Sunday, March 30, 2008

Injustice and its non-celebrity victims

Over at Hit and Run, Michael Moynihan has a post about Mumia Abu-Jamal that got me thinking. Why did Mumia Abu-Jamal become such a prominent cause, as opposed to any of the myriad other people imprisoned in this country, many under circumstances far more questionable? I wish more people so interested in the inequities of the legal system would take some interest in some of its less prestigious victims.

Where’s the uproar over, say, Cory Maye? It ought to push a lot of the Left’s buttons- Maye is an African-American currently serving a horrendously unjust life sentence for shooting what turned out to be a (white) police officer in self-defense during what turned out to be a an unannounced nighttime no-knock police drug raid meant for the resident of the other half of Maye’s duplex. He was on death row until 2006. He’s still in prison. The police, as often happens when this sort of raid goes awry, repeatedly changed their story about whether or not they found marijuana in Maye’s home. If a fraction of the time and energy devoted to Abu-Jamal were to be directed at the terrible injustice against Cory Maye, what might have been accomplished?

For that matter, he seems like he could be a cause much of the Right would have an interest in– he was a gun owner who fought to protect his home and his child, and ends up serving life in prison because the armed, unidentified man forcing his way into the bedroom of Maye’s daughter at 9 o’clock at night turned out to be a police officer. It’s not hard to see how that sort of thing could have a chilling effect on people’s ability to bear arms for home defense, even if no actual laws are passed.

Unlike the tangled web of the Munima Abdul-Jamal case, the injustice of what happened to Maye is less ambiguous. Standing up for Maye seems like it could be an ideal cause Left and Right could agree on. And to be fair, many have spoken out for him. But it’s certainly nothing even close to the degree of attention given to Abu-Jamal.

I suppose some the things that could potentially give him appeal also hurt him. I suspect that what Cory Maye is in prison for- using a gun to defend himself during a home invasion- probably doesn’t endear him to a lot of the Left, a few genuine anarchists (as distinguished from social democrats who want to sound rebellious) aside. After all, keeping a gun in the house to protect yourself is for right-wing Neanderthals, anti-government nuts, and rural white trash.

And most conservatives, as has become more and more evident, only disapprove of jackbooted thuggery when a Clinton is in office. Now that he’s gone, agents of law enforcement are infallible gods, especially when they’re after drugs. If something like Waco or Ruby Ridge happened today, can you imagine most American conservatives today expressing even a tenth of the outrage they did when they happened in the 90’s? I sure as hell can’t.

I really shouldn’t be surprised or disappointed by this; I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that most of the good (from a libertarian viewpoint) aspects of most modern statist ideologies are just poses, covers, or, at best, the vestigial remnants of better days, the leftover rubble of a shattered classical liberal ideal that hasn’t been entirely swept into the trash yet. Too bad.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Good life is contradiction

I usually look to Roderick Long for this sort of thing, but today he is surpassed: David Weigel, Associate Editor of Reason magazine, has created the greatest blog post title in human history.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Kenneth R. Gregg passes away

Very sad news from the Liberty and Power Blog: Kenneth Gregg, intellectual historian and the creator of the libertarian blog CLASSical Liberalism, died of heart failure last Friday after a long illness. Sadly, he was only 57, and the last few years of his life were marked by a degree of tragedy most of us are mercifully unable to fathom. Kevin Carson has a very touching tribute him to at Mutualist Blog.

I’m sorry I never got to meet you, Mr. Gregg. I hope there’s a place out there somewhere where you will meet your children again. Rest in peace.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

David Brooks, Master of Psychiatry

This is a subject I hadn’t planned on addressing on this blog, but now I feel I must. This sort of brain-dead bigotry and contempt is par for the course on, say, a YouTube comment thread, but when it’s printed in The Newspaper of Record it merits a public response, however ineffectual that response is likely to be. Be warned that this post is long and has little or no direct relationship to libertarianism (except to the extent that “David Brooks sucks” is a sentiment every libertarian can come together on), though I hope that you’ll take an interest in it anyway.

First, a bit of background. I am diagnosed with a neurological disorder called Asperger’s Syndrome, which is an autistic spectrum disorder. It is distinguished from its fellows on the autistic spectrum by the fact that it does not involve mental retardation or delays in acquisition of speech, though the boundaries are somewhat fuzzy, and it is a matter of some controversy how meaningful the distinction between the different types is; there's talk of folding it into the general "autism" category in the next version of the DSM. Thus, I do know a thing or two about the issue.

In a recent column in the New York Times entitled “The Rank-Link Imbalance,” columnist David Brooks describes what he sees as a class of people who are very common in politics and other high-status fields. They are, as he describes them, achievement-obsessed, arrogant, narcissistic, aggressive, masterfully skilled in manipulating and dominating others, and highly successful in their professions or in politics because of this. However, they are incapable of having meaningful emotional relationships with others, have no true friends, are unaccustomed to having limits placed on their activities, and lack any sensitivity to others. They appear to be sociopaths, or nearly so. Oh, and a lot of them employ the services of prostitutes, because they can’t understand non-mercenary relationships.

These loathsome people “have all of the social skills required to improve their social rank, but none of the social skills that lead to genuine bonding.” They have a “coating of arrogance.” They depend on social tricks like “the capacity to imply false intimacy.” In conversation, “They treat their conversational partners the way the Nazis treated Poland,” crushing others with an “onslaught of accumulated narcissism.

Then we get to the money quote, in which Brooks say, "These Type A men are just not equipped to have normal relationships. All their lives they’ve been a walking Asperger’s Convention, the kings of the emotionally avoidant. Because of disuse, their sensitivity synapses are still performing at preschool levels."

Mr. Brooks likes to use big words, much as five-year old boys sometimes try to use daddy’s power tools. This comment doesn’t merely betray a total ignorance of what Asperger's is like, it gives the impression that Brooks has been reading psychiatric diagnosis manuals from some sort of Star Trek-esque Mirror Universe, where rivers run uphill, Hitler won the Second World War, and autism makes people masters of the social dance. Had Brooks bothered to understand what Asperger’s Syndrome is like on this plane of existence, on the other hand, it would be obvious that people with Asperger's are among those least likely to fit the personality profile he describes; by the very nature of the condition, they are highly unlikely to be skilled at the sort of social dominance, leadership, and social cunning he describes. "Qualitative impairment in social interaction" is one of the diagnostic criteria for a reason. Had Brooks taken the time to actually learn something about the tens of thousands of Americans he so casually heaps contempt on, he would know that. If Brooks actually knows a lot of people with Asperger’s who “have all of the social skills required to improve their social rank,” are gifted with “the specific social skills that are useful on the climb up the greasy pole,” or “dominate every room they enter,” I’d certainly like to meet them.

People with autism spectrum conditions have enough difficulties to face in their lives- difficulties I can’t imagine Brooks being able to even comprehend- without major national commentators in America's biggest newspaper demonizing them and turning their very nature into a synonym for a lack of humanity.

This is the dark side of public awareness. As Asperger's has started to become known to the general public, I see more and more people using it as shorthand for lack of compassion, indifference to others, lack of emotions, and general wickedness. None of these traits are characteristics of Asperger's Syndrome, but they are becoming the public "face" of Asperger's for this nation because of people like Brooks, who encourage false, degrading, and hateful stereotypes. It’s growing more and more common, and it has consequences.

A friend of my family has a son in junior high school. He is an intelligent, kind boy who has Asperger's. His biggest problem isn't his shyness or his trouble with social cues. It certainly isn't some inherent inability to form meaningful human relationships. No, his biggest problem, by far, is that many people treat him like garbage because he's noticeably different from most kids. People are cruel enough to him as it is; I shudder to think what his life would be like if, on top of that, the other kids in his school were up-to-date on the malicious stereotypes people like Brooks propagates.

My own youth was unpleasant. But there was one small mercy- though I was certainly viewed with contempt by the people around me, I didn't have to grow up in a society that considered me some sort of dangerous monster, devoid of human feeling and incapable of love or meaningful emotional connections. The next generation of children with Asperger's, I fear, will grow up being told precisely that about themselves by the culture at large, on top of all the other difficulties associated with being different.

I was one of the lucky ones, in many respects. Not all kids with Asperger's were, or are, as fortunate as me. How many innocent young people have killed themselves, or otherwise had their lives shattered, because of the way they were treated? How many more in generations to come will suffer that fate, living in the society that people like Brooks are creating- a society that openly condemns and despises them for what they were born as?

My reaction to this may seem extreme, especially since Brooks was probably just using the term to sound smart. I’m not terribly interested in his intent; whether he’s viciously slandering hundreds of thousands of innocent people out of outright malice or merely depraved indifference is not terribly important. The reason I care so much is because Asperger’s is penetrating deeper and deeper into the public consciousness every year, and it can make a big difference to the way people are treated if the average person’s first encounter with it is being told by some jackass like Brooks that people who have it are soulless monsters devoid of human sentiment.

Frankly, I suspect that I am fighting for a lost cause. Brooks is merely one drop of water in an oncoming wave, albeit an unusually prominent one, and the deep-rooted assumptions of our culture mean that the cause of acceptance is at a deep disadvantage before the contest even begins. But, hell, I write a libertarian blog, so it’s not as if hopeless battles are a novel experience. Still, if someone you care about has an autistic spectrum disorder, and you don’t consider that person innately evil, please consider sending an e-mail to Brooks or the Times and letting them know.

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Thoughts on William F. Buckley

Much has been said, both good and bad, about William F. Buckley since his death. While I don’t mean to minimize his very real and serious faults, I would like to talk about the positive effect he had on me, personally.

When I was a young conservative, my grandfather got me a subscription to National Review, which I eagerly read every two weeks. In 1996, they came out with an issue that announced, right on the front cover, “The War on Drugs is Lost.” Inside the issue were a series of articles cataloguing the evils caused by the Drug War: increases in crime, the erosion of Constitutional protections against warrantless search and seizure and punishment without trial (Remember when there were conservatives who actually thought destroying the 4th, 5th, and 6th amendments in the Bill of Rights was a bad thing?), the growth of street gangs, damage to public health, and so on. The editors, including Buckley, called for the legalization of drugs.

This utterly blew my mind. My whole generation was raised on a steady diet of hysterical propaganda about drugs and the need to crush drug use at any cost. The idea of anyone publicly saying that drugs should be legal was shocking, and the idea of conservatives saying it even more so. The necessity and righteousness of the war on drugs had been drilled into me by popular entertainment, government propaganda, and the educational system my entire life. Yet, as I read the issue, I became more and more convinced.

Part of it was because of all the information about the effects the war on drugs had had. (I remember being especially disgusted by the idea of property forfeiture without trial on mere suspicion of illegal activity. I was a typical conservative in that I believed strongly in law and order; I was an atypical conservative in that I thought some sort of law ought to apply to law enforcers themselves.) Perhaps more importantly, though, it exposed a major blind spot in my political thought. I already had a general feeling that it was wrong for the government to throw people in jail for things that didn’t harm others, but I had never applied that to drug use; I had a lifetime of indoctrination in my head to discourage me from thinking about the issue rationally. When I was done with the issue, I found myself actually thinking about the drug issue for the first time, and once I did a question that should have been obvious presented itself: What moral right does the government have to use force to control what people put into their own bodies?

I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer back then, and I haven’t been able to since. After that, I became much more conscientious about always asking, when faced with any form of state control, “What gives the government the right to use force in this situation?” Over time, as I devoted more and more thought to different issues, I realized that the number of government actions that seemed able to pass that test was getting smaller and smaller until, one day, I found myself asking what gave the state the right to exist at all.

I suspect I would have become a libertarian even without Buckley and his magazine, but he certainly sped me along. I imagine he wouldn’t approve of what he helped turn me into, but I thank him anyway. Rest in peace.

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