The Unwarranted Demonization of Scot Peterson (3): A Series

I’ve previously written two posts on the Scot Peterson case under the title of “The Premature Demonization of Scot Peterson.” Here’s the first post, and here’s the second. Here’s background on the criminal case.

Having revisited and followed the case for the last few weeks, and having had a couple of conversations both with Peterson and with one of his colleagues, I’ve decided to turn this into an ongoing series. But there’s no need at this point for the overly cautious title I initially used. The demonization of Scot Peterson isn’t just “premature”; it’s an act of collective irresponsibility verging on hysteria. I so far have not been convinced that Peterson deserves to be called either a “failure” or a “coward,” much less a criminal. It seems more apt to describe him as the unfortunate victim of a society addicted to loose talk and unrestrained vindictiveness. As I see it, even commentators properly skeptical of the criminal charges against Peterson have bought too easily into the claim that he “failed” to stop the shooter out of “cowardice” (and have irresponsibly repeated those claims). Continue reading

R. Kelly and Mob Justice

I was on spring break last week, so I made the mistake of sitting down and watching some TV for the first time since Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s just my ineptitude with a remote, but aside from Ilhan Omar’s anti-Semitism, the only topic that seemed up for discussion was R. Kelly and the charges made against him. (I also made the mistake of watching Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” quixotically expecting a Spike Lee movie to rise above the level of a comic book, but alas, wrong again. More on that fiasco some other time.)

Here’s an obvious point about guilt and innocence when it comes to criminal charges: if you’re going to try someone for a criminal allegation in the court of public opinion–a very big and very dubious if–you have to distinguish clearly between four mutually exclusive things:

  • the case against him,
  • the case in his defense,
  • the set of known facts that don’t easily fit either of the first two categories, and
  • the unknowns.

The least you can do is to try to do justice to the facts in all four categories, rather than fixating on, say, the case against him to the exclusion of everything else. There are complications here about how broadly or narrowly to understand each category, but even if we set those aside, there’s more than enough complexity here to keep a competent journalist busy for awhile. Continue reading

The Obligation to Smile

I just taught a class on cat-calling in my ethics course, focused in part on this famous viral video on the subject just below. A number of issues came up about cat-calling as such, but for reasons that are obvious to anyone who’s seen the video, a secondary issue came up as well: whether anyone ever has an obligation to smile.

I had always assumed that the answer had to be “no”: you have no free-standing obligation to smile, and certainly no obligation to smile on command. Properly conceived, smiling is the epitome of a spontaneous expression of one’s inner states: you smile when you’re genuinely in a good mood. To fake a smile is to wreck it: you fake a smile when you want other people to think (or even pretend to think) that you’re in a smiley mood when you aren’t. But there’s no good reason to do that, and lots of good reasons to avoid it. Fake smiling distorts your relationship with others, and distorts your relationship with your own inner states. It demands that you literally present a face to the world that in some sense isn’t yours, then do your best to believe that it is.    Continue reading

Hang ‘Em High: Abortion, Gaza, and the Gallows

This has now become the standard conservative line on the Kevin Williamson affair, care of Bret Stephens of The New York Times. The “you” refers to Kevin Williamson.

The case against you, as best as I can tell, rests on three charges. You think abortion is murder and tweeted — appallingly in my view — that doctors and women should perhaps be hanged for it. You believe “sex is a biological reality” and that gender should not be a choice. And you once boorishly described an African-American boy in East St. Louis, Ill., “raising his palms to his clavicles, elbows akimbo, in the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge.” …

Weighed against these charges are hundreds of thousands of words of smart, stylish and often hilarious commentary, criticism and reportage. …

Shouldn’t great prose and independent judgment count for something? Not according to your critics. We live in the age of guilt by pull-quote, abetted by a combination of lazy journalism, gullible readership, missing context, and technologies that make our every ill-considered utterance instantly accessible and utterly indelible. I jumped at your abortion comment, but for heaven’s sake, it was a tweet. When you write a whole book on the need to execute the tens of millions of American women who’ve had abortions, then I’ll worry.

We also live in an age — another one — of excommunication. This is ugly because its spirit is illiberal, and odd, because its consequences are negligible. Should The Atlantic foolishly succumb to pressure to rescind your job offer, you’ll still be widely read, presumably at National Review. If you’re really the barbarian your critics claim, you’re already through the gates.

The Atlantic did eventually rescind Williamson’s job offer, so I guess the barbarian has been ejected from the gates. Question in passing: if the consequences of the current spirit of excommunication are “negligible,” why the fuss? Continue reading

A Teenager Shall Lead Them

I’ve written before about the resort to force and intimidation in discussions of Palestinian-Israeli issues, but here’s an outrageous case– and one that hits close to home. From The New York Times, “Tweets About Israel Land New Jersey Student in Principal’s Office“:

A New Jersey high school student found herself in a social media storm on Wednesday after she live-tweeted and apparently secretly recorded a trip to her principal’s office.

She said administrators warned her that her comments about Israel and a fellow student on Twitter might have violated a state law against bullying.

The student, Bethany Koval, a 16-year-old Israeli Jew, said she had been reprimanded by administrators at Fair Lawn High School in Bergen County for a tweet that contained a string of expletives directed at Israel and expressed happiness that a pro-Israel classmate had unfollowed her Twitter account.

New Jersey has some of the toughest anti-bullying laws in the nation. After the suicide of a Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, in 2010, it passed the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, a far-reaching law with stiff penalties for educators who do not sufficiently respond to complaints of harassment or intimidation.

Read the whole thing for a fuller account of the story. Here’s a January 7 story from the Bergen Record, and here’s a January 8 story from the same place. Muftah reproduces some of the tweets involved. (Unfortunately, Koval’s Twitter feed is no longer operating in the public domain.) Fair Lawn, by the way, is just a few towns west of Lodi, where I teach.

Setting aside whatever narrowly legalistic insanities may reside within the various “anti-bullying” statutes, this is not a morally complex matter. A high school student tweets her political views about Israel. Some of what she says contains profanity. Some is sympathetic to, or appeasing of, Hamas. Some of her peers don’t like what she says. She gets some verbal flak from some of them. One “unfollows” her Twitter account. She doesn’t reveal the “unfollower’s” name in public, but reveals it to someone privately.

Continue reading

The “No Boots on the Ground” Fraud

I spent a fair bit of time during the fall of 2014 boring the readers of this blog with my insistence that despite Obama’s “promise(s)” not to put “boots on the ground” in Syria, he would eventually find some disingenuous, incremental way of putting them there. Since “boots on the ground” doesn’t really mean anything, military speaking, the phrase is practically designed to guarantee plausible deniability: you can promise not to put “boots on the ground,” then send military personnel to the relevant place, and then deny that that’s what you meant by “boots on the ground.” No, no: “boots on the ground” referred, all along, to those military personnel that we haven’t (yet) sent, not the boot-wearing ones that now happen to be there.

I may be a newly-minted Democrat, but I’m not dumb, amnesiac, or loyal enough to our President to forget that this is just a tired variant on the semantic game that the Bush II Administration played with the phrase “weapons of mass destruction.” As we all by now know (or ought to know), very strictly speaking, weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq as a result of the 2003 invasion; it’s just that the WMD we found found bore no relation to the WMD that furnished the rationale for the invasion. So if the invasion of Iraq was predicated on “finding weapons of mass destruction,” very narrowly conceived, well, it was a great success: weapons were found. But this is just a pathetic way of saving a pathetic thesis. The war was predicated on finding usable stockpiles of WMD, and precisely none of those were found.

Continue reading

I Swear, I Saw a Video of Dozens of Them Celebrating the Tragedy

A celebration “rumor” that turns out to be undeniable for a change. Here’s The New York Times, if you prefer getting the story from the mainstream media.

For the record, I regard what’s depicted in the video as free speech, and reject the idea that it involves (or should be regarded as involving) “incitement” in any legally actionable sense. Let them dance. 

I guess this gives new meaning to that old line from Billy Idol: “Hey little sister–what have you done?” It’s a nice day to start again.

Continue reading

Communication Breakdowns: Heckling, Interruptions, Screaming Matches and Other Violations*

If you doubt that, try to watch the videos embedded in this link, if you can. You can’t, because the heckling drowns out the speaker. The police, we’re told, refused to escort the hecklers out on “free speech” grounds, but the ultimate result was that Levy was unable to give his speech. It’s an understatement to call that “problematic.”

The preceding set of videos happens to involve a pro-Palestinian speaker and pro-Israeli hecklers, but the principle applies all ways around. Here’s Israeli ambassador Michael Oren being heckled during a speech he gave (or tried to give) at UC Irvine in 2010. I admire Levy and despise Oren, but I have the same view in both cases: the anti-Oren hecklers, like the anti-Levy ones, should have been removed from the hall–by force, if necessary.

Heckling may well take the form of speech, but it violates free speech by interfering with the free speech rights–disturbing and interrupting the speech–of the person who has prior claim to the floor. It can sometimes be unclear who has prior claim to the floor–which is why we have rules of order–but it usually isn’t. When it is clear, it’s equally clear what should be done with hecklers: either shut up or be thrown out and locked out. This sort of reaction is graceful and intelligent, but it still sort of misses the point and misses the mark (I’m referring to the effort at persuasion before the removal). So should senators be thrown out of the State of the Union address? Yes, senators too.  For a one-word outburst? For a one-word outburst. Even if Obama was lying? Even if Obama was lying.

Feel free to demonstrate outside the hall, or to ask brutal questions during the Q&A–but speeches, like concerts, should compel absolute silence from the audience. If you’re sufficiently offended, leave. But if you decide to stay, the principle of free speech demands that you hold your peace–whoever you are, whoever the speaker is, and whatever the speaker is saying.

Postscript, October 28, 2015: This story (and video) doesn’t induce me to re-think my view on heckling, but it does induce me to offer a few caveats or qualifications. I linked to the preceding version of that story because it has the best video quality of any that I’ve seen, but (like the Huffington Post version of the story) it conveniently omits the fact that the protesters interrupted Trump’s speech by chanting at him. (The Huff Post video mentions the interruption.) I have no love for Trump, but I don’t think anyone has the right to interrupt his speech (or anyone’s speech) in this way.

As a first resort, in cases like this, the protesters should be told to stop interrupting. If they don’t agree to stop, or don’t stop, they should be removed from the premises of the talk. Ideally, they should be removed by parties designated to handle security (assuming that someone is designated). If a security detail is there, no one should be allowed to remove the hecklers but them. Obviously, if the talk is being guarded by a police detail, the task of removing hecklers is their job, not that of the audience.

If the hecklers/protesters don’t agree to leave, I still think they should be forced out. But the force used to remove them should be proportionate to the force by which they resist leaving: the less they resist, the less force is needed. Disproportionate uses of force should in this context be treated as new initiations of force–in other words, as battery. The video makes clear that the force used to remove these protesters was grossly disproportionate to what was needed to remove them. The guy in the pink shirt should absolutely have been (or be) arrested for battery.

It’s amazing that a person could be recorded on video as battering someone, and not just get away with it, but have essentially been incited into the act by a candidate for the U.S. presidency. But maybe it isn’t so amazing. Maybe it’s only as amazing as the fact that Donald Trump is the GOP front-runner for the presidency in the first place. And at this point, maybe that’s not so amazing, either.

Postscript, November 6, 2015: More of the same at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis,this time aimed at the Israeli ethicist Moshe Halbertal.  The excerpt in the link (from The Tablet) of the University’s Student Conduct Code seems to me to take the right approach to such matters.

I have to confess that I was tempted to heckle at this presentation I attended last night, at the Alanson White Institute in New York. The temptation is (nearly) overwhelming when a presenter consciously and strategically decides to bullshit the audience for 90 minutes, evading all substantive issues and abusing his critics more or less with impunity. But I decided to take my own advice–holding my tongue, leaving about twenty minutes early, and letting loose with a torrent of profanity once I was a safe distance from the hall. I’ll have to discuss the brazen dishonesty of Jeffrey Lieberman’s presentation–and the dismal intellectual standard of the entire evening–in a post of its own.

Postscript, November 9, 2015: Here’s a good summary of the Lieberman talk, minus a few things here and there in the three-way exchanges and the Q&A. I have a query out to the White Institute asking whether they’ll be making a video of the event public. I hope they will: I’m pretty sure the event was videotaped, and a wider public would benefit from watching the presentation and subjecting it to rational criticism. [Elizabeth Rodman, of the White Institute, in an email to me: “No, there is no video available for public viewing.”]

If Dr. Lieberman and his colleagues really mean what they say about rejecting the tribalism of psychiatry’s past (and that of psychoanalysis), now would be the time for a bit of transparency. Transparency, by the way, is the other side of the audience’s obligation to refrain from heckling a speaker: no one has the right the heckle, but the speaker has the obligation to come clean with his audience and allow for criticism rather than try his best to shut it down (a la Lieberman). It’s sad to have to explain all this to supposed professionals in mental health, but I guess we all profit from having to re-learn our ABCs sometime.

Postscript, November 12, 2015: Not exactly a “heckling” story, but in the same neighborhood. It seems hard to top, but then there’s always this.

Postscript, November 15, 2015: I don’t often agree with Brian Leiter, but this post on recent events at Yale seems to me exactly on target.

Postscript, November 16, 2015: Another discursive train wreck, this time at UT Austin, care of the Palestine Solidarity Committee. Don’t really see how this sort of thing promotes Palestinian rights. So if a bunch of pro-Israel protesters comes in to disrupt a defense of Palestinian rights, we’re obliged to let them disrupt the talk? Or is it that pro-Israel protesters wouldn’t have the same rights as defenders of Palestinian rights? Kind of stupid, no matter how you parse it.

Postscript, January 3, 2016: Here’s an interesting one, from a meeting in Orange County, New York involving a land-annexation dispute between the Hasidic community of Kiryas Joel and its non-Hasidic neighbors. Brooklyn assemblyman Dov Hikind shows up, and as an opening gambit insinuates (without explicitly coming out and saying so) that opposition to Kiryas Joel’s annexation bid is anti-Semitic. The crowd responds, understandably (but not in my view justifiably) with boos, jeers, and hisses. One guy in the second row stands up in protest at Hikind’s remarks and turns his back to him (Hikind himself had turned around to address the audience he was accusing). The presiding officer of the meeting asks security (in the form of uniformed officers) to usher the disruptive audience member out of the room. He refuses to leave, but promises to stay in his seat; eventually, security backs down.

Though I agree with the town council’s handling of the hecklers, Hikind’s behavior here is disgraceful. “The issue,” he thunders, “is not the annexation!” Actually, that’s exactly what the issue is, and a person who doesn’t want to discuss it has no business attending a meeting about it. Hikind doesn’t manage to say a single word about the merits of the annexation issue. He just engages in a bit of cheap demagoguery, then sits down. If Hikind has evidence of anti-Semitism, he should produce it. If not, he’s simply poisoning the well.

It’s actually unclear to me why a Brooklyn assemblyman would be asked or permitted to address an audience in Orange County (a good 90 minutes northwest of Brooklyn) on the subject of a disputed annexation there. In any case, the meeting’s presiding officer ought to have commented on the inappropriateness of Hikind’s comments. It’s not clear from this video how the officer reacted, or if he did. Contrary to the impression one gets, the jeering of the audience, though a problem, was far from the only problem in this episode. (Postscript, January 4, 2015: This critique of Hikind from a website run by Orange County locals is entirely on target.)

Soundtrack by Led Zeppelin (sort of)….

*I’ve renamed this post to better reflect the postscripts.

Civilization, Its Enemies, and the Dumbest Conversation about ISIS on the Internet

And the worst thing is, I’m a participant in it. It’s taking place at a blog called Neo-Neocon. Feel free to visit, and feel free to wade through the combox (that’s not a recommendation)–at least if you have some time to waste, and don’t mind the prospect of sacrificing a few thousand brain cells in the process.

I thought I went there to take issue with the idea of U.S. military intervention in Syria. But that no longer seems to be the issue. Apparently, I’m the issue. As commenter “blert” puts it:

Khawaja is a very strange critter, blog wise.

Based upon a first pass Google-up:

1) Out of the closet gay model of Pakistani descent…

2) Brainy enough to make it/ fake it in academe…

3) And alienated enough to construct what seems to be a totally synthetic name… or some homage to the past or to culture. Any connection is too obscure for Westerners.

4) Probably engaged in blog jihad. This is now commonplace among those Muslims with advanced literacy. Blog jihad is used to inject cultural demoralization among kafir elites, so it can be no surprise that this player advocates the classic Libertarian script.

So I guess that makes me an alienated, low IQ gay Libertarian jihadi pseudo-academicwith looks to die for. Things could be worse.

Postscript, September 7, 2014: For a notably more intelligent discussion of the subject, read this post by Brandon Christensen at Notes on Liberty. I regret that I haven’t had the time to give the idea of intervention-in-Syria the thrashing it deserves, but I hope that everyone so inclined (i.e., disinclined to intervention in Syria) will take some time out to make their sentiments known, above all to their political representatives.

Postscript, September 8, 2014: I haven’t given the idea of intervention-in-Syria the thrashing it deserves, but I guess I haven’t been able to stay silent, either.  The preceding link goes to a comment on Brandon Christensen’s comment on a recent piece by Richard Epstein, “Rand Paul’s Fatal Pacifism,” Defining Ideas (Sept 4, 2014). I’m agnostic on the recommendation that Christensen makes in the latter half of his post, but I agree with his criticisms of Epstein–as far as they go. The original Epstein piece strikes me as a problematic combination of pomposity and vapidity badly in need of a more thorough fisking than I have time to give right now.

Blog-jihad in style…with Irfan Khawaja


The real Khawajaenator: Maryam al-Khawaja