Outrageous Empathy

What now strikes me most about trigger warnings is how small a request they are, in proportion to the backlash they incite. What is it about about this entirely free gesture of empathy that makes people so outraged?

– Kat Stoeffel, “Why I Stopped Rolling My Eyes at Trigger Warnings

This week’s featured posts are “Academic Freedom and Institutional Power at My Old School” about the University of Chicago’s denunciation of trigger warnings and its affirmation of “controversial” speakers;  and “About the Foundation“, which makes the case that the “scandal” of the Clinton Foundation has a lot less substance than you might think.

This week everybody was talking about immigration

Donald Trump appears to have finally found ten seconds to think about his immigration proposals. Wow, deporting 11 million people would be tough to do, wouldn’t it? Who knew? (Well, just about everybody Trump debated in the primaries, to name a dozen or so.) Maybe he’s rethinking it. Or maybe not. Watch this space.

You know who should be paying attention to this? Not just the people who voted for Trump in a primary because they wanted 11 million brown people rounded up and tossed out on their ears, but also the mainstream Republicans who were placated when Trump said he would appoint Supreme Court justices from a list of judges with sound conservative credentials. When it gets to be decision time, that promise won’t mean anything either.


Slate‘s Jamelle Bouie makes an even stronger statement about Trump “outreach” to black voters than I did last week: It’s really a dog whistle to white supremacists.

and trigger warnings

The University of Chicago, where I did my graduate work in the late 70s and early 80s, made the news this week when the Dean of Students sent a somewhat adversarial welcome-letter to the incoming freshman class, warning them not to expect any safe spaces on campus.

This whole notion of academic freedom threatened by over-sensitive students, who want to be educated without ever being challenged, and of brave U of C administrators standing up to them, is bogus. I challenge the Dean’s underlying assumptions and relate some of my own experiences in “Academic Freedom and Institutional Power at My Old School“.

and the national anthem

49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick has kind of a complicated racial heritage: He’s a mixed race child (African/European) who was adopted and raised by white parents alongside their white children. In my judgment, he could pass for a white guy with a good tan.

Footballwise, he’s a huge talent whose career has been relatively disappointing so far, kind of like Robert Griffin III or Cam Newton until he broke out last year. Five years from now, he could be in the Super Bowl or he could be selling insurance somewhere.

But none of that is why he made headlines this week. Friday night, before a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, he refused to stand for the national anthem. Unlike Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, who raised a furor by failing to appear sufficiently focused and respectful while the anthem played during a medal-award ceremony, Kaepernick actually intended to protest, saying afterward:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.

This aroused a bunch of anger against him, like fans burning his jersey. It’s a fundamentally convoluted response: We hate this guy for speaking his mind because Freedom.

I doubt Kaepernick’s disapproval will induce America to change its ways with regard to race, but maybe it will start a much-needed discussion about “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the flag-worshipping rituals at sporting events.

To my mind, beginning a sporting contest with the anthem (or with two anthems if a U.S.-based team plays one from Toronto or Vancouver) is a strange practice we would never start today if it weren’t already traditional. We don’t begin movies or plays or concerts with the national anthem, so why sports? There’s nothing particularly patriotic about playing or watching sports. And if some terrorists or revolutionaries want to take time off from their plotting to root for the Cubs, I don’t see the harm.

Personally, I stand respectfully when the anthem is played before a Nashua Silver Knights baseball game, but I’m doing it to avoid calling attention to myself, and I resent being forced to make a political statement before I can watch the game.

The Kaepernick controversy has also sparked some discussion about the anthem itself, particularly these lines from its third verse

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave

which refer to the fact that the British encouraged American slaves to run away during the War of 1812, when the anthem was written. But Francis Scott Key is cheered by the fact that a lot of them died anyway. Go, USA!

Maybe we could just play ball, and skip all this nonsense.

and you might also be interested in

Incredibly, the WSJ could find no living member of any president’s Council of Economic Advisers who supports Trump.


Last week’s discussion of private prisons caused one of the commenters to point out an amazing article “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard“, which appeared a few months ago in Mother Jones. It’s long and horrifying, but well worth the time and discomfort.

The article is a combination of an expose with a personalized Stanford prison experiment. Being a guard really does start to change the writer.

The other thing that comes through is the complete absence of any notion of rehabilitation. Literally no one in the story cares about the prisoners as people, or about returning them to society.


In Newsweek Kurt Eichenwald explores “Donald Trump’s God Problem“. Though more accurately, the problem doesn’t belong to Trump, it belongs to the evangelical leaders — like James Dobson   — who not only support Trump, but who claim that their support is based on their Christianity.

The primary issue here is the credibility of evangelicalism, particularly as it relates to politics. For years, there has been a logic to the evangelists’ support of the Republican Party: Both held similar views on most social issues, and there was more public discussion by conservative candidates about how faith informed their policies. This year, that is not true. Instead, you have a man whose positions on important social issues have changed, whose faith is obviously shallow and who seems to know nothing about even the basics of evangelicalism, Christianity or the Bible. Mr. Dobson, if Donald Trump represents Christian values, those values mean nothing. By endorsing him, evangelists are creating the image that what matters to them is political influence, not the word of God.

Eichenwald could just as validly be addressing Jerry Falwell Jr., who called Trump “God’s man to lead our great nation at this crucial crossroads in our history” and hallucinated “I’ve seen a man who honors his fiduciary responsibilities through his corporations.” Or the lesser known but still influential theologian Wayne Grudem, who promotes Trump not as the lesser of evils, but as “a morally good choice” (setting off Amy Gannett, who I linked to two weeks ago).

I would argue that these power-corrupted leaders are not just “creating the image” that politics drives them, they are exposing the truth about themselves: Conservative politics is now a demonic spirit that possesses the body of evangelical Christianity. It needs to be cast out.


Van Jones explains the incarceration problem very simply and directly:

A lot of times people say, “If you don’t want to do the time, don’t do the crime.” Really? Have you ever committed a crime? You’ve got more people who are doing drugs on college campuses, in yacht clubs, country clubs — we all know that’s going on. But the SWAT team never shows up there. The SWAT team shows up in the housing projects, where you’ve got poorer people doing fewer drugs, and those people go to prison.

But think about it: What if one of the times when you were breaking the law, when you had something illegal in your pocket, in your car, at your party, the police had kicked in those doors. Would you want to be known for the rest of your life based on what happened that night? That is what is happening to millions of people.

If rich folks kids get in trouble, they go to rehab. Poor folks kids get in trouble, they go to prison.

and let’s close with a time trip

Take a flight over Rome during the reign of Constantine.

About the Foundation

Somehow, we have a pay-for-play scandal without either pay or play.


[You can think of this article as a sequel to “About Those Emails“.]

Most of the articles about the possible conflicts-of-interest involving Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation dive right in to some set of details: Somebody wrote an email to somebody else, and then something did (or did not) happen, maybe (or maybe not) because of some other consideration.

But before we go there, it’s worthwhile to take a step back and observe how bizarre this whole controversy is: It’s being billed as a pay-for-play scandal, but two essential items are missing:

  • pay: No one has yet postulated any credible mechanism by which money from the Clinton Foundation gets back to the Clintons. A considerable sum ($4.3 million, according to The Washington Post) has flowed from the Clintons to the Foundation, but nothing in the other direction.
  • play: There are no specific examples of a Foundation donor receiving some inappropriate government concession [1], and no examples of someone who was denied something, then contributed to the Foundation and got it.

None of the Clintons — not even Chelsea — draws a salary from the Foundation or gets reimbursed for expenses. The Foundation doesn’t own mansions the Clintons live in or fleets of cars or planes to take them places. It doesn’t fund their political campaigns or buy their books or pay them speaking fees. It just does charitable work, spending a remarkable 88% of its money on programs and only 12% on overhead.

So trying to bribe Hillary Clinton by giving money to the Clinton Foundation is a lot like trying to bribe the mayor of your town by giving money to the local United Way drive, or to the hospital that has a wing named for his family. You can hope that the mayor hears about your donation and thinks good thoughts about you, but you’re not paying him off in any meaningful sense.

On the “play” side of the so-called scandal, two recent developments have been presented by the media as raising suspicions, when it’s not clear why they should: State Department emails released by a conservative organization, and an analysis of Hillary Clinton’s schedule as Secretary of State by the Associated Press.

Paul Waldman of the WaPo’s Plum Line blog summarizes what we learned from the emails:

Judicial Watch, an organization that has been pursuing Clinton for many years, has released a trove of emails it obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, emails that supposedly show how donors to the Clinton Foundation got special access, and presumably special favors, from Clinton while she was at State.

The only problem is that the emails in question reveal nothing of the sort. What they actually reveal is that a few foundation donors wanted access, but didn’t actually get it.

Judicial Watch presumably highlighted the worst examples it could find, and came up with these (summarized  by Waldman):

  • A sports executive who had donated to the foundation wanted to arrange for a visa for a British soccer player to visit the United States; he was having trouble getting one because of a criminal conviction. [Top Clinton assistant Huma] Abedin said she’d look into it, but there’s no evidence she did anything and the player didn’t get his visa.
  • Bono, who had donated to the foundation, wanted to have some kind of arrangement whereby upcoming U2 concerts would be broadcast to the International Space Station. Abedin was puzzled by this request, and nothing was ever done about it.
  • The Crown Prince of Bahrain, whose country had donated to the foundation, wanted to meet with Clinton on a visit to Washington. Abedin responded to Band that the Bahrainis had already made that request through normal diplomatic channels. The two did end up meeting.

Unless you find it unusual or inappropriate for a Secretary of State to meet with the crown prince of an important ally in the Middle East, there’s literally nothing to see here.

Then we get to the AP article.

At least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to The Associated Press.

That sounds really damning. I mean, 85 out of 154 is more than half. But there’s a problem with AP’s whole project. By limiting themselves to counting “people from private interests”, AP right at the start eliminates the vast majority of Clinton’s meetings, which are necessarily with people in the U.S. government or foreign governments. If you look at her whole schedule, those 85 donors are not 85 out of 154, they’re 85 out of well over a thousand.

And who are they? As Matt Yglesias points out, all the specific examples AP comes up with seem to be people the Secretary of State ought to be meeting with: Nobel Prize winners, people running charitable operations in foreign countries, and so on. Yglesias acknowledges the potential for sinister conflicts of interest when the State Department dealt with Clinton Foundation donors, but says the real story is that a major news organization invested a lot of time in this story and didn’t find anything.

Conceivably, there still might be a scandal here, among the people Clinton didn’t meet with: You could imagine equally deserving people who didn’t get through the door because they weren’t Foundation donors. But again, AP does not produce examples. If they looked for such people, they appear not to have found any.

There’s just nothing here. That’s the story. [AP reporters] Braun and Sullivan looked into it, and as best they can tell, she’s clean.

… The real news here ought to be just the opposite [of a scandal]: Donors to the Clinton Foundation may believe they are buying Hillary Clinton’s political allegiance, but the reality is that they are not. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is someone, somewhere whom Clinton met with whom she wouldn’t have met with had that person not been a Clinton donor of some kind. But what we know is that despite very intensive media scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation, we don’t have hard evidence of any kind of corrupt activity. That’s the story.

So let’s summarize: While Hillary was Secretary of State, rich and influential people gave money to the Clinton Foundation. That money went off to plant trees in Malawi or install solar panels in Haiti or construct playgrounds in Los Angeles, and in no way made it back to Bill, Hillary, or Chelsea Clinton. In exchange for your contribution, you could call up Huma Abedin and ask for the State Department to do you a favor, but as best anybody can tell, unless you had that service coming anyway you wouldn’t get it. Or you could ask to meet with Secretary Clinton, but unless you had legitimate State Department business to discuss with her, you wouldn’t get in.

That’s the pay-for-play scandal.


[1] The example that sticks in everybody’s mind is the one involving Russian interests buying Canadian uranium mines. For complicated reasons, the U.S. State Department had to sign off on that deal, along with nine other government agencies that weren’t under Clinton’s control. People interested in the sale donated large sums to the Clinton Foundation — mostly well before the sale was negotiated — and the sale went through.

That sequence of events sounded suspicious when Peter Schweizer called attention to it in his book Clinton Cash,  and over the last year and a half a lot of effort has gone into trying to make something out of it. But no one has been able to add anything substantive to the story; the juiciest details in the book turned out not to be true, and the author eventually admitted that he had no direct evidence of wrongdoing. Paul Waldman summarizes everything that was known about this as of April, 2015, and PolitiFact discussed it this June. I don’t know of any developments since.

Academic Freedom and Institutional Power at My Old School

The University of Chicago, where I did my graduate work in the late 1970s and early 80s, doesn’t make headlines all that often. It’s been a top academic institution for more than a century, but hasn’t had a great sports team since Coach Amos Alonzo Stagg was pushed out the door in 1932. The most famous thing that ever happened there — Enrico Fermi’s self-sustaining nuclear fission reaction in December, 1942 — was secret at the time. [1] And despite the occasional law lecturer like Barack Obama or econ professor like Milton Friedman who wanders into the public eye, the bulk of Chicago’s faculty does research far too esoteric to draw any reaction from the mass culture.

But like a disguised celebrity who succeeds in attending a public event without being recognized, the U of C community takes a perverse sort of pride in its relative obscurity: History will notice us, so CNN doesn’t have to.

Nonetheless, the University caused a buzz this week because of an unusual welcome letter the Dean of Students sent to the incoming freshman class. The letter made the Chicago experience sound more like boot camp than a nurturing environment where young people can find themselves and achieve intellectual maturity. The Dean warned his new flock that the rigorous academic debate they will hear “may challenge you and even cause discomfort”, and that the U of C

does not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not approve the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

The letter received a wave of acclaim from the sorts of elders who think the younger generation has gone soft, [2] or who wring their hands and clutch their pearls about “political correctness”. Like much of the discussion of political correctness, the Dean’s letter struck me as disingenuous. Academic freedom is not the simple issue Dean Ellison is making it out to be, and he is not necessarily on the side of the angels.

To begin with, he pulls together two issues — trigger warnings and controversies over invited speakers — that are related only through the false frame he has constructed for them. In neither case is the alleged over-sensitivity of today’s students the real issue. Most of the commentary on this has focused on trigger warnings (and I’ll get to that), but I think I’ll start with controversial speakers, because I have some history there.

Controversial speakers. The Dean’s statement that “we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial” took me back to the only protest I participated in during my years at Chicago: In 1979 a substantial segment of the student body was outraged when the University decided to give a prestigious award (for “outstanding contributions to international understanding”) to Robert McNamara, one of the con-men who had sold the American public the idea that we were winning the Vietnam War. The anti-McNamara demonstration was a true 60s flashback; Chicago cops dragged people away by their throats and everything. (I was on the sidelines and escaped unharmed.)

Nearly four decades later, I remain convinced that we were right and the University was wrong. By mingling Chicago’s prestige with McNamara’s toxic legacy, the administration was failing in its duty to protect the University’s reputation. And this absolutely was the student’s business, since we were working and paying to attach that reputation to our names.

That’s typical of the “controversial speaker” flaps that are still happening today. They’re not about limiting free speech or protecting over-sensitive students from upsetting ideas. They’re about administrators misusing (and hence endangering) their universities’ prestige.

So, for example, when faculty and student protests got former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to back out of speaking at the 2014 Rutgers commencement, the issue wasn’t that a conservative speaker might say something liberal students would find upsetting. The issue was that “commencement speaker” is a position of honor; a university implicitly presents the speaker as a role model for its graduates. Many in the Rutgers community found it inappropriate to honor someone who promoted the deceptions that started the disastrous Iraq War and collaborated in the Bush administration’s torture regime. Rather than expecting honors from universities like Rutgers, Secretary Rice should be happy that she’s not on trial at The Hague.

Appropriate gatekeeping. A university is not and should not be a podium from which all ideas are proclaimed equally. When a university presents speakers in some official context — at commencement, in named lectures, as course presenters, and elsewhere — it legitimizes their message. The university doesn’t necessarily endorse that message as truth, but it does say that the speaker deserves attention and presents a point of view that an educated person should be familiar with.

So while, for example, it could be entirely appropriate for a political science department to host Ben Carson so that he could discuss his experiences running for office, it would be malpractice for a history department to invite him to present his belief that the Biblical Joseph built Egypt’s pyramids to store grain. There are many academically legitimate theories about the pyramids, but that is not one of them.

The Tattooed Professor offers an edgier example:

To move from the hypothetical to the real, the Virginia Tech students who protested their university’s invitation to Charles Murray to deliver a lecture weren’t some sort of intellectual gestapo, they were members of a community calling out other members’ violation of the community’s ethos. Murray is a racist charlatan who’s made a career out of pseudoscientific social darwinist assertions that certain “races” are inherently inferior to others. To bring him to campus is to tell segments of your student community that, according to the ideas the university is endorsing by inviting Murray, they don’t belong there. This isn’t a violation of academic freedom. It’s an upholding of scientific standards and the norms of educated discourse — you know, the type of stuff that colleges and universities are supposed to stand for, right?

Especially in the internet era, when any kind of wild notion can gain a wide audience and corporate money can create an imposing facade of intellectual authority, this gatekeeping role is an important part of a university’s mission. For example, universities should promote a well-informed and wide-ranging debate about President Obama’s anti-terrorism policies, but not about whether he is secretly a Muslim in league with our enemies. A university that legitimizes baseless conspiracy theories diverts attention from topics that need and deserve it.

The major threat to universities’ ability to perform this function honestly comes not from students below, but from administrators above. Like political candidates, universities face a constant temptation to bend to the will of their funders, and the Koch Brothers and other billionaires are working hard to buy academic legitimacy for ideas that could not compete on their intellectual merit. Like big-name journalists, university presidents can also be corrupted by their exposure to power; once you get accepted into the social world of cabinet secretaries and corporate CEOs, their point of view takes on an authority it does not deserve.

Student protest is a counterweight to this executive corruption, and students should be commended, not condemned, for keeping watch on who their universities honor and which ideas they legitimize. To the extent that Dean Ellison’s letter intimidates students into shutting up, or emboldens other administrators to ignore students’ views, it undermines the mission of a true university.

Trigger warnings. This is not a new controversy, and a very good defense of trigger warnings appeared in New York Magazine in 2014. First, Kat Stoeffel explains the history:

They were popularized in the feminist blogosphere, to warn participants of the self-designated safe spaces about stories involving rape, abuse, or self-harm that might induce flashbacks to their own past traumas

From there the concept expanded to blog posts about racism and various other isms, until eventually they started showing up in university course descriptions. Stoeffel describes how she initially rolled her eyes at the whole idea, but has since changed her mind.

Why should trigger warnings bother me? Like many of trigger warnings’ loudest opponents, I have noticed, I have no firsthand experience with rape or racial discrimination or cissexism. And a few words at the beginning of an article (or on a seminar syllabus) are no skin off my un-traumatized nose.

In fact, what now strikes me most about trigger warnings is how small a request they are, in proportion to the backlash they incite. What is it about about this entirely free gesture of empathy that makes people so outraged? In their distress, critics have entirely overlooked an important distinction: Oberlin students aren’t trying to get out of reading Mrs. Dalloway because they’re special, sensitive snowflakes, or even get it removed from syllabi. They just want a three-word note on the syllabus giving them a heads-up that it addresses suicide. If that’s all it takes for instructors to prevent the shock it could cause a student who has been suicidal, it is, to me, a no-brainer.

Erika Price describes how this works from both an instructor’s and a reader’s point of view.

It is impossible for a professor or teacher to anticipate every student’s triggers, and frankly, I’ve never met a student who was demanding or entitled about having their specific triggers tagged in advance. What I have encountered, numerous times, are students who have a trauma history or a mental illness that involves triggers, who are only willing to gently and quietly request trigger warnings after I have made my pro-TW stance abundantly clear. These requests have always been polite and reasonable, and have never involved scrubbing my syllabus clean of challenging material.

… Because I am a rape survivor with trauma triggers, I know firsthand that the experience of using trigger warnings completely contradicts the anti-TW stereotype. I am not a soft-willed, petulant baby. I am a battle-tested, iron-willed survivor who has faced far more personal horror than any anti-TW demagogue could. I do not use TW’s to “protect myself” from writing that challenges me intellectually. I read writing by people I disagree with on a daily basis, for both academic and personal enrichment; my use of trigger warnings to sometimes avoid rape- and stalking-related content is utterly irrelevant to that. And the use of trigger warnings does not make me weak. Trigger warnings empower me by allowing me to customize my reading-about-rape experience. I get to choose when and how I present myself with upsetting or triggering content. This makes it easier for me to do so regularly. [3] And for the record, when I am faced with triggering material, I am not a trembling, weeping wreck, fuck you very much.

Like anything else, the idea can be misapplied. [4] But we don’t abandon the whole notion of product-safety liability just because people sometimes sue for trivial reasons. By rejecting the trigger-warning notion wholesale, Dean Ellison is short-circuiting a potentially fruitful academic discussion: What kind of consideration do individual students have a right to expect, and when are they imposing too much on the group? By declaring this whole debate illegitimate literally from Day One, it is Dean Ellison who is retreating from ideas and perspectives at odds with his own. He “wins” not by marshaling a better argument, but by invoking his institutional power: ME DEAN. YOU STUDENT.

Safe spaces. I think this part of the discussion borders on the ridiculous. Nobody lives 24/7 in an environment of unfettered academic critique. Nor is that a goal anyone should aspire to.

I hope every student finds a safe space somewhere and retreats to it when under stress. Even if it’s just a friend’s dorm room or some remote corner of the library stacks that no one else seems to know about, everybody should have one. And if students collectively decide to create a limited space where, say, no one is going to tell you that rape victims had it coming, I don’t see the harm.

Ali Barthwell nailed it:

Imagine you’re inviting a friend over to your house and before they say yes, you go “Oh, by the way, I have a dog in case you’re allergic.” THAT’S a trigger warning.

Imagine your friend says they do have a dog allergy so you agree to keep your dog out of your living room and vacuum everything so there’s no dander. THAT’s a safe space.

That’s what you assholes are against.

Trauma and empathy. Every life contains some amount of trauma, which really ought to give us all empathy for people who have been through worse.

Twenty years ago, I accompanied my wife to a doctor’s appointment, where we heard an unexpectedly bad diagnosis. For a time, I was convinced that I would spend the next two years or so watching her slide into a painful death. (That didn’t happen; she’s fine.) Afterwards it was lunchtime, so we stopped at a Mexican restaurant we used to go to occasionally. It was the only time since childhood when I literally could not stop crying.

I’ve never been back to that restaurant. It’s not their fault, and I imagine their food is still good. But there are other Mexican restaurants where I don’t have to remember crying my eyes out in public, so I go to them instead. If you’re ever going out to lunch with me and innocently suggest that restaurant, I’ll politely nudge you somewhere else. Indulge me; it’s not that big an ask.

Most of us — even if we were never raped or held hostage by terrorists or forced to watch our parents’ murder — can recall some lesser trauma. And I suspect a lot of us have some place we don’t go or thing we don’t do or product we stay away from. Maybe we could all pluck up our courage and confront those limitations, but most of us don’t. Life is too short and courage too limited to spend it so freely.

Whatever traumatic moment you can remember, imagine somebody who went through something ten times worse. If they’re not asking you for much, maybe you could indulge them. That’s all this controversy is about.


[1] Funny story related to that: Decades before I came to Chicago, Eckhart Hall, which houses the Mathematics Department, was a Manhattan Project building. As a math teaching assistant I had an office in the basement, and for several years I spent about as much time down there as a troll spends in his cave. After I got my degree, I was packing up my books when workmen came in to grind off and repatch hotspots in the floor and walls, because the government had just tightened the standards for allowable background radiation. “Now you tell me,” I said.

[2] By any objective standard (other than maybe background radiation) the current generation of students has it much harder than mine did. Most of them will leave school with a vast amount of debt, and will enter a far more uncertain job market. Older folks should be looking for ways to make their lives easier, not harder.

[3] There’s an analogy here from the history of commerce: The insurance industry did not grow because ship captains became more fearful. Quite the opposite, the protection provided by insurance allowed captains to become more adventurous.

[4] Another resemblance to the political correctness debate is the high urban-legend factor. Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who read about a really outrageous example of a demand for a trigger warning (that for some reason could not be answered by a simple “no”). But when you go looking for verifiable examples of real damage to academic freedom, the pickings are pretty slim.

The one example that keeps showing up, Jeannie Suk Gerson’s discussion of teaching rape law at Harvard, seems to me to be as much about faculty laziness as student sensitivity. Gerson concludes:

If the topic of sexual assault were to leave the law-school classroom, it would be a tremendous loss — above all to victims of sexual assault.

Yes it would. But are “cover the topic insensitively” and “drop it” really the only options? I discussed a similar excluded-middle thought pattern with regard to policing in “Rich Lowry’s False Choice“.

The Monday Morning Teaser

It’s a rare week when my memories of the University of Chicago have anything to do with the news. In a perverse way, U of C revels in its obscurity, like the cool bar that the posers haven’t found yet. Whenever somebody confuses it with the University of Illinois or places it up the lakefront near Northwestern, a real Chicago grad smiles; we know the inside joke and they don’t.

So it was disconcerting to find Chicago at the center of this week’s big culture-war argument: The Dean of Students sent out a letter to “welcome” the new freshmen by telling them the University wasn’t going to coddle them with trigger warnings and safe spaces and canceling “controversial” speakers. The whole campus is an intellectually unsafe space, so you’d better buck up and get used to it, Bubbles.

Basically, this is the Dean posturing for conservative alumni in hopes of getting more money out of them, and (to use the high academic vocabulary I picked up at Chicago), it’s a load of crap. I’ll explain in this week’s first featured post “Academic Freedom and Institutional Power at My Old School”. Along the way, I’ll reminisce about the only demonstration I participated in at Chicago, when we protested against the University giving a “humanitarian” award to Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara. We protesting students were right, the administration was wrong, and that’s usually how these things go. The biggest corrupting force in a great university is the administration’s lust for contributions and its temptation to cozy up to the powerful, not the over-sensitivity of the student body.

That post just needs some editing and should be out before 9 EDT.

The second featured post is a debunking of the “pay-for-play scandal” at the Clinton Foundation. (Except for the complete absence of either pay or play, the story totally works.) That will be “About the Foundation”, which I think of as a sequel to “About Those Emails“, which I wrote in June. Expect it around 10.

The weekly summary will try (and fail) to make sense of Trump’s new stance on immigration. I’ll be keeping it short because of the length of the featured posts, but I’ll also get around to the 49ers quarterback’s protest, and a few other things. I’ll predict that for noon.

Unexplored Terrain

The current presidential race, however, is something special. It takes antiscience to previously unexplored terrain.

Scientific American Donald Trump’s Lack of Respect for Science Is Alarming

This week’s featured post is “What’s a 21st-Century Equivalent of the Homestead Act?” It’s an essay question. I don’t have an answer, but I’m hoping you do.

This week everybody was talking about the Olympics

But I don’t think you need me to tell you more about Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt.

Personally, I got frustrated watching NBC’s Olympic coverage, because they always seemed to have something better to do than show us athletic competition.

The women’s 5000 meter finals Friday night summed up my experience: Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana had already won the 10,000 meters in record time, and she moved out to a seemingly insurmountable lead in the 5000. So the announcers got bored and cut away to show us clips from the heartwarming story that happened in one of the qualifying heats, when New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin and America’s Abbey D’Agostino, helped and encouraged each other to finish after a collision. Then they showed us close-ups of Hamblin running in the finals (she finished 17th and was never near the front of the pack) and D’Agostino watching from the stands with a torn ACL.

By the time the announcers found their way out of the time passages and back to the race they were supposedly covering, Kenya’s Vivian Cheruiyot had erased Ayana’s lead and was whizzing past her. We did get to see the finish, with Cheruiyot far ahead on her way to an Olympic record. But imagine how exciting it must have been, when Cheruiyot began to make her move and everyone suddenly realized this race wasn’t over yet. I had to imagine it, though, because I didn’t see it. Thanks, NBC.


ThinkProgress‘s Lindsey Gibbs tells the fascinating story of South African runner Caster Semenya, whose right to compete as a woman has been challenged because she has unusually high testosterone levels. This isn’t about doping or sex-change surgery or some other artificial method for acquiring an advantage; she was just born that way.

Unlike drug tests, gender tests (or testosterone tests, if you will) are not carried out at random. And Semenya happens to be tall, muscular, flat-chested, and black. This is not a coincidence. According to Katrina Karkazis, a senior research scholar at the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, in the past, IAAF specifically singled out female athletes who “display masculine traits” for testosterone tests, while the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has encouraged its national charters to “actively investigate” any “perceived deviation” in gender.

In practice, gender testing is far more about policing women’s bodies than protecting women’s sports. Testosterone tests tend to target women who don’t fit into the ideal Western standards of what a woman should look like — delicate and overtly feminine, white and lithe.

ESPN’s Kate Fagen agrees with a tweet she saw:

I know Semenya is a woman because people are trying to control her body.

Semenya is allowed to compete because of a precedent-setting challenge by Indian sprinter Duttee Chand, who said:

I was born a woman, reared up as a woman, I identify as a woman and I believe I should be allowed to compete with other women, many of whom are either taller than me or come from more privileged backgrounds, things that most certainly give them an edge over me.

The idea that sport had a level playing field before women like Chand and Semenya arrived is a myth worth challenging. Gibbs concludes that naturally high testosterone is like a lot of other genetic differences that don’t bother us:

Sports are supposed to reward freak-of-nature athletes. … Every elite athlete has some sort of physical advantage they were born with.

538‘s Christie Aschwanden writes a more intellectually challenging account of the nebulous relationship between sex and gender, but comes to the same conclusion:

In the end, the real question to ask is: What is the purpose of sport? Is it more important to provide uncomplicated stories that make us feel uplifted, or to celebrate extraordinary human effort and performance? My vote goes to the latter. Participating in sports taught me to feel powerful in my body, and I’m glad that no one put limits on how strong I could be. When Semenya takes to the line on Saturday, I’ll be cheering for her every step of the way.

For me, this comes back to a point I made when the Caitlyn Jenner controversy was at its peak: Everything you thought was a category is actually a continuum. It’s simple and in some ways comforting to think in binary terms like male/female, black/white, gay/straight, citizen/foreigner, and so on. But those clean categories are always something we impose on the world, not the way the world is.

Semenya won the gold medal in the 800 meters Saturday night.


As usually happens, women Olympians have had a harder time getting respect from the media than men. Liz Plank compiles the incidents in “The Wide World of Sexism“.

and Trump’s policy speeches

Hillary Clinton has had a full spectrum of policy proposals since early in the campaign, but it’s often been hard to get anything more specific out of Donald Trump than “I’m going to build a wall.” Having criticized him for this, I have a responsibility to pay attention when he does give some specifics.

Law and order. Tuesday, Trump went to West Bend, Wisconsin, a 95% white suburb 40 miles from Milwaukee, which has been torn by riots after yet another police killing of an unarmed black man. [I got the unarmed part wrong, apparently. See the comments.] He gave a law-and-order speech “about how to make our communities safe again from crime and lawlessness.”

Trump’s answer: Stop criticizing police.

The problem in our poorest communities is not that there are too many police, the problem is that there are not enough police. … Those peddling the narrative of cops as a racist force in our society – a narrative supported with a nod by my opponent – share directly in the responsibility for the unrest in Milwaukee, and many other places within our country.

They have fostered the dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America.

Every time we rush to judgment with false facts and narratives – whether in Ferguson or in Baltimore – and foment further unrest, we do a direct disservice to poor African-American residents who are hurt by the high crime in their communities.

In other words, he’s repeating the mistake I described two years ago in “What Your Fox-Watching Uncle Doesn’t Get About Ferguson“: He has removed all the context of a community that was already feeling oppressed by the police, all the day-in day-out experience of ordinary citizens being degraded and disrespected. Instead he’s talking about the Milwaukee riot as a one-off event in which unscrupulous liberal politicians sold “false facts and narratives” to gullible black people, who had been perfectly content until somebody told them Sylville Smith was dead.

But riots don’t come out of nowhere, and urban blacks aren’t violent savages looking for an excuse to go on a rampage. The Baltimore riots didn’t happen just because of Freddie Gray, and the Ferguson riots weren’t just about Michael Brown. To describe them that way is like blaming the California wildfires on whichever particular spark happened to set them off, while ignoring the underlying roles of drought and climate change.

In general, I am skeptical of Trump’s expressed concern for African-Americans (where he’s currently polling at 2%). If you want to reach out to a community, you go there. You don’t talk about that community in front of other people. As I see it, the point of Trump’s concern is to reassure the white people of West Bend that he (and by implication, they) are not really racists. He’s selling the idea that he wants more and harsher policing in Milwaukee out of compassion, not out of fear and racial stereotyping.

In front of another nearly all white crowd in Michigan, he again talked “to” blacks.

What do you have to lose? You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?

You mean, other than voting rights and health insurance? Again, this is a white stereotype of black experience. You have to wonder how it sounds to a middle-class black couple who may be struggling to make ends meet, but have jobs, hope for their kids’ education, and a home in a neighborhood they don’t consider a slum.

Terrorism. Last Monday, Trump talked about his approach to terrorism. His speech was a combination of

  • fantasizing about the past. In particular, he continued to lie about opposing the Iraq invasion when in reality he expressed support for it until after it started becoming unpopular. He quotes from an Esquire interview he gave late in 2004, where he sounds critical of the war. But even then, he just said he would have invaded Iraq better than Bush did, not that he wouldn’t have done it. Trump has been a weather vane on this issue; whichever opinion was popular at the time was the one he had supported all along.
  • proposing to do stuff the Obama administration is already doing. President Trump will work together with our allies in the region and with NATO to get rid of ISIS. Why didn’t anyone ever think of that before?
  • proposing to do impossible stuff. “We cannot allow the internet to be used as a recruiting tool, and for other purposes, by our enemy – we must shut down their access to this form of communication, and we must do so immediately.” But why stop there? While we’re holding that magic wand, let’s cut off their access to the English language, so they can only recruit Americans in Arabic.
  • proposing to do stuff that is against the American values we’re supposed to be defending. Rather than pull out of Iraq, “we should have kept the oil.” So we would have kept soldiers in Iraq “to guard our assets. In the old days, when we won a war, to the victor belonged the spoils.” Clearly his notion of “the old days” doesn’t include the post-World-War-II period, when we didn’t sack Germany for everything we could carry off; we funded the Marshall Plan to rebuild it. He also wants to keep Guantanamo open and send more people there, trying them in military tribunals and torturing them if necessary.

His “extreme vetting” of people who want to come to America is still vague enough that it’s hard to tell whether it falls under stuff we’re already doing or stuff that’s against American values. Probably it’s a mixture. Vox explains.


The Trump campaign had a shake-up, with Paul Manafort out and Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon in. It’s not clear whether Manafort is out because the campaign has been a disaster, or because of what’s come out about him: He funneled pro-Russian Ukrainian money to Washington lobbyists, without registering as a foreign agent. On the surface that looks illegal; it at least deserves an investigation. If anybody connected to Clinton did something similar, I’m sure Congress would be all over it.

Bloomberg‘s Eli Lake now looks like a prophet. When Manafort joined the campaign in April, Lake wrote: “Trump Just Hired His Next Scandal“.


Meanwhile naked Donald Trump statues began appearing in cities around the country. New York City defended its decision to remove theirs:

NYC Parks stands firmly against any unpermitted erection in city parks, no matter how small.

I’m of two minds about this, and I’m glad to hear that the sculptor is a Gary Johnson supporter, so Democrats have nothing to answer for. Slate‘s Christina Cauterucci sums up the anti-statue position:

Encouraging people to laugh at the statue of Trump because it’s fat, wrinkly, and small-dicked doesn’t tell them Trump is a bad person. It tells them that fat, wrinkly, and small-dicked (or transgender, or intersex) people are funny to look at and should be embarrassed of their naked bodies.

Like many of Trump’s own insults, the statues are “demeaning, gratuitous, and don’t say anything worth saying.”

I’m not sure I agree with that assessment, though, because there’s an ongoing debate among anti-Trump people about whether to respond to him with fear, anger, or laughter. The statue clearly comes out on the side of laughter; which is a point worth making. (Though I agree with Cauterucci about the collateral damage to people who share the statue’s supposedly risible features.)

As for the offense to Trump himself, what standards of decency are he and his supporters playing by? If I could identify any, I’d happily grant him the protection of those standards. But it gets tiresome to follow rules and uphold standards when your opponents don’t.


Back in February, a young woman artist painted a nude Trump with a small penis, an image which briefly became a viral sensation. According to Salon, she literally got a black eye for her efforts.


And finally, Chelsea Handler explains sarcasm to Trump. My inner pedant can’t resist pointing out that he should have claimed his “Obama founded ISIS” line was hyperbole, an “obvious and intentional exaggeration”, though Handler’s framing of it as lying also has merit. And she throws in yet another small-penis joke: “Poor Melania. The only way she’ll ever have an orgasm is if she plagiarizes one from Michelle Obama.”

and conspiracy theories

Wouldn’t it be great if our political campaigns revolved around issues that were real? Sadly, this is not the case.

“ransom.” Republicans have been charging that the Obama administration paid a $400 million “ransom” to Iran to get back three Americans. This is another version of the argument I discussed in “If This Is Munich, We Must Be Germany” after the Iran nuclear deal was signed. Like the money we supposedly “gave” Iran in that deal, it was really their money all along. By withholding it, we got concessions from them in exchange for nothing of ours.

Vox has the long complicated explanation. The short version is that the Shah’s government ordered weapons from us just before it fell, and we neither delivered them nor returned the money to the revolutionary government, which we didn’t recognize. The agreement that President Reagan made in 1981 to resolve the Iran hostage crisis included the establishment of the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal to adjudicate a bunch of the remaining issues, including the Shah’s $400 million.

This churned out over decades, until the Obama administration eventually decided it was going to lose the case and settled out of court. There was interest involved, so the $400 million was just a first payment on what we owed. Simultaneously, a prisoner-exchange deal was being negotiated, in which we swapped our prisoners for their prisoners. Suspicious of the Iranians, the administration withheld its cash payment until it was sure Iran was keeping the terms of the prisoner deal. That resulted in the sequence of events that can be made to look like ransom: money goes in one direction at about the same time that people go in other.

Vox says this flap exemplifies everything that’s wrong with our national discussion of Iran. As time goes on, it becomes more and more clear that the Obama’s critics were wrong about the Iran deal: The Iranians are sticking to it, which (at a minimum) should greatly delay the day when they get nuclear weapons.

This creates a major problem for team anti-deal. They need evidence that the deal isn’t working and should be undone, but the facts about the deal’s core provisions don’t support that. The result is an endless deluge of spin. Every new piece of information on Iran or the nuclear deal becomes evidence that Iran is evil or cannot be trusted.

The “ransom” story is another in a list of spun-out-of-nothing stories designed to the Obama administration look hapless in its dealings with Iran, when in fact it has been doing quite well.

Clinton’s “health problem”. The latest Clinton pseudo-scandal is that there’s something seriously wrong with her, which the campaign is covering up. She has seizures or brain damage or something. The “evidence” for this consists of fake documents circulating on the internet, video clips from odd angles replayed endlessly, photos of Clinton being helped up icy steps last winter, and Sean Hannity’s interviews with doctors who have never examined Clinton. New York magazine reviews and debunks.

The problem with this theory is that all those physical and mental disabilities supposedly go back to before she proved herself to be sharp and focused during 11 hours of hostile questioning by the Benghazi Committee.

So this seems like a short-sighted plan of attack for Trump. Next month, a feeble, brain-damaged old woman is going to kick his butt in the debates. How is he going to explain that?


When hearing these stories or similar ones, it’s important to remember “The Fox Cycle“, a six-step process by which nonsense on right-wing blogs becomes mainstream media news.

  1. Right-wing bloggers, talk radio hosts, and other conservative media outlets start promoting a fringe or false story.
  2. Fox News picks up the story and gives it heavy, one-sided coverage.
  3. Fox News and conservative media attack the “liberal media” for ignoring it.
  4. Mainstream media outlets eventually cover the story, echoing the right-wing distortions.
  5. Fox News receives credit for promoting the story.
  6. The story is later proved to be false or wildly misleading, long after damage is done.

but we should be talking more about the Louisiana floods

If New Hampshire ever has a big natural disaster, I hope it doesn’t happen while the Olympics is interrupting a presidential campaign. The floods in Louisiana are getting so little coverage that when the disaster-relief bill comes up in Congress, a lot of people are going to be asking “What Louisiana flood?”

I grew up next to the Mississippi, so I know that river floods are among the least televisible disasters. There’s no storm surge, no wildfire, no tornado dropping out of the sky. It’s just the inexorable creep of the waterline higher and higher.

Well, OK, sometimes it televises, like when coffins go for a swim.

That’s almost as striking as this video of a burning house floating away in West Virginia earlier this year. That’s become my new standard of misfortune: “It could be worse. I could be watching my burning house float down the river.”

and two unusual political statements

Wired and Scientific American do not usually weigh in on presidential elections. But this time they have. Wired endorses Hillary Clinton

for all of its opinions and enthu­siasms, WIRED has never made a practice of endorsing candidates for president of the United States. Through five election cycles we’ve written about politics and politicians and held them up against our ideals. But we’ve avoided telling you, our readers, who WIRED viewed as the best choice.

Today we will. WIRED sees only one person running for president who can do the job: Hillary Clinton.

… Her vision is bright and forward-looking; Donald Trump’s is dark and atavistic. She’s qualified, she knows the material; Trump is all bluster. We happen to believe that for all the barbs aimed at Hillary Clinton—the whole calculating, tactical, Tracy Flick enchilada—she is the only candidate who can assess the data, consult with the people who need to be heard, and make decisions that she can logically defend. Sure, she’s calculating. She’s tactical. There are worse things you can ask of a person with nuclear codes.

and Scientific American doesn’t tell you who to vote for, but wants you to be aware of Donald Trump’s “alarming” lack of respect for science.

Many politicians are hostile to science, on both sides of the political aisle. The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has a routine practice of meddling in petty science-funding matters to score political points. Science has not played nearly as prominent a role as it should in informing debates over the labeling of genetically modified foods, end of life care and energy policy, among many issues.

The current presidential race, however, is something special. It takes antiscience to previously unexplored terrain. When the major Republican candidate for president has tweeted that global warming is a Chinese plot, threatens to dismantle a climate agreement 20 years in the making and to eliminate an agency that enforces clean air and water regulations, and speaks passionately about a link between vaccines and autism that was utterly discredited years ago, we can only hope that there is nowhere to go but up.

and you might also be interested in

The Justice Department says it is going to phase out its use of private prisons to house federal inmates. Currently about 1 in every 8 federal prisoners is in a privately owned facility rather than a federal prison.

But we’re still far from the end of the private-prison industry, because most of their business comes from states and from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which detains large numbers of undocumented immigrants. But the Justice Department’s decision could mark a turning point. (Still, this is serious: Corrections Corporation of America stock has fallen from over $27 to under $20 since DoJ’s announcement.)

Privatizing prisons was always a bad idea, because it creates a perverse set of incentives.

  • A prison should rehabilitate its inmates and return them to society, but a business wants repeat customers.
  • All prisons are tempted to cut corners on expenses that benefit the prisoners, but only private prisons can immediately transform those savings into bonuses or profit.
  • All industries try to increase their business by lobbying and contributing to political campaigns. But for the prison industry, “increasing business” means depriving more citizens of their freedom.

Politico says:

The Olympics is about the worst thing that could have happened to the Trump train. Here’s a candidate whose message depends entirely on convincing Americans that they’re living in a failing nation overrun by criminal immigrants. And for the past two weeks, tens of millions of Americans have been glued to a multi-ethnic parade of athletes, winning easily. “Make America Great Again” has never felt more out-of-touch than it does against the backdrop of tenacious, over-achieving American athletes driven by their own journeys in pursuit of the American Dream.

According to Voice of America:

nearly 50 of the athletes were born outside the U.S. The range of nations is wide: Sudan, Kenya, China, Albania, Montenegro and Cuba, to name just a few.


In a move described as “fighting absurdity with absurdity”, the #CocksNotGlocks campaign will have University of Texas students hanging dildos from their backpacks when classes start Wednesday. The point is to protest the new Texas law that allows concealed carry of firearms inside campus buildings.

The idea comes from UT alum Jessica Jin, who says:

A lot of our American culture is still so puritanical, and we see that in the continual normalizing of gun culture, while shutting down sex culture, which is pretty harmless and happy. If the guns around you aren’t making you uncomfortable, then maybe this dildo protest will make you think twice about what it is that makes you feel uncomfortable, and why.


Last fall, when Hurricane Joaquin looked like it might threaten Washington, D.C. (it didn’t; it turned south and missed the eastern seaboard entirely), Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council discussed the role of God’s judgment with Jonathan Cahn. Cahn made the case:

God knows that American leaders have “crossed a gigantic line” and “overruled the word of God massively” when they “legalized the killing of the unborn in 1973 and now we have the striking down of marriage.” Cahn said that the White House’s decision to celebrate LGBT pride month with rainbow lights was another “act of desecration” that will “provoke judgment.”

And Perkins underlined it:

All of these things are quite amazing when you look at them collectively. And I’ll just say this Jonathan, because I know that there are those on the Left that like to mock these things. America has a history, our leaders actually, our president, our governors, when these things have happened in Nature, like hurricanes, all of these external events that put our nation at risk; there’s a long line of historical tradition here where we — not so much in recent years — but they had stepped back and said, “Is God trying to send us a message?”

So this week, when “a flood of near Biblical proportions” hit Perkins’ home in Louisiana, he didn’t seem to be taking that step back and asking if his convention speech endorsing Donald Trump had called down God’s judgment.

Turn back, Tony. Forswear your foolish ways.


Amanda Marcotte makes a good point about the American swimmers in Rio, who police say vandalized a gas station and then made up a story about being robbed: “If the swimmers are lying, I doubt it will be used as evidence from here on out that we can’t trust anyone else who says they were robbed.” Women and rape, on the other hand …


Rush Limbaugh and World Net Daily have identified the latest Obama plot to undermine American values: lesbian farmers. Rural areas everywhere should fear for their conservative purity.


Sadly, this is not satire: Yesterday, White Lives Matter protesters with Confederate flags, at least one Trump hat, and at least one semi-automatic rifle protested outside Houston’s NAACP headquarters.


Over the years, there’s been a lot of discussion about how many Walmart employees need food stamps or some other form of public assistance. (So do employees at other low-wage businesses like McDonalds.) The point being that if government aid allows workers to survive on ridiculously low wages, it’s really the employer who’s getting the subsidy. (Many Walmart workers did get a raise in February, but it appears that hours were cut at the same time.)

This week, Bloomberg revealed another way Walmart lives on the public dole: Its stores require far more from local police than comparable retailers like Target.

Police reports from dozens of stores suggest the number of petty crimes committed on Walmart properties nationwide this year will be in the hundreds of thousands. … More than 200 violent crimes, including attempted kidnappings and multiple stabbings, shootings, and murders, have occurred at the nation’s 4,500 Walmarts so far this year, or about one a day. …

“The constant calls from Walmart are just draining,” says Bill Ferguson, a police captain in Port Richey, Fla. “They recognize the problem and refuse to do anything about it.” … There’s nothing inevitable about the level of crime at Walmart. It’s the direct, if unintended, result of corporate policy.

Most of the policies in question revolve around keeping labor costs low. There just aren’t enough employees around, or enough security people to back them up. The police are the backup, so the cost shifts to the public.

and let’s close with something futuristic

3D printers do amazing things, and when their potential is fully realized, they’ll replace a lot skilled workers. (But that’s a problem for another day: Quite possibly, America will bring back manufacturing without bringing back manufacturing jobs.) The printer in the picture is special, though: It prints food, and cooks as it goes.

It comes from Columbia University, where they’ve been trying to make more complex 3D printers that can print with many different materials at once, and so construct more elaborate products than the plastic-or-something-like-it objects the early printers made.

While experimenting with making multi-material printers, [Professor Hod] Lipson noticed the students in his lab were beginning to use food as a test material.

“They were using cookie dough, cheese, chocolate, all kinds of food materials you might find around an engineering lab,” he says. “In the beginning, it was sort of a frivolous thing. But when people came to the lab and looked at it, they actually got really excited by the food printing.”

Lipson then brought some New York City chefs into the lab, who extended the experiments to include egg, pesto, cream cheese, flour, and jam. (Cream cheese apparently is particularly easy to work with.)

Lipson sees the printer as having two main uses for consumers. First, it could be a specialty appliance for cooking novel foods difficult to achieve by any other process. You could print, say, a complex pastry designed by someone in Japan, a recipe you’d never have the expertise or equipment to make by hand. Lipson says he could imagine digital recipes going viral, spreading across the globe.

The second use is about health and targeted nutrition. People are already increasingly interested in personal biometrics, tracking their blood pressure, pulse, calorie burn and more using cell phones and computers. In the future, it may be possible to track your own health in much greater detail—your blood sugar, your calcium needs or your current vitamin D level. The printer could then respond to those details with a customized meal, produced from a cartridge of ingredients.

It’s not quite like ordering food from the Star Trek replicator, but it’s getting there.

What’s a 21st Century Equivalent of the Homestead Act?

A typical featured article on this blog is supposed to tell my readers something they might not already know, or at least to get them to think about it in a different way. But this time I’m just trying to raise a question, hoping that the combined wisdom and creativity of the readership will come up with stuff I haven’t thought of.

Before I ask the question, some background: One of the most radical things the United States government ever did was pass the Homestead Act (actually the Homestead Acts; there were a series of them). Beginning in 1850, and picking up steam after the Civil War, the government gave away relatively small plots of land — usually 160 acres — to settlers who over a period of five years would build a home on the land, live there, “improve” the land to make it farmable, and then farm it. Wikipedia claims that 10% of the total area of the United States was given away in this manner, to the benefit of 1.6 million families. [1]

I doubt Karl Marx had much influence on the U.S. Congress (though he was writing during this era) and there’s nothing particularly communist about establishing 1.6 million plots of private property. But I like to look at the Homestead Act in the light of the Marxist concept of the means of production. In a nutshell, the means of production is whatever resources are necessary to turn labor into goods and services. So, in a given society at a given state of technology,

Labor + X = Goods and Services

Solve for X, and that’s the means of production. Today, X is complicated: factories and patents and communication systems and whatever. But for most of human history, the means of production had mostly been land. And it still could be, even in the 19th century with its growing industrial economy; if you had fertile land, you could work it and produce sustenance for yourself, plus some extra to trade.

To Marx, the problem of capitalism is that the means of production — land, factories, mines, and so on — wind up privately owned by a fairly small group of people, and everybody else can only get access to the means of production by negotiating with those people. In other words, your productivity is not up to you; you can’t just go work and collect the fruit of your labor, you need an employer to hire you, so that you can have a job and get paid. Your labor only counts if you can get an employer’s permission to use his access to the means of production. Otherwise, you’re like a landless farmer or an auto worker who has been laid off from the factory.

Marx foresaw a vicious cycle: The narrower the ownership of the means of production became, the less bargaining power a worker would have, and the larger the premium an employer could demand in order to grant access. [2] This imbalance in bargaining power would increase the concentration of wealth, making the ownership of the means of production even narrower.

Usually, communists end up talking about state ownership of the means of production, but I want to point out that that’s a method, not a goal. What is really important is universal access to the means of production. State ownership is one way to try to do that, and I’m not sure how many other ways there might be — that’s part of the question here — but the real goal should be access: If all the people who want to work can find a way to turn their effort into goods and services, without needing to make a extortionate deal with some gatekeeper, then we’re on to something.

Now let’s return to the Homestead Act. What it did was vastly increase the number of Americans with access to the means of production. Mind you, it didn’t establish universal access — if you were a freedman sharecropping in Georgia, or were making pennies an hour in some dangerous factory in Connecticut, you had little prospect of assembling a big enough stake to go out West and homestead for five years — but it was vastly expanded access.

So now you’re in a position to understand what I’m asking: What would do that now? What change could we make (where we includes but is not necessarily limited to the federal government) that would vastly increase access to whatever the means of production is today?


[1] Probably most of you have already realized that this was an example of robbing Peter to pay Paul. The only reason the U.S. government had all this land to give was that they were in the process of stealing it from the Native Americans.

I would argue that at this point the decision to rob Peter had already been made; I doubt any major figure in the government saw much future for the Native Americans other than being pushed back onto reservations or annihilated. However we do the moral calculations today, at the time Congress saw itself with the power (and even the right, though don’t ask me to defend it) to dispose of that land however it wanted.

Given that robbery-in-progress, I think the decision to pay Paul is still remarkable. It certainly wasn’t the only thing Congress could have done. The government could have applied the Spanish model, and created a bunch of large haciendas to be controlled by a wealthy elite. Or it could have applied the English model, and granted the land in huge swathes to public/private companies like the East India Company or the Virginia Company, who could develop it for profit. What it did instead created a middle class of small landowners rather than an aristocracy or a managerial elite.

[2] Workers don’t usually pay an explicit “premium for access to the means of production”, but it’s implicit when a profitable business pays low wages: Money comes in and the owner keeps the lion’s share. If you don’t like it, go get another job.

One way to read the productivity vs. wages graphs I post every few months is that access premiums have been growing since the mid-1970s, and really started to accelerate in the mid-1980s.

The Monday Morning Teaser

There’s a lot to discuss this week, and no single dominating story.

As always, there are 2016 developments: Trump gave a couple of policy speeches, including calling for African-Americans to vote for him because they have “nothing to lose”, an observation that I’m sure came as a huge surprise to the many blacks who have jobs and homes and families, and particularly the ones who will lose their health insurance if Trump succeeds in repealing ObamaCare. The naked Trump statues appeared.

There are conspiracy theories to debunk about paying ransom to Iran, Clinton’s precarious health, and the plot to corrupt rural areas by introducing lesbian farmers. Two major science/technology magazines decided they needed to break their usual policies and comment on the presidential race.

A bunch of interesting stories also came out of the Olympics, including a debate about what it means to be a woman.

The Justice Department is going to stop using private prisons. Texas students are going to start hanging dildos from their backpacks. There’s a new reason to hate Walmart. And meanwhile, what about that flood in Louisiana? (Who’s God judging now, Tony Perkins?) And finally, I have a great closing: an experimental 3D printer that outputs food.

Covering all that didn’t leave much space for a featured article, so I decided to raise a question instead of trying to answer one: In the 19th century, the Homestead Act gave land to 1.6 million families. You don’t usually hear that discussed in Marxist terms, but it ought to be: In a stroke, the government vastly increased the number of people who had direct access to the means of production. It also established a middle class in the frontier territories. Is there anything similar we could do today? What would play the role of land? Who would the beneficiaries be? What effort would be the equivalent of homesteading? Think about it and if you come up with anything, share it.

The Homestead Act article should be out 9ish, with the weekly summary following by 11.

From the Beginning

When asked when community distrust of Baltimore law enforcement began, a former top city official deadpanned to Justice Department officials, “1729” — the year of the City’s founding.

– U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division
Investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department (2016)

This week’s featured posts are “Democracy Will Survive This, With Damage” about the even-darker turn in the Trump campaign, and “It’s not just Freddie Gray” about the Department of Justice’s report on the Baltimore Police Department.

This week everybody was talking about how far the Trump campaign will go

He’s not just bullying Muslims and immigrants any more. He’s telling people the whole election process is fraudulent and suggesting violence. I cover this in “Democracy Will Survive This, With Damage


In other Trump campaign news, he’s still not releasing his tax returns, even though Clinton just released her 2015 returns. According to CNN, 34 years worth of Clinton tax returns are now available, compared to none for Trump. The Daily Wire discounts Trump’s I’m-under-audit excuse by pointing out that Richard Nixon released his 1973 returns despite an audit.


I’ve been laying off Melania Trump for the nude photos that are circulating online (which I am not linking to), because I believe all of us have the right to display or not display our bodies as we see fit (with a few exceptions like the ones that protect children from flashers). On the same principle, I also defend the right of Muslim women in France to wear burqas if they choose to.

But Melania’s immigration controversy is fair game, I think, especially given her husband’s insistence on harsh immigration enforcement for everybody else. There are two issues: By her own account, Melania came to the United States with a visa in 1996.

but the nude photo shoot places her in the United States in 1995, as does a biography published in February by Slovenian journalists.

Also, she reports going back to Europe periodically to have her visa renewed. This indicates she had the wrong kind of visa, not one that would allow her to work in the U.S., as she did. If she did that knowingly, it would constitute visa fraud.

Visa fraud would call into question a green card application and subsequent citizenship application, said immigration lawyers — thus raising questions about Melania Trump’s legal status, even today, despite her marriage to a U.S. citizen.

Melania and the Trump campaign have issued blanket denials that she did anything wrong, but they haven’t released any paperwork to support that claim — even though that could clear things up immediately.


In 2007, Trump sued reporter Timothy O’Brien for the claims he made in his book Trump Nation, mainly the charge that Trump was not nearly as rich as he purported to be. As a result, Trump had to submit to a deposition under oath, where lawyers forced him to admit to 30 public lies.

and another attempt at a Clinton email scandal

The conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch released some emails they got through a Freedom of Information Act request. The emails are supposed to demonstrate an improper relationship between the Clinton State Department and the Clinton Foundation.

Here’s what I’m not seeing: A case where somebody at the State Department sacrificed the interests of the United States in favor of the interests of the Clinton Foundation. Instead, what the emails reveal looks more like networking: Clinton Foundation people suggest other people for jobs (which we don’t know whether they got), try to get their donors introductions with movers and shakers (apparently unsuccessfully, in the example given), and so on.

To me, it falls well short of scandalous. The New Yorker‘s Benjamin Wallace-Wells has looked at all this closer than I have.

In the e-mails around Clinton, there is a constant, low-amplitude, transactional scurry: of older people for an audience, and of younger people for a position.

Wallace-Wells finds this swirl “unsavory”, but sees it as the way the world works, not something unique about the Clintons.

What [the emails] have revealed is not some new hidden system of levers beneath the capital but, rather, the same old system that we’ve more or less tolerated all along. Access to governmental power depends too much on personal relationships; rich friends of politicians have too easy a time gaining an audience. “The scandal isn’t what’s illegal; the scandal is what’s legal,” the journalist Michael Kinsley famously said, during the George H. W. Bush Administration.

As with so many of the other attempts to find a Clinton scandal, we are left with little to compare it to, because no other government official has ever been scrutinized this thoroughly. Would we find exactly the same kinds of interactions if we delved into any other government department or any other administration to the same depth? Far worse? We don’t know.


The conservative press has tried to inflate the impression of scandal by claiming that investigations are being launched by the FBI, the IRS, and others, but it’s not at all clear that is happening. (Naturally, no one can disprove that investigators are looking into something, and even if some are, it’s a long, long way from there to the conclusion that there is something for them to find.)

One report of an “investigation”, for example, comes from this Washington Examiner article, whose source seems to be Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, who (along with other Republican congresspeople) had asked the IRS to investigate. Her evidence of an investigation appears to be this letter, which to me looks more like a brush-off: Her request has been forwarded to another office; the word investigation does not appear. But this questionable sourcing allows any other conservative website to say authoritatively that “the IRS is investigating”, with a link to the WE article.

This follows the standard script for fanning Nothing into Something: You release what you claim is an indication of some nefarious activity. You interpret hints from anonymous or third-hand sources into a claim that an official investigation is underway. Then you start revving up your audiences’ expectations about the horrifying crimes this investigation will reveal, and raising fantasies about how completely it will undo your enemies. How many times have we been through this?


In general, attacks on the work of the Clinton Foundation have proved baseless. FactCheck.org looked into several charges a year ago and found nothing sinister. CharityWatch gives the Clinton Foundation its A rating. Among other virtues, the Foundation spends only 2% of its money on fund-raising. That helps keep its overhead down to 12%, leaving 88% to spend on programs.

For comparison, the Environmental Defense Fund — also rated A; I just picked them at random — spends 11% on fund-raising and 20% on overhead. And here’s a comparison I didn’t pick at random: Freedom Alliance, which Sean Hannity pushes. It gets a D rating, spends 37% on fund-raising and 48% on overhead.

The Clinton Foundation works on a wide variety of projects, including HIV/AIDS in the developing world, building a viable economy in Haiti, and childhood obesity in the United States.

The Clinton Foundation’s FAQ reports that Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton do not receive any income from the Foundation, including personal expense reimbursement. The flow of cash seems to be in the other direction: Many of the Clintons’ speaking fees go to the Foundation.

but more people should be paying attention to the Justice Department’s report on policing in Baltimore

That gets discussed in “It’s not just Freddie Gray“.

and you might also be interested in

When religion and politics mix too closely, both get corrupted. Christian blogger Amy Gannett points out how Evangelical Christian leaders are “losing a whole generation” by attaching so closely to conservative partisan politics that they construct arguments that make a moral imperative out of supporting Donald Trump.

My generation will not identify with this. We cannot call a candidate “good,” as Grudem does with Trump, who has made racist remarks. We will not call a candidate “good” who has demoralized and dehumanized women on national television.

and let’s close with an endorsement of cosmic significance

Do you watch Donald Trump on TV and say, “Finally, somebody who agrees with me and will say all the things I’ve been thinking for years!”? Well, you’re not alone: the Devil feels exactly the same way.

It’s not just Freddie Gray

The Justice Department’s new report shows how wide and deep Baltimore’s police problems are.


In Season 4 of HBO’s The Wire, a landmark TV drama centered on the Baltimore Police Department, a new gangster has been taking over the city’s drug trade. Normally this would mean a bloodbath, but strangely the bodies of rival gangsters haven’t been turning up. Eventually Detective Freeman figures out where a dozen or two of them must be hidden: inside abandoned houses that have been re-boarded-up using a recognizable type of nail. When he explains this theory to his colonel, he gets this response:

You’re asking us to call out half of public works, and pull the plywood off thousands of vacant houses, all so we can raise the city’s murder rate by 10%.

The Wire has a lot of underlying themes, but one of the key ones (particularly in Season 4) is just how badly the statistics-based management fad interacts with municipal government, where statistics never quite capture exactly what you want. Think about it: What measurable quantities can define a good education, an efficient transit system, usable parks, or a safe and livable community?

Worse, the statistics you end up trying to optimize largely come from the people you will judge by those statistics. So for them, it will always be easier — and more tempting — to manipulate the count than to genuinely improve outcomes. It’s easier to teach to the test — or maybe just to change the answers later — than to provide a better education on a smaller budget. It’s easier to make more arrests and give out more tickets — or maybe even to misclassify crimes — than to improve public safety.  And if the statistical goals are set are unreasonably high, even people who are committed to the public they are supposed to be serving might end up cooperating with deception, because fudging the numbers is the only way to avoid the unfair and destructive consequences of perceived failure.

That’s what Detective Freeman is running into: The gang-war murders have in fact been committed already, but they don’t show up in the stats if the bodies are never found, so until then no one has to explain to the press why the murderers haven’t been caught. Finding the bodies — a genuinely good piece of police work — makes everybody look bad by raising the murder rate. Why should BPD do that to themselves?

In real-life policing, optimizing “productivity” statistics interacts badly with another idea that sounded good for a long time: the Broken Windows theory. Broken Windows says that police can keep a neighborhood from turning bad by strictly enforcing relatively minor laws. By doing so, they maintain public order and keep the citizenry from retreating behind locked doors and leaving the streets and sidewalks to the criminals.

Baltimore’s version of Broken Windows was called “zero tolerance”, a strategy that (according to the Justice Department) “prioritized attempts to suppress crime by regularly stopping and searching pedestrians and arresting them on any available charges, including discretionary misdemeanor offenses.”

Put a statistics focus together with zero tolerance, and police start to have a predator/prey relationship with the community: When a policeman drives through a poor neighborhood, he isn’t looking for a way to help, he’s looking for someone he can turn into a statistic that will look good on his record. Arrest someone for loitering or jaywalking or driving with a broken taillight, and you’re having a productive day. If the stop turns into more than that, so much the better. Stop a fight before it starts, and you have nothing to show for your effort; arrest somebody for assault, and you’re doing your job.

A year ago, a Slate reporter took a drive through Baltimore with former cop Michael Wood Jr., who explained the motivations embedded in the system.

Now you have the background to appreciate the new Justice Department report on the Baltimore Police Department and its relationship with its poorer citizens, who are mostly African-American. The executive summary gives you the highlights:

BPD engages in a pattern or practice of:
(1) making unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests;
(2) using enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African Americans;
(3) using excessive force; and
(4) retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally-protected expression.

This pattern or practice is driven by systemic deficiencies in BPD’s policies, training, supervision, and accountability structures that fail to equip officers with the tools they need to police effectively and within the bounds of the federal law.

… The agency fails to provide officers with sufficient policy guidance and training; fails to collect and analyze data regarding officers’ activities; and fails to hold officers accountable for misconduct. BPD also fails to
equip officers with the necessary equipment and resources they need to police safely, constitutionally, and effectively.

… BPD deployed a policing strategy that, by its design, led to differential enforcement in African-American communities. But BPD failed to use adequate policy, training and accountability mechanisms to prevent discrimination, despite longstanding notice of concerns about how it polices African-American communities in the City.

 The background section on Baltimore is horrifying:

[A] recent Harvard University study found that Baltimore has the least upward mobility in America. In the nation’s 100 largest jurisdictions, Baltimore’s children face the worst odds of escaping poverty. … The City has nearly three times the national rate of lead poisoning among children. … This past year reflected a notable surge in violence. On a per-capita basis, 2015 was the deadliest year in Baltimore’s history with 344 homicides. The City’s overall gun violence increased more than 75 percent compared to the previous year, with more than 900 people shot.

BPD itself is largely an external force:

Most BPD officers are neither originally from Baltimore nor live in the City, and many commute long distances to work at the Department. Indeed, BPD leadership informed us that roughly three-fourths of BPD officers live outside the Baltimore City limits.

DoJ documents BPD’s predator/prey relationship with the community.

BPD’s law enforcement practices at times exacerbate the longstanding structural inequalities in the City by encouraging officers to have unnecessary, adversarial interactions with community members that increase exposure to the criminal justice system and fail to improve public safety.

… BPD frequently makes investigative stops without reasonable suspicion of people who are lawfully present on Baltimore streets. During stops, officers commonly conduct weapons frisks — or more invasive searches — despite lacking reasonable suspicion that the subject of the search is armed. These practices escalate street encounters and contribute to officers making arrests without probable cause, often for discretionary misdemeanor offenses like disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, loitering, trespassing, and failure to obey.

… These and similar arrests identified by our investigation reflect BPD officers exercising nearly unfettered discretion to criminalize the act of standing on public sidewalks.

and the role of statistics:

One of the reasons that the intended move away from zero tolerance policing has not sufficiently curbed BPD’s practice of unconstitutional street-level enforcement is a persistent perception among officers that their performance continues to be measured by the raw numbers of stops and arrests they make, particularly for gun and drug offenses. Many officers believe that the path to promotions and favorable treatment, as well as the best way to avoid discipline, is to increase their number of stops and make arrests for these offenses. By frequently stopping and searching people they believe might possess contraband, with or without requisite reasonable suspicion, officers aim to improve their statistical output, which will in turn reflect favorably in their performance reviews. … Other officers told us that they were denied the opportunity to work overtime because supervisors believed they did not make enough stops and arrests.

But of course, you can’t boost your numbers by manufacturing charges against middle-class white people. As the Slate narrator (Leon Neyfakh) summarizes:

To close out our tour, Mike took me to a part of Baltimore that was very different from everything we’d seen so far: a white neighborhood on the north side of town, where he was transferred after about four years on the force. He found the contrast astonishing. He also found it difficult to make his numbers, because all of a sudden he didn’t have anyone to arrest. His solution? Drive two blocks away, to a part of town where he could easily find young black men.

The DoJ report validates that observation:

Statistical evidence shows that the Department intrudes disproportionately upon the lives of African Americans at every stage of its enforcement activities. BPD officers disproportionately stop African Americans; search them more frequently during these stops; and arrest them at rates that significantly exceed relevant benchmarks for criminal activity. African Americans are likewise subjected more often to false arrests. Indeed, for each misdemeanor street offense that we examined, local prosecutors and booking officials dismissed a higher proportion of African-American arrests upon initial review compared to arrests of people from other racial backgrounds. BPD officers also disproportionately use force — including constitutionally excessive force — against African-American subjects. Nearly 90 percent of the excessive force incidents identified by the Justice Department review involve force used against African Americans.

This is where the process goes from here:

The Department of Justice and the City have entered into an Agreement in Principle that identifies categories of reforms the parties agree must be taken to remedy the violations of the Constitution and federal law described in this report. Both the Justice Department and the City seek input from all communities in Baltimore on the reforms that should be included in a comprehensive, court-enforceable consent decree to be negotiated by the Justice Department and
the City in the coming months, and then entered as a federal court order.

Democracy Will Survive This, With Damage

 

Donald Trump will lose, but afterward the Republic will be weaker and more vulnerable.


Almost as soon as President Obama took office, his opponents began trying to delegitimize his presidency. He couldn’t really be president, they claimed, because he wasn’t really an American, or at least not a native-born one, as the Constitution requires. Within two months of his inauguration, the Oath Keepers organization was formed, for the purpose of encouraging members of the military and the police to disobey the “unconstitutional orders” they were sure would soon come from the new tyrant.

It’s tempting to believe this is just how partisan politics has always worked, but in fact it’s new. In 2000, by contrast, there were very legitimate questions about whether George W. Bush had really won the election. But Al Gore conceded graciously, and when 9-11 happened ten months later, Democrats rallied around their president. As recently as 2008, John McCain politely corrected supporters who raised bizarre theories about his opponent. “No ma’am,” he told one elderly woman, “He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign’s all about.”

After Obama was sworn in, though, everything changed.

Conspiracies. Every month or two for the last eight years, the fringe of the conservative media has found some new reason to tell its audience that we are on the brink of martial law or some other illegal seizure of power. FEMA is setting up camps to hold dissidents. ObamaCare is establishing death panels to eliminate the unworthy. New executive orders will soon confiscate guns. Obama plans to start a race warcancel the 2016 elections and stay in office forever. He’s secretly running ISIS from the White House. On and on.

Somehow, this apocalyptic mindset has achieved eternal youth. No matter how many times the predicted coup or edict or confiscation fails to materialize, the next one is absolutely going to happen, even if you’re hearing it from the same people who told you all the others. To conspiracy mongers like Alex Jones, the American Republic is like Kenny in South Park: Somebody has always just killed it, but with no explanation it will be back next week, when somebody else will kill it in a different way.

Occasionally — as with last summer’s Jade Helm 15 exercise — the mainstream press notices enough of the craziness to let the rest of us laugh at it. But usually these stories pass beneath most people’s radar until some uncle or cousin forwards them an email warning of the looming disaster.

GOP fellow travelers. Republican leaders have occasionally winked and nodded in the direction of this lunatic fringe. Maybe they “joke” about Obama’s citizenship, or pass laws to make sure that all future candidates have to present their birth certificates, or add legitimacy to one of these issues in some other way, without actually promoting them in so many words. They know these people are crazy, but they’re part of the Republican base, so why alienate them?

But the answer to that question ought to be obvious: Democracy only survives in a country as long as the overwhelming majority of people believe that it is working, or that it could work with some achievable revisions. The more Americans who believe in the kind of crazy crap that can only be corrected by an armed rebellion, the more fragile our whole system of government becomes.

The Trump normalization. Particularly since the conventions, Donald Trump has moved these fever-swamp issues into the spotlight, normalizing them as beliefs respectable Republicans might hold.

From the beginning of his candidacy, Trump has specialized in saying wild and dangerous things that draw media attention, whipping up white Christian anger, and flirting with violence. The sheer volume of bonkers things he says has overwhelmed the fact-checkers, [1] and can overwhelm our own ability to process each new outrage.

But it’s important to notice the recent shift in the kind of crazy he’s been promoting. As long as he was doing well (or could convince himself he was doing well), he played the bully, targeting politically weak groups like immigrants or Muslims. But as the polls turn against him, he has devoted more and more of his effort to undermining democracy itself.

Consider the claims in this week’s three major Trump stories:

  • He can’t lose this election, he can only be cheated out of it. [2]
  • Obama and Clinton are “founders of ISIS“, i.e., working for our enemies and against the American people.
  • If Clinton wins, only “Second Amendment people”, i.e., gun owners, will be able to stop her from “abolishing” constitutional rights. [3]

It’s hard to lay things out much more clearly than that: If Trump loses, then democracy has failed and it’s time to move on to more violent forms of resistance. After all, once an election has been stolen, what’s the point of waiting around for the next election? On the lunatic fringe, that message is coming through loud and clear.

This kind of talk goes far beyond fantasies about Mexico paying for a border wall or claims to have personally witnessed events that never happened. It strikes at the legitimacy of the government — or at least of any government that Trump doesn’t head himself. After he loses, a substantial number of his supporters are going to go on believing what he said about cheating and implied about violence. And that sets up a lot of bad things in the future.

We’ll get through this, this time. It’s important not to over-react. Despite his authoritarian and nativist tendencies, Trump is not Hitler. (As a friend recently pointed out to me, Hitler was more talented and more dedicated to his cause.) And all the signs currently point to him being soundly rejected by the American people. The more dangerous he sounds, the more likely it is that the electorate will turn out en masse to vote against him. Even many Republicans are disturbed by the idea that they are now in the party of Alex Jones.

In the short run, Trump’s loss might make things better. Mainstream Republicans seemed to have no answer for him in the primaries. But if Trump-like candidates appear in 2020, sane Republicans can at least say, “We don’t want to do that again.” A sound thrashing this fall might well send the Republican establishment back to the drawing board. Maybe they’ll conclude that pandering to the crazies wasn’t such a good idea after all.

But what about the sizable minority that will come out of the election believing what Trump said? That will be far fewer people than the 40-45% who will vote for him, but what if it’s 10%? What if 10% of the American electorate comes to the inauguration believing that their candidate legitimately won the election, but had it stolen? What if 10% believes that election fraud is not just a one-off event, but is how America works now? That our enemies are now in charge, that everything the government does is illegitimate, and that violent resistance is the only way for justice to prevail?

I don’t believe that there will be riots, assassinations, and civil war. As many people as might fantasize such things, I think few will try to carry them out. But Trump’s legacy could leave a very fertile ground for the next demagogue to mix politics and violence in a brownshirt fashion. As I said, Trump is not Hitler. But we may look back on him as Hitler’s warm-up act.


[1] The Week‘s Paul Waldman was already complaining about this in March:

The real genius of Trump’s mendacity lies in its brazenness. One of the assumptions behind the fact-checking enterprise is that politicians are susceptible to being shamed: If they lie, you can expose the lie and then they’ll be less likely to repeat it. After all, nobody wants to be tarred as a liar. But what happens when you’re confronted with a politician who is utterly without shame? You can reveal where he’s lied, explain all the facts, and try as hard as you can to inoculate the public against his falsehoods. But by the time you’ve done that, he has already told 10 more lies.

[2] Adding on to widely debunked comments he made last week, Trump said this Friday in Altoona:

Is everybody [here] voting? [Cheers.] If you do that, if you do that, we’re not gonna lose. The only way we can lose — in my opinion, I really mean this — Pennsylvania, is if cheating goes on. I really believe that. Because I looked at Erie and it was the same thing as this. And I’ve been all over the state, and I know this state well. I know the state well. But let me just tell you, I looked all over Pennsylvania, and I’m studying it, and we have some great people here, some great leaders here, of the Republican Party, and they’re very concerned about that. And that’s the way we can lose the state. And we have to call up law enforcement, and we have to have the sheriffs and the police chiefs and everybody watching. Because, if we get cheated out of this election, if we get cheated out of a win in Pennsylvania, which is such a vital state. Especially when I know what’s happening here folks — I know it. She can’t beat what’s happening here. The only way they can beat it, in my opinion, and I mean this 100%, [is] if in certain sections of the state, they cheat.

We’re gonna watch Pennsylvania. Go down to certain areas and watch and study and make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times. The only way we can lose, in my opinion – and I really mean this, Pennsylvania – is if cheating goes on. I really believe it.

His I-can’t-really-lose claim flies in the face of the last four polls of Pennsylvania, all of which have Clinton up by double digits. And that ties the “cheating” claim to another bogus claimall the polls are skewed against Trump. (Romney supporters claimed the same thing before the 2012 election, and the results proved them wrong.)

Think about what this means: After Trump loses Pennsylvania — which he will — his supporters will have already denied any basis for claiming that he lost legitimately. The polls were biased, the election results were fraudulent — all that remains is Trump’s pure feeling that he would have won a fair election.

The substance of the fraud claim also deserves to be addressed, particularly since Sean Hannity and others have been backing Trump up on it. They have nothing. There is no reason to believe voter fraud played any role in 2012 or will play a role in 2016. 

Trump and Hannity discussed the fact that Mitt Romney got zero votes in 59 precincts of Philadelphia as evidence that some kind of fraud must have happened. Ryan Godfrey, an independent (former Republican) election inspector in Philadelphia, explained in a tweetstorm just how ridiculous that accusation is to anyone who understands the process.

Here’s how it looks to anyone who understands journalism: Hannity has been complaining about those 59 precincts since 2012, as if he were not part of a news organization and is helpless to investigate any further. But if in fact fraud happened in Philadelphia, it would not be hard for a real journalist to come up with solid evidence. That’s the beauty of that zero result: If you can turn up anybody who claims to have voted for Romney, that’s evidence of fraud.

So Sean, here’s how you could do it:

  1. First, get access to the Romney campaign’s get-out-the-vote data for these precincts, and see if they were expecting anyone to vote for him. (That’s how GOTV works: You compile databases of the people you expect to vote for you, then on election day you remind/cajole/nag them until they vote.) If there are no such people, then you’re done; the zero-vote outcome is credible.
  2. If there are, check publicly available records to see if any of them voted. (Again, if none did, you’re done; there’s no story.)
  3. If you still have some names on your list, contact them and see if they will testify that they voted for Romney in a precinct where no Romney votes were recorded. One person might be explained away, but if you get a half-a-dozen-or-so such witnesses, you can probably send somebody to jail and maybe get yourself a Pulitzer.

The Philadelphia Inquirer tried something like this immediately after the election: They went looking for registered Republicans in the zero-for-Romney areas. They didn’t find them. (In Godfrey’s tweetstorm, he notes that some of those areas didn’t record any votes in the Republican primary either.)

Take North Philadelphia’s 28th Ward, third division, bounded by York, 24th, and 28th Streets and Susquehanna Avenue. About 94 percent of the 633 people who live in that division are black. Seven white residents were counted in the 2010 census. In the entire 28th Ward, Romney received only 34 votes to Obama’s 5,920. Although voter registration lists, which often contain outdated information, show 12 Republicans live in the ward’s third division, The Inquirer was unable to find any of them by calling or visiting their homes.

… A few blocks away, Eric Sapp, a 42-year-old chef, looked skeptical when told that city data had him listed as a registered Republican. “I got to check on that,” said Sapp, who voted for Obama.

That’s real journalism: You go out, talk to people, and get answers, rather than just raise questions because you think something smells off. The fact that Hannity, after four years of suspicions, still can’t point to anything more solid than his feeling that zero can’t be right, tells me that he knows there’s no real fraud here. Either he has so little confidence in the charge that he didn’t even think it worthwhile to do the follow-up work, or he did the work, turned up nothing, and decided his listeners didn’t need to know that.

This is a general pattern in election-fraud stories: Somebody does just enough research to find something that sounds suspicious, and then runs with it. Either they never do the follow-up investigation that seems called for, or when somebody else does, it turns up nothing — like this case in South Carolina, which I told you about in 2013.

[3] This also deserves a lengthy discussion. Here’s the quote:

Hillary wants to abolish — essentially abolish — the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick [booing from crowd] if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know.

The official Trump-campaign explanation — that he meant gun-rights supporters could use their political power to make sure Trump wins — is obviously nonsense. The scenario Trump had laid out in “if she gets to pick her judges” assumed she’d already been elected.

My favorite response was tweeted by Sarah Milov:

Maybe 19th amendment people can do something about Trump

(The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.)

Paul Ryan interpreted the quote as a joke gone bad, and if you watch the video, Trump’s tone and phrasing is consistent with a joke. But English-professor-turned-lawyer Jason Steed, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the social function of humor, explained in a tweetstorm that

Nobody is ever “just joking”. Humor is a social act that performs a social function (always).

A joke, he explains, defines an in-group that laughs and an out-group that doesn’t.

If you’re willing to accept “just joking” as a defense, you’re willing to enter [the] in-group, where [the] idea conveyed by the joke is acceptable.

This is why you should never tell a racist joke, even if everybody in the room knows that you’re joking: The joke itself normalizes racism; by laughing, your audience ratifies that normalization.

Rolling Stone‘s David Cohen connected Trump’s “joke” to the important notion of stochastic terrorism: when you mark someone for attack by the wackos that you know are out there, while keeping your distance from the attack itself. Last November, after a mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, Valerie Tarico explained the process:

1. A public figure with access to the airwaves or pulpit demonizes a person or group of persons.
2. With repetition, the targeted person or group is gradually dehumanized, depicted as loathsome and dangerous — arousing a combustible combination of fear and moral disgust.
3. Violent images and metaphors, jokes about violence, analogies to past “purges” against reviled groups, use of righteous religious language — all of these typically stop just short of an explicit call to arms.
4. When violence erupts, the public figures who have incited the violence condemn it — claiming no one could possibly have foreseen the “tragedy.”

Previous examples include the role Bill O’Reilly played in the assassination of the Kansas abortion-provider Dr. George Tiller, and Byron Williams, who shot two California policemen when stopped on his way to attack the Tides Foundation, which had become central in Glenn Beck’s fantastic theories.

BTW: Hillary Clinton has never called for “abolishing the Second Amendment” — essentially or otherwise. Here’s her list of proposals on guns, all of which are within current Supreme Court interpretations of the Second Amendment.

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