Stephen W. Browne | Rants and Raves

May/15

20

Outlaws!

This Sunday saw a pitched battle between two motorcycle gangs in the parking lot of a Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, Texas, which left nine dead and 18 wounded.

The good news is there were no bystanders harmed. The bad news is it’s not over yet.

The shooting involved members of the Bandidos and Cossacks gangs, with some involvement of the Scimitars and Vaqueros gangs. The score reportedly stands at eight Cossacks and one Bandido.

A possible cause of the battle, according to Texas Department of Public Safety Joint Information Center, might be the Cossacks refusing to pay Bandidos dues for operating in Texas and for wearing the Texas logo under the club patch on their vests without the Bandidos’ approval.

The Bandidos, like the Cossacks founded in 1969, are the dominant motorcycle gang in Texas. They are said to allow other gangs to exist in their territory, but do not allow them to wear the Texas patch.

The Bandidos are also said to have a feud with the Hell’s Angels, the largest motorcycle gang in the world.

Bad blood between the gangs goes back to at least 2013 when Curtis Jack Lewis, president of the Abilene, Texas chapter of the Bandidos, was arrested on charges that he stabbed two members of the Cossacks during a fight outside a restaurant.

The current war has been building for a month at least according to law enforcement. Reportedly the restaurant management was warned trouble was coming their way, but did nothing. The parent company has now revoked their franchise.

To be fair it’s difficult to see what they could have done short of a 24/7 security presence that would scream “DON’T COME HERE” to both bikers and the general trade.

So what is this all about?

That some people like to ride motorcycles is neither new nor hard to understand. Two-wheeling is some of the most fun you can have on a vehicle which doesn’t leave the ground.

Then there’s the romance of outlawry. There’s a fair number of people in our society who find it just too civilized. The allure of the outlaw band appeals to the desire to take to the open road and thumb your nose at civilization.

With this comes the primal impulse of loyalty to the tribe. In an age of gigantic impersonal nation-states this is very powerful.

With your brothers at your back you can feel powerful! Think on that the next time you’re being bullied by some petty bureaucrat and the thought creeps into your mind unbidden, “Man to man, he wouldn’t have a chance…”

This is not confined solely to the anti-social. I personally know a city attorney in the northern Midwest who likes to don his leathers, leap on his bike and ride down the road, returning with hints of not-quite-respectable adventures and bar fights.

And there are the material advantages. The lucrative criminal enterprises these gangs engage in are said by law enforcement to include trafficking in marijuana, cocaine and meth.

This is not confined to the U.S. A few years back there was a motorcycle gang war involving the Hell’s Angels in Sweden. Just last month the Night Wolves, a Russian gang, rode through Eastern Europe to demonstrate their support Putin’s dreams of resurgent Russian nationalism. Until they were stopped at the Polish border.

The outlaw biker gang is an odd phenomenon. They harken back to an age of feuding tribes, but depend on industrial civilization to build and maintain the roads and vehicles they use.

They proudly proclaim their outlaw status, but their survival depends on the laws of a free society. Because face it, how difficult would it be to wipe out gangs of conspicuous law-breakers who wear identifying badges and often tattoos, if society decided to ignore due process?

Their existence is mostly a nuisance to the larger society as long as they obey the first rule of civilized gang warfare: If you’re not a player, you’re not a target.

And I wonder, is there something about their existence we find thrilling in a guilty sort of way, as long as they confine their wars to themselves?

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May/15

14

An idea worth a second look

I’ve been an observer, commenter, and sometime-participant in politics now for several decades in several countries. Believe me, there is nothing like it to make you appreciate the truth of Bismarck’s observation that those who love sausage and respect the law should never watch either being made.

We are not ruled by the best among us nor the wisest. We are not ruled by those who have our best interests at heart, or who even care about what we want.

Not long ago a study conducted at Princeton University combed through 20 years of data from 1981 to 2002, looking for the answer to a simple question. Does the government represent the people?

Researchers compared public support, measured by more than 2,000 public opinion surveys, for more than 1,800 public policy initiatives with the likelihood of that measure being passed by congress. Ideally in a truly representative system the percentage of public support would track closely with the chance of it becoming law, i.e. 50 percent public support equals a fifty-fifty chance of passing, etc.

We would expect some exceptions of course.

Edmund Burke said, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

We would hope to have representatives with the wisdom to know when popular sentiment is wrong, and courage to go against their wishes and risk their displeasure.

But what they found over 20 years was an almost flat 30 percent chance of any given bill passing, whether it had zero support or nearly unanimous support of the voters.

The study concluded, “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

However, when they compared the support of the top 10 percent of income earners the likelihood of a policy initiative passing was not identical but far closer.

The fact wealth translates into political influence has never been a secret. The Founders wisely built a dynamic tension into our system, balancing the interests of the powerful few against the many, in an attempt to prevent it from lapsing into either an oligarchy or a mobocracy.

It is evident now that the equilibrium has come unbalanced, and that this is a long-term trend. It is not the result of any single law, nor the exclusive fault of either of the major parties. The problem appears to be systemic, and not fixable by electing new representatives who swear on the Bible to do something about it.

There is a group of people who think they have the solution though. Represent.us is an attempt to start a grass roots movement to pass a model anti-corruption law at city, county, and state levels with the goal of reform from the bottom up.

There are nine provisions to the model law which boil down to three basic principles: 1) prohibit politicians from receiving contributions from interests that they regulate, 2) require full disclosure of all political contributions of any kind, 3) create a small tax rebate for political contributions by individual taxpayers.

They appear to be going about this in a sensible and practical way. They’re starting with modest goals on a local level, with a program that ordinary people on the right, left, and center can support.

I confess to some reservations about this. I’m not totally sure complete transparency of political donations wouldn’t create the possibility of intimidation of donors by employers, unions or any powerful interests.

I’m also cynical about the ability of venal politicians to work around laws designed to limit their greed.

But I’m also hopeful about the enormous reservoir of talent and courage within the American people, and I refuse to believe they will tolerate becoming serfs in a corrupt oligarchy, no matter how well-upholstered their servitude may be.

And let it be said, I’m also confident that those oligarchs are smart enough to realize the people when roused will reform that system, or destroy it.

Without endorsing it yet, I say give it a look.

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May/15

4

Terror in Texas

Charlie Hebdo TBy the time this goes to press readers will know more than we do now about the shooting in Garland, Texas at the Mohammed cartoon contest last Sunday.

All we know for sure at the time of writing is that two men with rifles were shot dead by police after opening fire on an unarmed security guard outside the event.

The event itself was sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), a new organization founded by Robert Spenser and Pamela Geller, both prominent anti-jihad pro-Israel activists.

The convention featured a contest with a $10,000 prize for the best drawing of the Prophet Mohammed, an act considered blasphemous by Muslim fundamentalists. Attending was Dutch politician Geert Wilders who occupies a prominent place on the Al-Queda hit list.

AFDI has already generated a fair amount of controversy in a short time. The Southern Poverty Law Center wasted no time putting it on their list of “hate groups.”

But they are not so easy to dismiss. Spenser is acknowledged scholar of Islamic history and has been asked to conduct seminars on jihad by the United States Central Command, United States Army Command and General Staff College, the U.S. Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group, the FBI, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and various organizations of the U.S. intelligence community.
Geller is an author, columnist, and outspoken proponent of free speech and opponent of honor killings, the Middle Eastern practice of murdering sisters, daughters and wives deemed to have dishonored the family for being seen with an unrelated male or just getting lippy.

Whatever you think of her political opinions Geller puts her life on the line for them, and for your right to express yours.

At a time when so many people conspicuously congratulate themselves on their courage for expressing opinions which carry not the slightest risk of even minor inconvenience, that’s impressive.

At this point speculation is rife. Some have said it’s significant there were no demonstrations outside the venue and speculated potential demonstrators had prior knowledge of the attack.

Reportedly there have been many enthusiastic expressions of support for the attackers on Twitter.

Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.

What does seem obvious is that organizers of the event were prepared for something like this. Response was swift and well organized. And we know that 200 people knew the risk and came anyway.

This is important after 206 members of PEN, the writers’ organization dedicated to free speech, signed a letter disassociating themselves from the decision to honor the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo with the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award following the murder of 12 members of their staff in Paris on January 7.

Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau, who made a career of fearlessly lampooning right-wing politicians who whatever their faults uphold his right to do so, publicly ran like a jackrabbit from the impression he’d ever offend anyone who might kill you for it.

After the targeted murders of journalists in Paris and Copenhagen many wondered if that kind of up-close-and-personal jihad against free speech could come to America.
Now we know.

Note: This is my weekly op-ed. I usually archive them after they’ve appeared in print, with exceptions such as this when the news is still breaking.

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Apr/15

26

Go see Ex Machina

ex-machina-

Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is one of those movies that’s very hard to review without spoilers. It’s got a conclusion I kind of didn’t see coming, though I did guess some of the twists and turns before the end.

I can tell you that 1) yes it’s entertaining, and 2) yes it’s thought-provoking, if you have steeped yourself in the literature of the Singularity and the possibility of what we call “strong AI.” That is to say artificial intelligence that can pass the Turing Test.

The Turing Test was proposed by mathematician and cybernetics pioneer Alan Turing, who is currently the subject of the movie “The Imitation Game.”

Turing suggested we’d know we’d created an intelligent being when a human could sit in a room with a teletype (this was a while ago) and exchange messages with a correspondent he couldn’t see. If at the end of a lengthy conversation he couldn’t tell if it was a human or a machine at the other end, we’d know.

At some indeterminate time in the near future Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is brought to the Alaskan hideaway of multi-billionaire genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who coded the world’s largest search engine when he was 13. It must have blown Google out of the water by then.

Nathan is experimenting with strong AI in the form of robots. Specifically one robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) who appears to be partly an attractive woman with body parts made of transparent plastic that reveal the inner machine.

These are only speaking parts in the movie. The only other character that interacts with the trio is Nathan’s beautiful mute servant/lover Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno).

Caleb has ostensibly been brought to conduct a Turing Test on Ava. In a series of seven sessions he simply has to engage in dialog with Ava and at the end give an opinion as to whether she passes.

Of course there’s more to it than that. All the characters are engaged in various kinds of manipulation – and that’s part of the test too.

Nathan is a seriously unlikable character, and he’s also consciously aware that he may be creating humanity’s replacement. Does that make him a god of sorts – or just yesterday’s news in an unimaginable future?

How will the AIs of the future feel about us, and how much does that depend on how we treat them? (Hint: reread Frankenstein, the original by Mary Shelley not the Hammer films.)

Would an intelligent entity without glands and hormones have any kind of motivations we’d understand at all? Would the concept of gender mean anything to them? How about self-preservation?

Sam Goldwyn famously said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union,” meaning message flicks are all too prone to become didactic, heavy-handed and boring.

Ex Machina does a pretty good job of letting the questions suggest themselves – if you’re the kind of person who thinks about that sort of thing. If not, the plot comlications might still entertain.

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Apr/15

1

Resistance

ohm (The Greek letter omega is used in electrical engineering as the symbol for electrical resistance.)

I discovered author Steven Pressfield when I was living in Warsaw, Poland and just starting out as a professional writer.

The book was “Gates of Fire” about the battle at the Hot Gates, called Thermopylae in Greek. I bought it because I’ve always been fascinated by the last stand of the 300.

(Actually closer to 7,000 at the beginning of the defense of the pass. At the end the remnant of Leonidas’ guard stood with 700 citizen soldiers of the small city of Thespia who refused to leave when he sent the bulk of the Greek force away after getting news the path around the pass had been betrayed to the Persians.)

When I opened the book I knew right away I had a work of literary genius on my hands. I have since read more of Pressfield’s books, but none has quite hit me like that one.

Although I must say, after seeing the movie made from “The Legend of Bagger Vance” I marvel that he could grip my attention with a work about golf – a sport I am not merely uninterested in, but one I have an active dislike of.

Every book you enjoy is a wonderful gift from someone you may never meet. But the greatest gift Pressfield has given me is the concept of Resistance. He writes about Resistance often on his blog, and in his books such as “The War of Art.”

Resistance is a writer’s constant companion.

Resistance wakes up with me when I first check my email, get my children up and send them off to school

Resistance has breakfast and coffee with me while I think about what I’m going to write today.

Resistance gives me an overwhelming desire to do housework when I’m stuck on a sentence.

Resistance whispers in my ear that I can’t finish a book-length work and nobody will be interested anyway.

Resistance says tomorrow is always a better day to start.

Resistance asks wasn’t it better when you had a flesh-and-blood boss to tell you to write? Wasn’t it better when you wrote for an audience you knew was there every day?

I have known Resistance for a long time. She has been with me all my life, and will never leave me.

But though I often give in, I know I must never give up.

Pressfield showed how to defeat Resistance in the most masterful way – write about it.

Now back to work.

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Mar/15

27

The N-word is the new F-word

“The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.” – H.L. Mencken

So there I was in southwest Minnesota on a spring break trip with my children when I saw on a restaurant TV, Dr. Phil discoursing on “Nine minutes that shook the country!”

Those nine minutes were a video that went viral, of some frat boys from the Oklahoma University chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon singing an offensive song using what we must call the “N-word” and referencing lynching.

As it happens the day before we left the March 11 edition of The Oklahoman devoted almost the entire front page to “OU students learn ‘a devastating lesson.’”

Well yes they did. They learned that if you are offensive in certain ways the First Amendment and due process don’t apply to you anymore, and you’d better not object if you want to salvage anything at all of your future.

OU President David Boren acted swiftly to expel two ringleaders of the singalong, closed the fraternity and gave the residents one day to pack their bags and get out.
The Oklahoman also announced in a sub-head, “University says it can’t confirm names of two frat members expelled after racist videos.” Underneath it posted two photos with their names in the caption.

I have a confession to make. I have never had any use for frat rats or their sorority sisters. I have generally found them to be shallow, immature, social-climbing little… bastions of everything
I despise in snobbery.

I apologize if I’ve offended anyone who enjoyed their time in the institution and expect to catch some holy heck from members of my family who did.

So it pains me to say, has the whole country gone nuts? Have the lunatics taken over the asylum?

These were FRAT BOYS for heaven’s sake! Who cares what they say?

Why is nobody concerned with the real issue? As stated admirably succinctly by Reason magazine, those boys behaved badly – Boren broke the law.

The boys and their parents penned sincere-sounding apologies, as well they should.

They say they’re not really racists. Maybe so, maybe not. I don’t know and don’t care enough to try and find out.

What I do know is that they’re godawful stupid. With cell phone cameras ubiquitous in our society you have to ask, “You didn’t know this was going to happen?”
Here’s what I think may be the case. When I was a boy the taboo words were the F-word, the two C-words, and some colorful descriptions of people’s alleged manners, morals, habits, and ancestry.

If you used any of those words in polite company you could be cut cold, you might get punched, you could even be arrested if you used them in a performance.

Legendary comedians such as Mae West, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and George Carlin fearlessly stood up for free speech, even if offensive. Some paid a heavy price for it.

But in doing so they made those words if not respectable at least tolerable. Now we hear them in movies and on TV all the time. As a result there is no “juice” in them, no naughty pleasure in using taboo words to relieve stress.

The only really taboo words left, are racial epithets. The N-word is the new F-word.

But this time few are standing up for the right to offensive speech.

“The First Amendment doesn’t protect hate speech!” say the pious moralizers.

Yes it does.

OU students staged a march against racism on campus and no doubt congratulated themselves on their courage. Any bets anyone is going to stage a march for free speech over this highly unpopular issue?

Those boys and their parents could sue OU down to its underwear for violating their rights to due process.

They’re not going to. They know better than to try.

So it’s up to us who know what we’re going to face for saying this.

Your belief in freedom and the rule of law is tested by how far you are willing to extend it to people you despise.

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Clint Eastwood’s epic biopic “American Sniper” is hitting the target with all the accuracy of the legendary sniper it portrays, becoming the highest grossing domestic release of 2014.

It has also generated a lot of vehement criticism along with the adulation, and both say a lot about where we are as a country today.

Kyle has been hailed as a patriot and a hero. He has also been condemned as a psycho racist murderer.

No he wasn’t according to the testimony of Iraqis who worked with him.

The claim that the movie character called Iraqis “savages” in the film is misrepresentation at best. The character as portrayed by Bradley Cooper called jihadists who put bombs into the hands of children savages, which is too kind. So-called savages often display admirable traits of courage and honor – these people are evil.

But Kyle himself bears some responsibility for the misconceptions. Critics have pointed out passages in his autobiography where he said he enjoyed the war and missed it when he was away.

I think he was talking about the comradeship of fighting men in battle that few experience outside of the military. But however it might have been taken out of context, it was poorly put.

He also told some lies, passed off as tall tales by admirers, about going to New Orleans with friends during hurricane Katrina and shooting looters.

Come on! You didn’t know that was going to raise some hackles?

Critics claim the film shows a simplistic black-and-white view of the Iraq war, us good, them bad.

No, a great many of those critics have the simplistic view that if the war is bad, our enemies must be the good guys.

Does, not, follow. The question of whether the invasion of Iraq was justified or prudent or strategically sound is an entirely separate issue from the fact that Islamic jihadism is a world-wide movement, a fantasy ideology which aims to drag the world into a particularly vile barbarism.

The jihadists preach, and practice, forcible religious conversion, murder of non-believers and apostates, chattel slavery, and the brutal suppression of women.

In short, they’re not the good guys.

Whether we should roam the world seeking out the bad guys is another matter. To begin with, it’s expensive. An American soldier may fire a missile that costs more than he makes in a year to kill a guy who couldn’t pay for it in a lifetime.

The questions that occur to any thoughtful person are: Is there a cheaper way to defeat the jihadists? Can we do so without making more enemies in the process? Is there a peaceful way to subvert their poisonous ideology? Can we isolate them long enough for their movement to collapse under the weight of its own stupidity as we did with communism?

And there is a question critics seem to have missed. Sniping is a highly selective method of warfare. Kyle identified individual threats to American troops, in the act. He killed only them, without “collateral damage” in that detestable military euphemism. When in doubt, he did not fire.

I think what many people are reacting to is how personal Kyle’s kills are. He sees them through his scope as if they are close enough to touch. He can see their faces, and see them as they die.

That is chilling in a way that knowing the President of the United States checks off names from a list, authorizing a remote-controlled drone to shoot a Hellfire missile which may or may not kill the target but most certainly kills and maims a great many bystanders is not.

This is what we’re having to deal with, soldiers and civilians alike.

A veteran of World War II might have survived without ever knowing if he’d killed anyone, and we once expected warfare would only get progressively more long-range and impersonal.

We were wrong. Much of modern warfare is fought at close range and is brought into our homes via television.

Eastwood has done a good job at showing the cost to our soldiers, and to us.

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Feb/15

28

Beam him up, he’s leaving Earth

Spock

Well another piece of my childhood is gone. Leonard Nimoy died Friday at the age of 83. While not quite the age of a mature Vulcan, he did indeed live long and prosper.

Forever associated with the half-human Vulcan Science Officer of the Enterprise, Nimoy’s TV career began the year I was born with an appearance on “Queen for a Day.” A show I barely remember but which might be counted as a proto-reality show.

He played Indians, cowboys, soldiers, sailors and cops. Though he reprized his Spock role throughout the rest of his life in Star Trek movies, an animated TV show, and self-referenced it on many guest spots on other geek series such as the Big Bang Theory, it was never set in stone. He created any number of other roles such as Paris on “Mission Impossible,” and Theo Van Gogh in the one-man stage play and TV movie “Vincent.”

He created the Vulcan nerve pinch, the envy of generations of martial artists who secretly believe if we could just get it right…

The story has it that Nimoy loathed having to do fight scenes and one day on set said, “Couldn’t I just pinch him on the neck or something?”

He also created, or rather popularized the ‘V’ shaped Vulcan greeting that goes with “Live long, and prosper.”

Nimoy was the child of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants who grew up bi-lingual, speaking both English and Yiddish. The hand gesture is a rabbinical blessing he explained. The shape of the hand resembles the Hebrew letter ‘Shin’ which is the first letter of several sacred words: Shaddai (one of the names of God), Shalom (a greeting which means “peace”) and Shekhinah (the feminine aspect of God created to live among men).

In later years Nimoy was active in the movement to preserve and pass on the Yiddish language.

But of course, he will always be Spock to those of us who loved him.

This is what Spock means to me, and how he helped shape my image of the man I wanted to be growing up.

Spock of course was highly intelligent. What was revealed as the character developed over the course of the series was that he was also extremely passionate, as apparently were all Vulcans not just half-humans. Spock mentioned Vulcan once had “an aggressive colonizing period, brutal even by human standards.” One colony became the warrior culture of the Romulan Empire.

This and his half-human heritage created tensions that made Spock pretty miserable. After one adventure on a planet full of hallucinogenic spores inhabited by blissed-out colonists he commented, “For the first time in my life, I was happy.”

The way Spock dealt with it, was self-control, duty, a wry sense of humor, and philosophy.

The code for self-control in the series, was “logic.” Spock evaluated situations in terms of logical or illogical. But you never saw him construct a syllogism or draw a Venn diagram. Spock expected the default behavior of rational beings to be self-control. Not letting the passions get the upper hand when their self-interest was at stake. Spock got flummoxed when sentient beings acted irrationally when it would better serve them to exercise a little self-control.

Duty, Spock was Science Officer of the Starship Enterprise, a position corresponding to Executive Officer on a Navy ship. Along with the captain, and often as acting captain he was responsible for the lives of hundreds of people. To fail in his duty could mean their deaths, or the deaths of innocent sapients of other species – or war.

Spock’s sense of humor was wonderful and oddly, rarely noted. He was the master of the dry rejoinder and the uplifted eyebrow, an expression that spoke volumes.

Once when Leonard “Doc” McCoy was searching for a cure for a malady that struck some of the crew, including himself, he utters in frustration, “I’m just an old country doctor.”

Spock, raised eyebrow, “As I always suspected.”

Philosophy, never explicitly expressed but shown in action as the best of philosophy always is.

Spock was not exactly a pacifist but committed to exhausting all non-violent, or at least non-lethal alternatives first. But he could argue for warlike action as in the first encounter with the Romulans, his ethnic kin.

Spock displayed real objectivity, not the counterfeit of non-evaluation so popular in academia today.

On one planet where wars were waged with computers, the ruler explained that those declared casualties were expected to report to be killed for real, and rationalized that this was how they avoided a potentially world-destroying conflict. And oh by the way, the Enterprise had been declared a casualty so would the crew please report to the killing booths?

“I understand,” Spock said.

“Ah you approve Mr. Spock!” the ruler said.

“No,” Spock replied. “I understand. I do not approve.”

Spock’s humor, sense of duty, and philosophical objectivity might have been summed up in one scene in the first season.

When parting with a woman he loved but could not be with, he told her, “If we all have our private purgatories, surely mine can be no worse than anyone else’s.”

“Mr. Spock,” she said, “I never even knew your first name.”

Spock smiles, “You couldn’t pronounce it.”

Beam him up Scotty.

“May his memory be a blessing.”

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Feb/15

24

Fabulators

On Monday Secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department Robert A. McDonald, apologized for falsely claiming last month that he had served in the US Army Special Forces.

This happened in a conversation with a homeless veteran in Los Angeles and was unfortunately for him captured on camera. That’s the great thing about the video age, casual lies get caught. Either someone says something that gets recorded, or someone lies about something that happened and it turns out there’s an audiovisual record of what really happened.

But this is just plain weird. Service records are just that – records. They can generally be accessed with a Freedom of Information request.

I think we have probably all known some pathetic loser who claims he was an Army Ranger, a CIA agent, a “mercenary” or whatever. Sometimes it’s someone who’s never been in the military, or perhaps someone who was a truck driver in the Army who reinvented himself as a combat hero like former University of Colorado professor and fake Indian Ward Churchill.

Sometimes someone lies for tangible benefits, like Churchill or Sen. Elizabeth Warren who parlayed fake Indian ancestry into lucrative jobs reserved for affirmative action appointments. (And by the way, my ancestry is about one percent African, and by the old “one known drop” rule…)

But most of that kind we’re likely to run into are people with no significant accomplishments of their own who simply invent the glorious self they wish they could be, but don’t dare.

But what are we to make of people with real, substantial accomplishments who tell self-aggrandizing lies?

McDonald is, unless this also turns out to be fraud, a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point (1975), served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, and completed jungle, arctic, desert warfare and Ranger training. I think it unlikely these claims would have remained unchallenged this long if they were false.

McDonald had nothing to gain and everything to lose by lying. For God’s sake why would he do that?

We’ll probably never know. Perhaps he doesn’t even know himself.

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Feb/15

12

Pants on fire!

Well big shot NBC anchor Brian Williams got caught in a lie.

Well actually he got caught telling a lie over and over again for many years and now network execs are looking into a whole series of possible fabrications and his expense account to boot, while he cools his heels for six months without pay.

That six months pay is reportedly in the $5 million range.

We’ll see if Williams is ever welcome back in the chair. Rumor has it there are other journos like Katie Couric who are eyeing it and that Tom Brokaw has wanted him gone for a while now.

I’ve got two observations about this. One is that Williams is not exactly a journalist, he’s a news reader.

The paradox of broadcast journalism is that once you get to the coveted top spots you’re not collecting news you’re presenting news collected by others. Often as sort of an MC of news where you introduce someone reporting from the field. It used to be that you worked your way into that comfortable position with your reporting creds, but more and more it’s all about being good-looking, having a nice speaking voice, and being able to radiate sincerity. All of those things Williams has in spades.

They are also the characteristics of a good serial liar.

But face it, it’s not likely anyone is ever going to come to broadcast journalism with the cred of Walter Cronkeit, Mike Wallace, Andy Rooney, or Paul Harvey again. Maybe it was a case of envy, of wanting so much to be like those giants of yesteryear that his fantasy life became more real than his real life.

And maybe there’s something else as well.

We live in a world today where sober academics proclaim that there is no absolute truth, only “social constructs.” And this has filtered down to the street as well.

I remember a few decades ago when a particularly vindictive ex was going around telling people (including calling up my mother) that I’d “beaten her up twice.” I had not, and in fact nobody among our circle of friends and acquaintances believed her. Among other reasons, she had no bruises to show and by that time her manifest charm was beginning to slip and she was alienating a lot of other people.

One friend of hers however said I was harsh to call her a liar.

“How so?” I asked. “She told a lie, and not a harmless one.”

“Well maybe it was true for her,” she replied.

“It – did – not- happen,” I said. “It’s a lie.”

“Well maybe it’s true for her,” she repeated.

Understand, she was not claiming I was the liar and my ex wasn’t. She was saying we each had our own contradictory version of the truth – and they were in some sense both true. I don’t know about you, but the idea of this concept permeating our courts and newsrooms gives me cold chills. I think it’s already permeated our politics.

Hillary Clinton did not run through sniper fire at the Tuzla airport in 2008. Barack Obama’s mother was not denied reimbursement for insurance claims in 1995.

But I think the difference between some of the lies told by public figures these days, and good old-fashioned lying to cover up something wrong, illegal or embarrassing, is these are not self-conscious lies but self-aggrandizing stories told by people who do not believe there is such a thing as objective truth.

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