CRF Blog

When Satire Cuts Both Ways

by Bill Hayes

The New York Times’ Room for Debate lets various knowledgeable contributors discuss news events and other timely issues. One recent debate covered: When Satire Cuts Both Ways.

People worldwide are outraged by the murders at the French satiric magazine Charlie Hebdo by Islamic extremists angered by cartoons it published ridiculing Muhammad. But even some cartoonists have questioned whether satire can be pointlessly offensive.

Even if the most offensive speech deserves protection, is it worth considering its effects? Can writers and artists sometimes be too provocative and outrageous? Should they hold themselves back? [more]

Ancient and modern mariners

by David De La Torre

In Ancient and modern mariners, The Economist looks at modern container ships.

The bridge could easily accommodate 50 people, but at its busiest rarely holds more than ten. The high, surrounding windows and purposeful hush instil a vaguely ecclesiastical feel. At its centre is a large, sleek, wood-veneered steering wheel, used mainly when arriving and departing from ports. Otherwise the steering is automatic: if a human needs to intervene, he does so using a joystick the size of a child’s finger. Like the rest of the ship, the bridge smells of new-laid rubber and disinfectant — not an unpleasant smell, but a sterile one, with none of the undertones (tobacco, salt spray, fish, sweat) associated with sea journeys. Even in the ship’s bowels, the strongest odour is not the fuel oil used to power the engine but the coffee used to power the engineers.

Which artefact is the best emblem of modern life? The personal computer, perhaps, or the mobile phone, or the car. Or maybe, instead, the container ship, which transports all of those things and much besides: “90 Percent of Everything”, as the title of Rose George’s first-rate book on the shipping industry puts it. These ships are the workhorses of globalisation; they are also exemplars of another contemporary megatrend, automation. Their sterility would make them almost unrecognisable to Melville, the novelist-whaler, or to Joseph Conrad (who spent nearly two decades as a merchant marine). [more]

It’s All for Your Own Good

by Bill Hayes

In It’s All for Your Own Good for the New York Review of Books, Jeremy Waldron reviews two books by Cass R. Sunstein: Why Nudge? The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism and Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas.

“Paternalism” is usually a dirty word in political philosophy: the nanny state passing regulations that restrict us for our own good, banning smoking and skateboarding because they’re unsafe, or former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg trying to limit the size of sugary sodas sold in New York City — “the Big Gulp Ban.” Now, a nudger wouldn’t try anything so crass. If you ordered a soda in nudge-world, you would get a medium cup, no questions asked; you’d have to go out of your way to insist on a large one. Not only that, but diet beverages would probably be the ones displayed most prominently in nudge-world and served without question unless the customer insisted on getting the classic version from under the counter.

You could order a supersized sugary beverage if you wanted it badly enough, but it wouldn’t be so convenient to carry it to your table because Thaler and Sunstein are in favor of abolishing trays. It is all too easy to load up a tray with food that will never be eaten and napkins that go unused. You could insist on a tray if you wanted to hold up the line, but a tray-free policy has been proved to lower food and beverage waste by up to 50 percent in certain environments. Nudge and Why Nudge? are replete with examples like this.

Nudging is paternalistic, but it is surely a very mild version of paternalism. It’s about means, not ends: we don’t try to nudge people toward a better view of the good life, with compulsory library cards, for example, or PBS always coming up when you turn on your TV. And it is mild too because you can always opt out of a nudge. Not that Sunstein is opposed to more stringent regulations. Sometimes a straightforward requirement — like the rule about seat belts — might be a better form of paternalism. These options are left open for the regulator. [more]

Job Training That Works

by Bill Hayes

In Job Training That Works for Bloomberg Businessweek, Peter Coy looks at how employers and schools are collaborating.

Employers, schools, and government agencies are learning to work together to fill jobs requiring “middle” skills — more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree. The best community colleges and other training programs are preparing students for the jobs of today and tomorrow, not yesterday. They’re imparting education when and where students are most likely to absorb it, in keeping with a maxim of Lou Mobley, who started executive education at IBM (IBM): “Education is effective only at the time of felt need and clear relevance.” And employers are recognizing certificates like Murumba’s that attest to mastery of specific skills, sometimes in lieu of insisting on a two- or four-year diploma.

When it comes to getting people jobs, this isn’t the whole ball of wax, to be sure. Economic growth is essential. And career training is no substitute for general knowledge of the arts and sciences: cosmetology ain’t cosmology. But if this initiative succeeds, it will produce a stronger middle class and a more competitive U.S. economy. [more]

The Masked Avengers

by Bill Hayes

In The Masked Avengers for the New Yorker, David Kushner reports on the hacking group Anonymous.

In 2003, Christopher Poole, a fifteen-year-old insomniac from New York City, launched 4chan, a discussion board where fans of anime could post photographs and snarky comments. The focus quickly widened to include many of the Internet’s earliest memes: LOLcats, Chocolate Rain, RickRolls. Users who did not enter a screen name were given the default handle Anonymous.

Poole hoped that anonymity would keep things irreverent. “We have no intention of partaking in intelligent discussions concerning foreign affairs,” he wrote on the site. One of the highest values within the 4chan community was the pursuit of “lulz,” a term derived from the acronym LOL. Lulz were often achieved by sharing puerile jokes or images, many of them pornographic or scatological. The most shocking of these were posted on a part of the site labelled /b/, whose users called themselves /b/tards. Doyon was aware of 4chan, but considered its users “a bunch of stupid little pranksters.” Around 2004, some people on /b/ started referring to “Anonymous” as an independent entity.

It was a new kind of hacker collective. “It’s not a group,” Mikko Hypponen, a leading computer-security researcher, told me — rather, it could be thought of as a shape-shifting subculture. Barrett Brown, a Texas journalist and a well-known champion of Anonymous, has described it as “a series of relationships.” There was no membership fee or initiation. Anyone who wanted to be a part of Anonymous — an Anon — could simply claim allegiance.

Despite 4chan’s focus on trivial topics, many Anons considered themselves crusaders for justice. They launched vigilante campaigns that were purposeful, if sometimes misguided. More than once, they posed as underage girls in order to entrap pedophiles, whose personal information they sent to the police. Other Anons were apolitical and sowed chaos for the lulz. One of them posted images on /b/ of what looked like pipe bombs; another threatened to blow up several football stadiums and was arrested by the F.B.I. In 2007, a local news affiliate in Los Angeles called Anonymous “an Internet hate machine.”

In January, 2008, Gawker Media posted a video in which Tom Cruise enthusiastically touted the benefits of Scientology. The video was copyright-protected, and the Church of Scientology sent a cease-and-desist letter to Gawker, asking that the video be removed. Anonymous viewed the church’s demands as attempts at censorship. “I think it’s time for /b/ to do something big,” someone posted on 4chan. “I’m talking about ‘hacking’ or ‘taking down’ the official Scientology Web site.” An Anon used YouTube to issue a “press release,” which included stock footage of storm clouds and a computerized voice-over. “We shall proceed to expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form,” the voice said. “You have nowhere to hide.” Within a few weeks, the YouTube video had been viewed more than two million times.

Anonymous had outgrown 4chan. The hackers met in dedicated Internet Relay Chat channels, or I.R.C.s, to coördinate tactics. Using DDoS attacks, they caused the main Scientology Web site to crash intermittently for several days. Anons created a “Google bomb,” so that a search for “dangerous cult” would yield the main Scientology site at the top of the results page. Others sent hundreds of pizzas to Scientology centers in Europe, and overwhelmed the church’s Los Angeles headquarters with all-black faxes, draining the machines of ink. The Church of Scientology, an organization that reportedly has more than a billion dollars in assets, could withstand the depletion of its ink cartridges. But its leaders, who had also received death threats, contacted the F.B.I. to request an investigation into Anonymous.

On March 15, 2008, several thousand Anons marched past Scientology churches in more than a hundred cities, from London to Sydney. In keeping with the theme of anonymity, the organizers decided that all the protesters should wear versions of the same mask. After considering Batman, they settled on the Guy Fawkes mask worn in “V for Vendetta,” a dystopian movie from 2005. “It was available in every major city, in large quantities, for cheap,” Gregg Housh, one of the organizers of the protests and a well-known Anon, told me. The mask was a caricature of a man with rosy cheeks, a handlebar mustache, and a wide grin.

Anonymous did not “dismantle” the Church of Scientology. Still, the Tom Cruise video remained online. Anonymous had proved its tenacity. The collective adopted a bombastic slogan: “We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.” [more]

Drawing While the Hand Trembles

by Bill Hayes

In Drawing While the Hand Trembles for Foreign Policy magazine, Jonathan Guyer looks at the view of “Charlie Hebdo” from the world of Arab cartoonists.

What can political cartoons do beyond messages of solidarity? We might look at how Arab cartoonists have responded to their own local and national conflicts, notably in Iraq and Syria, during moments as bloody and disturbing as the events in Paris. In fall 2013, when reports of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attacks spread, Jordanian cartoonist Osama Hajjaj illustrated an outlandish guide to surviving unconventional warfare, an example of humor’s power to address the very real menace. When Westerners were decapitated in Syria this past August, cartoonists made light of the Islamic State’s campaign of terror. Many readers were squeamish about the cartoons proliferating in the Arabic press. In the Egyptian paper Al-Masry Al-Youm, Abdallah drew a headless man walking into the “ISIS” barbershop and saying, “Pardon me, chief, has my head rolled through here?” Abdallah walks the fine line between bad taste and irreverence. While the world recoiled with revulsion at the executions, cartoonists unveiled imagery that shocked in order to shame the Islamic State jihadis and other extremists. This is offensive. This is also Muslims critiquing Muslims. Beheading cartoons are an answer to anti-Muslim chatter, and that vapid intonation of “Where are the moderate Muslims?” They’re drawing. [more]


by Bill Hayes

In Wasteland, National Geographic reports on the status of Superfund sites, which although little is heard about them, almost 50 million Americans live near one today.

Today nearly one in six Americans lives within three miles of a major hazardous waste site, though few people could tell you where it is. These sites fall under the Superfund program, created by Congress in 1980 after a high-profile controversy at the Love Canal development in Niagara Falls, New York. Love Canal’s residents crusaded against the Hooker Chemical Company after they found barrels of its chemical waste in their backyards, which had been built on a former dump. Love Canal left many Americans wondering, Could this be happening near me?

There are more than 1,700 Superfund sites, and each has a story. Some are sacrifices to national security, like the 586 square miles at Hanford, in Washington State, where reactors have made plutonium for atomic bombs since the Manhattan Project. Others are the shells of mines, like the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, excavated in pursuit of copper and now filling with water. There are chemical manufacturers, smelters, and grain elevators that were once drenched in fumigant. Water, which can spread poison, is a common theme: New York City’s Gowanus Canal is listed, as are parts of the Hudson River and the harbor of New Bedford, Massachusetts. And then there are the many, many landfills. [more]

Understanding Stalin

by Bill Hayes

In Understanding Stalin for the Atlantic, Anne Applebaum reviews Stalin: Volume 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928 by Stephen Kotkin.

Year by year, crisis by crisis, a fine-grained picture of Stalin’s intellectual development nevertheless emerges. It is easy to forget, but on the eve of the Russian Revolution, Stalin was in his late 30s and had nothing to show for his life. He had “no money, no permanent residence, and no profession other than punditry,” meaning that he wrote articles for illegal newspapers. He certainly had no training in statecraft, and no experience managing anything at all. The Bolshevik coup d’état of 1917 brought him and his comrades their first, glorious taste of success. Their unlikely revolution — the result of Lenin’s high-risk gambles — validated their obscure and fanatical ideology. More to the point, it brought them personal security, fame, and power they had never before known.

As a result, most Bolshevik leaders continued to seek guidance in this ideology, and Stalin was no exception. In later years, outsiders would listen incredulously to the wooden pronouncements of the Soviet leadership and ask whether they could possibly be sincere. Kotkin’s answer is yes. Unlike the uneducated cynic of Trotsky’s imagination, the real Stalin justified each and every decision using ideological language, both in public and in private. [more]

The Best Congress Money Can Buy

by Bill Hayes

In The Best Congress Money Can Buy for the New York Times Book Review, Thomas Frank reviews Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United by Zephyr Teachout.

Teachout’s main target is the currently reigning money-in-politics doctrine of the Supreme Court, as defined mainly by Citizens United, the 2010 decision that struck down certain restrictions on political spending by corporations. Today’s court understands “corruption” as a remarkably rare malady, a straight-up exchange of money for official acts. Any definition broader than that, the justices say, transgresses the all-important First Amendment. Besides, as Justice Anthony Kennedy announced in the Citizens United decision, the court now knows that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption” — a statement that I guess makes sense somehow in law-land but sounds to the layman’s ear like the patter of a man who has come unzipped from reality.

The first few American generations, Teachout reminds us, saw things very differently; for them, corruption was a “national fixation.” Drawing on Montesquieu and their understanding of ancient history, the founders fretted about the countless ways a republic might be undone from within. “They saw their task this way,” Teachout writes: “How could they create a system that would be most likely to be filled with men of civic virtue but avoid creating temptations that might corrode that virtue?” [more]

Dianne Feinstein’s flawed torture report

by Bill Hayes

In Dianne Feinstein’s flawed torture report for the Los Angeles Times, law professor John Yoo, who authored the so-called “torture memos” justifying the Bush administration’s harsh interrogation techniques, criticizes the Senate report on torture.

Three reasons persuaded us to approve waterboarding. First, Al Qaeda terrorists were not POWs under the Geneva Conventions, because they fought for no nation and flouted the laws of war by killing civilians and beheading prisoners (such as Daniel Pearl). Second, the U.S. armed forces had used it in training tens of thousands of officers and soldiers, without any physical injury or long-term mental harm. Finally, the United States had suffered the deaths of 3,000 civilians and billions of dollars in damage; we knew little about Al Qaeda, and intelligence indicated that more attacks were coming, perhaps using weapons of mass destruction.

Even under these extraordinary circumstances, the CIA would use harsh interrogation on only Al Qaeda leaders thought to have information about pending attacks — in the end the CIA approved the waterboarding of only three Al Qaeda leaders. [more]

For a related free classroom lesson, see Is Torture Ever Justified? from our Bill of Rights in Action Archive.

Charlie Rose Interviews the NY Police Commissioner

by Bill Hayes

Charlie Rose interviews New York City’s Police Commissioner William Bratton.

William Gibson’s 6 favorite books

by Bill Hayes

In The Week’s Book List, novelist William Gibson lists his 6 favorite books:

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester …. When Bester wrote this in the 1950s, he was a sharp young ad exec on Madison Avenue, and as such quite unlike any of his contemporary science fiction writers. He combines classic storytelling ability and a gorgeously wild imagination with a witty urban sophistication. [more]

The Strategic Blunder Behind the War on Terror

by Bill Hayes

In The Strategic Blunder Behind the War on Terror for Newsweek, Kurt Eichenwald looks at the West’s errors in fighting terrorism and what can now be done as small groups are targeting easy targets, as happened in Paris.

To a degree, the West is reaping what it sowed from a major strategic blunder in the aftermath of 9/11 — the entire concept of a war on technique, that is, terrorism. Defining the enemy when fighting a concept was impossible. Was it Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan? Saddam Hussein in Iraq? Iran? Those countries and four more were on a list of targets the Bush administration put together in the days after 9/11, based on the premise that they supported terrorism. A war on Al-Qaeda could have been won with a decisive military strike in Tora Bora during December 2001, but American fighters at Tora Bora were refused requests for more forces when they trapped Al-Qaeda there; the Pentagon was busy husbanding resources for the Iraqi invasion.

The result was that Al-Qaeda’s surviving members slipped into Pakistan. Then new groups began to emerge — Al-Qaeda in Iraq formed in response to the Western strike there, and that morphed into ISIS, which then spread into Syria, where an assortment of new and re-energized Islamist organizations had gathered to fight the government of Bashar Assad.

All of this strife has created an opportunity for Islamic terrorists they could not have even hoped for on that September day so long ago. Where once there were few sanctuaries for jihadists, now there are many — in Syria and Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia. With so many training camps being run by disparate groups, aspiring terrorists can train and be on their way, heading back to the West with no instructions but with a burning desire to inflict mayhem. [more]

Backgrounder on Venezuela’s Economic Fractures

by Bill Hayes

Backgrounders from the Council on Foreign Relations are primers on pressing world issues. They usually include histories, summaries, images, graphs, video, and links to additional resources.

A recent Backgrounder was on Venezuela’s Economic Fractures.

Hugo Chavez’s transformative presidency left behind an economic model that has sown deep, heated divisions within Venezuelan society. The country’s oil reserves — among the world’s biggest — largely sustain the state-controlled economy, in which social development and affordability for the poorest sectors of society are prioritized. But stringent currency and price controls and a thriving black market for U.S. dollars have contributed to inflation, stagnant production, and frequent goods shortages, catalyzing vocal discontent with the government’s economic management. Crashing oil prices in late 2014, paired with reduced output, threaten to diminish the country’s main source of income.

The oil squeeze and fears that it could trigger a default come months after mass protests rocked Caracas. A year after Chavez’s death in March 2013, demonstrators railed against his hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, voicing frustration over the flailing economy, soaring crime rates, and the government’s crackdown on the opposition. The demonstrations — Venezuela’s most intense in more than a decade — resulted in more than thirty deaths. The Maduro administration has scrambled to make economic adjustments, but analysts say these moves alone are not enough to stabilize the economy. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s volatility threatens its regional relationships with oil beneficiaries and trade partners. [more]

Is the oil crash about to snuff out the ‘Texas miracle’?

by Bill Hayes

Michael Hiltzik, a Los Angeles Times business columnist, asks: Is the oil crash about to snuff out the ‘Texas miracle’?

All oil-producing states will feel the pain, including California, but as [JPMorgan Chief Economist Michael] Feroli explained, Texas stands alone in its position in the industry. Over the last five years, the state’s share of domestic oil production has soared to 40% from about 25%. The weight of the oil industry in the Texas economy resembles that of mid-1986, when a similar oil price collapse created a major recession in that state — while the rest of the country reaped the economic benefit of lower spending at the pump. The same pattern is bulking large on the horizon.

The reversal of the oil-fueled Texas boom over the last few years has obvious economic and political implications. [more]