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Go ask Alice

[ 61 ] January 18, 2016 |

rabbit hole

Among other things, the Gideon Lewis-Kraus piece about Alice Goffman and On the Run investigated Goffman’s extremely implausible multi-part claim that:

(a) She was told, apparently on more than on occasion, by Philadelphia police that it is their routine practice, when they come to hospitals in Black neighborhoods for other reasons, to access visitor and patient lists at hospitals so as to run warrant checks on the names on those lists for the purposes of making arrests to meet purported informal arrest quotas; and

(b) She herself witnessed an example of this routine practice when she was visiting Alex, one of the main characters in On the Run, in the maternity ward after the birth of his girlfriend’s baby.

Here is the relevant quote from OTR regarding the latter supposed incident:

I got there a few hours after the baby was born, in time to see two police officers come into Donna’s room to place Alex in handcuffs . . . . The officers told me they had come to the hospital with a shooting victim who was in custody, and as was their custom, they ran the names of the men on the visitors’ list. Alex came up as having a warrant out for a parole violation, so they arrested him along with two other men on the delivery room floor.

This incident has three possible explanations:

(1) It happened, and the officers to whom Goffman spoke told her the truth about what was happening.

(2) It happened, and the officers to whom Goffman spoke lied to her about “their custom” of routinely running warrant checks on visitor and patient lists when they come to hospitals on other police business.

(3) Goffman fabricated the incident, in order to create a memorable vignette to illustrate the veracity of the claim that Philadelphia police routinely run warrant checks on hospital visitor and patient lists “in Black neighborhoods,” [as a LGM commenter points out, are we supposed to believe that the police told Goffman that their inquiries of this type were limited to Black neighborhoods?] so as to help them fulfill informal arrest quotas. (Whether this supposed claim was actually made to her by police, or by residents of Sixth Street, or was invented by her altogether is yet another question, but this rabbit hole is deep enough as it is).

After investigating the matter, by talking to Philadelphia police, criminal defense attorneys, and administrators at all the Philadelphia hospitals with maternity wards, I concluded that the third explanation is overwhelmingly more probable than either of the others. I came to the same conclusion about six other incidents in On the Run. (I did not investigate numerous other improbable incidents in the book).

Here are the fruits of Lewis-Kraus’s investigation of the matter:

When it comes to Goffman’s assertion that officers run IDs in maternity wards to arrest wanted fathers, another short Internet search produces corroborating examples in Dallas, New Orleans and Brockton, Mass.

[Emphasis added]

GLK’s short internet searches lead him to the following conclusion regarding the maternity ward story in particular, and On the Run in general:

“The most interesting question might not be whether Goffman was telling the truth but why she has continued to let people believe that she might not be.”

Steve Lubet has looked into this further:

Lewis-Kraus evidently found no “corroborating examples” in Philadelphia. Also, the on-line edition of his story (which has been posted since last Tuesday) did not include links to the articles he turned up in his “short Internet search,” thus making it difficult to corroborate the alleged corroboration.

I therefore replicated what I assumed to be Lewis-Kraus’s search parameter, and I found three stories from Dallas, New Orleans, and Brockton. Although all three were about arrests in maternity wards, none of them – repeat, none of them – involved “running IDs” in a manner similar to Goffman’s claim. (To make sure that I had the right stories, I asked a reference librarian at Northwestern to repeat the search for the three cities, and to make it as extensive as possible; he found only the same three incidents.)

Two of the cases – in Dallas and New Orleans – involved teenaged new mothers who had been statutorily raped. They had given the names of the fathers to the authorities, who then arrested the older men when they came to visit. (In the New Orleans case, the man was 40 and the juvenile 16.) There was no “running of IDs.” The Brockton case was part of a long-planned, one-day, 23-defendant drug sweep, coordinated by the FBI, the Massachusetts State Police and the Plymouth County district attorney. It likewise had nothing to do with routinely running IDs based on visitor or patient lists.

These three stories simply cannot be read as “corroborating examples” for Goffman’s claim of routine warrant checks in hospitals. If anything, they demonstrate the opposite – that maternity ward arrests are so infrequent that they make the news. In fact, the New Orleans arrest was considered so unusual that it was even reported in New York. If there had ever been a similar incident in Philadelphia – much less three such arrests in one night, as Goffman claims to have observed – why couldn’t Lewis-Kraus find a record of it in the Philadelphia press?

Goffman’s remaining defenders like to emphasize that the Philadelphia police department has a history of atrocious behavior toward the city’s poor African-American residents — the infamous MOVE bombing being the most horrifying example — and that therefore one shouldn’t doubt stories about police misconduct toward poor black Philadelphians (unless, apparently, the stories are supposedly related by the police themselves, as in Goffman’s maternity ward story).

But precisely because of that history, there is a vigorous watchdog movement in Philadelphia, in regard to police-community relations. Along with all the other reasons to doubt Goffman’s story, it is completely incredible that, if incidents of this sort were routine, they would remain unreported in the Philadelphia media. By contrast, if Goffman’s vignette represented an extremely rare or unique incident (i.e., if the police lied to her about their customary practices), how probable is it that this incident happened to one of the central figures in Goffman’s ethnographic study, and happened to him while she just happened to be at the hospital to witness it first-hand?

But beyond all this, surely Lewis-Kraus asked Goffman where and when this supposed incident took place. Even if only a small piece of the story turned out to be true — for example that someone Goffman knew from Sixth Street was actually arrested in a maternity ward, even if all the stuff about random visitor and patient list checks, and her presence on the scene was made up — why didn’t Goffman provide GLK with a few crumbs of information that, given the tone of the rest of his story, would have been treated by both him and by many of his readers as a triumphant vindication of her veracity? Are we supposed to believe that, with her scholarly reputation now in tatters, her fanatical devotion to the formal strictures of her IBR agreement kept her from doing so, even though Lewis-Kraus himself is well aware of who the main characters in On the Run are in so-called real life? (As indeed numerous other people are as well, since Goffman’s attempts to disguise their identities were cursory and/or inept).

In short, Goffman’s maternity ward story is obviously made up, at least in part, and probably altogether. Any even mildly skeptical reader of On the Run will reach the same conclusion about several other stories in the book. But if there’s one thing the Goffman affair suggests, it’s that, in regard to this book, mildly skeptical readers are apparently in short supply, at least at certain prestigious academic institutions, and in the editorial offices of the New York Times.


Increasing mortality rates and whiteness as a marked category

[ 85 ] January 17, 2016 |


Gina Kolata and Sarah Cohen have written up a massive study of 60 million American deaths over the last 25 years. Their findings are even more striking than those announced in the startling Case and Deaton paper a few months ago, which found mortality rates rising about middle-aged whites:

While the death rate among young whites rose for every age group over the five years before 2014, it rose faster by any measure for the less educated, by 23 percent for those without a high school education, compared with only 4 percent for those with a college degree or more.

The drug overdose numbers were stark. In 2014, the overdose death rate for whites ages 25 to 34 was five times its level in 1999, and the rate for 35- to 44-year-old whites tripled during that period. The numbers cover both illegal and prescription drugs.

“That is startling,” said Dr. Wilson Compton, the deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Those are tremendous increases.”

Rising rates of overdose deaths and suicide appear to have erased the benefits from advances in medical treatment for most age groups of whites. Death rates for drug overdoses and suicides “are running counter to those of chronic diseases,” like heart disease, said Ian Rockett, an epidemiologist at West Virginia University.

In fact, graphs of the drug overdose deaths look like those of deaths from a new infectious disease, said Jonathan Skinner, a Dartmouth economist. “It is like an infection model, diffusing out and catching more and more people,” he said.

Yet overdose deaths for young adult blacks have edged up only slightly. Over all, the death rate for blacks has been steadily falling, largely driven by a decline in deaths from AIDS. The result is that a once yawning gap between death rates for blacks and whites has shrunk by two-thirds.

A few notes:

*Both the Case and Deaton paper and this new analysis are examples of how whiteness in America is increasingly becoming what sociologists call a “marked category” — that is, a phenomenon or group that stands out in its difference from what is assumed to be the normal, the ordinary, and the therefore largely invisible. In other words, until fairly recently the issue of “white drug abuse” would have been much more difficult to notice or even conceptualize, since drug abuse would be framed as either a society-wide problem, and/or a problem for various others, i.e., racial minorities, the poor, counter-culture types etc.

*We can only hope that the striking spike in drug overdose deaths about young and middle-aged whites (it’s unclear whether the Times article is including alcohol overdoses in its numbers) doesn’t lead to yet another wave of counter-productive drug war initiatives. Increasing substance abuse is usually a symptom of deeper social problems more than it is a cause of those problems — although of course as its prevalence increases, it ends up being the latter thing as well.

*It’s quite possible that one explanation for the spike in white overdose rates is, as the story notes, the reluctance of doctors to prescribe painkillers to minority patients, for reasons that are all too easy to guess. “‘Racial stereotypes are protecting these [minority] patients from the addiction epidemic,’” said Dr. Kolodny, a senior scientist at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.” Whether the benefits of that sort of “protection” outweigh the medical and social costs produced by racial discrimination in the prescription of painkillers is another question.

Are you eager to be employed at a job that requires 1000 hours of work for zero pay?

[ 31 ] January 15, 2016 |


If so, here are a couple of great opportunities:

Communications Internships

The Association of American Law Schools (AALS), a 501(c)(3) higher education association, represents 179 American law schools and is located in downtown Washington, D.C. Its communications department is seeking interns to support the communications and media outreach program.

The communications interns will work 15-20 hours per week during the school year and full-time during the summer at our Dupont Circle headquarters office. These are unpaid internships.

Desirable skills are: strong writing ability, knowledge of media and event planning, computer skills, and general web skills. Commitment to meeting deadlines is essential.

Tasks include: developing content for new website, for example, researching and summarizing news stories about legal education, contacting members for website content; alpha testing the new website; assisting with social media content and strategy; media and experts database development; press relations; and assisting with strategic communications planning including drafting Powerpoint presentations for association’s board.

Please send resume and cover letter via email to:

James Grief
Director of Communications

Law Student Internships

The Association of American Law Schools (AALS), a 501(c)(3) higher education association, represents 179 American law schools and is located in downtown Washington, D.C. AALS is seeking law student interns to work on research and writing projects related to our mission of improving legal education. Candidates must be current J.D. students. These are unpaid internships.

The law student interns will work 15-20 hours per week during the school year and full-time during the summer at our Dupont Circle headquarters office, and will work directly with Professor Judith Areen, Executive Director, and Professor Regina Burch, Associate Director. Interns will have the opportunity to interact with other law school professors and deans through their work with AALS committees and the AALS leadership team, as well as to participate in AALS sponsored meetings and conferences. Interns will be encouraged to present innovative approaches to the projects introduced by our staff and to general issues facing legal education today.

Specifically, interns will assist committees of law professors through legal research and writing on topics related to legal education, for example, the value of a U.S. legal education; and will research AALS workshop topics such as financial aid for law students, creating bibliographies and summarizing the law and policy considerations related to the topic. Also, interns will assist with developing white papers, other website content, and materials for AALS programs, for example, by researching and documenting innovative curricular programs in legal education and the American Bar Association standards related to those programs.

Interns must be available to work during regular business hours, Monday through Friday, 9-5:30, though specific schedules (days of the week and time of the day) within these hours are flexible.

Interested students should send their resume and cover letter to for consideration. Please include your schedule of availability!

17.5 hours per week during a 30-week school year, and 40 hours per week during a 12-week summer adds up to just over one thousand hours of labor, with a generous European-socialism-style ten weeks of unpaid vacation, to go along with the unpaid but non-vacation part of the year.

The AALS had just under $5.8 million in revenue last year, almost all of it coming in form of membership dues from law schools, which themselves are largely comprised of student tuition. So the lucky winners of the competition for these positions will not merely be working for free: they’ll have already paid their employer for the privilege of doing so.

Law prof Susan Westerberg Prager, the executive director of the organization during the previous five years, did not volunteer her time: she was paid $459,221 by the organization in FY2013, $465,242 in FY2012, and $468,676 in FY2011.

Maybe she quit because they kept cutting her salary.

The justification for these sorts of unpaid jobs is that “internships” provide invaluable experience and a foot in the door to rich kids being supported by their families hard-working young people who can look past quotidian considerations like acquiring food and shelter while living in one of the most expensive cities in America.

Also, the beauty of being a “non-profit” organization like the AALS (and all the law schools who belong to it) is that even the extremely weak limitations on exploiting intern labor that apply to for-profit enterprises pretty much don’t apply to you.


The rebirth of birtherism, schadenfreude edition

[ 287 ] January 15, 2016 |

birther certificate

Starting in 2008, and for several years afterwards, various RWNJs pursued legal actions claiming that Barack Obama wasn’t constitutionally eligible to be president, because he wasn’t a “natural born Citizen,” within the meaning of Article II, Section 1, Clause 5, which lays out the requirements for presidential eligibility. Obama, various people argued, was born in Kenya, and therefore didn’t meet this test.

These claims were obviously the products of political paranoia of the first order, but now they are having a curious ripple effect on the 2016 presidential race. The whole preposterous “birther” controversy is back, but now it’s reappearing in a new non-crazy, legally respectable form.

Despite what you may have read about the matter, it’s far from clear that Ted Cruz is actually constitutionally eligible to be president. To put it in legal terms, the argument that Cruz isn’t eligible is nowhere close to a frivolous claim, in the sense of the kind of argument that almost all lawyers, and more important, judges, would immediately dismiss as false (and which can get a lawyer who makes such an argument sanctioned, as Orly Taitz was by a federal court for pursuing her wacky crusade against Obama).

What counts as a frivolous legal argument can’t be given a useful ex ante formal definition. It’s very much a I know it when I see it concept, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real, sociologically speaking. For example, the claim that a candidate isn’t a natural born citizen because he was born via cesarean section would be recognized by the relevant interpretive community as a frivolous legal claim, at a conceptual level.

The claim that Obama isn’t eligible to be president is frivolous not for conceptual reasons — he in fact wouldn’t have been eligible to be president if he had been born in Kenya, because the precise circumstances of his birth would have required him to be naturalized at some point in order to become a U.S. citizen, given the federal naturalization statute in force at the time — but because it’s factually frivolous. That is, the relevant interpretive community recognizes the factual claim that he was born in Kenya as being frivolous on its face.

The claim that Ted Cruz isn’t a natural born citizen within the meaning of Article II is quite different. Ted Cruz was born in Canada. In order for him to be eligible to be president, the phrase “natural born Citizen” in the Constitution must mean something other than “native-born.” Does it? This is far from clear.

The argument that natural born Citizen means someone who doesn’t have to be naturalized, as opposed to someone who was born in the U.S. (and possibly its territories) hinges on a eminently controvertible set of claims about constitutional meaning. The argument is essentially this:

The framers intended natural born Citizen to mean what British law defined as someone who didn’t need to be naturalized, as of 1787, and British law at the time made British subjects out of children born of British parents on foreign soil.

The problem with this argument is that there’s not much evidence for it. There isn’t a word in the debates of the constitutional convention, or the subsequent state ratification proceedings, regarding what the phrase “natural born Citizen” is supposed to mean. The claim that the Framers were adopting British naturalization law is problematic for several reasons. First, the common law of England on this matter did not consider people born of English parents on foreign soil to be English subjects from birth. As of 1787, this long-standing status quo had been altered by recently enacted acts of Parliament.

The claim that the framers intended the meaning of natural born Citizen to be determined by the fairly new status of foreign-born naturalized at birth English subjects, rather than by the older and much more longstanding common law definition, is basically supposition. The evidence for the claim — since again there is none in the constitutional debates — is that when Congress enacted the first naturalization statute in 1790, it essentially adopted the new English model, and that this act indicates that the framers intended to adopt the same meaning in Article II.

That is, historically speaking, a pretty thin argument. Congress, constitutionally speaking, doesn’t have the power to modify the meaning of the Article II requirements, and one could readily argue that the 1790 statute was adopted to create more generous terms of naturalization than reflected in the apparent plain meaning of the language of Article II. In regard to that plain meaning, even as late as the the latter part of the 19th century, the Supreme Court was treating the phrases “native-born” and “natural-born” as synonymous, and indeed even today it requires a quite technical legal argument to explain to laypeople why “native-born” and “natural-born” aren’t necessarily the same thing.

Anyway, the argument that natural born Citizen means someone who doesn’t need to be naturalized, per whatever rules Congress has put in force via its Article I powers to determine citizenship at birth, at the time the person in question is born, is just that: a controversial legal argument. It has never been addressed, let alone resolved, by the Supreme Court or even, as far as I’m aware, any lower federal court. The contrary claim is at a minimum far from a frivolous legal argument, and claims that the matter is “settled,” legally speaking, are wrong.

Now what I find particularly interesting about all this is why various legal interpreters who are in no way sympathetic to Ted Cruz’s candidacy have been so eager to claim that the question of his constitutional eligibility isn’t a matter of potentially serious dispute. My guess is that such arguments have a couple of inter-connected motivations:

(1) These interpreters consider the natural born Citizen clause an anachronistic embarrassment, as indeed it is. They understandably want to interpret the meaning of “natural-born” in the broadest way possible, consistent with any plausible historical argument.

(2) Liberal constitutional law scholars are especially eager to do so because, in the context of the Cruz candidacy, such an argument demonstrates their non-partisan loyalty to “objective” constitutional interpretation, rather than results-driven advocacy.

In case anyone cares, when it comes to matters of constitutional metaphysics I’m pretty much an atheist, so the question of what the clause “really” means is not one I consider meaningful. But if I had to predict what would happen in the context of a lawsuit challenging Cruz’s eligibility, I would expect that federal courts, including the SCOTUS, would end up invoking some variation of the political question doctrine, leaving it to Congress to decide what natural born Citizen means for the purposes of legally finalizing Cruz’s ascension to the POTUS, via its certification of the Electoral College’s vote.

Of course the practical politics of this brewing controversy are a completely different matter from the technical legalities. That Cruz has to make what is actually a quite convoluted legal argument to explain why he’s more eligible for the presidency than Wayne Gretzky, Neil Young, and Celine Dion is, under the social circumstances that gave birth to birtherism, a particularly delicious irony, which every right-minded person should savor while it lasts.

RIP Alan Rickman

[ 65 ] January 14, 2016 |


It hasn’t been a good week for 69-year-old English entertainers.

The look of solidarity

[ 61 ] January 14, 2016 |


When I wrote yesterday about Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s long NYT piece on Alice Goffman I focused on the article’s failure to produce any exculpatory evidence regarding the apparently fraudulent elements of her book On the Run. I’d like to emphasize that my criticisms of the book have nothing to do with any aversion to or skepticism about ethnography as a genre: Many people have written and continue to write great ethnographies, which are among the most valuable artifacts produced by the modern university. (For example, I can’t recommend this new book highly enough, which I’ll have more to say about soon).

It’s all the more unfortunate that Goffman and her work have ended up representing to the public at large (GKL’s piece is the fourth substantial article the Times has published about her in the last year and a half) what contemporary sociology in general, and ethnography in particular, are about.

It’s also unfortunate that GKL’s piece reads almost like a parody of right-wing paranoia about how the Times is supposedly a nexus of muddle-headed leftist propaganda for progressive views. In regard to both these issues, consider this passage:

At the gate in Newark, Goffman unshouldered a bulky zippered tote bag. ‘‘I’m so happy,’’ she said with visible and somewhat exaggerated relief, ‘‘that I didn’t give you this to take through security yourself.’’ Over the course of our correspondence, I had asked her from time to time if she had any book artifacts that escaped destruction. In this tote was some material she had forgotten about: unpaid bills, bail receipts, letters from prison and a few extant fragments of hastily scrawled in situ field notes. But it wasn’t until the security line that she remembered what the tote probably once held, memorabilia from her time on Sixth Street: bullets, spent casings, containers for drugs. She passed safely through the scanner in a state of agitation, not about the risk she took but by how blithely she was treated by T.S.A. agents.

‘‘And who did they stop?’’ she said. ‘‘Not me and my bag of contrabandy stuff, but a young man with brown skin. I tried to exchange a look of solidarity with him, but he wouldn’t look at me. Compare that to the interactions I’ve had at this airport — people smiling at me, holding the door for me. You don’t think, as a white person, about how your whole day is boosted by people affirming your dignity all day long. This isn’t news. But it is stuff that, for me, at the beginning. …’’ She didn’t finish the sentence.

If a hypothetical ethnographer had witnessed this scene while doing a study of how high-concept journalism is produced in America today, the appropriate field note could probably be abbreviated as WTF?

What exactly is GLK saying Goffman said to him at the gate? (And who edited this piece for content and style?). That she was afraid her tote bag still had bullets, spent casings, and containers for drugs in it, and was relieved to discover, after going through security, that it didn’t? How plausible is this? Consider that the interview is taking place in the fall of 2015, which is eight years after Goffman stopped hanging out on Sixth Street. Has Goffman not used this tote bag since then? She obviously examined its contents prior to meeting GLK, because she knows it contains “unpaid bills, bail receipts, letters from prison and a few extant fragments of hastily scrawled in situ field notes.” Did she find these things in various places and put them in the tote to show them to GLK, or have the contents of the tote bag somehow remained undisturbed for the last eight years, while Goffman carried it around — all the while unaware of its forgotten contents –to her several residences since then? What does it even mean to say that it was only when she reached the security line “that she remembered what the tote probably once held, memorabilia from her time on Sixth Street: bullets, spent casings, containers for drugs?” That she was afraid the bag may have contained these things at one time, and perhaps still did?

That would seem to be the implication, given “the risk she took” by taking the bag through security, but GLK’s description of his exchange with Goffman on this point isn’t written clearly enough to tell for sure. In any case, the whole passage reeks of equal parts bullshit and self-dramatization, but apparently GLK is presenting it as evidence of Goffman’s lingering street cred. Or something: it’s very hard to tell what the point of all this even is (again, editors?).

Then we get this: ‘‘And who did they stop?’’ she said. ‘‘Not me and my bag of contrabandy stuff, but a young man with brown skin.” What “contrabandy stuff?” Unpaid bills, bail receipts, letters — prison letters, mind you — none of this stuff, whatever totemic significance it may have for Goffman (and assuming it was actually in the bag; did GLK ever ask to see it?), has even the vaguest aspect of contraband. They are pieces of paper.

Again, bullshit/self-dramatization, etc.

What about the young man with brown skin? Goffman is obviously implying that people of color are much more likely to get searched by TSA than white people, all other things being equal. What’s her basis for this claim? An experimental n = 1? If this is her idea of qualitative sociology, the quality needs some major upgrading. (ETA: Assuming this incident even happened as described, which under the circumstances is itself open to serious doubt).

Then this: “I tried to exchange a look of solidarity with him, but he wouldn’t look at me.”

No comment necessary.

ETA: OK a comment. This is another example of how Goffman seems to constantly confuse her “positionality.” The whole point of the anecdote is that she (supposedly) has white privilege in this particular context, so there isn’t any solidarity here between her and him, much as she might want there to be. But Goffman has a habit of forgetting that she’s a very privileged person in all sorts of ways: hence her complaints that doubts about her veracity are attacks on the credibility of low-status informants, such as the residents of Sixth Street.

And then: “Compare that to the interactions I’ve had at this airport — people smiling at me, holding the door for me. You don’t think, as a white person, about how your whole day is boosted by people affirming your dignity all day long.”

Because if there’s one place in America a white person can go where she can count on having her dignity affirmed, it’s the airport in general, and a TSA screening point in particular.

The most startling thing about all this is that GLK seems to be presenting it as evidence of both Goffman’s purported authenticity as a person, and her supposed reliability as a sociological observer. It’s more than unfortunate that this complete mess of an article in the paper of record is touting Alice Goffman and On the Run as representing the cutting edge of sociological research in America today.

(h/t to LGM commenter ASV).

Fit to print

[ 165 ] January 13, 2016 |

the wire

So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts.

Norman Mailer, “The White Negro”

It’s a common practice for films that are clearly yet loosely related to historical events to be advertised as having been “based on a true story.” This has always struck me as under-inclusive; every fiction, no matter how inventive or fantastic, is based ultimately on various true stories.

Every story is based on a true story; but many stories are not true, or only true in part. Journalists and ethnographers each in their way are professionally dedicated to sorting out the true, from the half-true, from the it would be nice if it were true but it’s not, etc.

Last summer, Gideon Lewis-Kraus contacted me about a story he was writing for the New York Times magazine about the controversy surrounding Alice Goffman’s book On the Run. I had just published a long article in the Chronicle of Higher Education calling into question the veracity of several stories in the book (The article wasn’t by any means a full catalog of the dubious material in On the Run, but it ran to 10,000 words as it was).

Naturally I agreed to be interviewed, even though I had some reason to believe that Lewis-Kraus was, in regard to this topic, a blinkered zealot who believed with a kind of fundamentalist fanaticism in Goffman’s innocence of any academic or legal wrongdoing. Over the course of our conversation, I strongly encouraged him to do his best to corroborate the incidents in On the Run that had been called into question, several of which would be easy to corroborate with even the most minimal assistance from Goffman herself. Surely, I suggested, his article was going to provide her with the ideal venue for clearing her name. Read more…

Cruz control

[ 150 ] January 12, 2016 |


David Brooks’s column today is an indicator of just how much the GOP establishment loathes the idea of Ted Cruz as president, even though there’s now a good chance that Cruz will end up being the only realistic alternative to the Donald. The piece is basically a hack job, that mischaracterizes an obscure and procedurally complex SCOTUS case in order to make a purported point about Cruz’s “character.”

In 1997, Michael Wayne Haley was arrested after stealing a calculator from Walmart. This was a crime that merited a maximum two-year prison term. But prosecutors incorrectly applied a habitual offender law. Neither the judge nor the defense lawyer caught the error and Haley was sentenced to 16 years.

Eventually, the mistake came to light and Haley tried to fix it. Ted Cruz was solicitor general of Texas at the time. Instead of just letting Haley go for time served, Cruz took the case to the Supreme Court to keep Haley in prison for the full 16 years.

Some justices were skeptical. “Is there some rule that you can’t confess error in your state?” Justice Anthony Kennedy asked. The court system did finally let Haley out of prison, after six years.

The case reveals something interesting about Cruz’s character. Ted Cruz is now running strongly among evangelical voters, especially in Iowa. But in his career and public presentation Cruz is a stranger to most of what would generally be considered the Christian virtues: humility, mercy, compassion and grace. Cruz’s behavior in the Haley case is almost the dictionary definition of pharisaism: an overzealous application of the letter of the law in a way that violates the spirit of the law, as well as fairness and mercy.

Dretke v. Haley is a lot more complicated than Brooks’s description of it. The real injustice in the case wasn’t the Supreme Court’s refusal extend the actual innocence exception to non-capital habeas claims. Haley’s “actual innocence” was actual in only the narrowest technical sense; he was a habitual offender but his second conviction wasn’t finalized until a few days after his third. (It’s also worth noting that Breyer and Ginsburg were part of the 6-3 majority). The real injustice here is the underlying habitual offender statute, which allows Texas and the many other states with similar laws to sentence people to extraordinarily long prison terms for essentially petty crimes, and whose legality was never in question.

Furthermore, it wasn’t Cruz’s job to decide whether or not to appeal the case to the SCOTUS, since that decision would be ultimately in the hands of Texas’s AG — Greg Abbott at the time, now the governor. Now there’s no reason to think Cruz objected to the decision to appeal the case to the SCOTUS, but framing it as his decision, as Brooks does, is disingenuous.

What’s interesting about all this is that we can pretty safely assume that Brooks is carrying water for the GOP establishment (I’m pretty sure this obscure 12-year-old case didn’t pop up for Brooks during some random internet surfing). And the latest poll numbers indicate that Trump appears to have a real shot in Iowa, which, if he were to win, would be a serious blow to Cruz’s campaign, since if Cruz can’t beat Trump in Iowa it’s hard to imagine him beating him in enough places elsewhere.

This suggests that, to some of the powers that be at least, Trump is actually preferable to Cruz.

You can’t go home again

[ 429 ] January 11, 2016 |

star wars

And when this kiss is over
It will start again
It will not be any different
It will be exactly the same

TalkingHeads, “Heaven”

Just before the new Star Wars movie opened, I wrote a brief post, asking in what I intended to be a non-rhetorical non-snarky non-pomo way why the Star Wars films had become such a cultural phenomenon. This generated a several-hundred comment thread, which I suppose was an illustration of the very thing that gave rise to the question.

I finally saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and here follows the review everyone has been waiting for:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens features all the strengths and weaknesses of the original Star Wars film, with one unavoidable exception. The original movie had nothing cynical about it, while SWTFA is probably the most cynical movie ever made.

It seems clear that somewhere in the Disney Corporation is a windowless warehouse, where hundreds if not thousands of employees were chained to desks in front of computer terminals and forced to read and then summarize every single objection anyone ever made to George Lucas’s three prequel films.

These summaries were then fed into a computer, which then ran an extraordinarily sophisticated AI program, designed to create a template for the new film. After running for 17 days and nights, the program generated three words (ALLCAPS in the original): REMAKE STAR WARS.

After seeing this movie I have some real sympathy for Lucas, who at least tried to do something different with the prequels. SWTFA takes about as many chances as the invasion of Grenada, which makes perfect sense in fiscal terms, but should still be deplored by anyone who cares about movies.

Speaking of which, the original Star Wars trilogy consisted of three cheesy but fun cartoonish action movies. They were fundamentally intended for kids, but, like a lot of well-made children’s entertainment, could be enjoyed by adults under the right circumstances. All the subsequent nonsense about how if you squinted just right you would see it was really Sophocles with light sabers — the Hero with A Thousand Faces blah blah blah — was just a rationalization for adults enjoying stuff intended for kids. This in my view, isn’t something that needs to be rationalized at all, since it’s harmless fun to be let oneself be 12 years old again for a couple of hours.

What’s not so harmless is the urge to treat Star Wars, and the various “blockbuster” film genres to which it gave birth, as something other than mindless entertainment. Again, mindless entertainment always has its place, but when a basically trivial movie for kids becomes something everyone is talking about, something may be out of wack, culturally speaking.

“Reviewing” this movie makes about as much sense as reviewing a quarter pounder with cheese, large fries, and a Coke. It was pretty good for what it was, I started to feel sick about three quarters of the way through, and I couldn’t really remember it a couple of hours later.

The end.

You can’t win if you don’t play

[ 98 ] January 10, 2016 |

The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principal if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant. Where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seemed capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory. There was a whole tribe of men who made their living simply by selling systems, forecasts, and lucky amulets. Winston had nothing to do with the Lottery, which was managed by the Ministry of Plenty, but he was aware (indeed everyone in the party was aware) that the prizes were largely imaginary. Only small sums were actually paid out, the winners of the big prizes being nonexistent persons.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

With no winners in Saturday night’s record $949.8 million Powerball drawing, the next jackpot could reach an estimated $1.3 billion, lottery officials said early Sunday. . .

Gary Grief, the executive director of the Texas Lottery, told ABC News on Sunday he was surprised to see the results of Saturday night’s drawing. He said 25 players won a $1 million prize and three others won a $2 million prize.

“If you don’t play, you will not win,” Grief advised.

If you’re writing a novel, giving the executive director of the Texas Lottery the name Gary Grief would be way too heavy-handed, but that’s reality for you.

How much do Americans spend on state-run lottery tickets? The most recent figures from the good folks at the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries indicate $70.1 billion was spent on such tickets in the U.S. last year. (Canadians spent $10.4 billion, which is actually about 30% more per capita). That works out to about $285 per adult, or $300 per adult in the 43 states that have state-run lotteries.

(By way of comparison, Americans spent about $18 billion on sports tickets, $14.5 billion on books, and $11 billion on movie tickets).

But averages can be deceiving. According to a recent Gallup poll, 57% of American adults reported buying at least one lottery ticket in the last twelve months, which means that the median amount spent on lottery tickets is very close to zero. And of course even the average spent by those who buy lottery tickets is deceiving. The NAASP explains helpfully:

As with any product or service, some people are more enthusiastic consumers than others. Business schools teach marketing students the “pareto principle:” the idea that no matter what the product, 80 percent of the sales will come from 20 percent of the customers. Lotteries are no different. A Minnesota study, for example, found that 20 percent of the lottery players account for 71 percent of lottery income. In Arizona, 24 percent of lottery players accounted for 70 percent of lottery spending, and in Pennsylvania 29 percent of the players accounted for 79 percent of the spending on the lottery.

A little back of the envelope scribbling reveals that, if we assume that about 20% of lottery players account for 70% of lottery purchases, the average amount per year spent on lottery tickets by the 11% to 12% of American adults who “play” the lottery regularly is around $1,800, or $35 per week.

Is this a troubling figure? Why no, not at all, says the NAASP:

In Colorado, for example, people with annual incomes of $15,000 or less make up 7 percent of the population but only [!] 5 percent of those playing the lottery in the past 30 days.

The average annual income of people who make $15,000 or less is around $9,000, or $173 per week, pretax.

President Trump, President Cruz

[ 166 ] January 9, 2016 |

trump cruz

The GOP race is increasingly likely to come down to a contest between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Marco Rubio has emerged (or perhaps more accurately has not yet submerged) as the only plausible establishment candidate, but Rubio continues to underwhelm, and, unless prospective voters who have shown very little enthusiasm for him over the past eight months change their minds about him over the next eight weeks, his campaign isn’t going anywhere.

The last couple of days have brought forth another rash of “Trump won’t get the nomination” articles. Pieces in the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard assert this without even bothering to put forth a theory as to why, unless wishing really hard that something doesn’t happen can be considered a theory. This Vox article does have a theory, and it’s an interesting one:

You don’t have to be a psychologist to understand what’s really going on with Trump. His entire career, like his campaign, has been about declaring his awesomeness and forcing others to acknowledge it. He has surrounded himself with trophy wives, sycophants, and his own name, everywhere he looks. He built a whole TV show premised on the idea that he’s a savvy, decisive business executive, harvesting obeisance from the rotating cast of supplicants. It is overcompensation on a world-historical scale.

At the root of this kind of narcissism is always the same thing: a vast, yawning chasm of need, a hunger for approval and validation that is never sated. Down there in the lizard brain, it’s fear: fear of being left out, laughed at, or looked down on, fear of never belonging, never being accepted, no matter how many towers you build.

The fear can only be calmed by validation, by accumulating visible markers of success until no one can laugh at you. There’s a submerged glacier of insecurity beneath every blowhard. (I fear that conservative primary voters, as a class, are insufficiently aware of this important fact.) . . .

The kind of persona-based, expectations-based support Trump is receiving works as long as it’s working. It wins as long as it’s winning.

But “I always win” is a brittle claim. All it takes to disprove it is a single loss.

And eventually, Trump will lose something — maybe Iowa, maybe New Hampshire, maybe just a couple of news cycles. (And make no mistake: To a winner, second place is losing.) When he’s being pressed to explain his loss, what he did wrong, do you suppose he will acknowledge error?

No. What error could there be? He can’t communicate his message any better. The message is Trump. And he’s Trump! If voters aren’t voting for him, they’re stupid.

The reactionaries who are attracted to Trump are, as numerous lines of research have demonstrated, more anxious than liberals and thus more prone to value order, stability, structure, and social hierarchy. They are highly sensitive to the pecking order and in-group/out-group distinctions.

This has served Trump’s nationalist, xenophobic campaign well, but it could come back to bite him if he becomes second man on the totem pole — or, god forbid, third. To the hierarchy-conscious, the way things work is you pay respect to the winners above you. You only punch down at the losers below.

Under attack, or in the face of skepticism or, y’know, losing, Trump’s thin skin will make him defensive and volatile. He can’t modulate, can’t do humility, can’t abide the thought of anyone above him. All his claims, all his stories, all his insults are yuge, the best you’ll find anywhere.

The same belligerence that looked like strength when Trump was on top will look defensive and bitter when he’s not. And the more doubtful or skeptical voters and the media become, the more Trump will escalate, the more his chest will puff. He doesn’t know any other strategy. He’ll enter a negative spiral as self-reinforcing as his rise has been.

Well maybe. Trump certainly seems to be an extreme example of a narcissistic personality, and it’s easy to imagine him failing to handle normal campaign adversity well, by normal evaluative standards. But the key caveat here is “normal.” There’s nothing normal about the Trump campaign, as evidenced by the fact that the sorts of “gaffes” that would normally be considered crippling or fatal for a candidate (Mexican immigrants are mostly rapists, a very popular journalist is asking him tough questions because of her menstrual cycle, almost all white murder victims are killed by the blacks, etc. etc. etc.) have only increased his poll numbers.

Sure, it’s possible that the same bluster that is working so well now will play differently after a couple of primary losses, but this theory, too, appears to feature more than a touch of wishful thinking. Trump is no doubt a raging narcissist, but he’s also a 69-year-old man who has suffered plenty of setbacks at one time or another, including bankrupt companies, failed marriages, and decades of mockery from his social betters, who have never let him forget that, in their eyes, he will always be the impossibly vulgar scion of a parvenu real estate hustler.

In short, the notion that the Trump campaign will blow up because either Trump and/or his fans won’t be able to handle the sight of him losing a couple of early primaries has some surface plausibility, but I wouldn’t want to bet on it.

Which brings us to the remarkable saga of Rafael “Ted” Cruz. Consider who Cruz was, in terms of the conventional wisdom, just a few months ago: a freshman senator, with no experience in elected office prior to 2013, who arrived in Washington and immediately alienated all the most important Republican politicians in town, by combining extreme personal arrogance with total disregard for the social niceties that are supposed to at least superficially rule life in the U.S. Senate.

Cruz is also a strident hard right ideologue, who has the charisma of a bottle of Maalox, a Canadian birth certificate, and a blatantly Spanish first and last name. In some ways, his presidential ambitions seemed, under the circumstances, to be even more unrealistic than Donald Trump’s.

What’s becoming increasingly evident is that he’s also a hell of a politician. Cruz won his Senate seat even though he was outspent by his rival in the GOP primary by nearly three to one. In one sense, he appears to be a much smarter, much soberer version of Joe McCarthy: a completely unscrupulous demagogue, who will toss out an accusation of treason whenever it might gain him a vote or three.

In another, he’s reminiscent of Richard Nixon: another charisma-challenged and widely despised man, whose intelligence, ruthlessness, and boundless ambition took him a lot further than anyone could have imagined he would go.

Right now, I’d put the odds of one of these two men being the next president of the United States at about 35%.

James Tracy and the limits of academic freedom

[ 214 ] January 8, 2016 |

noah pozner

Sandy Hook murder victim Noah Pozner

Florida Atlantic has fired James Tracy, a communications professor who among other things teaches classes on conspiracy theories. Tracy believes that the Sandy Hook massacre didn’t take place, and he has harassed the parents of one of the murdered children, demanding that they “prove” their child ever existed, and suggesting they faked their child’s death for money.

When Tracy’s accusations first drew public attention, the school’s administration took the public position that both his views and activities were protected by academic freedom (Tracy has or had tenure). The school is now claiming that Tracy is being fired for failing to file some paperwork:

Last month, the parents of a victim of the 2012 shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., published an op-ed piece in the (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.,) Sun-Sentinel. Lenny and Veronique Pozner wrote that they had requested Tracy remove a picture of their son, 6-year-old Noah, from his blog. Tracy responded, they said, by sending them a letter demanding proof that Noah ever existed.

The Pozner’s argued that “conspiracy theorists” abound, but Tracy garnered widespread attention because of his credentials.

“A plethora of conspiracies arose after Sandy Hook, but none received as much mainstream publicity as Tracy,” they wrote. “This professor achieved fame among the morbid and deranged precisely because his theories were attached to his academic credentials and his affiliation with FAU.”

One week after that article’s publication, FAU administrators started moving to dismiss Tracy, but not over his specific statements.

University officials sent him a memorandum reminding him that he had failed to submit forms required of university employees outlining any professional activities they engage in outside of the university. Tracy is open about his views and articulates them on radio shows, alternative news sites and his blog, the Memory Hole.

After some back and forth, the administration sent him a termination letter on Tuesday, arguing that his outside work needed to be reported to the university to make sure no conflicts of interest existed.

“You publicly engage in external personal activity that requires your time and effort,” the termination letter read. “Disclosure and management of your outside activity is necessary and reasonable. It is for the administration to decide, with your input, if a conflict exists, and how to manage a conflict where necessary. You have repeatedly and willfully failed to provide the administration the information it needs to discharge its responsibilities.”

On its face this seems obviously pre-textual. On the other hand, Tracy is also obviously nuts [insert appropriate DSM-V term here], and he may well have engaged quite consciously in acts of insubordination, so that he could achieve the bureaucratic equivalent of martyrdom.

Anyway, this case in my view raises serious and difficult questions in regard to academic freedom. As I mentioned in my original post on this subject, this isn’t a situation in which someone is advocating crazy views that have nothing to do with his academic expertise, like the Northwestern engineering professor who is a Holocaust denier in his spare time. Tracy is an actual conspiracy theorist, in the most pejorative and unhinged sense of that term, whose career is dedicated to studying and teaching students about conspiracy theories. Is that something a university should tolerate?

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