Bill Press & Martin Longman Wrong About Hastert

Dennis HastertMartin Longman has a few choice words for beltway insiders, Wanker of the Day: Bill Press. Press wrote an apologia for Dennis Hastert. Defying all laws of nature except apparently what happens in Washington, Press thinks, “Hastert was charged with federal crimes only because he’s a high-profile politician.” Outside the upper class Washington bubble, everyone knows that it is exactly the rich and powerful who do not get charged with crimes. But in the mind of Bill Press, it’s the people who get invited to Sally Quinn’s parties who are the real oppressed of this country.

But I think that Longman is largely wrong in his critique of Bill Press. His main message is that because the federal government couldn’t prosecute Hastert for his real crimes, they were right to prosecute him for trumped up procedural crimes. I have little sympathy for Hastert, but it is almost never men like him who are treated to this kind of thing. In this case, it certainly seems that some small amount of justice is being done. But in most cases, an injustice is done. And I don’t think that we can argue in favor of such official behavior just because in some cases it is laudatory. In the long run, cases like Hastert’s will be used as a justification for the continued use of such tactics.

There is a little delicious irony in Dennis Hastert getting caught in a web of his own creation. It seems to be something that conservatives are especially prone to. They love harsh and unjust laws for the “evildoers” — laws that can trap the conservatives themselves because their previous lack of imagination and empathy. But certainly the response to this is not, “I’m glad we had this unjust law so that we could bring down Dennis Hastert!” It should be that the law itself is bad and that it needs fixing. If it requires an injustice to Hastert for people like Bill Press to realize that, fine.

Sadly, that does not seem to be the takeaway for Press. It wouldn’t have taken much to change his article to call foul on what’s happening to Hastert in the context of a criminal justice system that is all about power and none about justice. We really do have a sick system. The best advice to politicians who misbehave is to simply come clean. If you have enough money, you can win almost any case in our courts. That’s the way the system is set up! It’s rare that anyone in Washington is convicted of a real crime. Instead, it is obstruction of justice and lying to authorities. The only reason our system works at all is because the vast majority of people do not have the money to fight — especially when you can’t get a jaywalking ticket without a dozen other “crimes” added on.

It’s sad that Bill Press doesn’t seem to understand this. In fact, he compared Hastert favorably to Wall Street executives. I wonder if Bill Press would make the same case for some junkie-dealer who gets a decade in prison — a common occurrence. But there is a real issue here that Martin Longman doesn’t engage with at all. I really don’t care about justice for Dennis Hastert. I care for the millions of others who get caught in our justice system who are abused with these kinds of laws.

Why Prisons Should Be Abolished

So You've Been Publicly ShamedTen minutes after introducing himself, [Clive Stafford Smith] was walking me through the corridors of Vanessa Branson’s labyrinthine palace telling me why prisons should be abolished.

“Let me ask you three questions,” he said. “And then you’ll see it my way. Question One: what’s the worst thing that you have ever done to someone? It’s okay. You don’t have to confess it out loud. Question Two: what’s the worst criminal act that has ever been committed against you? Question Three: which of the two was the most damaging for the victim?”

The worst criminal act that has ever been committed against me was burglary. How damaging was it? Hardly damaging at all. I felt theoretically violated at the idea of a stranger wandering through my house. But I got the insurance money. I was mugged one time. I was eighteen. The man who mugged me was an alcoholic. He saw me coming out of a supermarket. “Give me your alcohol,” he yelled. He punched me in the face, grabbed my groceries, and ran away. There wasn’t any alcohol in my bag. I was upset for a few weeks, but it passed.

And what was the worst thing I had ever done to someone? It was a terrible thing. It was devastating for them. It wasn’t against the law.

Clive’s point was that the criminal justice system is supposed to repair harm, but most prisoners — young, black — have been incarcerated for acts far less emotionally damaging than the injuries we noncriminals perpetrate upon one another all the time — bad husbands, bad wives, ruthless bosses, bullies, bankers.

—Jon Ronson
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

Louis CK and the Problem of Pedophilia

Louis CKIn the Saturday Night Live finale, Louis CK did an opening monologue that started a lot of tongues wagging. Of course, I didn’t see it at the time because, you know, it was on Saturday Night Live. So I watched it. The truly shocking thing about it is that the opening monologue is funny. Who thought such a thing even possible? Actual comedy on Saturday Night Live. I had seriously considered pitching a show to Animal Planet, “Finding Humor on SNL.” But there was a big problem with it: there is so much more evidence for Bigfoot than there is for comedy on the venerable late night show. It doubtless helps when they book an actual comedian. But people weren’t talking about that. They were talking about the pedophiles.

Louis CK’s monologue was actually entirely typical of his work. He started by talking about about his “mild racism.” And then he goes on to joke about the racist urges that exist in all of us. They bubble up into consciousness the same same way sexual urges do. And if you are like Louis CK, you recognize them for the irrational impulses that they are, and bat them away. It’s like a guy who sees a really pretty woman — he doesn’t start humping her leg. Well, most of the time he doesn’t. Louis CK didn’t talk about that directly; his routine was about unwanted thoughts, and that’s how he got to pedophiles.

There is something deeply disturbing about the bit he does on the town child molester. He presents it more or less the way we once did the town drunk. Also, I have a problem with the child molester he presents. For one thing, he’s kind of incompetent, thus indicating not really a threat. But most of all: it is man who is attracted teenage boys. Yes: that is wrong, but it is understandable in a society that fetishizes youth. Much harder to understand are those who are attacked to pre-pubescent children.

But the line where Louis CK got into trouble was something I quite agree with, although with caveats as I will explain in a moment. He said:

Child molesters are very tenacious people. They love molesting childs — it’s crazy! It’s like their favorite thing. I mean, it’s so crazy, because when you consider the risk in being a child molester — speaking not of the damage you’re doing — there’s no worse life available to a human than being a caught child molester. And yet they still do it! Which you can only really surmise that it must be really good.

I’ve discussed this issue before, Free Will. It really comes down to this: I’m not morally superior to a pedophile because I don’t rape children. I’m not attracted to children so it simply isn’t a problem I face. I suspect that there actually are a lot more pedophiles than we are aware of who are simply able to make the calculation that sex with a child is not worth the price — to themselves or the child. So what we are left with are people’s whose urges are so great that they cannot contain them. These are tragic figures.

About a year ago, I started thinking seriously about a question that probably doesn’t occur to many people, “Why do people have sex?” I’ve done an informal poll, and everyone seems to agree that in a pure orgasm sense, masturbation is better than sex because you are completely in charge. So other than all the kissing and hugging that is very important, why sex? It speaks very much of my own distorted vision of the world that it took me the whole year to figure out that people find having sex more erotic than masturbation.

It must be the same thing with pedophiles. It must be that these pedophiles are just out of control. The thought or the actuality of the act is just too much for them. And like Manson’s family, they doubtless work their way up to it. I had an experience when I was eight or nine. I was at The Emporium — a department store very much like Macy’s. In those days, they had little record stores in them and I was alone in one of them. This older man came up to me with a record album, saying, “Look at this, kid.” The album was pressed up against his pants and his not quite erect penis was propped up on it. On seeing this, I immediately turned and walked away, saying, “That’s gross, man.”

I don’t know if he was a pedophile or not. I certainly didn’t see it that way at the time. It seemed instead more like a prank to disgust me. But I’ve long thought that the incident was part of a progression. Whether this guy went on to rape children, expose himself on street corners, or head the Santa Rosa Police Department, I cannot say. But I can say that of all the notable problems in my life, I feel very lucky to have never felt compelled toward anything outside one sigma of the sexual behavior mean. (In English, that means: I’m incredibly boring in terms of sexual interests.)

It is really great that Louis CK is talking about this kind of stuff — even if he does misrepresent and minimize it. As a society, we could do more for pedophiles — And the society at large! — than wait until they start preying on children.

Good Government and the USA Freedom Act

Timothy B. LeeTimothy B Lee wrote a great reminder, Rand Paul Is Getting Way Too Much Credit for Killing 3 Patriot Act Powers. It’s great to see because I’ve always assumed that Lee was a little sweet on Paul. But he sees that what Rand Paul is doing is grandstanding. He’s making a lot of noise and making it all about him: Rand Paul Protector of Liberty. But ten hour filibusters are not about governing. As Lee noted, it was really successful at getting Paul a bunch of media attention, “But it ultimately had little effect on the outcome of the legislative fight.”

Mitch McConnell’s play was to get the House’s USA Freedom Act filibustered and then present the straight Patriot Act as the only alternative. The only problem was that 54 Senators — almost all of them in the Democratic caucus (44) — voted the Patriot Act down. Rand Paul was one of ten Republicans to help out in that cause. But clearly, this whole thing was something that the primarily the Democrats did. All that Paul did was showboat the issue and take credit for it. There are Republicans to be given credit, but they are mostly in the House of Representatives — they’re the ones who got the USA Freedom Act passed in the first place (although they couldn’t have done it without some support from the Democrats, and they got a lot).

But even after that vote, the coalition for the USA Freedom Act needed to hang together, which it did through the weekend. Eventually, Mitch McConnell gave up and allowed a cloture vote on the bill and it was passed 77-17. Of course, Rand Paul was one of the people who voted against the bill. He was joined by other loons like Tom Cotton and Joni Ernst. But I understand: the USA Freedom Act is hardly perfect. But it is a great improvement. The fact that Rand Paul voted against it says a lot about what kind of a non-leader he is. And also perhaps that he doesn’t really care about privacy issues except in so much as they can bring him attention.

Lee pointed out something that is really interesting here. In the first vote on the USA Freedom act — the one that failed — Rand Paul voted against cloture. This whole thing could have been over a lot sooner if Paul were inclined to be a statesman, “Paul’s decision to break with the overwhelming majority of pro-privacy senators and oppose the USA Freedom Act delayed the legislation’s passage and created a risk that McConnell would be able to stampede the Senate into renewing the Patriot Act.” That’s a bit chilling, and highlights Confucius’ aphorism, “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”

Rand Paul, of course, has gotten a lot of good press for all this. Lee countered this, “But a larger share of the credit should go to other senators… Ron Wyden (D-OR), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Mike Lee (R-UT)… three examples of senators who did the hard work of building a consensus for the USA Freedom Act in the Senate.” He also highlighted Representative James Sensenbrenner as the mastermind behind the original bill in the House. Without a clear alternative, Congress would have felt that it needed to pass something. So ultimately, this rare victory for privacy is due to the very existence of the USA Freedom Act. A lot of credit should go out to Congress for how it dealt with this issue.


In general, I don’t think that the professional centrists will be applauding too loudly over this one. When it comes to bipartisanship, they are mostly only interested in things that will hurt the poor like cuts to Social Security. In the two issues where there is a lot of bipartisanship — surveillance and prison reform — the professional centrists don’t much care.

Morning Music: The Blue Hearts

Linda Linda - The Blue HeartsThe Blue Hearts were a Japanese punk band in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They’ve been compared to a lot of other punk bands, but let’s clear: they were the Japanese Ramones. It’s just simple, unpretentious rock music. They are really great. You don’t have to understand Japanese — but if you do, they seem always to have very clear vocals.

Their best known song is “Linda Linda,” of their debut album, The Blue Hearts. I only know it from the film, Linda Linda Linda. It’s about four high school girls who form a band that does covers of The Blue Hearts songs. You can see them do “Linda Linda” on YouTube. It’s very good. But here are the real guys doing it.

I’m not sure about that translation in the video. I’m fond of, “Like a brown rat.” Google translate provides, “To plop mouse Matthew.” Apparently, what the singer is saying is that he may be ugly like a rat but that inside he is beautiful. Or maybe he is referring to Linda. Regardless, “Linda! Linda!”

Anniversary Post: Huế Chemical Attacks

Ngo Dinh DiemOn this day in 1963, troops from the South Vietnam army poured chemicals on the heads of peaceful Buddhist protesters in Huế. As a result of this, 67 of the protesters were hospitalized with “severe blistering of the skin and respiratory ailments.” This was part of the Buddhist crisis of 1963. At that time, Ngô Đình Diệm was president of South Vietnam. He was also a Roman Catholic and he discriminated against other religious faiths — most especially the Buddhists.

This was probably the first time the US government began to really question its support of Diệm. It shouldn’t have been. On 8 May 1963, the police and military shot guns and threw grenades into a group of Buddhist protesters. Nine of them were killed, and four others were severely injured. Diệm reacted by blaming the Viet Cong. I know of no reaction to this within the US government. I suspect it was like “plausible deniability”: Diệm had a plausible explanation. But the chemical attacks were another matter. And it was about to get much worse.

As a result of the push-back for the attacks on 3 June 1963, Diệm started negotiation with the Buddhists. This started but it was clearly not a serious effort. Regardless, even before the negotiations really got going, on 11 June 1963, Thích Quảng Đức self-immolated himself. Over the next five months, several other monks and nuns did the same thing — mostly with fire, but as I recall, at least one with a sword.

Thích Quảng Đức self-immolation

The crisis only abated when Ngô Đình Diệm was assassinated on 2 November 1963. I used to think it was crazy that he was the guy who the US decided was worth supporting. I know far too much now. He’s exactly the kind of repressive strongman that our government loves. And the truth is, any dream the US government had of hanging onto South Vietnam ended with his death. The country never again had a strong leader. But we would oversee the deaths of millions before we finally figured out that our fate had been sealed.

We mark this day 52 years ago as an important moment in the tragedy of Vietnam.