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Published: Sun, 25 Feb 2018 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Sun, 25 Feb 2018 17:50:27 -0500


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 fast" knuckle tattoos, a reference to staying steady—physically and mentally—while out at sea, or large, ornate beasts like dragons to represent trips to China. Tattooing has leaked from the individualistic fringes to the mainstream over the last couple of decades. The first Playboy Playmate wit[...]

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 operation, were inflicted. To avoid fiscal ruin, the left-wing "mouthpieces" (another term of art) backed off. Mainstream programming was adopted, and the fiery voices were extinguished. WCFL was eventually sold, I kid you not, to Amway. Conservatives got their own skinning. For instance, right-wing [...]

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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CNN’s Patty Hearst Docuseries Shows Surprising Depth

Fri, 09 Feb 2018 15:01:00 -0500

The Radical Story of Patty Hearst. CNN. Sunday, February 11, 9 p.m. Not to be flippant, but I sometimes think Patricia Hearst—the kidnapped heiress turned bank robber turned brainwash victim, not necessarily in that order—has been my personal full-employment program. I've been writing newspaper and magazine stories about her almost from the moment she was kidnapped in 1974, a stream of assignments that shows no sign of ending. I am, however, small economic potatoes compared to CNN's Jeffrey Toobin. After buying 150 boxes of research materials from one of Hearst's kidnappers—defense files compiled for their criminal trials, including secret FBI documents and reports from private investigators—he leveraged it into a series of blockbuster media properties: A book! A podcast! A movie! A TV series! The film was deep-sixed by a timid studio, at least temporarily, when an angry Hearst played the #MeToo card. (Satiate unfulfilled longing for a big-screen treatment with all those Patty-porn flicks from the 1970s or even Paul Schrader's lacerating 1988 film Patty Hearst.) But the TV show has arrived. Toobin's six-part documentary, The Radical Story of Patty Hearst, kicks off on CNN with back-to-back episodes Sunday. And somewhat to my surprise, there is still considerable life in the story, despite who is telling it. Hearst, an heiress to the Hearst media fortune, was an apolitical 19-year-old college kid when she was grabbed by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a band of semi-literate and fully crazy "urban guerrillas" who had already killed an Oakland school superintendent for his imagined fascism. (He wanted to introduce student IDs to the school system.) They threw her into a closet for six weeks, raped her, and threatened to kill her, reading her to sleep at night with the works of Stalin. When Hearst emerged two months later, she declared she had switched sides—"I have chosen to stay and fight"—and was now at war with the "pig Hearsts." What followed was a lunatic rollercoaster ride of bank robberies, shootouts, and bombings that ended with most of the SLA members dead and Hearst in the custody of the FBI, claiming to be brainwashed. As I wrote when Toobin's book American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst appeared in 2016, "It is not easy to botch an account of the Hearst case, which overflowed with primal cultural fears, political nutballery, criminal bang-bang, and lurid sexual subtexts." Toobin, however, proved himself equal to the task, managing to somehow produce a text with the batty lynch-mistress vehemence of his former CNN colleague Nancy Grace that was nonetheless as dull as the Stalinist semiotics the SLA loved. With barely a few sentences about real-life instances of what psychologists called coercive persuasion that might lend weight to Hearst's brainwashing defense—American POWs in North Korea who confessed to preposterous accusations of biological warfare, the bank-robbery hostages so smitten by their captors that they prompted the coining of the phrase "Stockholm syndrome," the hundreds of members of Rev. Jim Jones' doomsday temple in Guyana who let him talk them into mass suicide—Toobin blithely declared Hearst a thrill-seeking rich kid invoking class privilege who belonged in jail. There was no reason to expect anything different from The Radical Story of Patty Hearst. But, startlingly, Toobin proves himself a much better storyteller when the medium is video, at least for the first five hours or so. A large part of that is due to the surprising presence of a couple of long-silent participants in the Hearst drama. One is Steven Weed, Hearst's fiancé (and, ahem, former high school math teacher) at the time of her kidnapping. To many of the Americans following the case, Weed seemed a sketchy character from the beginning, a sexual wastrel in search of teenage nookie and a lifetime lunch ticket from a rich daddy. The impression was bolstered in the[...]

The Olympics Can't Transcend Politics. Just Ask the Nazis.

Fri, 09 Feb 2018 00:01:00 -0500

This week, all eyes turn to the Korean peninsula. Not for the regular reason—that nuclear apocalypse seems likely to begin somewhere near the DMZ. No, it's the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang that are providing us this thaw in geopolitical tension. And all over the world, television executives are hoping Pyeongchang can restore some traditional primacy to the old media in a new media universe. The management at NBC, America's Olympic network, very much wants American television viewers to forget all the recent warmongering, Presidential tweeting, and Matt Lauer for a few weeks. "I do think the Olympics is unique in that it transcends politics," NBC Olympics host Katie Couric told the press last month. "I feel that this is one instance when domestic politics are really going take a back seat. This is going to be a really wonderful opportunity for the country to unify, and stand together, support the athletes and really help celebrate their stories." Clearly some Olympic stories are worth celebrating, and others aren't. NBC is probably in no mood to discuss Olympic gymnastics anytime soon, with endemic corruption within the governing body of the sport recently exposed in the Larry Nassar trial. News about the sexual abuse of athletes, and doping, and IOC malfeasance doesn't really help sell ads. But the larger issue Couric alludes to—that the Olympics offer an opportunity to ignore our fractious national politics—represents a hope that's been continually dashed since global Olympic broadcasting began in 1936. That was the year Germany's Nazi administration assembled the world's most technologically-sophisticated broadcasting operation in order to delight a global radio audience estimated at 300 million listeners. The Nazis understood the Olympic Games offered a unique propaganda opportunity, and they seized it. Ever since, every dictator and totalitarian government dreams of impressing the world through the supposedly apolitical lens of sports broadcasting. But sports, and sport broadcasting, can never be apolitical. To argue that sports can transcend politics is to miss the obvious fact that politics often structure our shared experience of sports. The greatest moments in American sports history—like the 1980 Miracle on Ice hockey victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, Joe Louis knocking out Nazi Germany's Max Schmeling in 1938, and Jesse Owens winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games run by Nazi racists—were all intensified by the political context in which they took place. Ironically, it was Nazi broadcasting advances that created the global superstardom enjoyed by Owens. But his legend wouldn't be the same had he won his gold medals in, say, Ecuador. Context matters. He won in front of Hitler, just as the 1980 Miracle on Ice hockey team won when the Soviet Union seemed ascendant and the Carter administration weak and vacillating. The Olympics have always been embedded in politics, and that's what makes them worth watching. Well, that and curling. Both NBC and CBS struggled with how to present the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Even before those Games began, NBC downplayed advance programming and promotional opportunities because a domestic boycott movement proved enormously popular. "Keep as far away from any controversy as possible," NBC's programming chief, John F. Royal, warned his staff when preparing them for Olympics coverage. Talk of official Nazi antisemitism, or totalitarian restrictions, would ultimately be severely constricted on the American airwaves. Instead, American listeners heard all about how great the "new" Germany had become. "Everywhere anyone goes in Berlin there is a great sense of joyful freedom," CBS's Bill Henry told a nationwide audience just before the games began. "Everybody seems to think that this is a wonderful holiday for all those who are in Berlin." The master propaganda plan developed by Josef Goebbels succeeded, and it provid[...]

When the Constitution Was 'At War With Itself,' Frederick Douglass Fought on the Side of Freedom

Fri, 02 Feb 2018 09:45:00 -0500

This month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest figures in American history. Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, sometime in February 1818. At the age of 20, he made his escape from bondage, traveling north to Philadelphia, New York City, and finally to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he would earn his "first free dollar" on the dockyards loading ships. "I was now my own master," he proclaimed, "a tremendous fact." In 1839, Douglass spoke up for the first time at an abolitionist meeting. Six years later, he was an internationally acclaimed orator and the author of a celebrated autobiography. In less than a decade, he had established himself as one of the most singular and influential voices in the most pressing debate of his time: the debate over slavery. Arguing about slavery was a combat sport in those days, both figuratively and literally, and the field was crowded with skilled combatants. Among them was John C. Calhoun, the legendary South Carolina statesman who proclaimed slavery to be a positive good, fully sanctioned by the letter and spirit of the U.S. Constitution. There was also the militant Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who burned his copy of the Constitution, damning it as a pro-slavery "covenant with death and an agreement with hell." Douglass would face them both down. "Garrison sees in the Constitution precisely what John C. Calhoun sees there," Douglass observed. He saw something different: "Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document." At a time when the principles of the Declaration of Independence were under assault, Douglass waved the banner of classical liberalism, championing inalienable rights for all, regardless of race or sex. At a time when socialism was on the rise, Douglass preached the virtues of free labor and self-ownership in a market-based economy. At a time when state governments were violating the rights of the recently emancipated, Douglass professed the central importance of "the ballot-box, the jury-box, and the cartridge-box" in the fight against Jim Crow. Douglass, the former slave who secretly taught himself how to read, would teach the American people a thing or two about the true meaning of the Constitution. 'Wielded in Behalf of Emancipation' On May 9, 1851, the leading lights of the abolitionist movement gathered in Rochester, New York, for the 18th annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Among the items on the agenda was a resolution calling for the society to officially recommend several anti-slavery publications, including a small weekly called the Liberty Party Paper. But William Lloyd Garrison, the powerful editor of The Liberator, one of abolitionism's flagship publications, would have none of that. The Liberty Party Paper, Garrison complained, saw the Constitution as an antislavery document. That view was tantamount to heresy, as it clashed with Garrison's famous judgment that the Constitution was a pro-slavery deal with the devil. So a more congenial resolution was soon proposed: The American Anti-Slavery Society would only recommend those publications that toed the Garrisonian line. It was at this point that Frederick Douglass stood up. For the previous 10 years, Douglass had been a friend, ally, even a disciple of Garrison's. "Every week the Liberator came, and every week I made myself master of its contents," Douglass later recalled. "I not only liked—I loved this paper, and its editor." But Douglass no longer loved what Garrison had to say about the Constitution. In fact, he now thought Garrison was dead wrong on the subject. What is more, Douglass decided that the time had come for him to say so in public. Douglass "felt honor bound to announce at once," he explained to the assembled worthies, that the paper he edited, The North Star, "no longer possessed the requisit[...]

Are Microschools the Next Big Thing?

Sat, 27 Jan 2018 06:00:00 -0500

Portfolio School looks and sounds like a Silicon Valley tech firm's rec room—except that almost everyone is under the age of 10. The building's walls double as whiteboards, with nearly every inch covered in colorful, hand-drawn diagrams of constellations and planetary orbits. Along one side, kid-sized scissors and glue sticks are piled neatly next to a 3D printer and laser cutter. During my visit, a boy with an explosion of brown hair skidded up to me. "We're making movies!" he announced. Around the room, other students were reading, completing lessons on educational software, working on tinker toys. Without the unconscious kid-adult barriers that traditional schools often create, the chatty boy felt free to talk my ear off about how he and a group of his classmates had created characters for a science fiction film about a trip to Mars. He seemed particularly interested in the editing process, where they would get to add Martian backgrounds and other special effects. Portfolio School is part of a growing movement of "micro-schools." Coined by British education blogger Cushla Barry in 2010, the term refers to educational institutions that emphasize interdisciplinary project-based learning, building social skills such as communication and critical thinking, and tailoring instruction to the needs of each individual student. The schools tend to focus on teamwork, and they're small by design—with student bodies ranging anywhere from half a dozen to roughly 150 students. The size limitations, informed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar's now famous research on the maximum number of relationships most human beings can comfortably maintain, help the employees stay better connected with their students' individual needs. Portfolio, located in Manhattan's upscale TriBeCa neighborhood, is one of the most elite (and expensive) microschools, focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects. The movement, which grew from scrappy homeschool roots, has been taken up by nerds who want to hack primary education. Like all startups, the microschool model will rise or fall on its ability to meet customer needs at the right price. Success is far from assured. But could tech-savvy tiny schools be the future? 'Factories in Which Raw Products Are To Be Shaped' Ken Robinson is the star of the most popular TED Talk ever. More than 50 million people have clicked to hear an education consultant with a British knighthood ponder the question "Do schools kill creativity?" (Spoiler: Yep.) "We have built our education system on a model of fast food," Robinson explains in a follow-up TED Talk delivered in 2010. But there are at least two ways to ensure a good meal when you're cooking for a crowd: "One is fast food, where everything is standardized. The other [is] catered to local circumstances. We have sold ourselves into a fast-food model of education, and it's impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies." The roots of America's education system were transplanted from the German kingdom of Prussia, where eighteenth century monarchs such as Frederick the Great established schools with the goal of molding a disciplined citizenry of dutiful soldiers and civil servants. During the next century, state-run schools played a crucial role in manufacturing a homogenized German identity. In 1807, nationalist philosopher Johann Fichte argued that forging this identity meant that "schools must fashion the person…in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will." American education pioneer Horace Mann visited Prussia in 1843. Convinced that what he found could benefit the United States, Mann reformed Massachusetts' school system along Prussian lines, and the model ultimately spread cross-country. Mann believed that standardized public institutions could deliver quality educ[...]

Wormwood’s Bad Trip Peddles CIA Conspiracies

Fri, 26 Jan 2018 15:00:00 -0500

Wormwood. Available now on Netflix. Nothing bores me more than weepy declarations of the end of American innocence. If there ever was such a moment, it came hundreds of years ago when the first slave ship arrived, the first Indian was shot, or maybe when the first witch was hanged. But there's no denying that much of the country was pretty stunned to learn in 1975 that a CIA employee named Frank Olson jumped out a 10th-floor hotel window after being secretly dosed with LSD by his own boss as part of a U.S. government mind-control experiment. Toppling governments in Guatemala or Iran at least had some sense of purpose, however foul; Olson's death sounded more like a tawdry, callous frat prank, a profound and pointless repudiation of the very concept of morality. Five decades later, investigative filmmaker Errol Morris' Wormwood is trying to convince us that it was something even worse, the ruthless murder of a political dissident with his six-part documentary Wormwood, a razzle-dazzle exercise in multimedia virtuosity that substitutes sinister showmanship for facts and silly sophistry for deductive logic. American innocence may have been lost a long time ago, but the casual acceptance of Wormwood's empty claims certainly suggests that the tides of American citizens' cynicism about their government are teaching new high points. "Wormwood" in the Bible refers literally to poison and metaphorically to bitter truth, and both usages underlie the documentary. It recounts the quest of Eric Olson, Frank's son, to prove his father was not just collateral damage in a CIA experiment in behavioral control experiment but the victim of a government execution. Frank Olson, a bacteriologist, began working during World War II as a civilian contractor for a U.S. Army biological warfare lab and then graduated to a Frankenstein-ish CIA unit dedicated to better covert living through chemistry. It provided poisons for CIA assassination attempts against Fidel Castro and leftist Congolese leader Patrice Lumemba and dabbled in the use of LSD and other hallucinogens as two-way weapons that might be used either to unmask Soviet moles in the West or create American moles behind the Iron Curtain. In 1953, Olson and several CIA colleagues attended a retreat at a rural Maryland hunting lodge to discuss their work with psychotropic drugs. The meeting turned out to be more hands-on than anybody expected; Sidney Gottlieb, who ran the drug program, spiked the drinks of nearly all the participants with LSD. The idea was to see how they'd react to the drug in a non-clinical situation. The result was the spook version of a 1960s college dorm party; a lot of giggling and incoherent philosophical debates. Olson, however, had the mother of all bad trips. Within a couple of days, convinced he had made a fool of himself at the retreat, he showed up at his supervisor's office to say he wanted to quit or be fired. As his condition deteriorated over the next 24 hours, Olson's bosses decided he needed psychiatric help. They sent him to New York to see a doctor named Harold Abramson, who was interested in psychiatry but had no formal training. (By trade, he was an immunologist.) But he had been a CIA contractor, had a security clearance, and, perhaps most importantly, had worked with the agency's LSD project. Olson, however, grew even more paranoid. He was convinced the CIA was drugging him further. He snuck out of a Broadway show to avoid the armed men he was certain were waiting outside to grab him and spent a night wandering the streets, throwing away his identification and money, on what he imagined were CIA orders. The next night he went flying out his hotel room window. Olson's family was told only that he had jumped or fallen, not about the LSD dosing. And for the next 22 years, that was that. But when government and media investigations into CIA [...]

Split the Baby. Drink the Poison. Carry the Hot Iron. Swear on the Bible

Sat, 20 Jan 2018 06:00:00 -0500

You probably remember the story of King Solomon and the baby. Two women come before the monarch claiming to be a child's mother. Neither has evidence to show. So Solomon proposes the following: He'll cut the baby in half. Each woman will receive an equal share. This will be equitable, if a bit messy. On the face of it, the king was either a baby-hating madman or an idiot. Killing an infant and divvying up its corpse hardly seems like a reasonable response to a maternity dispute. But if you know the story, you know what Solomon had in mind: The baby's true mother would rather sacrifice her child's custody than her child's life. She would turn down the king's proposal, and then he would award the baby, in its entirety, to her. We can learn a couple of things from Solomon. First, judicial procedures that seem downright stupid may in fact be very wise. Second, when "ordinary" evidence is lacking, judicial officials may still be able to get to the bottom of things by creating clever rules—even ones that are based on a lie ("when maternity is in doubt, cut the child in half "). Such clever rules can manipulate people's incentives, leading them to reveal information only they have access to through the choices they make. Burn, Baby, Burn "Ordeals" were medieval European judicial officials' version of splitting the baby. From the ninth through the 13th centuries, two types flourished: hot and cold. In a hot water ordeal, a priest boiled a cauldron of water into which he threw a stone or ring. The task of the "proband"—the ordeal taker—was, as Bishop Eberhard of Bamberg's 12th century breviary instructed, to "plunge his hand into the boiling water" and pluck it out. Afterwards his hand should "be immediately sealed up." If he's innocent, he'll "bring forth his hand safe and unharmed from this water. But if he be guilty and presume to plunge in his hand," it will show burn injuries on inspection three days later. The hot iron ordeal was similar, except the proband carried a piece of burning iron nine paces instead. The formula for deciding guilt was the same: If it burns you, you did it. The cold water ordeal dispensed with the hot stuff in favor of a tepid pool. The ninth century theologian Hincmar of Rheims described it this way: "He who is to be examined by this judgment is cast into the water bound, and is drawn forth again bound." If he's guilty and "seeks to hide the truth by a lie," he "cannot be submerged." In other words, guilty people float. Innocent people sink. Medieval law reserved ordeals for certain kinds of cases, typically those involving accusations of serious crimes, such as homicide, robbery, or arson. Punishments for failing them ranged from fines to mutilation to death. The law also reserved ordeals for cases that judges couldn't confidently decide without them. "The ordeal of hot iron is not to be permitted except where the naked truth cannot otherwise be explored," 12th century English law decreed. Or as 13th century German law put it, "It is not right to use the ordeal in any case, unless the truth may be known in no other way." If a defendant confessed or reliable witnesses testified against him, judges would convict him straightaway, without an ordeal. If enough acceptable "oath helpers" swore his innocence, he would be acquitted. But when such "ordinary" evidence was silent, judges unwilling to convict or exonerate accused criminals indiscriminately needed another way to determine how to rule. That way was ordeals. These were justified on the grounds that they were iudicia Dei—judgments of God. Where man couldn't correctly assign criminal status, he recruited the Lord. "The judges may decide that which they clearly know," a Carolingian capitulary directed, "but that which they cannot know shall be reserved for Divine judgment." According to medieval Chri[...]

Everyone You Love Did Drugs

Fri, 12 Jan 2018 12:45:00 -0500

It turns out that a lot of accomplished, well-respected historical figures did drugs. From Winston Churchill taking amphetamines to Thomas Edison lacing his wine with cocaine, not everyone who uses narcotics is a hopeless basket case living in a dumpster. While some drug users spiral into addiction and crime, others go on to become president. It's time to debunk the age old stereotypes of the back alley dangerous dealer or the lazy stoner when, according to the National Survey on Drug Use, roughly half of all Americans have tried an illegal drug. In the latest "Mostly Weekly" host Andrew Heaton breaks down the cartoonish Drug Warrior portrayal of drugs by showing some of the beloved historical figures who used them, including: Thomas Jefferson Getrude Stein Carl Sagan Cary Grant The Beatles Mostly Weekly is hosted by Andrew Heaton, with headwriter Sarah Rose Siskind. Script by Sarah Rose Siskind with writing assistance from Andrew Heaton and Brian Sack. Edited by Austin Bragg and Siskind. Produced by Meredith and Austin Bragg. Theme Song: Frozen by Surfer Blood. Song: "Burnt to a Crisp or Bloody as Hell" by TeknoAX Subscribe at YouTube. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.[...]

The Massive Higher-Ed Scam You've Never Heard About: Podcast

Tue, 26 Dec 2017 16:10:00 -0500

Historian and entrepreneur Thaddeus Russell has a bone to pick with American higher education. It's not simply that maverick opinions that stray from a liberal-progressive orthodoxy get squashed in classroom discussions and tenure decisions. Russell says the federal Department of Education effectively manages an accreditation system that controls the number and character of elite institutions by insisting that "serious" colleges and universities have dorms, dining halls, and a whole host of things completely unrelated to higher learning. As the founder and proprietor of the online Renegade University, the fight is both personal and practical for Russell, whose 2010 book, A Renegade History of the United States, offers up one of the most original and provocative readings of the American experience. "People who operate on the fringes of society," says Russell, "who have operated against social norms...have opened spaces that were later occupied by the mainstream and established things that we now take for granted." In his telling, it's not august statesmen and high-minded citizens but the pushers, prostitutes, and outliers who have enabled the radical lifestyle, cultural, and political freedoms we take for granted. In a wide-ranging conversation with Reason's Nick Gillespie, Russell, who holds a Ph.D. in history from Columbia, talks about discovering the Austrian School of economics only long after he left the academy, why actual Marxists hate postmodernism and why libertarians should love it, the insidious nature of America's Protestant work ethic, and how the Democrats are reviving the Cold War. Audio production by Ian Keyser. Subscribe, rate, and review the Reason Podcast at iTunes. Listen at SoundCloud below: src="" width="100%" height="300" frameborder="0"> Don't miss a single Reason podcast! (Archive here.) Subscribe at iTunes. Follow us at SoundCloud. Subscribe at YouTube. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. This is a rush transcript. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy. Nick Gillespie: This is the Reason podcast. I'm your host, Nick Gillespie. Please subscribe to us at iTunes and rate and review us while you're there. Today, we're talking with Thaddeus Russell. He's an academic, really kind of a post-academic, who runs an outfit called the Renegade University. We're going to talk about academia. We're going to talk about post-modernism, and we're going to talk about Donald Trump and the larger canvas of American politics. Thad, thanks for talking. Thaddeus Russell: Always a pleasure, Nick. Gillespie: Yeah, you know we have known each other for a few years here. When I first encountered you, it was shortly after the publication of your Renegade History of the United States, which is a kind of brilliant counter to Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States. Just, as a tee off, one of the funny things is when I got the book from the publisher, I was like, 'Oh, this sounds like a shitty knockoff of Howard Zinn', and I was about to throw it out. And instead, I started reading the first chapter, and a couple hours later, I was part-way through, and I was like, 'We've got to talk to this guy. We've got to interview him. We've got to work with him.' Why don't you talk a bit about the Renegade History of the United States and how it's reaction kind of encapsulates one of the issues that you have with higher education, which seems to be an unwillingness to actually engage with heterodox ideas? Russell: Yeah, so, Reason magazine and were the only mainstrea[...]

GW Students Organize to Fight Oppression By Oppressing Reading Choices

Wed, 20 Dec 2017 13:15:00 -0500

The Internationalist Students' Front, a new organization at George Washington University, seeks to "oppose nationalism across the world and contest popular narratives about U.S. foreign policy." To achieve these lofty goals, the group also wants to ban books. The Students' Front is calling for the banning of two books from the school's Gelman Library. One of them is "The Alleged 'Nanking Massacre': Japan's Rebuttal to China's Forged Claims," an obviously propagandistic book written by members of Japan's far-right. The student group intends to circulate a petition on campus to have it removed or labeled propaganda. Members of the organization did not respond to requests for comment on the group, its goals, or its choice of books. They have not yet disclosed the title or the author of the second book they want removed from Gelman. Given that 86 percent of the Amazon reviews of the book are one-star ratings, it seems the vast majority of Americans already see the book for what it is: a wholly unsubstantiated, and overall quite ludicrous account of a historical event, akin to Holocaust denial in the West. The Nanking Massacre has been widely documented. Japanese forces captured the Chinese city of Nanjing (or Nanking) and, in six weeks beginning in December of 1937, killed anywhere between 40,000 to 300,000 people in a rampage of rape and pillage. Estimates are still contested. Some have accused the Chinese government of inflating the numbers. Others deny the massacre happened. It's unlikely George Washington students accept the book as factual or allow such obvious propaganda to distort their understanding of the Nanking Massacre. The fact that the massacre has been denied is an interesting and important aspect of study for those interested in the history of relations between China and Japan. As George Washington Law faculty member and legal commentator Jonathan Turley writes, " an academic institution, our faculty and students research such views as part of their studies and discussion. Sometimes we buy books to gain perspective of fringe or discredited views. The denial itself is a legitimate matter of study for some academics." Even requiring the book to be labeled as propaganda is a bad idea—the floodgates of what constitutes "propaganda" versus what constitutes a reliable interpretation of the truth could easily be opened. The Students' Front seems like your traditional left-wing, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist student organization. The club's Facebook page laments the anniversary of Fidel Castro's death, saying, "as internationalists, we must commemorate his fight against oppression in Cuba, and his contributions to anti-imperialism and international struggles against oppression." Fighting oppression around the globe is certainly a worthy cause. In attempting to ban certain books from the library, is the group really overthrowing oppression, or attempting to advance only their preferred ideologies and causes? GW's student newspaper, The Hatchet, reports that "the organization will host teach-ins about the consequences of fascism and advocate internationalism, a political ideology similar to socialism that believes all people should unite to advance common interests." There's an obvious flaw in their logic. Calling for book-banning is ridiculous. When students concerned with ending global oppression fail to see how censorship can contribute to the very oppression they're fighting against, it's a sorry state of affairs. There's a certain irony when students crack down on the free exchange of ideas in the process of attempting to promulgate particularly radical ones—ones that could also be in danger of being suppressed one day. Free speech is valuable for many reasons, but especially bec[...]

The Original Rock 'n' Roll Guitar God Was Actually a Goddess

Fri, 15 Dec 2017 13:50:00 -0500

Rock 'n' roll was born and baptized in a smoky nightclub somewhere, but the baby was conceived in a church. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard were all raised Pentecostal, and their sounds were shaped by the raucous gospel music they grew up with. And Chuck Berry cribbed his duckwalk from a gospel singer called Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose guitar style helped lay the groundwork for rock.

Tharpe was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this week, alongside such worthies as Nina Simone and the Cars. If you find yourself doubting that this honor should be bestowed on a woman who was already in her forties when "Jailhouse Rock" hit the charts, watch this old clip from the NBC show TV Gospel Time, originally broadcast in 1962. For about a minute and 20 seconds, it may seem like an ordinary gospel performance. And then Sister Tharpe starts soloing:

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A century ago, the early Pentecostals' multiracial revivals and ecstatic forms of worship sparked a moral panic. In the 1950s, rock 'n' roll provoked a similar reaction. Watching Tharpe play, you may start to see the outlines of more than one hidden continuity.

Just about all the founding fathers of rock 'n' roll—Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash—were Rosetta Tharpe fans. Gayle Wald's Tharpe bio Shout, Sister, Shout! quotes Jerry Lee Lewis falling over with praise for the woman: "I mean, she's singing religious music, but she is singing rock 'n' roll. She's...shakin', man....She jumps it. She's hitting that guitar, playing that guitar and she is singing. I said, 'Whoooo.' Sister Rosetta Tharpe." They say the Devil has all the best tunes, but he had to learn them somewhere.

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

Brickbat: Russian Purge

Mon, 11 Dec 2017 04:00:00 -0500

(image) Russia has deported Polish historian Henryk Glebocki. The Federal Security Service detained him and removed him from the country a day after he gave a lecture on the fate of Polish citizens during the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s.