Anti-Semitism and the Left

May 29, 2016

final solution

Anti-Semitism used to be the preserve of the right, but in recent years has a new strain has emerged on the left. This is a controversial subject – the borders between criticism of Israel, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are as disputed as Israel’s actual borders. Critics argue that invoking anti-Semitism conflates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. They see it as a way to stifle criticism of Israel and as a trivialisation of what anti-Semitism really means. Indeed, we do have to be careful with such tactics, but there is a new strain of anti-Semitism as I will attempt to show. It is hard to remember Israel was once the darling of the left. Those days are long gone.

Naz Shah is the Labour MP for the constituency of Bradford West She actually won the seat from George “Saddam, I Sir, I salute your courage” Galloway of the Respect Party. In April 2016, she was suspended from the Labour Party following the emergence of a Facebook post she had shared supporting the relocation of Israel to the U.S.:

Naz Shah

Then we had former Mayor of London speaking on the Vanessa Feltz Show on BBC Radio London:

The creation of the state of Israel was fundamentally wrong, because there had been a Palestinian community there for 2,000 years. The creation of the state of Israel was a great catastrophe. We should have absorbed the post-WWII Jewish refugees in Britain and America. They could all have been resettled, whereas 70 years later, the situation is still very tense, and there is potential for many more wars, potential for nuclear war.

… When Hitler won the elections in 1932 and came to power, his policy was not directed toward killing the Jews. He wanted to deport all the Zionists to Israel [sic]. If you look at the Arab world at the time, there were large Jewish communities that never suffered threats or attacks. They lived in peace alongside their Arab neighbours. But all of this was destroyed with the establishment of the state of Israel.

Then we have the support by Labour luminaries such as Seamus “Stalin wasn’t all bad” Milne for Hamas an organisation whose charter states:

The Day of Judgment will not come until Muslims fight the Jews, when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say, ‘O Muslim, O servant of God, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.’

Anything Israel does is susceptible to criticism. Thus we have Pinkwashing. The first reference I can find to it is by Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian American journalist, in a book published in 2011. The idea is that this forms an intentional strategy to use an image of modernity and progressiveness to hide the ongoing violation of Palestinians’ human rights. In a piece in the Huffington Post, lawyer Alan Dershowitz rightly mocks this idea. As he points out there is no logical basis for this strategy. Will the media ignore the Palestinian issue and have masses of coverage on Israel’s positive policies toward gays. Are gays around the world supposed to feel so indebted to Israel that they will no longer criticize the Jewish nation? If this is the policy it has been an abject failure.  Here is a quote from Dershowitz:

The pinkwash bigots would apparently prefer to see Israel treat gays the way Israel’s enemies do, because they hate Israel more than they care about gay rights.

 This very month a group of 51 Muslim states blocked 11 gay and transgender organizations from attending 2016 High Level Meeting on Ending AIDS.

I think that criticism of Israel is legitimate. But these comments are beyond the pale. It is wrong to compare what Israel has done in the occupied territories to the Nazis attempt at ethnic annihilation in which six million people were murdered. The scale and purpose are completely different. Israel’s abuses against the Palestinians, which undoubtedly exist, occur within the context of a territorial and political conflict, not as a campaign of mass extermination.

Another objection I have is to the support for the boycotts of Israel and the campaign for disinvestment. That Israel should be singled out in this way when you consider the many unsavoury regimes in this region and around the world. I tend to oppose sanctions. Take Cuba. I think the American sanctions have been counter-productive. In fact, the communists are perfectly capable of screwing up an economy without any outside help!

I do not conceive a world without a state of Israel. It does look difficult right now, but there will have to be a two-state solution.  I have recently finished reading Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. The book is right Israel is both a triumph and a tragedy. I am not a fan of the Israel of Begin, Sharon and Netanyahu. Somehow Israelis and Palestinians are going to have to find a solution.

More on anti-Semitism

May 29, 2016

Here is Alan Dershowitz on anti-Semitism:

The core characteristic of anti-Semitism is the assertion that everything the Jews do is wrong, and everything that is wrong is done by the Jews. For the anti-Semite every rich Jew is exploitive, every poor Jew a burden on society. For the anti-Semite, both capitalism and communism are Jewish plots. For the anti-Semite, Jews are both too docile, allowing themselves to be led to the slaughter like sheep, and too militant, having won too many wars against the Arabs. For the anti-Semite, Jews are too liberal and too conservative, too artsy and too bourgeois, too stingy and too charitable, too insular and too cosmopolitan, too moralistic and too conniving.

To the anti-Semite, every depression, war, social problem, plague must have been the fault of the Jews. Whenever the Jews appear to be doing something good — giving charity, helping the less fortunate, curing the sick — there must be a malevolent motive, a hidden agenda, a conspiratorial explanation beneath the surface of the benevolent act.

To the anti-Semite, “the Jews” always act as a collective. They plot, conspire and work hand-in-hand toward the common goal of Jewish domination. The protocols of the “Elders of Zion” are the paradigm of the manner through which “the Jew” operates. Nothing is ever a coincidence. Everything is the calculated product of “protocols” or conspiratorial action.

And we have this video from Martin Himmel:

Eyewitness evidence

May 22, 2016

We live in age of scientific crime detection. Nevertheless, there are two forms of evidence that still exert profound influence in the judicial system – confessions and eyewitness testimony. In I confess – a guide to police interrogation I looked at how police interrogation methods can sometimes lead to suspects confessing to crimes they did not commit. This week I want to look at the fallibility of eyewitness evidence.

I came across one shocking example of this the case of the rape of Jennifer Thompson. We need to clarify that this is not like the invented charges that I looked at in False rape accusations. Jennifer Thompson was clearly a victim. In July 1984 Thompson a 22-year-old college student living in Burlington, North Carolina, was sleeping in her apartment after coming home from a date. What she did not know that a man had broken into her apartment and was still there. She went to sleep but she woke up in the middle of the night. Realising that there was a man in her room, she tried to scream but her attacker had a knife.  She offered him her money, credit cards, and even her car if he would just leave her alone. But he wasn’t interested.

During the attack the college student had one focus: to survive and identify her rapist. She had a strategy. She had heard that when you were raped, the best thing to do was not to fight. That would be exactly what a rapist would want. They need to control and humiliate the woman. She was at a physical disadvantage with respect to her attacker. So she would have to outsmart him. Her first plan was to try to get information. She would remember everything: his face, his voice, his hair his eyes and any other distinguishing features, such as scars or tattoos. She would memorise his clothing, try to identify his height by comparing it to her own.

The second part of her plan was to just try to get out. She claimed that she had a knife phobia and got him to put down the knife. She wanted to get to the kitchen because the rapist had told her that he had forced the door there. So she said that was feeling really thirsty and needed to get something to drink. Once in the kitchen she turned the light on, knowing that if it was on, he would not come too close to me, for fear of being identified. He did indeed stay around the corner.  Here is how she describes what happened next:

And I started to run the water and throw ice cubes in my sink, and open up cabinets and draws, making as much noise as I could, and getting up enough courage to run. And that’s when I opened up the door and I just took off out the door. I didn’t know where I was going to go, but I was leaving.”

She ran for her life, pursued by the rapist. Fortunately she was able to get to the house of a couple. The woman, who worked at the university, recognised her as a student.

She first arrived at the hospital at about four o’clock in the morning, where she was given the forensic rape test. Unfortunately, the doctor seemed annoyed at having been woken up and was rather unsympathetic. What’s more he did an incomplete examination; she was not given penicillin for any possible sexually transmitted diseases, nor was given the morning-after pill. She would later have to go through the whole humiliating process again. She also learned there appeared to be a second victim, Elizabeth Warren, who would prove important later in the story.

After the rape kit, she went to the police station, where she was asked to use one of those facial composite kits to create an accurate photofit of the perpetrator. And of course she had to describe what had happened several times and to give as many statements as she could.

Thanks to an anonymous tip Ronald Cotton, an African-American restaurant worker became a “person of interest”, as they all say in the police dramas I watch. He did have a previous sexual assault conviction and a dodgy alibi. So two days after the crime Thompson was shown his photo and those of five others. She identified Cotton. She thought he looked exactly like the man who had raped her. Not a lot of time had elapsed since the crime so her memory was still very fresh. There are a couple of things I need to say about the photo identification. First she was shown all the photographs at the same time. This is a seriously flawed methodology, which I will come back to later. Secondly, she actually took five minutes to decide between two of the photos, which is actually quite a long time.

And just over a week later came the identity parade, which was not like you see on the television. The normal venue was being renovated, so they had to use another room. She was in the same room with Cotton and the other men from the line-up. She now saw Cotton in the flesh.  His demeanour and his posture further convinced her that Ronald Cotton was the man. He looked exactly like the man from the sketch that she had given to the police. His mannerisms, his voice, his height, his weight all appeared to fit. the rapist. And as time went by, she became more convinced that Cotton was the man. Whenever she relived the trauma it was Ronald Cotton’s face she would see

During the trial, Thompson once again identified Cotton as her rapist. When the defence attorney attempted to introduce evidence of the second, and seemingly related rape, of which Cotton had been excluded, the Judge refused to allow this evidence to be heard. Thus, Ronald Cotton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison based on what, apart from the identification by Thompson, was rather flimsy circumstantial evidence.

On Jan. 17, 1985, the day Cotton was convicted by a jury of one charge of rape and one of burglary and sentenced to life in prison, Thompson toasted her victory with champagne. “It was the happiest day of my life,” she said. A year into his prison term Cotton came across a prisoner with uncanny similarity to him. Indeed inmates and guards would often mix them up.  The inmate was Bobby Poole. He had apparently been bragging about committing the rapes and had allegedly joked that Cotton was doing his time for him

In 1987 the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the conviction and ordered a retrial based on the second rape evidence that the judge had not allowed. But the second trial proved to be a disaster for Cotton. Elizabeth Watson now became convinced that Ronald Cotton was her rapist as well, even though she had been unable to pick Cotton out of both a photo and live line-up before the first trial. She had actually picked a police “filler” in the original line-up.

Bobby Poole’s was also called to testify but he would not confess to both the rapes, and Jennifer Thompson denied ever having seen him before. Indeed she was outraged that the defence could even suggest that Poole had been the rapist. She was emphatic: “Bobby Poole did not rape me. Ronald Cotton raped me.” Ronald was again convicted, but this time for two rapes. He was sentenced to two life sentences plus 54 years, confirmed on appeal in 1990 and the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1991.

Luckily a lawyer Richard Rosen agreed to take up the case. Now new forensic techniques were coming to the fore. The attorney filed a motion for DNA testing. The Thompson crime evidence was too deteriorated to test. However, the Watson materials completely excluded Ronald Cotton as the perpetrator. The defence then requested that the results be sent to check against the DNA of convicts. The DNA positively identified Bobby Poole. Detectives went to see Poole, who confessed. On June 30, 1995, ten and a half years into his sentence, Cotton was officially cleared of all charges and released from prison. The following month he was officially pardoned by the Governor of North Carolina. He was initially offered just $5000 compensation, but thanks partly to the efforts of Thompson, still pitifully low for all that this man was put through.

There is a terrible irony in all this. Jennifer Thompson, who had been so determined to identify her man, had, in the end, got it all wrong. She felt a terrible sense of guilt over what she had done. But I do not think she ever acted in bad faith. Memory is not like a video recording. Traumatic situations can affect what you remember. And each time you remember the memory can become subtly different. Thompson, who had initially taken five minutes to choose the right photograph, became more convinced that Cotton had raped her. She thought that people would think she was a racist. What is true is that witnesses do seem to have problems accurately identifying a suspect if another race. They can pick out the broad stereotypical features but not the finer details.

There are many uplifting aspects to this story. Two years after his release Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton met for the first time at a church not far from where she had been raped. Thompson felt terrible; she struggled to stand up and began to sob. She looked at him and said: “If I spent every minute of every hour of every day for the rest of my life telling you that I’m sorry, could you ever forgive me?” Thompson didn’t expect Cotton’s response:

I’m not mad at you. I’ve never been mad at you. I just want you to have a good life.”

So Thompson and Cotton have become friends. They have also become tireless campaigners for reform of eyewitness identification procedures. There is a lot wrong with the system. According to the Innocence Project Eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions proven by DNA testing, playing a role in 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide. In 40% of those cases more than one witness identified the suspect. When you send the wrong person to prison for a crime all society is affected – the real criminals are free to go on committing crimes.

I have seen a number of interesting proposals to give the identification process a more scientific foundation. We need double-blind presentation; the photos or line-up members should be presented by an administrator who does not know who the suspect is. The fillers should resemble the eyewitness’s description of the perpetrator and the suspect should not stand out. Only one suspect should be included in the line-up. A sequential presentation of the line-up is preferable. Otherwise it becomes like a multiple choice test with the victim narrowing the options. That is not the kind of identification you want at the time of the identification, the eyewitnesses should provide a statement in her own words indicating her level of confidence in the identification. Finally these procedures should be videotaped to increase the transparency of the process. In the end I agree with the Innocence Project: memory is evidence and must be handled as carefully as the crime scene itself to avoid forever altering it.



The Innocence Project

May 22, 2016

Here is a video from The Innocence Project, which features Thompson the detective, Mike Gauldin and Ronald Cotton himself.

The Ashley Madison effect: infidelity and corporate ethics

May 15, 2016

There exists no culture in which adultery is unknown, no cultural device or code that extinguishes philandering. Helen Fisher

The real reason that we can’t have the Ten Commandments in a courthouse: You cannot post “Thou shalt not steal”, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”, and “Thou shalt not lie” in a building full of lawyers, judges, and politicians. It creates a hostile work environment. Attributed to George Carlin

I can’t worry about people thinking I’m a ghoul, because I’m pretty sure that history will treat me differently. It’s 2010, people: time to redefine morality. Noel Biderman, former CEO of Avid Life Media, the parent company extramarital affair website Ashley Madison


Life is short. Have an affair.” This was the slogan of Ashley Madison, the world’s largest online Social Networking Community for people who wish to engage in extramarital affairs. The Canadian website was founded in 2002 by Darren Morgenstern and describes itself like this on its website:

Ashley Madison is the most successful website for finding an affair and cheating partners. Have an Affair today on Ashley Madison. Thousands of cheating wives and cheating husbands sign up everyday looking for an affair. We are the most famous website for discreet encounters between married individuals. Married Dating has never been easier. With Our affair guarantee package we guarantee you will find the perfect affair partner. Sign up for Free today.

The name of the site was created from two popular female names – Ashley and Madison. If you believe the numbers, Ashley Madison’s scope is staggering. Their website claims to have 44,450,000 anonymous members as of April 3, 2016. Their service is available in Chinese (simplified and traditional), Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Filipino, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese (Brazilian and European), Russian, Slovenian, Spanish (European, American), Swedish, Turkish, Ukrainian. A more taxing question would be how many of the clients are women? This can be an issue on dating sites in general. Last year an article on Gizmodo suggested that only around 12,000 of the site’s 36 million members were real women. Fake profiles were allegedly deployed by the company in areas where there were few female profiles. Ashley Madison countered that the report was wrong saying that the ratio of male members who paid to communicate with women, versus the number of female members who actively used their account was 1.2 to 1.

To me it is a surprise that the site is still going, given what happened less than a year ago. In July of 2015, a group calling itself “The Impact Team” was able to hack into Ashley Madison’s computer system and download masses of compromising data, including records on its 36 million user accounts. A few names were released by the hackers in July and in late August 2015, the rest of the details of the Ashley Madison accounts were released on BitTorrent. This data dump even included information from customers who had earlier paid a $19 fee to Ashley Madison to have their data deleted.

The Ashley Madison data generated widespread media public attention. Following its release, several websites were set up to search the Ashley Madison data for email addresses, allowing spouses to tell if their husband’s or wife’s email address was associated with an Ashley Madison account Searches for prominent individuals turned up public figures in the Ashley Madison data. I did a cursory search on Google and did not come up with any names. This may be me, as I’m not very good at finding the names of celebrities caught up in these types of scandal.

It wasn’t just the high and mighty who were compromised. The hosts of a morning radio show in Sydney asked listeners to phone in if they wanted their spouse’s details run through the database. When, a woman called saying she was suspicious because her husband had been acting strangely since the news of the leak broke. The hosts typed his details into a website and said they found a match. The woman was not well pleased:

Are you serious? Are you freaking kidding me? These websites are disgusting. “

She then hung up.

But for a number of social scientists this massive dataset was an opportunity to do research. They were trying to understand whether there’s a relationship between personal ethics, as shown by the decision to join a site like Ashley Madison, and behaviour in the office. It is a research goldmine. I have looked at two papers, Do Personal Ethics Influence Corporate Ethics? and Fifty Shades of Corporate Culture, both of which you can find online.

The first paper, Do Personal Ethics Influence Corporate Ethics by John Griffin, Samuel Kruger and Gonzalo Maturana, found that firms with CEOs or CFOs who are Ashley Madison users are more than twice as likely to have a corporate infraction compared to other firms. There was an equally strong correlation with white-collar defendants in SEC litigation. They conclude personal and professional ethics of CEOs and CFOs are closely related, and the individual ethics of these executives have a large impact on corporate conduct. They reject the widely-held view that ethics are predominantly situational. This would seem to be a justification for traditional moral positions; virtues such as honesty and integrity will influence a person’s thoughts and actions across diverse contexts. But it is, I think a little bit more complicated than that.

The second study, Fifty Shades of Corporate Culture by William Grieser, Nishad Kapadia, Qingqiu Li and Andrei Simonov produced a more positive conclusion. They looked at 47,000 Ashley Madison users. These were not CEOs and CFOs, but just workers who had used their corporate email addresses to sign up for the website, which, you would have to say, does not seem to make them the smartest guys in the room.

What is striking about this research is that not only is AM membership a predictor of unethical behaviour, but also of risk-taking, and innovation. They found companies with more Ashley Madison users tended to have higher debt burden, more return volatility, were closer to defaulting on their debt and had higher credit spreads (indicating growing concern about their ability to service their debt). These are all telltale signs of a predilection for risk taking. Some of which paid off big, some of which failed big, which is exactly what you expect to see. Firms with higher AM membership also show more creativity, higher spending on R & D, a larger number of patents, greater patenting efficiency and a more diverse set of patents spanning multiple technologies.

How can we explain this result? Just like in the first study, the researchers found that risk-taking is not situational – risk-taking in one domain was correlated with risk-taking in other domains. It is safe to assume that people having affairs are risk takers. Moreover they generally need to be good liars and research in psychology and behavioural economics finds a robust positive correlation between dishonesty and creativity. They both involve breaking existing rules. The psychology literature suggests that a lower degree of risk aversion is another personality trait correlated with integrity.

One interpretation is that the firms where creativity and innovation are important concentrate on these personality traits when recruiting employees and they do not screen as carefully for high ethical standards. Creative and innovative firms will select creative and risk-taking candidates, but when they do so, they will be getting the whole package, with all the downsides that this entails.

In the end you have to judge people by how they do their jobs, and not what they do outside the office and the boardroom. It is a fascinating trade-off between integrity on one side and risk-taking and innovation on the other. Having said that, “Honey, adultery helps make me a better innovator” will probably not spare you a visit to the divorce court.

A couple of videos

May 15, 2016

An ad for Ashley Madison


An interview with Noel Biderman:


Ebonics # 2: the blaccent

May 8, 2016

I am a big fan of language podcasts such as Radiotopia’s The Allusionist, BBC Radio Four’s Word of Mouth and’s Lexicon Valley. It was on this last show that I heard an interview with linguist John McWhorter about the blaccent. This term, coined by McWhorter himself, is a portmanteau word combining black and accent. The interview was based on an article McWhorter had written for Guernica, an online art and politics magazine: Thick of Tongue.

The very idea of the blaccent is contentious. In the OJ Simpson trial one of the tensest moments came during Christopher Darden’s cross-examination of a defence witness, Robert Heidstra, a neighbour of Nicole Simpson. The lawyer asked Heidstra about a statement he had allegedly made to a friend in which he had said that one of the voices he allegedly heard in the alley behind Nicole Brown Simpson’s condominium on the night of the murder was that of an older black man. Cochran was indignant:

You can’t tell by someone’s voice when they’re black. That’s racist. This statement about whether somebody sounds black or white is racist, and I resent it. I think it’s totally improper in America at this time in 1995 just to hear this and endure this.”

It was a typically brilliant piece of lawyering; Cochran was implying that the very notion that black speech has a particular sound is racist stereotyping. In reality, the vast majority of black Americans, including educated ones, are identifiable as black from their speech; the “black sound” is a subconscious but near-universal hallmark of black American culture. But, it is not a subject to bring up in polite company.

McWhorter wants to challenge the assumption that educated black people talk just like educated white people, while less educated black people usually (but not always) speak a combination of Southern English and bad grammar. Black people when meeting will tend to speak more similarly to one another than either of them do to white people. Most will code-switch between standard and Black English to varying degrees. This may be considered a shared solidarity in a racist society that has traditionally looked down on them. Even the most educated black people typically talk with particular vowel “colourings” and a general cadence that most Americans readily hear as “black” after a few sentences. Black and Southern English may overlap, but they are not the same. McWhorter asks if the Reverend Martin Luther King and the white police officers who beating and arrested him spoke the same dialect.

What does the blaccent sound like? Here are a few typical features I found online, although as I mentioned before, there is an overlap with other dialects:

Word-final devoicing of /b/, /d/, and /ɡ/, whereby for example Cub sounds like cup

Poor and pour become homophones

The ing becomes in: running” is pronounced as runnin

Final consonant cluster reduction is typical. In the word test both the /s/ and the /t/ are voiceless, so the /t/ is not pronounced: test is pronounced [tɛs]

Door is pronounced doah and sister sistah.

Before nasal consonants (/m/, /n/, and /ŋ/), /ɛ/ and /ɪ/ are both pronounced [ɪ], making

“pen”→ “pin” homophones.

The distinction between /ɪ/ and /iː/ before some certain consonants is frequently reduced, making feel become fill.

McWhorter also refers to the timbre, fine-grained differences in vocal placement and texture that analysts have yet to characterize in detail, though they can easily be picked up when heard.

Of course there is absolutely nothing wrong or inferior about with this. Linguists prefer neutral descriptions of how language works. There is nothing inherently black about the sounds and it is obviously not genetic. After English came to America, as languages are wont to do, it developed in many directions, of which the black variety is but one example. As McWhorter points out in his inimitable style, the way a sounds change is no more meaningful in itself than “changing hemlines, the fact that the fade-out on pop recordings went out of fashion, or that avocado was such a popular colour in home décor for a while.” But as these random changes accumulate to two different dialects, over long periods, they’ll seem more and more distinct. This is why black people have a different sound than whites. Nothing else should be read into this phenomenon and it shouldn’t be seen as a degradation or departure from Standard English:

“This black sound has nothing whatsoever to do with whether one is capable of expressing their feelings elegantly, convincing others to their point of view, weaving an engaging story. It’s just a matter of some vowels—it’s like the difference between one carpet colour and another, nothing more. Black and Standard English share the relationship of two sisters, not that of a mother and her wayward daughter.”

McWhorter complains that the same who refuse to countenance the existence of such a thing as a black sound will notice immediately when a black person “sounds white”. If a black person can sound white, and this accusation is uncontroversial in black America, then the norm must be for black people to sound different. McWhorter has an interesting perspective – he has the wrong voice, he doesn’t have the blaccent. When you’re black and you sound just like a white person, it puts a lot of black people off and can be a social handicap in the black community, where he can come across as stand-offish. You seem to purposefully distancing yourself from the normal black way because you want to be white. He says this has led to him rubbing many black people up the wrong way.

Of course the opposite discrimination is far more destructive. Sounding black on the phone makes you less likely to be shown a flat or house or to be called in for a job interview. Black English is seen as less intelligent. As I pointed out in my post Ebonics: Is You Is or Is You Ain’t a Language?, Ebonics is not broken language, but a dialect of English.

Nowadays the “black sound” has acquired a certain cachet in mainstream society, through the popularity of hip hop. But this too brings its own controversies. We have what is known as cultural appropriation. This was reflected in a musical storm about Iggy Azalea. Now I must admit I was not aware of the oeuvre of Ms Azalea before writing this post. Here she is performing Fancy:

She came in for a lot of criticism in an article in The New Republic, Iggy Azalea Gets Away With Reverse Minstrelsy Because There’s a Market for It. Azalea makes a clear effort to sound distinctly black in her accent and intonation. What a strange world we live in! John McWhorter gets flak for not sounding black enough, whereas Iggy Azalea is trying to sound too black. Is she racist? She says she was inspired by Tupac. There is no doubt that hip-hop music is ubiquitous these days and it would be surprising if it didn’t a generation of kids of all races. Nevertheless, there is something a little jarring listening to a twenty-something, who grew up in a small town in Australia (Mullumbimby, New South Wales), rapping about Murda Bizness in a thick Brooklyn accent. She does seem to be a marketing executive’s sanitised, less threatening version of hip-hop. There is nothing new about this, though. Anyone familiar with the history of popular music twentieth century will recognise this phenomenon.

A couple of videos about the blaccent

May 8, 2016

Here are a couple of videos from the Key and Peele sketch show:


The People v OJ Simpson

May 1, 2016

I recently finished watching American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson, a show which deals with the 1994 double murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman and the subsequent trial of OJ Simpson. But for me one ten-episode series was not enough, so I have subsequently read the book on which the series was based The Run of His Life by Jeffrey Toobin and the Marcia Clark’s account of the trial from the prosecution side, Without a Doubt. I have also seen three or four complete documentaries on YouTube, including a two-and-a-half-hour compilation of the highlights of the trial. I think my wife is starting to get seriously worried about this obsession.

It was called The Trial of the Century. It was before social media, but 24-hour rolling news made the event a media circus. And what a cast of characters it had. Born in 1947 in San Francisco, California, Orenthal James Simpson had a stellar career in American football, despite never winning the Superbowl. Winner of the Heisman Trophy for the best college player, he went on to play for the Buffalo Bills in the NFL, where he became the first running back to rush for 2000 yards in a season. He later forged a successful post-football career encompassing Hollywood, sports broadcasting and advertising.  Best known for playing Officer Nordberg in the Naked Gun trilogy, he also appeared in The Klansman (where he played a man framed for murder by the police), The Towering Inferno and Capricorn One. Shortly before his arrest he did a pilot for NBC of an A-team rip-off, Frogmen, in which there is a scene in which he holds a knife to the throat of a woman.

His personal life was less successful. Simpson married Marguerite L. Whitley on June 24, 1967. They had three children together, Arnelle, Jason and Aaren, who died before her second birthday when she drowned in the family’s swimming pool. Simpson met waitress Nicole Brown while still married to Marguerite. O.J. and Nicole were finally married in 1985 and they had two children together, Justin and Sidney. Their marriage was what is euphemistically described as troubled, i.e. he used to hit her. Nicole really did seem to fear for her life.

But Simpson was just one of the players. Toobin describes lead prosecutor Marcia Clark as arrogant, but the series paints a much more sympathetic portrayal of the lawyer and the sexism she had to put up with. Christopher Darden, the sole African-American on the prosecution side, was responsible for the glove debacle. Judge Lance Ito became media sensation, but his failure to maintain control of the courtroom was another factor in the verdict.

Simpson was defended by the dream team of defence lawyers, which included Robert Shapiro, F. Lee Bailey Barry Scheck and a lawyer I have featured before, Alan Dershowitz, who would have handled the appeal. Dershowitz had actually been on a number of national television shows saying how guilty Simpson was. Now he would be representing him. As Toobin notes, “Shamelessness is a moral, rather than a legal, concept.” They were undoubtedly great lawyers, but it was a fractious relationship. Although he was not initially part of the team, Johnny Cochran was the one who became the principal defence lawyer. Toobin wrote of Cochran “that he had been waiting his whole life for this case, and this case had been waiting for Johnnie Cochran as well.” It may have been Robert Shapiro who first came up with the race-based defence, but it was Cochran who took it to its final consequences.

And finally to add a bit more spice Robert Kardashian was a family friend and another of the defence lawyers. In one scene, probably invented, he warns the family about the dangers of fame:

We are Kardashians. And in this family being a good person and a loyal friend is more important than being famous. Fame is fleeting. It’s hollow. It means nothing at all without a virtuous heart.”

In his book Toobin is clear about Simpson’s guilt. The TV series leaves it a bit more open, but no other credible suspect emerges. If the evidence was so overwhelming, why did he walk?

The prosecution has come in for a lot of flak. There may be some truth in this. The way the defence lawyers were able to get under Darden’s skin and get him to demand that Simpson don the glove. Perhaps the prosecution presented too much evidence. They took six months to present the evidence against O.J. Simpson. But I think that while the DNA, blood evidence was at the heart of the case, the domestic abuse story was relevant too. I have also heard that they shouldn’t have called racist detective Mark Furhrman. But once Fuhrman had climbed over the wall of the Simpson home and had taken part in getting those statements from O.J., he was part of the case. Mark Fuhrman proved to be a disaster for the prosecution. Here I side with the defence in asking for the tapes to be played. He perjured himself in court and not only did he repeat the n-word but he glorified torture and evidence tampering.

If the prosecution made one mistake it was their choice of venue. This is a rather depressing conclusion, but there is no doubt that a whiter jury may well have produced a guilty verdict. This racial animus had been on display when the officers were found not guilty of the beating. The LAPD did not inspire much confidence in the African-American community. The not guilty verdict in the trial of the policeman who beat up Rodney King is considered to have triggered the Los Angeles riots of 1992. This was a climate in which conspiracy theories flourished.

The fact is that humans find it hard to analyse evidence objectively. People can read the same report and come to diametrically opposed conclusions, depending on their ideological starting point. The jury overlooked a mountain of evidence that showed him to be guilty, and seemed more impressed by the glove not fitting. Cochrane’s catchy turn-of-phrase, “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit”, really hit home. This is known as the rhyme-as-reason effect, a cognitive bias in which a saying or aphorism is judged as more accurate or truthful when it rhymes. Really it is not a logically watertight argument.  The glove may well have shrunk, and they cannot negate the overwhelming blood and trace evidence.

Fuhrman may have been a vile human being, but that doesn’t mean he could have conspired to frame Simpson. When he allegedly took the glove to Simpson’s house how did he know that Simpson didn’t have an alibi. I tend to be sceptical of conspiracies. In particular, in the case of OJ, the police seemed to fawn over him. But Cochran was able to sow the seeds of doubt:

“If you cannot trust the messenger, you can’t trust the message…”

Although Simpson was acquitted, his legal problems were far from over. He had to go back to court for a civil trial, and in February 1997 he was found liable for the wrongful deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and ordered to pay their families $33.5 million in damages.

I find it rather surprising that after someone has been acquitted of a crime, they have to then go to a civil case. Why was this result was totally different? Firstly this was a civil case and you are not required to prove guilty beyond reasonable doubt just preponderance of the evidence. This evidence was presented to a whiter jury in Santa Monica. There was no Judge Ito and so the defence were kept on a tighter leash. And, unlike in the criminal trial, where he could invoke his Fifth Amendment rights, O.J. had to testify. He has been described as the worst witness ever, showing that the defence team had been right not to put him on the stand. Where is he now? He is currently in prison in Nevada, having been sentenced to 33 years for armed robbery of sports memorabilia, but he will be eligible for parole in 2017, when he is 70.

In 1996, 21 years after the trial, there must few people who seriously believe Simpson that did not kill Nicole and Ronald Goldman to death. Could such a defence, based on playing the race card, work again? I’m not sure. DNA is now more established. CSI had shown people the power of scientific medicine. But in the age of #blacklivesmatter you could imagine a black celebrity getting off again. There is a certain irony that this defence proved so successful – OJ actually did very little to help the African-American community. He may not have actually said “I’m not black – I’m O.J.”, but that’s how he seemed to live his life.

In the final episode of the TV series Darden angrily confronts Cochran:

This isn’t some civil rights milestone. Police in this country will keep arresting us, keep beating us, keep killing us. You haven’t changed anything for black people here. Unless, of course, you’re a famous, rich one in Brentwood.

I want to argue against seeing cases from one angle. You could look at this case from a domestic abuse perspective. In the end you have to look at the evidence. As I pointed out in my post about rape, you cannot look at this through the prism of the fact that only 10% of rapes result in conviction. The bottom line is that if you are on a jury, you should judge the evidence before you. Is the defendant guilty beyond reasonable doubt? But legal history shows us that this is almost impossible.

O.J. Simpson interview

May 1, 2016

Here is a 1998 interview withthe American sportscaster Chris Myers.