I must be the last person in the world to read David Simon’s interview about Freddie Gray and Baltimore police brutality. Seriously, read the whole thing. This part taught me something I did not know, or suspect:

How does race figure into this? It’s a city with a black majority and now a black mayor and black police chief, a substantially black police force.

What did Tom Wolfe write about cops? They all become Irish? That’s a line in “Bonfire of the Vanities.” When Ed and I reported “The Corner,” it became clear that the most brutal cops in our sector of the Western District were black. The guys who would really kick your ass without thinking twice were black officers. If I had to guess and put a name on it, I’d say that at some point, the drug war was as much a function of class and social control as it was of racism. I think the two agendas are inextricably linked, and where one picks up and the other ends is hard to say. But when you have African-American officers beating the dog-piss out of people they’re supposed to be policing, and there isn’t a white guy in the equation on a street level, it’s pretty remarkable. But in some ways they were empowered. Back then, even before the advent of cell phones and digital cameras — which have been transforming in terms of documenting police violence — back then, you were much more vulnerable if you were white and you wanted to wail on somebody. You take out your nightstick and you’re white and you start hitting somebody, it has a completely different dynamic than if you were a black officer. It was simply safer to be brutal if you were black, and I didn’t know quite what to do with that fact other than report it. It was as disturbing a dynamic as I could imagine. Something had been removed from the equation that gave white officers — however brutal they wanted to be, or however brutal they thought the moment required — it gave them pause before pulling out a nightstick and going at it. Some African American officers seemed to feel no such pause.

What the drug war did, though, was make this all a function of social control. This was simply about keeping the poor down, and that war footing has been an excuse for everybody to operate outside the realm of procedure and law. And the city willingly and legally gave itself over to that, beginning with the drug-free zones and with the misuse of what are known on the street in the previous generation as ‘humbles.’ A humble is a cheap, inconsequential arrest that nonetheless gives the guy a night or two in jail before he sees a court commissioner. You can arrest people on “failure to obey,” it’s a humble. Loitering is a humble. These things were used by police officers going back to the ‘60s in Baltimore. It’s the ultimate recourse for a cop who doesn’t like somebody who’s looking at him the wrong way. And yet, back in the day, there was, I think, more of a code to it. If you were on a corner, you knew certain things would catch you a humble. The code was really ornate, and I’m not suggesting in any way that the code was always justifiable in any sense, but there was a code.

In some districts, if you called a Baltimore cop a motherfu**er in the 80s and even earlier, that was not generally a reason to go to jail. If the cop came up to clear your corner and you’re moving off the corner, and out of the side of your mouth you call him a motherfu**er, you’re not necessarily going to jail if that cop knows his business and played according to code. Everyone gets called a motherfu**er, that’s within the realm of general complaint. But the word “asshole” — that’s how ornate the code was — asshole had a personal connotation. You call a cop an asshole, you’re going hard into the wagon in Baltimore. At least it used to be that way. Who knows if those gradations or nuances have survived the cumulative brutalities of the drug war. I actually don’t know if anything resembling a code even exists now.

It had not occurred to me that most of Baltimore’s cops were black. I assumed this was white people beating up black people. That changes the narrative, doesn’t it? When this black academic screams bloody murder about “white supremacy,” it’s at best a distraction from what’s really going on here. (And by the way, protesting “the beating of a black child” — a looting teenager — by his mother is simply crazy. Look:

It’s not surprising that a black mother in Baltimore who chased down, cursed and beat her 16-year-old son in the middle of a riot has been called a hero. In this country, when black mothers fulfill stereotypes of mammies, angry and thwarting resistance to a system designed to kill their children, they get praised.

“He gave me eye contact,” Toya Graham told CBS News. “And at that point, you know, not even thinking about cameras or anything like that — that’s my only son and at the end of the day, I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray. Is he the perfect boy? No he’s not, but he’s mine.”

In other words, Graham’s message to America is: I will teach my black son not to resist white supremacy so he can live.

Oh for God’s sake. If I caught my 16 year old son looting, I would take my white hand and go upside his white head. Toya Graham is Mother of the Year as far as I’m concerned. That academic appears to believe that her thuggish son, the one she’s trying to save from turning into a statistic, ought to have been left alone by his mother to loot because White Supremacy. Insane.

Anyway, the news today makes the mystery of Gray’s death deeper. A prisoner in the van with him says he was banging his head against the side of the van, and could thereby have fatally injured himself (might he have been on drugs)? Police say their investigation shows that the police van carrying Gray made an unscheduled, previously undisclosed stop. Why? What happened there? I’m in a big hurry at the moment, so read the Baltimore Sun for updates.

I was thinking today why stories of rioting and civil unrest unnerve me like nothing else. It has to do with fear — terror, actually — of anarchy. I have a very deep need for order (not that you’d know it by seeing the interior of my car), and I am always thinking about the sources of order, and disorder. For better or for worse, this drives my thinking; it’s why I seem so alarmist to many. You might say that I worry unduly over things that aren’t that big a deal, or you might say that I see things that are not apparent to others.

Maybe it’s a function of latent Asperger’s. In his book The Big Short, Michael Lewis writes about an Aspie who made a fortune because he was able to discern patterns in the market that nobody else could see — this, because his atypical neurology revealed deep patterns to him that eluded the gaze of others. When I read about people with Asperger’s, I realize that I have a lot of those traits myself, though I wouldn’t say I have full-blown Asperger’s.

Anyway, order for me is not an aesthetic concern, but a moral one. A mob is the enemy of the things I value most. One of the most traumatic events of my life had to do with a mob of bullies who held me down and abused me while the two adults in charge did nothing to stop them — not because they could not, but because they would not. Once violence starts, I find it hard to fault authority for stopping it by any means necessary.

The anarchy I worry about is not the anarchy of poor black people in West Baltimore, or anywhere else. The anarchy I worry about is the anarchy within the hearts and communities of people like me — people who outwardly live lives of prosperity and normality, but who, in their hearts, believe that they and their appetites are the only authority they should follow. This is why I am so perpetually alarmed about our culture: it is fundamentally anarchic, because there is buried within our culture no source of order outside the Self.

A reader posted a link to a Daniel Dennett piece in the WSJ the other day, in which the militantly atheist professor predicted a bleak future for religion. Excerpts:

Any institution—just like a person or an organism—depends on a modicum of privacy in which to conduct its business and control its activities without too much interference and too many prying eyes. Religious institutions, since their founding millennia ago, have managed to keep secrets and to control what their flocks knew about the world, about other religions and about the inner workings of their own religion with relative ease. Today it is next to impossible.

What is particularly corrosive to religion isn’t just the newly available information that can be unearthed by the curious, but the ambient knowledge that is shared by the general populace.


The late computer scientist John McCarthy, a founder of artificial intelligence, once said, “When I see a slippery slope, my instinct is to build a terrace.” That’s what theologians have been doing for hundreds of years, shoring up whatever they think they can salvage from the rain of information eroding their ancient peaks of doctrine. In some denominations the clergy are obliged to swear to uphold the “inerrant truth” of every sentence in the Bible, but this is becoming more of an embarrassment than a shield against doubt.

That’s a great definition of the Benedict Option: building a terrace against the slippery slope! I think, actually, the Dennett is right about this. What goes unstated in his piece is his assumption that atheism is true, and all religious truth is false. I don’t believe that at all, but I think it’s increasingly common because secularization (in the Charles Taylor sense) has come upon us very quickly, and religious leaders and institutions have no real idea how to respond. James K.A. Smith’s book about Charles Taylor is a must-read, and shows why Smith is becoming one of the most important American theologians of the present time. Take a look at this short interview with Jamie:

What is Taylor’s thesis on secularism?

Taylor offers a different taxonomy for understanding “the secular,” secularism, and secularity. Most of us, including those who touted “secularization theory,” identify secularization with a-religiosity. In other words, something or someone is “secular” in the sense that they “don’t believe,” are not “religious.” I think this is one of the reasons why outlets like the New York Times or The New Republic can just talk about about religious people as “believers,” whereas everyone else—that is, the editors of NYT and TNR!—are not.

If you buy this sort of notion of secularization, then modernity is what Taylor calls one big “subtraction story”: modern Enlightenment rationality is what’s left over when you subtract the superstition of religious belief. Subtract religion, and what you’re left with is “secular” rationality.

Taylor doesn’t buy this because, as he tries to show, modernity was not just about the subtraction of God and religious belief; it also required the substitution of something to take its place—what he calls “exclusive humanism,” the belief that one can find meaning and significance without any recourse to the gods of transcendence. For Taylor, even though he ultimately disagrees with it, this is the productive accomplishment of modernity: exclusive humanism is a remarkable feat of addition, not the remainder of some subtraction.

You’ll note what’s embedded in his point: exclusive humanism is something you have to believe. So the world is not carved up into “believers” and “secular” rational knowers. It’s a complicated array of different sorts of believers. And that’s why Taylor calls ours a “secular” age: not that we are a-religious or no longer believe, but that we live in an age in which no belief system is axiomatic. Our beliefs are contestable, and we know it.

To people like Dennett, the collapse of religion and the plausibility of traditional religion looks like liberation. What they don’t grasp, and what Nietzsche did grasp, is the alternative to belief in a transcendent God, or at least a transcendent source of absolute value, always boils down to nihilism. Always. Dante understood this: either you will have the Self, or you will have God; any middle ground is an illusion. (Damon Linker is good on the tragic truth of atheism, something that the sunny-faced New Atheists don’t seem to get).

Our wealth and our technology makes irreligion sustainable, even attractive. But I see the anarchy in the hearts of people like me, who are protected from their anarchy by their money and the cultural capital built up over generations of living by a code informed by a real belief, however imperfect, in a real God. It’s being spent down, quickly. It astonishes me to talk to nice middle-class people and realize how few of them seem to get how thin the ties that bind us together and to the earth really are.

Look at this story from New York, sent in by a reader:

A fetish party attendee is blowing the whistle on a bondage-themed event she says would shock even the authors of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Photos from inside the edgy, recurring party called Cirque de Plaisir seem to show a fetish practice called “arterial tapping,” whereby a dominant partner taps a submissive partner’s artery, controlling his or her blood flow. It appears that very blood is sometimes sprayed over a canvas as art.

“Some people just do blood play where they just get some kind of rush out of releasing blood from their arteries,” said the fetish party insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear people would judge her alternative sex life.

She criticized the bizarre bloodletting demonstrations in part because she says one of the party organizers, known in the S&M community as “Santos,” is actually Dr. Edwin Perez, a licensed physician.



Aside from arterial tapping, Facebook posts marketing the Cirque de Plaisir party advertise other potentially risky S&M acts, including “breath play,” whereby dominant partners restrict their submissive partners’ oxygen flow. Another ad for the party promises a demonstration of “scrotal inflation,” a practice whereby saline is injected to make a man’s scrotum many times larger.

An email from an unnamed organizer of the kinky event suggested the fetish demonstrations should not be viewed as medical procedures but rather a form of free expression.

Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of people in this society would never attend a thing like this, and in fact would find it horrifying and disgusting. But how many people could explain why it is wrong, even for consenting adults?

If you will not have God, you will have to accept Cirque de Plaisir.