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Published: Sun, 22 Apr 2018 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Sun, 22 Apr 2018 23:12:52 -0400


How We Lost Privacy

Thu, 19 Apr 2018 06:00:00 -0400

The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America, by Sarah E. Igo, Harvard University Press, 540 pages, $35 A couple of years ago, I went to dinner at the Seattle Space Needle. To my surprise—I was over 30—the waiter asked to see ID when I ordered wine. I hadn't brought my purse from the hotel, so I had nothing with which to prove my age. In retrospect, this probably saved me from a $100 bar tab at their prices, but at the time I was annoyed. Although we aren't officially required by law to carry identification, in practice it is necessary to get through many interactions. This has become increasingly true over time. As a teenager I bought booze without problems. I can also recall being able to fly domestically without showing ID. I still often go out with nothing but some cash in my pocket. Nonetheless, like all of you, I leave a paper trail of account numbers, credit scores, and biometric photos wherever I go. In The Known Citizen, a highly readable new history of privacy in America, the Vanderbilt historian and legal scholar Sarah Igo offers insight into the ways attitudes have evolved as different forms of identification, and different expectations of privacy, have emerged. When future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis conceived of privacy as a "right to be left alone" in the Harvard Law Review in 1890, he meant a right to be free from intrusive media attention. The state's attentions were less of a concern to him. The inflection point, the time when privacy advocates focused their attention on the federal government, was the New Deal. Social Security numbers presented a major issue for anyone who saw government registration as an infringement of civil liberties. But as Igo shows, linking Social Security clearly with the benefits to be garnered from registration turned most citizens in favor of the idea. Being enrolled in Social Security showed that one was gainfully employed, an upright citizen. In the early days of the system, some people even chose to have themselves tattooed with their number. The government promised that the numbers would be used only for Social Security purposes, but they soon crept into different federal agencies' files, becoming, just as skeptics had feared, a general means of identifying citizens. Since the 1980s, Social Security numbers have been widely issued at birth; an entire generation of Americans have now lived their entire lives with open federal files. As the public became more relaxed about Social Security numbers, privacy concerns shifted elsewhere. After the Second World War, Americans pursued privacy in the form of the single-family home in the suburbs. Children would have their own bedrooms; the nuclear family would be free from extended relations and lodgers. But to some people's disappointment, the suburban ideal didn't free everyone from snooping neighbors. Away from the anonymity of cities, residents sometimes found themselves under more surveillance, subject to social censure for transgressing community norms. Expectations of privacy in the home are also culturally freighted, to a degree Igo doesn't fully cover. Northwestern European architecture (which was imported to the U.S.) tends to have houses with windows facing the street, allowing others to see in as the occupants see out. In much of Holland, it was traditional not even to have curtains, such was the literal transparency of good Protestant living. This is very different from the cloistered, courtyard-based styles of southern Europe and parts of Asia, where passers-by can see nothing of a house's interior. Adjusting to American norms of domestic privacy was part of an immigrant's assimilation. Anxiety in this space ran high in the 1960s with concerns about wiretapping and eavesdropping. Popular magazines described how tiny transmitters could be concealed, and high-profile court cases tested the police's right to listen in on phone conversations. Some of the fascination with spy gadgets probably bled over from popular culture—this was the era of James Bond and Mission: Impossible, after all. The n[...]

'Mission Accomplished'? Maybe Ask George Bush About That.

Sat, 14 Apr 2018 10:18:00 -0400

Last night, President Donald Trump announced the U.S. had carried out military strikes in Syria in conjunction with France and the U.K. Although he said during the briefing that he was "prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents," this morning he had a different message for America: "Mission Accomplished!"

Sound familiar?

Almost exactly 15 years ago, President George W. Bush stood on the deck of the the USS Abraham Lincoln and congratulated the sailors aboard, and the military as a whole, on a job well done in Iraq. Behind him hung a now-infamous banner. Just weeks earlier, American forces had launched a bombing campaign against the Middle Eastern country, rolled in, and deposed Saddam Hussein. It did indeed look to many bystanders like a successful endeavor.


A decade and a half (and some 4,500 fallen American soldiers) later, Bush's "mission accomplished" moment has become a symbol of that administration's foreign policy blunders and a stand-in for the lesson of how supposedly short-term military intervention can still get us mired in protracted, no-win conflicts abroad. That Trump would tweet the same words Bush himself later admitted he regrets having used—words that are already short-hand for a Republican president's irresponsible naiveté when it comes to sending U.S. troops into combat—demonstrates once again the utter lack of historical awareness the current commander in chief has brought to the task of running the free world.

Beware Censorship by Proxy

Mon, 09 Apr 2018 09:59:00 -0400

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times. YouTube is worried you might believe too much of what you see on its website. Amid the clamor for someone, somewhere to do something about "fake news," the company plans to attach "information cues"—excerpts from Wikipedia—to videos that touch on "a list of well-known internet conspiracies." When YouTube, Facebook or Twitter cracks down on some form of expression—conspiracy theories, radical rants, terrorist propaganda—some of the targets inevitably complain that their freedom of speech is under attack. (This feeling of victimhood may be what sent Nasim Aghdam to YouTube headquarters, gun in hand.) There is a strong retort to this: These are private platforms with a right to decide what they publish. It is no more a violation of the First Amendment for YouTube to muzzle a channel it finds offensive than it is for this newspaper to refuse to run a column calling for Minnesota to invade Wisconsin. But what if a private platform suppresses speech because it's afraid the government might otherwise step in? Just as one effective end-run around the Fourth Amendment is to ask private companies for data they slurped up on their own, the First Amendment can be sidestepped when officials pressure the private sector into self-censorship. The end result can be rules more restrictive than the companies would impose on their own—and more intrusive than the government could get away with if it tried to impose them directly. It's happened before. The Supreme Court ruled in 1915 that free-speech protections did not apply to the movies, a decision rightly reversed in 1952. In the interim, the industry opted to stave off federal regulation by establishing a series of self-censorship systems. The most powerful of these was the Production Code, which was created in 1930 but didn't really grow teeth until 1934, when Congress was mulling several bipartisan bills to tone down motion picture content. Hollywood got the message. Under the code, seduction was "never the proper subject for a comedy," plots couldn't involve "sex relationships between the white and black races," and the drug trade "should not be brought to the attention of audiences," among other tight constraints. Some filmmakers found ways to subtly subvert the restrictions. Many others threw up their hands and let their films be bowdlerized. The Federal Communications Commission directly regulates much of what can and cannot be said over the "public" airwaves. But private radio and television networks also have created their own internal Standards and Practices departments that control content, sometimes at absurd levels of caution. (Early network censors objected to terms as mild as "bloody," "bollixed" and "the W.C.") Broadcasters are not eager to offend their audiences, so some version of Standards and Practices would probably exist even without the FCC. But the desire to stay on regulators' and legislators' good side has clearly been at work in those departments' decisions as well. You can tell because the self-imposed rules eased up when federal content controls were relaxed in the 1980s. The comic book industry adopted a Comics Code after the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held a hearing in 1954 on their products' alleged role in fostering crime. The immediate effect was to infantilize the industry, forcing a range of popular horror titles into the dustbin. The "parental advisory" labels affixed to CDs were invented following another Senate circus, the "porn rock" hearings of 1985. The stickers kept some records out of certain stores, and prompted some producers to edit songs or change album lineups to avoid the restrictions. In 1993, another set of Senate hearings inspired a comparable ratings system for video games. Those moves haven't had as much force as the rules adopted by Hollywood and the broadcasters, but that's because the threat of direct federal censorship wasn't as strong. A sort of censorship by proxy was just as clearly in eff[...]

The Radical Freedom of Dungeons & Dragons

Sat, 07 Apr 2018 06:00:00 -0400

You might not recognize the name Gary Gygax. But even if you've never rolled a critical fail on a d20, you have almost certainly consumed some movie, TV show, book, comic, computer game, or music influenced by Gygax's most famous creation: Dungeons & Dragons, the world's first and most popular role-playing game. The FBI certainly knew who he was. Between 1980 and 1995, agents compiled a dossier on the gaming company TSR Inc. and Gygax, its founder. In 1980, a note on TSR stationary about an assassination plot drew the FBI's attention, leading to a search of the company's offices in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The note turned out to be materials for an upcoming espionage game. In 1983, an FBI field report about an investigation into a cocaine trafficking ring in Lake Geneva cryptically references Gygax—but whatever his alleged role was, it has since been heavily redacted by the Bureau. The company appears again in FBI reports from 1995, as part of the agency's sprawling investigation into the Unabomber. The FBI was apparently looking into a possible tie between the string of then-unsolved bombings and a bitter legal dispute between TSR and a rival gaming company in Fresno, California. In an FBI field report describing the convoluted history of TSR, one source at the company describes the father of role-playing games as "eccentric and frightening," a "drug abuser" who is "known to carry a weapon and was proud of his record of personally answering any letter coming from a prisoner." He would be extremely uncooperative if the FBI tried to interview him, the source warned. The report also claims Gygax set up a Liberian holding company to avoid paying taxes and "is known to be a member of the Libertarian Party." The FBI's source could have been any number of professional and personal enemies Gygax made in the turbulent decade between the debut of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974 and his eventual ouster from the company—once one of the fastest-growing in the United States—as it foundered under mismanagement. But D&D survived. Today, more than 40 years after its invention, it is experiencing a renaissance. The number of players is increasing, both at the traditional table and on the internet. On Virtual Grounds, a popular online gaming site, the number of D&D games rose 55 percent, from roughly 255,000 in 2016 to 395,000 in 2017. The game has moved out of the basement and into game nights at hip bars and pop-up cafés. One of the most popular podcasts of 2017, The Adventure Zone, features three brothers and their dad playing D&D. The game's strange dice are tossed behind prison walls and used as a learning tool for children on the autism spectrum. And it remains a refuge, as always, for nerds, theater kids, and other strange birds. The latest supplementary rulebook for the game, Xanathar's Guide to Everything, cracked several bestseller lists when it was published in November. What is driving hordes of people to throw down good money to buy a narrative-free tome full of spell descriptions and rules about sleeping in armor? The sinister-sounding allegations in Gygax's FBI dossier (obtained by Reason via a Freedom of Information Act request) hint at an explanation. It's not a surprise the game's creator was a self-declared libertarian or a proud pen pal of prison inmates. He was an individualist at heart who had always chafed against discipline. That perpetual inclination to seek out ever more possibilities—"why not?" rather than "why?"—is baked into D&D. The same thing that drew the ire of overheated evangelicals and parent groups is leading to the game's newfound popularity today. D&D is a deeply libertarian game—not in a crude political sense or because its currency system is based on precious metals, but in its expansive and generous belief in its players' creative potential. It's collaborative, not competitive. It offers a framework of rules, but no victory condition and no end. The world you play in, and how you shape it, are entirely up to y[...]

Steven Pinker Wants Enlightenment Now!

Thu, 22 Mar 2018 15:08:00 -0400

America, observers are fond of saying, is the only country based upon an idea. That idea—that all men and women are created equal and have inalienable rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness—is directly informed by the Enlightenment, the movement that dominated ideas and culture in the 18th century. But are we still an Enlightenment nation? "The Enlightenment principle that we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing may seem obvious," writes Steven Pinker in his new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. "I wrote this book because I have come to realize that it's not." Pinker is a linguist who teaches at Harvard and is the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, The Blank Slate, and How the Mind Works. He's been named on the top 100 most influential intellectuals by both Time and Foreign Policy. In this wide-ranging interview with Reason's Nick Gillespie, Pinker explains why he thinks Pope Francis is a problem when it comes to capitalism, nuclear energy is a solution to climate change, and why libertarians need to lighten up when it comes to regulation. He also makes the case for studying the humanities as essential to intellectual honesty and seriousness even as he attacks that "cluster of ideas, which is not the same as the humanities, but just happens to have descended over large sectors of the academic humanities: "the deep hatred of the institutions of modernity, the equation of liberal democracy with fascism, the feeling that society is in an ever-worsening spiral of decline, and the lack of appreciation, I think, that the institutions of liberal democracy have made the humanities possible, made them flourish." Produced by Todd Krainin. Cameras by Mark McDaniel and Krainin. Subscribe at YouTube. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes. The interview has been edited for clarity. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy. For an audio version, subscribe to the Reason podcast. Nick Gillespie: What comprises the Enlightenment? Steven Pinker: My point of view identifies four things: reason, science, humanism and progress. Reason being the ideal that we analyze our predicament using reason as opposed to dogma, authority, charisma, intuition, mysticism. Science being the ideal that we seek to understand the world by formulating hypotheses and testing them against reality. Humanism, that we hold out the well-being of men, women and children and other sentient creatures as the highest good, as opposed to the glory of the tribe or the race or the nation, as opposed to religious doctrine. And progress, that if we apply sympathy and reason to making people better off, we can gradually succeed. Gillespie: Why did the Enlightenment happen when it did? Pinker: Because it only happened once, we don't really know and we can't test hypotheses, but some plausible explanations are that it grew out of the scientific revolution of say the 17th century, which showed that our intuitions and the traditional view of reality could be profoundly mistaken, and that by applying reason, we can overturn our understanding of the world. Maybe the more proximate technological kickstarter was the growth of printing technology. That was the only technology that showed a huge increase in productivity prior to the Industrial Revolution. Everything else had to wait for the 19th century. Gillespie: You talk about how basically between the year 1000 and about 1800, in many places people saw very little increase in material well-being. Pinker: Yeah. Economic growth was sporadic at best. But printing technology did take off in the 18th century. Pamphlets were cheap and available, and broadsheets and books, and they got translated. They were circulated across all of the European countries as well as the colonies, so that the exchange of ideas was lubricated by that technological advance. Another possible contributor was the historic [...]

Fear of a Free, Prosperous Internet

Sun, 18 Mar 2018 06:00:00 -0400

The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball, by Noam Cohen, The New Press, 256 pages, $25.95 Say you've sprained your ankle. You consult Google, where you find copious information about using compression bandages to stabilize your sprain. But you'd like some back and forth with someone who has experience. You post about your injury on Facebook, triggering a real-time conversation with volunteer first responders offering pro tips. You then pop over to Amazon, because the nearest drug store is more than 16 miles away and you don't want to drive with a sprained right ankle. You've got too much debt riding on your credit card to add to it blithely, but no problem—you use PayPal to get a bandage delivered to you that same day. And if your sprain leads to hard-to-handle bills, you can put out a call for help using GoFundMe. A totally banal incident, and unimaginable at every step just two decades ago. Our abilities to learn, discuss, buy, receive, and give have changed magnificently for the better because of the behemoth internet companies on which every step of that dull anecdote hinges. Noam Cohen, author of The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball, spent years covering the tech industry for The New York Times. His book is, in large part, a compact history of such companies, their founders, and the ideas that animated them. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and Peter Thiel of PayPal all get their own chapters. The analogy Cohen thinks best explains those companies—the analogy that starts his book and shapes his perspective—is the hoary old Damon Knight short story "To Serve Man," as adapted on The Twilight Zone. You know, the one where technologically superior aliens fool us into thinking they're helping us when they actually intend to eat us. ("It's a cookbook!") Cohen is a deft storyteller, and The Know-It-Alls reveals a lot of fascinating information about the business and technological contingencies that led his characters to their prominence. But as the book's title implies, Cohen thinks Silicon Valley visionaries have a hubristic sense that they know what's good for everyone else and are out to impose that vision on us. Yet their successes, as Cohen's own narrative shows, came from offering services that were eagerly and freely embraced by millions and that have constantly adjusted to keep audiences satisfied. Although Cohen's policy prescriptions are thin and underargued—and fortunately don't often mar his storytelling—they show far more signs of the know-it-all. Cohen laments what has largely been a free cultural choice to embrace these online services, and he prefers an (ill-explained) European model that gives the government more control over how people are allowed to use the internet. And then there's his subtitle: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball. Where is the evidence for that power, that wreckage? Not in this book. Cohen claims his characters are pushing us toward "a society in which personal freedoms are near absolute and government regulations wither away." But while he finds some evidence of libertarian leanings among some of his subjects/villains, there is little evidence here that they have done anything in electoral politics to shift America in that direction. Indeed, with the exception of Peter Thiel's leap onto the Trump train, he shows none of them publicly working against even the Democratic Party's agenda. Silicon Valley may be in some respects a "political powerhouse," but it's not one dragging us toward "absolute freedom"—more's the pity. (He does call Amazon's Jeff Bezos to task for having donated to Reason Foundation, which publishes this magazine.) Cohen writes that in the internet world, "taxes are in effect replaced by monopoly profits—everyo[...]

Arthur Miller’s Daughter Humanizes Playwright in New Documentary

Fri, 16 Mar 2018 15:00:00 -0400

Arthur Miller: Writer. HBO. Monday, March 19, 8 p.m. The public image of the playwright Arthur Miller has always been chilly and cerebral, perhaps best summed up in his explanation to a reporter of why he wouldn't be attending the funeral of his ex-wife Marilyn Monroe, who committed suicide 18 months after they split: "She won't be there." The signal achievement of Arthur Miller: Writer, a documentary made by his writer-filmmaker daughter Rebecca, is to introduce some color into that black-and-white picture. In old home movies and impromptu interviews shot over she shot over two decades, her father is seen joking, singing, building furniture (complete with the requisite cursing: "Goddamn angles drive you crazy," he mutters when pieces don't fit together), and swapping family folktales with his brothers and sisters. Even his brief reminiscences about the stormy marriage to Monroe, though they sound cold (he couldn't do any writing during the marriage because "I guess, to put it frankly, I was taking care of her," which was "the most thankless job you can possibly imagine"), are spoken with an obvious pain that belies the wintry words. Humanizing her father is at once the most singularly successful element of Rebecca Miller's documentary, and the source of its failures. "He lived through so many different eras, almost like different lifetimes," she says early during her narration of the documentary, an insightful observation. There is Miller the star playwright, rattling Broadway with go-for-the-throat accounts of the crumbling dynamics of families whose patriarchs have been undone by outside forces: the delusional, failed Willie Loman of Death of a Salesman, or the sexually obsessed longshoreman Eddie Carbone of A View from the Bridge. Then there's Miller the brave (and a bit preening) moralist of the Red Scares in the 1950s, projecting a carefully constructed image of an innocent and courageous writer being persecuted for showing character at a time when, in the words of his daughter, "it was dangerous to be a liberal and an artist." There's also Miller the unwilling prey of the tabloids during the marriage to Monroe. Or Miller the gentle husband and dad, who when an adolescent Rebecca asked for a stereo, built one from scratch using discarded stuff he found at the dump. The Miller Rebecca knew best was the affectionate dad, finally getting domesticity and parenthood right, mostly, when his best work was well behind him, and the sections of Writer devoted to him ring mostly warm and true. They also have a revelatory feel that's mostly not present the rest of the time; so much has been written about Miller's work and his public persona that there's probably little new left to tell. (Indeed, a number of soundbites that seem to come from Rebecca's interviews with her father are actually him reading from Timebend, Miller's 1987 autobiography.) When Writer veers into other areas, it is not always as forthcoming. The account of Miller's marriage to Monroe concentrates entirely on her downward swirl of barbiturates and booze and doesn't mention that at least a small part of it probably resulted from her reading in his diary that he considered her an embarrassment around his friends. (Give Rebecca credit, though, for recounting the critical outrage at the vindictive and wildly egocentric play After the Fall, written by Miller after Monroe's death. The Village Voice suggested it be retitled I Slept with Marilyn Monroe.) Much worse is her fractured retelling of the events surrounding Miller's confrontation with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and its investigation of Hollywood's Communist Party in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Director Elia Kazan, Miller's best friend and stage collaborator, was an embittered ex-Communist who agreed to testify and name names of other party members. ("I hate the Communists and have for many years, and don't feel right[...]

Sign Referencing Civil War Hero Is Sexual Harassment, Says Massachusetts Lawmaker

Fri, 16 Mar 2018 14:10:00 -0400

(image) Here's a twist on the debate over public monuments to problematic figures like Confederate leaders: A Massachusetts state lawmaker wants to censor references to a man who scored Civil War era wins against the Confederacy. Her reasoning? That man's name is Joseph Hooker.

As we're all aware, General Hooker's last name became slang for "someone who has sex for money." Today, "hooker" is widely considered a slur by folks in the sex-work community. Yet as far as I'm aware, there have't been any sex worker campaigns to remove references to Joseph Hooker from public view—presumably because most well-adjusted people realize that words have different meanings in different contexts.

"There are all sorts of benign words in our language that sound like words unfit for polite company," writes Jon Keller at CBS Boston, offering Uranus and clap as further examples. "And they offer us an opportunity to teach snickering kids about Civil War history or outer space—and about showing respect for others while avoiding making fools of ourselves."

State Rep. Michelle DuBois (D-Plymouth) disagrees. She has been calling for the removal of a statehouse sign that reads "General Hooker Entrance" (so inscribed because it stands opposite a statue of General Hooker), which she described as an affront to "women's dignity."

"Female staffers don't use that entrance because the sign is offensive to them," DuBois told WBZ-TV this week.

If that isn't the ultimate in futile, fainting-couch feminism, I'm not sure what is.

DuBois also complained that she had heard teen boys joke with teen girls that they were "general hookers" while using the door.

Of course, DuBois is positioning herself as a crusader against sex-based harassment and patriarchy. But attitudes like hers—which treat women as excessively fragile beings, and which posit that female "dignity" is diminished by even so slight an association with sex work as walking under a door that says "hooker"—just props up old-fashioned and patriarchal ideas about sex and gender.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post stated that Hooker had famously defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee in battle, when it's really the other way around. (We should have paid more attention to those Ken Burns documentaries after all.) The opening paragraph has been edited to remove this reference.

When a Mash Note to a War Criminal Hit the Top 40

Fri, 16 Mar 2018 10:59:00 -0400

(image) Today marks the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre, in which a group of American soldiers slaughtered hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians. You can read more about that grisly episode in Lucy Steigerwald's story on the subject, posted elsewhere on this site today. I just want to highlight something Lucy mentioned in passing as she described the trial of Lt. William Calley, the one man convicted for his role in the crime. Back in the U.S., she writes, "Calley became a twisted sort of folk hero."

It's true. The most infamous of the killers in one of America's most infamous war crimes had a cheering section in the States. No, not everyone: Of course many Americans were revolted by the rapes and murders at My Lai. But then there were the people who told themselves a different story about what had happened. The people who made a gold record and a top 40 hit of a deeply dishonest apologia called the "Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley."

"Battle" was written by Julian Wilson and James Smith, a couple of businessmen from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and it was recorded by a DJ named Terry Nelson at FAME Studios, the legendary birthplace of dozens of soul, pop, and country hits. Tex Ritter was going to release a version of the song too, but the higher-ups at Capitol Records decided that would be a bad idea. ("[I]f we want to glorify a war hero," one executive told Billboard, "let's find someone other than Lt. Calley.") The folks at Plantation Records had no such scruples, and they put out Nelson's recording right after Calley was convicted:

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"I'm just another soldier from the shores of U.S.A.," the song's Calley declares, even if "they've made me out a villain, they have stamped me with a brand." The real villains are elsewhere: "While we're fighting in the jungles they were marching in the street/While we're dying in the rice fields they were helping our defeat/While we're facing V.C. bullets they were sounding a retreat." In real life, My Lai was an assault on unarmed civilians. In the song, "We responded to their rifle fire with everything we had."

The rifle fire may be imaginary, but I guess the "everything we had" part was true:


The record peaked at #37 on the Billboard charts. To hear Casey Kasem introducing it on American Top 40—right after a snappy little number called "(For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People"—go to the 2:28 mark here. For seven more pro-Calley songs (and one anti-anti-Calley song), go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.

Three Heroes at My Lai

Fri, 16 Mar 2018 08:30:00 -0400

On March 16, 1968, American soldiers from Charlie Company were angry about Viet Cong booby traps, frustrated by recent casualties, and still shaken by the Tet Offensive. They took these resentments out on the residents of two hamlets, slaughtering around 500 unarmed women, children, and elderly people in what is known today as the My Lai massacre. Whether Capt. Ernest Medina directly ordered his men to kill civilians is doubtful, but he certainly let it happen for hours without intervention. This was no short firefight: It was an extended series of rapes and murders. About half the soldiers participated; about half stood aside and refused to actively participate. But hardly anyone tried to help the victims. The exceptions—the morsels of humanity—were three men in a helicopter: Hugh Thompson, 25; Lawrence Coburn, 18; and Glenn Andreotta, 20. Given their aerial view of things, the crew was baffled by the number of bodies they were seeing. None of the dead appeared to be armed, or to be even males of soldier age. Twice the crew landed, marked injured civilians for aid, and returned to find them dead. Colburn said later that Medina was the one who killed a woman they had attempted to help. All this enraged Thompson, the pilot, though by all accounts gunner Colburn and crew chief Andreotta were in full, horrified agreement that something was going wrong. As Thompson said in the 1989 British documentary Four Hours in My Lai, they "started seeing a lot of bodies—it didn't add up, you know, how many people were getting killed and wounded, and we weren't receiving any fire." Thompson radioed back to base there there was "a whole lot of unnecessary killing going on." Thompson landed and confronted Lt. William Calley, who was busy eliminating civilians. Calley basically told Thompson to mind his own business. Meanwhile, Sgt. David Mitchell made sure nobody was still moving in the irrigation ditch chosen to be the grave of some 70 civilians. Stunned at the nonstop killing, which he later said reminded him of the Nazis, Thompson yelled: "You ain't heard the last of this!" Some time later, the crew saw several Vietnamese being chased toward a bunker. That was the moment that Thompson chose a side, risking court martial or worse. He landed his helicopter between the soldiers and the civilians, and he told his men to shoot if the soldiers fired on Thompson or on the Vietnamese. They said they would. Thompson successfully convinced the civilians to come out, and then he demanded help over the radio, convincing two nearby pilots to come to his aid. With aid from a nearby gunship more used to taking out Vietnamese than taking them out of harm's way, around a dozen civilians were removed from the wrath of Charlie Company. Not quite done, the three men took off to search for any more signs of movement. Andreotta, with only a month left to live himself, saw something. He climbed into the slaughterhouse that had been an irrigation ditch and came out with a child. The crew hand-delivered them to a hospital, Thompson thinking of his own child at home all the while. When Thompson returned to base he reported to Lt. Col. Frank Barker, who told the forces to stop the slaughter. Trent Angers, author of The Forgotten Hero of My Lai: The Hugh Thompson Story, says he has "no doubt that Hugh Thompson saved thousands of lives in Vietnam" by kicking up a fuss that halted Taskforce Barker, a plan to cleanse the entirety of the surrounding hamlets. Nobody was overtly saying "kill civilians," but like Medina that day they appeared ready to pacify the population however they could. After a cover-up failed and the real story came out, the Army was prepared to prosecute the perpetrators. Thompson spent a year as the prosecution's best witness, all the while being browbeaten by powerful men. No less than President [...]

Philip Payton Jr.: The Crusading Capitalist Who Outwitted New York's Racist Landlords

Mon, 05 Mar 2018 10:55:00 -0500

The former residents of two square blocks at West 98th and 99th Streets in Manhattan have been holding annual neighborhood reunions since the mid-1950s, when the federal government bulldozed their homes in a "slum clearance project" spearheaded by Robert Moses. This formerly all-black enclave was home to an A-list of black artists and intellectuals, including singer Billie Holiday, historian Arturo Schomburg, poet James Weldon Johnson, and actor Robert Earl Jones. Bordering Central Park, the community was settled in 1905 in an area with modern housing and easy access to the city's brand new subway. The founder of the community was an African-American realtor named Philip Payton Jr., also known as "the father of Harlem." His role in the formation of what would later become the cultural capital of black America is well established. Less appreciated is the economic philosophy that guided his life's work. Payton was an unabashed free-marketeer whose approach, as one headline writer put it, was "to make the color line costly." He believed that property owners participating in racial covenants could be forced to pay a penalty in a competitive marketplace, and that even bigoted landlords might choose "profit over prejudice" when faced with the choice. "Race prejudice is a luxury, and like all other luxuries, can be made very expensive in New York City," Payton wrote in his company prospectus. Payton anticipated by more than half a century some of the insights in Gary Becker's The Economics of Discrimination (1957), part of a body of work that earned Becker a Nobel Prize. He observed, as did Payton, that in a market economy, bigots who discriminate against blacks must "either pay or forfeit income for this privilege." Just as a refusal to hire blacks means that an employer must forgo worthy employees and pay higher salaries, refusal to rent to blacks means that a landlord must forgo worthy tenants and accept less in rent. "The man who exercises discrimination pays a price for doing so," as Milton Friedman wrote in his landmark Capitalism and Freedom (1962). Payton understood that he could exploit this market reality to buy buildings at a discount, and to sway even bigoted landlords to rent to blacks to maximize their incomes. In a racist society, with fewer options open to them in the housing market, blacks tended to pay higher rents for equivalent properties. Payton recognized he could use this regrettable fact to undermine racial covenants. "The very prejudice which has heretofore worked against us can be turned and used to our profit," he wrote. Through competition, in theory, race-based price differentials would narrow over time. As Friedman wrote in Capitalism and Freedom, "there is an economic incentive in a free market to separate economic efficiency from other characteristics of the individual." Born in Westfield, Massachusetts, in 1876, Payton moved to New York City at the age of 23, working briefly as a handyman and barber, before landing a job as a porter at a real estate company. That piqued his interest in the city's booming housing market, and in 1900 he went into business managing "colored tenements." "All of my friends discouraged me," Payton later recalled. "They tried to convince me that there was no show for a colored man in such a business in New York." At the time, black New Yorkers were relegated to a handful of overcrowded neighborhoods, with a dilapidated housing stock that typically lacked private bathrooms and hot running water. The tenements of the Tenderloin District, New York's largest black neighborhood at the time, were "human hives, honeycombed with little rooms thick with human beings," in the words of Mary Ovington, a co-founder of the NAACP. After launching his business in 1900, Payton initially struggled for customers. But i[...]

Your Tattoos Are Problematic

Sat, 24 Feb 2018 06:00:00 -0500

Oscar is a white guy living in Austin, Texas, with a penchant for Japanese-style tattoos. A huge black and white dragon arcs over his left shoulder. The dragon's scales subtly change shape as he moves, and the beast's eyes are beady and glaring, nestled below spiked eyebrows and above bared fangs. The tattoo is lightly shaded, darker around the perimeter of the dragon, with a background of stylized leaves and waves that add depth and complexity to the piece. What Oscar knows about the origins of Japanese tattooing, he likes: "It's associated with outlaws and outcasts—there were all these merchants and gangsters in Japan that were shunned from the societal hierarchy. Some people think the tradition began as a way for those merchants to show off their wealth privately, and for gangsters to mark themselves as part of a counterculture." He delayed getting this particular tattoo for a long time, thinking that "it had to have a lot of meaning." But the more time he spent around tattoo artists, the more he "realized it's more about the art—you don't have to 100 percent understand the context to appreciate something." Oscar asked that his real name not be used for this story, but says he's OK with the "risk" associated with his choice of tattoo. "People might be offended by it, people might be scared by it, and I like that—I like the fact that it can be polarizing or controversial. I ultimately got it because it was something I liked and I didn't feel like I had to justify it beyond that." According to some figures on the activist left, hoop earrings should only be worn by black and Latina women. Don't even think about donning a feathered headdress at a music festival—those don't belong to you. And if your child wants to dress up as the Disney character Moana for Halloween, beware, unless she's of Polynesian descent. Cultural appropriation—co-opting specific elements of a culture that is not your own—is the term used to condemn these offenses. It has become a major battleground for the social justice movement. But what happens when the ink embedded in your skin is unacceptable to polite society? As a form of public art and personal adornment, tattooing has a long history of cultural borrowing. Some popular tattoos have historical lineages so tangled it's hard to tell who is appropriating whose heritage. For tattoo artists and clients, it may not be easy to separate art from politics, the deeply personal from the public and political. Every tattoo carries the risk of regret. But in the current ultra-sensitized atmosphere, that regret can set in quickly. Hula Girls Paul Smith at Bijou Studio in Austin, Texas, has been tattooing for 15 years, specializing in traditional American and Japanese-style tattoos. He's covered in ink, all the way down to his hands, with a large black scorpion reaching close to his fingers. Sitting outside his clean and well-decorated East Austin shop, tucked between grungy dive bars and new-construction apartment buildings, Smith explains that copying and hybridization are deeply embedded in tattoo history. "Whatever tattoos someone got halfway around the world, that was copied in a sort of cross-pollination," he says. Sailors used to travel from port to port collecting evidence of their travels on their skin. About 90 percent of sailors in the late 19th century sported tattoos, History Today estimates. Since seamen were among the rare commuters to distant lands, they were the ones who observed—and borrowed from—other cultures. Their tattoos were often nautical in theme: anchors, fully rigged ships, or swallows for every 5,000 miles traveled. Some sailors were adorned with gaudy, colorful Hula girls to remember trips to Hawaii or pin-up girls to remember ladies from back home. Others chose "hold[...]

The Inconvenient Individualism of Frederick Douglass

Thu, 15 Feb 2018 08:45:00 -0500

(image) The Yale historian David Blight marked Frederick Douglass' 200th birthday yesterday with a New York Times op-ed headlined "How the Right Co-Opts Frederick Douglass." The article argues that "Conservatives have cherry-picked his words to advance their narrow visions of libertarianism." Aside from a passing reference to some GOPers wearing "Frederick Douglass Was a Republican" buttons, Blight's one example is the libertarian writer Timothy Sandefur:

In "Self-Made Man," a new book published by the Cato Institute, the lawyer Timothy Sandefur argues that Douglass's essential legacy lies in his advocacy of liberty, individualism and private property and free enterprise. The radical abolitionist who risked all to use words and politics to free an entire people from slavery was, to Mr. Sandefur, only "a radical for individualism" and never concerned with "the interests of the collective."

To believe that, one has to ignore most of Douglass's career, especially his life as an abolitionist, his ferocious attacks on the poison of racism and his brilliant analysis of how lynching emerged from the evils of white supremacy. Douglass believed that freedom was safe only within the state and under law.

Needless to say, there is no contradiction between being "a radical for individualism" and being an abolitionist, an anti-racist, and a man who saw the links between lynching and white rule. And yes, Douglass believed government is necessary to protect freedom; unlike some of his fellow abolitionists, he did not want to abolish the state. But that hardly disqualifies him from being an individualist.

The beliefs that Blight lists may be harder to square with the idea that Douglass was "never concerned with 'the interests of the collective.'" But that isn't what Sandefur wrote. Here is the actual passage from his book:

Douglass was not, therefore, a conservative but a radical—a radical for individualism and for the 'bourgeois virtues' of self-reliance, industry, and personal pride. He was not likely to be attracted to any doctrine that subordinated individual rights—whether free speech or property rights—to the interests of the collective.

Needless to say, there is a vast difference between saying someone didn't want to subordinate individual rights to the collective and saying he was "never concerned with the interests of the collective." Also, if a passage explicitly denies that Douglass was a conservative, you probably shouldn't make it the lynchpin of your argument that conservatives are trying to co-opt Douglass. And if you're going to gerrymander a man's words this misleadingly, you may want to refrain from accusing anyone else of cherry-picking. It's unseemly.

Making the Fairness Doctrine Great Again

Thu, 15 Feb 2018 06:00:00 -0500

It's time to "get us on offense and scare the hell out of Google, Facebook, Twitter," declares Phil Kerpen, top dog at the avowedly free market American Commitment. He has concocted a strategy for conservatives, described in a memo obtained by Axios, which calls for government to treat social media platforms not like the newspapers of the 20th century, with unencumbered speech rights, but like the railroads of the 19th century—as "incumbents with market power [who] therefore pose a serious threat" to society. Meanwhile, the "establishment" is eager to regulate new media, too. Three senators—two Democrats and a Republican—have proposed a bill to extend campaign finance disclosure rules to the internet, constraining who is allowed to buy online advertisements. Alarmed by Russian provocateurs and by the suspiciously improbable electoral triumph of Donald Trump, they aim to bring the wonders of McCain-Feingold to broader information markets. History speaks loudly on the merits of these ideas. Twentieth century regulatory policies dedicated to furthering "the public interest" in media—the Equal Time Rule, the Fairness Doctrine, the licensing of broadcast radio and television—triggered perverse outcomes that squeezed competition, pre-empted innovation, and quashed free speech. They scorched the very values they were ostensibly designed to advance. Ajit Pai, the Trump-appointed chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), seems to understand this. He moved decisively this fall to roll back "Title II" regulation of internet service providers (ISPs), the "nuclear option" deployed in 2015 to impose "network neutrality" on the web. But Pai isn't the only player on the field, and his good work could go up in the smoke of a 4:30 a.m. tweet issued from the Mar-a-Lago bowling alley. A Disturbing Legacy In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court found the Miami Herald to be free of any obligation to extend Pat Tornillo, a candidate for the state legislature who had been blasted in a Herald editorial, a chance to respond. A 1913 Florida statute had created such a "right of reply," but the Court struck it down as unconstitutional, 9–0. The newspaper was a powerful platform that dominated the supply of news throughout its region: "The public…is said to be in peril because the 'marketplace of ideas' is today a monopoly controlled by the owners of the market," noted the Supreme Court. But mandated access, it added, would cast a chilling effect, leading editors and publishers "to avoid controversy." The impact would be counterproductive, and free speech would suffer, as "political and electoral coverage would be blunted or reduced." Regulation, in short, was itself a threat, compromising the independence guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The Florida law was overturned. The Court got that one right. The rule protecting editorial discretion has served the country well. Newspapers have been biased, sensationalistic, and often wrong—but at least they have not been regulated to death. With broadcasting, by contrast, the Court has often been confused and the First Amendment shaved. Controversial ideas have been silenced and upstart technologies banned. Almost immediately after the Radio Act of 1927 established "public interest" radio licensing, unorthodox views became a target. Two lively stations, WCFL (owned by the Chicago Federation of Labor) and WEVD (owned by the Socialist Party) came up for license renewals in 1929. The Federal Radio Commission (superseded by the FCC in 1934) warned against "propaganda stations"—a regulatory term of art for organizations espousing opinions. Sanctions, including limits on the amount of electricity they could use and forcibly reduced hours of o[...]

The Libertarianism of Frederick Douglass: Podcast

Fri, 09 Feb 2018 17:20:00 -0500

Frederick Douglass was born 200 years ago this month, and while he's justifiably known as an escaped slave and influential abolitionist, he was also one of the 19th century's most outspoken classical liberals. "The great fact underlying the claim for universal suffrage is that every man is himself and belongs to himself, and represents his own individuality," Douglass declared. "The same is true of woman… Her selfhood is as perfect and as absolute as is the selfhood of man."

A proponent of "free labor," Douglass was at odds with socialist and communitarian abolitionists who denounced property and self-ownership as part of a broader exploitative capitalist system. In fact, Douglass called socialism, which was migrating from Europe to the United States during his life, "errant nonsense" and was a proponent of John Locke and liberalism.

Reason's Nick Gillespie spoke to senior editor Damon Root, whose new article on Douglass is available at, about the historical figure and his broader impact on American thinking.

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

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