Don’t Let Mass Shooters and the New York Times Destroy Freedom of Speech

“Online communities like 4chan and 8chan have become hotbeds of white nationalist activity,” wrote the editors of the New York Times  on August 4 in the wake of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. Then: “Law enforcement currently offers few answers as to how to contain these communities.”

Wait, what? Is the Times really implying what it looks like they’re implying? Yes.

“Technology companies have a responsibility to de-platform white nationalist propaganda and communities as they did ISIS propaganda,” the editorial continues. “And if the technology companies refuse to step up, law enforcement has a duty to vigilantly monitor and end the anonymity, via search warrants, of those who openly plot attacks in murky forums.”

Translation: The New York Times has announced its flight from the battlefield of ideas. Instead of countering bad ideas with good ideas, they want Big Tech and Big Government to forcibly suppress the ideas they disagree with.

Not so long ago, the Times‘s editors endorsed a very different view:

“One of the Internet’s great strengths is that a single blogger or a small political group can inexpensively create a Web page that is just as accessible to the world as Microsoft’s home page. But this democratic Internet would be in danger if the companies that deliver Internet service changed the rules so that Web sites that pay them money would be easily accessible, while little-guy sites would be harder to access and slower to navigate. Providers could also block access to sites they do not like.”

Now the Times says providers have a “responsibility” to block access to sites the Times doesn’t like. That’s quite a change. And an ugly one.

There are plenty of good reasons, both moral and practical, to oppose the suppression of white nationalist and other “extremist” web platforms.

Free speech is a core moral value for any society that aspires to freedom of any kind and to any degree. We must — MUST — have the right to form our own opinions, and to express those opinions, no matter how ugly others may find those opinions. Without that freedom, no other freedoms can survive.

As a practical matter, “extremists,” like everyone else, will choose to state, promote, and argue for their beliefs. If they can do so in public, those beliefs can be engaged and argued against. If they can’t do so in public, they’ll do so in private, without anyone to convince them (and those they quietly bring into their circles over time) of the error of their ways. The rest of us won’t have a clue what might be in the offing — until the guns come out, that is.

It’s appalling to see the New York Times endorsing an end to the freedom that undergirds its very existence and the prerogatives of every other newspaper and soapbox speaker in America. The only substantive difference between the editors’ position and that of the El Paso shooter, allegedly one Patrick Crusius, is that the shooter did his own dirty work.

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Afghanistan: In Search of Monsters to Not Destroy

America, John Quincy Adams said in 1821, “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” That’s as good a summary ever spoken of the non-interventionist position.

US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) disagrees. He opposes President Trump’s quest for a peace agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan as “reckless and dangerous,” entailing “severe risk to the homeland.”

Nearly 18 years  into the US occupation of Afghanistan, at a cost of  trillions of dollars, more than 4,000 Americans dead and more than 20,000 wounded, Graham and his fellow hawks clearly aren’t really looking for monsters to destroy.  They want those monsters alive and at large, to justify both their own general misrule and the perpetual flow of American blood and treasure into foreign soil (read: into the bank accounts of US “defense” contractors).

The US invasion of Afghanistan was never militarily necessary. The Taliban offered to hand over Osama bin Laden upon presentation of evidence that he was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, an offer President George W. Bush arrogantly declined in favor of war.

The extended US occupation of, and “nation-building” project in, Afghanistan, was even less justifiable. Instead of relentlessly pursuing the supposed mission of apprehending bin Laden and liquidating al Qaeda, US forces focused on toppling the Taliban, installing a puppet regime, and setting themselves to the impossible task of turning Kabul into Kokomo.

It hasn’t worked. It’s not working now. It’s not going to start working.  Ever. It should never have been attempted. Afghans don’t want Lindsey Graham running their affairs any more than you want him running yours. Can you blame them after as many as 360,000 Afghan civilian deaths?

Afghanistan is not and never has been a military threat to the United States, let alone the kind of existential threat that would justify 18 years of war. Yesterday isn’t soon enough to bring this fiasco to an end. But Graham and company would, given their way, drag it out forever.

They’re  the kind of grifters H.L. Mencken had in mind when he noted that “[t]he whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” But they’d rather keep old hobgoblins alive than have to manufacture new ones.

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Human Sacrifice: A Grand Old American Political Tradition

On July 25, US Attorney General William Barr ordered the Federal Bureau of Prisons to update its execution protocol and schedule five executions starting this December.

Whether you support the death penalty or not — I don’t because I prefer limited government and the power to kill disarmed prisoners in cold blood and with premeditation is by definition unlimited government — it’s worthwhile to ask:  Why? More to the point, why now?

Politics, that’s why.

There’s a presidential election next year. US president Donald Trump’s re-election strategy, for lack of ability to grow his electoral “base,” is to keep that base energized and enthused so that they’ll turn out to vote instead of sitting at home catching up on re-runs of their favorite TV shows. And that base overwhelmingly supports capital punishment.

With this move Trump is quite literally throwing his supporters some red meat.

There’s nothing new about the idea. Indeed, the history of public human sacrifice for political purposes runs all the way back to ancient history in the Americas.

The last large-scale pre-Columbian example of the practice, that of the Aztecs, involved removing the beating heart of the victim atop a pyramid temple before flinging his or her corpse down the steps to the approval of a roaring crowd.

In this way, Aztec kings not only maintained support from their own populace through religious appeals, but kept smaller tribes too busy raiding each other (for sacrificial captives to be given to the Aztecs in tribute) to ally with each other against the Aztecs themselves.

If these five executions occur, they will be the first federal executions since 2003. There have only been three since 1963.

So, again, why? And why now?

Deterrence isn’t an answer that fits. Overall, violent crime (including murder) in the US has trended downward, not upward in recent decades (from 758 per 100,000 population in 1992 to 383 per 100,000 in 2017).

Neither is reducing the costs of incarceration. Of the more than 200,000 federal prisoners, only 61 are on “death row.” It’s unlikely that killing every last one of them would make a big dent in the Bureau of Prisons’ $7.3 billion annual budget.

Speaking which, if money was the problem, all five of the prisoners to be killed could as easily have been left to the justice systems of the states in which their crimes were committed and would have likely been sentenced to either death or life imprisonment without involving federal tax dollars in the first place.

The same is true regarding any moral “eye for an eye” imperative.  Handling this kind of crime, and this kind of criminal, was never supposed to be the federal government’s job.

That leaves politics. Trump is playing Montezuma in hopes of holding on to his adoring crowd.

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American Politicians Use Jews as Pawns to Excuse Their Meddling in Israeli Elections

On July 23, the US House of Representatives passed (the vote went 398-17, with five voting “present”) a resolution condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement.

The resolution was an outrageous condemnation of the freely chosen economic actions of millions of Americans.

Worse, that condemnation was made on the express behalf of not just a foreign government but the specific policies of one foreign political party (Israel’s Likud Party and its leader, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu). Its intended purpose is to give Likud and Netanyahu the advantage of perceived US support in Israel’s upcoming election.

Worst of all, the resolution’s proponents made — and now that it’s passed, will continue to make — extensive use of overt, undisguised race-baiting, posturing as defenders of Jews while smearing their opponents as anti-Semites.

What are the purposes of the BDS movement?

To pressure the government of Israel to meet “its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully compl[y] with the precepts of international law by: 1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; 2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and 3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”

Who supports BDS?

Yes, some BDS supporters oppose the existence of the Israeli state as such, and some of them are anti-Jewish bigots. Go figure.

Other BDS supporters are Jews, including some Israelis. Being Jewish or Israeli no more entails supporting one political party’s agenda than being American does.

BDS harnesses the consciences of individuals — individuals of all religions, nationalities, and ethnicities — to voluntary action pressuring the Israeli government to abide by the same standards of international law that the US  government routinely, and with great pomp and circumstance, imposes coercive sanctions on other governments for supposedly violating.

The anti-BDS resolution is a far more overt, and likely far more effective, instance of US government meddling in Israel’s elections than anything the Mueller Report credibly accuses the Russian state of doing vis a vis the 2016 US election.

That’s disgusting.

But not as disgusting as its supporters’ virulent resort to racial politics and their abuse of Jews as, to steal a phrase from a recent New York Times op-ed by Michelle Goldberg, “human shields” to distract our attention from what they’re actually up to.

Shame on the House.

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No Bail is Excessive Bail, Even for Jeffrey Epstein

Multi-millionaire Jeffrey Epstein stands accused of sex trafficking and conspiracy to traffic minors for sex. On July 18, US District Court judge Richard Berman denied bail, ordering that Epstein be confined until trial.

The US Constitution’s Eighth Amendment is short and sweet: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

What would constitute “excessive” bail in Epstein’s case? Whatever it might be, no bail at all fits the definition, especially given what Epstein put on the table by way of a bail proposal.

There are two issues at stake:

In a 1951 case, Stack v. Boyle, the US Supreme Court held that “a defendant’s bail cannot be set higher than an amount that is reasonably likely to ensure the defendant’s presence at the trial.”

The Bail Reform Act of 1984 does provide for “preventive detention” without bail, but only if a judge “finds that no condition or combination of conditions will reasonably assure … the safety of any other person and the community.”

What would assure Epstein’s appearance at court, and protect young women from further depredations of the type he’s accused of?

Epstein offered more than $100 million in cash bail. That’s a powerful incentive to appear for trial. Perhaps not enough for someone of his means. But there’s more.

Epstein also offered to submit to house arrest at his New York residence, with an electronic bracelet to track his every move, armed guards to keep him from leaving or prospective victims from entering,  prior approval by federal authorities for ANYONE to enter, and a court-appointed live-in trustee whose sole job would be to report any violations of the bail agreement to the court. All of that paid for by Epstein himself.

Furthermore, Epstein offered to de-register and ground his personal jet, and to  preemptively waive extradition from any country on Earth.

It’s difficult to imagine a bail arrangement more fully encompassing  the two legitimate objectives of bail itself.

That offer puts the lie to what Berman called “the heart of his decision” — his doubt that “any bail package could overcome dangerousness … to community.”

That leaves two plausible explanations for Berman’s decision.

One is that, like many judges, he just habitually defers to prosecutors (who in turn habitually use “no bail” requests to grandstand as “tough on crime”).

The other is that he’s already tried and convicted Epstein in his mind and sees no reason to wait for a jury to hand him the fore-ordained “guilty” verdict before Epstein’s punishment commences.

Either way, Berman should recuse himself from the case or be removed from it.

Why should any of us care about the plight of poor, poor, ultra-rich Jeffrey Epstein? Because this kind of stuff goes on every day in courts across the land, featuring poor defendants held on minor charges. We’re only HEARING about it because Epstein is rich and infamous.

If they can do it to Epstein, they can do it to you. So they shouldn’t get away with doing it to Epstein.

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Peckerwood Populism is About Political Strategy, Not Personal Belief

The controversy around President Donald Trump’s recent tweets targeting “The Squad” — four Democratic members of Congress who are all women, all people “of color,” and all of whom Trump seems to think aren’t “from America” (one came from Somalia as a young woman and became a US citizen at 17; the rest are “natural born” US citizens) — largely centers around perceptions of his personal bigotry.

Is  Trump a racist? A xenophobe? A misogynist?  His public history, going back at least to the early 1970s, offers evidence for all three accusations. Some people find that evidence compelling, some don’t.

But to focus on Trump’s personal beliefs in any of those areas is to miss the point. He’s not an individual actor living out his life in private. He’s a public actor, leading a major political party, occupying the highest political office America has to offer, and campaigning for re-election to that office.

A decade ago, I began writing on a phenomenon I call “Peckerwood Populism” (“peckerwood,” a regional version of “woodpecker,” became first a slur used by poor southern black Americans to describe poor southern white Americans, then a self-descriptor and symbol proudly used by white racists). Here’s my description of Peckerwood Populist politicians circa 2009:

“While the average Peckerwood Populist is probably not affiliated with overtly white separatist/supremacist groups, he buys into that stereotype of the voter he’s pursuing. He’s pitching his product to blue collar white voters.  … I’m not saying that the average white, blue collar voter is a racist, a xenophobe, a homophobe or a neo-Confederate. For that matter, I’m not even necessarily saying that the Peckerwood Populist agitator is a racist, a xenophobe, a homophobe or a neo-Confederate. What I am saying is that the Peckerwood Populist agitator believes that … he can get his hooks into the voter by playing on those assumed sentiments.”

Sound familiar?

At one time, overt Peckerwood Populism was the mainstream in southern politics, preached by segregationist Democrats and, as it lost popularity, “Dixiecrats.” As it became even less popular and less overt and switched parties (with Nixon’s “southern strategy”), its reach expanded outside the south and loomed large in American politics until at least as late as 1988 (remember the Willie Horton ads?).

Peckerwood Populism is enjoying a nasty resurgence in the Age of Trump (and Trump is far from its sole practitioner).

Why? Because the Republican Party has failed to expand its base. The core GOP voting demographic is still white, blue collar, and male. The party has failed to appeal to black, Latinx, and female voters to expand that base.

If you can’t expand your base, you win by working harder to get more of that base out to the polls. You throw them lots and lots of red, racist, xenophobic, misogynist meat.

That’s exactly what Trump is doing. Whether he really means the crazy things he says is (mostly) beside the point. He believes his base believes those crazy things. If he’s right, that’s a far bigger problem than Trump himself.

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