State of the Union

Ferguson and the Troubled Spirit of St. Louis

I live in the city of St. Louis, about 10 miles south of the suburb of Ferguson as the crow flies. As I have watched national media cover the events in Ferguson over the past 10 days, I have wondered what impression people outside of St. Louis have formed about the city.

The first thing that outsiders should know is that Ferguson is not some post-urban hellscape. It’s a working class suburb with a roughly two-thirds majority black population, which is not unusual for communities in north St. Louis County. Nor is the city government and law enforcement exceptionally poorly managed or racist. That is not a compliment, however. Most St. Louisans think of our area as representative of the nation as a whole, and there is a great deal of truth to that. But, like the nation at large, St. Louis is still divided along racial lines. Ferguson exploded as a flash point specifically because of the shooting of Michael Brown, but many communities in the area are just tinderboxes waiting for a spark.

The St. Louis metropolitan area can largely be divided into five areas. First, there is the city of St. Louis itself, which seceded from St. Louis County in 1876, making it both a city and county under state law. A little more than 300,000 people call the city of St. Louis home, and it is almost equally divided between black and white. That’s true both in terms of numbers and geography, with Delmar Boulevard serving as a stark dividing line between the south (mostly white) and north (essentially all black) parts of the city.

A plurality of area residents live in St. Louis County, with just under a million people according to the last census. St. Louisans usually subdivide the county into the informal regions of south, west, and north, which some people actually mistake for counties themselves. To put it as briefly as possible, the south county region is working class and largely white; west county is middle and upper class and white; and north county is working class and largely black. The demographics of north county—where Ferguson is located—have changed the most in recent years, with many white residents moving into the outer counties—most notably by moving west across the Missouri River into St. Charles County.

Ferguson exemplifies the shifting demographics of north county. It was nearly three-quarters white in 1990 and is two-thirds black now. However, I do not want to give the impression that people are moving away from Ferguson because it is a particularly undesirable place to live. It is served by the Ferguson-Florissant School District, which is one of the better districts in north county. By contrast, the school districts of St. Louis, Jennings, Riverview Gardens, and Normandy School District—where Michael Brown graduated this spring—have all lost their state accreditation. And on the subject of school districts, I am obliged to mention what is often called “the St. Louis question”: Where did you go to high school? This single question can neatly profile your race, class, religious affiliation, and upbringing. The question speaks to a local insularity and desire to keep to one’s social milieu that is stronger in St. Louis than other metropolitan areas that I know.

That’s not necessarily problematic, but it is very easy to live in St. Louis and only interact with people of your background. That can quickly lead to labeling people who don’t fit that as other and unwelcome. I do not believe that St. Louisans harbor more racist attitudes than people in other cities, but they are more skeptical of those they consider to be outsiders.

That said, Ferguson law enforcement is hardly alone in struggling with race relations. Just a few miles away in 96.4 percent black Pine Lawn, the police department is well-known for hiring the castoffs of other area departments and is regarded as something of a public joke in the law enforcement community. In 2012, the NAACP lodged 20 complaints of civil rights violations with the city.

Since 2012, University City—home to Washington University, my alma mater—has imposed a 9:00 p.m. curfew on teenagers under 17 in the Delmar Loop, a popular strip of bars, restaurants, music venues, and retail shops. Of course, the mostly white college students are not affected by the curfew, but the black teenagers who live around the area are rounded up with regularity. Police enforce the policy with the “nuisance abatement vehicle,” which is an armored vehicle mounted with cameras that allow it to record all 360 degrees.

In the primarily black neighborhoods north of Delmar, violent crime remains a serious problem. Nevertheless, University City seems to invest more resources in chasing black teens away from more affluent areas in quasi-military vehicles than in protecting their lives. I’m sure that makes an impression. Read More…

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Drugs in Context

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush appeared on national television to address the country’s drug problem. As a means of demonstrating how widespread drug abuse had become, he held up a bag of crack cocaine that the DEA purposefully arranged to purchase in Lafayette Park across from the White House. “It is innocent looking as candy,” the President intoned, “but it is turning our cities into battle zones, and it is murdering our children. Let there be no mistake, this stuff is poison.”

For most of the 1980s and 1990s, drugs were portrayed as the driving force behind high crime rates, lack of educational achievement, and urban decay. Government propaganda during that time period consistently portrayed drug users more or less as zombies held in thrall to an addictive substance, against which they were powerless.

But, according to Columbia University neuroscientist Carl Hart, this is abject nonsense. In his new book High Price, Hart deftly combines his autobiography with his laboratory research into drug use to call into question the government line on drugs. Either aspect of the book would have been interesting enough on its own merits, but the almost seamless combination of the personal and the academic makes the book greater than the sum of its parts.

Hart is the first black tenured professor of sciences at Columbia, and that is all the more remarkable considering his unlikely path to the Ivy League. He grew up in Miami in the 1970s, and his immediate family was broken apart when Hart was seven, as a result of his father’s infidelity and domestic abuse of his mother. That split forced Carl and his siblings to live with either one parent or a rotating cast of aunts and grandparents. By the time he was a sophomore, Hart’s family was living in the projects, and he was just scraping through school.

As he tells his life story, Hart carefully considers the choices that allowed him to beat the odds and contextualizes them with psychological research. He acknowledges in many cases that he made positive choices mostly out of chance.

For instance, Hart excelled in sports as an adolescent, and his desire to compete ensured that he kept at least the minimum GPA. However, he was relatively short for a basketball player, so he was not recruited to play collegiately. Then Hart took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, almost purely to avoid going to class the day the test was offered, but he ended up scoring well enough to gain entry into the Air Force. By enlisting, Hart was able to travel to both Japan and England and begin taking college courses.

On his first visit home from the Air Force over Christmas 1984, Hart started to hear more people in his old neighborhood talking about freebasing cocaine. In particular, he recalls a story about an acquaintance named Ronnie who owned a customized Monte Carlo that friends said had gone “in the pipe.” Over the next few years, Carl observed the “crack epidemic” explode across America from his posts abroad, and his desire to do something about the drug problem is part of what motivated him to pursue his undergraduate degree in psychology after leaving the Air Force.

However, as he moved on to graduate school, he began to question the prevailing view of drug addiction. Most scientists at the time endorsed the “dopamine hypothesis of addiction,” in which drugs that increase the amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine force addicts to constantly seek out this chemical reward.

Hart soon found that this simplistic, mechanical explanation for drug addiction was used to explain contradictory findings. Mice will self-administer cocaine, and if they are given a drug that blocks dopamine, they will initially respond even more before giving up entirely. On the other hand, rats given nicotine will stop responding immediately if the dopamine signal is blocked. Yet many researchers continued to proffer the dopamine hypothesis as an explanation for both responses.

Hart became interested in observing the use of illicit drugs in a controlled, laboratory setting. “It seemed to me,” Hart writes, “that it would be much more useful to study people’s actual decisions about whether to take drugs, rather than focus so much on what they said they wanted or craved in some hypothetical future.” What he discovered was that “[a]ddictive behavior follows rules and is shaped by situations just like other types of behavior. It’s not as weird or special as we make it out to be.”

When Hart was first hired for a postdoctoral stint at Columbia, he designed an experiment in which frequent cocaine users were given a dose of cocaine of varying strengths or a placebo, and then asked to choose between the same dose or vouchers for merchandise or cash. Not surprisingly, stronger doses of cocaine made participants more likely to choose the drug, which is consistent with the traditional, biologically deterministic view of addiction. However, participants were also less likely to choose the drug if offered $5 in cash instead of a voucher, and when the cash amount increased to $20, almost no participants chose the cocaine.

“Like the rest of us,” Hart argues, “people who are addicted to crack cocaine are sensitive not only to one type of pleasure but also to many. While severe addiction may narrow people’s focus and reduce their ability to take pleasure in nondrug experiences, it does not turn them into people who cannot react to a variety of incentives.”

Although Hart does not explore the connection, his results are consistent with the “rational addiction hypothesis” first put forward by economists Kevin Murphy and the recently-deceased Nobel Laureate Gary Becker in 1988. Under this view, drug addicts are not acting irrationally; they are maximizing their utility and will reduce their drug consumption if the price increases or will increase in the future.

How then does Hart explain the dire conditions in which the stereotypical drug addict lives? He argues that those dire conditions are more often the cause of drug addiction than the result.

A key problem is that poor people actually have few ‘competing reinforcers.’ Crack isn’t really all that overwhelmingly good or superpowerfully reinforcing: it gained the popularity that it achieved in the hood … because there weren’t that many other affordable sources of pleasure and purpose and because many of the people at the highest risk had other preexisting mental illnesses that affected their choices.

In other words, America’s drug problem is not primarily about drugs. Instead drug abuse is a symptom of a variety of other social problems, and, not surprisingly, those problems are worst in the poorest communities.

Hart stops short of calling for full legalization of all drugs, but he does recommend the decriminalization of drug possession. Portugal decriminalized drug possession in 2001 and has seen declines in drug-induced deaths and rates of drug use, particularly among the youth. “Portuguese continue to get high, just like their contemporaries and all human societies before them. But they don’t seem to have the problem of stigmatizing, marginalizing, and incarcerating substantial proportions of their citizens for minor drug violations.”

Refreshingly, Hart does not peddle any panaceas. His biography and research show drug abuse and the other social problems associated with it to be complex phenomena that will not be remedied or even ameliorated by simplistic solutions. However, Hart has at least demonstrated how we can begin to understand and substantively address those problems, instead of naively scapegoating certain politically convenient chemicals for all of society’s ills.

John Payne is the executive director of Show-Me Cannabis and lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

How Police Became a Standing Army

Police terrorism drill. Larry St. Pierre / Shutterstock.com
Police terrorism drill. Larry St. Pierre / Shutterstock.com

On July 15, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) sent 13 law-enforcement officers to execute a paramilitary raid on a no-kill animal shelter in Kenosha. The crime? The shelter was harboring a fawn that had been abandoned by its mother and named Giggles by shelter volunteers. The shelter intended to turn the animal over to a wildlife reserve the next day, but that was not good enough for the DNR. Wisconsin law forbids the possession of wildlife, so DNR sent the heavily armed team to capture and euthanize Giggles.

Eleven days later and less than 100 miles away, staff at a nursing home in the Chicago suburb of Park Forest called paramedics after 95-year-old World War II veteran John Wrana, suffering from a delusional episode, refused medical treatment. The paramedics in turn called the police, which further agitated Wrana, who threatened them with his cane and a knife. The police responded by shooting Wrana with stun guns and bean bags fired from a shotgun. Wrana died from internal bleeding shortly thereafter.

A generation ago, it is unlikely that either of these situations would have elicited such a violent response from law enforcement. But over the last 40 years, police have moved steadily towards increasing levels of force and militarization with little regard for the situation. Journalist Radley Balko has been documenting this phenomenon for nearly a decade, and in Rise of the Warrior Cop he explains how America has been transformed into a country where police conduct something on the order of 50,000 SWAT raids a year.

Balko starts with the provocative proposition that police as we know them in modern America are unconstitutional. “The Founders and their contemporaries would probably have seen even the early-nineteenth-century police forces as a standing army, and a particularly odious one at that,” Balko writes. “Just before the American Revolution, it wasn’t the stationing of British troops in the colonies that irked patriots in Boston and Virginia; it was the England’s decision to use the troops for everyday law enforcement.”

Balko links that decision to the oft forgotten Third Amendment, which forbids the quartering of troops in Americans’ homes against their will during peacetime. The Third Amendment is rarely litigated, and the Supreme Court has never heard a case primarily concerning the amendment, but Balko argues that it was included in the Bill of Rights out of a larger concern that a standing army could be used for the purposes of enforcing the law. “The actual quartering of British troops in the private homes of colonists was rare…It was the predictable fallout from positioning soldiers trained for warfare on city streets, among the civilian populace, and using them to enforce law and maintain order that enraged colonists.”

Balko calls this “more robust expression of the threat that standing armies pose to free societies” the “Symbolic Third Amendment.” He spends the vast majority of the book documenting how that concern has been whittled away by overeager cops, deferential judges, and politicians seeking to bolster their law and order credentials.

During Prohibition, some particularly zealous drys such as Henry Ford encouraged the federal government to use the military enforce the ill-conceived law. But the country repealed Prohibition before direct militarization of law enforcement—“the use of the standing military for domestic policing”—was ever seriously considered.

The trend towards police militarization did not begin in earnest until the 1960s, when law enforcement struggled with civil unrest and cracked down on the drugs associated with political dissidents and the counterculture. It also crept in subtly through “indirect militarization,” when domestic law enforcement agencies “take on more and more characteristics of an army.” That phenomenon can largely be traced to longtime Los Angeles Chief of Police Daryl Gates, who founded America’s first SWAT team.

Gates saw the weaknesses in the department’s response to the Watts Riots and a shootout with a sniper shortly thereafter. In his autobiography, Gates writes that he would have to “devise another method for dealing with snipers or barricaded criminals other than our usual indiscriminate shooting.” He formed an elite unit he called D-Platoon and arranged for them to train with Marines from Camp Pendleton at the Universal Studios lot.

The SWAT team was deployed for the first time in December 1969 to raid the Los Angeles headquarters of the Black Panthers. The operation did not go as planned. The team attempted to enter via the backdoor, which was blocked by a pile of dirt from an escape tunnel the Panthers had dug. That blew the officers’ cover and forced them to approach the front door, behind which the heavily-armed Panthers sat waiting. The Panthers opened fire and drove the SWAT team out of the building, beginning a three-hour standoff in which over 5,000 rounds of ammunition were fired.

Gates eventually asked Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty to request permission from the Department of Defense to fire a grenade into the building. Balko notes that this story is remarkable not because police used a grenade launcher in a city setting but because of “the procedures, the caution, and the trepidation that went into procuring the grenade launcher. About twenty years later, the Pentagon would begin giving away millions of pieces of military equipment to police departments across the country for everyday use—including plenty of grenade launchers.”

Miraculously, the raid on the Panther compound ended without any fatalities. Despite the tactical failure of the operation, it was a major media coup and brought a great deal of attention to the idea of SWAT.

The perceived success of the Los Angeles SWAT team in the Panther raid and in a shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974 led to swift proliferation of SWAT teams in major cities across America, totaling 500 by 1975. These teams were originally staffed by elite specialists who trained to negotiate and de-escalate potentially violent situations whenever possible. But as the teams increased in number and spread into smaller cities, departments began staffing them with officers who participated in the SWAT team part-time and cut back on training that did not involve the use of force.

Heavily armed terrorist groups and hostage situations are not nearly as common as television would lead us to believe, so departments began deploying their SWAT teams for more routine work. As Balko puts it, “just about every decent-sized city police department was armed with a hammer. And the drug war would ensure there were always plenty of nails around for pounding.”

For instance, the drug war turned very literal in the summer of 1983, when drug czar Carlton Turner and California attorney general John Van de Kamp called in the National Guard to eradicate marijuana in Humboldt County. The federal government sent helicopters and even U-2 spy planes to spot pot plants in the Northern California forests, and officers enforcing the eradication program went from house to house, kicking in doors and searching the residences without warrants.

Meanwhile, the courts used the drug war to chip away at the protection that warrants once gave to Americans’ Fourth Amendment right to be secure in their persons and houses from unreasonable search and seizure. When serving a warrant, law-enforcement officers were traditionally required to knock and announce themselves and give residents time to allow them entry before the police could resort to breaking down the door. But in the 2003 decision United States v. Banks, the Supreme Court ruled that the primary concern should not be the amount of time residents would reasonably need to answer the door, but how much time it might take for them to start disposing of the evidence of drugs. That ruling effectively gave police the power to serve every drug warrant as if they were taking down Pablo Escobar.

With essentially no judicial checks on their behavior, the number of SWAT teams and raids continued to grow. By 2005, approximately 80 percent of towns with a population between 25,000 and 50,000 people employed their own SWAT team. Even seemingly innocuous federal bureaucracies such as the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission had created their own tactical teams.

Given the number of SWAT raids executed every year, tragedies like the ones described at the beginning of this review are now inevitable. But Balko offers some suggestions for how to reverse the trend towards militarization and return SWAT teams to their limited role of responding to inherently violent situations.

Many of Balko’s policy recommendations are almost as infuriating as the problems he identifies—not because they are wrong but because they are such obvious safeguards that it is difficult to fathom how they are not already in place. For instance, Balko suggests that SWAT teams should not be used for regulatory inspections. Police departments should also record any raids they conduct and document how many involve diversionary devices, such as flash-bang grenades, and what evidence is found, then make that information available to the public.

“If these tactics are going to be used against the public,” Balko writes, “the public at the very least deserves to know how often they’re used, why they’re used, how often things go wrong, and what sort of results the tactics are getting.” We would not tolerate this sort of opacity from a city utility company, yet it is the norm for bureaucracies that have the power to break into our homes with automatic weapons.

The biggest reform Balko proposes is ending the drug war, which he thinks will never completely happen. That may be true, but it is surprising that he does not mention the 2012 legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, which may set off a potentially rapid trend towards legalization elsewhere. Such a massive policy change could conceivably herald a thorough rethinking of drug policy as a whole in the not-so-distant future.

The later chapters of the book contain a large amount of material that Balko published previously in magazines or online, and, although the content is just as strong, the narrative becomes choppier. The subject of the book is so immense, and many of the individual stories so compelling, that Balko could easily have written a book twice as long.

That is, of course, praise disguised as criticism. Rise of the Warrior Cop diagnoses a grave threat to our constitutional rights. If Americans still possess the wisdom of our Founders, we will heed Balko’s warning and turn back our drift towards a police state.

John Payne is the executive director of Show-Me Cannabis and lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

Occupy Wall Street: An Addendum

I was extremely pleased to see my take on the original Occupy Wall Street protest posted online yesterday, but I feel it may already be largely outdated. I wrote the piece in early October as an attempt to understand what the movement was all about. Although I never fully agreed with what most protesters were advocating, I was surprised to find myself generally sympathetic to their complaints.

Now, several of the occupations, Oakland in particular, are fighting for their survival against police assaults. This video of the police raid on Occupy Oakland brings to mind the assaults of Hosni Mubarak’s thugs on the protesters in Tahrir Square this winter.

It gets worse. This video shows a police officer firing a flashbang grenade at a group of people attempting to help a young protester who had just been wounded by a tear gas canister.

At Occupy Nashville, the police even seem willing to arrest members of the media and charge them with resisting arrest for covering the story. Regardless of how you feel about the original message of Occupy Wall Street, this should be very alarming. These people are American citizens exercising their First Amendment rights, and they shouldn’t be attacked like an invading army.

I recently reread “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan,” Hunter S. Thompson’s account of the controversy surrounding the killing of journalist Ruben Salazar by a L.A. sheriff’s deputy (using a tear gas cannon, incidentally) in 1970, and one line struck me as particularly appropriate today: “When the cops declare open season on journalists, when they feel free to declare any scene of ‘unlawful protest’ a free fire zone, that will be a very ugly day–and not just for journalists.”

Why the Occupiers started protesting is immaterial for the moment; that they have a right to protest is paramount. If we abandon that, we abandon everything that makes this country worth preserving.

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Welcome to the Occupation

Wall Street protesters share the Tea Party’s illusions

As I walked toward One Liberty Plaza on the first Friday in October, I thought about the Arcade Fire song “Rococo,” in which lead singer Win Butler lambastes “the modern kids” who use “great big words that they don’t understand” and build up an institution “just to burn it back down.” At the time it seemed an apt description of the Occupy Wall Street protesters who had seized the plaza—mostly young kids who enjoyed the fruits of American capitalism but now talked of tearing down the system that weaned them.

After walking around the protest for a half hour or so, I felt secure in that prejudice. A dozen or so drummers pounded away in a corner, their ceaseless rhythm rumbling through the canyons of lower Manhattan for at least a quarter mile in any direction. In the middle of the protesters’ impromptu shantytown, four people sat at a marble table busily rolling cigarettes behind a donation bucket and sign reading “Free Cigarettes: Nick@Nite.” The atmosphere led one of my friends to remark that it was “all the worst aspects of a hippie festival with none of the drugs.”

With the exception of a smattering of Ron Paul signs, the protesters’ placards and literature showed an almost universal hostility to a market economy. A young man in a suit handed out a semi-official pamphlet welcoming me to the occupation. It advised me to visit the food bar where I could dine on granola and “Occu-pie” and suggested that after eating I should “feel free to refresh [myself] in the restrooms of neighboring businesses like Burger King and McDonalds without feeling obligated to buy anything.”

The pamphlet listed only one political demand: “Stop Corporate Personhood.” This was a relatively common theme on the signs, but for all that talk, many protesters also advocated an increase in corporate taxes, evidently failing to realize that the one policy precludes the other. Near the People’s Library, a piece of paper hung on the wall urging adoption of a mandatory four-day work week because it “keeps all the efficiencies of capitalism” but forces employers to hire the currently jobless to make up for the 20 percent reduction in labor hours.

As my group began walking uptown on Broadway, we ran into another throng of protesters marching down to the main demonstration. I stepped back and started snapping pictures just in time to capture a handsome young man with spiky blond hair dressed smartly in a black collared shirt and matching jeans. He carried a sign urging us to “Occupy Everything” because “we already know that we own everything.” With his square jaw and the steely resolve in his eyes he looked like a Bizzaro John Galt, ready to throw himself on the gears of modern capitalism and grind them to a halt.

I left that night convinced that the protest was little more than the latest banshee cry of the radical left. Over the weekend, however, hundreds of protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge and similar occupations sprang up across the country. These developments prompted me to return to One Liberty Plaza the next Tuesday.

I arrived just in time for the General Assembly, where the plaza’s occupants attempt to build consensus about how their community should be run. Protesters are prohibited from using amplification, so to ensure that everyone can hear the proceedings they use what they call the “human mic,” whereby all participants repeat what the person who has the floor just said. Periclean Athens this wasn’t. Still, it struck me as a genuine attempt by the protesters to build something real.

As I interviewed some of the protesters that night, I discovered that many of them were not driven by a blind rage against capitalism but were simply trying to assert some modicum of control over institutions they believe are running over them roughshod. Carey Tan, an event planner with a nonprofit, told me she wanted the Glass-Steagall Act put back into place “to make sure my money isn’t being used to buy … sub-prime mortgages and lots of risky investments.” She also wanted to see the revolving door between business and government closed but was unsure how that could be accomplished.

Joe Therrien, a teacher in Brooklyn, echoed Tan’s argument about Glass-Steagall and also called for higher taxes on the rich and corporations. But he was not opposed to corporations as such, saying that he “want[s] there to be rich companies in America” and thinks they should pay more in taxes because they benefit from government services. Therrien was refreshingly humble about the limits of his own knowledge and put his faith in the ability of Americans to solve our problems through civil discourse. He said that although “there are individuals who claim to have the answers … as a group, we’re trying to figure it out together.”

You can disagree with Tan’s policy proposals or call Therrien’s trust in participatory democracy naïve, but these were not bomb-throwing radicals. They are relatively ordinary Americans who looked around one day, saw obviously dysfunctional political and economic systems, and decided to do something about them. And although the media portrays them as the Wall Street protesters’ polar opposites, the same can be said of most Tea Partiers. The Tea Party is older and more conservative, while the Occupiers are younger and more left-wing, but both are attempting to come to terms with American decline. They are both sincere and well-meaning in their own ways, but our problems are much more severe than either group dares admit.

It’s easy to scapegoat earmark spending (never mind that middle-class entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare are the real driving forces of government spending) or the 1 percent on Wall Street who are supposedly exploiting the rest of us poor bastards (never mind that most of us own stocks and bonds), but these are lies. Comforting lies, but lies nonetheless.

On Tuesday night, I stumbled across Jimmy McMillan—the Rent Is Too Damn High Party guy—standing on the edge of the plaza with a small crowd around him. “Go home,” he roared to the mostly uninterested protesters. “Make love to your girl.” When I asked him for an explanation of the comment, he told me that all Americans are responsible for our current predicament because they have perpetuated a corrupted political system. Now “the diehard Democrat is dying real hard.”

McMillan’s comments give away his political self-interest, of course, but they at least confronted the fact that we largely brought our woes upon ourselves by living beyond our means. The 1 percent in government and business may have made our bed, but we slept in it, happily dreaming the impossible, and now we refuse to shake off our delusional slumber. The Federal Reserve and the lending institutions sold us houses at 3 percent interest and no money down, but we bought them.

American exceptionalism and privilege are crashing down around us, but these protest groups—like the vast majority of Americans—refuse to reconcile themselves to this new, hostile reality. The world will move on without us; we are no longer the indispensable nation. Once we accept that fact, we can get down to the difficult business of becoming a normal country. Until then, Occupiers and Tea Partiers will remain little more than petulant children crying over the spilled milk of the American empire.

John Payne is director of research at Americans for Forfeiture Reform.

Being the Police Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

My parents own two flower shops in my hometown, and as I was growing up I worked there after school and every summer. One day when I was 17, I had to deliver an arrangement to a nursing home just west of town.

I viscerally disliked nursing home deliveries, but upon entering, I was relieved to find that this home was far nicer than the others—it was clean and had individual apartments for each guest. I found the specified room and handed the bouquet to a pleasant elderly woman, who was overjoyed to receive it.

When I returned to the shop, my dad informed me that the nursing home had just called. Not only had I delivered the arrangement to the wrong room, I was at the wrong place altogether–the correct nursing home sat just down the road. I returned shamefaced and apologized profusely to both the woman and the staff (not to mention my parents) for the mix-up. I had screwed up, and it was only right that I take the blame.

Many police departments in this country do not seem to follow that standard of common decency, however. Take this case from Pontiac, South Carolina: Read More…

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Mexico’s “Market Alternatives” to the Drug War

Earlier this week, Mexican President Felipe Calderon told the Americas Society and Council of the Americas that if the United States cannot limit drug consumption–which it can’t–Mexico may abandon the drug war. From a Reuters report in the New York Times:

“We are living in the same building. And our neighbour is the largest consumer of drugs in the world. And everybody wants to sell him drugs through our doors and our windows,” [Calderon] said.

“We must do everything to reduce demand for drugs,” Calderon added. “But if the consumption of drugs cannot be limited, then decision-makers must seek more solutions — including market alternatives — in order to reduce the astronomical earnings of criminal organizations.”

He did not go into more detail, but the remarks appeared to be a softening of Calderon’s attitude towards state regulation of the market for drugs, which could curb the power of the cartels by taking away their profits.

Calderon is probably just threatening U.S. political leadership here because they live in constant fear of Mexico going wobbly on them, and he knows it. However, what Calderon said is far larger than him. He may not personally want to end the War on Drugs, but if the violence in Mexico continues unabated, the populace will demand some kind of radical change, and legalization of some kind seems to be the leading candidate right now.

I am interested to see how the federal government would react to such a scenario. Certainly, they wouldn’t allow Mexico to pursue its own policies without Yankee interference. I predict that they’d declare the whole country a criminal enterprise and seize it as part of the largest forfeiture case known to man. I’m sure there are some Texas oil billionaires who wouldn’t mind getting their hands on Mexico’s oil fields.

Of course, the U.S. would then be stuck waging Mexico’s drug war, and I doubt we’d meet with any more success than they have. But that’s never kept us from trying.

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It’s a Market Failure, Even When the Government Provides It

The Cornell University economist Robert Frank’s latest New York Times editorial is well worth reading, not least for his argument in favor of a progressive consumption tax. (I’m not a fan of any kind of tax, but I think a progressive consumption tax would be far preferable to our current progressive income tax.)

That said, this section is way off base:

When the ability to achieve important goals depends on relative consumption, all bets on the efficacy of Smith’s invisible hand are off. …

The median size of a new single-family house in 2007 was over 2,300 square feet, more than 50 percent larger than its counterpart from 1970. That creates a problem for concerned parents, because good schools are usually found in affluent neighborhoods. To send your children to one, you must outbid others for a house in a good school district. Yet when all families increase their bidding for such houses, they succeed only in driving up their prices. No matter how much parents pay, only half of all children can attend schools in the top half.

Frank is of course correct that in any educational system only half of the students can attend above-average schools, but a Smithian market would not lead to this distortion in the price of housing. Government bundles education and housing, effectively requiring families to buy two of their biggest expenses together. By definition, the wealthy can better afford any good or service than other people, but bundling the goods restricts middle and lower class people’s ability to pay for either. Laying that government mandated failure at the feet of the market is utterly bizarre.

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Uncertainty and the Death Penalty

When I was still teaching, I caught a student plagiarizing a paper. It wasn’t just a matter of improper attribution, either–she had copied and pasted whole paragraphs from Wikipedia, apparently unaware that I knew how to use Google. The next day, her mother called the school and discussed the problem with me. “My children don’t cheat,” she said. This was an article of faith, not a subject for debate. Other kids certainly cheated, but not her children, so regardless of the contrary evidence I could produce, she would not believe it.

Tonight, the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis, and many people, myself included, believe there is reasonable doubt about Davis’ guilt. Davis was convicted purely on the basis of eyewitness testimony, which even the courts are starting to admit is unreliable. (Speaking as someone who has been the victim of violent crime, I know firsthand that the memory goes straight to hell in a fight or flight situation.) Furthermore, several of those witnesses have recanted.

Nevertheless, Davis was convicted, and his appeals went through the proper channels, so according to those, such as Rick Perry, who sleep soundly in the confidence that the government has never executed an innocent man, he must be guilty. You see, our government doesn’t kill innocent people. Other countries may do that sort of thing, but our justice system is above all that, so there’s no need to examine the massive piles of evidence that show it regularly makes mistakes.

Because if we have to question whether our government kills innocent people, we have to question its moral basis. Or lack thereof.

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Government Cannot Repeal Scarcity

I missed the Republican debate again last night (this time I was bowling), and the first bit of it that I saw posted to Facebook by a liberal friend of mine was this clip of Ron Paul. Wolf Blitzer asked Paul what should happen to a hypothetical, healthy 30-year-old male, who has the means to buy health insurance but chooses not to, if he is injured in an accident and goes into a coma. Paul’s answer is essentially that in a free society, charitable organizations would take care of such people, which is a fine answer as far as it goes, but I’d like to go further by pointing out the injustice of expecting the government to provide care to people who choose not to provide it for themselves. Read More…

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On Obama’s Depressingly Conventional Approach to the Drug War

Jacob Sullum’s invaluable feature story in the latest issue of Reason details the many ways that President Obama has failed to live up to the high hopes drug law reformers pinned on him back in 2008, when hope was still fashionable. I found this part particularly stomach-turning:

More generally, Obama has repeatedly expressed the view that many people in federal prisons are serving unconscionably long sentences. Yet he has not used his unilateral, absolute, and constitutionally unambiguous clemency power to shorten a single sentence, even though he has not otherwise been reticent about pushing his executive authority to the limit (and beyond). Obama went almost two years, longer than every president except George Washington and George W. Bush, before approving any clemency petitions. So far all 17 of his clemency actions have been pardons for long-ago crimes, most which did not even result in prison sentences, as opposed to commutations, which authorize the early release of current prisoners. While seven of the pardons involved drug offenders, the most severe sentence among them was five years for conspiracy to import marijuana, which 63-year-old Randy Eugene Dyer of Burien, Washington, completed more than 30 years ago. As of mid-2011, Obama had received about 4,000 petitions for commutations,  in addition to 900 that were pending when he took office. He had not approved any.

Read More…

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Rick Perry and the Assumption of Guilt

I share Dan’s revulsion at crowd’s ghoulish reaction to Rick Perry’s record of executions at Wednesday’s debate, but what I find most interesting is the way Perry elided Williams’ question:

WILLIAMS: Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?

PERRY: No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which — when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that’s required.

But in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed.

Perry seems to believe that these due process protections exist for the sake of the guilty, not the innocent. He assumes away the very core of Williams’ question. The point is that we don’t know for certain that these people committed heinous crimes, and Perry has proved absolutely incurious about the possibility that Texas might have convicted innocent people. He actively fought an inquiry that could have revealed Cameron Todd Willingham, executed by the state of Texas in 2004, was in fact innocent, and he continues to block potentially exculpatory DNA testing in the case of death row inmate Hank Skinner.

Perry effectively assumes guilt in death penalty cases. He has to. If he allowed himself to believe that these people might be innocent, he would have to entertain the possibility that he is a murderer himself. So, yes, Rick Perry sleeps just fine at night–because he refuses to believe that he could be wrong.

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The Government Should Stop Giving Rich People Money

Warren Buffet caused a stir last week when he argued that he and other wealthy individuals should pay a higher tax rate. Now, as a libertarian, I prefer to balance the budget exclusively through spending cuts. However, if that’s not politically feasible, I support higher taxes today over deficit spending and the interest it entails.

But before we go raising taxes on every high-income individual, why don’t we just stop giving tax dollars away the most politically connected among them? Stephen Slivinski of the Cato Institute estimates that the federal government spent $92 billion in corporate welfare (i.e. subsidies to business) in 2006, a figure that has likely exploded upward with the rest of the budget. By comparison, eliminating the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy would raise $67.8 billion annually over the next decade on average–a quarter less than we spend on corporate welfare.

Until our government cuts corporate welfare queens such as Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto off from the federal teat, I have a feeling that any revenue raised from increasing the marginal income tax rate will just come out of the pockets of one group of rich men and end up in the pockets of other, even richer men, whose only skill is knowing how to play the political system.

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This Is How the Government Works…Or, to Be More Exact, Why It Doesn’t

For any of you who haven’t been keeping track of all the craziest scandals in Washington–not the kind where Congressmen send crotch pics or dress up like furries, but the kind where people get killed–the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) ran a program from November 2009 to to January 2011 known as Fast and Furious. In addition to being named after a terrible series of Vin Diesel movies, the program’s crimes include allowing guns from the United States to pass into the hands of, who else, Mexican drug lords. These weapons have been implicated in a number of shootings, including the killing of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010.

So you’d think the guys at the ATF who ordered Fast and Furious would be finished, right? Their careers completely destroyed and possibly facing prison time?

Well, that might be the just thing, but government is usually the enemy of justice, not its champion. Here’s what really happened:

The ATF has promoted three key supervisors of a controversial sting operation that allowed firearms to be illegally trafficked across the U.S. border into Mexico.

All three have been heavily criticized for pushing the program forward even as it became apparent that it was out of control. At least 2,000 guns were lost and many turned up at crime scenes in Mexico and two at the killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Arizona.

The three supervisors have been given new management positions at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. They are William G. McMahon, who was the ATF’s deputy director of operations in the West, where the illegal trafficking program was focused, and William D. Newell and David Voth, both field supervisors who oversaw the program out of the agency’s Phoenix office.

This illustrates one of the many reasons the government fails so consistently and so thoroughly. Everyone accepts a CYA mentality, whenever someone screws up royally, his superiors have to pretend that all the screw ups responsible are actually super competent and fete them with promotions and awards. Remember when President Bush honored George Tenet and Paul Bremer with the Presidential Medal of Freedom after Tenet told us the case for Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk” and Bremer horribly mismanaged the early days of Iraq’s occupation? That wasn’t an isolated incident. It’s a pervasive feature of government: pretend your mistakes are actually accomplishments. Even if no one believes you, you might be able to say it enough to convince yourself.

Story via Radley Balko.

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The Impossible Is Possible

When Ron Paul announced his 2012 campaign for president, I joked that his odds had improved from nil to slim since 2008. The odds are still stacked heavily against him, but there seems to be a path that could lead him to the Republican nomination and possible victory.

Despite many of the big media outlets’ unwillingness to even mention Paul’s second place finish at the Ames Straw Poll this weekend, it likely signals that he will perform well in the caucuses in January. New York Times number cruncher Nate Silver argues that Ames is the best predictor we have at this stage of the race for performance in the Iowa caucuses. Even when Silver includes several other predictors in his analysis, all signs currently point to Paul and Michele Bachmann leading the pack by a substantial margin.

But Ron Paul doesn’t need to win Iowa like Michele Bachmann does. If Paul finishes with a strong second in Iowa behind Bachmann, he will build momentum going into New Hampshire while simultaneously denying it to Mitt Romney. Romney limps into New Hampshire after losing to an evangelical candidate, allowing a legislator who has openly feuded with his party’s leadership on several key issues to win the primary–we’ve seen that movie before. At the moment, the prediction market InTrade puts Paul’s chances of winning the New Hampshire primary at 20%, which is not great, but it’s within the realm of possibility. Read More…

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Default: The Two Sweetest Words in the English Language

Although I don’t think any of the so-called “serious” politicians will allow the federal government to default on its debts at this juncture, our current fiscal policy is unsustainable. At some point, the government will have to stick it to one or more of the major interest groups in play: bondholders, seniors and others who depend on entitlements, and taxpayers. I believe bondholders will bear the brunt of the government’s nearly inevitable fiscal collapse, and that is exactly as it should be.

The politics of the situation are relatively simple. More senior citizens vote than any other demographic, and with Baby Boomers on the cusp of retirement, their numbers will swell, so large cuts to Social Security and Medicare will remain next to impossible. Tax rates will rise, but American taxpayers (and the American economy) simply will not stand for the level of taxation necessary to maintain our foreign empire, pay entitlements, and service the debt.

Something must give, and it will be the debt, specifically the 47% of our public debt held by foreigners and foreign governments. These groups have little direct impact on American politics, and although it will create international outrage, our domestic politics don’t allow any other way out.

And bondholders–both foreign and domestic–should lose out. They act as the government’s enabler, ready to supply the junkie with his next hit whenever his cash runs low. This is an institution that launches wars on whims and imprisons more of its own citizens than any other country on Earth. Anyone who voluntarily gives his own money to it either lacks even a passing familiarity with its stunning immorality and incompetence or is so blinded by status quo bias that he can’t see the very clear writing on the wall. Buying debt carries risks, and when you give your money to the governmental equivalent of a magic bean salesman, you have no right to complain when you don’t get it back.

Headline reference here.

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Temptations of Empire

I have a new article in Reason where I review two books on the great empires of history and explain that imperialism does not make the conquering nations any richer or safer. Moreover, decentralized societies are safer than consolidated empires because would-be conquerors cannot take existing administrative systems and technologies and use them for their own ends. Somewhat paradoxically, the stronger we make our own state, the more vulnerable we become to outside conquest because the apparatus can easily be turned against us. If you want to make your society safe from outside invasion, make your own government as weak as possible.

I also interviewed one of the authors, Timothy Parsons, who is a professor at Washington University in Saint Louis and happened to be my history adviser when I studied there as an undergraduate. During our discussion, Parsons describes how the only winners in empires are special interest groups, how empire can corrupt the politics of the metropole (Edmund Burke gets a mention here as an anti-imperialist), and how the conquerors often become the conquered. Parsons argues that empires are no longer feasible because of the rise of national over local identity. Nation-states have largely put an end to empire as it was traditionally known, but nation-states themselves are inherently imperial. According to Parsons, the major difference is that nations seek to turn people into citizens while empires only seek subjects.

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Congress’ Latest Dog and Pony Show

I have not paid much attention to the rancorous debt ceiling debate. That’s not because I don’t care about federal spending. There are few aspects of government policy that don’t interest me at least somewhat, and, as a relatively young man, I’m constantly horrified by our government’s spendthrift ways because it’s my future income they are auctioning off in advance. It’s also not because I think the negative consequences of a default have been vastly oversold–though I do.

No, it’s because I can’t imagine that a government so hellbent on spending money would voluntarily limit itself with the much higher interest rates that would inevitably follow default. The Republicans would like fiscal hawks to believe that they are willing to accept such stringent limits, but their governing record would indicate the opposite. The GOP is far too wedded to perpetual war and middle-class entitlements such as Medicare to sincerely desire substantial spending cuts.

Neither party has given the slightest indication that they are serious about cutting spending, so it’s incomprehensible to me that this debate could be anything but a ruse by Republicans in Congress. Whatever deal emerges in the eleventh hour–and one will–the Republicans can fake reluctance in public and rejoice in private that the gravy trains to their districts will make all scheduled stops right on time.

Even if I’m wrong, and Congress does not vote to raise the debt ceiling by the August 2nd deadline, I don’t believe for a second that would stop the government from spending us into oblivion. Members of the government long ago dispensed with the need for Constitutional authorization for their activities, so why would mere statute stop them now? Politics is the art of the possible, and a few words in the legal code simply cannot stop the momentum of the $3.8 trillion behemoth known as the United States federal government.

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Interview with Anthony Gregory

Back in March, I sat down with my friend and Independent Institute Research Editor Anthony Gregory to discuss Barack Obama’s foreign policy, the renegades of American history, and his research on the origins of habeas corpus, and you can download or listen to that conversation here. This is the first podcast that I produced every aspect of, so I’d like to know if you have any technical issues with it.

Anthony and I both wrote reviews of  Thaddeus Russell’s recent book, A Renegade History of the United States–mine for this very publication–and we spend the bulk of the podcast exploring some of our favorite parts of that extremely entertaining and informative work. We also talk about Anthony’s forthcoming book on habeas corpus, which Anthony argues is something of a double-edged sword. Although habeas corpus often protects individuals from unlawful detention by the state, Anthony describes how it has also been used by people in power to restrict freedom, such as when slaveholders used it to retrieve escaped slaves. The interview is a relatively brief 16 minutes, but I believe you will find each one highly informative.

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View From the Gutter

A Renegade History of the United States, Thaddeus Russell, Free Press, 400 pages

The cities of colonial and early republican America teemed with whores, homosexual pirates, and illegitimate children; slaves frequently labored less and enjoyed leisure more than free whites in the antebellum era; and the mob is responsible for far more of the freedoms that modern Americans enjoy than are the prudish leaders of the civil rights movement. All that is according to the provocative and revelatory Renegade History of the United States, which Thaddeus Russell describes in the preface as “history from the gutter up.”

Russell, a professor of American Studies at Occidental College, defends the bad people of our history—prostitutes, juvenile delinquents, drunks, etc.—by showing how their refusal to conform to the expectations of mainstream citizens has enhanced the sphere of personal liberty over the years. This idea has made Russell something of a renegade himself—he was fired from a position at Barnard College because some of his fellow historians found his conclusions unpalatable. Russell makes a convincing case that these bad people are much underrated, but he never fully grapples with the deepest criticisms of their behavior made by good Americans.

Social conservatives who look to the origins of the United States as a moral and political Eden will be shocked by the happily libertine portrait of colonial America that Russell paints. Workers drank on the job and set their own hours, as evidenced by their common refusal to report for work on “Saint Monday,” which they instead whiled away in one of the numerous taverns that filled the country. Prostitutes not only advertised their services openly in the streets, but often they performed them “in full view to any passersby.” Their customers were by no means limited to disreputable men. The great-grandson of Pennsylvania founder William Penn married a Philadelphia prostitute and retained his social status. In port cities, homosexual sailors exposed themselves to male passersby in hopes of rousing the interest of their fellow man, yet prosecutions for sodomy were rare.

The bad people of early America knew how to have a riotously good time. “But,” according to Russell in one of his many lines of wry humor, “the Founding Fathers invented a way to make Americans think fun was bad. We call it democracy.” The Founders supported independence in part because they believed it would force Americans to control their vices. Leading revolutionaries welcomed war not only as the path to independence but also as a means of ridding the country of extravagances. John Adams was so disgusted by the degenerate behavior of many of his fellow Americans that when the British army prepared to attack Philadelphia in the fall of 1777, he longed for the redcoats to conquer the city and “cure Americans of their vicious and luxurious and effeminate Appetites, Passions and Habits.”

Nor were the Founders early free-marketeers. Trade allowed people to gain wealth and indulge bad habits. South Carolina delegate and president of the Second Continental Congress Henry Laurens pined for the British to institute the harsh discipline of penury upon America. “Reduce us all to poverty and cut off or wisely restrict that bane of patriotism, Commerce, and we shall soon become Patriots…”

After the Revolution, American politicians attacked their countrymen’s licentious freedoms, not, Russell insists, “because the revolutionaries were puritans but because democracy is puritanical.” Partially in an attempt to stem drunkenness, the federal government passed an excise tax on alcohol, which led to the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. State and local governments also took a more active interest in citizens’ sexual behavior. Prosecutions for prostitution increased more than 60 percent over the next 20 years. Women were also arrested for interracial sexual relations in the early republican era—behavior that had been tacitly tolerated by colonial governments. Divorce, largely unregulated before the war, was restricted by the states. When Georgia tightened its divorce laws in 1802, the new legislation was justified on the grounds that the “dissolution [of a marriage] ought not to be dependent on private will, but should require legislative interference; inasmuch as the republic is deeply interested in the private business of its citizens.” Although the Revolution was dressed in libertarian rhetoric, its political consequences were deeply communitarian.

Of course, laws did not eliminate taboo desires, but respectable Americans were forced to project them onto a surprising object of envy: slaves. Modern Americans find it difficult to imagine that free whites would envy slaves, considering that a slave’s life was filled with drudgery and harsh punishment. Russell argues, however, that most free whites did not have it much better—especially those living on the frontier, who were frequently forced to toil endlessly to eke out a living from the land. Nor was the horror of whippings reserved solely for slaves. Americans as diverse as Davy Crockett, Robert E. Lee, John D. Rockefeller, and Abraham Lincoln were all regularly beaten as children with the likes of horsewhips and hickory sticks, and many a schoolmaster employed a cat-o’-nine-tails on disobedient pupils. As adults, free whites could face corporal punishment for criminal infractions, as well as the terrors of early American prisons.

Slaves were forced to work by their overseers, but they did not accept it as a moral obligation and resisted excessive labor by malingering or running away to the woods for days or weeks at a time. They were also guaranteed all of their necessities as long as it was in their masters’ economic interest to keep them in good health. Russell points out that because slaves were not regarded as fully human by the law, they enjoyed some liberties that were prohibited to free citizens. Slaves were not bound by the sexual rules of whites, for example, and frequently engaged in nonmonogamous relationships known as “sweethearting” and “taking up.” Slave culture also celebrated worldly pleasures like music, flashy clothing, and dancing, which respectable white society viewed with disdain.

It should come as no surprise, then, that some renegade whites sought to imitate the lives of slaves, and blackface minstrel shows were one expression of this mimicry. Long before Lou Reed sang “I Wanna Be Black,” T.D. Rice, creator of the Jim Crow character, expressed much the same sentiment in a minstrel song supposing “dem who happen to be white” would “spend ebery dollar / If dey only could be / Gentlemen ob colour.” Russell argues that such songs were sincere odes to the freedom many whites believed slaves enjoyed outside the strictures of American morality.

Even if Russell cannot slay all of American history’s sacred cows, he at least tries to tip them. In the modern era, Russell takes civil rights leaders to task for repeating the same criticisms of black culture as those found in mainstream white society. He quotes Martin Luther King criticizing other black ministers and churches for being, in Russell’s words, “too black”: “[If] we’re going to get ready for integration, we can’t spend all of our time trying to learn how to whoop and holler.”

Far more damning is the condescension Russell finds dripping from white civil rights workers who traveled to the South to teach poor blacks the value of “Soul Things” over “Material Things.” When a white volunteer in Mississippi told a group of blacks to focus on voter registration instead of integrating a movie theater because the latter would not “achieve anything basic,” a teenage girl reprimanded him: “You say that we have to wait until we get the vote. … But you know, by the time that happens, the younger people are going to be too old to enjoy the bowling alley and swimming pool.” Civil rights activists may have had noble intentions, but they frequently dismissed as frivolous the concrete desires of the people they were supposedly working to free.

Contrast the paternal attitudes of the civil rights movement with the more tolerant outlook of organized crime. Russell shows that the mob was the one institution repeatedly willing to stand up for deviant pleasures. When Thomas Edison tried to shut down early movie theaters for violating his film-production trust with racy content, Jewish mobsters defended the theaters from Edison’s agents, stole film equipment from Edison’s companies, and set fire to his distributors’ warehouses. Jazz was condemned by the bien pensant until the middle of the 20th century, but gangsters like Al Capone employed jazz musicians to play in their nightclubs and tipped them handsomely. Later, when homosexuals were harassed by the police anywhere they tried to gather, mafiosi (some of them gay themselves) paid off the cops and raked in profit by virtually monopolizing an underserved market. The Stonewall Inn—the Greenwich Village gay bar usually considered the birthplace of the modern homosexual-rights movement—was owned by the Genovese family, and after the Stonewall riots, the family helped fund an annual gay-rights parade. Despite its fearsome reputation, the mob has been one of the most inclusive forces in American life.

Russell’s work shows beyond a doubt that contemporary Americans owe many of the freedoms they take for granted not to the typical heroes of American history but to a number of mostly unknown renegades who were almost universally condemned in their time. But he never considers whether this is an entirely positive development. Russell does make clear in the book’s preface that he does not support “a renegade revolution” because if it came to pass, “No one would safe on the streets, chaos would reign, and garbage would never be collected.” Even so, it’s worth considering whether the Founders, for instance, were right. Perhaps our material abundance and moral license have made us unfit for self-government. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that something has gone horribly wrong with the American experiment when the debt approaches 100 percent of GDP, we are running annual deficits of $1.5 trillion, no major political leader can find more than $100 billion to cut from the budget, and some imbecile from “Jersey Shore” has “written” a New York Times bestseller.

Yet these considerations are beyond the realm of pure history. Russell has written a thoroughly entertaining, provocative, and informative book that should fundamentally alter how we look at our past—and maybe give us a bit more respect for the renegades of our present.

John Payne is a researcher at the Show-Me Institute in St. Louis, Missouri.

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