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Archive for September, 2009

Texas: Executed Innocent Man

[ 1 ] September 25, 2009 |

Hopefully you’ve all read David Grann’s remarkable New Yorker story about Cameron Todd Willingham, an almost certainly innocent man who was executed for arson based on worthless junk science roughly on a par with astrology and the highly implausible testimony of a mentally ill jailhouse snitch. (The kindest construction you can put on the state of Texas here is that — although since he was at the scene of the “crime” you can’t prove the negative — they executed a man despite the fact that there was no reliable evidence at all that he was guilty.) I don’t even want to excerpt it, because it’s all an essential portrait of the death penalty as it functions in the state that executes the most people — state-serving testimony from exceptionally dubious “experts,” inept and/or underfunded defense counsel, irresponsible prosecutors, and an appeals process (in both the judicial and executive branches) that would have to accrue some rigor to rise to the level of being “cursory.”

Emily Bazelon points out, however, that there’s additional blame to go around:

My answer starts with the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which President Bill Clinton signed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombings. The Supreme Court also gets a share of the blame for the noose-tightening way in which it interpreted AEDPA. Justice Antonin Scalia has led this charge and went so far as to write recently, in the appeal of Troy Davis, “This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.” But more centrist justices also lined up on the side of “finality”—the idea that there is value in closing the doors of due process. Grann quotes Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who wrote in a 1993 case that the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event.” But in that case, Herrera v. Collins, O’Connor ruled against the defendant. And that is one of a string of rulings from her that made it more and more difficult for defendants to bring to light new evidence and to get the courts to pay attention to flaws in their convictions. Cameron Todd Willingham is dead because of a bad and abstruse law and a series of even worse legal rulings from our high court.

And it hardly seems likely that this is the only case where the process has failed to this degree…

…slightly edited to reflect the fact that there is, of course, no evidence that a “crime” was committed at all.


Enjoy her! She’s a perk.

[ 0 ] September 25, 2009 |

I’ve been wanting to write about the differences in culture between American and British higher education, but largely due to my dissatisfaction with my present employer, I’ve demurred, as I do like my job security. Thanks to the Vice Chancellor at Buckingham University, I have an opening.

This is, of course, bollocks. But it does speak to a difference in the culture. We don’t have tenure in the UK any longer, which was one of Maggie’s many reforms. I can’t speak for the entire island, but at my institution, at least, having relations with one’s students is, while not encouraged, also not frowned upon. It’s treated as a natural outcome, and dealt with.

Through paperwork. A lot of paperwork.
We have these end of year meetings: panels and boards. At the panel, which is held at department level, the first item on the agenda is always “does anybody have a declaration of interest?” My first experience with this concept was back in the 03-04 academic year. So, being literally foreign to the concept of the panel meeting itself, let alone its nuances, I raise my hand at this question.
All of my colleagues stared at me from around the table, the look on their faces was “you’ve been here five minutes, and you have a declaration of interest?” When I had the floor, I naively asked, “what is a declaration of interest?”
The response was, basically, “You’re shagging one of your students?”
Holy crap. In the American university culture, there’s only a few ways you can lose your job once tenured, including disagreeing with the Bush administration, or shagging one of your students. Being trained and professionalized in that culture, I look out on my sea of students professionally: I’m paid by the state to teach them, and that’s that.
Not here. I’ve had a couple colleagues who had to fill out the paperwork (one male and one female). I do wonder, however, if the British approach is more pragmatic as opposed to American morality. Even though I personally can’t entertain the notion, it does happen.
Thanks to my friend Jenaya Dawe-Stotz for bringing this to my attention.

Ginsburg Hospitalized

[ 0 ] September 25, 2009 |

Hopefully she’ll be OK.

Rebuilding Your Reputation

[ 0 ] September 24, 2009 |

I just have one thing to say about the Red Dawn remake: I will not complain that it is “too wingnutty.” In fact, I’ll complain if it’s not wingnutty enough. If Barack Obama isn’t depicted as the agent of Communist domination, and ACORN his Fifth Column, then I’m walking out of the theater.

How delusional is Glenn Beck?

[ 0 ] September 24, 2009 |

I realize this is only scraping midway down the barrel of Glenn Beck’s yawning madness, but for reasons I can’t adequately defend I was actually listening yesterday when he explained why he found the idea of an Islamic Anti-Christ to be gentler on the stomach than Walter Lippmann:

I’ve read some pretty excruciating stuff. I have read some stuff — I’ve read about the twelfth Imam. This is the guy who I think could be construed as the Antichrist. The twelfth Imam, the one that today Ahmadinejad is going to say again you mark my words. He will say it again in front of the United Nations, “Oh, Allah, give me the strength to hasten the return of the promised one.” The promised one is the twelfth Imam. I believe that is the Antichrist. It is it has all of the earmarks. I’ve read some pretty dark stuff. I have never closed a book, ever, and said I can’t read this anymore; it’s just wicked stuff. Walter Lippmann. Walter Lippmann, who was one of the guys who was instrumental at CBS. I think he was the head of CBS for a while, he’s one of the guys who started the Council on Foreign Relations. He was one of the guys who did the Versailles treaty, he’s one of the architects of Woodrow Wilson. He is just evil stuff. I couldn’t read it anymore. It’s so dark, it is such a depressing look at humanity where they are saying you’ll never be able to get stupid people to vote; that’s why we have to breed eugenics — breed smarter people to weed out the riffraff. I couldn’t read it anymore.

Which is to say, Beck never read Lippmann in the first place. If he had, he’d know that Lippmann was the precise opposite of a eugenicist — so much so that he wrote a series of articles for The New Republic in 1922 that condemned (a) the belief that “hereditary IQ” could be measured; and (b) the cruel mischief that had already been, and would continue to be, inspired by the World War I-era Army Intelligence Tests. (Given Beck’s views on immigration and his unimpechabley non-racist interpretation of what the Constitution has to say about citizenship, it’s safe to say that Beck shares more in common with Lippmann-era eugenicists than Lippmann himself did.) In those essays — the fourth one being the most scathing — Lippmann warned that testing advocates

have committed themselves to a dogma which must lead to such abuse. They claim not only that they are really measuring intelligence, but that intelligence is innate, hereditary, and predetermined. They believe that they are measuring the capacity of a human being for all time and that his capacity is fatally fixed by the child’s heredity. Intelligence testing in the hands of men who hold this dogma could not but lead to an intellectual caste system in which the task of education had given way to the doctrine of predestination and infant damnation. If the intelligence test really measured the unchangeable hereditary capacity of human beings, as so many assert, it would inevitably evolve from an administrative convenience into a basis for hereditary caste.

Beck’s real aim, of course, is to insist (inaccurately) that Lippmann was a “founding father” of progressivism and to claim that progressives anticipated Hitler, would have wanted to kill Baby Trig, and so forth, so things like “facts” are probably unhelpful to the cause.

I suppose if Beck had actually read any of Lippmann’s work — and someone has obviously summarized/caricatured Public Opinion and The Phantom Public for him — he’d likely be outraged by Lippmann’s (amply rewarded) skepticism that “the people” constitute the repository of all virtue in a democracy. By the early 1920s, Lippmann was of course dismissive of the belief that “the people” exist as an “organism with an organic unity” in the first place — which meant that Lippmann was, among many other things, skeptical of the nostalgic “phantom” community that animated Mussolini’s fascism or the Anglo-Saxon tribalism of the KKK. You’d think that Beck would at least appreciate the fact that Lippmann’s skepticism eventually led him to oppose significant parts of New Deal (including Social Security and the Revenue Act of 1935, which raised top marginal tax rates to 75 percent) and to vote for Alf Landon in 1936. But who am I kidding? Even Jonah Goldberg — our era’s most careful and detailed chronicler of the liberal fascist menace — doesn’t mention that in his book, so how is Beck supposed to know? Besides, he’s busy thinking about other stuff at the moment.


[ 0 ] September 24, 2009 |

Perhaps the funniest (although certainly not the most disturbing) part of Glenn Back’s racist analysis of the 14th Amendment is his claim that to interpret the clause “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside” to mean that people born in the United States become American citizens would be a “revision” of the 14th Amendment. A more faithful interpretation, apparently, would be to see that the plain language of the clause doesn’t apply to classes of people that Glenn Beck doesn’t like. But don’t call that racist or anything! And for God’s sake don’t keep reading the 14th Amendment further — many more nutty ideas in there.

This kind of thing might merely be a sideshow if it wasn’t also being echoed by, say, major Republican candidates in presidential primaries and state and federal Republican legislators.

Mullen in Favor of Women on Subs

[ 0 ] September 24, 2009 |

Tom Philpott at Defense Tech:

Women should be allowed to serve aboard America’s fleet of nuclear submarines, the nation’s top military officer, Adm. Michael Mullen, quietly has told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

If the Navy agrees to it, this would be a huge policy change and potentially a significant expansion of career opportunities for female officers and sailors.

Women have been barred by Navy policy from submarines, even as the sea service began 15 years ago to integrate females into other seagoing combat roles including aboard surface warships and in fighter jets.

Mullen, former chief of naval operations and a career surface warfare officer, made his position on submarines known in written responses to questions from the committee to prepare for Mullen’s confirmation hearing to serve a second two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

“As an advocate for improving the diversity of our force, I believe we should continue to broaden opportunities for women. One policy I would like to see changed is the one barring their service aboard submarines,” Mullen told senators.

Watch as We Pretend that this is a Reasonable Position…

[ 0 ] September 24, 2009 |

It’s unfortunate that these Eastern European leaders feel that they need to humiliate themselves in the cause of solidarity with Saakashvili; the Hitler-Poland analogy is barely worthy of Michael Goldfarb, much less Vaclav Havel. I very much doubt that the EU report will apportion blame primarily on Georgia, despite the fact that almost all evidence revealed since the war has indicated that the Georgian attack on South Ossetia was the proximate cause of the conflict. I suppose it will be a very long time before the screech of “Appeasement!!!” rings entirely hollow…

Separated By The Same Language, Deficit Style

[ 0 ] September 24, 2009 |

according to Mock the Week. Thanks to Simon Dyda and Brieg Powel for bringing this to my attention. It affords me greater optimism every time I look at my monthly pay stub to now know that HM Treasury have at least a grasp.

How to Be A Serious Foreign Policy Thinker

[ 0 ] September 23, 2009 |

Follow these simple rules, and Fred Hiatt will always have room for you.

and don’t forget publishers.

Joe Paterno and the Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism

[ 0 ] September 23, 2009 |

Penn State University’s titular head football coach, Joe Paterno, is old. Really, really old. How old? Well Chalmers (“Bump”) Elliott was Michigan’s football coach for ten years, before retiring from the profession 41 years ago this fall. He then went on to be Iowa’s athletic director for 20 years, before retiring from that position 19 years ago. Elliott is a year older than Paterno.

Anyway, PSU under Paterno was for decades a remarkably consistent program. They finished fifth in the nation in overall winning percentage (out of 121 D-I programs) in the 1970s, seventh in the 1980s, and sixth in the 1990s. Then age suddenly seemed to ambush Paterno, and the team more or less collapsed. In the first five years of this decade PSU fell to 72nd in overall winning percentage. Paterno’s behavior on the sidelines and at press conferences started going from charmingly eccentric elder statesman to disturbingly crazy old coot.

After racking up a several-year won-loss record that would have gotten any other coach at a historically elite program fired, Paterno hung on, cashing in a mountain of institutional chips, and leaving observers to wonder how long it would be before his career ended in some Woody Hayes-like incident (Hayes, the legendary Ohio State coach, was fired in 1978 after punching an opposing player on the sidelines at the end of a game).

Then something unexpected happened. Penn State got things turned around. In the four and a third seasons since 2005, PSU is more or less back to where they were before the decline and fall of the Paterno empire. Their 43-11 record is 8th best in Division I over that span. What happened?

Apparently, Penn State’s assistant coaches somehow managed to wrest all actual decision making power from their putative boss. Long time defensive coordinator and heir apparent Tom Bradley is now all but openly acknowledged by everyone but JoePa himself to be PSU’s real head coach. Now during games Paterno sits in a booth high above Beaver Stadium, a quite possibly unplugged headset straddling his still remarkably dark hair, a video monitor before him, which for all anyone knows may be playing highlights of the 1983 Sugar Bowl in a continuous loop.

Perhaps some sociologist or political scientist with an interest in institutional theory (and college football) will one day study this bloodless coup with the analytic rigor it deserves.

Update: I thought it was fairly obvious this post was somewhat tongue in cheek (I don’t actually believe JoePa was watching the 1983 Sugar Bowl on his monitor during games). Still it would be interesting to try to figure out the processes by which guys like Paterno and Bowden cede much or all of their previous decision making authority, while still holding on to their jobs. (It’s clear both of them have, although the extent of their semi-retirements isn’t.)

Castro: But I Want to Nuke them Now!!!!

[ 0 ] September 23, 2009 |


In the early 1980s, according to newly released documents, Fidel Castro was suggesting a Soviet nuclear strike against the United States, until Moscow dissuaded him by patiently explaining how the radioactive cloud resulting from such a strike would also devastate Cuba….

The Pentagon study attributes the Cuba revelation to Andrian A. Danilevich, a Soviet general staff officer from 1964 to ’90 and director of the staff officers who wrote the Soviet Union’s final reference guide on strategic and nuclear planning.

In the early 1980s, the study quotes him as saying that Mr. Castro “pressed hard for a tougher Soviet line against the U.S. up to and including possible nuclear strikes.”

The general staff, General Danilevich continued, “had to actively disabuse him of this view by spelling out the ecological consequences for Cuba of a Soviet strike against the U.S.”

That information, the general concluded, “changed Castro’s positions considerably.”

This is interesting in that it mirrors the (very public) conversation that the Soviets and the Chinese had about nuclear weapons in the 1960s. To sum up very briefly, the Chinese argued that the Soviets should be much more aggressive in their thinking about nuclear weapons, while the Soviets were quite realistic about the prospects for victory in nuclear war. In that case, the Soviets had insufficient leverage to bring the Chinese into line, and eventually concluded that a certain political distance between Beijing and Moscow was desirable in case the Chinese did something stupid. In the Cuba case, the Russians of course were able to essentially dictate policy to Havana.

The report is also intriguing in terms of thinking about the relevance that information plays in actor behavior. It’s sort of remarkable to think that Castro wasn’t aware of the consequences that a nuclear attack on the US would have on Cuba; I’m inclined to think that just about everyone in the US (or at least everyone after November 1983) was aware of the devastating environmental effects that nuclear war would entail. Maybe Castro was just playing for bargaining space, in the same sense that it’s possible that Mao was feigning ignorance about the effectiveness of nuclear weapons in the 1950s. But then again, it’s not wholly unreasonable to think that Castro, a busy man, may simply never have taken time to educate himself on what nukes really do.

Finally, I find it interesting that the Soviets took the “even if we win, you lose” tack in explaining the situation to Castro. I suspect that the Soviets were well aware that, even under the most rosy scenarios of a pre-emptive attack, nuclear fallout was the least bad thing that could happen to Cuba, and that the utter nuclear destruction of the island was much more likely. As a corollary to this, I have to wonder whether Castro, like some American policymakers, was taken in by the idea that the Soviets had presumptive nuclear dominance and could destroy the US whenever they liked. Team B made this a fashionable opinion in the US, and it’d be interesting to see whether it filtered in modified form to Havana.

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