Where Are the Libertarians on Ferguson? Here, LMGTFY

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Apologies for another defensive libertarian post, but there seems to be a meme going around that libertarians don’t care or aren’t talking about what’s going on in Ferguson, Missouri. And like most things mainstream left/right pundits say about libertarians, it has almost zero relation to the truth. “Why aren’t libertarians talking about Ferguson?” The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman asks. Why, indeed?


Radley Balko, a libertarian writing for the same paper as Waldman (and who literally wrote the book on the dangers of U.S. police militarization), reported on Ferguson in the paper and has been tweeting nonstop about it. Here are some thoughts from Jonathan Blanks of the Cato Institute from the day of the shooting. Here’s Reason, where I work, covering the shooting and its aftermath this whole time.  Here’s Conor Friedersdorf covering it at The Atlantic. Here’s some more of the ample, ongoing commentary from libertarians on Twitter:

If you don’t think libertarians are talking about (and outraged over) Ferguson, you’re clearly not reading or talking to many libertarians.

To make his case that libertarians were being silent on this, Waldman cited two Republican politicians and one libertarian journalist that only writes a weekly column. (He does note at the bottom of the article that Reason was, in fact, covering Ferguson.) Leaving aside the fact that two-thirds of this sample of libertarians does not consist of libertarians, it’s still an absurd premise. One could easily pick three GOP or Democrat politicians and writers not talking about Ferguson and conjure up a similar storyline.

Waldman et al clearly want to give the impression that libertarians “believe that when somebody’s grandson has to pay taxes on their inheritance, it’s a horrifying injustice that demands redress, but when somebody else’s grandson gets shot walking down the street, that’s just how things go sometimes,” as he wrote at the Post. But this is a lie, or at least self-deception. Cato’s Jason Kuznicki sums up the mindset nicely:

People like Waldman and Pollitt try to claim the moral high-ground on these issues. But in times that matter, they would rather waste time and space on making libertarians look bad than come together with us on a serious issue on which we all agree.

Improving the FDA

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

I have no shortage of criticisms of the Food and Drug Administration. Where I fall short, I’m always embarrassed to admit, is solutions. What can be done about this largely useless, sometimes harmful, and occasionally beneficial agency? Economist Alex Tabarrok has some thoughts:

One key reason for Europe’s efficient approval process is that European governments don’t review medical devices directly. Instead they certify independent “notified bodies” that specialize and compete to review new products. The European system works more quickly than the U.S. system, and there is no evidence that it results in reduced patient safety. Rather than tweak the current system, why doesn’t the U.S. just adopt the European model and call it a day? Our health and our economy would be better off for it.

In addition to “becoming a certifier of certifiers as is done in Europe,” Tabarrok suggests we not reinvent the wheel with every approval. If we believe the testing standards of certain other countries are sound, drugs and devices approved there could be provisionally improved in the United States.

Tabarrok recently reviewed Joseph Gulfo’s Innovation Breakdown, a book about (according to the subtitle) “how the FDA and Wall Street cripple medical advances.” Gulfo is the former president and CEO of MELA Sciences, a medical device company focused on improving skin cancer detection. One of MELA Sciences’ products is MelaFind, a melanoma detection device designed for dermatologists’ use. But MelaFind almost didn’t make it to the market – after an extensive clinical trial to the FDA’s specifications, the agency then came out against MelaFind.

Here’s Taborrok on the dramatic conclusion:

The climax to this medical thriller comes when, in “the greatest 15 minutes of [his] life,” Dr. Gulfo delivers an impassioned speech, à la “Twelve Angry Men,” to the FDA’s advisory committee. The committee voted for approval, 8 to 7, and, perhaps with the congressional hearing in mind, the FDA approved MelaFind in September 2011.

Despite all this, Gulfo still believes in the need for a strong FDA; Taborrak says he’s wrong, wrong, wrong. Reihan Salam seems interested by skeptical and points to a proposal similar to Taborrok’s from Hoover Institution fellow Henry I Miller:

… Miller calls for a U.S. commitment to accepting the judgments of select foreign regulatory authorities with strong reputations for protecting the interests of consumers, like those found in the European Union, Canada, and Japan.

More controversially, Miller suggested in a 2001 proposal that certified, independent bodies would handle evaluating new drugs and devices—but these bodies would be hired directly by pharmaceutical and medical device companies. “One obvious concern,” writes Salam:

… is that biotech firms might hire unscrupulous, low-cost drug-certifying bodies that do a slapdash job. Yet these bodies would presumably fail to pass muster with the FDA, which would continue to serve as the last line of defense. The desire to hire the cheapest and most compliant drug-certifying bodies would have to be balanced against the desire to hire a body that will get its decisions approved.

For more ideas on improving the FDA, see here and here.

Depression, Success, And Lies Of The Mind

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

spirit animalYesterday I bemoaned those who would turn Robin Williams’ death into a mandatory mass therapy session. But that isn’t to say I don’t appreciate some of the conversation his suicide is provoking. If you’ve never been clinically depressed, the idea that someone like Williams could possibly find life wanting tends to seem absurd.

But depression is a “lie of the mind,” to borrow an old Sam Shepard title. It cares not for your comedy-god status or your loving family. It cares not that plenty of people have it worse. “Depression is a skilled liar, using what you know is true as basis for a massive fraud,” wrote journalist John Tabin yesterday. “If you’re suicidal, you’re where I was five years ago,” he tweeted. “Please read”:



I got teary-eyed reading that, and not just because Tabin is someone I know and like. There’s also the pain of recognition: I could have written nearly every word he did here. This is my depression story, too.

But then again, it is almost all depression stories. That is what will strike you if you read very many of them. The building blocks of depression are always the same: hopelessness, isolation, pain. The absolute, iron-clad conviction that nothing will ever change. Then (if you’re lucky) come hard-won coping tips. An uneasy peace between you and your biology. But it can all be illusory, as Tabin mentions—you are fighting to overcome a brain that wants you to die using that same brain. You will often have to keep coming up with new tricks.

Can you imagine doing that for a lifetime? I don’t think it speaks ill of anyone who eventually decides the tradeoffs aren’t worth it. As a Dish reader lamented via email:

…when someone dies after a lifelong battle with severe mental illness and drug addiction, we say it was a tragedy and tell everyone “don’t be like him, please seek help.” That’s bullshit. Robin Williams sought help his entire life. He saw a psychiatrist. He quit drinking. He went to rehab. He did this for decades. That’s HOW he made it to 63. For some people, 63 is a fucking miracle.

People unfamiliar with how depression works think Williams’ wealth and success should’ve been an antidote. Dave Weigel deconstructed this myth yesterday at Slate, with rare help from personal anecdote:

If you’ve never suffered from depression, or had a public career, the suicide of a successful person makes no damn sense. It’s the same reason why an artist quitting or breaking his band up makes no sense—you wanted something, and you’ve finally grabbed it, so why would you ever give that up? What’s wrong with you?

Depression is what’s wrong with you. I’ve been medicated for depression since 2001. In 2002, after a particularly low episode, I was taken in by campus police that marked me as a risk for self-harm. I then voluntarily checked myself into a mental hospital.

I like seeing men like Weigel and Tabin sharing their stories right now. Too often, depression is still viewed in a gendered light. And because women are expected to be emotional, I don’t think our stories resonate as strongly with those who don’t understand depression. That it really isn’t a disease about emotionality falls on the proverbial deaf ears.

But perhaps the hardest thing for people to understand is that depression doesn’t respond to rational incentives. It doesn’t matter if you have a new, awesome job or a new, awesome baby. It doesn’t matter if you’re a world-famous actor or a successful political journalist. Here’s Weigel again, explaining how the depression-brain tricks you:

One: You earned none of what you have. You’re a fraud. People are going to find out. Everything your critics have said about you, from the guy who lobbed dodgeballs at your head to the hate-mailer who hated your Iowa story, is completely right.

Two: All that other stuff you feel, the negativity and the screw-ups? You definitely earned that, because you’re meant to fail. You’ve succeeded, and you still feel this way? Why, that’s proof that you won’t possibly feel better.

Three: Nobody truly likes you. They can desert you at any moment. They’re succeeding, and you’re not.

It’s contradictory, and pointless, and bears very little relationship to the reality of what you’re going through. It’s unpredictable in a way that makes you feel callow; I’ve been sad but functional after the deaths of family members, then horribly depressed while walking home on a random Wednesday.

The random-Wednesday bit is one of its most insidious parts. And it also makes it tricky to calibrate your response. Is this afternoon funk just an afternoon funk? Is there something secretly bothering me? Or am I once again spiraling into a totally irrational and unprovoked cycle of hate and emptiness that will last for months? Only time will tell! 

Any sort of conclusion here feels pat and forced, so I’ll just say that I’m glad people are sharing about and discussing this right now—and in ways more nuanced than “depression is bad, get help!” Thanks, Tabin. Thanks, Weigel. Thanks everyone who is sharing stories (I’d be amiss not to mention these very good takes from Helen Rosner, Molly Pohlig, Chris Gethard, and Jim Norton). Oh, and thanks GlaxoSmithKline! Wellbutrin is my spirit animal…

Where Are These Kids’ Parents? Ask The Cops

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Due process? Too good for children! That seems to be the attitude at police stations across the country. New research shows juvenile suspects are routinely interrogated about serious crimes without parents or a lawyer present.

The research, presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention last week, relied on 57 11698954185_02367aba3e_zvideotaped juvenile interrogations from 17 police stations around the country. In these interviews – 93 percent of which pertained to serious or violent offenses – less than a third of the 13- to 17-year-old suspects had a lawyer present during the interrogation. And only 21 percent had parents present.

“From a due process perspective, this was very troubling to see,” Hayley Cleary, lead researcher and developmental psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in a statement.

Yes, these teens had waived their Miranda rights. However, “laboratory-based studies have shown that adolescents may not fully understand their right to decline police questioning when not in custody,” said Cleary. Teens may also “not be developmentally able to assert themselves when asked to consent to questioning and those vulnerabilities can continue into the interrogation room.”

Cleary believes (or at least tactfully says) that “we need more research examining why juveniles in particular are waiving their constitutional rights so frequently and confessing to crimes before they’ve obtained advice from an attorney.” But it doesn’t seem like much of a mystery. The reasons she previously mentioned – lack of understanding of their rights, fear or acquiescence in the face of authority – are perfectly sufficient to explain why a 14-year-old might answer cops’ questions in loco parentis or an attorney.

There seems to have been an interesting criminal justice bent to this year’s APA convention, including a symposium called “Stand Your Ground Law – Psychology’s Contribution to the National Conversation”. It was co-led by Stanford University professor Jennifer Eberhardt, whose below comments to APA members came the day before unarmed black teen Michael Brown was shot by white police officers in a suburb of St. Louis. From the APA conference blog:

Eberhardt discussed some of the research that has implications for “stand your ground” laws. For example, although research finds that most white people think that they treat other groups fairly and that discrimination is a thing of the past, her research tells a dramatically different story. In a series of studies, she has found that “race influences what we see, where we look and how we respond.” Understanding the psychological consequences of these laws is critical, she said. “People of color are finding themselves in a vulnerable position in public spaces,” said Eberhardt. “Children of color are growing up situations where they feel  that the state is not protecting them, that the state does not recognize their pain. As children, they are already feeling invisible.”

A few days earlier, the APA’s governing council approved a resolution recommending that all interrogations of felony suspects be videotaped from start to finish. Surveilling the police, said the psychologists, could help end coercive police tactics and “the problem of false confessions and wrongful convictions.”

(Photo of an interrogation room by Kris Arnold)

The Mom Behind National Sex Offender Registries Wants To Scale Them Back

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Slate is running a series of articles this week on why and how U.S. sex offender registries have become the beast that they have. Writers Matt Mellema, Chanakya Sethi, and Jane Shim – all students at Yale Law School – kicked things off Monday by talking to Patty Wetterling, the woman largely responsible for the sex-offender registry’s national creep.

In 1989, Wetterling’s 11-year-old son Jacob was kidnapped on his way home from a convenience store with his brother and friend; he was never found, and his abductor’s identity remains unknown. At the time his kidnapping, only a few states had sex-offender registries, and Wetterling came to see this as a big problem. She pushed for her home state of Minnesota and all states to adopt them. And voila: the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act of 1994.

“But the world has changed since then,” Wetterling told Slate:

What’s changed, Wetterling says, is what science can tell us about the nature of sex offenders.

The logic behind the past push for registries rested on what seem like common sense assumptions. Among the most prominent were, first, sex offenders were believed to be at a high risk for reoffending—once a sex offender, always a sex offender. Second, it was thought that sex offenses against children were commonly committed by strangers. Taken together, the point was that if the police had a list, and the public could access it, children would be safer.

The problem, however, is that a mass of empirical research conducted since the passage of Jacob’s Law has cast increasing doubt on all of those premises.

Sex offense recidivism rates have actually been shown to be lower than for most other crimes. And in 93 percent of cases with child victims, the offender was not some untraceable stranger but someone known to the victim.

Some states are starting to come around. In California, one of the first states to enact a sex offender registry (in 1947!), the board that manages it is calling for reforms. In a 2014 report, the California Sex Offender Management Board (CSOMB) argues that not only does it unduly burden registrants in its current, expansive state, it is also less effective than a much less robust registry would be:

California’s system of lifetime registration for all convicted sex offenders has created a registry that is very large and that includes many individuals who do not necessarily pose a risk to the community. The consequences of these realities are that the registry has, in some ways, become counterproductive to improving public safety. When everyone is viewed as posing a significant risk, the ability for law enforcement and the community to differentiate between who is truly high risk and more likely to reoffend becomes impossible.

The board also notes the extraordinary cost of running the current registry. Far from taking money away from fighting sex crimes, reigning in the registry a bit would allow more resources for tracking high-risk offenders and developing other ways of protecting communities, it says. CSOMB concludes with advice that would be wise to heed way beyond California:

If the current registration system was effective in the ways intended, these might be considered part of the price to pay for the greater good. But, since the current registry does not attain its intended purposes, many of these unintended consequences are without justification.

Today at Slate, Sethi maps out which states force people to register as sex offenders for things like public urination, consensual teen sex, and prostitution. Free Range Kids blogger Lenore Skenazy recently highlighted how “any registering snafu” once you’re on the list – including notifying the state of an address change a week after the move instead of the week before – can result in an extended registry period or renewed time in jail. In Texas, the administrative error comes with a mandatory minimum of two to five years.

Who’s Really Making Marijuana Users ‘Lab Rats’?

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

The state of Colorado has just launched an asinine campaign to keep kids off marijuana. The initiative’s first tack, unveiled Monday, involves a cadre of nine-foot-tall rat cages staged around Denver, “with messages communicating the potential damage marijuana has on a teen’s brain and the notion that Colorado’s youth are the test subjects for continued observation,” according to a press release.

The “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” campaign will also feature television commercials (example above) and a website with warnings like the following:

Is Mother Nature’s miracle plant as harmless as most teens think? Maybe not. In fact, many early studies have shown the exact opposite. Scientists from Duke to Cambridge have uncovered a laundry list of troubling side effects.

Schizophrenia. Permanent IQ loss. Stunted brain growth.

Still, some people question this research. Claiming the studies need to go deeper. Look further. But who will be their guinea pigs?

Who’s going to risk their brains to find out once and for all what marijuana really does?

Don’t be a lab rat.

Marijuana Policy Project communications director Mason Tvert obviously disapproves of the ads. He told CBS Denver:

You don’t have to say, ‘You’re going to become a lab rat and it’s going to destroy you.’ This is the same type of fear-mongering that’s failed to prevent teen marijuana use for decades.

Seeing as many teens know older adults (possibly even their parents) who smoked pot as young adults and didn’t become developmentally-stunted schizophrenics, the warnings probably won’t ring too true. But the thing is, anyone who uses marijuana – medically or recreationally – is essentially a “lab rat” right now.

We don’t have a ton of research on how marijuana affects teen brains, glaucoma patients, veterans with PTSD, or anyone else. And there is precisely one reason we do not: because of federal drug policy.

American doctors and scientists have been clamoring to study marijuana’s health benefits and risks more closely. Yet the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance with “no accepted medical use,” which makes it incredibly hard for researchers to study it. (Other Schedule 1 drugs – including LSD and Ecstasy – also face regulatory hurdles that limit their medical potential, though studying these drugs is slightly less difficult than studying weed.) Among other things, would-be marijuana researchers must get special dispensation from multiple federal agencies and buy their supply from a federal grow facility that’s perpetually understocked. The New York Times recently detailed the hoops these researchers must jump through:

To obtain the drug legally, researchers … must apply to the Food and Drug Administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse — which, citing a 1961 treaty obligation, administers the only legal source of the drug for federally sanctioned research, at the University of Mississippi. … The process is so cumbersome that a growing number of elected state officials, medical experts and members of Congress have started calling for loosening the restrictions. In June, a letter signed by 30 members of Congress, including four Republicans, called the extra scrutiny of marijuana projects “unnecessary,” saying that research “has often been hampered by federal barriers.”

(…) Despite the mounting push, there is little evidence that either Congress or the Obama administration will change marijuana’s status soon. In public statements, D.E.A. officials have made their displeasure known about states’ legalizing medical and recreational marijuana.

When state governments and anti-drug crusaders warn folks not to be lab rats, let’s remember who’s keeping them that way.

Playing The Prostitution Shame Game, With A Little Help From Hyperbole And Fear

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown


Comedian Jim Norton admits that he “cannot even fathom a guess as to how much money” he has spent on paid sex in the past few decades. He isn’t ashamed of his habit, and he doesn’t think other johns should be either. But he does worry that the criminal status of sex work invites violence:

By keeping prostitution illegal because we find it “morally objectionable,” we allow (or, more accurately, you allow) sex workers to constantly be put into dangerous situations. Studies have shown that rapes and STDs dropped drastically between 2003 and 2009 in Rhode Island after the state accidentally legalized it. The American Journal of Epidemiology showed that the homicide rate for prostitutes is 50 times higher than the next most dangerous job for a woman, working in a liquor store. You don’t need a Masters in sociology to understand it would be much safer for sex workers if they were permitted to work in places that provided adequate security. Legalizing prostitution would also alleviate the fear a sex worker may have about reporting the abusive behavior of a john out of fear of arrest.

…. By keeping prostitution illegal and demonizing all of its parties, we (you) are empowering pimps and human traffickers and anyone else who wants to victimize sex workers because they feel helpless under the law.

These are all arguments I make frequently (as do organizations like Amnesty International, the United Nations Development Programme, and Open Society Foundations). Criminalizing consensual sex between adults not only harms the sex workers and johns engaged in it but also the actual victims of sex trafficking, from whom resources are being diverted in order to conduct large, interstate stings on men like Norton. Dan Savage recently criticized such tactics, in response to an organization called Seattle Against Slavery and its Men’s March to End Demand:

The Men’s March organizers said in an e-mail that they hoped to get 75 men (and women and families) at the Men’s March to End Demand. But even if 75,000 men (and women and families) marched tomorrow—even if 750,000 men, women, and families marched—men (and some women) will continue to buy for sex from women (and some men). There have always been sex workers and there always will be sex workers. Sex workers have always had clients and they always will. Marching to “end the demand” for sex work is like marching to end the demand for illegal drugs. Marchers may burn a few calories, and they may leave feeling as if they’ve done something, but people will go right on paying for sex and using drugs.

393px-Have_You_A_Girl_to_Spare_-_The_Great_War_on_White_SlaverySeattle Against Slavery subscribes to the popular, delusional conception that all prostitution is “sex trafficking.” This delusion was recently promulgated by journalist Charlotte Alter in response to Norton’s anti- john-shaming essay. After telling Norton and everyone else they “should be ashamed” to pay for sex – after all, men aren’t “entitled to sex, but women are entitled to human dignity” – Alter asserts:

No amount of rationalization can get around the basic principle of market economics: if people like you didn’t buy girls, they wouldn’t be sold, and if they couldn’t be sold, they wouldn’t be trafficked and abused.

If Norton had said he pays girls for sex, I could see Alter’s point. But he didn’t. Norton wrote about paying for consensual sex with adult women working in the sex industry. Alter responded by accusing him of raping abused girls.

This is a popular tactic from the anti-sex work crowd. It can be hard to convince Americans, with their strong support of individual liberties, that the whys and hows of private adult sex is a proper matter of state concern. But if you can tie adult prostitution to the criminal trafficking of teens and children, more people’s ears start to perk up. And Alter tries her darndest, letting unsubstantiated allegations and spurious statistics fly:

Did you ever consider, Jim, whether these girls … might have slept with you only because they would get beaten if they didn’t make a certain amount of money that night. And if you thought they enjoyed it, they were probably faking, because that’s exactly what you pay them to do. Sure, some woman do choose this line of work, and sex-workers unions argue that prostitution can be a freely made choice, but that’s not the case for the vast majority: U.S. State Department estimates that 80% of the 600,000 to 800,000 people trafficked across international borders every year are trafficked for sex.

This statistic is false. To substantiate it, Alter links not to actual State Department statistics but to a page from the advocacy organization Half the Sky – and even that doesn’t say what Alter says it does:

The U.S. State Department … estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. Eighty percent of those trafficked are women and girls, mostly for sexual exploitation.

Half the Sky doesn’t provide any links or citations to back up these claims, either. According to a 2014 report from the State Department, however, only 44,758 victims of any sort of human trafficking were identified worldwide in 2013. Obviously not all or even most of those who are trafficked are identified by global governments, but I do wonder how we leap from less than 50,000 identified victims to an annual estimate of 600,000 and 800,000 victims, not including those who don’t cross country lines.

Of the identified victims, there were people who had been sold into prostitution, domestic labor, farm labor, military subscription, and a number of sectors. While the state department data doesn’t break it down, the International Labor Organization estimates that about 3 times as many people are trafficked into labor as are trafficked into the sex trade, and less if you include those trafficked by state or rebel groups and not just private individuals or enterprises. Women and girls make up a little more than half of total human trafficking victims.

Perhaps Half the Sky’s claim that trafficking is mostly girls and women being sexually exploited comes from the Bureau of Justice, which says that 80 percent of trafficking victims identified by U.S. federal investigations in 2008-2010 were sex trafficking victims. But it would be dangerous to assume the amount identified here reflects the trafficking population as a whole, since U.S. law enforcement puts much more effort into fighting the sex trade (especially these days) than it does cracking down on, say, forced domestic labor.

People like Alter ignore non-sexual trafficking victims in service of their anti-prostitution agenda, then have the audacity to question the motives of men like Norton who want to decriminalize sex work. Writes Alter:

Norton claims that legalizing prostitution would help solve (violence against sex workers), but what he really means is that it would be easier for him to buy sex without his pesky conscience getting in the way of his peskier penis. Because even though there are valid arguments for the legalization of prostitution, I’m finding it hard to believe that Norton really has the best interests of sex workers in mind.

While it’s neat that Alter thinks she can read minds, I guess, there’s nothing in Norton’s text to support her interpretation. He states that he feels no shame about paying for sex, doesn’t think anyone should feel ashamed about it, does not feel bothered by its illegality, and would not buy more sex if it was legal. I don’t see why we have any reason to think that Norton’s stated reason – making the whole business safer, especially for sex workers themselves – is suspect. That is unless, like Allen, you can’t conceive of a world in which anyone could purchase sexual services from someone and still respect their humanity.

(Photo: A demonstrator holds a placard reading ‘yes to the freedom to prostitute oneself’ on November 29, 2013 in Paris during a protest against a bill that would punish clients of prostitutes. By Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s OK Not To Feel Anything When A Celebrity Dies

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Yesterday Robin Williams died, seemingly from suicide. Scrolling through Facebook a few hours after the news broke, I found myself in a sea of RIP and this is so sad! and other, lengthier expressions of mourning for the beloved actor. One update stood out, from a friend of a friend. After acknowledging that it may sound cold, she wrote:

I just want to put it out there that it is also ok not to have any feelings when something bad happens to a celebrity.

This was met with initial, emphatic approval from a few, quickly followed by admonitions. Didn’t she get the memo that we were all supposed to be using this as a PSA about mental health? They bet she wouldn’t be singing this tune if she or someone she knew had suffered from depression!Las Vegas Hosts International Consumer Electronics Show

Now there’s nothing wrong with using the surprising (apparent) suicide of a surface-happy comedian as a catalyst for discussing mental health issues. But how absurd to suggest it’s wrong not to. Maybe some people would prefer to remember the man’s life and work rather than his demons. Maybe some people who are intimately aware of the toll depression can take (or the pain a loved one’s suicide can cause) are loathe to latch their very personal pain to online discussions of a stranger with strangers. Maybe not everybody has to react in the same emotional tones.

But then why say something at all? That was another criticism hurled at this Facebook poster. Why couldn’t she have just kept her big non-mourning mouth shut?

Permit me a brief digression. As a college theater major, I once auditioned for a play that would be directed by a visiting Nigerian professor, Esiaba Irobi. For this play, Professor Irobi decided to eschew traditional callbacks and instead gather us all together and watch while we engaged in various games and activities. Near the end of the audition, we were all invited in a circular procession around the room, repeating after Irobi as he sung out some sort of call-and-response funeral dirge.

We were explicitly told not to act—this wasn’t an exercise to see how well we could feign grief. The professor said he wanted to see how we moved. There were drums. And there were quickly tears, all around me. Not just soft, subtle tears dotting my classmates’ cheeks but big, loud, hearty sobs. It confused the hell out of me. We weren’t actually at a funeral. We didn’t even have a fictional backstory for this procession, nor could we understood a word Irobi sang. Sure, his voice could carry emotion well, but I felt skeptical that the crying crew, which made up about half the room of auditioners, weren’t putting on a bit of a show.

Later, I brought this up with my then-boyfriend, who had also been at the auditions. He assured me his grief and that of those he’d talked to had been genuine. Then he told me it was sad that I was so closed off from my emotions that I couldn’t experience what they had. He felt sorry for me.

Because I was young, it genuinely stung and worried me. I am far from an emotionally repressed person, nor a non-demonstrative one. I’ve been known to cry at country songs and Law & Order episodes. So why couldn’t I feel sad over this imaginary scenario that had so tugged at my classmates’ heartstrings? What was wrong with my emotional response?

Nothing, is obviously the answer. There is no correct way to grieve. There is no correct way to mourn those you love, or to mourn acquaintances, or to mourn celebrities and strangers. And trying to conjure an inauthentic emotional response will only make you feel worse. But even knowing this, I admit—when popular public figures die, there’s always a moment in which I feel just like I did in that audition. Why does everyone seem so much more upset than I am? Why am I not reacting the same way? 

This is why I’m glad my Facebook friend didn’t keep her mouth shut. There is nothing wrong with feeling genuine sadness over the passing of an entertainer you enjoy and admire. There is nothing wrong with being stung by the way Williams seems to have went. There is nothing wrong with posting Mrs. Doubtfire stills to Instagram and heartfelt missives on your Twitter timeline in response, if the spirit moves you. And the “normalcy” of these responses is shown in the likes and retweets and expressions of solidarity with which they’re met. Collective catharsis exerts a powerful pull.

But in the age of all this public emoting—some no doubt genuine, some signaling—it can be very easy to forget that not everyone is “deeply saddened” by the news of Williams’ death. Some aren’t even moderately saddened. And that’s okay, too.


Update: Readers responded to this post here. You can also view all the Dish’s coverage of Robin William’s death here.

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

What Everyone Misunderstands About the ‘Libertarian Moment’

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Pew Millenials

David Frum – shock – doesn’t think the “libertarian moment” has arrived:

Despite the self-flattering claims of libertarians, the Republicans’ post-2009 libertarian turn is not a response to voter demand. The areas where the voting public has moved furthest and fastest in a libertarian direction—gay rights, for example—have been the areas where Republicans have moved slowest and most reluctantly. The areas where the voting public most resists libertarian ideas—such as social benefits—are precisely the areas where the GOP has swung furthest and fastest in a libertarian direction.

This, of course, entirely misses the point of Robert Draper’s recent New York Times Magazine piece on libertarians. For all the Ron and Rand Paul mania, there’s little evidence the GOP has taken much of a “post-2009 libertarian turn” at all. So Frum is right that Republicans haven’t been ushering in some sort of libertarian era, I’m just not sure who’s arguing they have.

Draper’s piece—and those quoted in it, including Reason.com editor-in-chief (and my boss) Nick Gillespie—mostly suggests that, with rare exceptions, Republicans are stubbornly resisting embracing more libertarian ideals, despite the fact that it’s pretty much killing the party. “The Republicans will definitely have to move to the left on social issues,” my colleague Emily Ekins, polling guru for the Reason Foundation, says in Draper’s article. “They just don’t have the numbers otherwise.”

More than ever before, young people are defining themselves as politically independent, according to Pew Research Center and just about everyone else who polls them. But millennials identify as Democrats in similar proportions to older generations; it’s the GOP that’s bleeding young voters into the independent ether.

When libertarians talk about this generation’s potential, it’s not that we’re counting all these independent millennials as libertarian (as some have suggested). Nor do we think that most would identify as libertarian if only they read more about it on Wikipedia. Sure, I think libertarianism might have a bit more appeal to a generation raised on the seemingly endless and indistinguishable Bush/Clinton empire, but I’m not expecting young people to start adopting the libertarian label in droves.

Yet there is possibility for new consensuses, many of which would be appealing from a libertarian standpoint. In an electorate that doesn’t necessarily subscribe to old party divides, there’s potential to rally young liberals and conservatives together on issues like same-sex marriage, privacy, drug policy, and criminal justice reform, to name just a few. These aren’t “libertarian issues”—we’re not trying to own them (as critics also suggest)—but they are areas we’ve been keen on addressing, and it’s great to have allies of whatever stripe.

Frum snidely suggests that “the ‘libertarian moment’ will last as long as, and no longer than, it takes conservatives to win a presidential election again.” And if we’re talking about mainstream modern Republicans dressing themselves up in the label, no doubt. But again, that seems to be something only Frum is talking about. The “libertarian moment”, in so far as any of us think it exists, is about looking beyond party lines. It’s about working and coming together in new ways.

“I have no idea who will be the next president of the United States,” wrote Gillespie Sunday, but it “will matter far less than the broad currents in American society”:

That’s one of the main trends that Reason picked up in its poll of Millennials—not some self-congratulatory discovery that the kids today are junior-varsity libertarians—and folks who don’t want to grapple with that and all its implications will have less and less relevant to say about politics, culture, and ideas.

Or, as Jack Hunter wrote at Rare: “There is a significant difference between trying to make every American a libertarian and making America more libertarian. The former is impossible. The latter is happening.”

Consent, California Style

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

5822104430_411775c541_bLawmakers can get it wrong in the most staid of circumstances, but throw a little sexual activity into the mix and things just get really bizarre. And leading the pack on bizarro sexual paternalism lately has been California. This summer, the state legislature has been trying to force condoms on porn performers and redefine rape for college students. The latter effort coincides with a nationwide push to address sexual assault at schools, one focal point of which has been consent.

In some ways this is great – feminists have long been stressing the need to teach young men not to rape over teaching young women how to avoid rape. A central tenet of this is cutting through the bullshit that leads to genuine confusion over consent (myths like women say no in bed because they want to be talked into it or that pursuing a love interest despite her repeated rejections is romantic and not annoying/scary). And the fact that lawmakers and mainstream media outlets are even discussing consent is a testament to how well this push has worked. I’m not sure I ever heard the term consent (in a sexual context) in college; now it’s a buzzword.

Of course, consent has always played a central role in our legal definitions of sexual assault and rape – though not necessarily as central a role as you might think. In many states, criminal code defines rape as sexual penetration using force or the threat of force, according to George Washington University law professor John F. Banzhaf III. If force isn’t an element, “the act would not be rape even if the woman had not consented, or, indeed, even if she had in fact said ‘no.’ Moreover, even if her judgment were significantly impaired by alcohol, the action would not constitute rape if she were able to move or speak at the time.”

California is not one of these states – it already employs a pretty broad and comprehensive definition of rape. The proposed consent law currently under debate in the Assembly (it passed the Senate in May) seeks to impose affirmative consent as a requirement – not for all sexual activity, but for sex between college students at universities that accept state funding.

An affirmative consent standard, also supported by the Department of Education, says that any sexual act counts as rape or assault unless the other person affirmatively consents – that is, specifically gives a yes, not merely refrains from saying no. Under the California consent bill, consent requires “an affirmative, unambiguous and conscious decision” by each party; this consent must be “ongoing” and “can be revoked at any time.”

Unless we presume that rape only occurs between men and women, and only with men as the perpetrator, this standard is on its face a little bit nuts.

In a world where any party – male or female, gay or straight – is capable of committing rape, hookups would have to involve a constant stream of back-and-forth consent (“do you consent to me doing this?” “yes – do you consent to me doing this?”). In reality, affirmative consent proponents tend to talk about it as matter of men getting women’s permission to proceed.

But my main objection to California’s consent bill is that it creates one definition of consent and rape for some college students and one for everyone else in the state. This seems a strange proposition, and one likely to create confusion for the folks of California as well as the courts. It merely muddies up the waters of consent.

“California needs to provide our students with education, resources, consistent policies and justice so that the system is not stacked against survivors,” said state Sen. Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) in promoting the bill. But a consistent system wouldn’t set one standard of sexual consent for college students and one for everyone else.

If college rape is real rape – and, uh, obviously it is – we should stick to one legal definition of consent for all adults and then try those accused of violating it in the same judicial system. No means no, and rape means the same thing regardless of whether you’re enrolled in school – and comes with the same legal penalties.

(The Dish’s extensive coverage of sexual assault on college campuses is here. The above photo is by Chris Brown.)