Thursday, July 07, 2011 - God Hates Scammers - c/o

Summer in the mid-Atlantic means trips to the Delaware shore, with all the saltwater taffy and skee-ball the Holy Prepuce can eat. And no afternoon at Rehoboth Beach would be complete without the quaint commercialism of the billboard boats and airplane banners hawking the latest Grotto Pizza two-for-one or $1.75 Nattys Ladies’ Nite in Ocean City.

Recent beach-goers may have been scratching their heads, however, at the unusual message currently saturating the floating and airborne media:
God Hates Scammers

Who is the mysterious, eponymous Mike Mann, to whose online care the Almighty has entrusted this message of condemnation? And who are the “scammers” meriting the awesome domain name “,” not to mention all this expensive promotion? Two questions; two mad, mad rabbit holes.

Mike Mann is evidently someone whose marriage did not go well, and whose divorce went worse. Other problematic relationships in Mr. Mann’s life appear to involve his father, stepmother, sister, brother-in-law, ex-girlfriends, Rabbi, divorce lawyers, psychiatrists, childhood acquaintances, and homeowners’ association members.

You might assume that a high-value domain name like would belong to a nationwide crime prevention or victims’ rights organization. But there you would be wrong. As it turns out, is the private mouthpiece of Mr. Mann, and it is a tour de force of crazy.

“If you love America and her freedoms you came to the right place,” visitors learn upon arrival. In the 5800+ words that follow, visitors also learn Mr. Mann’s opinions on the various people and organizations that have “scammed” him over the years, as well as his thoughts on child rearing, “phony mystics,” the First Amendment, and most of all the Montgomery County, Maryland, family court system, which according to Mr. Mann constitutes “a horror movie of a vicious, insanely greedy, malpracticing, white, suburban, ignorant group of completely self-absorbed elitist self-entitled phony professionals ceaselessly attacking someone else’s wallet and family to proudly proclaim their lying group narrative and stolen cash.”

5800 words are only the beginning, because at various points throughout his screed Mr. Mann includes hyperlinks to Google Docs files featuring additional, self-contained sub-screeds.

Mr. Mann’s ex-wife, we are told, is a “serial homewrecker” as well as

vindictive, hormonal, jealous, greedy, psychopathic, idiotic, violent, [a] bona-fide rage-o-holic: (And just maybe factually in the closet, menopausal, drunk, [a] compulsive pathological liar, [a] huge blabbermouth, unemployable, ineducable, unconscionable, unintelligible, filthy, overindulged, overfed, overcompensated, self-entitled, coddled, dramatic, pretentious, undisciplined, completely unaccountable, wasteful,—and [someone who] sleeps with MARRIED men with unsuspecting wives……in Tennessee.)
That the Manns’ divorce was less than amicable can be verified externally. A bit of internet sleuthing leads one to the Maryland Judiciary’s public docket for the Manns’ case, containing some 260 entries within which the word “contempt” appears 30 times, the word “incarceration” appears 5 times, and the words “Motion To Enjoin and Restrain Plaintiff from Engaging in Threatening, Harassing and Disrespectful Behavior Towards [his daughter’s] Court Appointed Therapist” appear twice.

Oddly, a more cogent recitation of Mr. Mann’s side of the divorce story, authored by one “Tiffany Reynolds,” appears on the website of the Adyayan Trust, an Indian NGO with no obvious connection to Mike Mann. appears not to be Mr. Mann’s first attempt to air his divorce-related grievances online. Still indexed on Google, although sadly defunct, are[the Manns’ teenage daughter, whose name I will not repeat here].com, and www.[Mrs. Mann’s full name, which I also will not repeat here]

Other revelations on a Dewey Beach masseuse and the proprietor of a Maryland dance studio (presumably both Mr. Mann’s ex-girlfriends) are, in fact, whores; the Rabbi and Cantor at a prominent Washington, D.C. synagogue are likely pedophiles; Mormons get a bad name but are actually very little trouble and high performers; and Mr. Mann’s former divorce attorneys are “like the Washington Generals basketball team lining up to take it from behind from the Harlem Globetrotters.”

Despite his lifelong abuse at the hands of family members, clergy, government, and members of the learned professions, spot number one on Mr. Mann’s shit list is reserved for a certain Mr. B, a board member of the North Indian Beach Community Association. (As above, because will no doubt appear as Exhibit One in a number of soon-to-be-filed defamation suits, I shall not repeat full names here.)

Mr. Mann’s 10,616-word Google Docs diatribe against Mr. B. and the “puppet government” NIBCA is difficult to follow, but the upshot seems to be that various people want to stop various other people from building new houses, driving vehicles on the beach, and opening or closing roads. Mr. B’s position in these matters is contrary to the position of Mike Mann, and for this transgression he is outed on as “[p]ervert [Mr. B] . . . sexual predator [Mr. B.] who dominated many workspaces and illegally unconsentually sexually assaulted, and permanently traumatized many young professionals in unsuspecting Rehoboth Beach businesses on many occasions over a long period.”

What I find most delightful about is the disconnect between the effects Mike Mann presumably imagines it will have on readers and the actual reaction it is likely to elicit from any sane, WiFi-equipped beach-goer curious enough to bite. You can just imagine Mr. Mann watching from the boardwalk as the summer’s first billboard floated by, gleefully mouthing “yes! Yes! YES! Now it can be told! Now revenge is mine!”

What’s so delicious is his evident lack of insight that, far from settling scores and shaming the “scammers,” succeeds only in making Mike Mann look like a lunatic. A lunatic with a media budget, mind you, and assets to settle an upcoming barrage of lawsuits, but a lunatic all the same.

I shall end this post the way Mike Mann ends everything he writes on the Internet: I will never stop cussing, screaming and documenting the truth, it’s the first amendment, if you don’t like it go live in China or Saudi Arabia.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Timely Questions for Reverend Harold Camping

Dear Reverend Harold Camping:

You must be very busy, what with the Rapture coming tomorrow and all, but I’m hoping for just a minute of your time. Actually “a minute of your time” is exactly what I want to ask you about. Because what’s really extraordinarily clever about your Bible calculations is that you’ve not only figured out God’s super-secret plan to Rapture the Earth on May 21, 2011, but also that he’s going to do it one time zone at a time. According to press accounts of your discovery:

the massive doomsday earthquake will start at the International Date Line before moving west. New Zealand . . . will get hit first – at 6 p.m. local time. And then that wave of destruction will roll around the world, wreaking havoc at 6 p.m. in each time zone.

Not only was it smart of God to come up with that cool plan for phased destruction--I mean, Rapturing the whole Earth at once would be kind of unwieldy, especially the Christian parts where there are so many souls to collect--but it’s especially neat how he wrote down the whole plan in code all those thousands of years ago in the Bible. Pretty funny that he tried to throw us off the trail with that whole “but of that day and hour knoweth no man.” He sure fooled me, but he didn’t fool Harold Camping!

I do have a couple of questions, though.

No, I’m not going to ask “what about Daylight Saving Time.” Please. Obviously because God knows everything, he knew that we humans were going to invent Daylight Saving Time, so he factored that into his Bible code.

And same goes for the whole time zones / standard time concept. Sure, in Biblical times and for practically all of human history time was reckoned locally based on the position of the Sun. But again, I’m sure God foresaw that one day there would be railroads, telegraphs, and a corresponding need for uniformity. And because His plan was to Rapture Boston and Cincinnati at exactly the same moment, instead of the 52 minutes apart that 6 p.m. would occur in those cities if we still used “Local Apparent Solar Time” like Abraham and Jesus, God just coded that into the Bible, too.

But here’s the thing. Not to second-guess God or anything, but actually doing it the old fashioned way would kind of make more sense. Because you can totally see how a continuously moving wave of destruction, travelling at an equatorial velocity of just over 1500 feet per second so as to hit each spot at “true” 6 p.m., would work.

Whereas the whole-time-zones-at-a-time model presents some difficulties. Take for example a town that straddles the Texas / New Mexico border. When the Doomsday earthquake flattens everything on the Texas side, will it be made up of some kind of special shockwaves that know to stop at the state line? And what if it turns out that I’m one of the saved, and I get Raptured while straddling the border? Do I risk the right half of my soul being “left behind” for an hour?

And actually, speaking of Daylight Saving Time, did God make clear how your calculations should deal with places that don’t observe it? Like if I’m in Arizona do I get an extra hour, even though Armageddon is already in full swing due North in Utah? But if I step onto the Navajo reservation, which does observe Daylight Saving Time, then I’m toast? What if I’m a member of the Hopi nation, so my land is within the Navajo reservation, but my tribe keeps with the rest of Arizona in not observing Daylight Saving Time? Supposing I’m off the reservation at 5:15, and I want to get home before the Rapture to make sure I didn’t leave the oven on? Will God understand that I’m only passing through Navajo land to get to the Hopi section, and give me the extra 45 minutes?

Even apart from Daylight Saving issues, it seems like the Rapture is going to have to do some jumping around. If you look at a world time zone map, it’s pretty complicated. For all kinds of political reasons you’ve got places where it can be 6 p.m. already even though somewhere to the East still calls it 5 p.m. (Or 5:30 or even 5:15.)

And then you’ve got places like Kashmir, where no one can agree whether it’s part of India (GMT + 5:30) or Pakistan (GMT + 5:00). Do the Hindus get Raptured half an hour before the Muslims? I mean, I understand they’re all going to Hell anyway because they haven’t accepted Jesus, but it would be useful to know.

Also what about at the South Pole? By convention, Amundsen Scott Station uses New Zealand time, but technically speaking the Pole is in every time zone. From what I’ve heard, that place can become a den of iniquity for the “winter-over” crew, owing to the gender imbalance and prolonged isolation in darkness.  So the schedule on which their souls will be called to account is not just an academic question.

And of course there’s the International Space Station to consider. Here we see why it was definitely smart for God to choose standard instead of solar time. Can you imagine if he had to Rapture the astronauts 16 times in one day?! My only question is whether He’ll use Greenwich Mean Time, which the station normally follows, or adjust for the crew’s current temporary shift to Space Shuttle Endeavour’s Mission Elapsed Time. Your Bible calculations take that into account, right?

I would appreciate the courtesy of a prompt response to these questions, preferably by 6 p.m. tomorrow. 6 p.m. my time, I mean.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Welcome to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University! Thank you for attending this ‎year’s Senior Executives in State and Local Government intensive summer program. As you know, the program is ‎based around real-life case studies of government officials like yourselves exercising their problem solving and ‎decision making skills. ‎

So let’s jump right in with a little quiz to get a feel for the skills you and your colleagues may already bring to the ‎table. Our quiz is based on a case study of Jack B. Johnson, former Prince George’s County, Maryland County ‎Executive, and his wife, Councilmember Leslie Johnson.

Background: You are County Executive in a large suburban county bordering on Washington, D.C. You ‎have just accepted $15,000 in cash from a real estate developer, when two FBI agents burst into the room with a ‎search warrant and seize the money. You get into your County vehicle, activate the emergency lights, and start ‎driving toward home. Your wife calls your cell phone and tells you that FBI agents are banging on the door of your ‎house. ‎

Problem: In your house is a $100,000 check from the same developer and a boatload of cash.‎

Question One: Circle the correct answer. You should / should not have the following telephone conversation:‎

Your Wife:‎ Oh, is it the box with the liquor?‎

You:‎ Yeah, and, it... Yeah, and look in another box. You'll see a check in there. Yeah, that's right.‎

Your Wife:‎ Yes, there's a check in there.‎

You:‎ Okay. Tear it up. That's the only thing you have to do. Now go down... You..., you got the money?‎

Your Wife: ‎Yeah, wait a minute. I got the cash. Do you have that cash down in the basement still too?‎

You:‎ Yes.‎

Your Wife: ‎Okay, I gotta move that too. Where do you want me to move it?‎

You:‎ Put it in... Put it in your um, put it in your bra and walk out or something with it. I don't know what to ‎do with it. Um...‎

Your Wife:‎ Whatta you want me to do with the check?‎ You hear 'em banging?‎

You:‎ Tear up the check and..., um..., and, and um..., and... , and um, tear it up. Just..., just tear it up.‎

Your Wife:‎ They're saying FBI Jack.‎

You:‎ Yeah, I know... , I know. That's why I'm telling you. [Developer A] set me up.‎

Your Wife:‎ You want me to put it down the toilet?‎

You:‎ Yes.‎

Your Wife:‎ You want me to flush it?‎

You:‎‎ Yeah, flush that.‎

‎[The sound of a toilet flushing in background.]‎

Your Wife:‎ All right. Now whatta you want me to do?‎

You:‎‎ Go downstairs and get...‎

Your Wife:‎ I'm tellin' 'em I'm not dressed.‎

You:‎‎ Yeah, tell 'em you're not dressed. You will be dressed in five minutes then you open...‎

Your Wife:‎ Okay, and I have the cash.‎

You:‎‎ Okay. Leave that little cash. That's okay. That's a little bit... , a little cash. Put it in your underwear.‎

Your Wife:‎ I have it in my bra. And what about...‎

You:‎‎ Huh?‎

Your Wife: ‎... that other cash though?‎

You:‎‎ Um, [unintelligible].‎

Your Wife:‎ You gotta tell me what to do with it Jack.‎

You:‎ Leslie.‎

Your Wife:‎ What do you want me to do with this money? They are banging?‎

You:‎‎ Put... , put... , put...‎

Your Wife:‎ What do you want me to do with it?‎

You: ‎‎... put it... , put it in your panties and walk out of the house.‎

Your Wife:‎ No, but I mean all this cash Jack.‎

You:‎ Put it...‎

Your Wife:‎ I got the one from down...‎

You:‎‎ Put it in your panties Leslie.‎

Your Wife:‎ Oh my God. Okay.‎

You:‎‎ Yeah, stuff it in your panties. Yeah, tell 'em you were in the bathroom. Right? I'll be home in a minute ‎too. Okay. And then just... , and then just open the door and sit down. Okay?‎

‎[Upon entering the home, FBI agents search your wife’s person and ‎recover $79,600 ‎in United States currency from her underwear and bra.]‎

Question Two: Fill in the blank. County Executive Johnson pled guilty this afternoon to extortion, ‎conspiracy, and tampering with ___________.‎

Question Three: Fill in the blank. When FBI agents are investigating you for official corruption and have a ‎warrant to search your house, there’s a good chance they have also tapped your __________.‎

Monday, March 28, 2011

Gilbert Gottfried and the Discourse on Disaster

A Portrait of Gilbert Gottfried with a Dead Aflac Duck
on His Head by Dan Lacey ( 
Used with permission of the artist.
As the world confronts escalating conflict and looming nuclear disaster, the Holy Prepuce has been ruminating on a more consequential matter: the Gilbert Gottfried sacking.

Why, exactly, did “tweeting” a series of earthquake / tsunami jokes get Gottfried summarily canned as the voice of AFLAC? Gottfried, after all, famously broke the ice at a post-9-11 Friar’s Club roast by recounting “The Aristocrats,” the classic improvised litany of incest, scatophilia, and a rotating menu of other horribles. So it’s not as if AFLAC was allergic to controversial material.

I suspect that Gottfried ran up against an unwritten rule of comedy: disaster jokes are not allowed to have identifiable authors.

The re-telling of disaster jokes is permissible because they are both ubiquitous and anonymous. Anyone of my generation could tell you, for example, how we knew Christa McAuliffe had dandruff, what “NASA” stands for, and why there were no showers on the Challenger. Elliot Orring’s “Jokes and the Discourse on Disaster” (1987) collects fourteen such examples, and I found no more than a handful unfamiliar twenty-five years after the Challenger explosion. Some were undoubtedly adapted from prior maritime or aviation accidents; several I have since heard re-purposed for Princess Diana or 9-11. Folklorists collect this material: Bill Ellis’s “A Model for Collecting and Interpreting World Trade Center Disaster Jokes” (October 5, 2001) identifies twelve discreet “cycles” addressing a range of events including the Kennedy assassination, the Jonestown suicides, and the Lockerbie PanAm 103 bombing.

The universality of these jokes allows us to rationalize their creation as an instinctive defense mechanism with a plausible genesis in evolutionary psychology. The impulse to detach from tragedy through humor serves as a counterbalance to our empathy and attachment, traits essential to social animals but paralyzing if unchecked in times of crisis. Laugh today about yesterday’s sabre-tooth tiger attack and you pull yourself together to hunt mastodon, eat, and live to pass along your genes.

When these jokes seem to rise from the zeitgeist, the telling itself can become the primary gag, the observational meta-joke that human beings are sick bastards who find this funny. It works because we’re all in this together: I’ve heard this one, you’ve heard that one, someone like us must have come up with this; everyone’s responsible so no one is.

But when Gottfried tweets Japan jokes as a professional comedian, there’s him and there’s us. We have no ownership, no liability as the kind of people who think this stuff up. He’s the sick bastard who finds this funny, we’re decent folk who need to take a stand against this trash.

I also think Gottfried is a victim of the Comedian On Twitter syndrome. Social media’s low-cost marketing comes at a price for comedians: fans expect free, instant funny. And so the temptation is to brain-dump ideas that might otherwise never see the light of day.

Looking through Gottfried’s tweets, and putting aside any question of taste, most of them are poorly constructed and don’t really work as jokes. A few would be salvageable with editing. One or two seem to stand on their own:

I asked a girl in Japan to have sex with me. She said “okay, but you'll have to sleep in the wet spot.”

This would be a decent mid-set gag, a supplemental laugh on an established subject. It trades on a mixing of taboos: sex and disaster, but in an understated, minimally-graphic fashion. It turns on clever incongruities of type, number, and scale. And it’s a rather sweet homage to its “sleep in the wet spot” precursor jokes, those Sexual Revolution-era meditations on negotiating casual sex and its aftermath in that brave new gender-equal world.

Here is the best of the lot:

I was talking to my Japanese real estate agent. I said “is there a school in this area.” She said “not now, but just wait."

The central equivocation is actually a stroke of genius: the ambiguity in meaning is possible only in the apocalyptic conditions of this specific moment. Delivering the punchline in the agent’s voice furthers the uncertainty: Does she intend the meaning we perceive? If so, does she take Gottfried’s question so literally as to assume a flotsam schoolhouse would meet his needs? What is her attitude toward the catastrophe if she is breezily offering its consequences as a selling point?

The fundamentals are also solid: a classic setup-line-punchline, with a strong core incongruity between mundane and extraordinary elements. I award bonus points for the dependence on visual imagination, generating dual meaning through reliance on imagery highly specific to the present moment when footage of the deluge is seared into our collective consciousness.

Indeed, the imagery invoked softens the joke by substituting masonry for human flesh. Elliot Orring points out that a defining feature of the Challenger disaster was the “shield[ing]” of “the view of that human disaster miles above the earth . . . by flame and the opaque wall of the shuttle cabin,” whereas “beyond these speakable images of flame and falling debris lay the imaginable but unspeakable images of horrific trauma and mutilation.” Many Challenger jokes operated, Orring argues, by “forc[ing] us to confront what lies behind the speakable media images that are created or manipulated for our consumption.”

The disaster in Japan was not so antiseptic: cameras covered every angle of the destruction, making blanket censorship of death impossible. Gottfried’s text in some fashion works the reverse of a Challenger joke. Instead of laying bare an obscured mayhem, it renders the devastation more palatable by focusing on a cartoonish inanimate object, without speculation as to what could lie inside.

Pre-Twitter, Gottfried might have crossed out five of his ideas, tried the rest at a small club on a Tuesday night, and wound up with the “school” bit as the one piece of usable material. It’s an excellent joke, standing alone, whose merits may render the subject matter forgivable. But by surrounding this pearl with an unvarnished barrage of lesser attempts, Gottfried came across as desperate for laughs, and his use of the subject exploitative.

I’m a tough crowd.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Maryland Marriage Equality: Some Noteworthy Secular Objections

To: Honorable Members, Maryland House of Delegates

From: Holy Prepuce

In anticipation of Friday’s vote on the marriage equality bill, you will no doubt desire the benefit of public comment on the measure. Not all of you were able to attend the bill’s House Judiciary Committee hearing. Committee hearings are streamed on the Internet, but surely no one but an obsessive-compulsive state government groupie would record the audio, transfer it to his MP3 player, and listen to all 8+ hours.

I did. As the hearing was not transcribed, I have taken it upon myself to distill for you some highlights.

The standard arguments for and against same-sex marriage are so well-worn that there is little point in going over them again. And while some rather novel religious arguments were offered, all fall within the familiar heading that God wants you to vote No and you’d really do better not to piss off God.

Instead, I bring to your attention some of the more original and surprising secular arguments marshaled by opponents, because you may not have thought of these:

1. If the bill passes, the Eastern Shore will be forced to secede from the state of Maryland. Quite possibly Western and Southern Maryland will secede also.

2. A marriage can involve many things, such as holding hands, going hiking, or watching football. The word “homosexual” describes just one thing: sex. To talk about “homosexual marriage,” just because a husband and wife can have sex and two men can also have sex, makes no more sense than to talk about about “hand-holding marriage,” “hiking marriage,” or “football marriage.”

3. The availability of marriage will cause gay couples to move to Maryland. Because gay couples can’t have children, their children can’t grow up to become Maryland taxpayers. Therefore Maryland’s tax revenue will suffer -- something we can’t afford in this recession.

4. If we have same-sex marriage in Maryland, nine- and ten-year-old boys in public schools will be taught to urinate on each other for sexual gratification.

5. The Greeks allowed homosexuality, and they were conquered by the Romans. The Romans allowed homosexuality, and they were overrun by barbarians. The same thing could happen in Maryland.

Fatti maschil, Parole femine
, Honorable Members.


Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Splashdown the Second

Back when I sometimes used to write this blog--i.e. before Facebook’s News Feed came along as a lower-effort portal for the transitory contents of my brain--Mrs. P. had a baby. I revealed and discussed the pregnancy and upcoming delivery here, announced the birth within 24 hours, and even declared a paternity leave from blogging, which I subsequently violated.

My present-day negligence in updating Holy Prepuce! has resulted in this two-month delayed announcement that the House of Prepuce has again reproduced! P2 is delightful, charming, and a more-or-less patient companion to her sister, now four and self-appointedly in charge of infant care. (The cat’s maternal instincts have also been activated, and require some supervision owing to the mismatch in texture between human baby skin and feline tongue.)

A question for parents with a baby and an older child: when you are out and about with just the baby and a stranger starts fussing over him/her, do you experience a compulsion to work your older child into the conversation? (Example: “I’ve never seen one so tiny!” “Neither had I. Her big sister weighed 9 pounds!” Or: “He looks so warm in that [car seat accessory].” “I know, I wish I’d had one when his brother was a baby.”)

This kept happening to me on days when I’d drop Little Miss P. at day care and then head out on errands with P2. At first I wondered if I was unconsciously sticking up for Little Miss P,  as in: why should the baby get all the attention? Except that Little Miss P. knows how to work rooms like a lobbyist, so that’s never been a top concern.

Further self-observation suggested that my conduct was rather more vain than magnanimous: My subconscious mind simply couldn’t abide the patronizing way people talk to first-time parents. Or, more to the point, it couldn’t stomach the patronizing things that my paranoia led it to believe people might think about me, on the assumption I was a first-time parent. So it was making sure that everyone understood this baby wasn’t my first rodeo.

In light of this revelation, I resolved to face down my demons, accept kind words about the baby at face value, and not give in to compulsion. So when the cashier at the Hallmark Store cooed “how old is she?” I simply replied “five weeks.” Whereupon the grinning woman inquired--clearly certain of an affirmative answer--“is she your first?” I still haven’t decided whether the satisfaction of saying “no” was worth the preceding 750 milliseconds of agonizing condescension.

Speaking of my older daughter, Little Miss P. has evidently inherited the hoarding gene that runs in my family. It started with a ban on recycling any of the several dozen drawings she produces weekly, and has escalated to the point where we must absolutely retain forever the plastic box her toy camera came in. When the cleaning lady threw Little Miss P.’s “sticker pile” away, forgivably mistaking this linty collection of formerly-adhesive material for trash, a near-crisis ensued. A secure location for Sticker Pile II was immediately scouted, to ensure this catastrophe would never, ever be repeated. I fear my daughter will one day be featured on Hoarders 2055, Now In Holovision: “Citizen, you are out of compliance. Only 11 cubic meters of personal effects are permitted within ClimoDome.”

Something else: everyone’s favorite thing to tell you when there’s a newborn around is “support the head!” And it’s true that babies are born with minimal neck strength, so their heads flop around if you don’t support them. People get really worked up about this: “Hold her head!” “Make sure you’ve got her head before I let go!” “Be careful of the head!”

And that seems like good advice, although it’s never really specified what will happen if you don’t follow it. You know what you never hear on the 11 o’clock news? “Tragedy struck the family of a local newborn this evening, after police say a careless visitor failed to support its head.”

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Why Aren't There More Scott Roeders? (Or, Why Most People Won't Kill Abortion Providers, Even If South Dakota Makes It Legal)

The Internet is ablaze today with reports of a South Dakota bill that would "legalize murder of abortion providers." An examination of H.B. 1171 leaves me of two minds as to whether the bill is insidious or just poorly drafted, and whether the Mother Jones Article is a dire warning or irresponsible scaremongering. Regardless, the episode brings to mind a larger question that has often nagged me: Why aren't there more Scott Roeders?

Imagine that a mass murderer of children, one who openly admits his intention to go right on killing, is loose in your community. And imagine that your government not only has failed to prevent the slaughter, but perversely has enshrined in law this killer's right to murder. Would you not be morally justified in ending this man's rampage by killing him? Indeed, if presented with the opportunity to kill him, would you not be morally negligent in permitting him to go on living and murdering more children each day?

Scott Roeder, as you may recall, murdered Wichita, Kansas abortion provider George Tiller in 2009. Listening to Roeder explain at his sentencing why he killed Tiller, it is clear that his actions made perfect sense in light of a belief professed by him and millions of Americans. That belief: A fetus is a human being with the same right to life as you or I, and killing a fetus is murder. If you believe that, then you believe that to kill George Tiller was to stop a mass murderer against whom the government could do nothing.

Yet since 1977 there have been only 8 murders and 17 attempted murders of American abortion providers or clinic staff--fewer than one such incident per year. Which is why I don't believe that Americans believe what they say about abortion.

The moral right to use deadly force in defense of another is recognized almost universally. And although the law limits this privilege to situations of immediate peril, surely that restriction has no moral force when its premise--that government (e.g. police) will step in given time--is untrue. Some abortion opponents who condemned Roeder fell back on the old standard that you can't kill in the name of "respect for life," but if you really believe that George Tiller was a serial killer on the verge of striking again, this is akin to saying that out of "respect for life" police ought not to have shot Charles Whitman as he picked off passers-by from the University of Texas bell tower.

We are not morally obligated to prevent every harm that may befall another. But if we know where a serial killer lives, works, and worships, to stand by while he strikes again and again would be an indefensible omission. If you believe about fetuses what Scott Roeder believes about fetuses, then killing abortion providers is not only justified, but virtuous and perhaps morally imperative.

And yet it happens so rarely. Why? Fear of punishment, lack of opportunity, and cognitive dissonance in light of apparently conflicting moral duties may provide partial explanations. But I don't think these rationalizations alone--or indeed primarily--explain the scarcity of such killings.

In a 2008 essay for the Times of London, philosopher Jamie Whyte suggests that the apparent persistence of Christian belief, which he regards as "pre-Enlightenment gobbledegook," has a simple explanation: people don't actually believe it. Rather, he argues, people who profess Christian beliefs "are expressing their hopes rather than their beliefs--substituting 'I believe' for 'I wish' in the unconscious endeavour to convince themselves." "The real test for genuine belief," Whyte argues, "is not what people say, but what they do. To believe something is to be disposed to act upon it. The vast majority of Western Christians fail this test."

As one example, Whyte examines abortion. Imagine, he suggests, a network of government slaughterhouses in which a million children are exterminated each year.

It is a horrifying idea. Anyone who believed it to be happening would surely rise up against the regime, with violence if necessary. . . . To do nothing . . . would display despicable moral complacency.

Yet British Roman Catholics allegedly believe that such slaughter is really happening. They claim that humans have immortal souls from conception, and that killing a foetus is no less murder than killing a ten-year-old. . . .

If they believe what they claim to, they are no better than those who turned a blind eye to Nazi atrocities. But I do not think they are that wicked. It is just that they don't really believe the things they say about foetuses and immortal souls.

I don't know that I would go so far as to conclude that Christians don't believe in Christianity. But I do take Whyte's point that most people who believe abortion to be murder act in a manner inconsistent with that belief. In America, there are no government-run abortion clinics. But there are individual abortion providers who, it would seem, believers in fetal equality should regard as justified, and even morally imperative targets for assassination. And like Whyte, I suspect that most people's unexpressed beliefs about fetuses can be discerned from their illogically peaceable behavior.

I suspect that most people don't kill abortion providers because in their heart of hearts they intuitively recognize that fetuses are not equal to born human beings. The magnitude that individuals assign to the fetal life-right may differ signifcantly. (If you think you place it at zero, imagine abortions were free but contraceptives cost 25 cents per month. Would you find no moral problem in foregoing contraception solely because aborting would be cheaper?) But by not acting like Scott Roeder, nearly everyone reveals they believe the right falls somewhere below the level meriting defense by deadly force. And to believe that is to accept that fetuses have a lesser right to life than you and I--because our lives are subject to that level of protection.

If nearly everyone believes this, why will so many not admit it, even to themselves? I suspect it is because they at some level recognize their intuition is fatal to the anti-abortion cause. It is self-evident that citizens of a free society possess a strong interest in exercising bodily autonomy without government interference. It is further obvious that women can have powerful motivations to abort. Among the most universal are escaping the continued agonies of pregnancy and childbirth--for all women a physical toll, for some the risk of intra-family violence or social opprobrium; and, for the many who know they could not bear to surrender an infant to adoption, the avoidance of undesired parenthood.

If a fetus had a life-right equal to yours and mine, these interests and motivations would be of little consequence to the anti-abortion position. No matter how strong a pregnant woman's interests in obtaining an abortion, short of saving her own life few would say those interests justified the killing of a being with rights exactly equal to the woman's own. (There are arguments defending abortion even assuming fetal equality--Judith Jarvis Thomson's violinist is perhaps the best known--but they are too elaborate to persuade many but the already-persuaded.)

But to admit that the fetal life-right is less than equal with your own is to admit that the morality of abortion is complex, and susceptible at best to a case-by-case balancing of interests. If that is true, then justly-administered state prohibition of abortion is hopelessly impractical. Such an admission also risks acknowledging that the true magnitude of the fetal life-right could be so low that a woman's interest in bodily autonomy--regardless of her other motivations--is always sufficient to outweigh it. If so, the government could not justly prohibit abortions even case-by-case.

Many Americans claim to believe abortion is the same thing as murder. Their refusal to stop it by violence suggests to me they know it isn't. Thankfully, there are very few Scott Roeders.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Post-Polling Pornucopia

It’s time for another Holy Prepuce! Research Update, where the cutting edge of academic endeavor is distilled, digested, and regurgitated for your special edification. Today’s offering: “Changes in Pornography-Seeking Behaviors Following Political Elections: An Examination of the Challenge Hypothesis,” Evolution & Human Behavior 31 (2010): 442-446. In this article, authors Patrick & Charlotte Markey answer the burning question of whether backers of successful political candidates consume more internet pornography post-election than do supporters of losing candidates.

The authors begin with some background about the “Challenge Hypothesis,” which suggests that “testosterone levels in males tend to rise during competition . . . [to] support various reproductive behaviors . . . . Interestingly, individuals do not even have to be directly involved in a competition for their testosterone levels to be affected; spectators can experience similar changes. . . .”

The effect has been documented among male supporters of winning sports teams. A recent study also “found that following the 2008 US presidential election men who voted for the winning candidate (Barack Obama) had higher testosterone levels after the election than men who voted for a losing candidate.”

Thus, the authors hypothesize, “[a] sexual behavior that might shift following the winning or losing of a competition is the seeking of visual–sexual stimulation (e.g., pornography),” and following an election we should expect to see higher rates of pornography seeking in states that backed the winning side.

As it happens, the authors tell us, pornography is custom-made for the male brain:

Men’s interest in pornography is typically attributed to men’s evolved interest in sexual variety and multiple partners. As noted [in prior research], men tend to fantasize about a place where “sex is sheer lust and physical gratification, devoid of more tender feelings and encumbering relationships, in which women are always aroused, or at least easily arousable, and ultimately are always willing.”

And where is that special man-place? Why in the magical world of porn, of course, which--as helpfully explained for those (presumably female) readers unschooled in the genre--“typically depicts women engaging in casual sex without investment.”

For those wishing to experience this “pornography” for ourselves, the authors explain that it is available in “a variety of media, ranging from books, magazines, film and video,” but advise that “however, currently, one of the most prevalent means of distributing pornography is the internet.” Readers unfamiliar with technical matters are offered the further suggestions that “[b]y simply typing a few keywords into a search engine (e.g., Google) it is extremely easy to search for pornography on the internet,” and “[f]or example, a person might type in the word ‘porn’ or ‘sex’ into the Google search engine when attempting to find pornography.”

The authors next detail their research methods, which utilize Google Trends data from the 2004, 2006, and 2008 US elections, data which can be drilled down on a state-by-state basis to determine the frequency of particular searches in a given time period:

The internet service WordTracker was used to determine which keywords individuals tend to use to search for pornography. . . by first providing WordTracker with a seed word relevant to pornography. For the current study the researchers simply used the word “porn.” WordTracker then searched the top 100 websites that rank highest on search engines for the term “porn” and extract[ed] additional keywords utilized by these sites. From this analysis, the 10 most frequently occurring, non-domain-specific, pornography keywords (e.g., “xvideos,” “boobs,” “tits,” etc.) were selected for the current study. . . . Google Trends was then utilized to determine the popularity of these pornography keywords.

And the results?

[T]he week after the 2004 presidential election Red states (i.e., the states that voted for the winner of the election) had marginally higher RSVIs [relative search volume indices] for pornography keywords than Blue states . . . . [T]he week after the 2008 presidential election Blue states (i.e., the states that voted for the winner of the election) had significantly higher RSVIs for pornography keywords than Red states . . . . [For the 2006 mid-term election], a regression analysis was conducted to examine whether or not traditionally Blue states (coded 2) had higher RSVI scores than swing states (coded 1) which had higher RSVI scores than traditionally Red states (coded 0). Consistent with the . . . hypothesis, a significant linear trend was found.

A key purpose of Holy Prepuce Research Update is to stimulate ongoing inquiry. For that reason I hope some among my readership will take up the authors’ exhortation for further research directed at some limitations of their study.

One such limitation is that backers of winning candidates

might have simply been happier and more likely to desire sex . . . [i]n other words, . . . changes in voters’ moods rather than testosterone levels [may] explain the observed changes in pornography-seeking behaviors[, a]lthough . . . previous research is somewhat mixed as to the relations between mood, interest in pornography, and masturbation.

Hence, “[i]t is hoped that future research might provide a more complete understanding of the mediators that explain why pornography-seeking behaviors tend to change following political elections.”

Another limitation is that Google Trends does not track the gender of users, and so it “would be informative for future researchers to utilize a different methodology that allows for the assessment of gender.” Nevertheless,

[g]iven the frequency that males use the internet to search for pornography . . . and the keywords used in the current study to operationally define pornography searchers (e.g., “boobs,” “tits,” etc.), it seems likely that the observed findings were driven by males.

And if I may suggest some avenues of further investigation myself: First, although revealing only “xvideos,” “boobs,” and “tits,” the article promises that “[a] complete list of the 10 keywords utilized for the current research is available from the first author.” Professor Markey may be reached through his laboratory at Villanova University, so please feel free to ask him for the remaining seven.

Second, as a resident of a blue state, I am proud to note that although red-staters displayed “marginally” higher pornography-seeking behavior after Bush’s 2004 reelection, we blue-staters delivered a “significantly” higher number of porn searches following Obama’s win in 2008. I theorize the following relationship: voting Democratic is but one manifestation of our depraved and comprehensive libertinism. Prospective testers of this hypothesis are invited out here to Gomorrah for a site visit.

Friday, July 30, 2010

"The Mosque at Ground Zero"

“Stop the mosque at Ground Zero,” screams the right-wing Internet campaign!

Newt Gingrich has weighed in: “Building this structure on the edge of the battlefield created by radical Islamists is not a celebration of religious pluralism and mutual tolerance; it is a political statement of shocking arrogance and hypocrisy.”

As has Sarah Palin: “This is not an issue of religious tolerance but of common moral sense. To build a mosque at Ground Zero is a stab in the heart of the families of the innocent victims of those horrific attacks.”

We can quibble, of course, about whether 45 Park Place is “at Ground Zero,” whether Cordoba House will be a “mosque,” and whether it constitutionally could be prohibited. But arguing about these points may be counterproductive, because to do so risks conceding that they matter. It gives credence to the idea that if this is a “Ground Zero Mosque” and can be legally prohibited, then prohibiting it could be the right thing to do.

Gingrich and Palin certainly seem to think stopping Cordoba House is the right thing to do. Here is what I would like to ask them:

Newt and Sarah, let us assume arguendo that Cordoba House is “at Ground Zero,” that it is a "mosque," and that it legally could be prevented. Please tell me which one or more of the following statements you agree with:

1. No general moral right exists to build a house of worship on one’s own land; or

2. Such a general moral right exists, but it does not apply in this case because:

a. Islam--the religion as a whole in all its variants--was responsible for 9/11, and a mosque at the site of 9/11 would therefore profane the dead; or

b. Islam is a profane religion, and to allow a mosque on the “hallowed ground” of 9/11 would therefore profane the dead; or

c. Islam is the enemy of the United States, and it is therefore an act of surrender to allow a mosque at the site of an enemy attack; or

d. All Muslims bear collective guilt for 9/11, and as a result have forfeited this general moral right; or

e. Not all Muslims bear collective guilt for 9/11, but because 9/11 was committed in the name of Islam, to become or remain a Muslim is implicitly to approve of 9/11, an immoral belief that forfeits the general moral right.

I’m sure that Gingrich and Palin would deny believing any one of these statements, if each were put to them in isolation. But if they are sincere in calling for the project to be stopped, they must believe at least one.

Unless of course, they don’t, and they’re just pandering.

There is a separate line of argument in the anti-mosque talking points, which holds that whether or not Cordoba House can be stopped by its opponents, the builders should have the “sensitivity” not to build it. The idea being that so long as some Americans, particularly survivors of the 9/11 dead, are offended by the construction of Cordoba House, its builders have an ethical obligation to prevent that offense by cancelling the project.

The difficulty is, though, that to take offense at the building of a “Ground Zero Mosque,” one must logically believe one or more of statements 2a, 2b, or 2c. If Islam as a whole is not responsible for 9/11, is not a profane religion, and is not the enemy of the United States, then a “Ground Zero Mosque”--unless built in explicit celebration of the attacks--is not offensive. (A 9/11-celebrating mosque would of course be a different story, but so would a 9/11-celebrating ice cream stand or waterslide.)

So those who advance the sensitivity argument on the basis that they personally take offense are merely affirming their beliefs in statements 2a, 2b, or 2c, with the added implication that “even a Muslim should recognize these things about his religion.”

But what most intrigues me about the sensitivity argument is those who purport to raise it only on behalf of others. Such a person says in essence to the builders, “look, you and I both know that your entire religion is not profane, not the enemy, and not responsible for 9/11. But these people... they're hurting. They’ve lost loved ones, they've been through a trauma--if they believe those things about Islam, let's not rub their noses in it."

After all, the general proposition--that looking out for people’s feelings is usually the right thing to do--is uncontroversial. But could this duty really extend to respecting others’ feelings when they are born from prejudice? Even if the prejudice is against you? That seems a step too far. Which is why I have my suspicions that, from people who have thought it through, the “sensitivity” argument in the end reduces to a general condemnation of Islam.

Unless of course, it doesn’t, and they’re just pandering.

UPDATE: a conservative friend pointed out to me that the Anti-Defamation League has come out against Cordoba House as well, and he asks whether I am “implying that it is acceptable for a civil rights organization such as the ADL to be against the mosque, but it is not acceptable for conservative politicians to take that stand?” To answer in no uncertain terms: no. I was unaware when I wrote this post of the ADL’s position, which I find equally unsupportable, and indeed more troubling coming as it does from an organization dedicated to fighting anti-religious bias.

I would put the same questions to ADL director Abraham Foxman. And in particular, to his statement that “building an Islamic center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain--unnecessarily--and that is not right,” I would respond as follows: Explain to me, Mr. Foxman, why a victim would feel pain at the building of an Islamic center unless he believes that “Islam”--all of it--is the same entity that carried out 9/11? And assuming you can’t, tell me why it is “not right” for the builders of Cordoba House to ignore those victims’ bigotry.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

A Prisoner’s Dilemma and a Scottish Verdict: The Strange Case of Robert Wone

If I am tardy in updating Holy Prepuce!, it is because I have squandered my available Internet time obsessively following trial updates at The blogosphere is saturated with theories of this crime, so rather than offering my own, I'm going to tell you three things I find extraordinary about the murder of Robert Wone and the subsequent acquittal of Joseph Price, Dylan Ward, and Victor Zaborsky on charges of obstruction and evidence tampering.

First, quite obviously, the facts: It is not every day that the General Counsel of Radio Free Asia is found stabbed to death in a million-dollar townhouse occupied by a polyamorous "throuple" and filled to the brim with S&M equipment. Nor do most killings present such Poirot-worthy puzzlers: the bloody knife that didn't match the stab wounds; the near-absence of blood; Wone's unexplained needle marks and seeming paralysis at the time of his stabbing, yet no sign in the toxicology results that he had been drugged; the discovery of Wone's own semen--and no one else's--in his rectum.

Second, the throuple's unlikely success at a variant on the classic Prisoner's Dilemma: The circumstances of Wone's death and the throuple's behavior suggested, but did not prove, that each of the three was involved in either the killing or the cover-up. One has to assume that police and prosecutors offered each man more lenient treatment if he would rat out the other two.

Each man therefore knew that staying silent meant freedom if the other two kept mum, but decades in prison if either one squealed. On these odds, a game theorist would surely advise that the optimal strategy was to talk. Yet none of the men did, even as the government escalated its game of "chicken" by prosecuting all three for obstructing justice. The throuple's mutual loyalty had great rewards--as, presumably, did their successful acts of obstruction and tampering--all were acquitted of both offenses, and none has been charged with murder.

Third, the closest approximation to the "Scottish Verdict" of "not proven" that one will likely find in an American court: As fans of Wilkie Collins or Arlen Specter well know, a Scottish jury can acquit for lack of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but express its conclusion that the defendant most likely committed the crime by voting "not proven" rather than "not guilty."

American juries deliver verdicts of "not guilty" without explanation of their reasons, so they have no formal mechanism by which to acknowledge an acquitted defendant's likely guilt. Only in the rare circumstance that a defendant elects to be tried by a judge alone--as the throuple did in this case--does the trier of fact issue written findings in a criminal case.

Excerpts from Judge Lynn Leibovitz's Order acquitting the throuple leave little doubt that she would have found "not proven," had that verdict been available:

From the beginning, this case has been a test of the meaning of the reasonable doubt standard of proof. . . . As an initial matter, I am persuaded by the trial evidence in its totality, and I find, that the murder of Robert Wone was not committed by an intruder unknown to the defendants. . . . The government has thus presented powerful evidence to support its claim that Robert Wone's murderer was either one of the defendants, or someone known to them who was able to enter without breaking. . . . I am persuaded . . . that Mr. Price very likely tampered with and altered the murder weapon, and that he lied about his conduct in this regard to police with obstructive purpose. . . . I find that it is very likely Mr. Price altered or destroyed evidence at the scene with the specific intent to reduce its value as evidence in the imminent investigation. . . . Some of the most persuasive evidence in the record supporting the government's position is the demeanor and conduct of the defendants. From the beginning, each one of them . . . displayed a demeanor wholly at odds with what anyone would expect from an innocent person whose friend had just been murdered tragically and violently in his home. . . . It is very probable that the government's theory is correct, that even if the defendants did not participate in the murder some or all of them knew enough about the circumstances of it to provide helpful information to law enforcement and have chosen to withhold that information for reasons of their own. Nevertheless, after lengthy analysis of the evidence I conclude that the government has failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the essential elements . . . . My focus on the difference between "moral certainty" and "evidentiary certainty" in this case is probably cold comfort to those who loved Robert Wone and wish for some measure of peace or justice, and I am extremely sorry for this. I believe, however, that the reasonable doubt standard is essential to maintaining our criminal justice system as the fair and just system we wish it to be. I cite the wisdom of English jurist William Blackstone that it is "better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer."

My Criminal Law professor once observed that he felt most proud to be an American the day John Hinckley was acquitted, because on that day he learned that a jury will acquit even a man who shoots the President of the United States on national television if the law says he is not responsible for his actions. And I have to say that I am similarly pleased to live in a country where a judge can be all but certain that one or more of the men before her is a murderer, yet acquit when the government has failed to prove the only crimes with which they are charged.

Having endeavored to say something intelligent about the Wone matter, I am now entitled to deliver what you've all been waiting for (and if you found this post in a Google search, what most likely contains your keywords): the Metropolitan Police Department's list of items recovered from Dylan Ward's bedroom:

racks, shackles, metal and leather collars, wrist/ankle restraints, mouth gags, black spandex hoods, assorted clamps and clips, black clothes pins, an enema kit, metal penis rings, penis vices, assorted metal chains with locks, studded penis bindings, dildos, butt plugs, nipple suction devices, a[n] electrical current/shock device, a device designed to force the wearer to drink another's urine[,] . . . . various books relating to inflicting pain on others for purposes of sexual gratification, inflicting electric shocks on others for pleasure and pain, enslaving others for sexual gratification, manuals concerning sadomasochistic practices, books dedicated to bondage practices and the like. Many of these books contained passages highlighted by the reader.

The civil trial awaits…

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Adam Wheeler, Conceptual Artist

Why can't prosecutors understand that indicted "Harvard Faker" Adam Wheeler is in reality a conceptual artist of the highest caliber? Ignorant accusations painting Wheeler as a simple fraudster who conned his way into Harvard malign his genius burlesque on the follies of elite academe.

For evidence of Wheeler's true purpose, one need look no further than the pastiche e-mail sent to his fellow transfer students upon their arrival at Harvard:

My own, brief, assessment of my character is that I am sententious, crypto-tendentious, slightly pedantic with a streak of contrarianism, a fascination with any pedagogical approach to Shakespeare, and a decent sense of humor . . . . [I view sports as] . . . a neighborhood faux-pas of epic proportions. . . . [At MIT], I was, to put it poorly, suckled upon the teat of disdain. That being said (fortified by a reflexive snort), I was inspired thereby to apply to Harvard, where the humanities, in short, are not, simpliciter, a source of opprobrium.
Who except a newly-arrived transfer student, overwhelmed at her good fortune to be accepted at a school where people actually talk like that, would not recognize this as the tongue-in-cheek drivel of a satirist impostor?

A con man seeking a Harvard degree might have started as Wheeler did, posing as a frustrated MIT comp lit major seeking a transfer up Mass Ave. But from there on, the paradigm fits Wheeler's oeuvre not a bit. In a virtuoso display of commitment to character, Wheeler immersed himself in the rôle of a comically incompetent hustler, planting a series of over-the-top "blunders" in service of two conceptual theses:

1. The ego validation of a wunderkind-at-my-institution is so intoxicating that elite scholars will swallow the most outrageous fabrications in support of that narrative;

2. The scholarly output of elite academe is for the most part complete bullshit.

Where a con man would have upgraded his pedigree to include some regional prep school outside the usual Harvard orbit, Wheeler brazenly selected Phillips Andover, where the college counselors are on Harvard Admissions' speed-dial. A con man would have forged not-quite-perfect SAT reports and transcripts; Wheeler awarded himself a perfect 1600 and straight As. The latter detail was particularly well-selected: MIT freshmen do not receive letter grades in their first semester.

Like Wheeler, a con man might have forged references from MIT professors--but a con man would have signed them with the names of actual MIT faculty. Wheeler signed the names of professors at Bowdoin College, the school that suspended him in 2007 for academic dishonesty. A con man claiming to attend MIT would have shown up to be interviewed in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Wheeler requested a local interview at Bowdoin. When the interviewer inquired what an MIT freshman was doing in Brunswick, Maine during the academic year, Wheeler explained that he was assisting a Bowdoin professor with a book.

Once into Harvard, an institution from which one can easily graduate without once coming under adult scrutiny, a con man would spend the next three years laying low. If not quite up to the academic task, he would plagiarize or otherwise cheat to the least extent necessary to achieve passing marks. Another Wall Street analyst would be minted, with no one the wiser.

Wheeler's project required a different approach. As the climax of his performance, Wheeler applied for a Rhodes Scholarship, the most prestigious in the English-speaking world. True to form, Wheeler forged recommendations from Harvard professors, forged a Harvard transcript showing perfect grades, and--a master stroke--submitted a resume largely cribbed from chaired professor James R. Russell.

If the resume in Wheeler's Rhodes application is anything like the one he submitted for an internship at The New Republic, it boasts of Wheeler's mastery of French, Old English, Classical Armenian, and Old Persian. It also details his six invited lectures, including "From Parthia to Robin Hood: The Armenian Version of the Epic of the Blind Man’s Son (Köroghlu)" and "The Body in the Garden: The Metapoetics of Husbandry from More to Marvell." The resume promises two forthcoming books, including Mappings, Unmappings, and Remappings, abstracted as follows:

Critical work that has attempted to explain the experience of geographical and textual space in modern writing has focused predominantly on the map as an analytical tool of orientation that makes formal writing structures legible. My dissertation, however, articulates a positive and generative potential in the experience of getting lost. Disorientation, then, allows us to come to terms with the difficulty of modernist literature from the ground level--to view these works not as an abstraction seen from the "God’s eye" perspective that is implicit in most maps, nor a teleological outcome of the Enlightenment seen from retrospect. By restoring the experience of disorientation, I argue that getting lost becomes a radical discourse that reflects back to us how we orient ourselves--what we pay attention to as we move through physical space and how we construe meaning as we move through a text from page to page.
This is obviously complete nonsense. But no less obvious is Wheeler's artistic message in submitting it: it is exactly the sort of nonsense liable to garner a scholarship from a fawning Rhodes committee.

As was no doubt Wheeler's design, the Rhodes application proved a bridge too far. The inevitable investigation revealed not only his antics in gaining admission to Harvard, but a plagiarized Junior thesis for which Wheeler had been awarded the Hoopes Prize for outstanding scholarship. Rather than face disciplinary proceedings, Wheeler withdrew from Harvard.

But in an audacious epilogue, Wheeler began his transfer routine anew, applying to both Yale and Brown. In a letter of recommendation from Harvard's McLean Hospital, Wheeler praised his work in an internship for which he had in fact been rejected after submitting a falsified application. To his principal letter of recommendation, Wheeler signed the name of the very Harvard dean who had confronted Wheeler with his Rhodes fabrications.

Alas, my profession is one of philistines, and instead of lionizing Wheeler's artistic contributions, the Middlesex County District Attorney's Office charged him with four counts of larceny, eight counts of identity fraud, seven counts of falsifying an endorsement or approval, and one count of "pretending to hold a degree."

I call on Massachusetts' esteemed judiciary to put an end to this assault on the First Amendment. Free Adam Wheeler!

Monday, May 03, 2010

An Open Letter to danah boyd (an Ethnographer Who Does Not Capitalize Her Name)

Dear Dr. boyd:

Congratulations on achieving position #1 in the "Social Media Ethnographers" tab of every reporter's Rolodex. As April's Facebook F8 conference approached, I predicted an electronic avalanche of danah boyd, and the media did not disappoint. Your ubiquity is confirmed to me not only by Google News search but also, no doubt dearer to your heart, by re-posted snippets of your wisdom bubbling through my Facebook "stream."

Now, if I may, a small anecdote:

I once attended the recital of an Arnold, Missouri dance school, and discovered that one of the older girls had listed herself in the program as simply "Essence." Essence was in several numbers, and for each one the billing read something like, "Mary Jane Jaworski, Erin O'Sullivan, Joanne Simmons, Essence." And I have to say, Essence was a pretty good dancer. But instead of thinking "how nice for this girl that she dances so well," all I could think was "you do not get to call yourself 'Essence' in the recital program of an Arnold, Missouri dance school."

Essence came vividly back to mind some twenty years later, as I encountered the following sentence in an October, 2009 article:

Ethnographer danah boyd, who does not capitalize her name, said she watched the class divide emerge while conducting research of American teens' use of social networks in 2006.

Any insights I might have been developing on the subject of the article (socioeconomic stratification in social media use) flew through the windshield as my attention screeched to an abrupt "wait, what?" A quick reversing, then, again: "Ethnographer danah boyd, who does not capitalize her name." It was now time for me to Google you, because anyone who "does not capitalize her name" to the point of instructing a CNN reporter that she "does not capitalize her name" must surely maintain a personal website on which she she explains why.

And you do. Visitors can learn that you legally changed your name to "danah michele boyd" as the result of a "mental tangent" in which you pondered:

What's in a name? What's its worth? Why is it so valuable that it is to be capitalized? Down this path, i started thinking about names as descriptors versus separate entities. Isn't a name simply another unique adjective for me? A label? I am not my name; my name is simply another descriptor of me. Should i weight that descriptor as anything more valuable than the other adjectives used to describe me?

Well, danah, to begin with: no, your name is not "simply another unique adjective" for you. As it happens, names are not adjectives at all. They are proper nouns, which we capitalize in English probably to reflect the special attention that humans like to pay to other humans, the places they live, the groups they form, and the unique objects they create. Surely an ethnographer of social media knows that.

What interests me more is that your "mental tangent" was an outgrowth of an earlier decision to stop capitalizing the pronoun "I":

I was always bothered by the fact that the first person singular pronoun is capitalized in english -- i always thought it was quite self-righteous. . . . Ever since i was a kid, i was told that the world does not revolve around me, yet our written culture is telling me something entirely different. . . . i gave up on giving it such a special level of importance -- it is referring to me, right? I thought an attempt at minimalizing the individualization could start at home.

In order to test the sincerity of your belief that "the world does not revolve around" you, I suggest an experiment. First spend ½ hour or so poking around Then report back as to how many other names appearing on that site require explanatory parentheticals in order for editor, reader, and reporter to clarify that pretension, rather than slovenly proofreading, is at work.

Here is the list of people who get to spell their names without capitalization:

1. Celebrity poets of the 20th Century

2. Lesbian Vegetarian Canadian country music stars

3. Postmodern chroniclers of the Black female experience in America

Oh, I'm sorry... it looks like "ethnographers of social media" is not on the list.

Yours Sincerely,
Holy Prepuce

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Wisconsin County Celebrates Send-a-Sex-Ed-Teacher-to-Jail Week

Just when you thought the forces opposing sensible sex education couldn't stoop any lower, the self-described evangelical District Attorney of Juneau County, Wisconsin sends this letter to county school board members and district administrators. In his correspondence, DA Scott Southworth offers his "review" of Wisconsin's new sex education guidelines. And what friendly advice does the good District Attorney offer? Only that teachers who follow the guidelines might just wind up in the pokey courtesy of, well, Scott Southworth:

[I]f a teacher instructs any student aged 16 or younger how to utilize contraceptives under circumstances where the teacher knows the child is engaging in sexual activity with another child--or even where the "natural and probable consequences" of the teacher's instruction is to cause that child to engage in sexual intercourse with a child--that teacher can be charged [with contributing to the delinquency of a child.] The teacher need not be deliberately encourage the illegal behavior: he or she only need be aware that his or her instruction is "practically certain" to cause the child to engage in the illegal act. Moreover, the teacher could be charged with this crime even if the child does not actually engage in the criminal behavior. Depending on the nature of the child's behavior, the teacher could face either misdemeanor or felony charges with maximum punishments ranging from 9 months of jail to up to six years of prison.

If it weren't so despicable, Southworth's transparent threat would be amusing. Later in the letter he warns that the new guidelines "may expose your district to civil litigation." This is so not only because parents will sue for the "sexual assault, unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, emotional trauma, etc." that will inevitably result from learning how to use contraceptives, but also because "the ACLU of Wisconsin has previously made it clear that it wants to monitor sex education programming in Wisconsin Schools."

Beautifully, it is Southworth himself whose conduct has most likely bought the taxpayers of Juneau County an ACLU-funded lawsuit. Ordinarily, one can't sue to prohibit a future prosecution. You need to demonstrate a substantial likelihood that you personally will be targeted, and most people can't show that. But when a teacher shows up with a letter in hand from the DA saying "if you follow the new state law I will put you in jail," I think she's going to get her day in court.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The School District in Fact Has the Ability To Remotely Activate the Webcam

In case you were still in denial that we are living in a futuristic dystopia, the Holy Prepuce invites your review of this class-action complaint filed Tuesday in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and brought to H.P.'s attention by longtime reader Superfecta.

According to the complaint, defendant Lower Merion School District this year instituted a "one to one laptop computer initiative," issuing each high school student with a personal laptop computer so as to

enabl[e] an authentic 21st-Century learning environment . . .[,] enhance[] opportunities for ongoing collaboration, and ensure[] that all students have 24/7 access to school based resources and the ability to seamlessly work on projects and research at school and at home.
All seemed well and good until the plaintiff, Harriton High School student Blake J. Robbins, was taken aside by an assistant principal who

informed minor Plaintiff that the School District was of the belief that minor Plaintiff was engaged in improper behavior in his home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor Plaintiff’s personal laptop issued by the School District.
Upon questioning by Robbins' father, the assistant principal

verified . . . that the school district in fact has the ability to remotely activate the webcam contained in a student's personal laptop computer issued by the school district at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the webcam, all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer.
Not surprisingly, Robbins and his parents think this practice violates their rights under the Fourth Amendment and various privacy laws, not least because

many of the images captured and intercepted may consist of images of minors and their parents or friends in compromising or embarrassing positions, including, but not limited to, in various stage of dress or undress.
Without knowing about the whole remote-activated-webcam aspect, one might legitimately wonder why educational dollars are being used to hand out free laptops to residents of Philadelphia's Main Line suburbs. Surely the money would be better spent in, say, Kensington or Strawberry Mansion. But with these new revelations, it starts to make sense. Aside from better teachers, newer textbooks, and functioning buildings, what do rich kids in America get that poor kids don't? Answer: the luxury of attending schools instead of mini-prisons equipped with metal detectors, rent-a-cops, and zero-tolerance policies that result in seventh graders being arrested for writing on their desks.

Obviously this inequality needed to be remedied by equivalently striping Harriton High kids of their dignity and privacy, but in a manner less offensive to Main Line aesthetics. Harriton kids can come to school safe in the knowledge that their gym bags won't be x-rayed, and that their marker doodling will be remedied with Windex rather than handcuffs. But... Teacher is watching.

Monday, December 07, 2009


When did "Brown" become the new thing that we self-important intellectuals are supposed to call everyone who is not of predominantly European, African, and/or East Asian origin? I don't actually object to the term as such. Assuming that we are not going to abandon anytime soon the project of categorizing people by racial or ethnic origin, "Brown" does a fairly good job of conveying American social attitudes toward the people it describes: not subject to the disabilities of Blackness, but not afforded the privileges of Whiteness, either. What bugs me is that everyone around me started using the word without explanation or acknowledgement, as if they had received a universal memorandum so unassailable in its logic as to preclude further discussion.

I did not receive this memorandum. Rather, I distinctly recall coming across the term by accident, in the unprepossessing forum of an "Ask Amy" column. Amy's correspondent complained that her mother disapproved of the writer's boyfriend: "the problem? He is Brown and I am not." There was "Brown" in the Washington Post, a daily newspaper of national reach, as if the term had been in common usage since Dr. Johnson retired to Gough Square. While I could puzzle out the writer's intention from the context, I felt entitled to a footnote, a word of explanation from the Post's copy desk to the effect of "attention readers: by virtue of Style Manual revision 234B, persons of other than predominantly European, African, or East Asian origin will henceforth be referred to as Brown."

I am only a little annoyed because this reminds me of what happened with the word "Asian." When I was a kid, everybody called people of East and South East Asian origin "Oriental." Self-important intellectuals called them "Oriental"; "Orientals" called themselves "Oriental." And then it was decided that the term should change to "Asian." The switch started on the East Coast--at the time I was applying to colleges, everyone I knew in the Midwest still said "Oriental," but I was scolded for using the term while on a college visit in the East. And I've used the word "Asian" ever since, not because I believe that even one person in ten knows why "Oriental" is offensive, but because saying it makes you sound like a redneck. My change in usage, and everyone else's, has made the transition self-reinforcing: anyone under the age of 70 who uses the term "Oriental" today is either unusually sheltered or being deliberately provocative.

(If you're curious, "Oriental" is supposed to be offensive because it divides the world into Occident (West, from the Latin occidere, "to set") and Orient (East, from the Latin oriri, "to rise") with it being Eurocentric to label someone as being "from the East," thereby implying that the speaker's society is located at the central reference point. Ask your Asian friend in the next cubicle over if she knew that.)

But the abandonment of "Oriental" has resulted in a net loss of linguistic specificity, because, again, assuming that categorizing others by ethnicity is an inescapable part of human experience, "Oriental" had a less ambiguous reach than "Asian." Today, when I say "Asian," the listener must decode whether I'm just using the substitute terminology for people we both grew up knowing as "Oriental," or whether I really could be talking about someone of Sri Lankan or Kazakhstani origin. And if I'm talking to a British person, they must guess whether I am translating for their benefit to the British meaning of "Asian," which refers to people of Indian subcontinental ancestry. In America, of course, such people are now "Brown."

And so, much as it vexes me, I too have caught myself saying "Brown." All I want to know is, who gets to decide these things? To whom have we ceded the power to crawl inside our brains and reprogram our labels for the world outside? No, don't answer that question. I fear the response will include a citation to an academic journal of which the title ends in "Studies," and an article making repeated use of "unpack."


On a related note, can I just take this opportunity to question the assumption held by many American office workers that Latino janitors don't know the English word "trash"? Whenever people in my office want to dispose of something too large to fit in a standard trash can, they tape a sign to it that says "basura."

Now, if you moved to another country and took a job where a significant part of your job responsibilities included collecting trash, don't you think that within the first day or two you'd probably pick up the word in that country's language for "trash"?

Really what those signs should say is "look, I know a word in Spanish!"