2015: Another Bad Year for Blasphemers

Popehat is pleased to offer a second guest post by Sarah McLaughlin. Sarah works for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (though the opinions expressed here are her own) and is interested in free speech and civil liberties. You can follow her on Twitter at @sarahemclaugh.

At the conclusion of 2012 and 2013, Ken undertook annual surveys of the state of blasphemy laws, and their enforcement, around the world. I did the same for this year, while paying close attention to the way that individuals have also played a significant role in punishing people accused of blasphemy. From the horrific January 7 Charlie Hebdo attack and Saudi Arabia’s first flogging on January 9 of blogger Raif Badawi (who was found guilty of insulting Islam in 2014 and sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison), there were early signs that 2015 would be another year where blasphemy would be punished harshly by governments and vigilantes alike[1].

How Blasphemy Was Punished This Year

Of the many dark entries in this year’s review, at the forefront stands ISIS. It is perhaps unsurprising that ISIS’ penal code, published in late December of last year, promises a death sentence to anyone found guilty of blaspheming Islam, Allah, or Muhammad. Who knows how many people have been executed under it this year[2]?

Saudi Arabia—which threatened to sue Twitter users who compared its justice system to ISIS'[3]—dispenses harsh punishments to those accused of blaspheming Islam in a manner fairly similar to that of a certain militant jihadist group that shall remain nameless, demonstrating the conduct that can apparently be expected from countries on the UN Human Rights Council. While Raif Badawi’s flogging punishments were halted over the course of the year, his wife claims they will soon resume and he remains imprisoned. In February, a man was sentenced to death (likely beheading, as is the Saudi Arabian way) for cursing God and Muhammad and hitting a Koran with a shoe. A month later, an Indian man was arrested (in Saudi Arabia) for liking a post with “blasphemous content,” causing it to appear on his page. That he did not intend for it to do so is apparently irrelevant. Last month, artist and poet Ashraf Fayadh was sentenced to death for apostasy, a charge apparently supported by the content of years-old poems and “the testimony of a few witnesses.” By the time Fayadh was sentenced, Saudi Arabia had already beheaded at least one hundred and fifty one people, many of whom been found guilty of nonviolent crimes including blasphemy, apostasy and, most often, drug offenses.

Like Saudi Arabia, Iran, on track to execute one thousand people this year, treats blasphemy as a serious crime—violators are usually charged with “spreading corruption on earth.” This fall, Iranian courts decided that activist Soheil Arabi will spend 7 years in prison as punishment for “insulting the Prophet” on Facebook, and must prove his faith and knowledge of Islam in monthly meetings. This is actually an improvement over his earlier sentence: death.

Saman Naseem, a 17-year-old man scheduled to be executed in February after being tortured until he admitted to being guilty of “enmity against God” and “corruption on Earth,” was missing for months in early 2015, leading his family to believe Iran had gone through with a secret execution. In July, Amnesty International learned that Naseem had been granted a retrial, so there is hope that Naseem will be found innocent, or at least given a lighter sentence. However, given that it took over two years for Iran to reach that conclusion, there’s little reason to believe that Naseem will receive fairer treatment this time from a fundamentally unfair system.

Pakistan has seen a number of convictions and killings this year as well. In March, Liaquat Ali was sentenced to death by a Pakistani court for blasphemy and a month later an assistant professor who earned his doctorate under a scholar, Muhammad Shakil Auj, who was accused of—and assassinated for—blasphemy, was shot to death in what was likely an attack inspired by his connection to Auj. In August, three men were arrested for referring to a Christian pastor as “prophet” on a poster. Then in October, Bilal Husain, a man whose father reported him to police was given the death penalty for blasphemy too. Also in October, Asia Bibi, a Christian woman[4] on death row for supposedly insulting Muhammad was moved to solitary confinement over fears that she would be killed by guards, vigilantes, or other inmates. That same month, Christian faith healer Naveed John was arrested for the apparently blasphemous act of “having Islamic script on a sword he used to treat his clients.” Pakistan has received well-earned criticism over the past few months because of the ease with which its blasphemy laws can be used as a weapon “to settle petty disputes against Christians.”

Like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria is all too willing to execute supposed blasphemers. In June, a Nigerian court sentenced Muslim cleric Aminu Abdul Nyass and eight of his followers to death for statements about Muhammad. The sentencing was held in secret because crowds at the previous trial attempted to burn down the court—their second target after burning down Nyass’ home. A Nigerian governor seemingly attempted to justify the death sentence, saying: "The concern is mobs would take extrajudicial action if these convicts are for whatever reason released because they would certainly kill them when they see them on the streets."

Though he’s wrong that the government should give out the punishments the mob wants, but in a more orderly fashion, he’s right that mobs will often act against people who they believe have insulted their gods. In a particularly horrifying example from March, a crowd in Afghanistan attacked Farkhunda Malikzada, a 27-year-old woman they believed had burned the Koran. Specifically, they beat her, ran over her body with a car and dragged her down the street, stoned her, and then lit her on fire. She received essentially no help from the police during the attack. Only days after her death was it discovered that Malikzada had never even burned the Koran in the first place—she had insulted men selling amulets by calling them un-Islamic, and they retaliated by yelling to the crowd that she had burned the Koran.

Bangladesh, meanwhile, shows how common murders like Malikzada’s were this year. In February, Al Qaeda members “taught a lesson to blasphemers” by hacking atheist Bangladeshi blogger Avijit Roy to death with machetes. A little over a month later, Oyasiqur Rhaman, a satirical blogger who mocked fundamental Islam and had mourned Roy’s death by changing his Facebook picture to an image reading “I am Avijit,” met the same fate. He was hacked to death by three men who heard that Rhaman had “made some comments against Islam,” which they had never actually even seen. Then in May, a third atheist blogger, Ananta Bijoy Das, was also murdered by men with machetes. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for Das’ death as well. He had advocated for secularism on a blog called Free Mind, which had been moderated by Avijit Roy before his death. In August, Niloy Neel was the fourth Bangladeshi man to be hacked to death for his role as a secular blogger.

Roy, Rhaman, Das, and Neel were all on a widely-known list of secular bloggers created by groups pressuring Bangladesh to prosecute blasphemers more harshly. Bangladesh’s government was not content to let the machete-wielding murderers be the only villains in this story—after Neel’s murder the Inspector General of Police, while admitting that murder is wrong, actually asked that people report to the police secular blogs, whose contributors could face up to 14 years in prison, for “hurting religious sentiments.” What Bangladesh should do is eradicate its blasphemy laws and acknowledge that its treatment of blasphemy as a crime worthy of imprisonment encourages murderers targeting those who offend them. Instead, the Bangladeshi police have reaffirmed the notion that authority figures should violently censor speech that insults their constituents’ gods. I can hardly think of anything less safe for Bangladeshi bloggers than a public record of police investigations into their criticism of religion.

Threats and violence against blasphemers were not contained to the countries listed above. Three men were convicted under Myanmar’s blasphemy law and sentenced to 2 and a half years in prison in March for insulting Buddhism by publishing a flyer showing Buddha wearing headphones to promote their bar. Amos Yee Pang Sang, a 16-year-old blogger in Singapore was sentenced to a 4 week prison term in July for insulting Christianity, and he “admitted to his guilt and promised not to reoffend, as he realised his actions were against the law and could disrupt social harmony” after he was required to go to counseling. An executive at a Four Seasons hotel in Indonesia is facing blasphemy charges and up to five years in prison because she allowed a gay couple to hold a Hindu ceremony at her hotel. And an Indonesian footwear company is being sued solely because the word “Allah” is printed on sandals they produced, which they’ve promised to destroy. In October, a five year prison sentence against TV personality Islam El-Behery for “contempt of religion” was upheld by Egypt. In August, two men in India murdered professor M.M. Kalburgi, who was likely targeted for his criticism of idol worship. A few weeks ago, Indian director Pan Nalin received death threats because of the blasphemous content in his newest film, and took calls warning him: “We will make sure you go Charlie Hebdo way.” Last month Kuwaiti blogger and teacher Sara Al-Drees was arrested for “Insulting the Prophet” on Twitter, and could face up to ten years in prison doing hard labor. Events of a blasphemous nature faced threats and violence as well—in February three people were wounded and one man was killed when a gunman[5] targeted Lars Vilks’ event in Denmark and a Muhammad cartoon contest with keynote speaker Geert Wilders in Texas was unsuccessfully attacked in May by two gunmen (one of the gunmen had claimed allegiance to ISIS.)

More Blasphemy Laws, More Problems

In addition to the many acts of violence committed against blasphemers this year, a few countries introduced or passed bills that will likely perpetuate that violence, or at least frighten dissidents into silence. Kuwait is considering an amendment to its 1959 Alien Residence Law, which would ban “any person convicted of contempt of religions or penalised for derision of Islam, Islamic beliefs or the Prophet’s (PBUH) companions or family members” in another country from entering Kuwait. In July, the United Arab Emirates President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan[6] decreed a law that could easily be used to target blasphemous speech. Some of the “anti-hate” law’s provisions:

  1. Criminalises any acts that stoke religious hatred
  2. Criminalises any act that insults religion through any form of expression, be it speech or the written word, books, pamphlets or online
  3. Punishes anyone for terming other religious groups or individuals as infidels, or unbelievers
  4. Provides a sound foundation for the environment of tolerance, broad-mindedness and acceptance in the UAE
  5. Aims to safeguard people regardless of their origin, beliefs or race, against acts that promote religious hate and intolerance
  6. Includes jail terms of six months to more than 10 years for those who break the law

Not to be outdone, Bahrain began drafting a bill in August that would ban “any hate or sectarian discourse that undermines national unity, differentiates between individuals or groups on the bases of religion, creed or sect and triggers conflict between individuals or groups.” New Zealand’s new Harmful Digital Communications Act says digital communications "should not denigrate an individual by reason of his or her colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.” Humanist groups have raised concerns about the law’s ability to target blasphemous speech, but New Zealand’s Justice Minister Amy Adams claimed "a person would have to do much more than simply post blasphemy to fall foul of the criminal offence in the Harmful Digital Communications Act." There’s plenty of evidence from this year alone that many people consider blasphemous statements to be “denigrations” of their religion, so Adams’ comments are poorly thought out at best[7].

Poland and Denmark both took incredibly disappointing stances this year by reaffirming the legality of their blasphemy laws. The International Humanist and Ethical Union reports that Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Vanessa Vega Saenz spoke at a UN Human Rights Council meeting in March and acknowledged that Denmark’s blasphemy law is rarely used but claimed it’s “‘legally important’ in that it gives the state the possibility to stop people burning bibles and Korans, and to punish those who do[8].” In October, a Constitutional Tribunal upheld Poland's blasphemy law that states “whoever offends religious feelings of other people by publicly insulting an object of religious cult or a place for public holding of religious ceremonies, is subject to a fine, restriction of liberty or loss of liberty for up to 2 years.” In the ruling, one of the justices said “religious criticism is acceptable, only if it’s devoid of abusive, insulting or degrading opinions” and the tribunal asserted the importance of “punish[ing] such offenses, because the public debate about religion must be conducted in a cultured and civilized manner.”

Some Rare Good News

There were a few brights spots this year, though. In March, Jordan withdrew its proposed Inter-Parliamentary Union resolution that sought to restrict speech that failed to show “respect for religions and religious symbols.” In response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, two Norway politicians pushed through a proposal in May that finally achieved the long-planned end of the country’s blasphemy law, arguing that its existence “underpins a perception that religious expressions and symbols are entitled to a special protection.” Two months later, Malta announced that it was in the process of weakening its blasphemy laws[9]. Iceland’s parliament, also motivated by Charlie Hebdo, repealed its 75 year old provision against blasphemy in July. And in October, Pakistan’s Supreme Court decided that suggesting revisions to Pakistan’s blasphemy law is not, in fact, a violation of the blasphemy law. Alarming as it is that this needed to be said, it’s still progress worth noting. It’s a minor, but important, step forward for free speech advocates demanding reform.

That Norway’s and Iceland’s blasphemy laws (like Denmark’s) were rarely, if ever, used is irrelevant—laws that could be used to punish expression often do a very good job of chilling the speech they’re intended to suppress even if they’re never exercised. And sometimes, as evidenced by the tragedies in Bangladesh and Afghanistan, blasphemy laws do worse than chill speech—their existence reinforces the idea that blasphemous speech is something that should be physically punished. It shouldn’t be, and we should be genuinely concerned about the prevalence of the desire, from governments and mobs, to inflict pain on people whose beliefs deviate from what their neighbors or leaders deem acceptable.

[1] This list probably does not contain every newsmaking blasphemy incident of 2015, but it illustrates the hostility with which religious dissent was met in the past year. I used essentially the same methodology as Ken did when he blogged about blasphemy in 2012, but I grouped the incidents differently (as you can see).

[2] These are just a few examples of ISIS’ brutality. You can easily find many more if you’re so inclined.

[3] But who among us wouldn’t threaten to sue someone willing to criticize us for doing very rational things like beheading people for not imaginary crimes like sorcery? Who are we to judge?

[4] And the only woman.

[5] His motives were not known but Vilks is a well known target for his cartoon depictions of Muhammad.

[6] A rule to live by: anyone that demands to be called “his highness” can probably be expected to “decree” terrible laws.

[7] For more poorly thought out comments, check out Keith Vaz’s “lol idk maybe” ideas on blasphemy laws in the UK.

[8] This is a fairly blunt way of saying that they like being able to chill speech.

[9] But the Justice and Culture Minister said that “the new amendments will also aim to safeguard social and racial minorities, since the law will not allow for the vilification of any minority work,” so this is still worth watching.




Scared of Sondheim: A Story About Offense

Popehat is pleased to welcome back Lisa McElroy, an associate professor of law at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, for another guest post. Her first novel, Called On, was just published by Quid Pro Books.

Ask any university professor in the country, and she’ll tell you that trigger warnings are a hot topic on her campus. That sounds good, right? Alerting students to a potentially sensitive or controversial issue before addressing it class? Oh, except that saying a topic is “hot” might connote something sexual; using the word “trigger” might call to mind gun violence; and issuing a “warning” is something that most professors fear with students these days, in this customer-service culture of education.

Ask any parent of a high school student, and she’ll tell you that schools see protecting students as an essential part of their mission. That sounds good, too, right? We need lockdown drills and secure buildings and assemblies on drugs and alcohol. Oh, but not conversations about the sensitive topics that lie in wait in books like The Color Purple or All’s Quiet on the Western Front – those might offend someone. Romeo and Juliet? Well, they were in love – except that they were actually engaging in statutory rape, and their families battled each other, and then there’s that whole suicide thing. Oedipus? Well, he had that mother hang-up – but maybe we shouldn’t talk about it, because that’s about sex and, OMG, incest. Let’s read The Mousetrap instead.

I’m both a university professor and the mother of high school students, and I’ve learned there’s at least one thing that both educational settings have in common – a small number of offended students or parents may control the conversation, taking it away from the majority of the school community that believes that debating controversial topics is the very essence of education. (And, yes, I know about Erika Christakis at Yale, and yes, I know that’s what got her unfairly shunned, and yes, I realize that I’m probably making the same point here, but not as well as she did.) But I have to speak out, because parents and kids who are afraid – of Sondheim, no less – are setting the agenda for our schools these days, just as so many did when Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Judy Blume’s Forever were removed from school library shelves.

This week, at my children’s top-notch suburban public high school, I had my first experience with a trigger warning for high school students. The issue? The spring musical.

Yeah, I know. These are high school kids. They’re cute and enthusiastic and creative. And they’re doing a musical! Disney made about a zillion bucks turning that concept into gold a decade or so ago.

So where’s the trigger?

In this case, it was the musical itself, Company, a lesser-known Stephen Sondheim work – you know, the dude who won a Pulitzer? The school picked the musical at the end of the spring semester last year. The kids prepared and auditioned a couple of weeks ago. When the cast list went up, the school halls were full of a whole bunch of rapturous mini-thespians in leg warmers.

Now, I’m going to admit that Company has some racy scenes. The male lead romances a lot of different women (notice that I avoided the “s” word (sex) and the “b” word (bed). Because, triggers.). Some of his friends smoke pot. One of his friends is an alcoholic who smokes tobacco cigarettes.

OK. So, would you let the kids do the play? Well, as the parents of the girl who was cast in the role of a woman who gets really, really high on stage and then acts really, really dumb, my husband and I answered “heck yes.”

Because, real life situations. Because, kids already cast. Because, statistics (about the “s” word and the “b” word and the “p” word (pot)) show that the kids already know about and even do this stuff. Because, Sondheim. Because, not High School Musical. Because, education. For the audience and the kids.

Yesterday, the kids were told that the show was being killed.

Except I don’t think they used the word “killed” with the kids. Because, you know, trigger.

And why? I know why, but I’m going to let you guess. Let’s just say that I’m not authorized to give out that information. You’re pretty smart. It has to do with another “p” word. But no more hints. Because the “p” word involved didn’t let other “p’s” have a voice. And that “p” is thus far anonymous and probably mostly so because the “p” doesn’t want other “p’s” to know that he or she is the one that made the ruckus. And the school had to deal with the offended “p.” Because, well, triggers.

But now I have a very disappointed daughter, and the school has a whole cast of kids who are being taught that if you get up in arms about something and say it offends you, you can shut down a whole class. Or get a professor who has offered a different perspective to resign. Or cancel the spring musical. Even when you have a totally enlightened musical director and the most awesomesauce principal on the planet.

The kids and the director are talking now about what show they’ll do instead. Schoolhouse Rock and Legally Blonde have been raised as possibilities. But I’m pretty sure that there’s someone out there who will think that “Conjunction Junction” is about “but” and “yet” getting it on (oooh, and “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here” – the subtext just screams “drug dealing”). And the bend and snap? We don’t want to send a message that girls should be crushing on boys, and we definitely do not want them to snap and grin – that’s just asking for trouble. That whole scene will have to go.

It will have to go, just like our kids’ exposure to stuff that’s real, like drugs and alcohol and sex and tough marriages and guns. And their chance to fictionally explore those things, to talk about them thoughtfully, and to seize the opportunity to educate. And, hey, their experience of a semester singing Sondheim.

Because what’s most important? Making sure no one’s offended.

Send in the clowns.

Lisa T. McElroy is an associate professor of law at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law. Her first novel, Called On, was just published by Quid Pro Books. She notes that she is Jewish, the high school fall play was A Christmas Carol, both her kids participated, and she did not say a word. Because, Dickens.

Turkish President Erdoğan’s Precious (Feelings)

Popehat is pleased to offer a guest post by Sarah McLaughlin. Sarah works for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (though the opinions expressed here are her own) and is interested in free speech and civil liberties. You can follow her on Twitter at @sarahemclaugh.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, I’m legally required to state1, is not now and never has been employed as a Gollum impersonator, is doing a great job supporting the argument that the amount of power a leader has at his disposal is inversely related to his ability to tolerate “insults” or dissent.

At a September press conference, Erdoğan’s spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin claimed “there is a vibrant environment of debate in Turkey,” and said that it’s “never possible to consider insulting the presidential office within freedom of expression.” Although that statement is completely laughable, it was not a joke—Turkey does seriously crack down on “insults” to President Erdoğan, who, I repeat, is not one of the River-folk and has at no point been accused of murdering the hobbit Déagol.

The most recent example of Erdoğan’s tendency to overreact to insults is… precious.2 Today's Zaman reports that a Turkish court has “demanded an expert examination to investigate Gollum's character to decide whether a comparison with him is an insult,” after Dr. Bilgin Ciftci, who has now been fired from Public Health Institution of Turkey, shared this meme:


Ciftci has already attended four hearings over this picture, and will have to suffer through another on February 12 because the judge admitted he hadn’t seen the films, and wasn’t sure if the comparison to The Lord of the Rings character Gollum constitutes an insult. To help him find answers to this very important question3, he put together “an expert panel, which will reportedly include two academics, two behavioural experts and an expert on cinema and television productions.” So in addition to deciding whether or not Ciftci will spend time in prison, potentially two years, a Turkish court will be responsible for taking a position on Gollum’s moral worth. Talk about government overreach.

If they were to ask for my opinion, which I note, they’re not4, I would tell them that, considering the fact that Erdoğan, unlike Gollum, doesn't have a magic ring’s influence as justification for the way he acts, Erdoğan should be grateful for the comparison. Gollum is a complex, tormented character whose struggle against himself elicits the reader’s pity, rather than hatred. Erdoğan is a president who throws tantrums because people tease him online. I would also tell them that a major difference between the two is that Gollum, although obsessed with and in love with the ring and the power it offered, hated himself for it. Although he has good cause to do so, Erdoğan, from what I can tell, doesn’t seem to share Gollum’s sense of self-loathing.
In short, it’s not Erdoğan who is insulted by this comparison—it’s Gollum.

You don’t have to look hard to find more stories like this. A hearing will be held this month to determine the guilt of two children, ages 12 and 13, who were charged with insulting the president after they were caught tearing down posters of Erdoğan in October. Today’s Zaman reports that they could face up to four years in a juvenile facility. That same month, Turkish police arrested a 14 year old boy for allegedly insulting Erdoğan on Facebook. He spent a night in jail and was released the next day. Also in October, police detained Today’s Zaman editor-in-chief Bulent Kenes under this “previously seldom-used law,” claiming his tweets constituted insults to Erdoğan, who, again, is not a small, slimy creature who bit off Frodo Baggins’ finger in a final attempt to regain ownership of the One Ring. Kenes pushed back, arguing that he was simply exercising his rights. That’s just a few reports from one month. These are not isolated incidents.

And it’s not just “insults” that can get you in trouble. Two columnists accused of “openly denigrating the religious values of a part of the population” and “openly inciting groups of the population to breed enmity and hatred towards one another" for reprinting Charlie Hebdo’s post-attack cover of Muhammad will face a hearing next month (they failed to show up at the last hearing) and could face up to 4.5 years in prison if found guilty. In June, Erdoğan threatened to have a reporter “jailed for life” for publishing footage of Turkey’s state intelligence agency giving weapons to Syrian rebels. Last year, a Turkish woman was arrested for tweeting a picture of herself standing on a Quran in red stilettos, after being reported to police by Melih Gokce5, the mayor of Ankara, who claimed that "no one has a right to insult our religion." Last month, The European Commission published a report on human rights in Turkey, noting the “serious backsliding” on freedom of expression in the last two years; “Ongoing and new criminal cases against journalists, writers or social media users, intimidation of journalists and media outlets as well as the authorities' actions curtailing freedom of media are of considerable concern.”

It doesn’t really matter what kind of character Gollum is. The bigger issue here is the fact that innocent people could spend years in jail because they incurred the wrath of a very sensitive president. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Erdoğan has decided to spend his time using his country’s courts and police force as weapons against anyone, including teenagers, willing to voice even the mildest criticism against him. He deserves all the insults he gets.

Lisa McElroy On Books and Thankfulness

Popehat is pleased to welcome a guest post from Lisa McElroy, an associate professor of law at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law. Her first novel, Called On, was just published by Quid Pro Books.

Several years ago, my father forwarded me an email he thought seemed suspicious. “Do you think this is a scam?” he asked. The email was from an elderly woman in Miami Beach, Florida, who had retired from teaching and was moving into an assisted living situation. She was clearing out her belongings, and she had come across some books she’d almost forgotten.

Fifty years before, this teacher had taken over her classroom from a young woman who was leaving to be married. On her first day, she had looked in the room’s supply closet, where she found a pile of books, most of them inscribed from a father to his daughter. Thinking they seemed special and that the departed teacher might want them someday, she took them home.

As these things go, the books lay forgotten, and by the time she found the young bride, it was through her obituary. My grandmother had died at the age of 87, leaving her son and several grandchildren. The retired teacher, a new internet aficionado, sent my father an email. “Would you like these books?” she asked. And my father, having lived 65 or so years himself in a world that had become more and more suspect and unreliable and scary, was worried that he was being taken for a ride.

As we head into the holiday season, we’re often asked what we’re grateful for, what would be a true gift. As my father recognized when he worried about scammers, the world, while more advanced, is also scarier and sadder in many ways than it was back when my grandmother and her successor were teaching school. I’ve been searching the internet, just as the retired teacher did, but for something different. As I sit around the Thanksgiving table next week with my parents (now in their 70s) and my husband and my teen daughters, I know I’m going to need to smile and tell them all just what makes me feel thankful. But in a year that has been about anything but peace, I’ve been looking for something concrete to hang my “thankful” hat on.

And so I began thinking about my grandmother, and books, and that retired teacher in Miami Beach.
My grandmother was a woman of style, a dedicated learner, and a lifelong reader (and crossword puzzle cheater, but don’t get me started on that). My most vivid childhood memories of her are of sitting in her living room, sometimes on the parquet floor, sometimes on the piano bench, sometimes on her brocade couch, reading some new book we’d checked out from the library. Although I lived a six-hour drive from my grandmother, she knew the librarians at her local branch well enough to talk her way into getting a borrower’s card for me; after an ice cream sundae or a trip to see the giant dolls at the department store, we’d always end up back at the same circulation desk in the same brick building, watching the librarian stamp in ink the due date for some new adventure bound up as a book.

The best part about reading with my grandmother was reading together. I don’t mean that she read aloud to me – from the age of four or so, I was determined to read on my own (I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was about eight, but that reading thing was way more necessary in my book). But we’d read together, there in her living room, my grandmother with her new mystery thriller, me with my children’s classic on which she insisted. And looking back, what I’m most grateful for in my relationship with my grandmother was that true gift she gave me: a love of books.

There was one book in particular that we both loved: Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Although Francie, the protagonist, lived an underprivileged Brooklyn life, and I lived in a well-to-do Texas town, there was just something about Francie that resonated for me. I wanted to be gritty, like she was, determined to do something with my life. I wanted her powers of observation, to notice the smells of baking bread and the splashes of puddles on the sidewalk. And more than anything, I wanted Francie to be understood for her love of books, even in a family that wasn’t very readerly, the way I wanted to be understood and my passion nurtured – as it was by my grandmother.

Thirty-five years later, one night, when my husband was away for work, I found myself lying in my king-sized bed, reading a book. There’s nothing remarkable about that – my children know that, if they can’t find mom, check the bedroom and see if she’s absorbed in her reading so she can’t hear you call out. But what was special about this winter evening was that my two daughters, ages 6 and 8, were lying next to me, each with her own book. We were mostly quiet, absorbed in our own stories, but every so often, one of us would say, “Listen to this!” and we’d read out a description or a joke or a pithy line. And then we’d quiet again. Eventually, they fell asleep, there in the big bed, their books in hand.

These days, as teenagers, my girls have lots of interests, and I can’t remember the last time we all piled into the big bed and read books together. My older daughter now looks at the stars and imagines flying among them, but my younger daughter still looks down, at books in her lap, at the pages she turns. She reads because she cares about words, loves how they come together into sentences and paragraphs and entire chapters of plot and character and nuance. Last week, she asked me for a suggestion for a book to read. I thought of my grandmother, and I said, “How about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?”

A few days later, a package arrived from a used book seller. My daughter disappeared into her room, tattered book in hand. For the next few days, she didn’t talk much. She’d get her backpack ready for school or look up if I told her it was time for dinner, but, mostly, she kept her eyes focused down, on paperback pages that told a story of a poor girl in Brooklyn in the 1910s and 20s.
Yesterday, she came downstairs. “I finished it!” she said. I smiled. “Yeah?” I answered. “It has always been one of my favorites.” “Well,” she said, “It’s my absolute favorite. Every sentence is a delicious treat.” A delicious treat. Exactly. A treat that we can devour again and again, from different perspectives and at different times in life, with different people who are important in our lives. Those varied possibilities are so absolutely delicious.

And so I found it, my list of things to be grateful for, the gift I need above all. I am grateful for my grandmother, who took me to the library every visit; I am grateful for my daughter, whose enthusiasm about books fills every room; I am grateful to the retired teacher in Miami Beach, who somehow knew that my grandmother and her family would treasure those books.

And I am grateful for books. During this difficult year, they’ve given me a place to escape. They’ve given me a place to belong. And they’ve helped me see that, whether in the dirty streets of 1920s Brooklyn or the suburbs of 2015 Philadelphia, a tree will always grow.

Roosh V's "Reaxxian" Website Kicks Off Exciting Era Of Gaming Ethics And Innovation

[PR NEWSWIRE: IRC CHANNEL "CHATEAU ROISSY"] The worldwide computer gaming community reacted with excitement this week at news that gender relations expert Daryush Valizadeh has launched "Reaxxian," a bold new online platform for game journalism.

Valizadeh, best known by his scholarly pen name  "Roosh V.", built a global publishing empire with philosophical works including the best-selling "Bang Estonia: How To Sleep With Estonian Women In Estonia." He is both the financial backer and editor-in-chief of Reaxxian, which aims to combine the gender-equity social-ethical ontological-literary activism that made his name with his devotion to cutting-edge games such as "Starcraft," "Oregon Trail," and "SimPlaymate." "I see this project as a way to overcome inequities and barriers to traditionally excluded groups," said Roosh. "I want to create a safe space for heterosexual males who play video games."

Roosh V. says he's prepared to invest substantial amounts of his Bang earnings to achieve that goal. "I have hired some of the most cogent and disciplined minds of 8chan.co, and they're coding like mad," Roosh explained. "This is a team of the iron-willed. Blue-pillers need not apply." Planned innovations include a commenting system codenamed TOGTFO, which promotes comments supporting masculinity by bombarding Twitter and Facebook with their content, and sends messages of affirmation, acceptance, and brotherhood to their authors. TOGTFO identifies preferred comments through a complex algorithm that assesses spelling, grammar, capitalization, and frequency of use of common dialetical terms including "cunt" and "panties." TOGTFO's media uploading application will make it easy for female readers to comply with Reaxxian's commenting policy.

Reaxxian also promises to be an innovator in trigger warnings. "As part of our safe space policy, we'll have customizable pop-ups that warn readers of potentially upsetting game content, like flat-chested female avatars, implied universal suffrage, pepper spray, or creepshaming," said Roosh. "When you think about it, the entire concept of 'wandering monsters' in computer role playing games is a form of creepshaming."

Reaxxian emphasizes that this project is not intended to denigrate women, the traditional consumers of video game content, but to promote acceptance of men. In the words of Reaxxian team leader "DieFagsDie," "Isn't it time we had a safe gaming space of our own, without outdated and judgmental socio-gender concepts such as 'stalking?'"

But Reaxxian's lofty goals are not limited to merely reviewing games. "We're going to crowdfund male-positive and heterosexual-affirming games too," confirmed a Reaxxian administrator who goes by the handle "StoP3nis3nvy." At launch Reaxxian unveiled an early version of "Alphas of Gor," a massively multiplayer online role-playing game set in the universe created by noted philosopher John Norman. Reaxxian's readers have eagerly stepped in as game-testers, and Reaxxian forums are busy with constructive criticism of the game's intricacies like "OMG who nerfed negging" and "lolconsent spell cool-down is too long" and "fm merchant npcs standoffish."

Concept art from early build of "Alpha Males of Gor" by Reaxxian Game Studios.

Concept art from early build of "Alphas of Gor" by Reaexxian Game Studios.

Roosh promises that Reaxxian will feature regular strategy guides for its promoted games. "Theodore Beale — Vox Day himself — is working on a newbie guide to selecting the best race during character creation," an enthused Roosh revealed. "Alpha Males of Gor" is not the only game Reaxxian is promoting; there is also talk of Kickstarting a first-person-shooter to be titled "Divorce Court," a remake of "Custer's Revenge," and a children's game under the working title, "Strawberry Shortcake Gets What She Deserves."

The timing of Reaxxian's launch is no coincidence; it will draw traffic from the game-industry controversy referred to as "GamerGate." Roosh joins other prominent thinkers like Adam Baldwin, Milo Yiannoppouos, and Pat Robertson who have recognized GamerGate as an opportunity to explore the important social and political issues raised by modern gaming.

"We're just very excited that another powerful voice has joined our call for ethics in journalism," said ardent GamerGate supporter and Reaxxian fan Kajira Lisa, speaking with the permission of her master, Chad of the Free City of Bakersfield.

Ken White and Patrick Non-White contributed to this article.

Guest Post: Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis On The Rule of Law


Today's guest author, Jim Ardis, is the Mayor of Peoria, Illinois.

Ladies and gentlemen, the rule of law is what separates us from animals and barbarians and people from Joliet. It is that rule of law that I now invoke to prevent so-called "satire" from being used to abuse my person and position.

By now you have heard that someone pretending to be me on Twitter has breached the peace by suggesting that I am some sort of corrupt, disturbed drug fiend. The statements attributed to me have been scandalous, personally hurtful, and textually ambiguous.

Let me clear some things up right now:

  • I am devoted to my loving family and have not "shacked up" in a motel with a so-called "notorious furry."  I do not visit motels because their low thread-count sheets make my skin chafe.  I have not been observed at any motels and if I had been it would have been to visit with community leaders about growing jobs in Peoria's business climate.  I had a soiled fox costume in my car because I was going to participate in a pantomime for children at a local cancer hospital.  My staff's nickname for me is "Swift," not "Yiff."
  • I have not hired any sex workers.  I have nothing against them, and feel our system should do a better job protecting them from harm and providing them with opportunities to better themselves and stop being such fucking liars about important people.
  • I do not have a "drug problem."  Drugs are a scourge of impoverished, powerless, and dark people everywhere.  I am fortunate to be affluent, to have friends, and to know many people in the criminal justice system.  Throughout my career I have strongly advocated that people, including myself, avoid the ruinous consequences of drugs.
  • Interns hallucinate and are prone to sudden unconsciousness.  It's a thing.  You can Google it.
  • I have not accepted cash in low denominations for political favors, as has been claimed.  That's ridiculous.  I am reliable and honest.  Look — I have a lapel pin!

People may believe that they can get away with mocking me or saying unpleasant things about me because of the "First Amendment."  They are mistaken.  Here in Peoria we have a system that respects the law — and respecting the law means respecting the Office of Mayor.  When I was victimized by satire — abused by someone with no regard to my right to self-esteem and dignity — my good friend Peoria Police Chief Steve Settingsgaard sprang into action. Could you get the police to devote substantial resources to investigating someone being making fun of you on the internet? Probably not — but frankly you don't carry the burdens of state that I do. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, and all that.

With the help of Steve, your tax dollars, scores of police hours, and other resources, we were able to present search warrant applications. First we got a warrant for Twitter from Judge Kirk D. Schoenbein. Good old Kirk understood that "satire" is no excuse for disrespect here in Peoria. Then we went to Judge Lisa Wilson to force Comcast to cough up the subscriber information associated with the Twitter account. Lisa gets it too: who does this punk think he is, making fun of the mayor? Finally we went to Judge Kim Kelley with an application for a warrant to search this asshole's home, and to toss it for drugs while we were at it. And what do you know? They found drugs! Time for this little shit to face some real consequences.

You hear all the time about judges getting all bent out of shape about the First Amendment. So why did three judges issue warrants here? Well first of all, they all understood that as the Mayor of Peoria I am an important man, and my reputation is something that should be protected under the law. Second, I made it clear in the warrant application how just plain mean some of those "satirical" tweets were. Now, some eggheads out there might say that the warrant suggested, on its face, that the tweets were not meant to be taken seriously, and that there's no articulated basis to search for drugs in the warrant. You just remind those eggheads that a Mayor in a town like Peoria can get things done. I know people, and people know me, and when I want a warrant, then by God I get a warrant. I know all of these judges. This is exactly why you cultivate relationships, my friends. That kid in your fourth grade class eating paste and wetting himself during story time may seem worthless to you now, but you never know when he's going to wind up having the power of life and death over people because he's got an inoffensive name and photographs well.

In conclusion: this is a case of the system working the way it ought to. Someone disrespected me, a man of respect. The system turned around and bit him in the ass. That will teach you to think twice about mouthing off about people like me, won't it?

Guest Post: We Must Protect Dedicated Public Servants From Evil, By Arizona State Representative Michelle Ugenti


Hi, I'm Arizona State Representative Michelle Ugenti.

You may know me from my famed rapport with college students or my hilarious masturbation jokes during public proceedings. Today I want to thank the people at Popehat for letting me write a guest post about a subject that is near and dear to my heart: cruelty to respected public servants.

Now, I know that you regard me and my fellow legislators with the high regard and respect that is our natural due. You've seen all that public leaders have accomplished in places like Arizona with our commitment to educational excellence and electoral reform and vigorous but principled law enforcement.

But — and I know that this may surprise you — some people don't give people like me the deference to which we are entitled. Rather than looking to us for wise guidance, some people seem to see us as petty, deeply mediocre squabblers with a perverted appetite for telling complete strangers what to do in the course of amoral self-promotion.

Some of them — this is difficult for me to talk about, but I must go on — some of them mock us. Us. Their elected betters.

Now, we in the Arizona legislature have a lot on our plate, what with America being invaded by foreigners and all. But we've already made strides to put the disrespectful in their place through, for instance, innovative cyberbullying legislation. Our various law enforcement agencies have found their own effective methods or preventing lawless word-violence against them.

But it's not enough. It's just not, people. Recently I have been the victim of so-called "parody accounts" pretending to be me in a so-called "satirical" manner. Let's call this for what it is: political terrorism. Hate crime. Wanton intimidation of dedicated public officials. Hurtfulness. These people and their so-called defenders say that what they are doing is clearly parody, and that no reasonable person would be deceived into thinking that they are actually me. You think that's a good argument? Let me remind you — this is Arizona, populated by people who voted for me, some of them repeatedly. Fuck, these nerve-stapled droolers have voted for Joe Arpaio for 20 years, and he's basically an escaped Kubrick character. How's that "can't be taken literally" argument looking now, huh? Yeah, I thought so.

That's why I am proposing legislation that will make it a felony to create impersonation accounts on the internet to mock people like me — important people that should not be mocked. The law will make it a felony to impersonate someone online "with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten." And let's face it — my self-esteem has been harmed, and I've been intimidated from making handjob references during legislative proceedings. There oughta be a law, and now there will be.

You see what I did with that language in the bill? So-called "free speech" advocates will say that this law "chills speech" and is "vague" and "overbroad" — but all we have to do is say, "are you for fraud? are you for harming? Are you for threatening?" Of course, Arizona prosecutors will be able to determine what "harm" or "intimidate" means — and since this law comes in the wake of "parody" accounts harmfully making fun of me, I think they'll get the message about how to apply it, don't you?

The time has come to stop the disrespect. The time has come to stop the meanness. The time has come to stop the half-truths being spread about me, like how I have a crippling addiction to incontinence medication or how I deliberately swerve to run over squirrels or how I can't watch "Downfall" parodies without becoming uncomfortably aroused. YOU WILL RESPECT MY AUTHORITY. Or you will find out how we do things in Arizona.

Thanks for listening. Your papers, please.


We have a Facebook page, which like the gym, the kids, the dog, the cat, the taxes, the rent, and Mom (as she never ceases reminding us) we've neglected.

But we're considering reviving it.  The thought is, Facebook may be a good home for other things we've neglected, things that suffer under the weight of Ken's walls of text, things too delicate for Patrick's sarcasm, things that burn under David's glare. Things like this:

Popehat on Facebook

This will be a supplement to the blog, something like an Island of Misfit Toys, in which things that don't quite make it in will be given attention. It will not displace our Twitter feed, which is mostly devoted to announcing new posts, conversations with other twits, and the inevitable schizophrenic battles between Ken and Patrick, each of whom has access to the account and neither of whom pays attention to what the other has written.

Expect the painfully geeky. If you'd like to follow it, search for Popehat on Facebook, and you'll find us.

Two Years Of Griping, Goofing Off, And Smug Self-Satisfaction

Today marks Popehat's second birthday.  As mentioned on our "About" page, Popehat is really almost five years old, but we were driven underground by our own laziness for a time.  The site reemerged in this form, like a drunken phoenix from a flaming couch, on October 26, 2007.

Laziness remains a problem.  We'd intended to write a "thanks to our readers" post on our first anniversary, then promptly forgot to write it.  We meant to write some sort of retrospective as our thousandth post, but that got delegated to Patrick, who was going through one of his moods, and nothing happened.  Odds are that future milestones will be ignored.

Anyway, two years are twice as much as one year.  And a thousand posts is like a thousand dollars.  It's nice, sure, but it won't help you when your car is broken down on the side of the road because you never change the oil.  Two years, on the other hand, is about a year longer than some very good weblogs have lasted.  So we'll commemorate them.

First of all, we would like to thank our readers, and most especially our readers who comment.  In all sincerity, engaging with commenters is one of the most satisfying things about having a weblog.  The number of our "regulars" has grown over time, and we're very happy about that, in particular because we've been lucky enough to enjoy discussion with some very sharp people, rather than the mongoloids, morphodytes, troglodytes, and mopers who infest some sites we could name but won't.

It wouldn't be fair to name some commentariat and not others, but we will single out one, who has been with us from the beginning and remains with us today:  Alex C., or "Al," from a large city in southern California.  Thanks for your input and throughput Al.  We enjoy your quips, barbs, and humor.  Bless your pointed little head.

Second, while we've been fortunate enough to grow this site (in terms of traffic) from nothing to "small medium" size, we couldn't have done that without help from larger and older blogs.  We've been lucky enough to score links from GIGANTOR VERSUS MECHAGODZILLA VERSUS SHOGUN WARRIOR sized blogs from time to time, but their readers don't stay, and when they comment, well … meh.

But a couple of very large, though non-Japanese-robot-monster sized blogs have been very generous to us in terms of sending traffic, links, and virtual friends our way, so we'll mention them by name:  We'd like to thank the authors of Overlawyered, Patterico's Pontifications, Dispatches from TJICistan, and the League of Ordinary Gentlemen (a very different but most worthwhile group blog which has grown like a weed in the past year – we remember when we steered traffic their way) for their kind words, links, patronage, and readership.  And everyone else on our blogroll, especially the "law bloggers," who send us nice words and traffic even though this is not a law blog.

And now, finally, a selection of posts that we think might prove to be entertaining in some fashion:

The first post that wasn't a rerun from some other site or a meta post:

SHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUP. (Coincidentally, our standard/favorite advice, useful in nearly all situations)

Comments, We Get Comments!

While we enjoy comments, sometimes we enjoy them for the wrong reasons. Take, for example, the following:

One of our first widely read posts, in which we debate the meaning of certain constitutional amendments with the then-insurgent followers of Ron Paul.

Like all bloggers, we get spammers.  When we can find out who they are, we name them.  Occasionally that upsets them.

Sometimes it really upsets them.

And then again, sometimes comments really upset us.  Or some of us.

Other times comments are fun because a famous, or infamous, person shows up, like a writer/director/actor from a kids' show, or a notorious and violent white supremacist, or a jackass who got on a crowded aluminum tube of people while he had a dangerous contagious disease, and decided to sue over it.

Finally, few posts have drawn more irritated people than this one about an obscure lawsuit over a tattoo.

There's No Accounting For Taste

Why do some posts draw huge traffic over the years, and others languish in relative obscurity? It would be nice if we knew, because then we could write those sorts of posts more often. The truth is, though, that you are a fickle and unpredictable audience. One thing is clear: you like stories about outrageous lawsuits and legal threats. That's why two of our most highly trafficked posts were about a jackass suing a volunteer rescue organization and a lawyer threatening to sue a blogger for making fun of a hideously decorated house. A New York ophthalmologist with a mortal fear of peanuts was also quite popular. If you were looking at search engine traffic, our most read posts would be this essay on a PETA official willing her body to melodrama, and especially this quickie about Dora the Explorer's makeover. (We shudder to think how many innocent little girls, Google image searching for their friend Dora, have been corrupted.)

Arts And Letters

The bulk of our posts are about law, politics, and related matters. But we're no mere policy wonks. We're Rennaisance wonks. Readers have been treated to David's thoughtful takes on iconography and leadership and bawdiness in art, Ezra's excellent boardgame reviews and After Action Reports, and one of the first obituaries to appear on the web of a certain irascible Nobel laureate.

Who Knows What Evil Lurks?

One of the cool things about blogging is that you can play investigative reporter without deadlines or responsibility. You can spend weeks researching a post to fact-check some poor bastard at a newspaper without subject matter expertise who was writing on a deadline, or some other blogger who posted something off the cuff. It's a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. That doesn't mean that it's any less fun, as we found when we fact-checked the Los Angeles Times on a story about a woman arrested for misbehaving on an airplane, or multiple libertarian bloggers who held up an orchid smuggler as an example of over-criminalization, or multiple blogs breathlessly reporting that a juvenile was being held in some PATRIOT ACT dungeon. It's also fun to use the web to expose bad behavior, as we very recently saw when Patrick investigated the background of a litigious game company. It's even more fun to tweak the government, as we did with a kind assist from a reader in New Zealand (who we still can't name), becoming the first website to violate the order of a silly judge (who claims to be an expert in "cyber-law") barring the internet from publishing the names of two murder defendants.

We Laugh So We Won't Cry

It's not all law and small-l libertarianism around here. We're nothing if not whimsical. But the truth is that we're nowhere near as funny as our kids or complete strangers washing up on our shores.

Moreover, we've learned that humor must be used sparingly. Especially satire. Someone once said that all satire is a joke between the writer and the reader at the expense of a hypothetical third person who is too dumb to know that it's a joke. Except sometimes that third person is not hypothetical.

There's No Place Like Home

We generally try to maintain some level of privacy for ourselves, but Ezra is an exception.  His posts on San Francisco are personal and illuminating, showing sides of city that aren't famous, from crab-mascots to exotic pizza.  Our sole flirtation with the "big leagues" of blogging would not have been possible without Ezra's research and insights into one of the city's most unusual characters.

The Dead Walk!

As we've stated, this is not a law blog.  Of all of us, only Charles is actually an attorney.   At one time, we considered this a gaming blog.  Then Derrick vanished, leaving us without impetus and bereft of gaming insight.  It was a nice ride while it lasted, as evidenced by Derrick's epic two parter analyzing the 2008 elections as a real time strategy game.

Today, to the extent we have a "theme," that theme is whatever we want it to be.  Lately, that means we're a zombie blog. Lots and lots of zombies in fact.  And the bloggers who love them.

Your Friday Afternoon Has Been Missing For Eight Months

One of our early features was ways to waste your Friday afternoon, while you're watching the clock, when you should be working.  We regret the casualty, and will try to bring the feature back this week.  The problem is that while our Monday mornings are dull and dreary, our Friday afternoons are often busy.

Again, thanks for reading.  When the dead walk, we hope that they eat you last.

Blawg Review #233

Welcome to Blawg Review 233.

Everybody understands Mickey Mouse. Few understand Hermann Hesse. Hardly anyone understands Albert Einstein. And nobody understands Emperor Norton.

— Malaclypse the Younger.


Today marks the 150th anniversary of one of the greatest political and legal declarations in American history: the October 12, 1859 decree by Joshua Norton I, Emperor of the United States of America and Protector of Mexico. If we ran the schools, every schoolchild would be required to memorize the words of the only monarch ever to preside over the United States:

It is represented to us that the universal suffrage, as now existing through the Union, is abused; that fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled to by paying his pro rata of the expense of Government–in consequence of which, WE do hereby abolish Congress, and it is therefore abolished; and WE order and desire the representatives of all parties interested to appear at the Musical Hall of this city on the first of February next, and then and there take the most effective steps to remedy the evil complained of.

The evil that Emperor Norton abolished, of course, was the Congress of the United States of America.

Opinions vary on just who Joshua Norton, or Norton I, was. He may have been insane. He may have been a taoist saint. For those who've never heard of the man, we should offer some background on man and monarch Joshua Norton, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

Born in England in 1819, Joshua Norton emigrated to the United States in 1849, settling in San Francisco during the California gold rush to begin a career as a merchant. Norton lived his first years in this country as a typical tradesman, until an unfortunate reverse caused by speculation in the Peruvian rice market wiped out his fortune. After a sojourn in the wilderness, Joshua Norton returned to San Francisco and on September 17 1859 declared himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States. Though some considered the "Emperor" insane, the majority of his fellow citizens observed and respected Norton's title. Norton I printed his own currency, which passed as legal tender in the stores of San Francisco, received petitions from grateful subjects, and issued many, many decrees, which were observed to greater or lesser extents.

Norton never put on airs or ruled for self-aggrandizement. To the extent his subjects respected his orders, they did so because it amused them to do so, or (as will be explained below) because they were moral and made sense. In short, Norton was that rarest of creatures: a sovereign who truly ruled with the consent of the governed. Or perhaps he didn't rule at all. Perhaps he was a madman. Either way, Norton represents a vision in stark contrast with the dominant paradigm of western civic thought. Like Lysander Spooner, like Joe Hill, Norton today is revered by anarchists, libertarians, discordians, and other fringe types.

But where Spooner and Hill were crushed by the larger society against which they railed, Norton thrived. He was treated with respect. Norton's "edicts" were obeyed by his "subjects," either to humor the madman or out of recognition of his moral (if not legal) force. He was allowed to circulate his own currency, which passed as real money in San Francisco, where a conventional anarchist doing so would have been locked up. In a surreal sense, Norton spent the latter half of his life reigning as an actual emperor — an emperor by consensus. It was a consensus of love, not of force. The current government of the United States rules by a sort of consensus, and relies in part upon patriotism (itself an expression of love), but also relies heavily upon fear: the fear of taxes, fines, the policeman, and jail.

Contrast Norton's career with those of his rival claimants: James Buchanan and later Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. It's fair to say that none of those worthies commanded respect or consent, as was proven when they drove the United States into a bloody civil war, even refusing Joshua Norton's efforts to mediate the dispute. We believe that America has strayed from the Emperor's wisdom. Where moderates and mollycoddlers call for redressing corruption with a new constitutional convention, we choose to commemorate this truest of American visionaries on the anniversary of his most significant edict, with a call to abolish Congress once more and a round-up of blog posts on law and politics in a world that has betrayed Emperor Norton's legacy of good government.

Universal Suffrage Is Abused.

Scholars record that shortly after Norton's ascension to the throne of the United States, the imperial capital of San Francisco was wracked by spasms of violence against Chinese immigrants. A lynch mob formed for the purpose of attacking the Chinatown portion of the city. Emperor Norton did not share his subjects' prejudices. But where another, lesser ruler in Norton's day might have ignored the problem, or responded to violence with violence by sending in troops, Norton, at considerable personal risk, employed the weapon of a true sovereign: Love. Norton confronted the mob as it was about to enter Chinatown, and stood before it, reciting the Lord's Prayer. Awed and shamed by His Imperial Majesty's courage and wisdom, the mob dispersed, with not a shot fired or a fist raised in anger.

By uttering the Lord's Prayer in the exercise of his official duties, the Emperor necessarily mixed church and state. Today not everyone is comfortable with that mixture. Take, for example, last week's oral arguments before the Supreme Court in Salazar v. Buono, concerning a memorial cross on a patch of formerly federal land in a national park. The Transplanted Lawyer at Not a Potted Plant had thoughts about oral argument in the case, as did Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice — who contrasted the issues raised in that case with the question of whether it is a violation of a defendant's rights when a prosecutor wears a small cross necklace during a trial. Marc Randazza calls for a little perspective. And John Kindley had a rather blunt, but honest, appraisal of Justice Scalia's performance in particular.

Norton calmed the mob by example, not by threat. Contrast his example with that of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which issued a takedown notice to a t-shirt producer who used subway symbols to lampoon the MTA's poor service. Obvious parody of trademarks is protected as "fair use" and under the First Amendment, unless one is a person of average means looking at the oncoming lights of a lawsuit from a government and its army of lawyers. Of course, the sort of government whose Fish & Wildlife Service has its own SWAT team may need plenty of lawyers to go along with all those cops and guns.


Fraud And Corruption Prevent A Fair And Proper Expression Of The Public Voice.

The people of San Francisco, Norton's imperial capital, loved their Emperor and gave him the treatment that, as their sovereign, he deserved. Norton ate in restaurants as the owners' guest. Norton had free use of the city's livery stables and rails for transportation of the imperial train. San Francisco merchants competed for his imperial favor and approval. Citizens of the grateful city provided a yearly allowance for their Emperor's regalia. Joshua Norton even issued imperial bonds, collected taxes from the people, and printed his own money (payable "by the agents of our Private Estate, in case the Government of Norton the First does not hold firm"), with the assistance of San Francisco printers. Unlike any other government which can be named, America's first Emperor never suffered a rebellion in his own territory.

Contrast Emperor Norton's example with those of governments prevailing in the United States and around the world today, where justice isn't just blind but gagged, or issues from the barrel of a slot machine, or simply follows the money.

Justice Antonin Scalia of the United States Supreme Court questions whether lawyers, of which the United States has no shortage, provide more social utility than scientists, engineers, and inventors. We would respond, as might Emperor Norton, that a nation which has a superabundance of laws requires a superabundance of lawyers. All the more reason to abolish Congress, the leading source of laws. We would also observe that Justice Scalia, evidently no mathematical genius, earned his baccalaureate in history and went on to teach law. If you're either part of the solution or part of the problem, you Justice Scalia, may be part of the problem.

Another part of the problem may be that people involved with the law claim to be what they are not. Norton I indisputably has the best historical claim to Imperium over the United States. Americans respected his title. On the other hand, others grant themselves dubious titles, such as "trial lawyer," which they haven't earned. Scott Greenfield is skeptical of some who wear that title. CrimLaw's response is pragmatic, and Robert Ambrogi urges lawyers to call a spade a spade. In law as in government, deeds are sometimes more important than words.

Emperor Norton lived in a time when liberties often required vindication at gunpoint. We, by contrast, are privileged to live in a time when liberties can often (though not always) be secured through the rule of law. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, has a blog that documents its increasingly impressive string of courtroom successes defending the freedoms of speech, faith, and conscience on America's college campuses, including a recent victory in Los Angeles over a vague and overbroad speech code. FIRE also achieves results through persuading officials to do the right thing, which would have gladdened the Emperor's peace-loving heart.

While talk is better than war, civil litigation is not necessarily fair, and not necessarily free of coercion — it's simply a different type of coercion than one finds at the point of a gun. When he offered to mediate between the states, Emperor Norton observed that merely fighting the tragic struggle between North and South was horrifically costly, even to the victor. Litigation is no different. That's why litigants — and even lawyers as litigants — are sometimes inclined to cave in the face of meritless claims. Too often meritless claims are used to censor speech, as in the recent case of Adaptive Marketing's crusade to expose the identity of a critical anonymous blogger, as discussed at Public Citizen's blog Consumer Law & Policy. In another context, Brian Tannenbaum discusses the trend in the context of clients demanding fee refunds from attorneys. Is the answer a reconsideration of the "American rule" in favor of a loser-pays model? We've made small steps in that direction by, for instance, adopting anti-SLAPP statutes to protect freedom of expression — but alas, unlike Emperor Norton's subjects, not all anti-SLAPP statutes are created equal. And finally, however well-crafted the rules, let us remember that civil litigation — even litigation over mice and bears of little brain, and similar nonsensical matters — can consume decades and millions of dollars.


Open Violation Of The Laws Are Constantly Occurring.

In 1862, Norton I assumed the office of Protector of Mexico, and began to rule that nation with the same loving hand enjoyed by the people of the United States. Sadly, the people of that unhappy country later rejected their sovereign's claims, electing a pretender emperor by the name of Maximilian. Rather than reconquer his lawful domain in Mexico by force, Norton abdicated, observing "It is impossible to protect such an unsettled nation." Nonetheless, Norton's words and deeds resonate abroad to this day, as evidenced by the words of bloggers around the world.

It is unlikely that the Emperor would call our friends to the north "unsettled" — unless, of course, he happened to review the extent to which Canada's leaders have failed to protect freedom of expression. Here at Popehat we've blogged frequently about Canada's appalling Human Rights Councils, which permit bureaucratic persecution of disfavored speech ranging from loathsome to petty. This week Canadian blogger Ezra Levant, an implacable foe of Canada's Human Rights Council censorship regime, testified before Parliament alongside Mark Steyn, and blogged about the experience. And across the pond, Charon QC is troubled by recent technological innovations in the British criminal justice system, while Geeklawyer notes one of the most ridiculous examples of government panicmongering we've seen this year. Across a larger pond, China Law Blog wonders whether American lawyers and clients are working under a misunderstanding: just because the vice president of marketing speaks Chinese, that doesn't make him an expert in Chinese law.


Mobs, Parties, Factions And Undue Influence Of Political Sects.

Norton's reign as Emperor of the United States was marred by the outbreak of conflict within his domain beginning in 1861, when Northern and Southern states elected puppet Presidents named Lincoln and Davis, whose careers are otherwise obscure. Unfortunately for America, each of these interlopers refused their Emperor's offer of mediation and settlement of their obscure dispute, continuing their illegal war and bringing only tragedy. Enlightened Americans today, like Norton I, recognize that civil law is the bedrock of a civil society.

Emperor Norton's legitimacy (and the faith of the people of San Francisco therein) was supported by his unshakable belief that his Imperium was legitimate. Improbable propositions require improbable levels of self-confidence. We've seen such inexorable faith this week in the saga of the quixotic Orly Taitz, who not only believes that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, but believes that she has legally cognizable proof of it. As Doug Mataconis of Below the Beltway documents, Attorney Taitz argued that the presence of a man who resembles Eric Holder in a Starbucks near a courthouse means that the Obama Administration is improperly influencing the judiciary. O rly? Though clearly as eccentric as Norton I, Ms. Taitz perhaps does not enjoy the level of high regard earned by the Emperor.

Whether Joshua Norton was a madman, a prophet, or the only legitimate sovereign in American history, the authority he commanded grew from his behavior, which gave rise to moral authority. One man's insanity is another man's wisdom. Norton embodied Lao Tzu's model for a Chinese emperor: When great rulers achieve their purpose, their subjects claim the achievement as their own. We're certain that Emperor Norton would not have approved of the way Police Chief Edward Locke exercises sovereignty over Bella Villa Missouri, and we're pretty sure Norton would have abolished the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals for giving Locke a pass under 42 U.S.C. 1983.

Of course litigation, while preferable to gunplay, isn't the answer to every wrong. We think Norton would have appreciated Santa Clara law professor Eric Goldman's non-litigious approach to dealing with a legal spammer: naming and shaming. We're happy to add our page rank to his effort.

Emperor Norton's message was one of engagement, promoting harmony. But are the goals of engagement and harmony consistent with the American ideal of individual liberty? That question was in the air last week as the Obama Administration worked hand in hand with Egypt to break a deadlock in the U.N. Human Rights Council over a controversial resolution about freedom of religion and freedom of expression. Similar resolutions have been kicking around the U.N. for a long time to the dismay of American civil libertarians, who view the concept of "defamation of religion" with great suspicion. Eugene Volokh has some concerns about the revised resolution brokered by the United Sates and Egypt, and Kenneth Anderson questions whether "engaging" on civil liberties necessarily compromises them. Meanwhile Jonathan Turley is appalled by the bargain and what it foreshadows for international attitudes towards free speech, and Index on Censorship is suspicious.

The Citizen Has Not That Protection Of Person And Property Which He Is Entitled.

Joshua Norton made the rounds of his capital, San Francisco, hearing the petitions of his subjects and dispensing wisdom and justice. Norton also made a number of decrees for the betterment of the city, including an order that the citizens should build a bridge spanning San Francisco Bay, to allow easier travel to the hinterlands that today constitute Oakland. Sadly Norton's command was beyond the engineering capabilities of the day, but when the bridge was completed, a grateful populace honored Norton with this plaque:

Norton 002

Pause traveler and be grateful to Norton I. Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico, 1859-1880. Whose prophetic wisdom conceived and decreed the bridging of San Francisco Bay.

Where Norton acted rarely and without haste, today government meddles in seemingly everything. The blawgosphere was confounded this week by news that the Federal Trade Commission plans, beginning December 1, to extend its regulatory hand over blogs and private websites, a regime that frankly seems unneccesary and may be unconstitutional. As Ann Althouse observes, the FTC's regulations will impose more onerous requirements on bloggers than on newspapers and journalists. Walter Olson, who reviews books from time to time, may just abandon or cut back the practice if it means he has to maintain records and receipts for fear of a fine from the FTC. And Colin Samuels has devised a clever disclaimer that mitigates liability while telling the FTC exactly what he thinks of its regulations.

The FTC isn't the only government agency that treads on the First Amendment through regulation. Beck and Herrmann at Drug and Device Law describe the Kafkaesque labyrinth that drug companies must navigate to avoid running afoul of the Food and Drug Administration's regulation of "off-label" pharmaceutical advertising. Do the FDA's regulations infringe on freedom of speech? A recent lawsuit by Allergan may have implications for commercial speech far beyond the medical industry.

Though Norton could foresee the engineering wonder that would become the Golden Gate Bridge, there were many technological marvels of which he could only dream. Norton could perhaps imagine demanding that his subjects produce papers in the real world, but it is doubtful he could comprehend subpoenaing materials from the ether inhabited by difference engines, or grasp the concept of protecting "metadata" from improvident disclosure. Perhaps Norton would not want to imagine the technologically-inspired decision by the University of North Carolina Law School's moot court bench (of which one of your authors is an alumnus) to hold an appellate argument in the virtual world of Second Life. Above The Law covered the mock argument, with an emphasis on mockery. Of course, making an "oral" argument with a keyboard is far from the only legal weirdness the internet makes possible. On the other hand we believe Norton, who ruled through trust, would have approved this post from Legally Unbound on trust and the internet.

It is recorded that in the latter years of his reign Norton offered his hand in marriage to Victoria I, Queen of England and Empress of India. In this Emperor Norton received the full support of his subjects, but history records that Victoria remained a dowager widow, mourning the loss of her consort Prince Albert. Did Norton's cable reach London? Was his proposal thwarted by jealous suitors within Her Majesty's government?

Unfortunately, the records do not tell us, but we know that Joshua Norton was a firm supporter of the institutions of marriage and family. One wonders what Norton would have made of Madireddy v. Madireddy, in which a New York court ruled it could not grant a divorce because it could not determine whether the parties were validly married under Hindu law. Answering another, seemingly insoluble question, Taxgirl attempts to answer the question of why she became a lawyer, and whether a law school education is worth the trouble now, while Law and Motherhood reflects on the problem each generation of lawyers must solve, that of maintaining a practice and being a good parent — a trail already blazed by others.


We Do Hereby Abolish Congress, And It Is Therefore Abolished, To Remedy The Evil Complained Of.

Despite Norton's decree, somehow Congress has managed to reconstitute itself, in clear violation of imperial mandate. This usurper Congress, which is richly deserving of a second abolition, seems hell-bent on imposing its will on the citizen, without regard to the laws or the Constitution. Mark Draughn at Windypundit attempts a taxonomy of what he calls "bogus pseudo-crimes," one expression of Congressional overreaching. But even in the absence of an emperor to curb its abuses, good people can sometimes thwart Congress' worst instincts, as when California Representative Linda Sanchez's Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act was turned back. In the same week,the House passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act, as covered by Religion Clause. Whether the act is necessary is up for debate. It seems merely to enhance penalties for existing crimes, rather than creating new crimes. After all, there isn't always an Emperor around when the lynch mobs circle Chinatown.

Lawyers and the courts can also stem legislative abuse. Douglas Berman writes on the Supreme Court's pending consideration of whether a life sentence without parole, for a minor, violates the Eighth Amendment. Grits For Breakfast tells the story of a man officials required to register as a sex offender, even though he'd never been convicted of a crime. A federal jury ruling on the man's suit against the government was not amused. At Cyb3rcrim3, Susan Brenner uses the example of the Facebook "should Obama be killed" poll to discuss cases in which lawyers and courts have prevented the government from using laws against threats to shut down legitimate dissent. Unfortunately lawmakers sometimes strike back, as Walter Reaves observes with a post on Texas Governor Rick Perry's decision to disband the Texas Forensic Commission before it could consider evidence in the highly disturbing Todd Willingham case.

Norton was persuaded to abolish Congress not only because of corruption, but because legislators had exceeded their power. Edward Fallone addresses similar ideas in a modern context, exploring the negative spaces in the Constitution. It's a serious discussion of issues that some dismiss with the sophomoric "Tenther" smear. It is such abuses, things like overbroad laws which encourage needless litigation, or overcriminalization to the point where virtually everything not forbidden is compulsory, that persuade us today that Congress must be abolished.

We'd like to thank the Editor of Blawg Review for giving us the opportunity to enlighten readers about Emperor Norton and his place in American history. We'd also like to thank Colin Samuels for advice and suggestions. Mr. Samuels' fine blawg, Infamy or Praise, joins our blogroll today. Blawg Review has information about next week's host, and instructions how to get your blawg posts reviewed in upcoming issues.