Monthly Archives: April 2012

Weekend Reading

Have a seat and grab something to read:

When we talk about privacy and surveillance, it is impossible to avoid mentioning 1984, George Orwell’s dystopian account of a world without walls, where television watches you and microphones record every sound above a low whisper. But Orwell said nothing about dataveillance. And while the Fourth Amendment guarantees protection from the kinds of governmental invasions that tend to concern Americans the most (reading our mail, searching our homes), when we think about the problem this way we tend to overlook the kinds of knowledge discovery that don’t require anyone to break into anything.

Data mining as criminal investigation is a good example. Investigating a suspect’s known associates is an ancient tactic in policing, but it costs money, time, and effort, and it’s legally complicated; investigations tend to be constrained by a high threshold of initial suspicion. But as the amount of widely available data rises, another kind of search becomes possible. Instead of starting from a subject of suspicion and placing that person within a map tracing patterns of behavior and networks of associates, it becomes feasible to begin with the whole map and derive the subjects of suspicion from the patterns one finds. Pattern-­based data mining, in other words, works in reverse from a subject-based search: instead of starting from known or strongly suspected criminal associations, the data miner attempts to divine individuals who match a data profile, drawing them out of a sea of dots like the pattern in a color-blindness test. Dataveillance draws powerful inferences about people and their associates from deep and rich—and often publicly available—records of otherwise routine behavior. Automated systems monitor the environment to match the profiles of particular users to pattern signatures associated with criminal behavior, using algorithms to track and analyze anomalies or deviations from what someone, somewhere, has deemed normal.

Existing privacy protections are largely irrelevant to this kind of surveillance. The Fourth Amendment protects only what is said in a conversation. But much the way pen registers and tap-and-trace devices (which record which numbers you dial, who calls you, and how long you talk) do not trigger the same Fourth Amendment privacy protections that a wiretap would, telecommunications companies are not banned from amassing and selling vast databases of call data. The Supreme Court has ruled that once information about call “attributes” passes into the possession of a third-party carrier like a telecommunications company, it effectively becomes the property of that third party, which may collect, store, and circulate it as it pleases.

Why shouldn’t kids be asked to put away their crayons and go to lunch at the same time? Why do we assume that clear boundaries, a schedule, and a sense of hierarchy are so threatening to students? Why must the individual’s vision be so carefully and serenely sheltered from other people, who are experienced in this framework as interruptions? There is value in being pulled out of a daydream. There is value in learning to cope with a little coercion, in knowing what it means to cooperate on a daily basis with someone who doesn’t love you, someone who’s not your family member.

Taylor summarizes the debate over compulsory schooling as, “Do we trust people’s capacity to be curious or not?” To me, it seems to be about sparing children the discomfort of conflict. Curiosity leads us to follow our own interests, but what about the interests of others? Conflict is what happens when we’re asked to reckon with them. Just as not every child learns to read “when they’re ready,” some students understandably “resist the critical thinking process; they are more comfortable with learning that allows them to remain passive” (as bell hooks writes).

The gerontocracy begins at the top. The 111th Congress was the oldest since the end of the Second World War, and the average age of its members has been rising steadily since 1981. The graying of Congress has obvious political ramifications, although generalizations can be deceiving. The Republican representatives tend to be younger than the Democrats, but that doesn’t mean they represent the interests of the young. The youngest senators are Tea Party members, Mike Lee from Utah and Marco Rubio from Florida (both forty). Here’s Rubio: “Americans chose a free-enterprise system designed to provide a quality of opportunity, not compel a quality of results. And that is why this is the only place in the world where you can open up a business in the spare bedroom of your home.” He is speaking to people who own homes that have empty spare bedrooms. He will not or cannot understand that the spare bedrooms of America are filling up with returning adult children, like the estimated 85 percent of college graduates who returned to their childhood beds in 2010, toting along $25,250 of debt.

David Frum, former George W. Bush speechwriter, had the guts to acknowledge that the Tea Party’s combination of expensive entitlement programs and tax cuts is something entirely different from a traditional political program: “This isn’t conservatism: It’s a going-out-of-business sale for the Baby Boom generation.” The economic motive is growing ever more naked, and has nothing to do with any principle that could be articulated by Goldwater or Reagan, or indeed with any principle at all. The political imperative is to preserve the economic cloak of unreality that the Boomers have wrapped themselves in.

Democrats may not be actively hostile to the interests of young voters, but they are too scared and weak to speak up for them. So when the Boomers and swing voters scream for fiscal discipline and the hard decisions have to be made, youth is collateral damage. Medicare and Social Security were mostly untouched in Obama’s 2012 budget. But to show he was really serious about belt tightening, relatively cheap programs that help young people like the Adolescent Family Life Program and the Career Pathways Innovation Fund were killed.

When performed by married women in their own homes, domestic labor is work—difficult, sacred, noble work. Ann says Mitt called it more important work than his own, which does make you wonder why he didn’t stay home with the boys himself. When performed for pay, however, this supremely important, difficult job becomes low-wage labor that almost anyone can do—teenagers, elderly women, even despised illegal immigrants. But here’s the real magic: when performed by low-income single mothers in their own homes, those same exact tasks—changing diapers, going to the playground and the store, making dinner, washing the dishes, giving a bath—are not only not work; they are idleness itself. Just ask Mitt Romney. In a neat catch that in a sane world would have put the Rosen gaffe to rest forever, Nation editor at large Chris Hayes aired a video clip on his weekend-morning MSNBC show displaying Romney this past January calling for parents on welfare to get jobs: “While I was governor, 85 percent of the people on a form of welfare assistance in my state had no work requirement. And I wanted to increase the work requirement. I said, for instance, that even if you have a child 2 years of age, you need to go to work. And people said, ‘Well that’s heartless,’ and I said, ‘No, no, I’m willing to spend more giving daycare to allow those parents to go back to work. It’ll cost the state more providing that daycare, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work.’” (Don’t be fooled by the gender-neutral language—he’s talking about mothers.)

Thoughts on Invisible Children and WikiLeaks

Earlier this month, Black Star News sifted through the WikiLeaks cable database and uncovered some evidence that Invisible Children may have handed information over to the Ugandan government that led to the arrest of a member of the opposition. I have been refraining from writing about this until more information comes to light, but it seems that everyone is remaining silent, so now’s as good a time as any to reflect.

According to the cable, Invisible Children gave information to the Ugandan government concerning a Patrick Komakech, a former LRA abductee whom the government alleged was a part of a plot to create a new rebel group, the People’s Patriotic Front. Komakech was a recipient of IC’s aid at one time, and was arrested by the police and charged with treason.

According to an article in The Monitor, both the Ugandan military and Invisible Children deny that the exchange of information ever occurred. In an e-mail to Foreign Policy, a representative for IC stated that they were “cooperative in providing information to the US Embassy regarding the nature of our relationship with and academic support to Mr. Komakech [after the US Embassy contacted IC about him]. In light of the severity of these allegations, the organization severed all ties immediately with Mr. Komakech.” But the statement emphasizes that there was no IC involvement in his eventual arrest, nor does it acknowledge any involvement with the Ugandan government, only the US embassy.

Since virtually everyone involved in Uganda knows the government tends to unjustly crack down on opposition figures, it’s curious how quickly IC separated themselves from an LRA survivor that was a beneficiary of their programs and services. But what actually transpired still seems pretty murky, and a number of questions still need to be answered. If Komakech was indeed involved in planning any sort of violent actions, it would be understandable why IC would want to wash their hands of him. They would be getting as much criticism for aiding a rebel-in-the-making as they are now for indirectly supporting the Ugandan military. If we take this cable to be true, and IC did give information to the government of Uganda, we need to ask more questions. Who approached whom about Komakech? And whose decision was it to pass information to the government (or not)? Did anyone confirm or at least investigate the government’s allegations?

Without getting some answers, I would still refrain from joining critics saying that IC pledges blind support to the Ugandan government. While the efforts of IC and their partners have directly led to increased US funding, training, and arms to the UPDF, it’s worth noting that IC isn’t unaware of government abuses, even if it wasn’t prominent in Kony 2012. When I saw IC co-founder Laren Poole speak in San Diego in 2007, he came incredibly close to calling the IDP camps in northern Uganda a genocide, and the Sunday bracelet video is almost exclusively about the poor conditions in the government-mandated displacement camps (you can find out more about the camps at Justice in Conflict, where Patrick Wegner looked specifically at the genocide question). More recent videos have been specifically about the effects of the contemporary LRA attacks in eastern DRC and CAR, events that so far haven’t been host to UPDF abuses (for the most part).

While the verdict is still out on the Komakech controversy, and it will be important to continue watching how current operations go in the region, I don’t think I would call this a fatal blow to the movement. With a rogue rebel group in survival mode and a growing force looking for it (now with the AU label), the situation will definitely continue to be something to monitor as the advocacy-for-peace-and-justice-through-military-means path marches on.

Weekend Reading

If you’re in the need of some reading, take your pick from this sampling:

When Kim Jong Il died in December, his regime praised him and said he’d brought “dignity” to North Korea “on the highest level and ushered in the golden days of prosperity unprecedented in the nation’s history.” Or, translated from the original totalitarianese: North Koreans are two inches shorter than the average South Korean due to sheer malnutrition, and they wept forcibly at their dictator’s passing lest anybody suspected they possessed insufficient patriotic grief.

Dignity is not just a laurel for when totalitarians die but also for when we kill them. When President Barack Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden, he said “his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.” I have no sympathy for bin Laden, but I would not attach the words “peace” or “dignity” to clandestine nighttime raids in which the state shoots its enemies through the face. Surely the relatives of 9/11 victims felt some quiet justice from the killing, but young Americans embraced peace and dignity by dancing in the streets and singing drunkenly of death.

So what is dignity, exactly? The word litters Cossery’s novel without much definition, much as we often use it casually with each other without ever saying precisely what we mean. In March 2008, U.S. President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics released a 555-page attempt to define the concept. It had to. Since the council’s inception in 2001 — after which its largely religious membership gave ethical opinions replicating the administration’s Christian orthodoxy on stem-cell research and abortion — critics believed it had “employed the language of human dignity so loosely that it was nothing more than a rhetorical trump card used to reject policies that were at odds with the Bush administration’s perspective,” Leslie A. Meltzer wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine. Dignity was a blatant political weapon.

One in three Americans knows someone who has been shot. As long as a candid discussion of guns is impossible, unfettered debate about the causes of violence is unimaginable. Gun-control advocates say the answer to gun violence is fewer guns. Gun-rights advocates say that the answer is more guns: things would have gone better, they suggest, if the faculty at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Chardon High School had been armed. That is the logic of the concealed-carry movement; that is how armed citizens have come to be patrolling the streets. That is not how civilians live. When carrying a concealed weapon for self-defense is understood not as a failure of civil society, to be mourned, but as an act of citizenship, to be vaunted, there is little civilian life left.

“We realised that if the government was going to use the internet, the internet had to be available to everybody,” Viik said. “So we built a huge network of public internet access points for people who couldn’t afford them at home.”

The country took a similar approach to education. By 1997, thanks to a campaign led in part by Ilves, a staggering 97% of Estonian schools already had internet. Now 42 Estonian services are now managed mainly through the internet. Last year, 94% of tax returns were made online, usually within five minutes. You can vote on your laptop (at the last election, Ilves did it from Macedonia) and sign legal documents on a smartphone. Cabinet meetings have been paperless since 2000.

Doctors only issue prescriptions electronically, while in the main cities you can pay by text for bus tickets, parking, and – in some cases – a pint of beer. Not bad for country where, two decades ago, half the population had no phone line.

Stop at Nothing, but Read First

Tonight, countless activists will descend on their cities with community service and a ton of posters invoking a campaign to capture Joseph Kony. It will be the answer from the masses to the call to action at the end of the Kony 2012 video that Invisible Children premiered in early March, and I expect – in many cities – it will be pretty big. I know of dozens of friends across the Phoenix area that will be doing something to mark the occasion. I personally won’t. As I’ve mentioned before, I think that passing a widely cosponsored bill and getting advisers sent abroad means you’ve got awareness on your side already.

I’m taking action in a different way. Earlier this week I joined a number of students and adults in meeting with the district director of my Congressman. We talked for almost an hour about Joseph Kony and the role the U.S. can play in the region. We discussed support for a House resolution confirming support for President Obama’s deployment and a resolution to expand the Rewards for Justice program. After 6 years of learning about this conflict, it’s the best way for me to take action.

The absolute best way to get involved in any cause, though, is to learn about it. Once you do your homework, you can choose how best to insert yourself into the movement. There is tons of reading to do on this particular campaign, thanks in part to the vast expanses of the internet. More recently, an informed volume of essays has been collected by Amanda Taub of Wronging Rights fame, and its available in an e-Book. Go have a look at Beyond Kony2012: Atrocity, Awareness, & Activism in the Internet Age. I’ve only just started reading, but it offers brief but in depth history and analysis of the conflict as well as informed critiques about the campaign, and it’s downloadable in all sorts of formats at whatever-price-you-can-afford. If you want to learn about the cause – whether you’re a critic or a supporter – it’s a good place to start.

Weekend Reading

Let’s do some reading:

“Choice” was the word on Ann Romney’s lips in her Fox News appearance this morning. “We need to respect the choices that women make,” she said several times, adding, “Mitt respects women that make different choices.” “Choice,” of course, is a word that represents in other contexts, like abortion rights, a negotiated truce on rights and liberties of women to live within and without their traditional roles. But Ann Romney’s use of it shows how limited it is as a trope: Is it a relevant “choice” for the vast majority of American women to decide whether to use their degree in French in the workforce or rationally rest on their husband’s millions to focus on five children – six, according to Ann, if you count mischievous Mitt?

The more pertinent “choice” involves a series of unappealing options when it comes to affordable childcare or workforce opportunities. According to the census, the proportion of mothers with a recent birth in the labor force increased during the recession, from 56 percent in 2006 to 61 percent in 2008. And another Census Bureau report suggests that the 5.6 million stay-at-home mothers, a minority among mothers, have little in common with Ann Romney. They tend to be younger, Latina and foreign-born – and they are less likely to have graduated from high school or attained a bachelor’s degree. These women face markedly different circumstances from the more publicly visible stakeholders in alleged Mommy Wars, the ones who opted out of the workforce and who have the ear of people making movies and writing novels, but the women with the luxury to live on a single income at their expected standard of living are a statistical and demographic blip. The bulk of stay-at-home moms have characteristics that correlate to lower earnings in the workforce, and for them, with the high cost and inaccessibility of childcare, the “free” childcare offered by staying at home is also a rational economic choice.

The meeting was a few blocks from where I live. The spam said it was “inspired by Occupy Wall Street.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I was vaguely hoping that whatever The 99% Spring was, it would start a chapter of Occupy Wall Street on the Upper West Side, conveniently near my abode, and agitate for the Democrats and MoveOn to move left.

The first clue that my evening might go otherwise was the sign-up table, where there were a bunch of Obama buttons for sale and one sign-up sheet for the oddly named Community Free Democrats (are they free of community?), which is the local Democratic clubhouse. That killed the “inspired by Occupy Wall Street” vibe right there. No piles of literature from a zillion different groups, as there had been in Zuccotti Park. No animated arguments among Marxists, anarchists, progressives, punks, engaged Buddhists, anti-war libertarians and what have you. Just Obama buttons, which didn’t appear to be selling.

Enforcing Arizona’s Progressive Constitution

Yesterday I wrote about 2/3 of a panel that I saw the Arizona Historical Society concerning the state’s constitution and its place in the progressive movement. It was interesting to hear about how groundbreaking Arizona’s founding document was and how involved labor and the progressive movement were in constructing that document, but it wasn’t entirely convincing since Arizona is so reactionary now. Arizona, after all, is the home to a slew of seemingly disastrous legislative ideas and hosts some of the most conservative state officials in the country.

The third speaker at Wednesday’s panel was Paul Bender, a law professor at ASU, who concentrated on Arizona’s State Supreme Court and explained how it had allowed – or took part in – the gradual crumbling of the state’s relatively progressive constitution. He broke his lecture into three ways in which the Court has treated the constitution: stripping it down, protecting it, and ignoring it altogether.

Direct Democracy

Bender argued that the Arizona Supreme Court was uncomfortable with the amount of direct democracy inherent in the constitution, and therefore allowed the state’s government to circumvent some of the obstacles that direct democracy created. The initiative process in the constitution allows the general public to circumvent the legislature in the lawmaking process, creating laws by popular ballot. This inherently implies that the legislature is beholden to what the people decide, however there were a number of instances in which the legislature repealed laws passed by initiative. When the issue was brought before the judicial branch, judges said they saw no issue with legislators opposing popular initiatives.

In addition, Bender explained, state legislation is not supposed to go into effect until 90 days after the legislative session ends, allowing time for the public to gather signatures for an opposing referendum if so desired. There is a provision that allows legislation to be enacted immediately during emergency situations, with 2/3 of the legislature’s approval. Often times, the legislature invokes an emergency without the grounds to do so, and when this is brought up to the courts, they deny review on the grounds that it is too political an issue.

And so we see instances in which the legislature pushes back against the control that the constitution grants the public over governance. But beyond this, we also see the judiciary stepping aside and allowing it to happen despite clear breaches of the law.

The Right to File Suit for Damages

The state of Arizona’s constitution specifically enumerates the right to sue for damages, which might seem bizarre to many. It’s as much a product of the times as the rest of the constitution – hearkening to labor’s involvement and the fear of major corporations corrupting the system. Indeed, there were some occasions of the legislation trying to limit the right to file suit through statues of limitations or restrictions on types of cases – all of which have been ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. It’s easy to see why: the judges are preserving common law precedence. Men and women trained in the ways of law are working to preserve the law as it is. This doesn’t ring of hypocrisy when compared to the relatively foreign idea of the populace creating laws on their own. Where the courts were uncomfortable with direct democracy, they were more than comfortable with civil suits – and so they protected the notion of a right to sue.

Individual Rights

The U.S. Bill of Rights specifies rights that the federal government cannot abridge. Historically, it did not apply to state governments until the Supreme Court began to implement a more activist reading of the document. It is for this reason that many states have almost identical rights included in their own state constitutions. Arizona is no different, except that the rights listed are more broad that the Bill of Rights. Take, for example, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

And compare it to the Arizona constitution’s Article II, Sections 5 and 6:

Section 5. The right of petition, and of the people peaceably to assemble for the common good, shall never be abridged.

Section 6. Every person may freely speak, write, and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right.

The key difference is that the former specifies that one’s rights are protected from Congress, but makes no mention of state and local governments as well as private businesses and citizens. The latter simple states that everyone enjoys these rights – it implies that no one may abridge them. According to Bender, the Arizona Supreme Court has sometimes used to these provisions to protect people’s rights, but often defers to the more restrained precedence of the Supreme Court of the United States.

During the campaign to recall Governor Evan Mecham in 1987, campaign volunteers were prohibited from collecting signatures at some shopping malls – in Fiesta Mall Venture v. Mecham Recall Committee the state Appeals Court cited the U.S. Bill of Rights and upheld the decision, and the Supreme Court denied review. Similarly, in the case of Morton Berger, the state Supreme Court upheld his 200 year minimum sentencing for possession of child pornography, arguing that it was bound by the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedence instead of looking at the state constitution’s 8th amendment equivalent, Article 2, Section 15.

These are just some of the examples provided at the forum. It seems that the state’s judges have frequently ignored the progressive and protective provisions of the state’s constitution and instead either allow the legislature to be unaccountable or defer to the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings. It is unfortunate to see the opportunity to defend civil liberties pass by because judges choose to forget that the state’s founding document protects them. But of course, judges in Arizona can be recalled and must pass retention votes every cycle – and several Republican lawmakers have threatened to do away with the merit-based selection system. While it is important to hold judges accountable as well, some of these rulings raise the question of whether or not judges should be elected and whether or not they are serving in the interests of the state’s constitution and the people who are protected by it – the public.

Arizona Fixes Vigilante Justice By Sanctifying It

Earlier this week two undocumented immigrants were killed in the town of Eloy, Arizona, allegedly after men dressed in camouflage shot up the truck they were hiding in. Arizona has been known for its problems with militias patrolling the border, and it has had its share of vigilante violence.

It is against this backdrop that some state legislators actually want to put a stamp of approval on these actions by creating a state-wide volunteer militia. The so-called “Arizona State Guard” would be established by the state if Senate Bill 1083 passes the state Senate (it has already passed the House).

The bill includes provisions to fund the militia with gang task-force money ($1.4M), grant immunity to militia members “while on duty… in camp, maneuvers or formations, or while engaged in armory drill, or while on the way to or from such duties,” and create the appointment of a commissioner by the governor. The purpose of the militia is to unilaterally apprehend those involved in cross-border crimes at the behest of the governor or as a part of cooperative effort with city, county, or federal law enforcement.

Just another piece of bullshit Arizona legislation.

Arizona’s Progressive Constitution – 100 Years Ago

Last night, I attended a forum at the Arizona Historical Society on the state’s constitution. The panel at the forum was made up of a history professor (who taught the first university class I ever took!), a law professor, and a lawyer. I wanted to paraphrase some of what was discussed, as well as reflect a bit.

Arizona on the verge of statehood in 1911.

At the forum, historian Phillip VanderMeer touched on the historical context of Arizona’s constitutional convention in 1910. State governments had shifted from a strong legislature to increasingly balanced branches of government, and at the time of Arizona’s statehood, progressive ideas were finding their way into states’ founding constitutions, revised constitutions, and amendments. At the turn of the century, Arizona’s economy was deeply influenced by railroad and mining companies, and the workers in these companies struggled to achieve rights. It was at the constitutional convention that organized labor brought ideas including an eight-hour workday, an elected state mine inspector, the prohibition of blacklists of labor leaders, and a ban on child labor – all of which made it into the constitution, along with broad progressive ideas such as initiative, referendum, recall, and direct primaries.

Paul Eckstein, a civil lawyer here in Arizona, spoke about the actual debates and influences on the constitutional convention in 1910. He explained the nature of Arizona’s divided demographics – the territorial legislature was predominantly Democrat, but the territorial governor (appointed by the President of the U.S.) was almost always Republican. Across the border, New Mexico was predominantly Republican, and so both states were admitted at the same time in the name of balance. Eckstein pointed to Arizona’s constitution’s progressiveness relative to our sister state’s founding document as well as contemporary models of statehood across the West and Midwest. He listed a number of things New Mexico’s constitution did not have, that Arizona’s did have (remember, this is in 1912, and both constitutions went into effect almost simultaneously):

  • Initiative
  • Popular Referendum
  • 2 year terms for elected officials
  • Advisory popular vote for the U.S. Senate
  • Direct primaries
  • Public campaign contribution provisions
  • State anti-trust laws
  • Progressive income tax

Some of these are clearly at the forefront of the progressive movement at the turn of the century. Arizona was talking about campaign finance, direct election of Senators, and a progressive income tax before the federal government had made any headway on these issues. Women gained suffrage in 1912, before the 19th Amendment was passed, and prohibition in 1914, five years before the 18th Amendment. President Taft opposed the right to recall judges, leading the territory to remove the provision in order to gain statehood – only to reinstate it almost immediately.

Progressive ideals, especially the idea that the government should be held accountable to the public, is clear in Arizona’s constitution. Two year terms for elected office and the ability to recall elected officials combine for a strong opportunity to keep lawmakers on tight reins. In addition, the executive branch in Arizona was very weak – he was among over a dozen elected officials in the executive and had relatively few appointment powers. The people refused to allow the legislature to run rampant without the support of the general populace.

While some Arizonans today are unfortunately supportive of the more restrictive pieces of legislation put forth in the legislature, the real problem is that the constitution is no longer recognized for what it is supposed to do – lawmakers are not answering to the public and the three branches are not utilizing checks and balances. One of the main tenets of the constitution – to hold government accountable to the public – isn’t happening anymore. Our legislators are not being scrutinized as much as they should – even in light of the recent recall of Russell Pearce.

Update: The sequel of this post, examining how the state’s courts have treated the constitution, can be found here.

A Brief History of Insanity

Sallie Gardner at a Gallop by Eadweard Muybridge.

Yesterday’s Google doodle was a brilliant celebration of photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s birthday. Muybridge is most well-known for his work in recording animals in motion, specifically the horse’s gallop – which simultaneously solved the question of the manner in which horses gallop and pissed off Governor Leland Stanford. I told my wife about it, as she loves photography and is studying art history – and because it was a really cool feature. Not only had she already seen it, she had already clicked through and perused the accompanying Wikipedia article, informing me of this interesting bit of history:

In 1874, while still living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Muybridge discovered that his young wife Flora had a lover, a Major Harry Larkyns. On 17 October, he sought out Larkyns and said, “Good evening, Major, my name is Muybridge and here’s the answer to the letter you sent my wife.” He shot and killed the major pointblank.

Muybridge was tried for murder. His defense attorney pleaded insanity due to a head injury that Muybridge had sustained following his stagecoach accident. Friends testified that the accident had dramatically changed Muybridge’s personality from genial and pleasant to unstable and erratic.

Ultimately, Muybridge’s insanity plea was dismissed, but the jury found the incident a case of justifiable homicide (which is… interesting). Regardless, we got to thinking – how early did the insanity plea enter our courtrooms? And I don’t mean convenient pleas of temporary insanity (like, say, Congressman Daniel Sickles) – Muybridge (also known as Edward James Muggeridge, Eduardo Santiago Muggeridge, and Helios) exhibited some eccentricities.

There are instances of people of unsound mind committing crimes throughout history, of course, but instances of declaring a defense of insanity took a while to reach the tenuous place we are today. In 1764 a British man named Edward Arnold was tried for shooting at Lord Onslow allegedly after he had been bewitched. He plead insanity, and it was in this case that the judge asked the jury to determine whether Arnold had the mental capacity and reason like that of a wild beast or infant – the apparent measure of insanity at the time. Arnold was found guilty and sentenced to death, a sentence which was commuted to life in prison at the behest of Onslow. In 1840, Edward Oxford tried to kill Queen Victoria and was acquitted by reason of insanity, under the notion that he could not resist the impulse to fire due to lack of mental capacity.

After an attempt to kill the British Prime Minister in 1843, a panel of judges drafted the M’Naghten Rules, which answered hypothetical questions that gave an outline of the insanity plea and its application, including that the suspect be unable to determine the difference between right and wrong or did not understand the nature of the alleged act. Most common law countries used these guidelines until the 1950s, when the American Law Institute issued the Model Penal Code that established that the defendant had to have “substantial capacity” to understand the crime and criminality in order to face trial.

Alvin Ford is escorted by a police officer. Photo from Associated Press.

After John Hinckley tried to kill President Ronald Reagan, the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984 was passed by Congress. Unlike the assassination attempts in England that led to updates to laws concerning the insane, Congress’ response to Reagan’s close encounter made it much harder to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, placing more stringent rules on evidence and placing the burden of proof on the defense. In 1986, the landmark Supreme Court decision Ford v. Wainwright argued that the insane cannot be executed, however in 2005 the Court upheld a state’s rights to limit expert testimony to the insanity defense (thus not qualifying to determine criminal intent) in Clark v. Arizona. There are whole states that have actually banned the insanity plea, bans which have so far been upheld in most cases.

We’ve come a long way since Dorothy Talbye was hanged after God told her to kill her daughter. But the insanity plea is actually quite rare, and very difficult to use – even when it actually applies. It’s just a small part in the overwhelming societies that marginalizes, institutionalizes, and incarcerates the mentally ill.

Weekend Reading

The Two-Cocktail Makeover.

Soldiers train alongside the base's pet sheep. Photo from UN, credit Albert Gonzales Farran.

White Until Proven Black: Racism in The Hunger Games.

Playing the blame game with the cholera epidemic in Haiti.

Despite massive budget cuts, there’s a building boom in our universities.

Al Qaeda is probably not coming back to New York anytime soon.

Lindy West re-watched Titanic so you don’t have to.

George Zimmerman and Robert Bales: The Watchmen and People Out of Place.

The NYU law student who spoke out against Justice Scalia has more to say.

The quietest room in the world will also drive you crazy.

American citizens’ family members in the Phillipines that applied for immigration to the U.S. the year that I was born would just now be receiving visas.

Aaron Bady on the Supreme Court’s decision regarding strip searches in jails:

If we put aside the fact that US prisons are already hives of contraband — that super-overcrowding in correctional facilities has meant that actual practical surveillance of incarcerated populations is effectively nil — the logic of this argument simply asserts that unwarranted invasions of privacy are a lesser evil than impracticality. But why do we presume that these two things are incompatible? Why must we have one or the other? Where does that necessity to choose come from?

This is why we probably shouldn’t put aside the fact that our prison system is overcrowded and underfunded to an outrageous degree. Because when the Supremes start talking about what is and isn’t workable, what they’re really saying is: we can’t afford to provide the kinds of rights which the bill of rights promises. To say that it wouldn’t be workable to treat citizens in custody as still having the rights that no court has yet ruled to strip away — that “it would be difficult to determine whether individual detainees fall within the proposed exemption” is simply to say that the work of observing constitutional rights, spending the time and money to see that it is done properly, is beyond our powers as a society. It is too difficult. There are, obviously, ways to make prisons more “secure” which do not involve putting a hand in your anus, and if the Supremes mandated that they find them, they would. It’s just that, given the massive overcrowding of our prisons (and the underfunding which flows out of that overcrowding), a hand in the anus is the cheapest way to do it.

Oh, and the aforementioned strip search ruling? Obama’s Department of Justice asked for it.

Koritha Mitchell answers some questions about her book, Living with Lynching.

From Emmit Till to Trayvon Martin: How Black Women Turn Grief into Action.

What do campus police need when dealing with protesters? More force options!

Some analysis on Azawad independence from Mali.

And let’s not forget that the U.S. helped train military leaders in Mali, including the leader of the coup.

On America’s occupation of Australia.

More critiques of Nick Kristof, this time on why we should stay away from his anti-prostitute agenda.

On privacy, secrecy, and transparency from the government to WikiLeaks, or the Fog of More:

But rather than keep fewer records, agencies increasingly used newly invented databanks, the better to build a virtual you. Their computers could pluck out any detail of your life and add it to the government’s central, databanked composite. As a result, Americans were left trying to figure out just who the government thought they were, and thus the first lineaments of the transparency movement stirred to life. It didn’t seek to roll back data collection either; instead it sought new legislation to force government disclosure — i.e., greater transparency of the state rather than protection of individual privacy. The government would keep collecting information, but citizens could see what and why. The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 offered legal tools for processing disclosure requests, and the Privacy Act of 1974 gave citizens greater access to the data collected about them. But in 1997, when Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jesse Helms co-sponsored the Government Secrecy Act, arguing that fewer documents should be classified and that more documents be declassified automatically over time, the bill died unmourned in committee.

When Facebook reprocesses our personal information, the data miners are generally only trying to sell us weirdly specific products or target ads.  But when the government is concerned, the stakes are different. In 2005, several telecommunications companies were caught supplying personal information to the National Security Agency, demonstrating the dangers of corporate data accumulation. What if the NSA decides it wants full personality profiles of everyone who “attended” #OccupyWallStreet on Facebook? It would be a matter of keystrokes to supply entire “social graphs” for each of them.

The Obama administration has also sought to prevent lawsuits against the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping, no less, by invoking the state secrets doctrine; we are infinitely transparent, while the government is enshrouded, and the complicit corporations too.  It’s for national security. Try filing a FOIA request.

So, abortion survivors are a thing.

Is your facebook password more like your mail, your house keys, or a drug test?

This is what it looks like when Facebook gets subpoenaed for your info.

Minimum wage is way too low.

A big city writer goes home in defense of Dallas.

Whether your a gun rights activist, a white supremacist, or a police officer – it’s going to be a long, hot summer.

On Tinariwen, Mali, and the Failure of Western Music Media.

The GOP doesn’t think there’s a war on women,  but Reince Priebus isn’t afraid to declare war on caterpillars.