Monday, June 29, 2015

Love Doesn't Win—Facts Win

Kenji Yoshino, Speak Now: Marriage Equality on Trial: the Story of Hollingsworth v. Perry

For twelve days in January, 2010, the future of how Americans define “marriage” dwelt in Judge Vaughn Walker’s courtroom in the Northern California District of the Ninth Circuit Court. The case would determine whether California’s Proposition 8, which enshrined a strictly heterosexual marriage definition in California’s constitution, violated America’s federal Constitution. The outcome would resolve today’s largest debate. And the terms would have worldwide implications.

NYU Constitutional scholar Kenji Yoshino, a seasoned academic and respected media commentator famous for translating legalese into English, recounts this landmark case. Because the trial wasn’t broadcast, network TV and Internet sources didn’t even have sound bites to clarify the intricate process. And Judge Walker’s 136-page verdict resists layperson reading. Yoshino thus makes a fitting Virgil to guide interested court-watchers, from either position, through this difficult but influential case.

Yoshino’s narrative begins with Prop 8 itself. Many states have referendum processes and other “direct democracy” initiatives to invest citizenry with law-making ability. Yoshino explains how direct democracy prevents top-level corruption, but notes how, telliingly, its processes permit scared majorities to overwhelm powerless minorities. Beginning with Colorado’s alarmist, and alarming, Amendment 2, voters have greeted changing sexual roles by retreating electorally into tradition, often with unintended consequences.

The case assembled a remarkable congeries of legal minds. The plaintiffs, suing to overturn Prop 8, were headed by Ted Olson and David Boies, who developed remarkable respect and friendship in 2000, when they argued opposite sides before the Supreme Court. Besides a small army of top legal minds, the plaintiffs mustered nine expert witnesses, including historians, sociologists, and psychologists; and seven private citizens, whose stories humanized the experts’ testimony.

Kenji Yoshino, JD
Prop 8 proponents, meanwhile, proved somewhat, erm, problematic. Two successive gubernatorial administrations, representing both major political parties, grudgingly enforced the referendum, but refused to defend it in court. Thus, the referendum’s civilian proponents became defendants. But the courtroom defenses they pitched differed completely from their electoral pitches, and of six expert witnesses, four withdrew support before testimony began. This reduced defence to merely trying to discredit plaintiff testimony.

Readers may be surprised to learn, as Yoshino explains, how infrequently “court cases” involve actual trials. Frequently, in non-criminal cases, both sides submit written testimony, and judges issue verdicts summarily. This saves copious money and time, and usually returns reliable verdicts, but it means contrasting claims don’t receive full airing, and also that cross-examination, the heart of courtroom debate, never happens. Judge Walker, by contrast, demanded a live bench trial.

The heart of Yoshino’s narrative focuses on Judge Walker’s District Court trial. Since the two appeals, to the Ninth Circuit and the Supreme Court, ultimately resolved around procedural issues, Judge Walker’s opinion remains the binding resolution of this case—and, as Yoshino describes, it has already had sweeping judicial influence. Yoshino narrates the give-and-take, the ways opposing lawyers tested facts and eliminated anything indefensible by modern law, with great aplomb.

We’ve heard, in media coverage, claims that Prop 8 and other marriage limitations restrict civil rights. But what does that mean? As plaintiffs’ experts explain current science, as lay witnesses explain the consequences marriage limitations have on their lives, the real meanings become abundantly, even chillingly, clear. (Marriage licenses are sold by court clerks. “Civil union” licenses were sold from the same windows that sold dog licenses. Do the math.)

Meanwhile, the proponents’ spectacular implosion appears almost epic in scope. The campaign pitches that persuaded voters to support Prop 8, appeals mainly to tradition and religion, had little to no courtroom standing. So proponents shifted tacks, using research in anthropology, psychology, and especially child development. But when experts came under cross-examination, their scientific claims actually crumbled quickly. Makes one suspect they perhaps had weak reasoning… or shoddy science. Hmm.

As a married gay man with two sons, Yoshino doesn’t pretend academic dispassion. For him, this case clearly represents how America strives to further its tradition of expanding freedom. By making a powerful, beloved traditional rite available to everybody, Yoshino believes, America became more truly itself. He predicts America will soon have universal marriage equality—by June 2016, he predicts. In fact, marriage equality became universal two months after publication.

Courtroom dramas are an eternally popular literary genre. Anyone who loves legal thrillers will find plenty to like here: arresting characters, tense conflict, a vindicating outcome. Yoshino crafts a gripping narrative of broadening justice that non-scholars can enjoy. Readers who support America’s commitment to expanding freedom will enjoy this brisk, novel-like chronicle. Knowing how love first won makes appreciating our accomplishments possible.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Solid Police Work Isn't the Problem

The accused Charleston church shooter being taken into custody without bloodshed or violence

By now, we’ve probably all seen the footage. Shot from a police dashboard camera, it depicts how North Carolina police peacefully captured the accused Charleston, South Carolina, church shooter. Having coaxed him to pull over, several officers surround him with drawn weapons, which they holster as they approach. Without audio, we cannot hear the words spoken, but police apparently persuade him, using only words, to surrender without a fight.

The surrender itself is remarkable. Mass shooters frequently die during their violence. Many commit suicide; others charge police, forcing them to shoot, a process nicknamed “suicide by cop.” But like accused Aurora, Colorado, theatre shooter James Holmes, the church shooter—whose name I’ve resolved to never reproduce—came quietly once police surrounded him. Coupled with his recent all-but-confession, one wonders what long-term strategy he has planned.

But I’ve felt alarmed by some friends’ responses to this arrest. Multiple people whose opinions I trust have expressed outrage that this arrest unfolded with textbook-perfect procedure. Where’s the force, the shouting, the flailing limbs and violent takedowns? Arrest footage seldom makes newscasts anymore if it doesn’t involve disproportionate violence, and good people of upright character, witnessing a by-the-book arrest, notice police malfeasance for its absence.

I understand this reaction. After watching cell-phone footage of NYPD officers choking unarmed Eric Garner to death, Officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott in the back, and Officer Eric Casebolt wrestling a skinny teenage girl into submission, a clean arrest looks suspect. But we must resist the cynical temptation to demand police treat white suspects as badly as they treat non-whites. That attitude essentially considers brutality normative.

The reactions which dominated verbal conversations, text messages, and my Facebook feed, stem from wounded senses of justice. Advancing technology has turned ordinary witnesses into potential journalists. Watching Officer Slager plant a firearm on Scott’s lifeless body, something we’ve read in cop dramas but seldom actually seen, enflamed our sense of umbrage. But if we treat such actions as ordinary, we functionally permit police state tactics.

Officer Michael Slager shoots Walter Scott—a textbook example of how to do everything wrong

My friends’ common reactions, being well-founded, probably deserve some response. So here’s what I’ve heard many people lament about the Charleston church shooter’s notably peaceable, impeccable arrest:
But he murdered nine people!
Remember, from the justice system’s perspective, he’s accused of murdering nine people. Police and other justice professionals cannot treat him as guilty until some judgement is reached, whether through trial, plea, or other legal mechanism. We cannot permit police to assume anyone, even very heinous killers, are guilty a priori, because that’s a slippery slope guaranteed to land on many minorities and other disfranchised populations.
But the police holstered their weapons and approached him with trust!
Yes, and they should have. Many police are trained, and all should be, to de-escalate potentially tense or violent situations. Because cornered suspects may have high adrenaline, they often perform acts they live to regret. Eric Garner, feeling harassed, started shouting and waving his arms; rather than de-escalate, officers applied an illegal chokehold, making an already bad situation worse, even before the hold killed Garner.

Other recent events reflect this trend. Officer Slager drew his weapon on an unarmed suspect, turning a tense situation violent. Officer Casebolt used moves on a bikini-clad teenager that would’ve been appropriate on a PCP-addled bouncer. These situations intensified needlessly, creating hostility that didn’t exist before police action. Pausing, taking a breath, and speaking calmly, as North Carolina officers did, might’ve prevented blowback and saved lives.
But they provided him Burger King!
Admittedly, the optics of police buying the Charleston shooter name-brand fast food looks bad. But judges have discarded otherwise clean arrests because police withheld food from hungry suspects, and most police stations lack kitchens. Starchy vending machine food might’ve looked less awful, but considering current dietary trends, feeding suspects Ding-Dongs may soon constitute an Eighth Amendment violation.

The wrestling move that made Eric Casebolt possibly America's most hated cop

These three common objections, and others similar, stem from having witnessed truly epic police misconduct looped through the 24-hour news cycle recently. We’ve seen cops do truly appalling things and escape official consequences, so often that it looks normal. Police officials—or, in Trayvon Martin's case, guerilla civilians falsely claiming police authority—recently seem a law unto themselves.

But we must avoid accepting such treatment as normative. In demanding police treat this suspect as badly as Eric Garner, offended liberals are essentially demanding more widespread abuse of police authority. People of good conscience should refuse that mindset. The Charleston shooter’s arrest was clean, safe, and legal. It should be the standard, not the exception.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Stop Discussing the Confederacy in the Past Tense

In early December, 2014, a contingent of Missouri residents, led by local NAACP leader Cornell William Brooks, marched from Ferguson, Missouri, to the state capitol in Jefferson City. They hoped to petition governor Jay Nixon, a centrist Democrat, to intervene in the local district attorney’s refusal to prosecute officer Darren Wilson for his part in the death of African American youth Michael Brown. The march took several days.

Brooks and other representatives of the mixed-race march reported receiving mainly warm responses in towns they passed through: placards of support, offers of fresh coffee, and even a few joiners. But tiny Rosebud, Missouri, population 200, received its fifteen minutes of fame when its population proved deeply unreceptive. Media reported that residents showed up to support Officer Wilson. But their unvoiced b-roll also included this chilling image:


Like me, you might’ve noticed the fella wearing the hood. He might’ve arrested your attention, telling you more than you wanted to know about certain darkened corners of today’s American culture. You might’ve been so revolted by this display of the loathsome overlap between those who defend the status quo, and those who engage in naked race-baiting, that you missed the flag behind him. That’s okay, I initially did too.

Here’s a larger shot of what we actually missed:

Clearly this isn’t an ordinary Confederate flag. I remember studying the Stars-n-Bars in middle-grade American history, and I don’t recall any grinning imbecile or any English-language slogans. Something’s off here. Well, that face belongs to Hank Williams, Jr., and that slogan comes from his obnoxious 1988 top-ten country hit “If the South Woulda Won.” Young Hank actually sold those flags on his merch table in the 1980s and 1990s.

Fifty-three years after South Carolina first flew the Confederate flag over their statehouse dome in 1962, a massive bipartisan coalition assembled this week to formally remove it. This removal will take legislation, so expect delays; but even incremental progress matters. After all, South Carolina was the first state to secede in 1860, and among the first, following Reconstruction, to force Black legislators out at gunpoint. So this is legitimate progress.

It only took a subhuman afterbirth assassinating nine African Americans, including one state senator, in church, to motivate South Carolina to stop celebrating the rebellion. But as Hank, Jr., and the Missouri costume aficionado demonstrate, this isn’t a South Carolina problem. And Nikki Haley stiltedly reading her speech off notecards won’t change the underlying problem. That church shooter only accomplished, overtly, what many Americans believe covertly.

Since the shooting, coverage of South Carolina’s Confederate flag has highlighted the Confederacy’s history as pro-slavery, white supremacist, and treasonous. All this is true, certainly. But it discomforts me because it situates Southern nationalism in the past. The League of the South, a very active group, has re-declared Confederate independence repeatedly. They’ve also simultaneously proclaimed Christian dominion, patriarchy, and, implicitly, white supremacy. And they support the Confederate flag.

South Carolina's Confederate flag: off the capitol
dome, but still on statehouse grounds
Despite gleefully praising Confederate independence, Young Hank’s song never mentions race. Directly. However, the song, which essentially comprises Hank’s campaign speech, promises to “take Miami back” from “all them pushers,” ban cars made in China, and (gulp) institute speedy hangings for convicted killers. Does anybody, except the most committedly tone-deaf, doubt Hank means to bust Cubans, Asians, and Blacks?

This is a prime example of what Ian Haney L├│pez calls “dog whistle politics.” Though Bocephus’ racist appeal isn’t explicit, those whom he intended indubitably hear it. And this concept permeates his music. Several songs, including his classic “A Country Boy Can Survive,” include complaints about how crime-ridden cities supposedly are. When Young Hank sings against “a man with a switchblade knife,” he knows his audience pictures a Black man.

Listeners like that headpiece connoisseur in Rosebud certainly do. The confluence of Young Hank’s face, the Confederate flag, the KKK hood, and “support our cops” represents a Mulligan stew of racist imagery without ever dropping an N-bomb. For people like him, the Confederacy isn’t some historical relic whose survival preserves vestigial racism. People like him don’t perceive the Civil War as past. They believe they’re fighting it right now.

Whenever we talk about the Confederate flag’s “history” of racism, it’s tempting to think that means “past.” If you have any doubt that influence remains very present today, scroll back upward. Look at those photos. These men, the secretly race-baiting celebrity and the anonymous fan whose motivations outshine his disguise, never stopped fighting. This war is our war. It’s today. Men like this mustn’t win.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Critical Thinking for the Uncritical

Martin Cohen, Critical Thinking Skills For Dummies

Any book promising to discuss “Critical Thinking Skills” inevitably faces the same problems faced by books discussing “Democracy,” “Education,” or “God”: no agreed-upon definition. Back during my teaching days, critics demanded we teach Critical Thinking Skills, but what that meant depended on whom you asked. Everything from cultural literacy to scientific thinking to the entire Liberal Studies core could fall under that eternally elastic rubric.

For British philosopher Martin Cohen, Critical Thinking Skills roughly correspond with the medieval Trivium of Rhetoric, Logic, and Grammar. That is, Cohen wants readers to effectively organize, stage, and defend their own arguments and debates, while analyzing the arguments of others. Having attempted, with variable success, to teach the Trivium in Freshman Comp, I applaud Cohen’s motivation. But I significantly question his deployment of facts.

In keeping with the “For Dummies” format, Cohen assumes audiences have no prior familiarity with his topic. He introduces concepts with minimal recourse to jargon, and where he requires technical language, he defines every term. In broad outlines, Cohen’s tutorials make good foundations for self-guided study, and he introduces valuable concepts for broader analysis. He stresses important skills, like questioning one’s own presumptions, testing evidence, and differing structures of logic.

While Cohen focuses on generalities and philosophic principles, he’s engaging and informative. Cohen introduces advanced thinkers and up-to-date research, from Plato to Locke to Benjamin Bloom, to support his positions. Many new concepts Cohen cites excite me, making me want to discover more. But without a Works Cited list, source mining becomes difficult. That’s where problems arise, because I know some sources don’t say what Cohen says they say.

As early as Chapter Two, Cohen makes mistakes I easily identify. He misrepresents Daniel Kahneman and Thomas Kuhn. Though he never cites Kuhn by name, he quotes, incorrectly, the concept of “paradigm shift,” a term Kuhn first coined and defined. Not everybody reads such pointy-headed literature, especially not everybody buying a “For Dummies” book, so many people won’t recognize errors. I spot them, though, making me distrust other source citations.

He also defines terms incorrectly. For instance, Cohen defines ad hominem arguments as “Where the views of others are dismissed out of hand.” No they’re not. Ad hominem arguments deflect attention off the claim, and onto the claimant. Though the claimant’s person sometimes matters (elected officials’ party affiliations matter when they criticize one another), serious arguers usually consider ad hominem an attempt to salvage irreparable positions by muddying the waters.

Cohen sadly crossed my biggest line when he accused the BBC of stifling critical thinking on global warming. The BBC recently decided to stop giving climate change deniers equal time, simply because deniers lack scientific basis, and reject a position overwhelmingly shared by working scientists. You’ll literally find more debate in scientific circles about how gravity works, than you’ll find about the reality of anthropogenic global warming.

But Cohen insists the BBC should keep the media debate open because deniers exist, and because—seriously—many deniers are “articulate.” That’s a shitty reason to sustain otherwise resolved debates. Many flat earthers, seven-day creationists, and ufologists are also articulate; yet hopefully Cohen would recognize that forcing Neil DeGrasse Tyson to debate Fox Mulder would waste everybody’s time. Critical thinking sometimes requires excluding nuts and extremists from grown-up discussion.

Worse, keeping debates open inevitably rewards the status quo. Hydrocarbon producers profit when we avoid curbing our consumption, but they know you couldn’t find a climate scientist who disputes global warming (and isn’t paid by the hydrocarbon companies) with GPS and a Michelin map. But they don’t need to win the debate; to prevent you changing your carbon-burning ways, they only need to prevent resolution. See Rampton & Stauber for details.

I spot these discrepancies because I’ve read these topics previously. My reading appetites are omnivoracious, and my teaching experience spurred me to unpack very difficult topics so I could convey them. Readers encountering Cohen’s model anew will, mostly, lack my background, and have no reason to realize he makes incorrect, incomplete, or slanted claims. They’ll lack, well, Critical Thinking Skills enough to analyze Cohen’s argument. Wow, very “meta.”

Because concepts like Critical Thinking Skills lack single, enforceable definitions, it’s necessary to evaluate books like this on their own merits. I’ve attempted to do that. And Cohen’s terms don’t accord with his sources. Many buyers, I fear, will miss these gaps altogether. The results, for our economy, our freedoms, and our democracy, will have disastrous effects. Cohen offers solid principles, but undermines himself with incorrect evidence.

Thinking About Thinking is Harder Than You Think

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Metaphors We Kill For

NBC News reporter Kasie Hunt and South Carolina senior senator Lindsey Graham, 6/14/15
Earlier this week, third-term US senator and declared Presidential hopeful Lindsey Graham (R-SC) took NBC News political reporter Kasie Hunt out shooting skeet. During the extended photo op, with cameras running, Senator Graham identified one clay pigeon as “Bernie Sanders,” Vermont senator and current second-place runner for the Democratic Presidential nomination. After calling pull, Graham shot the pigeon, smirked at its shattered remains, and sneered: “Sorry about that, Bernie.”

Four days later, Graham hurried to Charleston, South Carolina, site of the high-profile and heartbreaking mass shooting at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In the best “kissing hands and shaking babies” tradition, Graham got photogenically tearful over nine unnecessary deaths caused by one race-baiting domestic terrorist (whose name and face I won’t lower myself to reproduce here). Graham seemed unaware that this terrorist had literally done what Graham himself only joked about doing.

Though occasional left-wing blogs expressed predictable outrage over Graham’s clay pigeon stunt, only somebody very partisan and immune to psychology would think Graham literally meant to shoot Senator Sanders. We’ve all punched pillows or chucked rocks while screaming against somebody who’s pissed us off. Well-respected politicians, including Democrats like President Obama and former Texas Governor Ann Richards, have used guns as props for news cameras for years.

However, the accumulation of metaphoric violence surely amounts to something. Besides using firearms as shorthand for political “stopping power,” American politicians are particularly fond of war language. President Nixon first used the term “War On Drugs” in 1971, meaning that at this writing, America has battled a panoply of inanimate substances for forty-four years. The Wars of the Roses, by contrast, lasted only thirty-two years.

America has variously declared war on terror, poverty, and spending. Jimmy Carter declared “the moral equivalent of war” on energy waste. The same year Nixon declared war on drugs, he signed legislation empowering massive spending on cancer research, which advocates consider the opening salvos of the War On Cancer. Which makes me wonder: if chemo sickens a cancer patient to death, which side receives credit for the kill?

This abstraction of war has created very non-metaphorical violence. Some has been official and enjoyed (if that’s the word) lawful approval from American authority systems. Though Congress has exercised its constitutional prerogative to formally declare war only five times in American history, presidents have used their commander-in-chief authority to exercise numerous undeclared wars, first on rebellious hicks, then on Indians, then various peoples worldwide.

The years while America has prosecuted its War On Terror, that is, war against a method of unsanctioned non-state combat, have seen marked increases in civilian violence. According to FBI statistics, “mass shootings,” defined as shootings having four or more fatalities, now happen roughly once every two weeks. They’ve become banal. Only when fatalities reach exceptional levels, like in Aurora, Colorado, or have exceptional circumstances, like in a church, do they even make headlines.

President Lyndon Johnson declared War On Crime in 1965, and pundits have drawn direct lines connecting that declaration and the Ferguson, Missouri, PD suppressing street protests with tanks. But I say the patterns exist even further. George Washington mustered militia to suppress poor farmers during the Whiskey Rebellion only two years after the Constitution was ratified; this blend of taxes and violence presaged mass farm foreclosures in the 1980s.

Atlantic Monthly journalist Robert Kaplan has written that, during peacetime, Oval Office policies probably matter to ordinary Americans less than the policies of the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. That, Kaplan says, explains why presidents (he meant Bill Clinton) engage overseas adventures so readily. But Clinton’s invasion of Haiti, and bombings in Iraq, Kenya, Sudan, and Kosovo all had limited time horizons. They barely qualify as war.

Meanwhile, metaphorical wars declared by presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Carter continue unabated two and three generations later. Succeeding presidents use failures to justify doubling down on bankrupt policies. Science, politics, and history have demonstrated that war metaphors haven’t defeated drugs. However, the metaphorical domestic war has directly bankrolled Mexico’s current civil war (see Johann Hari). Thus metaphorical war translates directly into literal war, prosecuted at two nations’ ongoing expense.

Only fools would suggest Senator Graham’s metaphorical shooting of Senator Sanders literally caused the Charleston church shootings. But it’s impossible to miss the correlation between accumulating layers of metaphorical violence in American discourse, and Americans’ escalating recourse to literal violence. We’ve become a “shoot first” nation, both in political discourse and domestic affairs. And somebody needs to be first in agreeing to de-escalate the language.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

James Bond Vs. Artificial Armageddon

Thomas Waite, Trident Code

When a well-connected Russian hacker seizes remote control of an American nuclear submarine, world powers wonder which city he’ll target. But his ambitions rank much higher than one target: he plans to redraw world maps in one brutal firestorm. Digital security expert Lana Elkins has mere hours to prevent violence literally unprecedented in world history. But when the hacker discovers Lana’s one weakness, a global terror moment turns personal.

Digital entrepreneur Thomas Waite’s third novel combines two real-world security scares in one gripping thriller. Though several authors have recently attempted to spotlight 21st-Century cyberterror threats, none I’ve read before Waite has created a story interesting enough to justify the premise. And Waite pairs cyberwarfare with what the Pentagon has called America’s fastest growing national security threat: the unforeseeable consequences of global warming.

Lana Elkins has saved America from cyberterror before. Her security contracting firm has government contracts, NSA clearance, and international reach. But guardians must anticipate every possible breach in advance to protect their charges; enemies need discover only one weakness to spread unparalleled destruction. Elkins has discovered that enemy, a suave barbarian wealthy, smart, and well-connected enough to be her true opposite number.

Born rich in post-Soviet Russia, Oleg Dernov believes himself unfettered by ordinary morals. Sex, money, and global terror all serve his ultimate goal, power. Now he has Earth’s first privately controlled nuclear arsenal, and permission to fire. But like all self-proclaimed ├╝bermenschen, he overlooks the human details. Can he maintain his empire long enough to blackmail America into compliance? Probably not—but he can inflict unprecedented damage first.

Thomas Waite
Waite engineers a peculiar balance between uniquely modern security fears, and well-trodden thriller boilerplates. This can create jarring disjunctions. I won’t reveal Dernov’s intended target. It’s so unexpected, yet so thoroughly perfect, that you deserve to discover it by reading. Suffice to say, Dernov has discovered a sure-fire manner to threaten billions of lives, destroy economic superpowers, and wipe entire nations away, without firing on one human target.

This economical storytelling panache thus increases my frustration when Dernov struts and swaggers like an early Bond villain. He manipulates others, boasts openly, and wallows in past sadism like you’d recall good sex. Waite creates a groundbreaking, and chillingly plausible, act of villainy, and hands its execution to a cheesy, predictable villain. Dernov practically signposts, from his first appearance, the weakness Elkins will ultimately exploit to dismantle his operation.

What, you thought, through some outside chance, Dernov might win? Please. In series thrillers, the only question is how our heroine will emerge victorious, not whether. Though I must grant Waite one significant accomplishment: he resists the temptation to reduce the villain’s efforts to Pink Panther-like clownish bluster in the denouement. Elkins emerges victorious, eventually, but returns to a world permanently transformed by Dernov’s actions. That’s actually pretty courageous.

Waite also demonstrates distinctly black-and-white morality. Elkins good; Dernov bad. Military good; hackers bad. Women, in Waite’s cosmology, are invariably good, and single motherhood is an especial emblem (eventually) of incorruptible morality. Men, however, are consistently either villainous or neutral, with one fleeting exception late in the book, unless they have official state titles like Director or Lieutenant. One flagrant jerk turns suddenly heroic when we discover his official standing.

This strange duality reaches its apex with someone addressed only as the Russian President. Waite presents this offstage character as ruthlessly amoral, a practitioner of merciless realpolitik, but a master schemer whose ability to organize off-the-books conspiracies makes Caesar’s assassins look small-minded. This strange grudging admiration reflects common right-wing evaluations of Vladimir Putin a year ago, before declining global petroleum demand and a tumbling ruble kicked Russia’s ass.

Keeping timely in our rapidly changing era ain’t easy.

So basically, Waite couches a daring, up-to-the-minute premise in a resurrected Cold War thriller. Some readers will appreciate Waite’s innovative application of today’s changing security threats to a well-worn genre that often resists originality. Others will notice an ethos essentially an entire generation outdated and balk. Me, I found myself rubbing my temples in frustration frequently. What you get from reading depends on what you bring in with you.

I read and enjoyed this entire book. But frequently, I found myself pausing over particular chapters, mostly those highlighting Dernov, thinking: “Oh, Thomas. You really grabbed the easy choice there, didn’t you?” Idealists may struggle through Waite’s more derivative passages. Even the Bond movies have reconfigured their long-successful story formula recently. Approach this book with caution: there’s plenty to like, when you push through the dross.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The End Is Near(er)

Steve Ashburn,The Next Nuclear War: Are We on the Edge of the End Times?

“But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true.”
—Jeremiah 28:9

I promised myself I’d squelch my skepticism regarding end-times literature. Famous Christian eschatologists in recent years, like Tim LaHaye, Harold Camping, and Hal Lindsey, have needed to revise their apocalyptic handbooks—several times in Lindsey’s case, as his prophecies keep not coming true. So okay, books like this aren’t for me. Therefore I swore I’d sideline my theological understanding and read this book entirely “as is.”

Steve Ashburn doesn’t make this easy. His cocksure declaration, from page one, that he uniquely possesses knowledge necessary to decode biblical end-times prophecies, is off-putting, especially since his predictions sound remarkably familiar. His Christian Zionist appeals come almost verbatim from Lindsey and LaHaye. His principles of progressive revelation, finding a historical through-line in non-sequential prophetic writings, is altogether concordant with American Dispensationalism.

Let’s avoid bogging down in theological terminology (like Dispensationalism). Instead, let’s focus on whether reasonable, Biblically literate Christians can take Ashburn’s predictions seriously. That’s no easy sale. Serious Bible readers disagree how literally we should take scriptural language. Much Biblical text was written around the same time Homer composed his epics, and serious, well-informed Christians debate whether and where we’ll find literal versus metaphorical language.

From the beginning, Ashburn prophesies chillingly specific historical events, beginning with a war between North African coalition, under Egyptian hegemony, and Israel. Ashburn finds this in Ezekiel, which prophesies against Pharaoh. Wait, Egypt hasn’t had a Pharaoh in millennia; can something so rooted in ancient days really reflect the day after tomorrow? Yes, Ashburn says, because the prophecy isn’t about Pharaoh, it’s about Satan, who dwells in the Nile.

Ezekiel 29 foretells a situation where Egypt lies desolate, bereft of life, its people scattered abroad and its skies blackened with God’s wrath. Could this perhaps describe the Roman conquest of Egypt, which saw its national treasures looted, its language extinguished, and its identity as an independent nation ended for two millennia? Absolutely not, Ashburn says; we must necessarily interpret this prophecy as Israeli-initiated nuclear annihilation.


Ashburn writes: “The Bible uses in this passage both symbolic and literal meaning—which can be confusing.” Except to Steve Ashburn, evidently. He decodes how we should read Biblical images as unerringly literal. Ashburn actually asserts that images from Ezekiel’s prophecy make sense for literal reading if we realize Ezekiel could see clearly, but couldn’t understand images like nuclear fallout in ancient Hebrew terms. Ezekiel couldn’t understand… but we can.

My pastor once explained Biblical revelation thusly: would you write a letter, knowing recipients would truly understand it years, possibly centuries, later? Probably not. Biblical writers wrote in distinctive idiom, using images and references specific to their place and time. Even when using metaphoric language and indirection, they wrote for their own living audience. We can apply Biblical principles to modern life, but we cannot impose our situation onto ancient prose.

However, Ashburn, like LaHaye and Lindsey, isn’t circumscribed by adherence to boring old fact or logical sequence. Ancient Hebrews received God’s revelation piecemeal, and therefore got portions of apocalyptic omens spread thinly, Dispensationalists believe. We moderns, having gathered separated ancient manuscripts into one book, the Bible, can read holistically as Hebrews couldn’t, permitting big-picture insights that the prophets and patriarchs didn’t share.

Dispensationalist eschatology skips merrily across entire books of the Bible, assembling prophecies like jigsaw puzzles. Though Ashburn anchors chapters to central Biblical passages, especially Ezekiel and Daniel, he isn’t limited by proximity or sequence. One lengthy paragraph caroms from Ezekiel to Obadiah to Joel to Isaiah to 1 Thessalonians to Ezekiel to Revelation to Zechariah, cheerfully heedless that these authors didn’t know one another, and certainly didn’t collaborate.

Then I flung the book.

Notice that list doesn’t include much New Testament reference. Dispensationalists, unlike most Christians, rely heavily on Hebrew scripture as theological foundation. Even New Testament apocalypse, like Revelation or Matthew 24, come second to Hebrew prophecy. Ashburn dips momentarily into Matthew or Paul where necessary, but never lingers. In Lutheran terms, Ashburn’s eschatology is all law, no gospel.

An agnostic friend, who lapses into self-righteousness during religious discussions, recently snapped: “Far too many Christians have no idea what is in the Bible.” I don’t want to believe this. Surely others read Scripture and theology like me. Yet this book relies on Biblical illiteracy and theological confusion. Ashburn reads less like a theologian, more like a fast-talker. It’s an insult to my faith.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Joseph Finder and the Big Boston Cock-Up

Joseph Finder, The Fixer

Fired magazine editor Rick Hoffman thinks he’s lost everything: job, reputation, girlfriend. Then chance leads him to find $3.4 million in unmarked, non-sequential bills inside the walls of his father’s home. Stroke-ridden, former attorney Leonard Hoffman can’t explain the money, and his cryptic notes don’t help. Rick considers it a windfall—until Boston’s Irish Mafia comes calling, threatening grievous consequences. Suddenly Rick must awaken his disused investigative journalism skills before facts come looking for him.

Espionage specialist Joseph Finder stands out among today’s crowded thriller field, partly, because he doesn’t write series novels. Every Finder title introduces new characters, situations, and thrills, never letting audiences rest comfy on prior successes. This entails some risk: this novel’s premise could’ve turned into the straight version of the movie Dumb & Dumber. Though Finder doesn’t entirely shake the “lucky stiff falls bass-ackward into money” stigma, he offers a passably smart and well-paced character thriller.

Initial poking around this mysterious money uncovers secrets about his family Rick probably never wanted to know. He considered his father just another low-rent defense attorney, a necessary but unpleasant tick on Boston’s kiester. However, Rick quickly unearths not only the remarkably high ideals Len Hoffman once sacrificed, but the depths of his descent. Desperate, immobilized Len has ties to Boston’s most carefully buried mysteries. Some will pay to keep them buried; some will kill.

Readers familiar with Finder’s style will recognize certain authorial hallmarks here, especially the complex layering of secrets. If you can trust anything in Joseph Finder’s novels, it’s that you should trust nothing; not only will everybody lie to you, but the people lying received lies previously, so they’re lying about what they’re lying about. Your understanding rests on webs of deceit. Even into the final pages, everything you believe remains subject to complete, wrenching revision.

Joseph Finder
Rick doesn’t belong in this situation. Half lovable schlub, half capitalist burnout, he’s forgotten the ideals that first steered him into journalism. Glossy magazine work, with its snazzy lifestyle and the gifts he bought his sweetie, made him soft, but the Internet publishing revolution stole everything. When money steals the illusions he maintained about his seemingly dissolute but harmless father, it’s another nail in his coffin: he discovers he’s essentially living in a self-made dreamland.

Philosophers and epistemologists could read Joseph Finder’s work and see dollar signs. Finder regularly hinges complex stories on how little anybody knows about anything except by testimony, and how testimony collapses when people lie. From top-level official stories protecting the elite, to society’s most reprehensible denizens taking extreme measures to keep their misdeeds hidden, some people will do anything to keep secrets secret. “Reality” may be the network of lies we use to protect ourselves.

Even this marks Finder as unusual among thriller writers. Crime and espionage novels generally hinge on uncovering the truth, but that typically means collating facts while piercing the lies. Finder’s themes rely on principles more common in science fiction, like The Matrix or Star Trek holodeck episodes: what if testimonials lie? What if everything we believe is real  is wrong? How can we know truth when everyone around us lies? These answers don’t come easily.

In a largely unnecessary subplot, newly single Rick schemes to rekindle romance with a beautiful old flame. Unfortunately, everything he attempts turns out wrong. She demonstrates unerring ability to perforate every scheme he tries: when he judges her for looks, she showcases brains and entrepreneurial ambition. When he flashes cash, she disdains pretension, reveling in hard work and ingenuity. She gradually unpacks for Rick how, for all his lies, he’s deceived nobody more than himself.

I like the idea of this subplot. It has plentiful potential for guy-friendly romance coupled with the harsh light of truth. If Finder wrote it as a separate book, fleshed out to the degree its premise demands, I’d probably embrace it. However, this subplot intrudes on the master narrative so infrequently that it’s mostly just distracting. It serves Finder’s themes, but not his story, and in a book exceeding 400 pages, it probably isn’t necessary.

Finder’s work flourishes, here and in other novels, where our protagonist struggles between comfortable middle-class lies and harsh, unvarnished truths. Rick could abscond with the money, ignore everyone else, and rebuild a comfy life elsewhere. But, still a journalist at heart, he cannot rest easy while somebody else’s story languishes untold. Truth turns him into a champion of justice, even at great personal cost. One hopes Finder’s audiences might find themselves inspired to similar heights.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Dear Facebook—Please Stop Reposting Bullshit

I come by my distrust of Facebook political memes honestly: I got suckered. In early April 2015, I reposted a graphic accusing Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) of saying something so totally tone-deaf, yet so consistent with my prejudices against her, that I accepted its veracity without double-checking. Sadly, it was crap. Senator Ernst never said the quote attributed to her; she wasn’t even interviewed on Fox News, or anywhere else, the day the meme cited.

Everything in here, except Senator Ernst's name, is fake.
Having gotten caught with my trousers around my ankles publically, I’ve become somewhat attuned to sloppy online myth-peddling. Thus, when a story appeared on my Facebook feed this week quoting Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) saying “The Texas floods are caused by Native American rain dances,” my bullshit detector started hitting marked high notes. The Stately Harold included three lengthy quotes, purportedly from a call-in radio show, attributing recent destructive floods to Native American “black magic.”

Several aspects should’ve tripped skeptical readers’ attention. Why, for instance, does the story not identify what radio station Cruz allegedly spoke this statement on? No call letters, no DJ name, no website link, nothing. Considering that nearly every audio broadcast today gets preserved on SoundCloud, Spotify, or iTunes, the prospect of no in-text links seems highly improbable. Legitimate news-gathering organizations generally cite sources; even anonymous links, that traditional cable news bugbear, require some formal verification.

Or how about the website’s name? Many newspapers are called the Herald. Harold is an Anglo-Saxon male name. Like the National Report or Der Postillon, the Stately Harold sounds just serious enough to persuade passive readers. Visit the Stately Harold’s “About” page, though, and you’ll find this disclaimer: “The Stately Harold is a satirical website. None of the stories have a grain of truth to them and the opinions do not belong to real people.”

Senator Ted Cruz, whose name alone is enough
to reduce leftists to gibbering outrage
One can only imagine readers didn’t bother clicking any other links on the Harold story. If they had, they would’ve found claims that, following the FIFA scandal, the World Cup has been cancelled forever. Or Sasha Obama coming out as transgender. Or columns by “20-year-old feminist Cassidy Boon,” whose editorials are a virtual mishmash of fashionable undergraduate outrage in the best Tal Fortgang “I’m smarter than you” tradition. The whole site is veritable left-wing clickbait.

This story, however, managed to trip enough readers’ predilections against Senator Cruz to get rep-eated on social media. The fake quotes sound just enough like something Senator Cruz would say, something just obtuse enough, to ruffle liberal feathers. And it apparently worked exactly as planned. Besides getting repeated on Facebook, within four hours, several people had used Harold’s chosen Twitter hashtag, #CruzRainDance, in all seriousness, proving people will believe anything that panders to their outrage.

I’ve recently commented about how pedophile scares travel faster than police responses. Or how people base economic opinions on umbrage rather than evidence. But let’s say it aloud: facts are sloppy, clumsy, unwieldy beasts. They require people to slow down, think about what they’re saying, and not repeat blithering idiocy. When people post based on outrage, they get hasty. They don’t seek primary sources, don’t separate reality from bullshit, and apparently can’t take a joke.

It’s easy to find examples of this. Three years ago, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office got openly mocked for taking seriously a report entitled “Guantanamo Prisoners To Receive GI Bill Benefits,” first published on satire website DuffelBlog. More recently, an anti-Caitlyn Jenner Facebook post went viral before the original author discovered his chosen photo proved the exact opposite of what he claimed. Anger travels faster than facts; social media’s global reach greases the journey.

Social media creates an environment well-suited to propagating snap judgments and hasty generalizations. Ten, fifteen years ago, we had to type everybody’s e-mail addresses into the “To:” field; ten years before that, we had to actually venture to our local pub or coffee house and hope our friends were physically present to vent our spleen. Now one mouse click can scatter our outrage worldwide, before we’ve double-checked anything. Believe me, I’ve stepped in that trap.

So let’s make a pledge, together, right now. When we see something online so outrageous that it flips our switches, let’s agree to double-check its veracity before clicking “share.” Let’s promise that, if we cannot find primary sources, we’ll at least find corroborating stories, to ensure we’re not spreading bullshit. Our lives, digital and offline alike, are choked with sweltering partisan sewage anymore. Join me in promising to not add to this suffocating environment anymore.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Tragedy Factory

Stephen and Joyce Singular, The Spiral Notebook: The Aurora Theater Shooter and the Epidemic of Mass Violence Committed by American Youth

On July 20th, 2012, graduate student James Holmes entered a midnight movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, wearing tactical battle armor and carrying military-grade semiautomatic rifles; the ensuing gunfire killed twelve and injured seventy. Three days later, the supervising judge in Holmes’ trial slapped a gag order on everybody involved, meaning that, two-and-a-half years later, we still know very little about that fateful night.

Veteran true-crime authors Stephen and Joyce Singular thought they’d seen every depth of human depravity. But as long-term Denver residents, the simple proximity of this attack amplified their heartfelt reaction. They survived Columbine; now they’ve survived Aurora. But events especially blindsided their college-age son, Eric, in ways they never anticipated. So they decided to investigate this shooting, to see what it says about today’s society.

Though violent crime overall has decreased sharply since 1990, "mass" shootings, federally defined as shootings having four or more fatalities, has catastrophically increased. Recent years have seen mass shootings happening, roughly, every two weeks. In 2000, Barry Glassner scoffed at alarmists decrying the “epidemic” of mass shootings. But in 2015, such language is no longer hyperbolic. The Singulars go further, characterizing mass violence events like Holmes’s, not unfairly, as “terrorism.”

Just how typical James Holmes really is remains debatable, the Singulars concede. His crimes are so extreme that legal precedents don’t exist for many trial stipulations, meaning attorneys are venturing into virgin courtroom territory. Yet considering that, six months after Holmes attacked a movie theater, Adam Lanza attacked an elementary school—an event the Singulars consider thematically, if not causally, linked—the Holmes trial’s precedents will have far-reaching legal consequences.

Confessed Aurora theater shooter James Eagan
Holmes, with his attorney
Our authors cannot address the Holmes case directly. They gather information from diverse news sources and collate it between two covers, some for the first time But their Holmes-specific data derives entirely from the public record, thanks to the judge’s unilateral gag order preventing anyone involved, even private citizen witnesses, from speaking with journalists. Therefore, their trial coverage mixes informed speculation with very, very indirect interviews covering… erm… related generalizations.

Therefore, the most informative parts happen when the Singulars step away from the case itself. Guided by their son, Eric, they investigate the culture which nurtured Holmes, Lanza, and their entire generation. During a period where virtually all other crime statistics have decreased, deadly mass violence, mainly perpetrated by young white males, has become painfully ubiquitous anymore. The Singulars’ discoveries, though not wholly unexpected, nevertheless have a deeply chilling effect.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say, and the Singulars don’t, that today’s youth experience a more violent culture. Rather, under Eric’s guidance, the Singulars recognize that, from pop culture to religious anomie to the 24-hour news cycle, today’s youth experience a bleaker, more apocalyptic culture. From dystopias (The Matrix) to emasculation myths (Fight Club) to news coverage of environmental catastrophe, today’s youth see little future approaching, unless it’s deeply diminished.

American youth today work longer hours for lower pay, postpone adulthood to stay in school longer, and have diminished prospects of social mobility. Mental health problems are at an all-time high, while access to mental health treatment is at an all-time low. And in today’s changing media climate, young adults largely don’t share compatible cultural referents with their parents. New media hasn’t just changed society; it’s changed the audience’s brains.

This cultural analysis requires some distancing. From George Orwell’s 1984 to Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, dystopias and emasculation myths have long existed. Work generated reward during Eisenhower’s time, but historically, that’s the exception. Today’s conditions represent a failure of promises parents made to children now hitting adulthood, sure. But I suggest today’s problems differ not in kind, but in consciousness saturation, from generations past.

Nevertheless. Many of today’s young adults face an unremittingly bleak atmosphere, and few easy outlets. James Holmes had no friends, little meaning in his work, and almost complete isolation from neighborhood and community: known causes of significant mental health problems (cf Dr. Stephen Ilardi). And considering the judge’s universal gag order, we cannot even productively discuss how these conditions evolved, much less how to prevent them multiplying in the future.

The Singulars’ account of James Holmes and his culture suffers some irregularities too large to ignore. Its subjective testimony, lack of primary sources, and sometimes naive suggestion that young people really understand their own situation, leaves visible scars on their narrative. But they ask questions we cannot bury by mocking their systemology. Numbers prove violence is more common. James Holmes may be, not an outlier, but a harbinger.

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Ignorance Academy

Allen Ginsberg at the height of his fame and influence
Friends have asked my opinion on a story published late last week, about Connecticut English teacher David Olio. According to The Daily Beast (via Alternet), Olio resigned from the South Windsor School District, after a nineteen-year career, to avoid termination. His offense: he read aloud to his class, at a student’s request, Allen Ginsberg’s frankly inflammatory poem “Please Master” (q.v.), then attempted to engage students in discussion of Ginsberg’s use of imagery, theme, and language.

Existing reports probe Olio’s firing from multiple perspectives. Read them yourself. I’m more interested in what this says about the purposes we invest in education. The texts we read in English classes are never about themselves—just as the formulae we study in math classes aren’t about performing math, experiments we replicate in science class are never about doing science, and plays, madrigals, and paintings we create in fine arts class aren’t about doing art.

The images in “Please Master” are, probably, no more extreme than those Ginsberg used in better-known poems like “Howl” and “A Supermarket in California” though his language is more graphic. Americans, however, have long been squeamish about sexual frankness regarding minors. We often believe, by refusing to discuss sex with youth, they’ll somehow remain spiritually pure and unsullied. I've mentioned this before. Somehow we think they’ll magically avoid cable TV, mall advertising, and locker-room gossip.

We charge schoolteachers with maintaining childhood innocence. Not just regarding sex; social studies teachers get reprimanded for discussing racism. Or we feed students abject intellectual bullhockey, like declaring that a 3000-year-old desert prophet is an American Founding Father. This saying nothing about the incremental disappearance of philosophy, music, and physical education from public school curricula. One starts to suspect that this complex of actions supports some ideological agenda, one which disregards students as developing minds.

It’s easy to ascribe political motivations when we forbid teachers to discuss the harmful effects of racism, or make America’s Enlightenment-era founders, mostly Deists, into Protestant Christians. But I consider these smaller parts of a larger problem. Because it isn’t only history and PoliSci our school boards have muted. The reduction of mathematics and science to rote memorization and “skillz drillz,” or English to merely identifying plot points, misses the reason we study these subjects.

Recent cries have demanded we teach math and science to slot students into engineering careers. Going back at least to my school days, if not sooner, we’ve claimed we teach history to make people informed voters. Not so. We teach subjects, not so students can know those subjects, but because the influences radiate outward. Mathematically literate persons can encounter new problems, break them into steps, and solve them systematically. Science vaccinates minds against magical thinking.

Young Allen Ginsberg, around the time he
wrote his best-known poem, "Howl"
And reading literature analytically teaches us to understand other humans empathetically. Literature professor Lisa Zunshine asserts that immersive reading permits us to adjust our neural rhythms to another person’s timing. Disappearing into a good book, a sophisticated poem, or a nuanced play, lets us step into another human being’s soul. That’s why works about cultural collision, from Huckleberry Finn to Native Son, have become recognized classics: because they permit us to understand other human beings.

Mr. Olio’s discussion of Ginsberg may have, according to news reports, focused on language. But by guiding students into understanding students into considering an expression of love different from their experience, he required them to step outside themselves. What does it mean, the lesson implicitly asked, to love someone so much, you’ll abjectify yourself before your beloved? Can you love someone by tearing yourself down? Ginsberg thrusts these questions at us without providing facile answers.

But established power structures don’t want students empathizing with others. When they realize that society’s disfranchised members—minorities, homosexuals, immigrants, women—aren’t that different from themselves, young people become rebellious, agitating against the status quo. One needn’t even deliberately teach to transgress, as bell hooks puts it; one simply must demonstrate, through art, history, literature, and science, that other people exist. The current pedagogical system resists this knowledge. But it tends to come out anyway.

Many teachers I’ve known take pleasure in “teaching against the text.” Unlike school boards, whose members generally lack teaching experience, teachers are generally dedicated to their students’ growth. They resist instrumentalizing students into economy-serving robots. They strive to cultivate empathy, complexity, and system in students’ thinking. But ultimately, schools don’t serve students. They serve the state, which serves whoever pays its bills. Therefore true mature teaching remains a subversive act—and, tragically, a fireable offense.