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Published: Thu, 27 Apr 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Thu, 27 Apr 2017 15:09:37 -0400


100 Years After the Russian Revolution, Russians Are Still Paying

Tue, 18 Apr 2017 07:00:00 -0400

On April 16, 1917, which is to say 100 years ago last Sunday, a train from Helsinki arrived at the Finland Station in Petrograd. The "sealed train" originated in Zürich, Switzerland. It carried on board 32 Russian revolutionaries, including Vladimir Lenin and his wife, as well as millions of German "goldmarks." Lenin, who desperately wanted to return home from his Swiss exile in order to take over the leadership of the Russian Bolsheviks, needed German logistical help to cross the Eastern Front as well as financial help to foment a revolt against the sitting Russian government of Alexander Kerensky. Both were duly furnished by the German imperial high command. As such, Russia experienced two revolutions in 1917. The February revolution deposed the Tsar, while the October revolution put the Bolsheviks in charge. Subsequent to the Bolshevik putsch, Russia withdrew from the Great War, thus allowing the Germans to move their divisions to the Western Front to face the combined might of the French, the British and the Americans. Once in charge, Lenin established one-party dictatorship and the first gulags. The Soviet Union, with its accompanying horrors, was born. Communist apologists have often blamed Bolshevik crimes on Joseph Stalin, who took over the Russian government following Lenin's death in 1924. The Russian historian and politician Alexander Yakovlev, who headed the Presidential Commission for the Victims of Political Repression, however, noted that the "truth is that in punitive operations Stalin did not think up anything that was not there under Lenin: executions, hostage taking, concentration camps, and all the rest." Violence was inherent in the Bolshevik revolution. Per Lenin: "If we are not ready to shoot a saboteur and White Guardist [i.e., anti-communist Russian soldiers], what sort of revolution is that?" Estimating the cost of the Bolshevik rule is not easy, although Yakovlev argues that 20 million lives were lost to state-sponsored violence, malnutrition, man-made famine, slave labor, etc. That seems like a very conservative estimate. Looking at other consequences of Russian communism, the story is similarly depressing. Comparing Russia with any other country is difficult. Russia's geography and history are unique. That said, I went back to Maddison's data in search of a European country that was, roughly speaking, at Russia's level of economic development in 1917. With average annual per capita income of $1,212 (in 1990 dollars), Portugal was closest to Russia's $1,085. Where would Russia be, had it matched the economic performance of Portugal—a country that is even today considered as something of a European basket case? Let data tell the story. 1. GDP per capita, per person, per year, 1990 Geary-Khamis dollars (1917-2010) 2. Life expectancy, years, 1960-2015 3. Democracy vs. autocracy, scale -10 (worst) to 10 (best), 1917-2015 4. Civil liberties, scale 1 (best) to 7 (worst), 1972-2015 5. Political rights, scale 1(best) to 7 (worst), 1972-2015 [...]

Documentaries Put Spotlight on War Propaganda

Fri, 14 Apr 2017 15:00:00 -0400

Five Came Back. Available now on Netflix. American Experience: The Great War. PBS. Monday, April 10, 9 p.m. Growing up, I was completely absorbed by a CBS documentary series called The 20th Century that aired on weekends from 1958 1966. Every other episode, it seemed, was about a war. At the time, I thought the main reason was probably that Walter Cronkite, the narrator, had become famous as a combat correspondent. That may have had something to do with it, but with the passage of years and a widened perspective, I've come to suspect that the real reason is that war—preparing for it, fighting it, recovering from it, and arguing about what it meant—was the century's principal activity. From the decapitation fad during the Boxer War that opened the century to the trigger-happy streets of Mogadishu that closed it, war was a global avocation. TV this week takes a look back at the century's two biggest bangs with a pair of magnificent three-part documentaries. PBS' American Experience series spends six hours dissecting World War I (part of it, anyway; we'll get back to that), while Netflix explores how Hollywood enthusiastically picked up the propaganda gun during World War II with Five Came Back. Both shows convey an astonishing amount of information with a mixture of style and simplicity that other filmmakers could study to immense profit. World War I, as American Experience: The Great War paraphrases a conclusion already reached by the cast of Friends many years ago, is probably the biggest event in U.S. history of which Americans know next to nothing. In some ways, that will still be true even if they watch The Great War, which views the events strictly through the lens of how Americans were affected. The welter of royal bloodlines and backdoor treaties that turned a seemingly isolated event—the assassination of an Austrian nobleman by a Serbian teenager—into a worldwide conflagration involving Russia, France, England, Italy, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria, Japan, and the United States is barely explored. Nor are many of the war's geopolitical shockwaves. Even the implosion of Russia's czarist government, which would eventually result in a Cold War that for nearly five decades threatened to turn apocalyptically hot, only gets a minute or two. What The Great War does do, in truly spectacular fashion. is limn the voracious expansion of the American government midwifed by World War I. When Woodrow Wilson's uncertain attempts at neutrality floundered and he called for a declaration of war in 1917 because "the world must be made safe for democracy," it made the United States unique among the combatants, notes a historian in The Great War: "It was not fighting for survival. It was fighting for an ideal." But as The Great War documents in horrifying detail, that ideal was the creation of a Leviathan state with unprecedented power: to draft young men and send them to a foreign war. To set price controls on food and impose dietary restrictions. To arrest and even deport political dissidents. To create a powerful government propaganda organ aimed not at enemy nations but the American people. (It expanded from one employee to about 100,000 in a couple of months.) To send goon squads known as Liberty Loan Committees roaming neighborhoods offering deals on war bonds that couldn't be refused. Wilson's actions did not go without dissent (signs at a protest march in New York City: MR. PRESIDENT, WHY NOT MAKE AMERICA SAFE FOR DEMOCRACY?) and dissent did not go without punishment. Wilson demanded, and got, a new Espionage Act that made it a crime to collect, record and disseminate information "harmful to the war effort," and he wielded it like an axe against the anti-war movement. By the fall of 1917, the federal government opened prison camps in Utah, Georgia, and North Carolina to house all the "security threats" Wilson's Justice Department had detected. Wilson's security mania spread out into the population, too, where it unleased what The Great War calls the "whole[...]

Adam Smith Needs a Paper Clip

Thu, 13 Apr 2017 06:00:00 -0400

Adam Smith famously used a pin factory to illustrate the advantages of specialization, choosing this "very trifling manufacture" because the different tasks were performed under one roof: "One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them." By improving workers' skills and encouraging purpose-built machinery, the division of labor leads to miraculous productivity gains. Even a small and ill-equipped manufacturer, Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, could boost each worker's output from a handful of pins a day to nearly 5,000. In the early 19th century, that number jumped an order of magnitude with the introduction of American inventor John Howe's pin-making machine. It was "one of the marvels of the age, reported on in every major journal and encyclopedia of the time," writes historian of technology Steven Lubar. In 1839, the Howe factory had three machines making 24,000 pins a day—and the inventor was clamoring for pin tariffs to offset the nearly 25 percent tax that pin makers had to pay on imported brass wire, a reminder that punitive tariffs hurt domestic manufacturers as well as consumers. "Considering the great quantity and value of pins used in this country—and their importance as an article of general use, and convenience, if not of necessity," Howe wrote, "it would seem reasonable that encouragement should be given to an attempt to manufacture them; or at least that no obstacle arising out of the past legislation of our government, should be allowed to remain in the way of such an undertaking." So what happened to all those pins? Nowadays, we think of straight pins as sewing supplies. But they weren't always a specialty product. In Smith's time and for a century after, pins were a multipurpose fastening technology. Straight pins functioned as buttons, snaps, hooks and eyes, safety pins, zippers, and Velcro. They closed ladies' bodices, secured men's neckerchiefs, and held on babies' diapers. A prudent 19th century woman always kept a supply at hand, leading a Chicago Tribune writer to opine that the practice encouraged poor workmanship in women's clothes: "The greatest scorner of woman is the maker of the readymade, who would not dare to sew on masculine buttons with but a single thread, yet will be content to give the feminine hook and eye but a promise of fixedness, trusting to the pin to do the rest." Most significantly, pins fastened paper. Before Scotch tape or command-v, authors including Jane Austen used them to cut and paste manuscript revisions. The Bodleian Library in Oxford maintains an inventory of "dated and datable pins" removed from manuscripts going as far back as 1617. Pin sales grew along with record-keeping and bureaucracy—the unfairly derided systems necessary to operate an enterprise of any scale. "The expanded market for pins came from expanded uses in business and administrative record-keeping, as well as in clothing," says economic historian Beverly Lemire. Before paper clips or staples, pins gave businesses an inexpensive, unobtrusive way to keep pieces of paper together. Compared to ribbons or cords that required holes or sealing wax, they marked a major advance. "My guess would be that the expansion of great trading companies—like the East India Company—as well as the multiplication of shops and shopkeepers were a big part of the demand for pins," Lemire says. "Bank pins," as they were called in the trade, allowed organizations of all sizes to keep together orders and invoices, letters and replies. Th[...]

Guerrilla Lobs Bombs at Romanticized History of ‘70s Violence

Fri, 07 Apr 2017 15:30:00 -0400

Guerrilla. Showtime. Sunday, April 16, 9 p.m. Before we get to everything else about Showtime's Guerrilla—how it's intelligent, insightful, resonant, well-acted and all that—let's deal with the mysterious question of why a show about an underground black-nationalist terrorist group of the 1970s, written and produced by Americans, would be set in Great Britain. To be sure, London had its share (actually, much more than its share) of political terrorism in the 1970s. But nearly all of it was connected to the issue of Northern Ireland. Neither the British black-power movement nor the government response to it ever reached the extreme levels of violence that wracked their counterparts in the United States; there was no Mayfair chapter of the Black Panthers. The 1970s underground group that most closely resembles the one portrayed in Guerrilla was the Black Liberation Army, the Panther offshoot for which JoAnne Chesimard, a.k.a. Assata Shakur, robbed banks and shot it out with cops, but it was a purely American affair. The most obvious answer for the show's peculiar venue is that it's a co-production with Great Britain's Sky TV, which seemed to suggest that Guerrilla's creator-writer-director John Ridley, who won a screenwriting Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, couldn't round up enough funding within the United States. Why that should be is just one of those Hollywood imponderables. Guerrilla is a thoughtful and undidactic look at a time when the left went from nutty to nihilistic. In one 18-month stretch of 1971-72, the FBI recorded more than 2,500 bombings in the United States, more than five a day. And much of the revolutionary violence was directed not at the war in Vietnam, where American involvement was in steep decline, but at racial iniquities. Underground American groups like the Weathermen and the Symbionese Liberation Army explicitly declared that their violence was committed to combat black oppression, even if the fingers that were pulling the triggers or lighting the fuses were, in many cases, white. The Black Lives Matter movement is different in many, many ways, but the echoes are there nonetheless. Frieda Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) and Babou Ceesay ('71) play the politically engaged young lovers Jas and Marcus. Marcus is a black teacher whose revolutionary impulses are strictly cerebral; trying to blaze the way for the fulfillment of Ho Chi Minh's dictum that "when the prison gates are opened, the real dragon will fly out," he spends his spare time teaching classes at a London jail, educating future cadres. Jas, a nurse and a red diaper baby with daddy issues (her father is in jail in India for killing soldiers), is less patient. "I have to be with someone who wants to do things," she warns Marcus. They're both jolted to action when a black friend is beaten to death by cops at a protest rally. But they immediately learn how easily violence can spiral out of control, when, breaking a Marxist street criminal named Dhari (Nathaniel Martello-White, Red Tails) out of jail in hopes that he can provide their movement with more muscular leadership, they accidentally kill a guard. Marcus is stricken by the blood on his hands, even when the hard-boiled Dhari scoffs, "No use talking you didn't do this, you didn't do that—you're in it." Jas, on the other hand, is enchanted to hear news reports speculate that their little group must be veteran revolutionaries, perhaps even an offshoot of the Panthers. "We're so fucking cool," she exclaims to Marcus, even as her newfound notoriety spurs her into new fits of rage. Ridley's keenly observant script clearly draws on the multiplying accounts of life underground by 1970s survivors who've come in from the cold, not only for details of the grungy day-to-day existence (Jas and Marcus at one point are reduced to grabbing scraps of food off un-bussed trays of dirty restaurant dishes) but the larger issue of how radical rhetoric sometimes was sometimes false-flag justification for violence committed out[...]

The Myth of Isolationism

Wed, 05 Apr 2017 16:40:00 -0400

I'm always happy to see someone taking on the myth that America pursued an "isolationist" foreign policy between world wars one and two. So I recommend Andrew Bacevich's latest piece for The American Conservative, which makes the point concisely:

(image) The oft-repeated claim that in the 1920s and 1930s the United States raised the drawbridges, stuck its head in the sand, and turned its back on the world is not only misleading, but also unhelpful....Here, by way of illustrating some of those relevant facts, is a partial list of places beyond the boundaries of North America, where the United States stationed military forces during the interval between the two world wars: China, the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, Panama, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. That's not counting the U.S. Marine occupations of Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic during a portion of this period. Choose whatever term you like to describe the U.S military posture during this era—incoherent comes to mind—but isolationism doesn't fill the bill.

Bacevich, by the way, is responding to a Richard North Patterson column that doesn't merely mention isolationism; it invokes "the isolationism in Europe and America which precipitated World War II." Bacevich is too kind to dwell on that phrase "isolationism in Europe," but I'll be scratching my head over it for a while. Does Patterson mean the Munich agreement? That would be a bizarre use of the word isolationist, but every other possible reference I can think of is even stranger.

Remy: April Fools!

Sat, 01 Apr 2017 09:03:00 -0400

Remy explores some of the great April Fools' Day gags in American history.

Written and Performed by Remy. Music tracks and mastering by Ben Karlstrom. Camera by Austin and Meredith Bragg. Edited by Austin Bragg. Music tracks and mastering by Ben Karlstrom.

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Give me liberty or give me death!
Let us fight for independence up until our final breath!
The one regret that we should all have in our minds
We only have one life to give up for the future of mankind!

April Fools! A jestful jab!
How about we give ourselves free health care
and stick our grandkids with the tab?
I'm talking penis pills for you and you and you!
April Fools! April Fools! April Fools!

Four score and seven years has been the span
Fair weather brought a crowd I see
you all must be Penguins fans
Thousands sacrificed their lives upon this turf
To ensure that a free nation shall not perish from the earth!

April Fools! A playful plea!
They died so we could monitor your browser history
and use your phone to watch you number two
Must we give thought to the price paid by these tools?! (No!)
April Fools! April Fools! April Fools!

Ask not about yourself
Ask what you can do for your country
leave selfishness on the shelf
May the communists abroad hear this reprise
We shall pay any cost to ensure that liberty survives!

April Fools! Just cheeky chants!
There's a missile crisis! Yes and it is happening in your pants
So take these free pills, we'll send China IOUs
April Fools! April Fools! April Fools!

April Fools! They died in vain!
Life is dangerous, just ask people under Harrison Ford's planes
Must we give thought to the price paid by these tools?
April Fools! April Fools! April Fools!

A federal workforce so small and lean!
Will they be fluent in Latin?
Yes! Well, if you count "per diem"…

I'm talking free stuff for you and you and you
and you and you and you and you and you
and you and you and you and you...

The Neighborhood of Make-Believe Prepares for War

Fri, 31 Mar 2017 13:15:00 -0400

(image) For a week in 1983, life took a dark turn in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Over the course of five episodes of Mister Rogers, a mixture of miscommunication and anxiety convinced King Friday that another neighborhood nearby was stockpiling weapons. The king then ordered a major arms buildup himself, diverting money from the education budget and issuing an order to "conscript everyone in the neighborhood to help put the bombs together." Some of the other characters were willing to go along with this. ("King Friday wouldn't have us doing anything that was going to hurt anybody. He's always trying to keep people safe!" said X the Owl. "We shouldn't call them 'bombs,' though. We should call them 'surprise treats' or something like that."). But the orders did prompt some dissent from Lady Elaine Fairchilde, here as always the puppet most likely to call bullshit on King Friday. The tensions kept ramping up, with gas masks and air raid drills, until Lady Elaine and Lady Aberlin discerned that the other neighborhood had actually been building a bridge, not bombs.

This comment on the arms race aired the same month as The Day After, a TV movie about a nuclear war. There was a big wave of worry about whether that film was too scary for children to see, and there were rumors that the Mister Rogers storyline was intended as an alternative to The Day After for young audiences. In fact it had been conceived separately and the timing was a coincidence.

Eventually the episodes were withdrawn from rotation. But this month the first two installments of the sequence turned up on YouTube, leading to what may be my all-time favorite Daily Beast headline:


The article below that headline concedes that it is unlikely these were posted to protest the president's proposed arms buildup. Though I must admit I kind of like the idea that someone is trying to communicate with the White House by quietly adding old episodes of children's television to YouTube.

Anyway. After word spread that these were online, the copyright cadres swung into action and YouTube took them down. (Which is odd, since plenty of other old Mister Rogers episodes are on the site.) Someone else has reposted them, and I'm embedding that video below; the two Neighborhood of Make-Believe sequences start at the 16:19 and 42:09 marks. Watch 'em while you can:

src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">

I can't show you parts three through five, but you can read summaries of them here, here, and here. Incidentally, the episodes embedded above also include some lessons about banks and mints. These spill into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe story when King Friday gets his treasurer Mr. Newmoney on the phone and inquires about how much cash is available for war production.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

Beauty and the Tax-Fattened Oligarch

Thu, 30 Mar 2017 13:15:00 -0400

(image) As you know, "Beauty and the Beast" is a fairy tale about a wealthy, powerful creature who holds a woman captive until Stockholm Syndrome kicks in and she learns to love Big Brother. Now that a new version of the story has hit the theaters, Dan Sanchez reminds us that the Beast's bride isn't his only victim:

As the new film's opening sequence makes explicit, the prince paid for his lavish lifestyle by levying taxes—so high that even lefty Hollywood regards them excessive—on the hard-working, commercial townspeople....The party-animal prince being transformed into a sulking beast may have amounted to a 100% tax cut for the town; no wonder the townspeople are so cheerful and thriving when we first meet them!

All princes and other nobles, after all, are descended from marauding warriors who settled down and transmuted plunder and tribute (protection money) into taxes and other feudal obligations.

This reminds me of my idea for a new version of "Sleeping Beauty"—one that focuses not on the comings and goings of various ruling-class parasites but on the prosperity that surely swept the countryside while the castle slept for 100 years.

Anyway, Sanchez (who claims he doesn't want to be a "childhood-ruining killjoy," but c'mon, that's half the fun) uses the new film as a nice hook for some anti-feudal, pro-commercial history. To read the rest, go here.

Harlots Doesn’t Sell Out When Detailing Lives of 18th Century British Hookers

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 15:30:00 -0400

Harlots. Hulu. Available March 29. Somewhere in the vast terrain between the hooker-as-fairytale-princess fantasy of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman and the prim, grim Victorian sociology of Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Woman of the Streets lies Harlots, Hulu's odd but engrossing new drama about life inside an 18th-century London brothel. Screenwriter Moira Buffini, one of the five British women who produce, write, and direct Harlots, said in unveiling the project that the goal was "everything from the whore's-eye view." The result is that the women in Harlots are neither glamorous courtesans nor broken flowers, and their depiction is never erotic. There's plenty of nudity, of both sexes, but you've seen commercials for bladder medication that were sexier. The Harlots hookers don't make much money, but it's a living—and they regard the cops and and do-gooder moralists trying to close their house less as saviors than as a circling wolfpack. When a judge who's been asked to close the bordello as a public nuisance haughtily declares that "I grieve for the desperate women I have seen today who, faced with starvation, have sold their flesh," the prostitutes in the courtroom exchange looks laden with the unspoken question: "So you think we'll be better off in jail?" Harlots opens in 1763 with a prologue that claims a fifth of the women in London were hookers. That runs far ahead of police estimates of the day, but there's little doubt prostitution was a major industry. One of the show's early scenes, in which the women amuse themselves by reading their own notices in a Consumer Reports-style guide to the various local hookers and their skill sets ("one of the finest, fattest figures as fully finished for fun and frolick as fertile fancy ever formed...") is drawn from documented history. The brothel at the heart of Harlots is operated by Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton, nominated for an Oscar in 2002 as the troubled young immigrant mother of In America), a veteran of the trade whose virginity was bartered away for a pair of shoes at age 10 by her own mother. Margaret, buffeted by high rent and increasing graft demands by cops, hopes to get a much higher price for the maidenhead of her teenaged daughter Lucy (British TV actress Eloise Smyth). And she's playing the even more lucrative long game with slightly older but much more reluctant daughter Charlotte, who she's trying to place as an indentured consort to a wealthy nobleman. But her plans must be dangerously accelerated when cops raid her house, putting her out of business at least temporarily, and a rival madame (Lesley Manville of the British version of Law & Order) starts raiding her corps of whores. It turns out these two events are not coincidental. In a classic example of the regulatory-economics parable known as Baptists and Bootleggers, the other madame has been funding a decency group to attack Margaret's brothel and clear away the competition. That plot description sounds bleak, which is not entirely fair. Harlots burbles with the bawdy workplace humor of the hookers, from their theories about the sexual ontology of the reformers (the blind leader of the decency group, they speculate, lost her eyesight after putting her eyes out upon seeing her first penis on her wedding night) to, tart—heh-heh—remarks about job training. Told she must undergo instruction in cultural refinements, one of the women inquires, wide-eyed: "So, you will teach my cunny French?" The humor extends to the casting of Charlotte, the steely daughter resisting indenturement. She's played (quite well) by Jessica Brown Findlay, that sweet and gentle Lady Sibyl of Downton Abbey, whose death in childbirth so unhinged PBS cultists that the Washington Post ran a medical story explaining preeclampsia, the obscure condition that killed her, demanding an explanation of her inadequate trea[...]

Nuclear Home Movies

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 14:05:00 -0400

Nuclear test films would be eerie and hypnotic even if they didn't have the extra resonance they reap by representing the power to inflict mass death. And now there's more of them around: The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is digitizing declassified atomic footage, and this month it started posting the clips online. Go to the lab's YouTube page, and you can watch the government nuking the water...

src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">

...the sky...

src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">

...and the space beneath the ground:

src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">

To peruse the whole catalog, go here. Bruce Conner makes art from atomic-test footage here. Stanley Kubrick makes art from atomic-test footage here. The health consequences of being near such tests are explored here. Past editions of the Friday A/V Club are here.

In the Gay Wedding Cake Wars, Christians Preheated the Oven

Thu, 23 Mar 2017 09:50:00 -0400

(image) Where did the idea come from that small-business owners and religiously affiliated charities are at the mercy of lawmakers to decide whether they can exercise their faith?

All around us, governmental bodies at the state and federal level are claiming the authority to override the choices of private groups and individuals on questions such as whether or not to participate in a same-sex marriage celebration, and whether or not to offer insurance coverage for the morning-after pill. It's easy to assume these efforts are a thoroughly modern phenomenon. But in truth, this fight began more than 150 years ago. The only difference is that back then, Christian traditionalists were the ones trying to regulate a religious practice out of existence via laws that openly targeted members of the nascent Mormon faith.

In 1862, Congress outlawed plural marriage despite anguished protest from the Latter-day Saints, who at the time believed God wanted their men to take multiple wives. In subsequent decades, the U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly upheld the government's right to do as much. In the process, the Court laid down a precedent that the Constitution protects only your right to believe as you wish, but not your right to put those beliefs into practice in ways the state might not approve of.

"As the nation goes to war over birth control mandates and gay wedding cakes," I write in the April issue of Reason, "many religious supporters of traditional marriage and sexual mores understandably feel their rights are being trampled. But so did the Mormons a century ago. To justify the anti-polygamy laws forbidding that group to live out its faith, Christian traditionalists stretched the First Amendment to precarious lengths. Now, the arguments they created and employed are being turned against them."

Christians Started the Wedding Wars

Thu, 23 Mar 2017 08:15:00 -0400

A man who lived with more than one woman was anathema in the 19th century; the media called polygamy an "act of licentiousness" that deserved to be categorically denounced, its adherents disenfranchised. In 1885, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal law making plural marriage a felony, declaring that "the union for life of one man and one woman in the holy estate of matrimony [is] the sure foundation of all that is stable and noble in our civilization." A New York Times editorial celebrated that result, observing cheekily that "we had not supposed there had ever been any serious question." Today, it's the old-timey view that marriage is between one man and one woman only—and that sex should be reserved to that union—that raises the Grey Lady's ire. When Californians sought to ban gay marriage in 2008, the editors of the Times called the initiative a "mean-spirited" effort "to enshrine bigotry in the state's Constitution." Even assuming you think the paper was right the second time around, the reversal is striking. But while the norms have clearly changed, the desire to punish anyone who refuses to comply with those norms appears to be forever. As the nation goes to war over birth control mandates and gay wedding cakes, many religious supporters of traditional marriage and sexual mores understandably feel their rights are being trampled. But so did the Mormons a century ago. To justify the anti-polygamy laws forbidding that group to live out its faith, Christian traditionalists stretched the First Amendment to precarious lengths. Now, the arguments they created and employed are being turned against them. Discrimination Nation "We can't promote a marriage that God says isn't really marriage," the blog post would have read. "Even if our beliefs are a bit different or unpopular, we have to stick to them." But those words, penned by Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski, were never published to their website. The authors feared the government of Phoenix might come after them if they were. The young women, aged 23 and 24 respectively, are the owners of Brush & Nib Studio, an Arizona-based custom artwork and calligraphy shop. Shortly after getting their new business off the ground in 2015, they realized that a city ordinance passed two years earlier opened them up to enormous fines and even jail time as a result of their beliefs. The law forbids certain companies not just from discriminating against gays and lesbians but also from saying anything that so much as implies a customer would be unwelcome because of his or her sexual orientation. Duka and Koski don't want to be forced to create wedding invitations and other artwork that celebrate same-sex marriage, so they're suing to overturn the Phoenix regulation as a violation of their First Amendment rights. Their prospects seem grim, however: In September of last year, the Maricopa County Superior Court denied their request for a temporary injunction to stop the law from being enforced while the challenge proceeds. "There is nothing about custom wedding invitations made for same-sex couples that is expressive," the decision, incredibly, reads. That ruling is just one in a litany of recent instances in which small business owners have faced serious legal consequences for not wanting to be involved in commemorating same-sex unions. In Colorado, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop was hauled before the state's Civil Rights Commission. In Oregon, the proprietors of Sweet Cakes by Melissa were fined an eye-popping $135,000 and had to shutter their storefront. In New Mexico, the state Supreme Court told photographer Elaine Huguenin that she and her husband would be "compelled by law to compromise the very religious beliefs that inspire their lives." In upstate New York, a couple was forced t[...]

The Brief, Half-Serious, and Sort of Visionary Political Career of Jimmy Breslin

Mon, 20 Mar 2017 10:59:00 -0400

"Good day to you," Jimmy Breslin told the crowd of cops. "I'd like the record to state that I'm here without a lawyer." It was 1969. By this time Breslin, who died yesterday, was already a well-known newspaper columnist, but he wasn't giving a talk about journalism. He was campaigning to be president of the New York City Council. Also on the bill was Breslin's running mate, Norman Mailer, who was aiming to be mayor. The place was the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Breslin was about to give what Mailer's campaign manager, Joe Flaherty, later described as "the best speech he would deliver during the campaign." (It went over better than Mailer's turn with the crowd, which featured lines like "there were years when I hated some of you guys so much it wasn't funny" and "I'm as yellow as any good cop.") After some opening jokes, Breslin got down to the heart of his pitch—elect his ticket, and "there will be no more New York Police Department as we know it": Our idea is to have this city become a state, have the various sections of this city become cities right inside the state, and let them run their own police. Let's get the wisdom of the neighborhoods, give them the power, and let them run with it. I say the plan is far better from a police viewpoint than the way we're going, because in my estimation policemen today are being used. The police get all the mistakes of all the people who are supposed to be more important and smarter than us. The argument that followed mixed lines a Black Panther could love ("Those days are gone when white people can rule the black neighborhoods") with sentences calculated to appeal to people afraid of Panthers ("I think the time also should be gone that we should ask a white person to go in there"). Breslin called for the radical decentralization not just of the police but of the schools, and he wrapped up with a joke about knowing a guy who could come in to teach a class on bookmaking. After the official event was over, the candidates found themselves shooting the shit with some beat cops who had skipped the lecture. One of them told Breslin he had "doubts about you with your long, curly hair." Breslin shot back that he "wouldn't want to walk into a piss house with you alone either, baby." By this time Mailer and Breslin weren't a conventional ticket so much as a double act, with each candidate taking the spotlight in front of different audiences. Breslin, a more natural populist, was better with Catholics and cops, Mailer with Jews and intellectuals; when they spoke before an audience of feminists, they both bombed. It never was completely clear how serious a campaign they were running. Breslin told one audience that "anyone who runs for office in this city, with the shape this city is in, and takes it as a joke, is committing a mortal sin." But it didn't take Flaherty long to decide that Breslin saw his candidacy "as a brief and witty exercise to discredit the regular pols, then an exit before the real campaigning began." The duo definitely believed that stuff about decentralization and community control. But they were also prone to pitching proposals that were satiric, utopian, or maybe both: banning cars from Manhattan, inviting gangs to fight jousting matches in Central Park, holding a stickball World Series on Wall Street. Mailer took to promoting an idea he called Sweet Sunday—one day a month when, in his words, "New York would stop for 24 hours. Everything would stop running. Electricity, cars, planes, trains, name it. If nothing else, it would give New York a chance to clear itself once a month. And people would hear themselves think for a change." Pressed on whether he'd permit hospitals to run their generators on Sweet Sunday, Mailer backed down [...]

Steve King's Fear of Immigrants Is Ignorant of History

Thu, 16 Mar 2017 00:01:00 -0400

During Cold War debates about the merits of capitalism and communism, Americans offered a simple gauge: the movement of people. "You have the Berlin Wall," the argument went. "We have the Statue of Liberty. If communism is a blessing, why do people flee Cuba for America, not the other way around?" Ronald Reagan, the hero of modern Republicans, knew that immigrants were not a threat to our way of life but a reinforcement of it. He welcomed them as allies, self-selected for their attraction to democratic ideals. They came here not because they wanted to change America but because they admired it as it was. "I have always believed there was some divine providence that placed this great land here between the two great oceans," he said in 1986, "to be found by a special kind of people from every corner of the world who had a special love for freedom and a special courage that enabled them to leave their own land, leave their friends and their countrymen, and come to this new and strange land to build a new world of peace and freedom and hope." Imagine what Reagan would think of Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who abhors foreigners like a deadly virus. On Monday, King tweeted, "We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies." Last year, he declared, "Cultural suicide by demographic transformation must end." This week, King insisted that immigrants are "importing a different culture, a different civilization, and that culture and civilization, the imported one, rejects the host's culture." King was talking about Middle Easterners, but his suspicions extend to undocumented immigrants, most of whom come from Latin America. He claims they are "refusing to assimilate into the American culture and civilization." Among the alleged sins of Latino immigrants are that they drag down wages and give birth at public expense. But if there's anything worse than poor foreigners, it's rich ones. Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's chief White House strategist, has complained (inaccurately) that "two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia." He sees their numbers as trouble because, he says, "a country is more than an economy. (It's) a civic society." Yes, it is. And Silicon Valley is a proud product of ours, showcasing the wonders that intellectual and economic freedom can create. It's absurd to think immigration undermines our civic life. Immigration has always been inseparable from our civic life. What is it about high-achieving Asian-Americans that Bannon finds threatening to our way of life—aside, that is, from their race? From the start, immigrants have elicited groundless panic. Bannon, a Catholic, forgets that Catholic immigrants were once seen as fundamentally hostile to democratic principles. The eminent 19th-century Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher warned that "the subjects of the pope" would "subvert our free institutions." Beecher would be surprised that subjects of the pope now dominate that free institution called the Supreme Court. The court also has three Jewish justices, which would offend supporters of the Immigration Act of 1924. It was designed to keep out Jews, among others, who were seen as genetically inferior and politically radical. Jews, however, confounded anti-Semites by succeeding and integrating into American society just as every previous immigrant group had. There is no reason to think newcomers from Latin America or the Middle East will be any different. King and others believe Islam is irredeemably violent and hostile to freedom and democracy—hence his opinion that admitting Muslim refugees amounts to "cultural suicide." But he underestimates the power of American culture. A 2011 Gallup poll found that 89 p[...]

American Sex Police

Tue, 14 Mar 2017 06:00:00 -0400

In an unremarkable hotel room, a team of officers watches the footage streaming from a hidden camera next door. A middle-aged man is making arrangements to pay a young woman for sex. Once she agrees, the squad will rush in, shouting instructions, their bulletproof vests bulging with firearms and emblazoned with police or FBI. The woman—or is she a girl?—will have her hands tied behind her back and her phone confiscated. She will sit on the bed, partially undressed, as a team of men search her room, pawing through her underwear drawer and toiletry bags, seizing any cash they find. She will eventually be fingerprinted, interrogated, and taken into police custody. Welcome to Operation Cross Country, the U.S. government's huge, intrusive, and utterly ineffective effort to fight child sex trafficking. Variations on the scene above play out again and again in sensationalized montages of footage from the stings, which the FBI has been proudly posting to YouTube since Operation Cross Country launched in 2008. The vignettes are unsettling. In one scene, someone can be heard crying in the background as the camera pans past her stuff—Skittles, electric toothbrush, makeup—and settles on cops counting stacks of money. Other clips follow officers tailing people in tight dresses and stiletto heels or scouring printouts of escort ads from hotel beds. Shot after shot show authorities handcuffing young people, mostly women and girls, and parading them down dim hallways, thick gloved hands gripping skinny arms on either side, or pushing them up against cop cars, the camera lingering on cuffed wrists clasped tightly over baggy jeans or long, bare legs. The latest iteration of the initiative—Operation Cross Country X—took place across 103 U.S. cities from October 13 to 16. According to the FBI, it involved the efforts of 74 federally led Human Trafficking Task Forces, comprised of officers from 55 FBI field offices and more than 400 federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies. These included city and suburban police departments, county sheriff's offices, state police and investigative bureaus, juvenile detention departments, drug enforcement units, and an impressive array of federal entities: Homeland Security Investigations, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Marshals Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Customs and Border Protection, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Coast Guard Investigative Service, the State Department, myriad U.S. Attorney's Offices, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. They were aided by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and local nonprofits that had recently received federal grants. According to an FBI press release, this mighty group conducted "sting operations in hotels, casinos, truck stops, and other areas frequented by pimps, prostitutes, and their customers." The focus: "recovering underage victims of prostitution," or, as FBI Director James Comey put it, offering sexually exploited children a "lifeline" from a "virtual prison." Overall, the operation identified 82 "children" engaged in prostitution, an average of about 0.88 per city, or one for every five agencies participating. All were teenagers—mostly 16- and 17-year-olds—and a number of cities where they were found made no simultaneous pimping or sex trafficking arrests. To the feds, anyone under 18 who trades sex acts for money is defined as a victim of sex trafficking, regardless of whether they have experienced abduction, violence, restraint, or threats. In the end, only five men stand accused of federal crimes—with only two accused of crimes against actual minor[...]