perpetrated by a Christian. Timothy McVeigh wasn’t a Christian terrorist because he acted based upon a political ideology. Guess what? The same thing can be said for the vast majority of Muslim terrorists. The fact remains that if McVeigh had been a Muslim, he would still be referred to as a Muslim terrorist.

More concerning is that I have absolutely no doubt that if American Christians saw their lives fall apart, they would not respond like Job. They would respond with violence. Just look at the violent rhetoric that the Christian right uses for mythical oppression! “Don’t Retreat! Reload!”? That was in response to Laura Schlessinger’s resignation after repeatedly using the n-word on the radio. Imagine what would happen in Mississippi if the federal government refused to send the state any more aid than the federal government received in taxes? There would be blood in the streets. But, of course, most people wouldn’t call it religion violence — nor would I.

It is far too facile to dismiss wars and terrorism as the acts of religious people. They are political struggles. Regardless, I know many of my fellow atheists who think if we could just get rid of religion, the world would be more peaceful. I wish it were so, but I just don’t see that. As Jones put it, “Religion can be used to justify anything: and, in practice, it has.” That’s true of good things and bad. Religion is not the cause; it is the justification.

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No Special Pleading From Hollywood

Aaron SorkinI remember listening to an interview with Sidney Lumet about the making of Serpico. He told one story about Al Pacino hanging out with the real Frank Serpico. It was an acting exercise for Pacino, who was studying for the part. But then the relationship was broken off brutally. Lumet, sympathetic toward Serpico who he referred to as smart and funny, laughed the whole thing off. According to him, that was Hollywood and that was the necessary nature of their “art.” I didn’t buy it. To me, it was just a couple of rich and famous guys who were used to being jerks to people who had no power over them.

I had this feeling again that I was listening to the pampered Hollywood elites who think they are “artists” doing some kind of noble work — above the considerations of other people. In this case, it was Aaron Sorkin’s pathetic OpEd in The New York Times, The Sony Hack and the Yellow Press. Basically, it is a long whine about how unfair it is that the hacked information is getting reported. His logic is what we charitably call “completely wrong.”

He wants us to think about this as though it happened to one of us. Would we want our personal conversations revealed to the world? Of course we wouldn’t! But our personal conversations will not be revealed to the world because the world does not care. The world does care about Amy Pascal, because she runs Sony Pictures. And Amy Pascal gets paid really well to put up with the fact that a computer hack with information about her is news. Similarly, Aaron Sorkin’s $80 million net worth should sooth any hardships he may have to bear. And Angelina Jolie’s half billion dollar net worth is more than enough compensation for getting her fee-fees hurt.

But the whole thing is just so very hypocritical. Michael Hiltzik summed up the issue perfectly, Why the Press Must Report Those Sony Hacks:

Hollywood makes billions by manipulating reality, including the reality that is Hollywood itself. It’s not that executives don’t want information to be divulged about their machinations to get a movie made, or their judgments about actors, actresses and directors: they merely want it all to be published entirely according to their own spin.

That’s what it really all comes down to. It is exactly the same thing we see from the White House — no matter who is sleeping there at night. They don’t want any unauthorized leaks. But they love leaks! They provide a steady stream of leaks. They just don’t want any leaks that don’t flatter them. So Aaron Sorkin’s OpEd really is nothing more than special pleading. But there is no reason to give him or anyone else among the Hollywood elite any special treatment. Richard Nixon did not want the Pentagon Papers reported on because they made the government look bad. Aaron Sorkin doesn’t want the Sony hacks reported on because they make Hollywood look bad.

Hiltzik provided the perfect one word response: tough.

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America’s Difficult Torture Journey

Conor FriedersdorfWhen I was growing up, Americans thought of torture as a tactic used by history’s villains. A brutal dictator might keep a depraved regime in power with torture. People in foreign countries might suffer inside torture chambers. But US policy reflected the will of the citizenry, not the sadism of an evil-doer. Even folks who knew that the US had tortured in the past never imagined it would do so again.

After al-Qaeda murdered nearly 3,000 Americans, our polity didn’t exactly embrace torture. But attitudes in the US shifted. The absolutist taboo against torture gave way to a consequentialist debate. Nearly everyone continued to avow that torture was morally unacceptable in almost all circumstances. On the other hand, say a ticking time bomb would incinerate New York City and a terrorist knew the code to stop it. Would it be morally permissible to torture the terrorist?

Over many months, Americans debated that question.

On Sunday, Dick Cheney gave an interview that illustrated why it was so imprudent to abandon the taboo against torture and indulge in implausible hypotheticals. 13 years ago, Americans were arguing over whether it should be legal to torture a known terrorist if we knew it could stop a mass casualty attack on a major city. Now a former vice-president is defending the torture of innocent people

Once 9/11 happened, Dick Cheney ceased to believe that the CIA should be subject to the US Constitution, statutes passed by Congress, international treaties, or moral prohibitions against torture. Those standards would be cast aside. In their place, moral relativism would reign. Any action undertaken by the United States would be subject to this test: Is it morally equivalent to what al-Qaeda did on 9/11? Is it as bad as murdering roughly 3,000 innocent people? If not, then no one should criticize it, let alone investigate, charge and prosecute the CIA. Did a prisoner freeze to death? Were others anally raped? Well, what if they were?

If it cannot be compared with 9/11, if it is not morally equivalent, then it should not be verboten.

That is the moral standard Cheney is unabashedly invoking on national television. He doesn’t want the United States to honor norms against torture. He doesn’t want us to abide by the Ten Commandments, or to live up to the values in the Declaration of Independence, or to be restrained by the text of the Constitution. Instead, Cheney would have us take al-Qaeda as our moral and legal measuring stick. Did America torture dozens of innocents? So what. 9/11 was worse.

Now that Cheney is stating all this explicitly it must be rejected as moral madness. Torture was the ticking time bomb. It exploded. And a city on a hill was destroyed. I hope it is rebuilt in time for my unborn children to grow up in a place that abhors torture, regarding it as a dark curiosity perpetrated by history’s villains.

We’ve got a long way to go.

—Conor Friedersdorf
Dick Cheney Defends the Torture of Innocents


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John Kennedy Toole

John Kennedy TooleOn this day in 1937, the great writer John Kennedy Toole was born. Other than his juvenilia, he is only known for one thing, A Confederacy of Dunces. But what a thing! Everyone seems to know the story of how the book was published: his suicide and his depressed mother’s pursuit of its publication. I can’t speak to the cause of Toole’s finally unraveling. I’m sure if he had found a publisher — especially if the book had done as well as it would when it finally was published — it would at least have extended his life. But I suspect there was more going on than a general depression brought on by a lack of professional success.

In preparation for this post, I spent an hour going through my books, looking for my copy of A Confederacy of Dunces. I couldn’t find it. I did find two copies of Kaufmann’s translation of Faust — which is okay, given one of them is in pieces. (I don’t know why I haven’t thrown it out.) And I found at least five copies of Dr Faustus — which is not okay, because I was collecting them because I had this idea of producing it at some point. But no Confederacy. I must have loaned it out to someone to read.

This is something that I do, especially with this book. No intelligent American should be able to go through life without reading A Confederacy of Duncesat least once. It is a wonderful book. And I don’t even mean in the sense that it is brilliant with a great feel for language. I mean it in the sense that it is a very funny book. You will enjoy it! Let me go further: you will enjoy it from the first page!

You have to ask yourself an important question, “Why am I reading Frankly Curious when I could be reading A Confederacy of Dunces?” There are really only two acceptable answers. First: “Because it is only now that you have opened my eyes!” Second: “I have already read it!” I appreciate your readership. But I’m more than willing to wait. A Confederacy of Dunces is a very special book — especially for the kind of people who come around here. (You should take that as a compliment.)

Happy birthday John Kennedy Toole!

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Mohammed Islam Should Read During Lunch Break

Mohammed IslamJust about everywhere I went on Sunday, I saw a very click-bait-y headline about some kid who had made $72 million during his lunch break day trading. I’m highly susceptible to click-bait, but I did not click. For one thing, I’m not that interested in things that are special only because they are done by someone young. They always make me wonder what’s wrong with their parents and why the kids aren’t outside doing something edifying. I’m also not interested in the subject of stock trading. I would have been far more interested by a headline like, “High school senior has profound inside into Don Quixote during lunch break.” So I just didn’t care.

Now we learn from New York Observer that the kid was lying. Or rather, he was trading but it was all simulated. Fair enough. Fun with numbers! Of course, it wasn’t all a simple mistake. The young man — Mohammed Islam — went so far as to make a false bank statement that he used to deceive the original reporter. But I can’t imagine that she looked all that closely. After all, a multi-millionaire self-made teenager is exactly the sort of thing that America generally, and New York especially, wants to celebrate. He reaps but does not sow — the American Dream!

Before the story fell apart, Jeff Macke at Yahoo! Finance called it bunk, Story of the High School Day Trader Making $72 Million Fails the Smell Test. Basically, he showed that the numbers just didn’t add up. He calculated that Islam would have had to have made returns of at least 500% per year for the last seven years — since he was ten years old. “In other words, Mo wouldn’t have to be one of the few blessed souls with market skills like Warren Buffett or Paul Tudor Jones… Mo would have to be the greatest trader in history. Ever. By far.” Since he’s a finance type, Macke’s annoyance seems to be with the idea that people think making money with stocks is easy. Fair enough. But I doubt that this is really what was going on in the story. I think it is rather the opposite.

The story was a big deal in the same way as “Six year old sings national anthem at Super Bowl.” Stock trading is something that few people really understand but which they think is super cool because people make scads of money doing it. And it has been a long time since the stock market seemed to have much relationship to the real economy. I know that every stock trader thinks they are doing the important work of moving capital to companies that need it. But with things like high-frequency trading, which actually hurt the process of moving capital to where it can be used, this isn’t entirely true. And certainly the public’s perception of Wall Street is that it is a kind of black magic that some people are very good at. So why not a 17 year old high school student?

I wonder about a society that thinks this is a good thing. I wasn’t kidding when I wrote that Islam reaped but did not sow. His amazing trading — if it were true — would not have resulted in a more efficient market where worthy companies get more capital at a lower price. He supposedly started trading penny stocks! What he was supposedly doing was just beating other traders. He was the human equivalent of a high-frequency trading computer. And that means that all Islam was doing was making money. We’re supposed to applaud that?!

Give me a 5,000 word essay about the depiction of the working man in Don Quixote any day!

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