Is Abetting as Bad as the Crime?

Relative GuiltI found this image on Facebook. For those who can’t see it, it reads, “You are just as guilty as the abuser if you know about animal abuse and do nothing.” The poster, Valerie VanOrden, added, “Ditto with child abuse or over-correction.” I assume “over-correction” is a reference to corporal punishment of children. I understand this sentiment, so it is not my intent to attack Ms VanOrden. But I think this is wrong and even dangerous.

It is easy to be so outraged at a crime that one latches onto “enablers.” When it comes to child abuse, the act seems so heinous that it is easy to define the abusers as not even human. Thus the humans who we can empathize with are those we focus our rage on. After all, each of us has the experience of being in a situation where someone misbehaved and we did nothing. So in a weird kind of way, attacking such people in different circumstances can feel like making amends for our own acts of cowardice. But that doesn’t actually make the current or past situations any better.

Doing nothing when a child or an animal is abused is wrong. But such signs (and arguments) don’t say that. They explicitly equate the acts. And that is preposterous. For one thing, what exactly does it mean to “do nothing”? If you see a man kick his dog, is giving him a dirty look enough? What about saying something like, “Don’t kick that dog!”? Or perhaps kicking the man? None of these things will necessarily end the man’s behavior? Even getting the man arrested, convicted, and jailed may not stop his behavior. So what level of engagement is required?

It is very possible that the best thing you could do in that case would be to tell everyone you know about the awful man who kicked his dog. It isn’t legal penalties that are primarily responsible for the much better treatment of animals today versus 200 years ago. In Henry Bergh’s time, horses were commonly flogged to death on the streets of New York. Now such behavior would be unthinkable. So I’m not at all certain that expecting every person to turn into informants for the police is necessary or even especially helpful.

There is also the problem that people who abuse animals and children are probably dangerous people. So encouraging little old ladies to confront such sociopaths is not necessarily a great idea. And confrontations can make things worse. I say this as a person with a long history thrusting myself into such situations. They usually do quiet the situation in the short-term, but at the expense of causing the anger to be focused on me. That’s fine, but I’m not sure if it helps the situation in the long-term.

What’s more, the people who are most likely to know about abuse are people who are being abused themselves. For example, if there is an abusing father who is beating the children, he is probably also beating the wife. I know of a couple of cases of truly heroic women who got their children out of these situations — cases in which the women were willing to accept being abused themselves but not when the situation degenerated to include the children. But these women are heroes, and the last thing we should do is lay shame upon all similarly placed women who are not capable of the heroism the situation demands.

When it comes to things like Catholic bishops covering up for priests who sexually abused children, the situation is different. Moving priests to new areas where they could continue to abuse children could very well be as bad as or even worse than what the priests were doing. In these cases, the bishop was acting as a kind of pimp for unwanted sexual encounters. But I’m certain that the bishops didn’t see themselves as pimps. They probably thought that the priests were just having difficulties that the bishops could finesse. There was just one boy that the priest couldn’t resist. Or there was too much pressure on the priest. Or thousands of other justifications that the bishop used to allow the priest to continue preying on the young. This is a special kind of villainy, but mostly one where the bishops managed to delude themselves into thinking they were doing something other than what they were actually doing. That doesn’t reduce their culpability, of course.

The bishop situation is different because they were actively facilitating child rape committed by priests. The situations that people face in their everyday lives are quite different. If you think that a neighborhood child is being brutalized by his parents, you should do something about it. There is a moral imperative. But not doing so is not equal to brutalizing the child yourself. And claiming that it is minimizes the initial act of brutality.

The Future of Darren Wilson and Police Abuse

Darren WilsonDarren Wilson has resigned from the Ferguson Police Department. In a statement, he claimed that he did not want to put the “residents and police officers of the City of Ferguson at risk.” And I suppose that is a better way to put it than, “I will be too busy with my ghostwriter and video acting courses.” And who can blame him? One needs to take advantage of these opportunities. I mean, how likely is it that he is going to get another opportunity to kill an unarmed teenager and walk away from even an indictment? I’ve predicted a six-figure book deal, but it is entirely possible that he could get over a million dollars. There are a lot of conservatives for whom he is now a hero.

I was surprised, however, to have a conversation with my father Thanksgiving night. Despite his hour per day of Fox News, he completely sided with Michael Brown. He didn’t find Wilson’s story credible. And interestingly, what he had a problem with was a minor statement. According to Wilson, the first thing he said to Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson was, “Hey guys, why don’t you walk on the sidewalk?” My conservative father just couldn’t get past that. Despite the fact that my father has never been in any trouble (he’s never spent a moment in jail), his interactions with the police have generally been very negative. And one thing is for certain: officers never ask people to do something, they tell them what to do. And Dorian Johnson’s quote sounds right, “Get the f*** on the sidewalk!”

Michael BrownWhat bothered me at Thanksgiving was that there was a lot of mention of the size of Michael Brown — by mostly non-political people. Michael Brown was 6'-4" and 290 pounds. No one was aware that Darren Wilson was also 6'-4", although lighter: only 220 pounds. The information that seems to have made it into the minds of the casual news consumer is, “I felt like a five-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan.” It is poetic, but as such, it should be taken lightly. (There is the other way of looking at it: Darren Wilson is so used to manhandling smaller people, that dealing with someone larger really did frighten him.)

Despite my experience with my father, my takeaway from Thanksgiving is that the whole Michael Brown shooting will be remembered inaccurately and badly in the public sphere. It will be that Brown was a thug who maybe didn’t deserve to die, but who brought it on himself. And even worse, it will be seen as a case where the police officer acted appropriately. It will be yet another instance that separates the white and black communities. The white community will continue to think that cops are generally okay guys doing a hard and dangerous jobs. And the black community will continue to think that cops have chips on their shoulders and treat people of color as though they are guilty until proven otherwise. No one who reads this site can be confused about who I think is right.

There was always a problem with the Michael Brown case. The problems with policing and the criminal justice system are not about any particular person, police force, city, or region. People tend to overestimate the age of black children and to assume they are more dangerous than white children. This is not a problem with bad people. It is a systemic problem — dating back hundreds of years. It requires systemic solutions, and they start with economics. If we don’t look broadly at the problem, we will continue on with the white majority continuing to learn the wrong lessons from these pointless deaths.


I think that dealing with our economic problems is the most important thing to do because it has the broadest effect. But there are more specific things that we should do that would have greater immediate effects. In particular, I think that the police officers and prosecutors should be held accountable for what they do on the job. For example, Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman were shown to be innocent and released from prison 39 years after the crime. Regardless of what happens to them, nothing will happen to the police and the prosecutors who railroaded them. People claim to be for the death penalty because it disincentivizes murder, but no such concern exists when it is government officials using the system to kill innocent people. But the big problem is that the white community by and large thinks such things are just unfortunate errors in the system rather than what they are: explicit designs of the system.

Slavery as Fatal Design Flaw of the Constitution

The Counter-Revolution of 1776It is also worth reiterating that the potent concept that is racism is necessary but insufficient in explaining the past and present plight of those who are now designated as “African-American.” …

It is also the case that it is much too generous to conclude that the former slaveholding republic has suffered from a tragic flaw: it is more accurate to aver that this polity has suffered from a design flaw, that is, that it was not accidental that the fabled founders somehow “forgot” to include all of the former colonies’ denizens in its bounty. Unavoidably, this design flaw led to blazing conflagration that concluded formally in 1865.

In some ways, 1776 was an outgrowth of 1688: the result of “free trade in Africans” and resultant restiveness of overwhelming slave majorities in the Caribbean that drove the Crown to retrench on the mainland and the concomitant growth of the productive forces there, allowing North American colonies to strain at the leash held by the colonizer. Likewise, 1861 was an extension of 1776: the failure to resolve the nettlesome matter of slavery — indeed, augmenting this atrocious institution — culminated in bloody civil war. Strikingly, the supposed trailblazing republic and its allegedly wondrous Constitution had a fatal design flaw in the form of enhanced slavery, which caused it to crash and burn by 1861.

—Gerald Horne
The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America

The Moon Does Not Go Around the Earth

Moon RiseOn Thanksgiving night, I was looking at the moon. I find it endlessly fascinating, but probably not in the way that most people do. Everyone knows that the earth goes around the sun and the moon goes around the earth. But they are really screwed up about this. People watch the sun as it rises in the east and sets in the west and they know that what is really happening is that the earth is rotating on its axis and so it just appears that the sun is rising and setting. And that is more or less correct.

But then they look at the moon and they see that it rises in the west and sets in the east and know what is really happening is that the moon is rising in the east and setting in the west. And that is more or less complete wrong. The moon orbits the earth in the same direction that the earth rotates. So if the earth stopped rotating, the moon would rise in the west and set in the east — very slowly.

This is why watching a lunar eclipse can be a freaky experience. You are watching the moon go across the sky toward the west. And then the shadow of the earth begins happening on the east edge! It is counter intuitive. And if you continue to watch the eclipse, you will see it gets more weird. An eclipse can last almost two hours during which time, the moon will appear to move across the sky quite a distance.

Wittgenstein famously noted that the sun going around the earth and earth turning on its axis create the same observational evidence. And I think it is interesting that people may know that the earth goes around the sun, but they don’t really. It is just a little factoid that has been drummed into their heads. And we know this because of the way that they confuse what is going on with the moon. I know this because I used to teach planetary astronomy. Most students thought that the phases of the moon were due to the earth’s shadow and so were confused about how the moon could stay full all the way from moon rise to moon set.

My trick for teaching this subject was for my students to start thinking about the moon the way they do the sun. Forget what you’ve been told: the moon does not go around the earth. At least, the moon doesn’t go around the earth in any given night. It moves about 6° in that time, so it isn’t a big enough effect to worry about. The effect of the rotating earth totally swamps the effect the moon’s orbit.

We modern humans tend to greatly overestimate how much we know. We are told simple facts such as the moon going around the earth, but it confuses us more than anything. This might bee a good definition of a factoid. It is something people know, which is true. But it is not only useless to them, it actually confuses them by causing them to think that the moon travels across the sky because it orbits the earth.

And look at the kind of questions you can answer if you assume that the moon does not orbit the earth! What is the phase of the moon during a solar eclipse? (New.) Can you see a lunar eclipse at dawn? (Yes.) And most of all, you won’t go your whole life thinking that the phases of the moon are caused by the earth’s shadow.


Orbits are actually more complicated than this. Both the earth and the moon revolve around their shared center of gravity. That’s also true of the sun and the rest of the solar system, but the sun is so large that it doesn’t move much. Of course, that’s only true from our perspective. Our solar system is moving roughly 500,000 mph around the center of our galaxy. There is no such thing as absolute speed, which is what Einstein was talking about a century ago.

Billy Strayhorn

Billy StrayhornOn this day in 1915, the great jazz composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn was born. He is best remembered for his work with Duke Ellington. Of course, he largely isn’t remembered at all. Even people who don’t like jazz at all know who Ellington was. But Strayhorn worked in the shadows, and he seemed to have liked it that way.

He was a phenomenon at an early age. While still in high school, he wrote a musical. He also formed his own trio that played on local radio every day. And he wrote a number of great songs, including “Lush Life.” Here he is in 1964, performing it live:

Strayhorn wanted to be a classical composer, but he had the wrong skin color. His introduction to Art Tatum — a classical composer in his own way — pushed Strayhorn into jazz. And at the age of 23, he met and began collaborating with Duke Ellington. It is hard to say where one starts and the other ends. Ellington said, “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.” But being the established great man, Ellington took credit for much of Strayhorn’s work. Generally speaking, if you see a tune composed by Strayhorn and Ellington, it is Strayhorn’s. And Strayhorn is probably even more important as an arranger in creating what we now think of as the Duke Ellington sound.

That’s not to say that Ellington took advantage of the younger man. They had a symbiotic relationship. It is doubtful that Strayhorn would have accomplished so much without the protection and encouragement of Ellington. And Strayhorn got sole writing credit for the most famous song of the Duke Ellington orchestra, “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Here he is performing the song on piano with the orchestra. At the end, Ellington lists some of Strayhorn’s other compositions.

Sadly, in 1964 — at the same time he recorded “Lush Life” above, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which seemed to ended his career. He died three years later.

Happy birthday Billy Strayhorn!