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Archive for October 11th, 2018

“Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.”

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The title is a reason commonly given by those who feel they must go armed at all times. Well, probably it’s better to have lawn chairs and not need them than need them and not have them.

In particular, it would apply to ballistic vests: certainly better to wear it and not need it than to need it and not wear it.

I bet the SPF of their sunscreen is through the roof. “Better to, etc.”

Written by LeisureGuy

11 October 2018 at 7:48 pm

Posted in Daily life, Guns

You buy a purse at Walmart. There’s a note inside from a “Chinese prisoner.” Now what?

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Rossalyn Warren reports at Vox:

When Christel Wallace found a piece of paper folded up at the bottom of her purse in March 2017, she threw it in the trash. She hadn’t yet used the maroon bag, made by Walmart and purchased from one of its Arizona stores months ago.

But after a few minutes, she got curious. She took the paper out of the wastebasket, unfolding the sheet to reveal a message scrawled in Mandarin Chinese.

Translated, it read: Inmates in China’s Yingshan Prison work 14 hours a day and are not allowed to rest at noon. We have to work overtime until midnight. People are beaten for not finishing their work. There’s no salt and oil in our meals. The boss pays 2,000 yuan every month for the prison to offer better food, but the food is all consumed by the prison guards. Sick inmates have to pay for their own pills. Prisons in China cannot be compared to prisons in the United States. Horse, cow, goat, pig, dog.

Christel’s daughter-in-law Laura Wallace posted a photo of the note to Facebook on April 23. The post first went viral locally, getting shared and liked several hundred times, mostly by fellow Arizonans. After a few days, local media outlets picked up the story; a week or so after that, dozens of mainstream publications like USA Today and HuffPost followed suit. One video report on the incident accumulated 2.9 million views.

Shares of the note provoked shock and outrage. Even those who were skeptical of the note’s provenance were incensed, pointing to a wider issue. “Who cares if it’s a marketing stunt?” read one comment on Facebook. “If it made five people rethink buying cheap crap, then it’s a success.”

At the time, a Walmart spokesperson told a reporter in Arizona it was unable to comment because it had “no way to verify the origin of the letter.”

You may remember this story or one like it. It follows a long line of SOS-style notes found by shoppers. They crop up a few times a year, and each story follows the same beats.

First, a shopper in the US or Europe finds a note in the pocket or on a tag of a product from a big retailer — WalmartSaksZara. The note claims the product had been made using forced labor or under poor working conditions. The writer of the note also claims to be in a faraway country, usually China. The shopper takes a photo of the note and posts it to social media. It’s reported on by all sorts of publications from Reuters to Refinery29, where the articles reach millions of readers.

Then the hysteria cools, and the story falls into the viral news abyss. There’s no real attempt at verification. There’s no meaningful corporate gesture. There’s no grand reckoning with the system of global production from which this cry for help is said to have emerged.

As for Christel’s particular Walmart note, there are a number of possibilities regarding who wrote and hid it, and its contents are difficult to fact-check. A Chinese prison called Yingshan may exist, or it may not. Forced labor may be practiced there, or it may not. A prisoner in China may have written the note, or maybe a Chinese activist did, or maybe an American activist instead. The note may have been placed in the bag in a prison factory, or somewhere else along the supply chain in China, or perhaps in Arizona.

The only way to make sense of this puzzle — one with actual human stakes that can help explain how what we buy is made — is to try to trace the journey backward, from the moment a note goes viral to its potential place of origin. Which is how I find myself in rural China, outside of a local prison, 7,522 miles away from where Christel first opened her purse.


Guilin is a city in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of southern China, and a tourist haven, renowned for the tooth-like karst peaks that rise from the banks of the Li River. Its limpid lakes and limestone caves draw tens of millions of visitors every year.

To reach Guilin, it takes me two international flights, two taxis, a one-hour bus ride through border control, and three hours on a high-speed train. I travel from London through Hong Kong on to Shenzhen and then Guilin via the Guangshen Railway. There, I meet Channing, a local reporter hired to help me find the prison.

We’re in Guilin because of the first and only concrete lead in the Walmart note: the name of the prison. The note writer says the prison is called Yingshan, and several weeks of research has led me to believe it’s located in China’s Guangxi region, home to many manufacturing factories because of the area’s cheap labor and low taxes.

The very few details I can find about Yingshan prison come from a 10-year-old report on prisons across China written by a human rights group. The report suggests the prison may be in the suburbs of east Guilin, and so the plan is to explore the neighborhood, talk to locals, and look for signs — barbed wire, security cameras, anything. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Later in the report:

A tenet of the Chinese justice system is that labor inside prisons is good for the country. The government, as well as many of its citizens, believes it helps reform corrupted people — and China is far from the only country to use prison labor. The US legally benefits from labor in its prison system, and while not every US prison practices penal labor, hundreds of thousands of American inmates work jobs that include making furniture and fighting fires. In August of this year, prisoners from 17 states went on strike to protest being forced to work, characterizing the practice as “modern slavery.”

Peter E. Müller, a leading specialist at the Laogai Research Foundation, and his team extensively document the human rights abuses inside China’s prison system. This work includes identifying prisons and camps that employ forced labor, tracking the inmate population, and gathering personal testimony from those who have experienced forced labor.

He says prisoners in China, the US, and elsewhere are sometimes paid for their labor. (In the Walmart note, the writer describes forced labor and beatings, as well as low pay for long hours and health care deducted from payment.) The amount depends on the financial situation of the prison; the average pay in American state prisons is 20 cents an hour. Müller says the monthly salary specified in the note (2,000 yuan, or $295) is “unusually high,” but speculates that it may be because the prison “makes good money because of high-quality workers.”

Written by LeisureGuy

11 October 2018 at 4:20 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life, Law Enforcement

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What Christine Blasey Ford’s witness has to say after being left out of the FBI probe

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Alice Truong writes at Quartz:

The US Senate is expected to move ahead to vote today (Oct. 6) on Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. But late last night, a letter addressed to the body from Keith Koegler, a friend of Christine Blasey Ford and one of her corroborating witnesses, was released, in which he urged senators “to do what is right.”

In it, Koegler said he and at least seven others who had known about the alleged sexual assault that occurred when Ford and Kavanaugh were in high school were not interviewed by the FBI as part of its investigation.

“The process by which the Senate Judiciary Committee has ‘investigated’ the facts relating to the assault has been a shameless effort to protect Judge Kavanaugh,” he wrote. “The fact that the FBI did not interview either Christine or Judge Kavanaugh, by itself, renders absurd any assertion that the investigation was ‘thorough.’”

Koegler had previously submitted a letter to the Senate on Sept. 24 detailing an email exchange between him and Ford, in which she named Kavanaugh as her alleged attacker—this occurred shortly after the announcement of justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the bench and more than a week before Trump named Kavanaugh as his Supreme Court pick.

“I have no power,” Koegler wrote in his new statement. “I can only ask you to do what is right.”

Read the full letter below:


Members of the U.S. Senate:

My name is Keith Koegler. I am one of Christine Blasey Ford’s corroborating witness. For those of you who aren’t lawyers, the term “corroborating witness” is not synonymous with “eye witness”—someone can be a corroborating witness without having physically been present at the scene of a crime. Indeed, in matters involving sexual assault, there are often no eyewitnesses.

Since attending the hearing eight days ago, I have grown increasingly concerned that Senators would ignore the import of Christine’s testimony in their rush to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. For the record:

  • I believe, with every fiber of my being, that Christine Blasey Ford has testified truthfully about her assault by Brett Kavanaugh. I have the benefit of knowing Christine, but if you saw her testimony and you didn’t find her credible, you know nothing about sexual assault.
  • The process by which the Senate Judiciary Committee has “investigated” the facts relating to the assault has been a shameless effort to protect Judge Kavanaugh. The fact that the FBI did not interview either Christine or Judge Kavanaugh, by itself, renders absurd any assertion that the investigation was “thorough.” There are a minimum of seven additional people, known to the White House, the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the FBI who knew about the assault prior to the nomination, who were not interviewed. I am one of them.
  • Here are some of the things the FBI would have learned by interviewing me:
    • I have a copy of the email thread between Christine and me in which she made it clear that Brett Kavanaugh was the judge who had assaulted her as a teenager. We exchanged those emails on June 29, 2018, two days after Justice Kennedy’s retirement announcement, before there was a shortlist for his replacement. It wasn’t until July 09, 2018, that the President nominated Judge Kavanaugh.
    • Christine has accurately described the sequence of events that occurred in the months that followed, including her interactions with the Washington Post, Representative Anna Eshoo’s office, and Senator Diane Feinstein’s office. I know because I had regular contact with her during that time.
    • There was no “grand conspiracy” to conduct a “political hit job” on Judge Kavanaugh—this was always about one woman struggling with a perverse choice: Suffer a brutal toll on herself and her family to fulfill a sense of civic duty and (possibly, though not likely) avoid spending the rest of her life looking at the face of the man who assaulted her as a teenager on the United States Supreme Court or, alternatively, live in silence with the knowledge that she might have been able to make a difference.
    • Christine has been afraid of flying her entire adult life. Prosecutor Rachel Mitchell repeatedly challenged Christine about her of flying, in an effort to impugn Christine’s general credibility. I could have provided the FBI with the names of at least half a dozen people who have flown with Christine and can attest to the fact that she has panic attacks before she flies. She controls those attacks with medicine prescribed by a doctor.
  • As Senator Flake anticipated in a speech before the hearing last week, coming forward has forced Christine, her husband, and their two sons to endure treatment that no human being should have to suffer. Within hours after the first news story was published, throngs of reporters descended on their home, driving the family (perhaps permanently) out of the neighborhood. The family has been subjected to a near constant barrage of harassing entails, phone calls and social media attacks (“die, you fucking cunt”), many of them obviously coordinated and many threatening death or bodily harm. Because of the attacks, Christine hasn’t spent more than three consecutive nights in the same place. They have had to hire a security firm 24/7, and they have to be transported from place to place in secret. Christine hasn’t slept more than three hours at a time since September 16th. She has trouble eating. She has had to relinquish her teaching responsibilities for the semester. And the list goes on. Perhaps forever.

I have no power. I can only ask you to do what is right. Please ask yourselves if you want to spend the rest of your lives looking at the face of Brett Kavanaugh, the man who lied about assaulting Christine Blasey Ford as a teenager, on the United States Supreme Court.

Keith Koegler

Palo Alto, CA

October 5, 2018

Written by LeisureGuy

11 October 2018 at 3:00 pm

Famous Experiment Dooms Alternative to Quantum Weirdness

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Quantum weirdness remains undaunted. Natalie Wolchover writes in Quanta:

n 2005, a student working in the fluid physicist Yves Couder’s laboratory in Paris discovered by chance that tiny oil droplets bounced when plopped onto the surface of a vibrating oil bath. Moreover, as the droplets bounced, they started to bunny-hop around the liquid’s surface. Couder soon figured out that the droplets were “surfing on their own wave,” as he put it — kicking up the wave as they bounced and then getting propelled around by the slanted contours of the wave.

As he watched the surfing droplets, Couder realized that they exactly embodied an early, largely forgotten vision of the quantum world devised by the French physicist Louis de Broglie.

A century ago, de Broglie refused to give up on a classical understanding of reality even as the unsettling outcomes of the first particle experiments suggested to most physicists that reality, at the quantum scale, is not as it seems. The standard “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics, originated at that time by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, broke with the past by declaring that nothing at the quantum scale is “real” until it is observed. Facts on the ground, like particles’ locations, are mere matters of chance, defined by a spread-out probability wave, until the moment of measurement, when the wave mysteriously collapses to a point, the particle hops to, and a single reality sets in. In the 1920s, Bohr persuaded most of his contemporaries to embrace the weirdness of a probabilistic universe, the inherent fuzziness of nature, and the puzzling wave-particle duality of all things.

But some physicists objected, Albert Einstein and de Broglie among them. Einstein doubted that God “plays dice.” De Broglie insisted that everything at the quantum scale was perfectly normal and above-board. He devised a version of quantum theory that treated both the wave and the particle aspects of light, electrons and everything else as entirely tangible. His “pilot-wave” theory envisioned concrete particles, always with definite locations, that are guided through space by real pilot waves — much like the waves propelling Couder’s bouncing droplets.

De Broglie couldn’t nail down the physical nature of the pilot wave, however, and he struggled to extend his description to more than one particle. At the celebrated 1927 Solvay Conference, a gathering of luminaries to debate the meaning of quantum mechanics, Bohr’s more radical views carried the day.

De Broglie’s pilot-wave vision of the quantum world was little remembered 78 years later, when the Paris droplets started bouncing. Suddenly, Couder and his colleagues had an “analogue system” for experimentally exploring de Broglie’s idea.

Straightaway, they saw the droplets exhibit surprisingly quantum-like behaviors — only traversing certain “quantized” orbits around the center of their liquid baths, for instance, and sometimes randomly jumping between orbits, as electrons do in atoms. There and in bouncing-droplet labs that soon sprang up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and elsewhere, droplets were seen to tunnel through barriers and perform other acts previously thought to be uniquely quantum. In reproducing quantum phenomena without any of the mystery, the bouncing-droplet experiments rekindled in some physicists de Broglie’s old dream of a reality at the quantum scale that consists of pilot waves and particles instead of probability waves and conundrums.

But a series of bouncing-droplet findings since 2015 has crushed this dream. The results indicate that Couder’s most striking demonstration of quantum-like phenomena, back in 2006 — “the experiment that got me hooked on this problem,” the fluid dynamicist Paul Milewskisaid — was in error. Repeat runs of the experiment, called the “double-slit experiment,” have contradicted Couder’s initial results and revealed the double-slit experiment to be the breaking point of both the bouncing-droplet analogy and de Broglie’s pilot-wave vision of quantum mechanics.

Improbably, the person who put the irreparable crack in de Broglie’s idea is Niels Bohr’s grandson, the fluid physicist Tomas Bohr. A professor at the Technical University of Denmark who, as a child, enjoyed puzzling over riddles posed by his grandfather, Tomas Bohr heard about Couder’s bouncing-droplet experiments seven years ago and was immediately intrigued. “I felt a genuine interest in trying to see whether you could really get a deterministic quantum mechanics,” he said about his decision to enter the fray. Given his family history, he added, “maybe I also felt some obligation. I felt I should really try to see if it was true or not.”

The Heart of Quantum Mechanics

The physicist Richard Feynman called the double-slit experiment “impossible, absolutely impossible, to explain in any classical way,” and said it “has in it the heart of quantum mechanics. In reality, it contains the only mystery.”

In the experiment, particles are shot toward two slits in a barrier, and the ones that pass through the slits hit a sensor some distance away on the other side. Where any one particle ends up is always a surprise, but if you shoot many particles toward the slits, you start to see stripes develop in their detected locations, indicating places where they can and cannot go. The stripy pattern suggests that each particle is actually a wave that encounters the slitted barrier and passes through both slits at once, producing two wavefronts that converge and interfere, cresting in some places and canceling out in between. Each particle materializes in the sensor at the location of one of the crests of this strange probability wave. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 October 2018 at 2:42 pm

Posted in Science

The benefits of rituals

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In the Guide I discuss the psychological benefits of a shaving ritual (which depends in part on viewing the morning shave as a ritual), and I just read an interesting article in the Scientific American by Francesca Gino that provides objective evidence of the efficacy of rituals. From the article:

. . . A ritual is a series of steps we take while attaching some kind of symbolic meaning. Players in all sorts of sports have rituals that involve actions such as eating the same foods in exactly the same order before a game or listening to the same pre-ordered playlist a given number of times. From the way some prepare their coffee to the way people celebrate important life events, like weddings or graduations, rituals are a part of our daily life. And though they may seem useless, or even silly, research has found that rituals are powerful.

In the past, my colleagues and I have found that rituals reduce anxiety before stressful tasks, and improve performance. They allow us to enjoy our family holidays more. And they also give us a greater sense of control after experiencing a loss, whether a loved one or in a lottery. Given the power of rituals, we thought we might test their effectiveness in resisting temptation.

In one study, we tested the power of rituals to help with a common self-control problem: eating less. We visited a university gym and recruited undergraduate females who already had a goal of losing weight. We told half of them to be mindful about their food consumption for the next five days. We taught the other half a three-step pre-eating ritual and told them to complete it every time they ate something. The ritual, which we created rather randomly, did not require participants to eat less food and did not directly interfere with consumption. Here’s the ritual:

First, cut your food into pieces before you eat it. Second, rearrange the pieces so that they are perfectly symmetric on your plate. That is, get the right half of your plate to look exactly the same as the left half of your plate. Finally, press your eating utensil against the top of your food three times. In order to be in the study, you must do the three steps of this ritual each time you eat.

To track daily food and beverage intake, we asked participant to download the “MyFitnessPal” food-tracking app onto their phone. MyFitnessPal allows users to list exactly the type and amount of food or beverage they consume, including brands of grocery products and meals from chain restaurants. Three times per day, participants’ phones would remind them to log their food intake, and the experimenter had access to these online food diaries.

As we expected, participants who enacted the pre-eating ritual consumed fewer calories (about 1,424 calories for each day, on average) as compared to those who simply were mindful about their eating (who consumed about 1,648). Those who performed the ritual also ate less fat and less sugar. The ritual helped them exercise the self-control needed to achieve their weight loss goals. Interestingly, at the end of the study, our participants said they thought the ritual was not very helpful and reported they were unlikely to continue it.

In another study, we examined whether simple rituals could also help people make healthier choices when tempted with unhealthy ones. . .

I strongly suspect rituals work only if they are viewed and approached as rituals: thoughtfully and mindfully.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 October 2018 at 10:52 am

Posted in Daily life, Science, Shaving

The Dark Core of Personality

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Scott Barry Kaufman writes in Scientific American:

Over 100 years ago Charles Spearman made two monumental discoveries about human intelligence. First, a general factor of intelligence (g) exists: people who score high on one test of intelligence also tend to score high on other tests of intelligence. Second, Spearman found that the g-factor conforms to the principle of the “indifference of the indicator”: It doesn’t matter what test of intelligence you administer; as long as the intelligence test is sufficiently cognitively complex and has enough items, you can reliably and validly measure a person’s general cognitive ability.

Fast forward to 2018, and a hot-off-the-press paper suggests that the very same principle may not only apply to human cognitive abilities, but also to human malevolence. New research conducted by a team from Germany and Denmark suggests that a General Dark Factor of Personality (D-factor) exists among the human population, and that this factor conforms to the principle of indifference of the indicator. This is big news, so let’s take a look.

The Proposed D-Factor

We all know people who consistently display ethically, morally, and socially questionable behavior in everyday life. Personality psychologists refer to these characteristics among a subclinical population as “dark traits.” An understanding of dark traits has become increasingly popular not only in psychology, but also in criminology and behavioral economics.

Even though psychologists have studied various dark traits, it has become increasingly clear that these dark traits are related to each other. This raises the question: Is there a unifying theme among dark traits?

Morten Moshagen and his colleagues proposed that a D-factor exists, which they define as the basic tendency to maximize one’s own utility at the expense of others, accompanied by beliefs that serve as justifications for one’s malevolent behaviors. In their definition, utility refers to goal achievement. For those scoring high on the D-factor, utility maximization is sought despite running contrary to the interests of others or even for the sake of bringing about negative outcomes in others.

Utility in this definition does not refer to utility maximization that is irrelevant of the effect on others—such engaging in sports to improve one’s health, engaging in consensual sex, or recreational activities. Also, it should be noted that those scoring high on the D-factor aren’t always uncooperative, as they can be very strategic in choosing when to cooperate. Their key prediction is that those scoring high on the D-factor will not be motivated to increase the utility of others (helping others in need) without benefiting themselves, and will not derive utility for themselves from the utility of others (eg, being happy for the success of others).

The researchers acknowledge that the D-factor can be manifested in a large number of ethically, morally and socially questionable attitudes and behaviors. However, they propose that any single dark trait will boil down to at least one of the defining features of the D-factor. For instance, those scoring high on narcissism might be particularly justifying of the belief that they are superior, whereas those scoring high in sadism may place a stronger emphasis on deriving utility from actively provoking disutilities for others. Nevertheless, they argue that any single dark trait will be related to at least one (and typically several) of the defining aspects of the D-factor; ie, there is a substantial common core underlying individual differences on all measures of dark traits.

Again, the g-factor analogy is apt: while there are some differences between verbal intelligence, visuospatial intelligence, and perceptual intelligence (ie, people can differ in their pattern of cognitive ability profiles), those who score high on one form of intelligence will also tend to statistically score high on other forms of intelligence.

So what did they actually find?

The Actual D-Factor

Across four studies, the researchers found support for the existence of their proposed D-factor. To capture a reasonable D-factor, they administered nine different tests measuring a particular dark trait that has been well studied in the psychological literature. These are the nine traits that comprised their D-factor:

  1. Egoism. The excessive concern with one’s own pleasure or advantage at the expense of community well-being.
  2. Machiavellianism. Manipulativeness, callous affect and strategic-calculating orientation.
  3. Moral Disengagement. A generalized cognitive orientation to the world that differentiates individuals’ thinking in a way that powerfully affects unethical behavior.
  4. Narcissism. An all-consuming motive for ego reinforcement.
  5. Psychological Entitlement. A stable and pervasive sense that one deserves more and is entitled to more than others.
  6. Psychopathy. Deficits in affect, callousness, self-control and impulsivity.
  7. Sadism. Intentionally inflicting physical, sexual or psychological pain or suffering on others in order to assert power and dominance or for pleasure and enjoyment.
  8. Self-Interest. The pursuit of gains in socially valued domains, including material goods, social status, recognition, academic or occupational achievement and happiness.
  9. Spitefulness. A preference that would harm another but that would also entail harm to oneself. This harm could be social, financial, physical or an inconvenience.

Here is a summary of their main findings:

  • First, they found that all of the dark traits were substantially positively related to each other (what Spearman referred to as a “positive manifold“)—although some traits were more strongly correlated with each other than others. The strongest correlations were found among measures of Egoism, Machiavellianism, Moral Disengagement, Psychopathy, Sadism and Spitefulness.
  • Second, the pattern of items that were most strongly related to the D-factor related to aspects of their theoretical model: utility maximization (“I’ll say anything to get what I want”), inflicting disutility on others (“There have been times when I was willing to suffer some small harm so that I could punish someone else who deserved it”), and justifying malevolent beliefs (“I honestly feel I’m just more deserving than others”).
  • Third, they found that those scoring high on the D-factor were more likely to keep money for themselves when given the opportunity, and were more likely to display unethical behavior (cheating to maximize one’s gain).
  • Fourth, the D-factor was related to a number of outcomes you would expect, including positive associations with self-centeredness, dominance, impulsivity, insensitivity, power, aggression and negative associations with nurturance, internalized moral identity, perspective taking, sincerity, fairness, greed avoidance and modesty.
  • Fifth, they found support for Spearman’s principle of the indifference of the indicator. The D-factor captured the dark core of many different dark traits without crucially relying on any one measure. In fact, they found that even after omitting 50 percent of the items at random, and repeating this process 1,000 times, still resulted in extremely high correlations among all of the D-factors (> r=.93).

What’s Your Dark Core Score?

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably eager to see whether you score high on the D-factor. This nine-item test should be sufficient to estimate to a reasonable degree where you would score on the D-factor. The more you are in strong agreement with multiple items on this scale, the higher the likelihood you would score high on the D-factor. If you are in strong agreement with just one item on this scale, I wouldn’t be so confident that you would score high on the D-factor. However, if you are in extremely strong agreement on many of these items, there’s a high likelihood that you would indeed score high on the D-factor (ie, you’re a humongous asshole, objectively measured):

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 October 2018 at 10:45 am

A Lesson for Kavanaugh From Another Tarnished Supreme Court Justice

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Linda Greenhouse has an interesting column in the NY Times:

It’s obvious why the parallel between the battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination and that of Clarence Thomas 27 years earlier grabbed the public’s attention. In both cases, late-breaking allegations threatened but failed to derail the confirmation process, and both nominees defended themselves with impassioned denials of wrongdoing.

But history offers another, older parallel that in its way is even more compelling. The issue was not sex but racism. The bombshell burst not just before a confirmation vote, but just afterward, forcing a newly confirmed Supreme Court justice to take to the airwaves to defend himself against mounting calls for his resignation. I’m referring to the experience of Hugo L. Black, the first Supreme Court nominee of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the wake of the Kavanaugh confirmation, this nearly forgotten episode is worth resurrecting after 81 years.

Black was a Democratic senator from Alabama, a populist and ardent supporter of the New Deal who had backed the president’s failed plan to add additional justices to the Supreme Court who could outvote the conservatives who were invalidating major New Deal programs. The retirement of one of those conservatives, Willis Van Devanter, gave Roosevelt his first chance to make a dent in the Supreme Court.

Black’s nomination in the summer of 1937 was controversial, not only because it was a sharp stick in the eyes of the president’s many political enemies, but because of Black’s limited judicial experience — he was briefly a police court magistrate — and an education viewed as marginal for a Supreme Court justice. Although a graduate of the University of Alabama Law School, Black had never gone to college.

Shortly after the president announced the nomination, rumors circulated that as a young lawyer in Alabama, Black had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The N.A.A.C.P. asked for an investigation, but a Senate Judiciary subcommittee rammed the nomination through to the full committee after two hours of consideration. One Democratic senator, William Dieterich of Illinois, accused other senators of trying to “besmirch” Black’s reputation. As the historian William E. Leuchtenberg described the scene in a fascinating 1973 article, “Dieterich’s tirade nearly resulted in a fist fight” as another Democratic senator charged at him.

Supreme Court nominees did not ordinarily appear at their confirmation hearings in those days, but Black’s supporters said he had assured them that he had never joined the Klan. The full committee moved the nomination to the Senate floor. Black was confirmed by a vote of 63 to 16, and the new justice and his wife set sail for a European vacation.

In mid-September, while Black was in Paris and the court was getting ready to open a new term, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published the first of six articles conclusively linking him to the Klan. Soon, the country was in an uproar. The Klan stood for violence not only against African-Americans but also against Catholics, who were prominent among Roosevelt’s most loyal supporters. Catholic members of Congress demanded that Black step down. Senator David I. Walsh, a Democrat and a former governor of Massachusetts, charged that “Black obtained his nomination and confirmation by concealment and thereby deceived the president and his fellow senators, especially the latter.” A Gallup poll found that 59 percent of the public believed Black should resign if the charge was true.

On his return to the United States, Black gave a national radio address, as unusual then as Brett Kavanaugh’s appearance on Fox News was this month. Carried by 300 stations on three radio networks, the speech attracted the second-biggest audience of the decade, outdone only by the abdication speech of King Edward VIII. Black conceded that he had joined the Klan and said he had resigned before he became a senator. He neither explained his decisions nor apologized for his membership. In fact, in Professor Leuchtenberg’s account, “He spent the first third of his remarks cautioning against the possibility of a revival of racial and religious hatred, but he warned that this might be brought about not by groups like the Klan but by those who questioned his right to be on the Supreme Court.”

The national press excoriated the speech as thoroughly inadequate, but Roosevelt discerned accurately that “it did the trick,” as he told his confidant James Farley. A new Gallup Poll showed that a majority of Americans now believed that Black should not resign. He was on the bench when the new term opened three days after his speech, went on to serve for 34 years, one of the longest Supreme Court tenures, before retiring in 1971 at the age of 85.

And here’s the point: During those 34 years, Hugo Black became one of the great civil libertarians in Supreme Court history. One of his early opinions, Chambers v. Florida, overturned the murder convictions of four African-Americans on the ground that their confessions had been coerced in violation of the right to due process. He wrote the majority opinion in Engel v. Vitale, holding that official school prayer in public school violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. He wrote Gideon v. Wainwright, granting indigent criminal defendants the right to counsel. He wrote for the court in Wesberry v. Sanders, a landmark reapportionment case requiring congressional districts to be of equal population. The list goes on. That Black is celebrated today as the ultimate champion of the First Amendment may explain why the Klan episode that convulsed the country has largely been lost in the mists of time.

During Hugo Black’s first days on the bench, Arthur Krock, a columnist for The New York Times, paid a visit to the Supreme Court to observe the new justice, much as journalists flocked to the court this week to watch Justice Kavanaugh. I find Krock’s rendition of the scene, which appeared in The Times on Oct. 12, 1937, almost eerie in its current resonance: . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

11 October 2018 at 10:31 am

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