Category: News


I’m moving into a new apartment and don’t have internet access right now save for via the cellular network, but I spent all night on my phone scrolling through Twitter and marveling at each fresh outrage. If you aren’t following the #Ferguson hashtag right now, you are blind to the current state of American civil liberties. In brief: a police officer in Ferguson, MO murdered an unarmed Black teenager in front of witnesses, the department hid the shooter’s identity, the citizens gathered for protests and vigils, and the police declared a no-fly zone, brought out armored vehicles and snipers and tear gas, began arresting reporters and destroying cameras, and basically instituting martial law with no meaningful oversight. I’ll update this post with links and more information once I’m at a computer.

Update: And actually, by the time I’ve gotten to a computer, it turns out the situation has evolved so much and so rapidly that providing a full roundup would now be too big an undertaking. Fortunately, media outlets have also finally started following the story, so you no longer have to be on Twitter to see it.

Update 2: Nope, Twitter is still, a few days later, by far the best place for information. Follow the #Ferguson hashtag. And for a reasonable roundup, here’s John Oliver.


PAC-MAN HIGHWAY – Level 1 (gameplay) from NotWorkingFilms on Vimeo.

Reflections on the Announcement that Osama bin Laden Has Been Located and Killed

I stayed up much later than I intended to, streaming C-SPAN, so I could watch the President announce something historic. For reference, here is the video.

I’m still parsing what I think about this, but I have some initial responses.

  • I cannot agree with the President when he says that “justice has been done.” Justice is not and can never be merely an event. Justice is a process, a daytime process. The path of justice is not illuminated by muzzle flashes in the darkness. What was announced last night might be a military victory and an intelligence success. It might even be a great victory and a great success. But I fear the implications of naming it justice.
  • While I am opposed to capital punishment, the killing of Osama bin Laden does not fully engage with those political beliefs. I am not an absolute pacifist. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 I was supportive of military engagement in Afghanistan. As it happens, that engagement was severely mishandled, then all but forgotten while another utterly pointless war was waged, and finally resumed with focus under a drastically different and more fraught geopolitical circumstance. But I believe that military pursuit of people responsible for attacks against civilian targets within our major cities is appropriate. Seen as a military action against an unprovoked aggressor, rather than an act of retributive justice, the killing of Osama bin Laden has a degree of propriety.
  • The killing of Osama bin Laden would have more than just a degree of propriety if the primary goal had been to capture him and actually bring him to justice. That is, bring him to a place where he could be tried and undoubtedly convicted for his crimes. Reuters reports that this was not the case. The operation was a “kill mission;” capture was never the goal. This complicates evaluating the propriety of the act.  The position of the government for the last decade was that Osama bin Laden needed to be “caught or killed,” so his death was always a potential goal. But having made no attempt at capture opens the President to the accusation that the political gain of eliminating such a widely hated figure was valued more highly than the systematized pursuit of justice. Combined with the President’s willingness to claim that this is justice done, I am again troubled.
  • Though I find the direction of leadership questionable and somewhat troubling, I find the effectiveness heartening. A decade of failure at what was repeatedly claimed as the government’s highest military goal had led me to feel there was an essential, pervasive ineptitude to our intelligence and military infrastructure. Now I have the option of viewing the mission to “capture or kill” Osama bin Laden as not a decade-long failure, but as a success that took 2.5 years once our armed forces were being commanded by a competent President. Reducing the scope of government ineptitude from systemic to individual leaves a wide enough crack in my cynical door to let in some optimism.
  • On the propriety of people celebrating Osama bin Laden’s death: it is understandable, and easily forgivable, and wrong. A small wrongness that is not at all worth the spiral of recriminations and defensiveness that I suspect will be the result. The last decade has been an exercise, on a social level, of catering to and encouraging our basest natures and fears. Security theater has become ubiquitous, rights have been adulterated, and tens of thousands of lives have been lost. Though marrying retributive and celebratory urges is an obscenity, it is far less of an obscenity than mass murder. Osama bin Laden’s death is validly cathartic for many, and caring overmuch about how that catharsis finds expression is a waste of energy.
  • What is not a waste of energy: remembering that this victory, to the extent that it is a victory, is a purely symbolic one. One horrible person is dead. As was shown so clearly with Saddam Hussein, a death is not, in any lastingly meaningful way, a mission accomplished.  Just as justice is a process, so is safety, and so is peace. Osama bin Laden was not the dragon hiding in his den, and Happily Ever After does not begin now that he is dead. This is not a story. Something is done, but nothing is easier.

More on Rhetoric and Moron Rhetoric

So it seems clear at this point that the fires of Jared Loughner’s insanity were not directly stoked by the language of violence that the Tea Party uses to excite its base.  (Its use of such language is still wrong, and should still be decried, but it has yet to motivate an actual instance of political violence.)  Rather, he found his legitimizing ideology in the “sovereign-citizen movement,” which posits that the constitution is actually a kind of word game designed to secretly strip people of their rights.  See Mother Jones’s article on the subject for details.

Meanwhile, discussion of violent rhetoric is still the order of the day.  Scott Eric Kaufmann laments that the term is being used seemingly detached from it’s meaning, and has provided a thorough definition.

Finally, Sarah Palin is an idiot.  Having the opportunity to validly criticize those who are attempting to directly tie her to Jared Loughner, she instead hands everyone something new and completely legitimate to lambaste her for.  She has described the things being said about her as “blood libel.”  Because being told that you use inflammatory speech is a lot like being accused of secretly murdering babies.  My favorite commentary on this so far comes from Patton Oswalt, who tweets, “There’s a veritable Holocaust of cream cheese on this bagel. #palin” and by John Scalzi who explores other applications of the Palin Equivalence Filter.

Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Updates

  • 18 people were shot, 6 killed. The dead: John Roll, 63, a conservative federal judge. Dorothy Morris, 76.  Dorwin Stoddard, 76.  Phyllis Schneck, 79.  Gabrielle Zimmerman, 30.  Christina Greene, 9 years old and, in a meaningless but poignant bit of coincidence, born on 9/11.
  • Gabrielle Giffords is still in critical condition, but considered to have as good a prognosis as is possible for someone who has had a bullet pass through the left hemisphere of her brain.  Her surgeon continues to be highly optimistic for her recovery.
  • The shooter was a man named Jared Lee Loughner.  He is 22, and has a YouTube channel which reveals him to be plainly insane.  His videos include claims that the US government engages in brainwashing and mind control by “controlling grammar,” rants that his former community college is “unconstitutional,” long strings of numbers that he uses to conclude some years “can never begin,” and self-congratulatory identification as one of a small group of “consciousness dreamers.”  The videos also contain references to currency and the gold standard that will likely be the basis of any immediate claims of Tea Party affiliation, but to my eyes these screeds are the work of a mind too deranged to be meaningfully placed on a political spectrum.  Transcripts here.
  • Sarah Palin has, rather predictably, chosen to deny that she has ever engaged in violent rhetoric.  She has scrubbed her Twitter feed of her oft-repeated catchphrase “Don’t retreat–RELOAD!”  The party line among her supporters to explain the gunsight map is that the crosshairs are and were always intended to be surveyor’s symbols.  Utterly shameless and insulting, that.

I don’t have further commentary of my own at this time, and as this is the top story in everyone’s mind there are editorials and articles and analysis in all the usual places.  We all know where those are and I’m not going to rehash them.  But there are some other people who I think are saying worthwhile things that I want to link to.

Finally, there’s a small weird personal thing I want to point to, though I don’t really like it.  Yesterday I got an automated congratulatory message for being a “trend setter.” This turns out to be because I was the first person in my geographical area to tweet about Gabrielle Giffords.  I find something about this impersonal message, and the contrast between the content and the context, fairly unsettling.  There’s probably some interesting nuance here, but I don’t really care to try to unpack it right now.  So I’m just going to note it in case I want to return to it later.

Immediate Thoughts on the Shooting of Gabrielle Giffords

US Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot today during a public event outside of a grocery store in Tucson.  As many as nine other people were also critically wounded.  At the time of this writing it is reported that she is still alive and in surgery.  The gunman is alive and in police custody.  No further information on him has yet been released.

It is also coming to light that Giffords was the target of violent rhetoric by Tea Party groups.  Sarah Palin, until taking it down today, had a map online with a gunsight over Gifford’s district and those of several other democratic candidates for the Tea Party to target for defeat.  (The map has been removed from Palin’s site since the shooting.)  Giffords’s political opponent in the last election, Jesse Kelly,  held a “Target for Victory” rally during the campaign that involved shooting fully automatic M16s with the candidate.  And Gifford’s has been the target of violence and death threats before.

As all of the examples of violent rhetoric began streaming across Twitter, I responded by tweeting, “Chastising Palin et al. for inflammatory rhetoric: appropriate. Assuming things about motive behind actual shooting: too early.”  I’d like to expand on that here.

First: the rhetoric is execrable.  It is execrable independent of any specific details of this attempted assassination.  What makes it so unconscionable is that it lowers the activation energy required for people to become radicalized to violent or terroristic acts.  In her thorough and marvelous book What Terrorists Want, terrorism researcher Louise Richardson writes:

It is simply baffling that someone with a background no different from many others’ and a great deal more privileged than most would choose to become a terrorist.  In attempting to understand the causes of terrorism, one must look for explanations at the level of the individual, such as Omar Sheikh, but that is not enough.  Explanations are found at national and transnational levels too.  The emergence of terrorism requires a lethal cocktail with three ingredients: a disaffected individual, an enabling group, and a legitimizing ideology.

Even without explicitly advocating violent activity, by using the rhetoric of violence against their political opponents the Tea Party positions itself to be the enabling group, and perhaps provide the legitimizing ideology, for people sufficiently deranged to radicalize in our highly privileged society.  It is not necessary to openly call for violence to facilitate it, and the Tea Party does.  It needs to stop.

The second part, though, is about our responses to shocking and horrible events.  In this case, directly blaming the Tea Party for the shooting is not yet called for.  All the criticisms I just leveled against them were equally true yesterday.  Meanwhile, the shooter is in custody and we can expect the details of his motivations to come out; making assumptions doesn’t further intelligent discourse, and blaming Sarah Palin for Gifford’s death (I’ve seen multiple messages to this end) is overly reductive — and that’s ignoring the fact that she (thankfully, luckily) isn’t dead.  There will be all the time in the world for anger, for grieving, for recriminations.  But in the absence of detail, let our initial responses be shock and pity and remorse that such things happen, and not to seek in a knowledge vacuum for our own target for blame.

More on this topic as details emerge.

Lawrence Weschler on On The Media

Today NPR’s program On The Media featured a fascinating discussion with Lawrence Weschler on the topic of the inherent fictitious aspects of journalism and nonfiction.  Weschler proposes a nuanced view of what constitutes truth in journalism and nonfiction, but more interesting to me is his implicit identification of the responsibilities of a reader.  Weschler says that as readers we have a responsibility to evaluate works of journalism “as an adult encountering another adult in the world,” which I understand to mean that while we have a right to expect a good-faith effort on the part of journalists, we as readers hold ultimate responsibility for our own credulity. The relevant portion of the program is embedded below.

Good Things on the Internet

Here’s a roundup of some things that are worthy of note.

• The very best thing to happen recently is Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, overturning prop 8 and granting homosexuals the right to marry in California.  The whole decision can be downloaded here, but there are articles all over the place dissecting the good bits.  The most important part, though, is this:

Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples. Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis, the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.

Thank you, Judge Walker, for doing your job well.  And, as C. E. Petit notes, for being willing to take a correct position that will probably make you permanently unable to ever be confirmed to an appellate court.

• It is not a good thing at all that Christopher Hitchens has esophageal cancer which has metastasized and will likely soon kill him.  But his essay in Vanity Fair on the experience of learning about it and getting treatment is as powerful as anything he’s written.  Speaking simultaneously about the side effects of chemotherapy and the militaristic language which is so frequently used when discussing cancer, he writes, “In the war against Thanatos, if we must term it a war, the immediate loss of Eros is a huge initial sacrifice.”  It’s a piece well worth reading.  “Tropic of Cancer.”

• Charles Stross has been thinking some very clever thoughts about the hard limitations of space colonization.  Most recently he has written an excellent explanation of why the practice is fundamentally incompatible with libertarian ideology.  It’s an important reality check against having read too much Heinlein.  (And yeah, I love me some Heinlein, but that joke is spot-on.)

• RadioLab is one of the best programs on the radio, and lately they are increasingly on the internet as well.  To go with a recent podcast they have released a beautiful video exploring the concept of a moment.  Utterly lovely.

More on Don McLeroy, and How Texas Rules Textbooks

In a lovely bit of validation for my “This man must lose his job for the good of the country!” rant of two days ago, the New York Times Magazine has just published a ten page article on Texas education guidelines, with profiles of  Don McLeroy, Gail Lowe, and Cynthia Dunbar.  (Dunbar is perhaps the craziest of them, and briefly gained national attention in 2008 for claiming that Obama was a member of Al-Qaida.  All are still on the board of education.)  The whole thing is worth reading, if only for the portrait it paints of these grotesquely colorful characters.  But the most important thing in it is probably this excerpt from page 2:

But Tom Barber, who worked as the head of social studies at the three biggest textbook publishers before running his own editorial company, says, “Texas was and still is the most important and most influential state in the country.” And James Kracht, a professor at Texas A&M’s college of education and a longtime player in the state’s textbook process, told me flatly, “Texas governs 46 or 47 states.”

This only a local election with regard to who gets to vote in it.  McLeroy needs to go.  There are 19 days left.  Here’s the opposition movement website again: District 9 Citizens for a Smart State Board of Education.

Texas Is For Lovers. Spouses, Not So Much.

So way back in 2005 the Texas legislature, in its alarmingly finite wisdom, passed an amendment to the state constitution to outlaw gay marriage.  So eager were our elected representatives to protect us from the loathsome evil of same sex unions, it seems they may have overshot the mark somewhat and protected us from all marriage. The Democratic candidate for attorney general, Barbara Ann Radnofsky, has pointed out that a clause in the amendment seems to ban marriage entirely.

This state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage.

This sentence is now a part of the state’s constitution.  So it is to be supposed that, for any existing marriages to be legal under Texas law, one must somehow make the argument that traditional marriage is neither similar nor identical to itself.

How I dearly wish Molly Ivins was around for this one.

EDITED TO ADD: For a sense of who Molly Ivins was, and for how absurd things sometimes get on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives, I recommend this nine minute excerpt from the documentary Dildo Diaries about the bizarre doublethink nonsense that underlies our state’s sex toy laws.  Which actually seem comparatively sane in light of this marriage thing. (Probably NSFW.)