A Bit Of Excitement Around Here

On a personal bloggy note, this past week I’ve started seeing signs that Windypundit is once again beginning to draw a bit of attention. The tweet for my post about the attempt to shut down the Bronx Defenders because of a rap video was retweeted by a relatively large number of people, starting with Gideon and Scott, and that post has received about 25 times the traffic one of my posts usually gets. I’ve also received a couple of private “Thank you” emails from Bronx Defenders staff, and David Feige was nice enough to drop by in the comments.

And now I see that Radley Balko at the Washington Post has published an article on the Bronx Defenders’ troubles, and it includes a link to my post and an extended quote from it. That’s pretty cool — getting that kind of attention from a WaPo columnist. Strangely, however, the part of my post that Radley decided to use was my attempt to explore what the lyrics of Uncle Murda’s “Hands Up” really mean. Because, when you’re looking for insights into rap music, aren’t I the first person you think of?

Just call me MC Big Windz. And join me next week when I disclose yet another version of Big Sean’s Blessings, speculate whether Meek Mill’s second studio album can possibly repeat the rambunctious mayhem of his debut, and discuss rumors of an emerging 100th problem for Jay-Z.

Je Suis Bronx Defenders

The Bronx Defenders, a non-profit law firm in New York, are taking some heat because two of their lawyers, Kumar Rao and Ryan Napoli, acted in a few scenes of a rap video which were filmed in the firm’s offices. The song, “Hands Up,” is not my kind of music, but if you want to watch it, here it is:

Just looking at the freeze frame should give you some idea what the controversy is all about. The lyrics include lines like “For Mike Brown and Sean Bell, a cop got to get killed” and “Time to start killing these coppers.”

Needless to say, this has not gone over well with the NYPD, prosecutors, and various other participants in the criminal justice system.

On Thursday, New York City investigators sharply criticized the two public defenders for participating, concluding that they knew beforehand that the lyrics endorsed deadly retribution for the death of Mr. Garner, in July after a confrontation with police officers.

The city’s Department of Investigation also determined that the founder and executive director of the Bronx Defenders, Robin Steinberg, approved the organization’s involvement without reviewing the lyrics and later misled city officials about her role. The city has demanded that the Bronx Defenders, known for its aggressive defense of low-income and minority clients and receives about $20 million a year in city funds, take disciplinary action against the two lawyers by Feb. 4.

I can understand why people would get upset about lyrics that endorse killing cops, and everybody has a right to tell Uncle Murda, Jay Watts, and Maino to take their stupid song and shove it up their ass.

That said, this pisses me off for so many reasons.

For starters, most songs are fiction. I’m not just talking about movie musicals and theatrical songs. Lots of popular music — rap and country more than most, I think —  is storytelling, with the artists taking on a persona as part of the performance. They play a character in a story.

The story told by the lyrics could be true, but it’s more likely to be an exaggeration, if not complete fiction. Eminem didn’t really kill his ex-wife. Bruce Springsteen has a blue collar background, but he’s spent most of his life as a musician, not a factory worker. Alanis Morissette probably gets pissed off now and then, but she isn’t really as angry as she was on Jagged Little Pill. Bob Marley did not shoot the Sheriff, Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno, and NASA is not planning a rescue mission for Major Tom. (It is, however, the dawning of the age of Aquarius.)

Actually, let me step aside from my main point for a few paragraphs to point out something about the lyrics of “Hands Up” that seems to be missed in all the ruckus: Despite what the quoted phrases seem to mean when taken out of context, the song as a whole doesn’t actually advocate shooting police officers. I can’t believe that I’m explaining rap to anybody, but if you’re going to raise hell over a song, you really ought to pay attention to the lyrics. Uncle Murda starts “Hands up” like this:

I spit that shit the streets got to feel
For Mike Brown and Sean Bell, a cop got to get killed

In other words, he’s talking what the urban black community is feeling. People are angry about young black men like Mike Brown and Sean Bell getting killed by the police, and some of them are angry enough to kill cops. A little later, Maino raps about someone more specific:

My lil’ homie told me he ready to riot
Ferguson was on his mind, he ready to fire

I’m too old and white to have any idea what the relationship is between Maino and his “lil’ homie,” but it’s clear that he’s describing someone else’s violent thoughts, which is not the same as advocating violence. (In this, “hands up” is unlike certain other Uncle Murder songs.)

I’m not saying “Hands Up” is preaching a message of non-violence. But neither is it telling people to kill cops. It’s a five minute song about how police killing young black men is making them angry enough to want to respond violently. The video repeats the scene of two young black men pointing their guns at a young white NYPD officer’s head several times, but they never pull the trigger. It’s not advocating killing. It’s saying that people are angry enough to kill.

For that matter, the majority of the song is not about anger or retaliation but about the reason for the anger: Cops killing young black men without consequences. A few more lyrics:

Cause I’m black, police think they got the right to shoot me
No jail for them, their punishment is desk duty

These cocksuckers supposed to protect us
Killing unarmed black men, making mothers holler
And this who the government paying with our tax dollars
All these unjustified shootings
Then they call us animals when we start looting
Those kids ain’t had no gun and the police knew it

Black boys running from white cops
Who are they to determine just if our life stops
Please your honor, tell me if I’m a goner
“I can’t breath, they’re choking me”, words from Eric Garner
You know this shit just ain’t right
My son ask me this morning, “Daddy, we safe, right?” (No)
How the fuck I will tell him we ain’t got the same rights
They put our babies in coffins, this shit just ain’t life

That’s also what much of the video is about, and most of the violence in the video is by police, captured from real life on cell phones. The two public defense lawyers who appear in it are comforting a woman who appears to be grieving.

The New York Times story talks about the Bronx Defenders getting that $20 million a year as if it was some kind of benefit that the city was doling out. It’s important to realize that the Bronx Defenders are the Bronx County public defenders. [Update: They’re actually one of two organizations that provide public defense.] They have the contract to handle indigent criminal defense throughout the borough. They get that money because Gideon v. Wainwright (the Supreme Court decision which established the public defender system) requires the City of New York to make sure that someone does the job that Bronx Defenders are doing. They’re as much a part of the justice system as the police or the District Attorney’s office.

It’s not like the Bronx Defenders spent public money to make a music video about killing cops. Most of their money does come from a pair of government contracts, but the cost of making the video wasn’t actually billed to those contracts. This was just a side project by a few employees who got the boss to let some local rappers make a video on the premises.

The Bronx Defenders do a lot of outreach and get involved in the community, so it’s not hard to imagine that if some employee came to them and said a friend of hers is a video producer who would like to shoot a video in the building for a few hours on a weekend — and would some of the lawyers like to be in it? — they might agree without giving it a whole lot of thought.

Mr. de Blasio, whom many police officers accused of tolerating anti-police rhetoric by some protesters, was pointed in his criticism of the Bronx Defenders, saying that unless the group promptly addresses the concerns, “the city will take all legal and contractual actions available to it.”

The city could cancel its contract with the Bronx Defenders, which serves about 35,000 clients a year.

Last year the city of New York procured more than $17 billion from thousands of vendors, and I’ll bet a lot of them have employees who’ve said things that the Mayor and the NYPD don’t agree with. So why is the city singling out the Bronx Defenders?

I don’t think it’s because of some low-budget video by some moderately successful rappers. This is really about the job the Bronx Defenders do every day. They’re well known for providing defendants with zealous representation and they offer a broad base of services to people who are accused, likely to be accused, or convicted of all kinds of crimes. When they do their job well, they undoubtedly piss people off. And now somebody’s decided to take this opportunity to give them a little payback. The Mayor needs to get the police back on his side somehow, after all.

(Here in Chicago, the Law Office of the Public Defender doesn’t have the freedom to represent people so broadly, so non-profit organizations like First Defense Legal Aid try to step in. When I wrote my post about the 50th anniversary of Gideon about FDLA, I asked the Bronx Defenders Executive Director, Robin Steinberg, for a quote about the benefits of pre-arrest representation, and despite the diminutive stature of Windypundit in the world of legal journalism, she was nice enough to take the time to give me something.)

To be sure, getting involved with the video was a fuck-up. When you’re responsible for providing indigent defense for 35,000 people, you better not do anything that would jeopardize your funding. Somebody — either the lawyers involved or Robin Steinberg — should have done a better job of making sure that the video didn’t have anything in it that they wouldn’t want to be associated with.

At the same time, however, the City’s response is more than a little disturbing. Except where the speech is an intrinsic part of what is being contracted, the government has no business telling people or organizations what they can or cannot say.

I mean, what’s the theory here? That no person or organization that receives money from the government should ever say anything upsetting or controversial? Is that really the standard? Where else would that apply? A bus driver who complains about stop-and-frisk at a community meeting? A construction contractor who gives an anti-gay sermon to his independent church group? Or how about the city’s colleges and universities? Could the city stop a CUNY theater workshop from performing a puppet show that portrayed cop-killing in a positive light? Would anybody even care?

Naturally, the investigators are not admitting that this is about free speech. They have a rationalization:

“If you’re an organization primarily funded by the city, you can’t use your premises and you can’t sponsor videos that call for killing police officers,” said Mark Peters, commissioner of the Investigation Department. He added, “When people in your organization do something that so damages your reputation, it also damages your ability to efficiently advocate in front of judges and in front of prosecutors.”

What a crock. This is a half-assed attempt to rationalize punishing them for their speech by latching onto the only possible justification. And technically, he’s got a point: The Bronx Defenders involvement in the video is Not Going To Help Their Clients, and on that basis it was certainly a mistake.

But let’s be realistic about it. Does Mark Peters know what criminal defense lawyers do for a living? That they defend rapists and murderers? And he’s saying a music video might damage their reputation? I’m just guessing, but I’m pretty sure that the Bronx Defenders have represented more than one actual cop killer. You don’t think that pisses people off? Like anybody who does criminal defense, they’re used to working around much larger conflicts than some stupid video.

And what does Peters mean when he frets about the their “ability to efficiently advocate in front of judges and in front of prosecutors”? They’re not the ones who are so upset about the video. Their advocacy isn’t going to be affected at all. What Peters is really saying is that judges and prosecutors might be so unprofessional as to let their feelings about the video influence their decisions in matters of justice, which could harm Bronx Defenders’ clients. As I’ve said, that’s a fair point, and they should have been more careful, but the Bronx Defenders are not the only problem here.

The report says the Bronx Defenders told investigators that they were prepared to issue all three employees 30-day suspensions without pay and to demote Mr. Rao and Mr. Napoli.

But in a statement, the Bronx district attorney, Robert T. Johnson, deemed those steps “insufficient.”

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association went further, demanding that the Bronx Defenders be shut down.

The district attorney and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association are just about the last people you’d want to influence policy for indigent defense. I’m sure they’d both be happy if the Bronx Defenders were replaced by a more subservient organization.

Ultimately, the Bronx Defenders have to do what is best for their clients, which may mean giving in to extortionate demands. But it makes me angry that they are under pressure over something as stupid as this. The Bronx Defenders are doing important work in their community, and I support them. Literally.

(Hat tip: Scott Greenfield)

DUI Lawyers and Faith In Websites

Matt Brown, a criminal defense lawyer in Tempe, Arizona, has noticed that a lot of local lawyers have websites that get the law on concealed weapons wrong.

Every single lawyer website I visited had misstated the law.

Fortunately, the law has become more permissive, so nobody who believes what they read on the lawyers’ websites will think it’s legal to do something that will get them arrested. Still…

[…] I still see the pervasive misinformation on this as a big problem. At best, it makes lawyers look like idiots. At worst, it seriously misleads the public.

Sadly, it’s just how things work now. People find everything online now, including lawyers. Garbage on the internet with the right keywords brings in business. If you or someone on your behalf isn’t spewing client-attracting terms everywhere, cluttering search results with marketing nonsense and drowning out the seemingly ever-shrinking number of lawyers actually trying to say something thoughtful online, you’re losing money. I don’t know if it makes it more depressing or not knowing that lawyers probably didn’t even write half the crap I read. It’s probably some web guy copying something some other web guy put up.

That’s my theory.

I’m not a lawyer, so unlike Matt Brown, I can’t generally spot legal errors in marketing materials — unless they’re really obvious, such as a California lawyer blatantly trying to inflate his Avvo stats by explaining how bail bond companies work in Illinois. (Follow the link if you want to know why that’s a problem.)

When it comes to the web guy copying something from another site, my go-to example is Jerald Novak & Associates, whose website at iwindui.com has this question and answer on its FAQ page:

Q 4: Should I submit to a chemical test? Can I refuse?

A: The police officer cannot force you to submit to a chemical test. However, if it is found that you refused the test, your Illinois Driver’s License will be suspended for a one-year period by the Department of Motor Vehicles no matter what the outcome of the court case is. You have the right to a hearing to contest this suspension and must request this hearing within ten (10) days from the date of your arrest.

Forget whether you can be forced to take the test, or what the suspension period is, or how your hearing rights work. Just know this: There is no such thing as an Illinois Department of Motor Vehicles. All that stuff is handled by the Illinois Secretary of State’s office, which has both a Driver Services department and a Vehicle Services department.

This doesn’t mean that Jerald Novak is a bad lawyer. I’m no legal expert myself, and I know nothing about him other than what’s on his website and his Avvo profile. For all I know, he’s an excellent lawyer. (Just as, for all I know, Jerald Novak & Associates actually has associates, although none are listed on the firm overview.) But since he got his bar card way back in 1987, he clearly didn’t grow up as part of the internet generation, and I’m guessing he sees his website as just another piece of marketing. Like a billboard, but in “cyberspace.”

He certainly doesn’t take his website seriously enough to actually read it, or to correct the problems with it, since I first noticed the issue six years ago while Googling around for information about Illinois DUI law for a post I was thinking of writing, and in all that time, nobody’s bothered to fix it.

I decided to look around a little more, and I noticed the website repeats its use of the wrong department on the page about suspended or revoked licenses. These could, of course, be simple editing mistakes. The Department of Motor Vehicles, or DMV, is a common generic term for whatever bureaucratic entity handles things like driver’s licenses and vehicle tags in a state, and it’s possible the copywriter slipped it in by accident, and whoever reviewed it didn’t notice because — although it’s the wrong term for Illinois — it means the right thing.

But then there’s the glossary page, which has a specific entry for “DMV”:

DMV – Department of Motor vehicle (Driver Control Division of Illinois Department of Revenue)

That’s pretty clear. I don’t see how you miss that on review. And I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing as the Driver Control Division in the Illinois Department of Revenue. (In Illinois, the Department of Revenue does income tax collection and has nothing to do with driving.) Googling around a bit, it looks like the “Driver Control Division” might be a Kansas thing.

I noticed a few other terms in the glossary that struck me as odd:

Cereal Malt Beverage – 3.2 Beer, not liquor store beer

DC-27 form – Officer’s certification of failure or refusal of alcohol test. The DC-27 form is also referred to as the “pink sheet” or the “officer’s certification”.

DC-28 form – Law enforcement officer’s certification of breath test failure for minor with alcohol test of .02 or greater. The DC-28 form is also referred to as the “pink sheet” or the “officer’s certification”.

When I Google each of those terms, I don’t see any immediate hits showing up on Illinois information sites or DUI sites, but I get plenty of hits referring to Kansas liquor and motor vehicle laws.

Jerald Novak’s site was apparently built by Speakeasy Marketing (which I have to say is an awesome name for a creator of DUI lawyer websites) and the material on their front page includes this item:

You don’t have to blog AT ALL. No need to write even a single word, even though your website will grow to have 70,000+ words / 120+ articles of quality content effortlessly.

(Your website will become a go-to, trusted source of content about your practice areas, containing dozens, and eventually hundreds of articles that attract, inform, and compel Google searchers to call you for legal help.)

I wonder how that’s supposed to work. How is a website marketer supposed to produce “70,000+ words / 120+ articles of quality content” for a lawyer’s website without the lawyer having to write a single word? The answer is actually kind of a neat idea:

You spend 1 hour talking about a practice area and answering common questions. We record, transcribe, and edit the call, and turn it into 15-20 unique articles and place it on your website.

I’m pretty sure that’s not going to produce the kinds of articles someone like me would actually want to read. (Feedly shows only one reader subscribed to it.) But it will produce the kind of new content that Google likes, and it does so with content actually sorta kinda created by a real lawyer instead of a team of ghost writers in Belarus, which seems like a reasonable attempt to stay on the right side of an ethics line. They also offer to turn some of these interviews into a short e-book that visitors can download, as an additional marketing technique.

(Note to editor: Insert obligatory plug for Brian Tannebaum’s book here.)

I’m pretty sure that the references to a non-existent Illinois government department on Novak’s site are not the result of an interview. Speakeasy Marketing’s own website doesn’t appear to have been around long enough for them to have been responsible for the problem when I first noticed it in 2008, so I think they just imported the content from an earlier version of the site, where I think the web guy may have cribbed the content from some Kansas DUI lawyer.

It may seem that using the wrong name for the department that administers driver’s licenses is a trivial mistake, but to me it’s a warning sign. Novak’s site is filled with details about Illinois DUI law and procedures that are far beyond my non-lawyer ability to evaluate. So if I were to use any of the information on the site, it would be an act of faith. Yet if one of the few things on the site that I can evaluate is wrong, how much faith can I have in the rest?

Illinois Schools Hate Your Children’s Privacy

Illinois recently passed an anti-bullying law that some school districts are interpreting as granting some disturbing powers, according to a story at Motherboard by Jason Koebler:

School districts in Illinois are telling parents that a new law may require school officials to demand the social media passwords of students if they are suspected in cyberbullying cases or are otherwise suspected of breaking school rules.

The law, passed as HB 5707, apparently does not specifically say schools can demand student social media passwords, but school districts appear to be acting under the belief that it interacts with a bill from the previous year.

That law states that elementary and secondary schools must notify parents if they plan to ask for a password, and that it can be asked for if a student violates policy. The cyberbullying law codifies the idea that Facebook harassment is a violation of code policy, which is why you see these letters popping up.

I only glanced at the legalese briefly, but it seems to me that most of the violence to student privacy is done by the earlier law, with the more recent bill only adding the bullying element.

Edwin C. Yohnka, Director of Communications and Public Policy for the Illinois ACLU, tells me the anti-bullying bill (which his organization supported) doesn’t actually give schools this power:

The story about the single downstate school district was, of course, disturbing. That said, that school district badly misread their authority under the new Illinois law. As the sponsor of the measure made clear in several public statements this week, the intent of the law was never to permit school districts to gather social media passwords for students. Those social media accounts would, as one might expect, include lots of personal information that the school district should not be accessing.

That hasn’t stopped Triad Community Schools Unit District #2 from putting on the jackboots:

Leigh Lewis, superintendent of the Triad district, told me that if a student refuses to cooperate, the district could presumably press criminal charges.

“If we’re investigating any discipline having to do with social media, then we have the right to ask for those passwords,” she said.

“I would imagine that turning it over to the police would certainly be one way to go. If they didn’t turn over the password, we would call our district attorneys because they would be in violation of the law,” she added. “That would only be in some cases—we’d certainly look at the facts and see what we’re dealing with before we make the decision.”

This is wrong on so many levels.

If a student is using social media to send bullying messages, investigators can read the messages from the victim’s account. And if they’re private messages that aren’t part of the harassment of the victim, then officious meddlers like Leigh Lewis have no business reading them without a warrant.

I don’t know why they think they can treat social media differently from other communication methods. If students used the U.S. Mail to send letters (as your grandparents did in olden times) schools wouldn’t be allowed to read them. Nor would they be allowed to tap students’ phones without a warrant. But somehow they think social media is different. Somehow they think digital communication is less protected. (And legally speaking, it probably is. Which is something we ought to change.)

I’ve been living life in the digital world for over thirty years, and the idea that someone could be forced to give their password to a total stranger feels like an incredible violation. The gall of these bastards. They say they’re just interested in bullying, but they want to see everything.

To a heavy user of a social media site like Facebook, letting a stranger use your account is like letting a stranger into your home. It’s like letting a stranger rifle through your wallet, dump out the contents of your purse, and paw through your underwear drawer. They’ll be able to read every message your child sent to everyone they know. In addition, they’ll also get to read every private thing that your child’s family and friends shared with them in confidence, thus violating the privacy of innocent bystanders.

With the password, school district officials could gain access to anything any of you might share over the social network — private thoughts your children shared with friends, information about medical or psychological problems of family members, titillating details of your child’s sexual experimentation, what you really think of some of your kid’s teachers, your off-the-cuff comments about your boss, a photo of that time you let them drink a beer with you, passwords to other computer systems that someone sent in a message — the list goes on and on.

And once they have the password, they will be able to assume your child’s virtual identity. (It’s probably not legal, but who would stop them?) They can delete stuff they don’t like, they can interrogate your child’s friends in the guise of your child, they can ask family members for sensitive information. Furthermore, major social media credentials often serve to control access to other web sites (e.g. “Login with your Facebook account”), giving them God-only-knows how much access into your child’s life.

I’m seething with anger over the depth of this violation of privacy. I don’t have kids, but my gut reaction is that you should respond to a school’s password demand as if they were demanding to see nude pictures of your child. If that means you punch them hard in the face again and again until they go down, and then kick them in the ribs until they cough up blood, all while reciting Jules’s “Lay my vengeance upon thee!” speech from Pulp Fiction…that would be wrong. Don’t do that. It’s a very bad idea. (But have I mentioned that this makes me angry?)

My gut also says you should tell your kid to borrow a legal strategy from Saul Goodman and repeat this key phrase: “That’s not my social media account.” Or say they can’t remember the password. Or give up the password and then change it a minute later “for security reasons.” Or give control of the account to someone outside the jurisdiction. Or…

Sadly, those are also bad ideas. Technical hacks of the law don’t work very well in the real world legal system. They may sound clever, but judges don’t have much appreciation for clever. They tend to see it as contempt or obstruction. Don’t do anything clever.

But if you have the resources, and some school authorities try to pull this shit, don’t let them get away with it. If some school employee tries this crap on you, call a lawyer. There are serious Constitutional issues here, so you might be able to get a public interest law firm to take it on for free.

But…if this makes you as angry as it does me, and you’ve just got to do something…I think there’s a pretty good argument that people with no respect for your privacy have no grounds to complain about theirs. If some school official forces your child to give up their privacy, don’t keep it a secret. Call them out on that shit. Name names. Give out contact information. To get you started, the contact page for the Triad school district is here.

(Hat tip: Robby Soave.)

Of Experts and Explainers

The Volokh Conspiracy blog has finally made the move behind the Washington Post paywall, and that led to an interesting comment on Twitter by conspirator Orin Kerr about the change in audience from being an independent blog to being part of a major media outlet:

I think we’ve gained some and lost some. I’m worried we lost the law nerds and gained general interest readers.

As Roger Ford adds,

Skimming down the site now, it sort of reads like “Eugene Volokh explains the legal news for lay readers.”

The original Volokh Conspiracy site had long been a source of intelligent discussions about legal theory, but with its new larger and more varied readership, it has apparently become less focused. Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice explained the change in more detail:

Forgive me for digressing, but my thoughts are best expressed with some context. While VC historically highlighted legal scholarship from a somewhat conservative libertarian perspective, it did so with a touch of realism, in connection to real world events, that made it relevant to what practicing lawyers do, as well as judges who decide such matters. VC was the nexus between theory and practice.

SJ is written from the criminal defense lawyer perspective, which meant that it tended to be too rough and vulgar for academics. From my perspective, the critical audience was fellow CDLs; that others, from lawprofs to civil lawyers to non-lawyers, didn’t really matter.  To the extent I was concerned about other people’s views, it was the views of my colleagues, my brethren.

That VC has abandoned its effort to connect academic theory, even with its libertarian tilt, with real world practice, and instead sees its future as persuading the groundlings to embrace its theories, makes no sense to me at all.

Does that mean the ridiculous drivel dished out by Paul Cassell will be the norm?  Does that mean Eugene will no longer offer First Amendment analysis of any depth?  Does that mean Orin will only use small words and abandon trying to explain the mosaic theory?

That’s a common area of tension that shows up in many fields, including the sciences: There are people who are important in their field, and there are people who are experts at explaining their field. There’s not much overlap.

Some of the explainers achieve a degree of fame, but when you look at their scientific contributions, they haven’t usually made major contributions to their field. Carl Sagan was not one of the world’s greatest astronomers, and Neil deGrasse Tyson is not one of the great astrophysicists. Much the same can be said of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker in their fields, and Bill Nye The Science Guy is more of an engineer and inventor than a scientist.

I’m not saying these people are idiots or fakes. I’m sure they all did their jobs very well, and they’ve usually contributed something original to their fields, and all of them by definition are good at science education of some kind. Nevertheless, they usually aren’t among the top experts in their fields in the opinions of other experts in their fields.

The real experts are rarely well known to the public. Except for major historic figures like Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin, most of us wouldn’t recognize the names of important research scientists unless they have stuff named after them like Heinrich Hertz and Alessandro Volta or because they have entered popular culture, such as Erwin Schrödinger, known for his cat, and Werner Heisenberg, known for his uncertainty principle (and now for also cooking crystal meth). In their time, however, they weren’t well known to the public.

(Because the major contributors to scientific fields are generally not known to the public, I’m pretty much guaranteed to have characterized someone as an explainer rather than a major contributor because I am unaware of their important contributions to a field other than my own. Sorry.)

By way of example, my background is in computer science, and I think I can come up with a few very important contributors to computer science that you probably never heard of, such as Edsger Dijkstra, Donald Knuth, C.A.R. Hoare, Fred Brooks, Grace Hopper, and Niklaus Wirth. You probably know Noam Chomsky, but for his politics rather than for his influence on computer science, and everyone seems to have heard of the Turing Test for artificial intelligence, but that was not Alan Turing’s most important contribution to computer science.

The division between contributors and explainers often occurs within academia, in the split between teaching and research. Economist Steven Landsburg illustrated the difference between these groups by analogy to a cocktail party involving two groups of people: The researchers are like a group of people in the center who are talking to each other about all the interesting things they do, whereas the educators are are all standing around the edges, talking about what the group in the center has been up to. (I may have mangled this a bit.)

Landsburg asked readers which group they’d rather talk to: The interesting people in the center or the people at the edges who talk about what the folks in the center are doing. To him, the answer obvious answer was that you’ll want to talk to the people in the center, and that’s why students are better off joining academic departments that do research.

I think that misses an important point: Talking to the group in the center is only the best choice if you can understand what the people in the center are talking about. A student new to the field is unlikely to benefit from discussions that assume half a decade of education in the field. More to the point, there’s a difference between understanding complicated subjects, and knowing how to break down complicated subjects into simplified component bits of knowledge that can be taught to students.

One of my introductory calculus classes was taught by a professor who was one of the most important researchers in the math department. It was a terrible class. I have no doubt he understood the subject, but he had no idea of what it was like to not understand calculus, and he was consequently incapable of explaining it to us. Rather than using carefully crafted examples to illustrate how calculus works, he would make up ad hoc problems that required us to spend a lot of time thinking about ancillary issues. The homework problems would be straight out of the lesson plan, which was not always what he had been teaching us. The disconnect was especially bad on the test questions — I’m convinced that some of them required us to know things he didn’t realize he hadn’t taught us yet.

There’s also the question of whether the people in the center will be willing to talk to people who know very little about the subject. After all, they also want to learn the cool new stuff, and that means they have little time for newcomers who can teach them nothing interesting. Serious research professors are known for having crappy office hours.

Switching back to my own field, software development, as an experienced software engineer, I would probably have trouble figuring out how to teach an introductory course in computer programming. For example, when I approach a programming problem, I might think about many aspects of it at once — algorithmic correctness, efficiency, resource consumption, parallel processing, network traffic, database architecture, interface design, scalability, generalizability, separation of concerns, layering, composability, opportunities for refactoring, testability, and so on. I’m not trying to brag. Those are all things that pretty much any experienced software engineer will keep in mind, and they are things that all developers should learn about.

However, it would be a mistake to try to teach someone computer programming from the ground up by teaching them about all those things at the same time. A good teacher would probably start with some foundational skills such as expressions, control structures, and basic class design before moving on to details of the language and the runtime library and then some of the bigger-picture organizational concepts.

Every field needs both kinds of members — those who do it well, and those who explain it well. Those who do it well sometimes look down on those who teach it, especially since the teachers often lack the detailed knowledge of the practitioners, and they often make mistakes. These errors and omissions are a problem, and they should be corrected, but when it comes to teaching a field of knowledge, a skilled teacher who gets some parts wrong can still impart more information to an audience than a skilled practitioner who knows everything but doesn’t know how to explain it.

For example, in discussing the weather, we refer to the relative humidity of the air. The basic idea is that air has a temperature-dependent maximum capacity for moisture — the higher the temperature, the more water the air can hold — and relative humidity expresses how much water is in the air as a percentage of the maximum theoretical capacity.

This concept explains thinks like why items in the refrigerator frost over when you leave the door open — the warm room air cools down, which reduces the water carrying capacity below the amount of water already in the air, forcing the excess water vapor to be deposited as “sweat.” This is also why air conditioners always have to drain off water: The suddenly cooled air can’t hold the water and deposits it on the evaporator coils.

This model also explains why we run humidifiers in winter — your furnace warms the air, which increases it’s water vapor carrying capacity, but your furnace doesn’t actually add water to the air. Since relative humidity is the amount of water vapor in the air divided by the maximum capacity, and only the capacity is increased, your furnace reduces the relative humidity of the air, and it feels too dry. A humidifier adds water vapor to bring the relative humidity back up to comfortable levels.

Further, the human body’s cooling system relies on sweat evaporating from the skin to carry off heat, but if the air is already near its carrying capacity, there’s no “room” for the sweat to evaporate, so your body doesn’t cool enough. This is why dry heat is more comfortable than hot and humid weather. It’s also why we set out thermostats warmer in winter than in summer: The heated air is drier, so evaporative cooling makes us feel chilly unless we bump the temperature up a bit.

This “carrying capacity” model of humidity is widely known, it makes sense of a lot of things we observe about the world, and it is routinely taught by school teachers. And yet it is almost completely wrong. The real explanation of what’s going on is considerably more complex and harder to understand, unless you are used to thinking about systems in equilibrium and know some basic physics of gases.

To be sure, the correct explanation is much better. It can be expressed analytically, and you can use it to solve real-world engineering problems, where it will give accurate answers across a broad range of scenarios. And yet most people can get by with the simple but wrong explanation, because it’s good enough. And in this case, good enough is easier to teach.

Understand, I’m not defending teaching people things that are wrong. That’s always a bad outcome, and in fields like medicine or law, it can be dangerous. What I’m saying is that often someone who’s good at explaining things can be a better educator, even if they make some mistakes, than someone who gets everything right, but can’t get it across to anyone else.

And sometimes it’s not so much that they can’t explain it as that they won’t explain it or they don’t have the time to explain it. We can complain about some of the questionable neuroscience in Carl Sagan’s Dragons of Eden, but most real neuroscientists are busy doing real neuroscience, and they don’t have time to answer your questions or write a popular science book. We can poke fun at law professors who reveal their lack of practical knowledge when they go on talk shows, but most experienced trial lawyers are too busy practicing law to answer questions about the latest trial in the news. In both cases, as long as they don’t actively make people stupider, we’re better off with them than without them.

As for the Volokh Conspiracy, I don’t read enough there to follow what’s going on, but if they are changing their target audience from “law nerds” to general interest readers, that’s going to disappoint the nerds, but maybe it will bring a smarter, more rigorous explanation of the law to lay readers.

McWhores!

At The Honest Courtesan, Maggie McNeill notes a human trafficking propaganda infographic by Haisam Hussein that includes this map, which shows sex trafficking hot spots:

TraffickingMap20150114

This pattern looked familiar… Watch what happens when I overlay the sex trafficking hotspots with another geographic data source. The overlay’s not perfect, because the maps use different projections, but I think a clear pattern emerges:

McDonaldsTrafficking

The other data source is a map of every McDonald’s location in the United States. Note that every single sex trafficking hotspot corresponds to a cluster of McDonald’s restaurants. The conclusion is obvious: McDonald’s food is turning our women into whores!

The obvious alternative explanation — that McDonald’s restaurants are caused by sex trafficking — can be easily disproved by noting the presence of McDonald’s clusters in places that the sex trafficking map shows as prostitution-free, such as Minneapolis, Portland, and Dallas. Clearly McDonald’s are the causative variable.

(The suggestion that maps of sex trafficking and McDonald’s restaurants are really both just maps of the U.S. population is clearly a deceptive tactic by sex trafficking apologists trying to downplay the magnitude of the crisis. Pay no attention to it.)

So alert the media, write your Congresscritters, and start the #EndMcWhoreDemand hashtag campaign now! Our children’s future is at stake!

Free Speech From a Friend of the Blog

Over at the Friendly Atheist, my sometimes co-blogger Rogier van Bakel (a.k.a. Terry Firma) comes out of the closet with some harsh words about media outlets that congratulate themselves for standing up for free speech but refuse to publish images of the controversial Charlie Hebdo cover even in stories specifically about it.

To Publish or Not To Publish

Rick Horowitz has an interesting post about his decision not to display any Charlie Hebdo cartoons in his post about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Er, in other words, his post about the Charlie Hebdo massacre consisted of an explanation of why he wasn’t posting Charlie Hebdo cartoons in his post about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. (Did you follow that? It was all very self-referential. Anyway…) I thought about that myself when I wrote my own post about the Charlie Hebdo attack, and I decided to include just a single image.

I had thought about a similar issue a few years ago, when writing about threats against the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten which had published cartoon images of the prophet Mohammed. In that case, I didn’t see a reason to include any of the images under discussion. As my regular readers are no doubt painfully aware, Windypundit is mostly just a lot of words. I don’t normally include images unless I have to. So the way I saw it, there were only two reasons for including the images in a post: (1) News value, and (2) saying “Fuck you” to assholes.

I have no objections to saying “Fuck you” to assholes, but posting offensive images risks saying “Fuck you” to the wrong people. If a racist politician used the N-word in a speech, and some kind of black militant group assassinated him for it, I see no problem with telling them to go fuck themselves, but I wouldn’t use the N-word to do it. I may want to say “Fuck you for being a terrorist,” but the N-word says “Fuck you for being black.” It’s the wrong message in so many ways.

The same is true for the offensive images of Mohammed. Instead of saying “Fuck you for being a terrorist,” I might inadvertently be saying “Fuck you for being a Muslim,” which is not at all the message I want to send. So when writing about the Jyllands-Posten images, I decided not to use the images to say “Fuck you”.

The Charlie Hebdo images were slightly more complicated because I didn’t even know how to tell if they’re offensive. Translating from the French is the least of the problems. Things like racist epithets and stereotypes are culturally defined in a complicated way, and I wouldn’t have a clue what constitutes anti-Arabic or anti-Muslim material in French culture. The cartoons are not drawn realistically, but I can’t tell which oddities are considered racists stereotypes and which are just the Charlie Hebdo style. Some people say the cartoons are racist and others say they’re just over-the-top satire, and I don’t know who to believe. It’s a messy situation.

It is for this reason that I reluctantly did not sign on to Marc Randazza’s “We are Charlie Hebdo” post. I understand what he’s doing — Randazza is a Kung-Fu master of “Fuck you” — but I felt that by signing onto the post I would in effect be signing onto the messages in the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and I don’t even know what those messages are.

I realize not everyone who publishes the images (or signs on to Randazza’s post) feels they are endorsing the content of the cartoons, but that’s how it felt to me.

The other reason for including the offensive images would be if they have legitimate news value. When writing about the Jyllands-Posten images, I thought the actual images were marginally relevant, but there’s no point in embedding a dozen images in a post when I would normally just link to them. Embedding the images would be gratuitous, and therefore just a “Fuck you,” about which please see the previous few paragraphs.

Pretty much the same line of thinking applied to the Charlie Hebdo images, except that the slant of my post was that the people making the images were pretty bold in the face of censorship and violent opposition. In particular, I thought it took big brass balls to publish this image right after their offices were firebombed:

Love Is Stronger Than Hate

That’s got to be a giant “Fuck you” to the (presumably) homophobic religious nutcases that would firebomb a magazine because they didn’t like the cartoons, and I felt you really have to see the image to understand the magnitude of the message. That’s why I included it in the post. (And of course you need to see the image in this post to understand why I felt that way.)

I have to admit that posting that image also allowed me to issue my own small “Fuck you” to the terrorists in a way that I hope wouldn’t unintentionally offend anyone who doesn’t have it coming. Also, I hope it will be enough to get me past the inevitable gormless trolls who insist that anyone who doesn’t publish the images is a coward.

Je ne suis pas Charlie

I am not Charlie.

Honestly, until this shit happened, I didn’t know a damned thing about Charlie Hebdo. I don’t have a clue what Charlie Hebdo stood for, so I’m not about to identify myself with them or support their editorial agenda, whatever it is.

Besides, in my mind, “I am Charlie” links to the scene in the 1960 film Spartacus where rebellious former Roman slaves refuse to identify their leader Spartacus by all claiming “I am Spartacus!” thus consigning themselves to be crucified alongside him. That’s real dedication to a cause. And as Matt Welch points out, Charlie Hebdo was run by badasses. Their own government went after them for offensive speech and they fought back and won. Muslim extremists firebombed their offices, and six days later they responded with this:

Love Is Stronger Than Hate

(“Love is stronger than hate.”)

By comparison, I’m publishing this blog from the middle of the United States of America which is still — despite all the problems detailed here on a regular basis — a bastion of free speech. The worst that’s ever happened to me for something I wrote is that people left nasty messages in the comments or said mean things about me on their blog. The worst that’s ever likely to happen to me is that I have to find another job because my employer doesn’t like something I wrote. If someone shoots me, it’s more likely to be my wife than terrorists.

Look, whatever Charlie Hebdo stands for — I don’t know or care what it is — I stand by their right to believe it and say it and publish it. It’s insane to kill someone for drawing comics and saying mean things. The gunmen who shot the Charlie Hebdo writers and artists are a bunch of terrorist assholes, and I want them all to die in a fire.

But my saying so doesn’t get me any points for bravery. I’ve got it easy. I realize that many of the people posting “I am Charlie” don’t mean it this way, so this is not a knock on them, but to me “I am Charlie” feels like trying to portray myself as having courage on a level that is simply not required for what I do. My world is not that dangerous. I am not Charlie.

Should It Be a Crime to Hate Police?

One of the implicit assumptions I make here is that the criminal justice system is not exempt from the general principle that social institutions enforce social norms. In a society hostile to minorities, giving authorities another law to enforce is giving them another way to punish minorities. Even a law intended to help minorities can end up hurting them if the intended effect is overwhelmed by oppressive enforcement.

This especially applies to laws against hurting people’s feelings, such as laws that punish “bullying” or offensive (but non-violent) behavior, or even laws that increase the punishment for “hate crimes.” Although these laws are nominally intended to protect the powerless, they are part of a system that tends to protect and support the powerful, often harming the powerless in the process. That latter effect can swamp the intended purpose of the law and do more harm than good.

I think I first really understood this after hearing about Canadian anti-pornography laws premised on the feminist theory that pornography was a form of hate speech which harmed women. Among the first people to be prosecuted under these laws was the owner of a gay and lesbian bookstore — no doubt to protect women from the inherent misogyny of the materials sold there.

I’m  bringing this up because of a recent proposal for extending the federal hate crime law:

Violence against police officers that is motivated by anti-police bias should be prosecuted as a hate crime, the nation’s largest police union is arguing in a letter to President Barack Obama and Congressional leaders this week.

“Right now, it’s a hate crime if you attack someone solely because of the color of their skin, but it ought to be a hate crime if you attack someone solely because of the color of their uniform as well,” said Jim Pasco, the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police.

I’ll bet supporters of hate crime legislation didn’t see that coming. It never occurred to me that in the face of increasing complaints about police militarization and rough treatment of citizens, police unions would agitate for greater punishment of people who attack them.

I’m not sure it even makes sense to talk about “anti-police bias.” I know they mean someone who hates cops, but it’s not as if cop is an innate human attribute like race or gender, and it’s not a system of belief or a group you can join like a religion. Cop is a job description. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing either the requirements of a public service job or the way particular employees perform at it.

“Enough is enough! It’s time for Congress to do something to protect the men and women who protect us,” Chuck Canterbury, the president of the union, said in a statement Monday. The group has long lobbied for harsher punishment for those who harm law enforcement officers.

Indeed they have, and very successfully. Anyone who kills a police officer is already subject to the harshest possible punishment, which is often the death penalty, and that’s only if they live long enough to be captured. So what do the union bosses really want?

I assume much of it is just grandstanding for the rank-and-file. That tends to explain a lot of bombast by the heads of any organization. But I think there’s probably more to it.

The FOP newsletter mentions several murdered police officers, and some dodgy news coverage talks about treating “killing cops” as a hate crime, but the language used by the union bosses talks only about “violence” and “attacks.” Furthermore, as near as I can tell, the federal hate crimes laws apply to a pretty broad range of aggressive acts that fall far short of murder, and some hate crime laws apply even to relatively minor property damage (to address things like spray painting swastikas on a synagogue). It sounds like even minor crimes against police could be treated as hate crimes if there was evidence the offenders didn’t like cops.

To me, this seems pretty clearly targeted at protesters. There’s certainly nothing wrong with charging them when they do something violent or destructive, but it’s important to keep a sense of proportion. With the proposed changes, if the laws are interpreted broadly enough — and you know police will interpret the laws broadly — every thrown object, every shove at a riot shield, and maybe even every vandalized patrol car could be charged as a hate crime, subject to the same kinds of harsh punishments we intended for Nazi skinheads and Klansmen who burn crosses on people’s lawns.

2014 in Review

According to WordPress, 2014 was a slow year, with only 114 posts, almost a quarter of which were on a Saturday. And for the first time in years, the #1 post was not my anti-Sprint rant. Instead it was my post about the protests in Ferguson. In addition to the usual social media outlets, I owe Popehat and Gamso for much of my traffic.

My most active commenter was Allison Williams, or rather, the Indian outsourcing firm to which Allison Williams’ internet marketing agency gave her link building subcontract. The second and third most active commenters were Scott Greenfield and Jack Marshall, which probably annoys both of them. Matt Haiduk and nidefatt round out the top five. The rest of you didn’t make WordPress’s list, but I thank you all…or at least all of you who are real people. It would get lonely here without you.

Furthermore, here at Windpundit, 2014 was the year in which:

That was most of it. See you all in 2015!

 

More On Cops, Protesters, and Racial Bias

In a previous post, I criticized Jack Marshall’s post about the connections between protesters and cop killers. Jack tried to respond, but apparently my comment system is acting up again, so he emailed it to me.  I started to write a response, but I guess Jack decided he had enough material for a full blog post, so I’ll respond to that instead. Or at least as much of it as I can. As it is, it’s taken me a while to put this together, and in the meantime Jack has posted several more pieces about the protest movement. Serves me right for arguing with a guy who thinks about these things for a living.

Two quick notes before I get started: First, I do need to back off on something a bit and apologize. When I was drafting that first post, I started with quotes from several people who had tried to blame the shootings on activists and protesters. When I added Jack’s rather substantive post to the mix, it grew so long that I decided to shorten it by leaving out the other statements. Those other quotes could, I think, have fairly been referred to as smears, but if I’d been more careful, I wouldn’t have left the word “smear” in as a characterization of Jack’s post. Smearing implies lying about someone to make them look bad, and while I disagree with what Jack says, I don’t think he was lying. His post was sincere and substantive, and I was careless not to change that before publishing. (Sorry, Jack.)

Second, to get an idea of where Jack is coming from, I encourage any of my readers with an interest in this topic to read Jack’s original post, then my response and then what Jack has to say about it. (To get even more of an idea where Jack is coming from, you might also want to read a post where he blames Obama for declining race relations, another post where he argues the protests aren’t really non-violent, and just for fun, a post from 2012 where he argues that Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s 0% approval from black people means blacks are racially biased.)

At the end of Jack’s post he lists several reasons why he thinks mine fails:

It fails because it adopts the straw man that the issue is merely police abuse, rather than police racism that culminates in the murder of blacks, as part of a larger racist culture.

I’m not quite sure what Jack is getting at here. He seems to think that whenever I or some of the protesters refer to “police abuse” we’re really using code words to disguise the fact that we’re accusing the police, and by implication the justice system and American culture in general, of anti-black racial bias.

My post had several paragraphs about racial bias, so I thought my position would be obvious, but I guess I’ll have to be more clear: Yes. I’ll own that. I am accusing the police, the justice system, and American culture in general of anti-black racial bias. As I explained, it’s not all police, it’s not everyone involved with the justice system, and it’s certainly not all Americans, but there’s enough racism in the mix to justify vigilance.

I’m not talking about white supremacist groups like the Klan, which have been pushed out onto the fringe for decades — and which really got their asses kicked when millions of white Americans voted for a black President. I think that kind of powerful organized racist thuggery is gone for good.

Nevertheless, I think there’s a systematic and often callous disregard for black interests, black welfare, and black lives, and this has led to laws, policies, institutions, attitudes, and individual decisions that add up to a powerful, but not necessarily intentional, racial bias.

Getting back to Jack’s summary of my post’s failures:

It fails because it continues to rationalize the “hands up” narrative,

Jack asserted that protestors were wrong to protest because there was no evidence of racial bias after the Michael Brown shooting, but the fact that multiple witnesses were saying he had his hands up is actually pretty good evidence of racial bias. That this evidence eventually didn’t pan out very well doesn’t mean protesters were wrong to make some noise about it when it was the leading account.

(Also, it’s not as if Mike Brown is the only unarmed black man alleged to have been shot with his hands up. Sometimes there’s video, as when Trooper Sean Groubert fires a final shot at Levar Jones while he is backing away with his hands up. Jones lived, and Groubert is facing felony charges.)

because it conveniently ignores the Trayvon Martin references—which have nothing to do with police–in the rhetoric of pundits and activists.

It is because they have nothing to do with the police that I ignore the Trayvon Martin references.

It fails because it can’t explain, if the issue isn’t race, why white victims of excessive police force aren’t part of the discussion.

It’s black people who show up in large numbers at the protests, it’s black civil rights leaders who are leading the major protests, and the slogan is “black lives matter.” Of course the issue is race. I didn’t think anyone was trying to hide that.

The racial issues overlap with the issues of over-criminalization and police militarization, which are of considerable concern to those of us with libertarian leanings. There is some tension between the groups, with each side feeling that the other is addressing a side issue, but a consensus position might be that police have too much power and control over our lives, which they sometimes abuse, and that this is worse for blacks than for whites.

Most all, it fails because the underlying belief that the simple fact of a white individual taking action that results in negative consequences for an African-American is evidence of racism is racism itself.

It’s certainly not enough to prove racism, but it’s one of the requirements. More importantly, it’s not just about individuals taking action, it’s about the last 400 years of black people in America, at least 350 of which were pretty damned awful.

Further, police departments have a long history of racism. I don’t know if it’s worse than in society at large or if the racism in police departments is just scarier because cops hold positions of trust and authority. Studies generally show that black people are stopped by police more often, they’re searched more often, they’re arrested more often, they’re jailed more often, and they’re shot by cops more often. Even skeptics like John Lott admit there is some evidence to suggest that police disproportionately kill black people, and that comports with the reported experiences of black people. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio did not invent the idea of parents instructing their black children to be extra-careful around police officers.

(And lest you think that was all in our disgraceful past, black NYPD officers talk about how they’ve been treated by police when out of uniform.)

Now let me respond to a few other points…

“It’s not like the civil rights advocates, activists, journalists, and pundits are just making stuff up.”

Sure they are! They are made up the narrative that Brown was harmless, and used a photo that made him look like Gary Coleman.

What, any photo where he doesn’t look like a straight-up gangsta is a lie? So Jack, if the cops gun you down, which photo of you should they use? For me, I want this one:

Back to Jack:

They treated the “hands up” story, which came from Brown’s pal, as if it was fact. Then after it was shown to be unreliable, they continued to treat it as fact, and do to this day. I guess it doesn’t count as “making stuff up.”

The sentence Jack quotes about “making stuff up” was in response to his putting “police shooting unarmed black men” in scare quotes. My point was that the protesters were not making up the pattern of police shooting unarmed black men. There was solid factual basis to their accusations, in the form of a bunch of unarmed dead black guys.

That said, I will certainly concede that some of the activists are liars. In fact, maybe it will clear up a bunch of the conflict between Jack and I if I say that as long as we’re talking only about Al Sharpton, I don’t much disagree with his point. I’m old enough to remember Sharpton’s involvement in the Tawana Brawley mess, and while he seems to have mellowed since then (or just gotten more careful), that’s not saying much.

It might not be clear from my original post, but I’ve never been a Mike Brown true believer. From my very first post on the shooting of Mike Brown — before the grand jury report, before we knew the officer’s name, before we knew much more than that a cop had shot an unarmed black kid — I was saying the shooting might be justified, or at least an understandable. I haven’t read the grand jury report, but I gather from other people that it tends to confirm that the shooting was justified.

Personally, I think it’s been a mistake for those accusing police of racism to pin so much of it a single incident. on Darren Wilson’s shooting of Mike Brown, since the facts were far from clear. On the other hand, I don’t think it was unreasonable to question the shooting early on, and I don’t think it was unreasonable to accuse Wilson of some form of murder in the court of public opinion to keep the pressure on.

This brings me to what Jack calls my “second worst argument.” I wrote:

“However, Jack’s assertion that Michael Brown activists should not have made accusations before the investigation was complete is hypocritical nonsense. He is making that assertion in the middle of a post in which he accuses civil rights leaders and activists of creating the atmosphere that motivated cop killer Ismaaiyl Brinsley. In other words, just hours after the shooting — long before the NYPD investigation could possibly be complete — Jack claims to know who the murderer was, why he did it, and the identity of the people whose anti-cop rhetoric supposedly influenced him to do it. Jack is doing exactly the same thing he’s criticizing others for doing. The next time a cop kills an unarmed black man, should we hold Jack accountable for creating the conditions that made the cop fearful?”

Jack responds:

In the case of Wilson, he was publicly accused, with nothing but the testimony of Brown’s accomplice in crime and a proven liar, of executing an unarmed man who was in a position of surrender (that was after Darion Johnson abandoned his earlier claim that Brown was shot in the back, and that Wilson fired a final shot into him, execution style, as he lay on the ground). When I wrote about Ismaaiyl Brinsley, there was no substantial question that he was the killer, and the evidence of his Instagram message announcing his intent and motivation was online for all to see.

None of which contradicts my point that the investigation has not been completed. I was being a bit pedantic, but I stand by my point that Jack is drawing conclusions and assigning blame without knowing everything possible about the shooting, which is the same thing he complains about.

In any case, saying that the protesters in Ferguson should have waited until the investigation was complete is dodging the issue. Getting all the facts is important, but sometimes the people urging you to wait until the facts are in are the same people who are trying to keep you from ever getting the facts. The Ferguson police department went into “Our officer did nothing wrong, nothing to see here, move along before we gas you” mode almost immediately. Without the protests and press attention, I’m not convinced this would have ever gone to a grand jury.

Jack actually provides an example of this in his comment, when he mentions the killing by cops of a white guy named John Geer and wonders why no one is interested in that case. That’s a good question. That’s not the first suspicious police shooting in Fairfax County, Virginia, where authorities have refused to identify the officers involved or explain why the victims were killed. (Since I wrote that post, the officer who killed David Masters was identified and fired.) When a secretive group kills people in other countries, we call it a “death squad.” Although I don’t really think the Fairfax police are engaging in an organized murder campaign. It would be nice to not have to take their word for it.

Perhaps if protesters had taken to the streets after the killing of John Geer — before the investigation was complete and all the facts were in — we’d know more about what happened to him.

Jack is critical of black leadership for not doing exactly that — for not taking up the cause of unarmed white people killed by police under suspicious circumstances — but that just seems like a case of people choosing their own priorities. Black leaders are organized to fight for causes that affect black people, and about 95% of the young men killed by police are black. If we demand they expand the scope of their operation, then why not insist they also address the problems of Palestinians in Israel, or Shiites in Sunni-controlled territory (or vice-versa), or North Koreans in North Korea? (Or if they want to help black people, how about helping black people in Africa? Because really, if you want to help black people, forget marching in the protest line. Spend the same amount of time on a part time job and donate your earnings to fight African Malaria.) Better to let people choose their own priorities.

And he was already dead. I wasn’t contributing to the conviction by rumor of a man who hadn’t been yet shown to be guilty of anything, and would have to live with the results.

No living individual at risk? You don’t think Al Sharpton, Mayor de Blasio, Eric Holder, and Barack Obama aren’t getting a lot more death threats now that so many people are blaming them for two cops being killed? I’m sure there are nutcases out there who are forming feeble-minded plans to kill them. (Although, if history is our guide, if anyone does respond violently, they will more likely kill some random stand-in victim that is easier to get to, just as Brinsley did.)

This brings me to my worst argument, according to Jack. I wrote:

“This is not the first time Jack has criticized activists for claiming there was racial bias in the Michael Brown shooting when ‘there is no evidence of this at all.’ Technically speaking, Jack is plain wrong. As Jack more-or-less admits, the simple fact that a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager is evidence of racial bias. It’s not very strong evidence, and it’s subject to interpretation and possible refutation by other evidence and testimony. But it’s still evidence.”

Jack responds:

I never “admitted” any such thing.

Crap, he’s right. I was referring to his statement that “There is no evidence that Brown or Garner, or other shooting victims like John Crawford or 12-year old Tamir Rice were shot because they were black, except that they were black,” which doesn’t quite get me where I thought it did. I’ll expand on this in a minute.

The fact that a white man ends up killing a black man is no evidence of racial bias at all, unless you believe, as the activists do, that whites are inherently racist.

There’s a little more to the evidence than that. Let’s restore a couple of details that Jack seems to think are irrelevant: (1) I wrote “white police officer” not just “white man,” and (2) I wrote that the black person was unarmed. So now Jack’s question should not be whether whites are inherently racist, but whether white police officers are inherently racist. Further, “inherently racist” is not how I would describe the police. Perhaps a more accurate phrase would be “historically racist.” I think that’s pretty much undisputed.

Put all that together, and here’s the worst-case description of what happened to Mike Brown: A member of a group with a history of racist violence, equipped with a sidearm, possibly body armor, and several non-lethal weapons, confronts an unarmed and comparatively vulnerable black man on the street, and despite having a car which can be used for either cover or escape, he gets out and chases the black man down the street and shoots him dead. We have a lot more details now, some of them very important, but I believe that is an accurate summary of what we knew when the story broke that weekend in Ferguson. Further, I don’t think anything in that version of the story is contradicted by anything Officer Wilson has said since.

Obviously, that is by no means a fair version of the story, but suspicions never are. If my wife were murdered by an unknown assailant, police would almost immediately suspect that I had killed her. They would begin investigating me, even if they had no particular reason to suspect me, purely because of the long history of husbands killing their wives. Without any other evidence, the mere fact of her death at the hand of another would be enough evidence to raise their suspicions against me, and those suspicions would guide their investigation. By similar reasoning, when a cop kills a black man, that alone is reason to take a careful, suspicious look at the incident.

Every homicide, including by police, is either an accident, self-defense, or murder. If a cop shoots a guy six times, we can rule out an accident, which makes it either self-defense or murder. Cops shoot lots of people in self-defense, so that seems like the most likely explanation. But given that the dead guy didn’t have a weapon (and lacking a definitive narrative), we should at least consider the possibility that it wasn’t self defense, which brings us to the question of motive. Why would a white cop murder a black guy? There’s whole list of possible reasons, but unless there’s some history between them, racism is right near the top.

Does a white judge sentence a black prisoner harshly? Racism. Does a white superior reprimand a black subordinate? Presumptive racism. Does a black candidate for a job fail to get hired by a white interviewer? Must be racism. A white cop gives a black driver a speeding ticket. Well, look at their colors, man! Racism! Is a white blogger convinced that a black President is a catastrophic, epic, tragic failure? Isn’t that racism? I’m told it is, almost every day.

Statistics matter. History matters. Is there a history of white judges sentencing blacks more harshly than whites? Does the white manager have a history of reprimanding black employees more than white ones? Does the interviewer have a history of rejecting qualified black candidates? Do the police have a history of using their discretion to ticket more blacks than whites? Does the blogger have a history of anti-black racism?

If that answer to any of these questions is “Yes,” that still doesn’t prove racism in a specific instance, but it’s a reason to take a closer look.

Merry Christmas!

Just a little local color:

Quicken, WTF?

The other day I was doing some household bills in Quicken, and I ran the update step to download data from all my financial institutions. Reviewing the charges on my main credit card, I spotted one that really stuck out from the rest: A $250 charge to match.com.

Uh, oh.

I’m a married man, and although I’ve never actually asked my wife her opinion, I’m pretty sure she’d frown on my dating other women. And I’m pretty sure match.com wouldn’t let a married guy like me join. (That’s what Ashley Madison is for.)

In any case, I know I never setup a match.com account. Apparently, someone had gotten ahold of my credit card number and was charging stuff to it. Oh man, this was going to be a mess. I’d have to cancel that card, and I’d been using it for everything (reward points, don’t you know). I’d have to change it on a couple of dozen web sites at least, and hope I didn’t miss something important, like my phone or internet bill.

As I was logging into the credit card website to get contact numbers and take a look at the account, I started to wonder why they had charged match.com. I’m pretty sure professional credit card thieves will buy stuff that’s easy to fence, like consumer electronics, jewelry, or car parts. Amateurs might buy something just to have it, but what could they do with a match.com account? If they actually tried to use it, it would be easy for authorities to catch them — just make a date. It didn’t make sense.

I wanted to have a list of fraudulent transactions before calling, so I pulled up the list of pending transactions on the website to see if there was anything else suspicious. There wasn’t. And as it turns out, there was no charge from match.com either.

Quicken has this feature for importing data from financial institutions where it renames the often somewhat confusing merchant identification to something more user-friendly. So, for example, it will rename “Shell Gas #3486″ to just “Shell Gas.” That’s easier to read, and if I happen to stop at five different Shell gas stations, it conveniently groups them under a single payee. Generally, it’s helpful.

In this case, however, I had recently donated money through my employer’s corporate matching program, and they outsource the administration to a company that runs a website called easymatch.com. For some reason, Quicken thought that “EASYMATCH.COM DONATION” should be changed to match.com. (Their online service, mint.com, does the same thing.)

So, false alarm. Whew. But dammit, Quicken, that wasn’t smart at all.

Of Protesters and Cop Killers

On Saturday in New York City, 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley reportedly shot and killed police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu while they were sitting in their patrol car. This tragic shooting has quickly become politically charged because it happened amid nationwide protests against police violence in the wake of several controversial shootings shootings of unarmed black people. Brinsley killed himself, so nobody can ask him why he did it, but there is apparently some evidence that he believed he was avenging those killings. The story is still developing.

I knew there would be people who would take Brinsley’s reputed motive and use it to smear protesters and activists who had spoken out against police abuse. I wanted to write about that, so I looked to one of my better sources of stuff to blog about, Jack Marshall at Ethics Alarms, and he did not disappoint. [Update: An earlier draft of this post included several examples of people smearing activists, but the post was getting so long that I deleted them, and through carelessness I ended up with this paragraph that basically calls Jack’s post a “smear,” which is a bit too far. However much I disagree with Jack, his post was a legitimate opinion piece. Sorry, Jack.] He has posted some observations about the shooting that I’d like to respond to.

1. The dangerous escalation of rhetoric and the persistent misrepresentation of facts by civil rights advocates, activists, journalists and pundits made this kind of episode nearly inevitable. You cannot flood the airwaves with constant references to “police shooting unarmed black men” as if there was an organized racist liquidation of blacks by police in the streets and not risk sparking violence from the hysterical, the deranged, the angry, the lawless and the desperate.

There wouldn’t be constant references to police shooting unarmed black men if police were not, in fact, shooting unarmed black men. Michael Brown, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Dante Parker, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley. All African Americans, all reportedly unarmed, all killed by police. (Police killed Parker and Garner by means other than shooting, and Rice was too young to be called a man, but neither of those things makes it better.) Some of the killings may have been justified, or at least understandable, but they were killings of unarmed black men nonetheless. It’s not like the civil rights advocates, activists, journalists, and pundits are just making stuff up.

2. The irresponsible “hands up” protests did not cause these deaths, but they probably helped create the conditions that led to them. The shootings of the two NYPD police don’t make the false “hands up” lie—which continues to assert that Michael Brown was executed when the evidence indicates he was not, and that there was racial bias involved, when there is no evidence of this at all—any more unethical, reckless or irresponsible than it already was. It was wrong from the beginning. It was wrong to assert these things before what happened in Ferguson had been investigated, and it was wrong to keep asserting them after it was clear that they were unsubstantiated or false.

Jack might have a point about “hands up” now. Although most witnesses do say his hands were up, there’s a reasonable argument that it was a posture of attack, not surrender. And since the grand jury declined to indict Wilson, suggesting that they found the shooting to be justified, it seems likely that they didn’t believe Brown was surrendering.

However, Jack’s assertion that Michael Brown activists should not have made accusations before the investigation was complete is hypocritical nonsense. He is making that assertion in the middle of a post in which he accuses civil rights leaders and activists of creating the atmosphere that motivated cop killer Ismaaiyl Brinsley. In other words, just hours after the shooting — long before the NYPD investigation could possibly be complete — Jack claims to know who the murderer was, why he did it, and the identity of the people whose anti-cop rhetoric supposedly influenced him to do it. Jack is doing exactly the same thing he’s criticizing others for doing. The next time a cop kills an unarmed black man, should we hold Jack accountable for creating the conditions that made the cop fearful?

I think the answer is obvious: Of course not. Jack is entirely justified in commenting on this incident. Vigorous discussion of matters of public interest is not just allowable in our free society, it is necessary for the proper functioning of a democratic government. By discussing these issues, Jack is being a good citizen, as are the people who are criticizing the police.

3. The response to the shootings by those who have continued to suggest racist murder by police in specific incidents absent any proof, and in Brown’s death, in defiance of the known evidence, continues the theme. Al Sharpton, who is a prime offender, wrote..

“I am outraged at the killing of 2 police officers in Brooklyn. That is why we stress non violence as the only way to fight for justice.”

Despicable. “Justice,” in this context, suggests that the killings are in response to injustice, and that the injustice is the intentional and racist killing of unarmed black men.

How much do you have to hate Al Sharpton to get angry at him for denouncing the use of violence against police? Geez.

Sharpton’s use of “justice” of late is well-publicized: “Justice for Mike Brown, ” “Justice for Eric Garner,” Justice for Trayvon.”  This phrasing, setting off the murders of the police with “fight for justice” continues the lies, misrepresentations and manipulation of public opinion, especially among African Americans. There is no evidence that Brown or Garner, or other shooting victims like John Crawford or 12-year old Tamir Rice were shot because they were black, except that they were black, which for Sharpton and others like Eric Holder, is enough.

This is not the first time Jack has criticized activists for claiming there was racial bias in the Michael Brown shooting when “there is no evidence of this at all.” Technically speaking, Jack is plain wrong. As Jack more-or-less admits, the simple fact that a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager is evidence of racial bias. It’s not very strong evidence, and it’s subject to interpretation and possible refutation by other evidence and testimony. But it’s still evidence.

In addition, shortly after Brown was shot, several alleged eyewitnesses claimed that Wilson shot at Brown’s back, and that Brown’s hands were raised in surrender. These witness statements are evidence too. They are subject to interpretation, impeachment, and refutation, of course, but remember that these statements were undisputed by any other public witnesses for months. (There were some accounts of witnesses making contradicting claims in private statements, but these were second- or third-hand, not on-the-record statements to the press.)

Granted, even if Wilson had shot Brown in the back as he was fleeing, that wouldn’t prove a racial bias — he could have murdered him for some other reason — but it’s not an unreasonable inference. More generally, just because Wilson wasn’t shouting the N-word while shooting a fleeing Mike Brown in the back and wearing a “White Power” T-shirt doesn’t mean that the incident was entirely free of racial bias.

Jack seems to be laboring under a common misunderstanding of what activists are complaining about when it comes to police treatment of black people. Activists are not accusing police of a coordinated conspiracy to murder helpless black people. And for the most part, they’re not even saying that the individual police officers who killed unarmed black men did so to fulfill their desire to murder a black guy. They realize that even the Ferguson police are not the KKK.

(Of course, some people have said these things — the world is full of people saying stupid things — but that’s not the thrust of the main activist movement. Likewise, there certainly have been cops who probably murdered black people out of racial hatred, but those aren’t the people that most police supporters are defending.)

The main accusation against police is not that they are racially-motivated murderers, but that as former FBI agent William W. Turner wrote in The Police Establishment in 1968, “Since its inception, the police establishment has conducted itself more as the agent of the power structure than the servant of a pluralistic society.” Here in the U.S., that tends to play out along racial lines.

In white neighborhoods, police see their role as protectors of the community, cracking down on criminals who would disrupt the peace and harm the good citizens. But in black neighborhoods, so the argument goes, police see their role as keeping the population under control. Thus black people have stories of being questioned while sitting on the stoop of their own homes, or of being stopped for walking with their hands suspiciously in their pockets, or of being ordered to disburse for daring to gather in small groups on the street corners. In the past few months, police in Ferguson arrested black people for stopping while walking on the sidewalk and tear-gassed black people standing in their own fenced-in yards.

Activists argue that this disregard for black people makes cops less hesitant to escalate the level of force. If Tamir Rice had been a white 12-year-old boy instead of a black one, would Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann and his partner have approached the scene in a way that gave them more time to assess the situation instead of driving right up to Rice and jumping out to shoot him? If John Crawford had been a white guy carrying a toy gun through Walmart, would the cop who shot him have given him more of a chance to explain himself and surrender instead of shooting him almost immediately?

If Eric Garner had been an overweight white guy like me instead of an overweight black guy, would New York police have taken his complaints about not being able to breath a little more seriously? If Michael Brown had been a white teenager, would Officer Wilson have made the same decision to chase him down the street, knowing that he would have to kill Brown if he resisted arrest? If Ezell Ford had been a mentally ill white man, would police have struggled to control him long enough for help to arrive instead of shooting him?

You don’t have to be a cop hater to think that in at least a few of these cases, things would have turned out differently if the cops had been dealing with white people. That is the essence of the general complaint about racial bias by the police. That is why protesters say black lives matter.

Each of these is also a separate case in which “justice” is a complicated mess of facts and law, with no societal conclusions to be drawn or clarified by considering them together.

That’s true for criminal cases, which must be considered in isolation. But it’s not true for broader concepts of justice when considered as a matter of public policy. In policy analysis, patterns matter. Medical science does not allow us to determine which particular cigarette gave a smoker lung cancer, but we know damned well that smoking causes cancer. Just because we can’t point to a specific cop who killed a black man and say with certainty that it is a racially-motivated murder doesn’t mean that we can’t observe the pattern of cops killing unarmed black men and say that there’s something damned wrong going on.

Similarly, Ferguson protest leader Deray McKesson tweeted…

“I do not condone the killing of the two NYPD officers today. I do not condone the killing of unarmed black people. I do not condone killing.”

Also despicable. He, like the alleged shooter Brinsley, is drawing a false equivalence between what may be legal shootings by police unrelated to color and the killing of the two officers, who were not black, in response.

Jack’s reaction to this is just unhinged. McKesson and Sharpton are both denouncing the killing of police officers. They are saying that killing cops does not serve their cause. And in Jack’s mind, this is linking the police killings to the cause in some sort of false equivalence.

Granted, the cold blooded murder of officers Ramos and Liu is a terrible crime, without question. But some of the things police officers are being accused of are pretty terrible too, even if they don’t quite rise to the level of first degree murder. As Jack points out, the police killings may in fact be legal, but then again, they may not be. (Officer Peter Liang, for example, looks like he might do time for killing Akai Gurley, although that crime doesn’t seem to have any racial component.)

And even if the killings are legal, that doesn’t mean they’re morally right. Lots of terrible things that people do to other people are perfectly legal and yet terribly wrong. This is an argument not that these things are acceptable, but that the laws should be changed.

Another point is that McKesson and Sharpton are not the ones who linked the cop killings to their cause. That was done by everybody from Governor Pataki to former Mayor Giuliani to the head of the NYPD union. Activists like McKesson, Sharpton, and the rest are responding to that by saying they oppose violence against the police as much as they oppose violence against black people. This does not seem like a bad thing.

5. The deaths of police officers in the wake of the ongoing, high-profile campaign to demonize police and the justice system for political advantage were predictable.

It’s always possible that rhetoric will incite crazy people to do terrible things. But censoring yourself because of how a crazy person might respond is a madness of a different kind. No one would ever be able to change anything if they took responsibility for how everyone in the world might react to what they say. That’s no way to live your life.

And if you want to talk about the consequences of rhetoric, the police union appears to have circulated a memo saying that the NYPD is now a “wartime” police department. Remember that the next time an NYPD cop shoots someone.

More such deaths are also likely, unless the rhetoric from civil rights and political leaders becomes responsible and fairly represents the facts and the law. Public figures, activists and journalists who continue  the “hands up” lie or who link Garner, Crawford, Rice, Brown and Trayvon Martin in a manufactured conspiracy of the justice system to profile and kill unarmed black men are accountable for what happens next.

Jack, the activists are saying there’s systemic racial bias and injustice; you’re the one who’s created the strawman of a racist conspiracy.

Further, as with most social movements, unrest in Ferguson started at the bottom, with people from the neighborhood taking to the streets the evening of Michael Brown’s shooting. Sharpton and other national civil rights leaders didn’t show up until later. (A cynical person might even say that they saw a chance to get in front of something that they could use.) When you portray the protesters as blindly following the rhetoric of political leaders like Sharpton, instead of admitting that they might be reacting to their own lived experience, you are denying the agency of thousands of people. We saw the same thing in the 1960’s, when establishment apologists sought to blame black unrest on agitators and communists (really) rather than admit that millions of black people were angry because there was something sick about the way our society treated them.

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