The CDC vs Penises

The latest federal medical guidelines for circumcision are now out, and they emphatically want to return to the era in which infant boys are routinely subjected to the surgical removal of their foreskins – and even adolescent and adult men encouraged to cut their penises. A couple of things need to be emphasized, it seems to me. The core argument is about lowering the risk of HIV infection:

“The first thing it’s important to know is that male circumcision has been associated with a 50 to 60 percent reduction of H.I.V. transmission, as well as a reduction in sexually transmitted infections such as herpes, bacterial vaginosis and the human papilloma virus (H.P.V.), which causes penile and cervical cancer,” Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, told The New York Times.

The evidence for this is entirely with respect to heterosexual sex, and in sub-Saharan Africa, where, unlike in the US, heterosexual sex accounts for the vast majority of HIV infections. It refers, moreover, only to those cases where men are infected by HIV-positive women – a small fraction of the total HIV cases in the US. You wouldn’t know this from Mermin’s statement – which seems to me designed to scare parents with the HIV boogeyman, rather than present them with a clear sense of the tiny potential health benefits involved. (There’s no evidence that circumcision can reduce the chances of HIV infection in gay sex, which accounts for the big majority of US HIV infections.)

To flesh out its case, the CDC cites a statistic that estimates that 10 percent of HIV infections in men can be attributed to female-to-male transmission in the US. It’s worth reiterating that these statistics are estimates, not actual numbers. And the actual number of men estimated to be at risk from this kind of infection is a mere 4,000 a year. Around 2 million boys are born in the US every year. So the future risk of an infant boy getting infected with HIV by a woman, using the CDC’s own argument, is 0.2 percent, or two in a thousand baby boys. And remember, we cannot know that these men were infected by women – it’s an inference – and self-reporting on the matter is extremely unreliable.

We have some other circumstantial data with respect to HIV transmission and circumcision in the West. The AIDS epidemic was far worse in the US – with much higher rates of circumcision – than in Europe, where the infant mutilation was far less prevalent. We’ve also seen a major shift downward in circumcision rates in the US and no sudden upsurge in infection rates. Then there’s the simple fact that we now have a non-surgical preventative daily pill that prevents HIV infection, as well as condoms, providing a way for men to protect themselves from HIV without permanently scarring their dicks.

Somehow, none of this context is spelled out in the recommendations. Neither is any non-medical concern – such as not having your body permanently mutilated without your consent. The impact on sexual sensitivity is also unmentioned – because pleasure has no place in assessing mere medical costs and benefits. The reductions in the risk of getting herpes or HPV are also minimal. If I were to offer any recommendations for the final report on this, it would be for the real and minuscule potential medical benefits of circumcision to be spelled out more clearly, and the non-medical costs to be weighed at least in part. When the potential benefits of this are so marginal, the case for doing nothing – and doing no actual harm – seems to be a powerful one.

(Cropped sidebar image by Flickr user Shira Gal)

Ebola, ISIS, Putin: Meep Meep Watch

President Obama Departs White House En Route To Colorado

Cast your mind back, if you can bear it, to the frenetic last days of the campaign in the mid-terms. The world, the GOP kept insisting, was coming undone – and everything was Obama’s fault. Somehow, Obama had fumbled the response to Ebola, letting infected people into the country, and risking a huge and fatal pandemic. At the same time, ISIS represented a grave threat to American security, was expanding with no limits in sight, proving that Obama had lost Iraq or thrown “victory” away in an act of reckless disengagement. And for good measure, Russia’s Putin was running rings around the president, creating a new world order in the Caucasus, while Obama fecklessly wrung his hands.

As a piece of political performance art, you have to hand it to the Republicans. They rolled up so many base-tingling themes into one hellish, end-times scenario: Obama as Carter, unable to stand up to the Soviets Russians; Obama as secret Muslim terrorist, standing by as Islamists terrorized Iraq and Syria; Obama as a dangerous import from Africa, which is why, we were told, the “O” in Ebola stood for Obama.

Funny, isn’t it, that almost all these themes evaporated after the election. And we now, moreover, have more time and evidence to judge how the president has responded to these different, emergent challenges. There have been no new Ebola cases in the US since the election; and the demon doctor who went bowling is now cured. Today, Obama touted some other measures of progress:

The administration announced Tuesday that it has set up a network of 35 roadrunnerhospitals across the country to deal with Ebola patients. It also said that the number of labs that can test for Ebola has increased from 13 in 13 states in August to 42 labs in 36 states. The White House said the administration has also increased the deployment of civilians and military personnel in West Africa, bumping the U.S. presence to about 200 civilians and 3,000 troops. It said the U.S. has opened three Ebola treatment units and a hospital in Liberia …

NIH researchers last week reported that the first safety study of an Ebola vaccine candidate found no serious side effects, and that it triggered signs of immune protection in 20 volunteers. U.S. health officials are planning much larger studies in West Africa – starting in Liberia in early January – to try to determine if the shots really work.

The downside? The GOP is unlikely to apportion enough money to keep the progress up. Concern about Ebola seems to be acutely timed to election campaigns. Afterwards? No longer that worried.

Then the campaign against ISIS. I’m still opposed to what the administration has done. But it behooves me to note today’s key measure of real progress – the new Iraqi prime minister’s deal with the Kurds on oil revenues:

In reaching a deal, Mr. Abadi, who has been prime minister for less than three months, has further distanced his government from a legacy of bitter sectarian and ethnic division under his predecessor, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. As prime minister, Mr. Maliki deeply alienated the Kurds and enraged Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority with his confrontational personality and policies that were seen as both exclusive and abusive. “The new team, under Abadi, is a cooperative team, a positive team,” said Mr. Zebari, a Kurdish politician who was also Iraq’s foreign minister in the Maliki government.

This is the easy part, compared with an attempt to include the currently revolting Sunnis into a genuinely multi-sectarian government, and to roll back the territorial gains of the Islamic State. But it’s a start. My own skepticism about whether Abadi was truly a unifying figure deserves provisional retirement. And the IS has been rolled back in several key areas. And Kobani has not fallen. If you take Obama’s posture at face value – that he was trying to prevent much worse happening in Iraq and laying out a years-long strategy to nudge Iraq’s democracy along – I can’t see clear evidence that he has failed. Within the very limited goals he set, he has so far succeeded.

Then Putin.

The right was all aglow either with envy of the diminutive tantrum-thrower or with disgust that he had so easily rolled the West on Ukraine. Many found the slow, undramatic unfolding of sanctions as pathetically weak in the face of such unvarnished aggression. But, again, look where Putin is now. I’m with Kevin Drum:

Ukraine is more firmly allied to the West than ever. Finland is wondering if it might not be such a bad idea to join NATO after all. The Baltic states, along with just about every other Russian neighbor, are desperate to reinforce their borders – and their NATO commitments. Russia has been dumped from the G7 and Putin himself was brutally snubbed by practically every other world leader at the G20 meeting in Brisbane. Economic sanctions are wreaking havoc with the Russian economy. China took advantage of all this to drive a harder bargain in negotiations over the long-planned Siberian gas pipeline. Even Angela Merkel has finally turned on Putin.

Russia, meanwhile, is headed for an outright recession next year, hobbled by sanctions and the collapsing oil price (caused in part by America’s shale oil revolution in the Obama years). Now, as with Ebola and ISIS, there are obvious caveats. Obama’s successful cornering of Putin could mean the dictator could get even more reckless; Ukraine remains torn apart in the East. But from the perspective of now, does Putin seem the stronger strategist or does Obama?

I point this out because the conservative media-industrial complex is really about delivering news that can work as political messaging. When the news doesn’t fit that template, they move swiftly on to something else that does. But reality tells us something different: that you should judge a presidency not by short-term panics, but by long term progress in the face of contingent events. Six years after the worst recession since the 1930s, we have accelerating growth, a collapsing deficit, falling healthcare costs and universal health insurance; a decade after the Federal Marriage Amendment, we have over 30 states with marriage equality; six years since Obama took office, we have the toughest new carbon regulations yet on the books and an agreement with China.

I’ll say it again. Meep meep.

(Photo: Win McNamee/Getty)

The Schumer Consensus

Sen. Chuck Schumer

You can barely click on a link these days without reading someone arguing that Obama’s decision to pursue healthcare reform in 2009 – 2010 was the fatal flaw of his administration. As Chuck Schumer put it, putting healthcare before economic recovery sent the wrong message to working-class whites, who have been fleeing the party in droves ever since. Today, Charlie Cook offers up the same message about white flight:

An argument can be made that it is because Democrats have subordinated their traditional focus on helping lower- and working-class Americans move up the economic ladder in favor of other noble priorities, such as health care, the environment, and civil rights.

I’ve heard this a million times now and I simply don’t understand it. In terms of chronology, Obama did put the economy first. With TARP and the stimulus and the auto-bailout, the key measures to shore up a flat-lining economy were taken in short order. You could plausibly argue, I think, that in retrospect, Obama should have gone bigger, and produced a much more ambitious stimulus. But, as someone who observed this close-up and in real time, the odds of that actually happening were close to zero. And if it had happened, the stimulus would have been even less popular – and more easily demagogued – than it actually was. The problem was not the timing or the seriousness of the response; it was the seriousness of the problem. When an economy has a near-death experience, on top of huge public and private debt, the recovery will tend to be exactly what this recovery was: long, sad at first, and later … well, we don’t know yet, do we?

More to the point, healthcare was itself a response to the wounded economy. Here’s why. It’s very hard to see how the white working classes can ever see the kind of income gains they enjoyed for much of the mid-twentieth century in the new global economy. Tax redistribution can only do so much to counteract the enormous forces depressing those wages. But one way in which the working poor can tangibly be helped is by providing access to health insurance, something everyone needs, and something that costs a huge amount for a struggling blue-collar worker. You could argue – and I would – that universal health insurance in America – is actually the most effective measure available to counteract soaring social and economic inequality. Far from being a distraction from the core Democratic task of helping the working family, it’s one of the most effective policies for that goal that’s available.

I suspect that what is really going on is a matter of perception – which, of course, does matter in politics.

The healthcare debate in 2009 and 2010 was more spirited and fierce than the debates over many other issues. The GOP decided to make it their first boogeyman of the Obama years, and organized the 2010 mid-terms around it. And politically, especially against a typically feeble Democratic messaging campaign, that made cynical sense. Even though Obama had put the economy first, the GOP could alter the debate to make it seem as if he had put healthcare before jobs. And since his healthcare proposal was successfully distorted by the right as a redistribution scheme from the white elderly to poor blacks and browns, you can see why this might lead to white flight.

My point is not that this didn’t happen in the public consciousness. My point is simply that this wasn’t because of Obama’s skewed priorities. And to blame Obama for the distortions and demagoguery of the ACA on the right is to cement the cynics’ victory twice over. But that’s what Democrats of Schumer’s era always tend to do. It’s the kind of defensive crouch that the Clintons perfected over the years. What Obama deserves criticism for is not the substance, but the inability to sell and explain and communicate the core principles and purposes of the ACA. He was so busy trying to get something through the Congress he took his eye off the ball in public opinion. And since there appears to be almost no one in Democratic ranks who can make the case except Obama, it turned into a political failure.

But that, again, is not a foregone conclusion. We are still in the very early stages of the ACA’s existence, the period when opposition is likely to be strongest, when glitches remain, when the benefits have yet to be fully or widely felt. Sure, the polling has been relentlessly negative since the ACA was passed – but that is not unusual for new and large government programs. If the economy continues to improve in the next two years, moreover, the impact might begin to reach those white working classes who increasingly view the Democrats as alien. And if the ACA brings tangible benefits to the struggling poor who are its primary beneficiaries,and as the minimum wage debate continues, the politics of class might shift again. When the debate is about removing health insurance from large numbers of the working poor – as the Republicans propose – the self-interest of the white working class might begin to work in the Democrats’ favor.

Well, we’ll see, won’t we?

(Photo: Senator Chuck Schumer waits to speak at the National Press Club on Tuesday, November 25, 2014, on what went wrong for Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections and what they must do to succeed in 2016. By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)


I haven’t come across any new, dispositive facts to change my mind about the complicated specifics in the Michael Brown tragedy. But there is one dispositive fact that is hard to miss and that keeps impressing itself upon me every time I read about Ferguson and its meaning. There is a near-universal consensus among African-American men that there is a crisis about their role in American society, and particularly about their interaction with the police. You can cavil, or criticize or feign shock or refer back to the specifics of the Ferguson case. But it’s there and it’s real and any crisis between any segment of the population with respect to law enforcement is a crisis for the entire society.

Here’s what strikes me – the range of black voices telling us that this is a moment for despair. The rhetoric has gone to eleven. TNC:

Barack Obama is the president of a congenitally racist country, erected upon the plunder of life, liberty, labor, and land. This plunder has not been exclusive to black people. But black people, the community to which both Michael Brown and Barack Obama belong, have the distinct fortune of having survived in significant numbers. For a creedal country like America, this poses a problem—in nearly every major American city one can find a population of people whose very existence, whose very history, whose very traditions, are an assault upon this country’s nationalist instincts. Black people are the chastener of their own country. Their experience says to America, “You wear the mask.”

Here’s Colbert King, one of the sharpest columnists at the Washington Post, with long credentials in the civil rights movement:

We are in a bad place. My 20-year-old grandson, Will, the most gentle and respectful young man you would ever want to meet, posted this on his Facebook page:

“Regarding the recent events in Ferguson: I’ve always wanted to believe my country was free. But today’s grand jury decision tells me this cannot be the case. No country that refuses to hold the police, those so-called ‘defenders of the law,’ accountable for its unjust brutality — and yes, it is often very brutal — can be free. When the grand jury declined to charge Darren Wilson for his actions, what kind of a message does that send? . . . It doesn’t seem fair that police can commit brutal acts against innocent people and get away with it.”

It’s not, Will. Not today. Not in your great-grandmother’s day when that Mississippi grand jury let that white farmer get away with murder. Not ever.

John McWhorter shares my view of the murkiness of the actual incident, but is emphatic nonetheless about the broader problem:

The right-wing take on Brown, that he was simply a “thug,” is a know-nothing position. The question we must ask is: What is the situation that makes two young black men comfortable dismissing a police officer’s request to step aside?

These men were expressing a community-wide sense that the official keepers of order are morally bankrupt. What America owes communities like Ferguson — and black America in general — is a sincere grappling with that take on law enforcement that is so endemic in black communities nationwide. As Northwestern philosopher Charles Mills has put it, “Black citizens are still differentially vulnerable to police violence, thereby illustrating their second class citizenship.”

This is true. It is most of what makes so many black people of all classes sense racism as a key element of black life, and even identity.

What we’re talking about here is not prejudice exhibited by other members of civil society – the kind of prejudice you can argue should be ignored or proven wrong. It is prejudice exhibited by the representatives of the entire system – the police – and its expression is too often violence, even fatal violence. At first, I simply wondered how so many people I respect see no progress at all since the 1930s or earlier. But it is perfectly possible, it now seems clear, for there to be considerable social progress and integration even as police forces – especially in poor, urban areas – come to associate criminality with black men, and treat them as a different class of people – guilty until proven innocent, violent unless proven peaceful.

I can see why this happens, can’t you? Cops are not superhuman. High rates of violence and crime in neighborhoods with large numbers of young black men make a certain kind of prejudice almost impossible to avoid for a fallible human cop – but that makes training to counteract these impulses all the more important to enforce. A cop like Wilson, with clearly minimal finesse in these matters, come across as afraid, unprofessional, and reckless. Ditto this jumpy fool in a much clearer case:

I cannot imagine that happening to a white man. Period. The officer in that case has been fired and charged with assault. But what are the odds that would have happened without a dash-cam video?

The truth is: there are too many eerie parallels between today’s world and yesterday’s.

Although the formal structures are immeasurably better than in the darkest days of slavery and formal segregation, the informal patterns of mind created by history can stay the same. And I sense it is this unchanging attitude – and what it says about the core moral imagination of many non-blacks – that drives reasonable men to sputtering rage and frustration. We are not what we once were – but we remain deeply formed by what we once were. How hard is that nuance to understand?

Will we ever be different? I suspect so. Again from Chris Rock’s interview:

Grown people, people over 30, they’re not changing. But you’ve got kids growing up … I drop my kids off and watch them in the school with all these mostly white kids, and I got to tell you, I drill them every day: Did anything happen today? Did anybody say anything? They look at me like I am crazy … It’s partly generational, but it’s also my kids grew up not only with a black president but with a black secretary of State, a black joint chief of staff, a black attorney general. My children are going to be the first black children in the history of America to actually have the benefit of the doubt of just being moral, intelligent people.

But that may be too sunny a view – and for too many right now a distant prospect. Which is why I favor body cams for cops in these neighborhoods; aggressive attempts to improve schooling in poor black neighborhoods; the end of stop-and-frisk and of the revenue-creating abuses that Radley Balko highlighted. More to the point: I don’t think this should be viewed as some kind of attack on the police. Body cams can protect them from false charges as well as provide an incentive for more civil interactions with black men; and the dragnet criminalization of black men for possessing a joint is a bizarre waste of cops’ time. Their impulses are often understandable – if a huge proportion of criminals in your neighborhood are young black men, you can slide very easily into stereotypes that fatally undermine the rule of law. But that cannot excuse a set of different standards of justice for different types of people.

That’s not a minor bug in a democratic system. It’s a fatal illness. And we need to start treating it like one.

Update from a reader, who rightly keeps our attention on the outrageous killing of a 12-year-old black kid in Cleveland:

We learn more and more horrific details every day (I just saw a story about how the officers who killed him didn’t give CPR for nearly four minutes, essentially killing him once more). While the Ferguson incident was obviously complicated and demands at least some nuance in our response, the Tamir Rice killing, it seems to me, demands communal, shared outrage and pain and anger, the kind that can perhaps genuinely contribute to a meaningful response and to change.

At the very least, it seems to me to be as extreme and grotesque and worth extended attention as any story that has received multi-post, follow-up and conversation kinds of attention on the Dish. And since the Dish is the kind of space that can genuinely push the national conversation forward, I think doing so could help with those broader effects and impacts as well. So I wanted to see if it might not be able to get more of that kind of coverage. Tamir deserves it, and I’d say we all need it.

If you haven’t seen the disturbing footage already, showing the cops giving the kid who made a dumb decision no real time to surrender before shooting him dead, it pretty much says it all:

Thoughts On Affirmative Action

Freddie has a long post, in which he expresses exasperation at my opposition to racial discrimination against Asian-American students in the Ivy League. His core point is that without affirmative action, and the punishment of Asian-Americans for their race, there would be far lower proportions of black and Latino students in college, and that therefore ending it is grotesquely irresponsible if you care about “racial economic equality” in America. Above all, I am talking in “abstractions”, while I seem oblivious to the human tragedy of black and Latino students being shut out of college.

Some of our disagreements are structural. Freddie, for example, writes:

This whole debate  depends on a flatly bogus notion of what college is, or what our country is. There is no such thing as meritocracy. There has never been anything resembling meritocracy.

In contrast, I think that the establishment of standardized testing in the post-war years – together with the GI bill – was a huge step forward for meritocracy in America. Millions of people who previously were unable to go to college had sudden access to education for the first time in American history. The SAT liberated millions from the grueling fates of their parents. The huge increase in the numbers of women in colleges and the workforce also powered more meritocracy – as more competition in a labor force will tend to do. Both of these changes were huge gains for meritocracy in America. Is this a perfect system? Of course not. It’s increasingly compromised by extreme economic inequality and all the corruptions it entails. Nepotism, racism, and sexism also play a big part, as they will in every human society, in frustrating the goal of equal opportunity. We have a flawed and imperfect meritocracy (when in history has there ever been anything else?). But the idea that there “has never been anything resembling meritocracy” in America is hyperbole.

Freddie says I operate in abstractions, rather than human beings. But I am defending real human beings who often come from poor immigrant families and who have worked hard and scored high grades and are then denied a place at college solely because of the color of their skin. That human experience is a terrible one to inflict in a meritocracy. I’m baffled why many are so comfortable with this ugly fact or feel no sympathy for the plight of those treated by Harvard today the way Jews were in the 1920s. Freddie argues that this is defensible because it is a benign and well-meaning form of racism. But racism has always been defended as benign and well-meant, hasn’t it? Shouldn’t we be a teensy bit skeptical about such claims?

But if I oppose affirmative action, what would I do to mitigate racial economic inequality? Plenty of things, actually – and none of them requiring race discrimination.

In colleges, I find California’s “10 percent of the top students in every high school” to be a sensible way to superficially overcome the issue of geographic segregation. This gives smart black and Latino students a much better chance to overcome the deep disadvantages of neighborhood, without using race as a criterion for getting into college. In my original post, I also favor getting rid of alumni legacy places at colleges – which, along with a much smaller number of athletic scholarships, could open up many places for meritorious students of color.

More deeply, I favor intensive and aggressive attempts to improve public education from pre-K on, especially in poor rural and urban districts. I’m agnostic about how we do this – charter schools, higher salaries for good teachers, more spending, period – but the years long before college are much more critical for future success than four years at the age of 18. In broader areas of racial injustice, I’ve long been an opponent of the drug war, for legalizing weed, in particular, for ending stop-and-frisk, and so on. Whatever we can do to strengthen fatherhood and family structure among the rural and urban poor will make a difference as well. Two other policies that I favor that would, I hope, increase meritocracy in America: the restoration of a serious estate tax; and universal healthcare through expansion of Medicaid and through the ACA. I think the destabilizing effects of the globalized, high-tech economy require aggressive government action to re-balance opportunity. I am not one of those who simply want to do away with affirmative action and do nothing else.

Would this erode the racial imbalances at college? Almost certainly. Would it abolish them? I don’t know. Unlike many others, I am open to the idea that the persistently resilient racial differences in IQ – across history and class (in which Asians do better than whites) – might not be entirely a function of America’s “congenital racism”. Unlike many others, my concern is not with equality of outcomes, but with equality of opportunity. And discriminating against people on the basis of their race – however benignly – is not conducive to equality of opportunity. It is, in fact, deeply corrosive of it.

(Sidebar photo: Harvard’s Widener Library, by John Phelan)

What To Make Of Ferguson?

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I was on break when the killing of Michael Brown – and the subsequent uproar – took place. And so I’m both unqualified and qualified to offer my two cents on the case. I’m unqualified because I didn’t go through the collective experience of others as this unfolded; I’m qualified because perhaps for the same reason: I can look at the case with a little more distance and a little less emotion. And the best piece I have read on this remains Radley Balko’s report from Saint Louis, where he describes in great and persuasive detail how racial dynamics and a police force financing itself from petty fines from the poor make any idea of equal justice in that area a pipe dream:

Locals say the cops and court officers often come not only from different zip codes, but from completely different cultures and lifestyles than the people whose fines and court fees fund their paychecks. “It was always apparent that police don’t usually have a lot in common with the towns where they work,” says Javad Khazaeli, whose firm Khazaeli Wyrsch represents municipal court clients pro bono. (Disclosure: Khazaeli is also a personal friend.) “But I think Ferguson really showed just how much that can be a problem.”

A recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch survey of the 31 St. Louis County municipalities where blacks made up 10 percent or more of the population found just one town where black representation on the police force was equal or greater than the black presence in the town itself. Some towns were shockingly disparate. In Velda City, for example, blacks make up 95 percent of the town, but just 20 percent of the police. In Flordell Hills, it’s 91 percent and 25 percent respectively. In Normandy, 71 and 14. In Bellefontaine Neighbors, 73 and 3. In Riverview, 70 and 0.

Residents of these towns feel as if their governments see them as little more than sources of revenue. To many residents, the cops and court officers are just outsiders who are paid to come to their towns and make their lives miserable. There’s also a widely held sentiment that the police spend far more time looking for petty offenses that produce fines than they do keeping these communities safe.

Another critical piece of context:

Young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts – 21 times greater, according to a ProPublica analysis of federally collected data on fatal police shootings.

The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.

Not a great deal makes sense until you have absorbed that context – and know that Michael Brown was unarmed when he was shot multiple times and killed. He became a symbol of something real – even though the exact details of the altercation between him and a cop were as yet unknown. As to the case itself, I found the prosecutor’s press conference almost laughably tone-deaf, as the man seemed to be more concerned with impugning social media than indicting an accused murderer. It was a small sign of a vast cultural and social disconnect.

But do I believe the Grand Jury was out to lunch? I don’t fully know without having attended the trial and absorbed every piece of evidence now released. But the autopsy confirms at least part of the cop’s testimony – that there was a scuffle inside the car, in which the cop’s gun was fired. And when a person attempts to grab a cop’s gun away from him, or reach into a cop car in order to physically intimidate the cop, we’re not talking about an innocent bystander. We’re talking about an assault on a police officer by someone who had recently stolen from a convenience store. This is not a 12-year-old shot dead for waving a BB gun around. He’s a person who – as the video from the convenience store reveals – can use his weight and size to intimidate and physically threaten those trying to stop him from stealing.

The proximate question, of course, is why Brown was shot multiple times after the altercation in the car.

Brown could have pulled a gun during the original altercation – but didn’t, because he didn’t have one. Couldn’t the cop have surmised that? Wilson, for his part, had several other options available to him:

I considered using my mace, however, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my left hand, which is blocking my face to go for it. I couldn’t reach around on my right to get it and if I would have gotten it out, the chances of it being effective were slim to none. His hands were in front of his face, it would have blocked the mace from hitting him in the face and if any of that got on me, I know what it does to me and I would have been out of the game. I wear contacts, if that touches any part of my eyes, then I can’t see at all.

Like I said, I don’t carry a taser, I considered my asp, but to get that out since I kind of sit on it, I usually have to lean forward and pull myself forward to the steering wheel to get it out. Again, I wasn’t willing to let go of the one defense I had against being hit.

That might explain the sudden resort to lethal force in the car – but doesn’t explain why a gun was the only weapon he chose to subdue Brown outside the car. He claims Brown charged at him with his hands up, but also reached down inside his waistband. He could have used mace at any point in ways that would not backfire as they might have in the car. And the cop cannot explain the multiple bullets he fired into Brown’s body. But he does revealingly describe him as a “demon”: “when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” And the entire episode lasted only 90 seconds.

I suspect it was overkill brought on by any number of factors racing through Wilson’s mind in those frenzied, panicked seconds. And yes, primordial racial feelings may well have been part of the mix. But I can also see why a Grand Jury would have trouble indicting him. A wanted criminal who picked a fight with a cop, struggled with his gun in the cop car, and then turned to face down a man he allegedly called a “pussy” for not shooting at him, is not easily turned into a victim of excessive police violence. The rarety of failures of Grand Jury’s to indict people for murder becomes a lot less rare when you’re talking about a cop confronting a known criminal, especially when the criminal has just tussled with a cop in his car and grabbed his gun.

Which makes this a tragedy. There was no need for Wilson to shoot Brown multiple times; but there was absolutely no justification for Brown assaulting a cop and trying to grab his gun. Once you do that, a jury will not second-guess a member of law enforcement defending himself.

Which leaves us with the endemic problems of trust in the police force that Balko examined.

Which have just gotten immeasurably worse.

Angela Merkel: The Real Conservative


I’ve long been fascinated by Angela Merkel, and not entirely sure why. She’s been German Chancellor for nine years now, is the most powerful politician on the continent, and has approval ratings of over 70 percent. And yet she somehow eludes easy characterization and her studied affect of dullness deflects any serious scrutiny. And so she has hovered around the edges of my brain – a Thatcher who is also an un-Thatcher, a woman in power for a decade who somehow doesn’t prompt the polarization and drama of the Iron Lady.

George Packer’s long but rich profile manages to crack this puzzle a little. Merkel’s strain of tedium is mostly of the good kind. She’s so thoroughly a pragmatist that she has largely overcome the left-right ideological battle in Germany. And, partly because she was in East Germany at the time, she missed the culture war battles of the late 1960s and 1970s. And so she has risen above the fray – while never veering very much from the dead center of German politics. And yet, she is also a brilliant, revenge-seeking pole-climber of the first order (and I mean that very much as a compliment). This story is eye-opening:

Angela was physically clumsy—she later called herself “a little movement idiot.” At the age of five, she could barely walk downhill without falling. “What a normal person knows automatically I had to first figure out mentally, followed by exhausting exercise,” she has said. According to Benn, as a teen-ager Merkel was never “bitchy” or flirtatious; she was uninterested in clothes, “always colorless,” and “her haircut was impossible—it looked like a pot over her head.”

A former schoolmate once labelled her a member of the Club of the Unkissed. (The schoolmate, who became Templin’s police chief, nearly lost his job when the comment was published.) But Merkel was a brilliant, ferociously motivated student. A longtime political associate of Merkel’s traces her drive to those early years in Templin. “She decided, ‘O.K., you don’t fuck me? I will fuck you with my weapons,’ ” the political associate told me. “And those weapons were intelligence and will and power.”

She bided her time but delivered a ballsy coup de grace to her party leader Helmut Kohl. And I loved this story of how she actually won the Chancellorship after a close election which her main rival, Gerhard Shröder, assumed guaranteed his victory over the schlubby, gray woman seated next to him:

On Election Night, Merkel, Schröder, Fischer, and other party leaders gathered in a TV studio to discuss the results. Merkel, looking shell-shocked and haggard, was almost mute. Schröder, his hair colored chestnut and combed neatly back, grinned mischievously and effectively declared himself the winner. “I will continue to be Chancellor,” he said. “Do you really believe that my party would take up an offer from Merkel to talk when she says she would like to become Chancellor? I think we should leave the church in the village”—that is, quit dreaming. Many viewers thought he was drunk. As Schröder continued to boast, Merkel slowly came to life, as if amused by the Chancellor’s performance.

She seemed to realize that Schröder’s bluster had just saved her the Chancellorship. With a slight smile, she put Schröder in his place. “Plain and simple — you did not win today,” she said. Indeed, the C.D.U. had a very slim lead. “With a little time to think about it, even the Social Democrats will come to accept this as a reality. And I promise we will not turn the democratic rules upside down.”

Two months later, Merkel was sworn in as Germany’s first female Chancellor.


In this deft political style and in her post-ideological politics, she reminds me of Obama but with far less rhetorical skill and far more political success. Packer is too kind, I’d say, about the consequences of her austerity program for the entire euro zone, but he captures something deeper about Merkel’s significance. The country’s strength perhaps needs this undemonstrative figure wielding it; it defuses opposition and calms neighbors’ fears. But her stolidity, complacency and risk-aversion at the helm of a satisfied and prosperous country also taps a deeper German longing and an old German past:

“West Germany was a good country,” Georg Diez, a columnist and author, told me. “It was young, sexy, daring, Western—American. But maybe it was only a skin. Germany is becoming more German, less Western. Germany has discovered its national roots.”

Diez didn’t mean that this was a good thing. He meant that Germany is becoming less democratic, because what Germans fundamentally want is stability, security, economic growth—above all, to be left in peace while someone else watches their money and keeps their country out of wars. They have exactly the Chancellor they want.

She is the very model of a modern German politician, a woman whose empiricism and skepticism makes her arguably the leading conservative figure of our age. And by “conservative”, I don’t in any way mean “Republican.”

(Photo: Photos of German Chancellor and Christian Democratic Union (CDU) candidate Angela Merkel are seen on the front pages of German newspapers on September 23, 2013, a day after general elections. By Barbara Sax/AFP/Getty Images.)